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Using Color Temp to Create Depth and Dimension with your HD Video

I have been asked this question many times, “Do you white balance your camera?” I respond with one word, “Never.” White balancing a video camera is a holdover from the days of Ikegami cameras, the tubes inside that would burn if you shot a bright light. AWB is your enemy. Period.

When I shoot film, I use specific stocks that are either daylight or tungsten based to react to blue daylight color temp at 5500 Kelvin or 3200 Kelvin for tungsten. I never set my digital camera to either one of these settings. On some cameras, it is your only choice. One reason I have gravitated towards the Arri Alexa and Canon cameras is not only for their incredible sensors, but also because they understand this fact. You can rotate the wheel in WB mode on a Canon or on the Alexa in a sub menu to scroll to your look.
 

Canon white balance

 

While working with one of my favorite directors, Maurice Marable, we were doing a spot in an underground parking garage. When you went with the color temp of the lights that existed in the space, the mood was blah, no depth, no dimension. I got on the scroll wheel of the Alexa and cranked it down to 2700 Kelvin, and Maurice was like “Wow, that looks bangin!!!” Just the simple use of this tool can create a whole other chapter in the way you light.
 

2700 Kelvin on the Alexa to take something that looked ordinary at 5500  Kelvin because that was what AWB gave us.

2700 Kelvin on the Alexa to take something that looked ordinary at 5500 Kelvin because that was what AWB gave us.


 

“Embrace Every Color You Can”

In Hollywood, for decades we have “Hollywooded” every night scene on streets. We went in there and re-globed all the street lights with tungsten 500 watt globes on a street which typically were HPS (High Pressure Sodium) and hung 2k open face tungsten lights to the street lamps so that the color was correct.
 

Typical Cobra Head street lamps

Typical Cobra Head street lamps

2K Open Face Tungsten Light

2K Open Face Tungsten Light

 
Then, all of a sudden, moonlight would show up in urban areas. I am not a big fan of moonlight in urban areas. This is my creative choice. I feel that in reality, moonlight would never reach into these lit areas. I sit at home and really observe moonlight in my pool at night. It is all powerful when it is full and it has even created shafts in our woods, but there is not an HPS street light for miles, let alone a hundred. But I did not always have this view. I followed what my mentors were doing and they were changing lights out in stores so that all the floʼs were either daylight or tungsten. They were balancing all their color. They were using moonlight as a very blue source and making all street lights white, tungsten. THAT WAS THE 80′S and 90′S. So I did the same.
 

Night exteriors in Macon, GA on Need for Speed

Night exteriors in Macon, GA on Need for Speed

On location in Macon, GA for Need for Speed

On location in Macon, GA for Need for Speed

 

“John Stockwell Changed Me Forever”

When I was selected to lens Crazy/Beautiful for Touchstone and Disney, Director John Stockwell told me that he wanted this to be a real film. Not Hollywood. He wanted the audience to feel like two teenagers from different sides of the tracks who slowly fell in love. What that feels like, the emotions and inconsistency of being a teenager in love. Not calculated, never planned, just going for it. He wanted to do it with a small crew. He wanted to do everything practically. This changed me as a cinematographer overnight. I love when a director has this power. He opened my eyes to doing things completely differently, not how it has always been done in the past. I was the past, and I was jumping on board with this mindset and throwing everything that I had been taught out the window. Now this was scary, but I wanted to test myself as an artist.
 

“The Power of a Reference Book”

When John and I sat down to discuss the look and feel of the film, he said that he wanted this film to show Los Angeles in a different way. Everyone had shown the glowing beaches, warm, poppy colors, etc. Letʼs show East LA how it is and letʼs lens Pacific Palisades the same way. Well, if you have ever been to this region of the west coast, you know that warm, poppy colors, and high contrast has never touched the Pacific. It is bald, gray blue skies, foggy, filtered sun and an ocean that is gray and cold. He gave me this very small reference book that he felt was the movie in 80 pages. It was called HiroMix.
 

HiroMix: inspiration for the color palette of Crazy/Beautiful

HiroMix: inspiration for the color palette of Crazy/Beautiful

HiroMix

I have used this book for reference on about eight of my movies. It was written by a young Japanese female photographer who takes self-portraits using very unique composition. This is because she never looks through the eyepiece of the camera. I was like, WHAT!!? Her composition was off, but beautiful. It was haphazard, inconsistent, yet fragile. Exactly like a TEENAGER. I have a teenager at home and that is spot on. This was our inspiration, a teenage Japanese photographer who never looked through the lens. I AM IN!!!
 

“With My Marching Orders”

So with these marching orders, I set out to deliver just that. We tested different types of film stocks and lenses and came up with a ridiculous cocktail. We used a tungsten based film stock for all day exteriors and interiors. It was rated at 320 ISO and I exposed it at 32 ISO. The over exposure delivered the look that John and I wanted. It was difficult at first to get my head around this stock being stretched the way we did. But after the first week, I really understood its power and how its look was just so unique. It was how LA looks to John and me. The blue, green, cyan color palate worked incredibly well.

Pacific Palisades: Filtered sun and blue/gray tones

Pacific Palisades: Filtered sun and blue/gray tones

Crazy/Beautiful

Interior shot: Tungsten film stock 320 ISO exposed at 32 ISO

Interior shot: Tungsten film stock 320 ISO exposed at 32 ISO

Crazy/Beautiful

Crazy/Beautiful

 

“Urban Lighting and Using It to Help Tell Your Story”

We had a lot of nights on Crazy/Beautiful and John wanted them to look real, not that Hollywood thing that I have been talking about. He wanted to use what was there and augment it to be able to expose the negative. He wanted it to feel like it was happening right then and there. This was a daunting task in 2000. We did not have the arsenal of lights of many color temps at our disposal. The idea of lighting a movie from Home Depot was looked down upon. So to turn this negative to a positive, I pulled from my parents’ inspiration.
 

Kirsten and Jay in the car driving. Love the off frame. Teenager style.

Kirsten and Jay in the car driving. Love the off frame. Teenager style.

 

“The Farm was my Training Ground

for Cinematography”

I look back on my career and so much of my Mom and Dadʼs fearless nature, along with my Dadʼs incredible common sense, flows through me on every decision I make as a cinematographer. My Dad worked at Cornell in the agronomy division. He worked as a professorʼs assistant in bringing all their creations to life. Whether it was sweet corn, field corn, wheat, red kidney beans, soy beans, you name a plant and he had a big part of building all the hybrids that farmers plant today. He could make anything work, stuff that just blew my mind as a kid. You would look at the situation that he was up against, whether the plow broke, combine jammed, truck stuck in the mud or that tractor that needed a makeshift winter shelter so that he did not freeze his tail off while he blew snow out of the driveway. Most of the time, you would never conceive his cocktail of different materials to create what he did. Remember how I told you that your PUNT or plan B needs to be better than plan A that you had eight weeks to figure out? Well, this is where I got my training. He was a master at the “Cob Job” as he called it. It worked, was built like a brick house, not sexy, but it did the job. You probably think I am side tracked, but every story has a reason.
 

“Building your Own Lights Because They Didnʼt Exist”

The problem was that I needed an exposure increase from the HPS street lights that lit most of LAʼs streets. My light meter said .07. That was three stops under what the lenses that we selected could deliver. This is when I channeled my Mom and Dadʼs training and went to a very good friend for help.

David Pringle owns and operates Luminys Systems. It is an amazing company that has helped me tell my stories for over two decades, back to when I was a budding gaffer slinging cable and setting lights. I asked him if he could build some wacky lights for me. He was all in. “What the hell do you want to build, Shane?” He has my passion and reminds me so much of my Dad, the way he just makes it work. I want to build these lights that donʼt exist. “OK, what are they?” I want to mount lights to street lamps that are the same wattage and color temp and do it in a way that you cannot see it.
 

David with the 200 watt HPS

David with the 200 watt HPS

The mad scientist’s table. I was so funny. David would just pick them up with bare wires while they were on and make adjustments with a metal screw driver. He is so my Dad!!!

The mad scientist’s table. I was so funny. David would just pick them up with bare wires while they were on and make adjustments with a metal screw driver. He is so my Dad!!!

The WTF look soon came across his face. Then his engineer Ashot Nalbandyan, who is just as crazy and as passionate as David, pipes up. We can do that. Let me throw something together. They built this incredible light that was a 400 HPS light that hid right behind the Cobra head street lamp and it delivered a 1.4 on my meter from 25 feet away. I was in the pocket. I could not go crazy with the light being too powerful because the area would look over-lit compared to the background streets, so we had to keep it close. These lights were so kick butt. I use them on everything I do. They weigh less than 3 lbs and crank out the light in the exact color temp of the street lights.
 

“Why Stop There?”

Letʼs keep creating. “Well, what else do you want?” How about Mercury Vapor and Metal Halide? He said that shouldnʼt be a problem. So two weeks later, I showed up at his shop and he had all of the prototypes laid out for me to analyze. It looked like Frankensteinʼs lab. David and Ashot were like mad scientists. They developed the first strobe that could truly be used in motion pictures. They were called Lightning Strikes. They are so user friendly and look exactly like lightning. Then they started to make lights that mirrored the look of the sun as a source, which when you see them is exactly that. They call them SoftSuns and when they strike on, itʼs HOLY SMOKES – that is a beautiful light. I could go on and on about his company but here is their website. Now I am getting sidetracked.

Luminys Lightning Strikes

 Luminys SoftSun Lights

 
Based on our creations from Crazy/Beautiful, he made all types of these fixtures so that you can tell your stories with realism and accurate color temp. I have tried for years to match them with tungsten and HMI sources HPS (High Pressure Sodium), MH (Metal Halide) and MV (Mercury Vapor) with gel from all of the manufacturers to no avail. Nothing matched; it was always slightly off. It killed me.

200, 400 and 100 watt HPS Urban Practicals at Luminys Systems

200, 400 and 100 watt HPS Urban Practicals at Luminys Systems

 

“Need for Speed”

My next film has a ton of night street racing and I knew I would need to call on Luminys Systems again to build more lights. I wanted to take the ones we built and make them a little better, more focused, more compact.
 

The design of MH 800 watt fixture at Luminys Systems

The design of MH 800 watt fixture at Luminys Systems

The way the lights work is that they are all color coordinated with plugs and Pelican cases that house the ballasts. You buy the lights from Home Depot. The ballasts are in the head, so it makes them very heavy and hard to grab, hard to use, and hard to focus. So what David and his engineering team did was to take the ballast out of the head and put it into a waterproof Pelican case. Then from there, they add a 50 foot head extension, which connects to the light source. The light source is put in a lightweight aluminum reflector that pushes the light out in an open face spread.

All the ballasts and connectors are color coded so that you cannot plug a 1000 watt HPS ballast into a 400 watt HPS light. Dummy proofed!!! HA HA!!!
 

Color coded labeling system for the lights and ballasts

Color coded labeling system for the lights and ballasts


 

“Keep it Light”

What makes these lights so powerful is not just their incredible color temp and design, but the fact that they absolutely weigh nothing. They are all made out of lightweight aluminum that also acts as the reflector. So you can mount them with gafferʼs tape if you have to and I have. I photograph them all the time, never hide. They are practical and give you the punch required with little power consumption.

Honda 2000 watt Putt Putt Generators

Honda 2000 watt Putt Putt Generators

 
A 1500 watt spot MH sport fixture puts out the same output as a 4K HMI Par light. Par lights costs $500 a day to rent. This one costs $100 a day and doesnʼt require another $60 in gel to try and get it to match. I sprinkle these things around my street light scenes, giving depth and dimension that would not normally be there, all powered by a couple of Honda Putt Putt gennyʼs. KISS.

Author: Shane

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63 Comments

  1. Holy crap! Thanks, Shane :)

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    • Eric Diosay. Thanks my friend, this post has a nice asian flavor with much dimension and delicacy liek sushi. Not like shit bag heavy handed pub food hahah.

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  2. Great post Shane! Your blog is now one of my main reference site when it comes to get infos about filming and lighting.

    I have a question though about white balancing and using available ambient light. I know you talked a little bit in this post but what would you do when you’re shooting a scene which includes lot of fluorescents like in a school class for example. Would you replace them to avoid the green cast that they usually create? Would you use more lights to kill the fluorescent spill? Gel your lights to match the fluorescent?

    Would be great to have your input on this as I have a shoot coming soon and I’ve been struggling about what I should do.
    Thanks a lot!
    Francis

    Post a Reply
    • Francis Rene. The low budget way is to Gel the other lights you would be using to match the flourescents in the ceiling. Then dial it out in post. The high budget way is to change all the lights to either daylight or tungsten balanced or if it fits your story to be slightly green you don’t have to do anything. Thanks for the comment and support.

      Post a Reply
      • Hi Shane, do you mind being more specific on how to do that? Would I be adding say 1/2 CTB and some green to tungstens (or 1/2 CTO if daylight Kinos) get it to the right color temperature with a greener cast? And then bring the green down only in post?

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      • Hi Shane!
        Thank you very much for your input both on your site and Twitter.

        We did our shoot last weekend (it was a music video) and I followed your high budget advice… which turn out really cheap for us.

        The shoot took place in a small room, maybe 15×15, lit with about 16 fluorescents. Since they were all different colors, what i wanted to do was to remove the fluorescents and replace them with only 4 x 6500k tubes I bought from Home Depot at 5$ each to create my ambiance and then use my Kinos to fill the shadows.

        But when I turned on the new fluorescent, I realized that I might not need my kinos. So I brought my 5d in, dialed it to 3200k and that was it. Exactly the look I wanted. I could have use the kino in few shots but because we only had a day to shoot, i decided not to and I fixed few shadows in post.

        The video is not release yet, probably next weekend, but I will post it as soon it’s available so you can have a look.

        Again, thanks a lot for your great help. And it really appreciate to have inputs from famous people in the business. We don’t see this often.

        Post a Reply
        • So here’s the video I’m talking about. We just launched it an hour ago.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=awxUDbQLyCM

          The band shot was light with 6 red heads: one key for each band members with softbox and shooting through fabric and the two back light you see in the video. And like I said, the rest was all using ambient light because of time restriction. When the guy gets into the small room where the girl, this is where I replaced the fluorescents with only 4 6500k tubes.

          I think for the budget and the short amount of time we had, the result is not so bad.

          So again, I can’t thank you enough for all the help you give to the video community.

          Francis

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  3. Great article, as always! Thanks a lot.

    Post a Reply
    • Ron Toussaint. Thanks for the comment and support.

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  4. Thanks Shane, really inspiring. I am a musician, dabbling in filming for pleasure. I used my Canon 5DII to film my wife feeding her horse, and I forgot to check the WB, it was set on tungsten whilst filming in daylight. When I played it back half of me thought “that looks really nice with that blue cast”, whilst the other voice said “that looks really amateur, you’d better correct it so it looks {real}). Now I know I don’t have to.

    Post a Reply
    • Mike Lindup. Sometimes Making mistakes is the best way to learn. Thanks for the comment and support

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  5. Thanks for the killer information on this post Shane. As always you come through with the goods to help us become better filmmakers and visionaries. Ever since I started reading your blog I have never used AWB and rarely come to use anything other than my eye for exposure. I have made a few mistakes since then but I learned from each one. Looking forward to seeing Need for Speed when it is out. Thanks again!

    Post a Reply
    • Daniel Mendoza. Thanks so much for the kind words and support.

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  6. Shane,

    Thank you for all the great information.

    Just so you know I built two lights with the R30 floods you recommended at Master’s in Motion. I used two 8-light bathroom fixtures (painted black), put them on a piece of wood, cut-to-fit and used a baby pin plate on the back.

    I got to use them on a shoot recently and the director loved how warm and soft they were. Because they did not look like everyday studio lights when he saw one in a reflection off a sound booth window with a little bokeh, he loved it and didn’t want the reflection removed from the shot.

    You have really influenced the way some people think when they light and I really appreciate you sharing your experiences.

    Post a Reply
    • Kevin. That’s kick ass! Glad to hear you made your lighting in the garage. Thanks for the comment and support.

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    • Sareesh Sudhakaran. Thanks for the comment and support.

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  7. Damn, that was a sweet post!!!
    The quality of this blog is just ridiculously good!

    Thank you!! :D
    /P

    Post a Reply
    • Patrick. Thanks so much for the kind words and support.

      Post a Reply
    • Sean Breathnach. Thanks for the comment and support.

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  8. Shane,

    Been doing this technique for nearly a decade, mostly with stills. Part of a technique of using so called warming and cooling cards to trick the white balance.

    Was born and raised in a small town outside of Syracuse. Several friends dads worked at or taught at Cornell. Learned to scuba dive in Skaneateles Lake.

    Thanks for your educational tips. Your Herb Ritts Posting has not stopped resonating with me and how I shoot.

    Be well

    Laurence

    Post a Reply
    • Laurence Zankowski. Thats cool, thank you so much for the kind words and support.

      Post a Reply
  9. This was really an incredible interesting blog-post.
    I’m also not a big fan of ,,Hollywooded” Night Exteriors. Most of the time it looks unnatural and faked., but in very few movies it works quite well.
    I’m really impressed by your pioneering spirit and your courage to think different and out of the box.
    Every major Lighting Rental house all over the world should invest into this Luminys Urban Practicals. They seem to be an brilliant lighting solution for urban night exteriors. I’m sure many DPs would love to have access to this great tools.

    Thank your for sharing this great lighting technique and being a mentor for all of us.

    Post a Reply
    • Febio Seyding. Thanks so much for the kind words and support.

      Post a Reply
  10. Great article Shane. I love your “DYI hardware” lighting approach even on larger productions. I appreciate how the custom built lights that you design serve specific purposes that traditional lights don’t do as well. Your approach is very naturalistic as well as pragmatic (faster & cheaper). Looks like you can sometimes beat the “fast, cheap, good” paradigm. Producers and directors will love you when you can pull that off! Question: How do you tell the difference between a Metal Halide and a Mercury Vapor unit? Can you tell by the shape or design of the light or do you use a color temp meter? Or can you tell the difference in color temp by eye? Generally, I think of both lights as photographing some degree of cyan. Sodium lights are easy to spot by eye due to the warm color temp.

    Post a Reply
    • Randolph Sellars. You can usually tell the difference by eye, Metal Halide is more of a blue/green cyan, Sodium vapor is more orange and low pressure sodium is incredibly orange. With energy conservation and fluorescents in the home Mercury vapor has faded out due to energy efficiency. Also a color temp meter doesnt work the best for identifying these lights as the color temp changes from the globes burning out over time. Thank you for the kind words and support.

      Post a Reply
      • Thanks Shane for the clarification. I’m clear now – I’ve observed those distinct color differences. Metal Halide lights are often found in gymnasiums, factories, and big box hardware stores, correct? I think that I have probably been mistaking Metal Halide lights for Mercury Vapor. I didn’t realize that Mercury vapor is now less common. BTW, I’ve been saying degrees of Kelvin for many years as well! Thanks again for sharing your expertise!

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  11. Thanks. Very interesting with good pics as examples. One very small, picky point: there is no such unit as a degree Kelvin. They are just Kelvins.

    Post a Reply
    • Bob Watters. Thank you for the kind words and catching that. I have been calling it degrees of kelvin for 20 years haha.

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  12. Hello Shane, I’m not sure you can use deg for Kelvin. i think is only “Kelvin”.
    Very nice article. Very informative and pratical. If you want to come to France one day please tell me before ;-)

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  13. Thanks again for all the hard work that went into this excellent post Shane!

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  14. Incredible article Shane.

    Thanks you.
    Matheus Oliveira

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    • Matheus Oliveira. Thank you for the kind words and support.

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  15. I have used your technique to get this shot in a dark room with one CFL bulb we needed to make it eerie and I just do like you say dialed it in until I got the creepy look we wanted. We got this creepy bluish look. I would like to thank you for all the Tips and Tricks I read your website at least 3 times a week, you have helped me so much in understanding my 5D MKii. I have also watched your series from B&H. Can not thank you enough. Marcus

    Post a Reply
    • Marcus West. Thanks so much for the kind words and support. I’m happy to pass on my knowledge and inspire filmmakers.

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  16. Truly appreciate all the knowledge you provide to us freely. I love using the kelvin settings in the cameras to get the look I desire. Being able to change the mood just by simply using the wheel is great.

    Post a Reply
    • N.K.Osborne. Thanks for the kind words and support. Color temp is another tool you can use as a cinematographer.

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  17. Does this photo caption read correct?

    “Interior shot: Tungsten film stock 320 ISO exposed at 32 ISO”

    Post a Reply
      • There was any correction during the development in the lab or just the film latitude hold all information?

        Post a Reply
        • Fabiano Silva.The film latitude held all of the informations. We would print it down to get the unique look that we we’re going for.

          Post a Reply
  18. Wow,
    Have you heard of gel filters.
    That would have worked just great on any tungsten,florescent, HMI or now LED lights do in order to recreate sodium or mercury lights. Color temp is still the Master if you want want white to appear as white or skin tones to look correct like your human eye would see them. With the Alexa shoot raw and in the middle of the correct exposer and correct in post like most every tv, commercial or feature show does now. I am old school and like to capture the images correctly [as the human eye sees it] the first time and do no post work kind of like shooting slide film. My 2cents.

    Post a Reply
    • Mark, thank you so much for your comment but I have been doing this for quite some time now and gel’s do not work when it comes to Urban lighting. They never match. I have done testing on over 12 of my features trying to find the right cocktail, it is kinda close but it feels like a movie light. I am not about movie lights. I never put it in the middle on any digital for film capture and let it ride one way or the other. Many do, but that is not how I roll out. Shooting slide film is what a director of photography is suppose to do. Right? Get it close to the director’s vision, not leave it for others to fuck with. My 2 cents.

      Post a Reply
  19. Love the attitude. Thanks for the tips. You’re right, when it comes to making movies there’s no such thing as a ‘correct’ white balance. If throwing it out helps the mood, then go for it! Couldn’t agree more.

    Post a Reply
    • Oli Kember. Thanks so much for the kind words and support.

      Post a Reply
  20. Hi Shane,
    I really enjoyed reading this post.
    Have you ever considered using grow-light ballast for HPS or MH fixtures? Seems that it might possibly be a cheaper approach.
    Thanks for everything you do.
    =Clyde

    Post a Reply
    • Clyde Harrelson, I have not tried that, how is the color temp. Does it have all that nice cyan color temp. I used grow lights back in the day before they had daylight balanced Kino Flo’s.

      Post a Reply
      • Shane,
        In the past, I bought a 1k mercury vapour bulb with a mogul base. I relamped it into one of my stupid lights and plugged it in. After the lamp heated up, it emitted that beautiful cyan colour temp that you are talking about! I’ve also used four 500w HPS grow lights all tied into a single 2000w digital ballast for a nigh-time exterior scene. The setup worked great as far as mimicking bokehed-out streetlights.
        Keep up the great work and good luck with Need for Speed.
        =Clyde

        Post a Reply
        • Clyde Harrelson. Yeah baby, thats the way to do it! Thanks for the comment and support.

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  21. Thanks SHane for the info.

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  22. Great ,great post thank you for sharing.I really want to become a cinematographer even when i have my white hair and i going a make it,please Shane keep writing thing like this,keep giving us your valuable experience your are a good inspiration for us.

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    • Carlos Diaz.Thank you so much for the kind words and support.

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  23. Hi Shane! I find your blog very interesting, thank you for sharing.
    I have one questions. Your are saying, “Interior shot: Tungsten film stock 320 ISO exposed at 32 ISO”. This mean you over exposed the film about +2 and 1/3? This make me think of a more contrast rich look but it looks to me the picture has a low contrasty look so I almost thought you underexposed the negative. What am I missing?
    Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • Alexandru. It was more the extreme of over exposing that image 2 1/3 stops along with the low contrast film stock that created this look. Yes normally by over exposing the film you get a more rich contrasty feel, but this special cocktail that we did with the flatter contrast stock mixed with extreme over exposure delivered the look of Crazy Beautiful.

      Post a Reply
      • Thank you for your answer Shane.

        Thinking of the digital cinematography I´m wondering what´s “the look of the future”. All this looks we use to obtain on film through over, underexp, under, over developing, ENR, etc. With digital you can´t do this.
        A colourist said once, “When you work with digital, don´t strive to achieve the film look. You start from the beginning and you find a look that looks good.”
        What do you think Shane?

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  24. Hey Shane, many new things learned as usual – Thanks so much.

    Can you elaborate a bit on the Grading post-production process of Crazy/Beautiful and Need for speed? How were they kept in the loop so that they didn’t try to “correct” what to a colorist probably looked like incorrect WB?

    Thanks, Eli

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    • Eli. I always sit in on the color correction sessions.

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