How did I start out? What was my path to becoming a cinematographer? How do you recommend going about being a DP? I get asked these questions on a daily basis. My path has been one that only a few have traveled. Most cinematographers started out as a camera assistant, then moved to focus puller, then operator and eventually cinematographer. I came from the lighting side. I was a grip truck packer first. Day in and day out, I loaded grip and electric packages for crews. This was my job right out of film school. I quickly learned all of the names of every grip and electric tool, but not how to use them. That would come with more experience. I feel that this knowledge of the tools of the trade is absolutely essential to being able to communicate to your crew effectively, plus it makes you really fast. You don’t have to say, “Give me something kind of big over there, and a small light over here and bounce into something white.”
I moved from packing trucks to driving them. I first received my commercial license to drive while growing up on our 350 acre farm in upstate New York. Driving the big 10-ton grain trucks was part of my childhood, so now I was driving the trucks and learning set etiquette. I was running all different types of gear into the set, learning what all of these things do, while keeping my arsenal of gear organized and repaired. I had to learn how to fix everything — HMI’s, Xenon’s, tungsten heads, you name it. I had to learn to solder, understand electronics, interface with the lighting and grip departments as well as production. Talk about immersive photography; this was immersive learning, boots on the ground, in it with tons of responsibility.
My first big job was a small budget horror film called Phantasm II. This summer, the ball is back!!!! I really found my footing on this movie. For me, the light switch was thrown by a best boy electric, Brian Coyne, whom I thank God for every day. One day, he asked me if while I was in the movie theater watching this scene that we were lighting if I would be scared. I said “Brian what are you talking about? I’ve got to get this flag down to the Key Grip.” “Look,” he said, “every nook and cranny is lit, there are no shadows, no mystery, no suspense.” BAM!!!! Right then and there, everything I looked at was light.
I quickly moved up the ladder – becoming a Key Grip and doing several low budget films, then getting a break working with Daniel Pearl, ASC as his Key Grip on music videos and commercials. If you don’t know this man, you should. He is one of the most talented cinematographers I have ever seen. My style and fearless nature was generated by Daniel, one of my mentors. He rode me hard and put me away wet. He gave me an education into the finer art of lighting. He also helped me gain that crocodile skin that is necessary to withstand the relentless hours and intense nature of this business that we love. The Key Grip experience gave me the skill of how to shape light, how to move the camera and how to put a camera anywhere.
From there, I went on to become a gaffer on music vids and commercials with two of my other mentors, Joseph Yacoe and Kevin Kerslake. Kerslake fueled my fearless nature as well as my passion for experimentation filmmaking. We spent time shooting with different stocks, processing the negative ourselves in bathtubs, coming up with wacky treatments to do to the film at the lab and the color correction bay. Yacoe taught me composition and beauty lighting. He was an avid user of the Book Light. I know you were wondering when the HECK I was going to get back to the task at hand. But coming from the lighting side gave me so much confidence that I could walk into any room, stage, set and know how to light it. This is HUGE!!!
When you are thinking about your career path, please remember that you cannot just jump from film school to being a cinematographer. The tools at your disposal give you a huge edge that I never had. With the old system, this could have taken up to 20 years. I did it in five years, which is ridiculously fast. You can shrink this time a little. I got out of film school in 1986. I shot my first music vid for a major label as a DP in the summer of 1991. I was still gaffing and assisting Herb Ritts until I finally made the jump to full time cinematographer in 1995. Experience is what you have to gain however you find your creative path, but know that there is no substitute for lighting, camera and life experience. NONE!!!!
Joseph Yacoe is such a cool artist. He really helped shape me. A couple of weeks ago, I went into how to light a specific camera blocking, a master shot to a close up. I promised I would give you my Book Light tutorial on how to build it and why it is so useful.
A book light is simply a bounce source that is diffused with another layer of diffusion. It creates an image of an open book. Your light is positioned 45 degrees off of your bounce; then your diffusion layer can be joined at the end of your bounce where your space is limited. You can make a thick book, which will make your light softer because there is more distance between the source and your diffusion layer. Your bounce has now become your source, not your light. So the further you move your diffusion away, the softer the light will get. I like to use many different diffusions as well as bounce sources to create different types of light quality.
I use all types of bounces as well as color temperature to create different light quality.
Here are the different types of bounces that I use:
1. Bead Board– a great soft bounce, no sheen.
2. Foam Core– this is a harder bounce source. I use this when I want it to be a more punchier source.
3. Bleached Muslin– the ultimate soft bounce source.
4. Unbleached Muslin– same super soft quality as bleached muslin but changes the color temp of your light 200 to 400 degrees Kelvin.
5. Silver Rosco SS Flex– this is used for a very directional bounce, one that you can throw long distances. It is much punchier than foam core and cools your color temp at least 200 degrees Kelvin.
6. Rosco Scrim– this is a much softer, less powerful bounce than the Flex. Originally used to scrim windows, this has been my go to bounce source to fit in a quality difference between foam core and Flex.
7. Silver Insulation Board– this is something I stumbled onto on Act of Valor in the catacombs of the milk factory in El Centro, CA. Used this reflective source to bounce back the M4 muzzle flashes from the SEALS back onto their faces.
8. White ShowCard– soft bounce that you can easily cut and place in all different configs. In light quality, it would fall in between foam core and bead board.
9. Brushed Silver and Gold Card– this is again a bounce that will not warm up your source, hold color temp and semi directional.
10. Shiny Silver and Gold Card– this is the hardest of bounce sources. It is like a reflector board, which is almost a mirror. You can see yourself in it. This is a very controlled bounce.
11. White Insulation Board– a Home Depot run gives you the same feel as Bead Board. Just has a little sheen that makes it a little harder. Comes in different thickness depending on what you can spend. Breaks easily and is flimsy.
12. 1/16” or 1/8” Luan– Home Depot run again. This is a very flexible piece of wood that you can cut easily with a box cutter knife. Gives you a very warm soft bounce. Usually warms your light up about 400-600 degrees.
13. White Bed Sheets– gives you the feel of a super soft Bleached Muslin and you have the ability to rip it off your bed.
14. T-Shirt– nice hyper white one gives you the same feel as Bleached Muslin and you can wear it after you wrap!
15. Towel– white and a natural color can give you the same color temp as an Unbleached Muslin.
There are a million different diffusions out there. I will go into my greatest hits:
16. Hampshire Frost– great to take the edge off of the sun, or any light.
17. Brushed Silk– used to change the pattern of your light like a par lens. You can make your source project horizontally or vertically by rotating the diffusion.
18. Opal Tough Frost– slightly softer than Hampshire. Takes that harshness away.
19. Half Soft Frost– unique quality outside when used to diffuse the sun.
20. Lee 251 (1/4 White Diff)– I use this in 4 x 4 frames as well as book lights. Great to use for close ups when you have already diffused your light with a big 12 x and you move that in really close.
21. Lee 250 (1/2 White Diff)-I use this in 4 x 4 frames as well as book lights. Great to use for close ups when you have already diffused your light with a big 12 x and you move that in really close.
22. Lee 216 (Full Whit Diff)-I use this in 4 x 4 frames as well as book lights. Great to use for close ups when you have already diffused your light with a big 12 x and you move that in really close.
23. Lee 129 (Heavy Frost)– a very thick diffusion that doesn’t yellow your source too much.
24. 1/4 Silent GridCloth– yellows your source slightly and gives warmth.
25. 1/2 Silent GridCloth– yellows your source slightly and gives warmth. A different strength option.
26. Full Silent GridCloth– yellows your source slightly and gives warmth. Thickest strength.
27. Shower Curtain (Semi Transparent)– this will give you the same look and feel as Half Soft Frost and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Bed Bath and Beyond, here I come.
28. Shower Curtain (Opaque)– this will give you close to the diffusion quality of Lee 129 but with a little yellow feel. I love the warmth. Some people feel it is a little yellow.
29. Clear Visqueen– a Home Depot run gives you the feel of somewhere in the middle between Hampshire Frost and Half Soft Frost.
30. White Bed Sheets (300 Thread Count)– gives you the light quality of a Full GridCloth and it is silent as well.
I use all types of lights to blast into my bounce. Here are my favorites:
31. Mini 9 Lite with FCX globes– This gives you a lot of punch under 50 amps. You can easily control your levels by switching separate globes on and off.
32. 2K Open Face– good for low amperage. Easily control levels by spotting or flooding light.
33. Any Fresnel– these are easy to scrim and control with barn doors and can also use spot and flood function to intensify light source.
34. 12 Lite Maxi Brutes– Use these for 12 x 12 book lights to get a punch that will go far and fill a large room. Again, you can use the switches on the individual lights to control levels.
35. Any HMI Fresnel– these are easy to scrim and control with barn doors and can also use spot and flood function to intensify light source. Daylight source.
36. HMI Par Lights– these are a daylight source that can give you a lot of bang for your amperage and budget buck. Lots of punch and level control can be scrimmed or use different lens to spread your light.
37. 1K Par Cans– these are a tungsten source light that can give you a lot of bang for your amperage and budget buck. Lots of punch and level control can be scrimmed or use different lens to spread your light.
38. 150-400 Watt Sodium Vapor- night exterior source that delivers a warm orange color that will project well into your bounce. Beautiful for ambient feel when you are doing night exterior scenes.
39. 150-400 Watt Metal Halide– night exterior source light that delivers a cool blue green color that will project well into your bounce. Beautiful for ambient feel when you are doing night exterior scenes
40. 150 Watt Halogen Clamp Light– great light that you can use to bounce. Line several up to give you enough light.
I would love to hear back on your Book Light creations as well as how you DIY bounces, diffusions and light sources.
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