Bit of Fun…

Posted in A) Sony HXR NX30 with tags on October 12, 2014 by Video Whisperer

Spent a few days in the Land of Castles, Northumberland UK on the coast of the North Sea.

Walked around with the NX30 some of the time, audio block off. Shot all stills and video with it. No post production treatment. Pure unpressured point and shoot. Yeah, the full telephoto stills aren’t the greatest, but then I’m not sending them to National Geographic and who wants to lug around a big DLSR on vacation?

The song ‘Highwayman’ is the favourite of the man in the video, thus the choice of music for a bit of fun.

Landrovers, Castles, Guns and Clay…

Posted in A) Sony HXR NX30, Run 'N Gun Videography on September 18, 2014 by Video Whisperer

A bit of fun one afternoon with my Sony HXR NX30.

Though it wasn’t about personalities, there a lot of personalities in that video–a Duchess, a Duke, land owners and successful businessmen, all there for a cause–as was I.

Sony HXR NX30 as an Internal Car Mount

Posted in A) Sony HXR NX30, B) TUTORIALS, Run 'N Gun Videography with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2014 by Video Whisperer

For anyone interested, I did a short, crude test for my step-daughter who is planning on doing a short film that takes place wholly inside a car.

As it is a low budget film and even though she has access to a Red camera, I pointed out that due to the profile (length) of the Red, it wouldn’t be possible to do internal frontal mounting of the camera–or if so, due to its lens proximity to the actor, would require a wide angle lens.

I did a short test using the NX30 in full-auto using its Active mode stabilisation (which uses image processing in addition to its gyro stabilised lens).

Normally car scenes are shot with speed rail mounted cameras outside the car. (or they are shot static with green screen backgrounds). Because of the open window, car scenes are post-lip-synced which is quite an art and not all actors can do easily–especially children as would be in this case.

So I put the NX30 to the challenge.

I shot it in my Landrover 300tdi Discovery (1997) and recorded the audio with a Sony wireless lapel.

I wasn’t expecting great results on the sound (it would be better with direction microphones hand-held on booms from the back seat, but as mentioned in the video, even the lapel would have worked pretty good in a quiet car like the high-end Range Rovers or equivalent.

The camera was mounted on the dash on a guerrilla tripod and wired down. Nothing fancy. A suction mount to the windshield would have been better but I didn’t have one. (could get one for about £40 to do the job).

Turns out it did ok.

So here’s a low budget solution to shooting interior car scenes.

Note: While shot in full HD, this is a 720p upload. Try to watch it in at least that. This is the raw camera footage, untreated in post. (the filter tests at the end were done because my step-daughter wanted a ‘filmic look’, so I tried a couple of filters toward that end)

Last Preview: Run ‘N Gun Videography, Chapter 14–Notes on Music

Posted in B) TUTORIALS, F) Resources, Run 'N Gun Videography with tags , , , on September 4, 2014 by Video Whisperer

I feel bad. I’ve been promising this book all summer. Well, it’s written and edited and now I’m working on interior photos and illustrations. The cover is done though:

Run 'n Gun cover final

 

So here’s Chapter 14, ‘Notes on Music’ with a sample video to go along with it:

Chapter 14  

Some Notes on Music

Music, like anything else in a film or video, is a partner in the story-telling task. It’s a huge subject and there will be no attempt here to cover it in any great detail—especially since I am not an expert on the subject, but suffice it to say that you are more an expert than most if you just know that the purpose of music in a film or video is to help get across the message of the film or video.

That being the case, obviously the best music for a video would be music that is specifically scored for that video. After all, that’s how it’s done in the film industry and for good reason. It is necessary to know the lengths of scenes, the lengths of transitions, the emotional content of each scene and so on, in order to plan and write music that will do its job. You simply can’t have the ‘oh beautiful, happy day’ music come on when it’s supposed to be the ‘whatever you do, don’t open that door!’ scary music (unless you’re deliberately trying to induce heart attacks).

For the lone shooter and small production company though, custom music is probably not in the budget. That leaves you with production music libraries, and this is where I think too many videographers aren’t imaginative enough or just get lazy.

How to Choose Music for your Video

If you can’t have the music scored specifically for your video, the next best thing is to find some stock music that is generally of the right genre, the right mood and a fitting tempo for your video.

If you simply edit your video (with or without narrative) and then tack on some music, it’s going to come out sounding like elevator music. (It will do nothing for your video except perhaps annoy people).

The funny thing is, if you’re really clever and do this right, in the end it can sound like the stock music was written for your video.

Here’s what I do:

1) Determine overall length of video

  1. If there is no narrative planned for your video (music only), simply determine what the optimum length of the video should be based on the content you will be using and then choose a suitable piece of music of the right mood and tempo of that approximate length.
  2. In the case of narrative-driven videos, the first thing I do is mix the voice track of the narratives I’m going to use. That’s because I’m about to chop it up into a lot of pieces, so it’s best to have any audio work done first. You can always go in later to tweak various pieces of it at a later stage, but I’ve learned the hard way that mixing the audio before you start slicing it up is a big time saver.
  3. The next thing I do is edit the interviews to create the narrative (which is essentially my script). Adding a few seconds for beginning titles (if any) and 10-15 seconds for end titles, that gives me an approximate overall length for the video.
  4. It is not necessary at this point to add in B roll, or titles or to do any other fine-tuning of the narrative. By the time you’re done editing the video with the music, the length may change by as much as 15 or 20 seconds. So this stage simply gives you an approximate length of music to choose, and once you’ve chosen the music, it is going to inform and assist your edit.

2) Source the music

You have many choices of sources for obtaining inexpensive licensed music. I find it easiest to use various websites that provide this service because you can quickly narrow your search to type or genre of music, length of music, the tempo (beats per minute) and most sites allow you to listen to the music in its entirety.

A couple of the good sites I use are Videoblocks.com and Audio Jungle, though there are many more.

The better sites will enable you to narrow down the type of music you’re looking for (corporate themes, instrumental, children’s music, classic rock, new ages, etc.) while also allowing you to quickly listen to the song in its entirety.

Once you’ve picked the style of music you’re looking for the next thing you want to do is find only the songs of the same approximate length of your video. They can be a little longer or a little shorter.

Usually a site will provide a drop-down menu to help you sort music by things like ‘longest to shortest’, ‘shortest to longest’, ‘highly rated’, ‘most popular’, etc.  Just go for the ‘short to long’ or ‘long to short’ and advance through the pages until you reach the section containing the length you’re looking for.

Now sample each of them one by one. Most of them you’ll discard within seconds. Some you may consider as possibilities, so keep some notes. In all likelihood you will find only one or two suitable songs for your video on any given site. If you’re not totally happy, do the same thing on other sites until you find your short list of songs, which you can then narrow down to the top two choices.

The nice thing about Videoblocks is that once you subscribe, you are allowed unlimited downloads of anything on the site (music, stock video and whatever else they have) for the entire year. I was grandfathered in on a very low rate a few years back, so essentially any song I like I just download. If there are two or three I think might work, I download and try them all. Even the current subscription rate makes it worth it and if you’re trying it out for the first time, they allow unlimited downloads for a period of time. The songs you download and don’t use may come in handy for another video later.

Since I use FCPX, I just put the songs into iTunes under a ‘video music’ folder, which I can easily access from within FCPX.

Anyway, by whatever legal means you get the music you will use for your video.

A note on corporate music libraries

This probably applies to more than just the corporate genre, but I must say that the musicians who create this stuff, for the most part, really know what they are doing.

Almost any song will have a beginning section that fits the length of a typical title sequence of your film or video before the song segues into its main theme. Also, during the course of a song (depending on length) they will generally have 2 or 3 variations on the theme either in terms of complexity of the arrangement, and/or pitch, and/or volume, and/or tempo. And each piece of music will all generally have a good ending where you’ll have your end titles or call to arms.

Probably knowing that editors will want to adjust the length of their songs to fit an edit, it is usually relatively easy to cut out phrases of music seamlessly to reduce the overall length, as each phrase or ‘cue’ of music has a consistent beat and some repeating element and can be taken out with each remaining end seamlessly attaching to each other. 

Likewise one can cut out a phrase and copy and paste it in order to increase the overall length. 

It takes some tricky editing to find the exact edit points where this can be done. You might not get it right at first, but by adjusting the edit frame by frame in either direction, eventually you’ll find the exact beat where your music edit suddenly becomes seamless. It’s pretty fun actually when you get it right. Makes you feel like a musician even when you’re not. (Apologies to the real musicians!)

This is why I said you want to pick a song of the approximate determined length of your video. Both the length of the song can be adjusted and almost certainly the length of your edit will be adjusted.

But now that you have the music, you can really start editing.

3) Editing with music

As mentioned earlier, the normal correct sequence for adding music is after the edit is done.

What I’m talking about here is the poor-man’s approach to music in which the process is done out-of-sequence when using music that was not written for the film or video. Specifically I’m talking about using the music as a guide or assistance to determining or adjusting many of your edits. The end result can be surprisingly effective (providing you choose an appropriate and fitting piece of music) in that it will seem as if the stock music you chose was written for your video—and that happens when various edits in your video coincide with beats or shifts in the music.

The more the pictures and music seem to match up, the more the music will seem to be custom. But more importantly, the more the music will actually be helping to get across the overall message of the video because it’s now no longer out-of-sync with or irrelevant to your video. If this is poorly done, or not done at all, music can seem distracting and out-of-place which causes a mild or major distraction from the overall message of the film or video which would be a violation of the purpose of music.

Once I’ve determined the rough length of my video and chosen the music, I then lay down the music track. I usually find that the beginning of the song is appropriate for my title. I also find very often that there are music beats or cues that will dictate the edit points for title changes if I have, for example, company logo, a main title and a subtitle. At this point I run the music to a level of about -6db and drop it down to about -18db for the start of the narrative.

This is where it starts to get really fun.

Since my videos are generally 3 to 3 1/2 minutes, I usually watch the whole rough cut at this point with the music just as I’ve laid it down. I am often amazed, even at this early stage, how certain shifts and changes in the music correspond to different parts of the video. It nevertheless gives me an opportunity to spot certain points in the music where significant video edits should occur. At this points I may place edit markers so that as I’m adjusting the edit from the beginning I can keep an eye on the editing timeline for the upcoming markers I want to align a certain part of the edit to.

At this point I go to the beginning of the video and start editing.

So far what I’ve got on the time line is a blank spot for titles followed by the edited narrative with no B roll* (footnote to define B roll). There may be certain parts of that narrative where I want to be sure to have the person on camera and I’ll either mark or just remember these. The rest of the narrative will be B roll that is relevant to what is being said (and which now covers my edits in the narrative). This is where the music will often help me determine the length of the various shots, which are primarily determined by the narrative.

Remember everything we’re doing in an edit is toward the forwarding of the message. The B roll must be relevant to the narrative—either directly supporting it or perhaps even counter-pointing what is being said. So the first consideration of the length of a B roll shot is the narrative itself (what is being said tends to dictate what B roll shot or shots should be used).

The second consideration of length is cutting it to the beat of the music.

If you go through the edit in this fashion you will wind up with a nicely integrated video with music that seems to have been scored for it.

But there’s a little more to the process than that.

You’ll find yourself wanting to make adjustments to the edit for various reasons. Once you start working with it you may decide to delete or shorten pieces of narrative that now seem irrelevant or redundant. You may then find your video is shorter than the music. I usually don’t worry about this much as I construct the edit from the beginning because I know from experience that I can always successfully, one way or the other, shorten the music to fit. (Or you may decide you have to add a bit to the narrative for some reason, but the same applies; you can always extend the music by repeating some portion of it where it won’t be noticed).

It is also at this stage that I tend to start cutting out “ums” and “ahhs”, hesitations and other aspects of the narrative that break the clean flow of story-telling or any other fault. But doing all this as I go along and trimming the B roll as I go and using the music as a guide to effective edit points, I finally wind up near the end where I have to start considering editing the music (either by lengthening or shortening) so that everything dovetails nicely at the end, be it a call to arms or end credits or both.

I mentioned earlier about dropping the narrative down to about -18db under the narrative. That’s a rough guide and is usually workable. You could wind up dropping it even lower in volume.

The rule of thumb is set your music track 12db lower than your narrative track. The real test is listening to the narrative with the music. You must balance it so that the narrative is clear and easy to understand. This is another reason that the audio mixing of the narrative should be done before evaluating the final level of the music. You additionally have the option of mixing the stock music to help separate it from the voice (more or less treble or bass, for example)

Now you do your final tweaking. If there are blank spots in the narrative where we are meant to be watching some activity or process covered in the B roll, you may want to bring the music level up unless some other audio or sound effect is more important at that point.

Once everything is tweaked and finalized, you will have a video with off-the-shelf stock music that not only helps forward the message and mood of your video, but will also seem to have been written for your video.

To be honest, sometimes your choice and editing of stock music will be better than other times. Occasionally it will be stunning. But one thing is for sure: It will always be a hell of a lot better than just schlocking any ol’ music onto your video without regard for these things.

(end of preview)

*********************

 

Here’s a recent video that’s in the category of music that I thought really worked out. This piece of music had various ‘chapters’ to it. When I heard it I knew it would work, because the video itself had various ‘chapters’ as you will see. I simply took the cumulative total of about 8 minutes of footage and cut it down, using the best shots, to more or less fit the music.  In a few weeks I’ll upload another video to this post (as soon as it’s approved) that also had a great stock music fit–two pieces of music actually.

This video was a bit of a throw together for a fundraising dinner that was scheduled even though the proper narrative driven video wasn’t yet complete.  Shot with the Sony HXR NX30, all hand-held.

Bit of a tear jerker–in a good way. Enjoy!

Run ‘N Gun Videography book cover (survey)

Posted in Uncategorized on August 26, 2014 by Video Whisperer

Video Whisperer:

Update: Text editing complete.

Originally posted on The Video Whisperer:

For those of you have read the various chapters of ‘Run ‘N Gun Videography–The Sole Shooter’s Survival Guide’  I’ve previewed here on the blog, I thought I’d show you my first attempt at cover design and solicit comments/feedback.

This is the second revision taking some good advice from the comments:

Realised why I liked the the sort of ghostly halo that I accidentally came up with at the early stages of messing around…he’s the Video Whisperer! (You’ll have to read the book to totally get that, but to be fair, I have covered it in earlier blog articles)

25 August update: Just completed a full text edit of the 43,000+ words with the invaluable assistance of a very smart friend of mine. He’s a great word smith, but a complete technophobe, yet he was fascinated by the material and even got interested in this highly technical subject.

That’s sayin’ something.

Still…

View original 26 more words

Run ‘N Gun Videography book cover (survey)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on August 13, 2014 by Video Whisperer

For those of you have read the various chapters of ‘Run ‘N Gun Videography–The Sole Shooter’s Survival Guide’  I’ve previewed here on the blog, I thought I’d show you my first attempt at cover design and solicit comments/feedback.

This is the second revision taking some good advice from the comments:

Realised why I liked the the sort of ghostly halo that I accidentally came up with at the early stages of messing around…he’s the Video Whisperer! (You’ll have to read the book to totally get that, but to be fair, I have covered it in earlier blog articles)

25 August update: Just completed a full text edit of the 43,000+ words with the invaluable assistance of a very smart friend of mine. He’s a great word smith, but a complete technophobe, yet he was fascinated by the material and even got interested in this highly technical subject.

That’s sayin’ something.

Still have interior photos and stuff to shoot and insert, then the daunting task of formatting for Kindle. Anyone out there provide Kindle formatting as a service?

Run 'n Gun cover photo

 

Preview, Chapter 8 Lighting, from ‘Run ‘N Gun’ Videography

Posted in B) TUTORIALS, F) Resources with tags , , , on August 8, 2014 by Video Whisperer

Ok,  I can’t stand it anymore.

My broadband has been down for a month (now fixed) and I’d been wanting to publish another preview to ‘Run ‘N Gun Videography–the Sole Shooters Survival Guide’, but I’m hung up on the one I wanted to publish as I can’t yet publish the video that goes along with it.

Thanks all for the great feedback on the chapters I’ve released so far. There will be over 25 chapters, so no worries yet about pre-publishing the entire book on this blog like this. But I will do at least two more.

This one is in its entirety (minus illustrations which is what I have to work on next along with the design, cover, etc.). I did however drop in one picture here that will be in the book.

I’ve been being asked how to order the book. There will be a link here, of course, but that will come once it’s actually published to Amazon as an eBook for about £20 (or should it be £19.95?). I believe you will be able to order it as a hardcopy as well, but I’ll know more once I get into that part of the process.

Anyway, here’s a chapter that can be put to immediate effective use in your run ‘n gun corporate videos (or whatever else you do!)

 

Chapter 8  Lighting

Lighting is considered the lifeblood of cinematography.

In Hollywood, the ‘Director of Photography’ or ‘Cinematographer’ is primarily concerned with the lighting and exposure of the scene, not the camerawork.

To be fair, the two are practically inseparable. But then, so are all the other departments. Yet there is a very personal relationship between camera and lighting.

You’ve all seen dramatizations of the stereotypical Director of Photography walking around a set or through life holding his fingers in front of his eyes in such a way as to frame the world that he sees.

On the set, as far as camera goes, the frame that is arrived at is vital. It tells everyone in every other department, what will be seen and from what perspective. It also tells them what will not be seen.  How it will be seen or perceived is largely due to lighting.

The screen upon which the film or video will eventually be viewed (and probably for a long time to come, despite the rapid advance of technology) is FLAT.  Ok, there are curved screens now to further the illusion of depth, but they are still 2 dimensional. For all intent and purposes, it’s a flat screen.

You are all familiar with types of art in the world of painting that are essentially two-dimensional line-art. While there are many examples, possibly the most familiar is what you would see on the walls in your favorite oriental restaurant.

On the other hand there is art that specializes in great depth and perspective, lending a very convincing 3 dimensional effect to what is clearly a 2 dimensional plane.

Rembrandt was one of the first to truly popularize this illusion of 3 dimensionality achieved through the simulation of light and shadow, and indeed, one of the most enduring types of portrait lighting used in cinematography, videography and photography today is called “Rembrandt Lighting”.

It is lighting, possibly more than anything else, that creates atmosphere, mood and depth in photography, cinematography and videography. That is to say, it has the potential of doing so.

To be sure, there is “bad lighting” and “good lighting”. You know it’s good when you see it. And when it’s bad, you might not realize it’s the lighting at fault, but you’ll probably be unimpressed by the film.

In the early days of TV, video cameras required a relatively high light level for proper exposure and weren’t very good at rendering contrast either. TV studios were typically flooded by light from all directions and this became known as “TV lighting” which is not a flattering term.  There was little or no lighting direction, little or no shadows, and little or no separation of subject to background. It also made it easy to shoot from multiple cameras all over the set at the same time. It was the “MacDonalds” of film production, also not a flattering description when it comes to good cuisine.

Motion pictures, on the other hand, were done (and are still done) shot by shot, each shot a completely different set-up with everything tailored to the particular camera angle.

If you recall some of the early Hollywood black and white classics, you would at once notice a dramatic difference in the lighting compared with “TV lighting”. Next time you see one, take a moment to study the complexities of light and shadow in any given scene and compare that with any modern TV sit com.

It was more than that though. Because they were shooting in Black and White, tonal separation was achieved solely through a total command of the subject of reflectance.  A theoretical ‘total white’ would reflect back 100% of the light hitting it. Conversely, a theoretical ‘total black’ would reflect back no light. In between there is a theoretical infinite range of different reflectances of all colors as rendered in black and white film. Therefore the masters of black and white films did extensive testing of all fabrics and paints before committing anything to film. It was at that point that lighting took over to complete the look that we all recognize as classic black and white.

Interestingly, when color film came into being, lighting suffered somewhat as now it was easy to achieve tonal separation of subject from background with color alone.

So some of the early color films were pretty crappy, technically speaking.

Crap quality, however, does not endure, and it was not long before great lighting was married up with color film. Most of the good films of the last three decades have a great director of photography on board whose principle job—as mentioned earlier—is lighting design.

It wasn’t until some Hollywood film crews brought the discipline of cinematography to television that the bad habit of TV lighting began to change.

I think in the U.S. one of the first televisions shows to do this was “Hill Street Blues” in 1981, an award winning and long running series following daily life in a New York police precinct. That was a Hollywood film crew. Not only was the lighting good, but they introduced a choreography of moving camerawork within the busy police precinct that was truly impressive—all the more so because moving cameras following moving actors put great strain on the lighting crews. But they pulled it off so successfully that it’s become the norm for television police dramas throughout the world ever since.

In my opinion, the Danish series “The Killing” is the pinnacle of filming excellence in all departments, but many other similar shows in the UK,  Europe and the US have attained similar cinematic excellence, and ALL of them have great lighting.

Ok, let’s get down to earth. I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with run ’n gun videography? You’re obviously not going to be running around with a huge lighting crew with 85,000 watts at their disposal.

I used to and now I travel with three fluoro lights totaling a whopping 375 watts. So what’s the point?

First of all, there will be no attempt in this chapter to cover the intricacies of lighting. There is a massive text on the subject called “Techniques of Lighting for Television and Film” by Gerald Millerson, whose book on lighting is probably the original lighting bible for Hollywood.

Interestingly it was not written by a person who had ever lit a set in his life. It was written, however, by a consummate researcher who studied the subject of film lighting over several decades and codified the subject. If ever there was a definitive book on the history and technology of cinematic lighting, this book was it.  While I would encourage any serious film maker or corporate videographer to read it, what I want to accomplish in this chapter for the run ’n gun shooter is two things:

  1. A realization and appreciation of the fact that lighting is a vitally important element of any production.
  2. What you can and should do to with minimal kit and resources to maximize the potential of lighting in any given run ’n gun circumstance.

So let’s draw out two important elements of lighting that can be applied no matter the circumstances:

  1. It is the relationship between light and shade in a two dimensional plane that creates the illusion of 3 dimensionality;
  2. Lighting contrast ratio from subject to background is as important a factor in the creation of depth and 3 dimensionality as the modeling and contrast ratio of the subject.

Practically speaking, in most corporate shoots, with the exception of interview lighting, most of the B roll that you will shoot will be with existing lighting whether it’s overhead fluorescent lighting, skylights, windows, open loading dock doors or a combination of any of these.

Sometimes when shooting a plant or office interiors, it’s helpful to have at least a single light that can be used to give some lighting direction or effect to a foreground subject. It’s not too difficult to have a single lightweight lamp at hand. But in truth, most of the time, due to the speed you will be shooting at and due to the fact that most of what you will be shooting will have little screen time, you’ll deal with existing lighting conditions.

Most modern cameras are sensitive enough to make just about any scene look good.

Furthermore, the sole shooter simply won’t have enough horsepower, in terms of lighting, to create any advantage with supplemental lighting in a medium or long shot. You can’t really compete with sun coming through windows or skylights in a medium or long shot with anything less than a set of 5 or 10 thousand watt lamps and those are not things you’re going to be carrying around.

But as most corporate shoots involve some sort of interview shots, be it representatives of the company or testimonials of customers that give you your narrative content, this is the one area you do have control over in terms of lighting because you’re dealing with a relatively small frame size. And this is the one area you can make look much more polished and professional than those who don’t even bother with lighting interview shots.

In my opinion, it is the lighting of interview shots that separates the professionals from amateurs in any corporate video I have ever seen.

Amateurs use whatever is there, and often don’t even use what’s there to the best advantage. The results are rather drab looking shots where the featured talent is not separated from the background, has no facial modeling, no lighting direction, no mood and no pizzaz at best. At worst, steep overhead lighting from existing fluoros create dark eye sockets or other ambient lighting sources create distracting shadow patterns on the subject or a host of other problems that result in an unattractive looking image or even a revolting one.

But that doesn’t mean any lighting is better than no lighting, because lighting can also be done so poorly that it creates the same effect as no lighting.

The point is, with knowledge of basic lighting, there are things a lone shooter can do easily and quickly make a scene look better with correctly and judiciously place lights or by turning off, blocking or changing the character of existing light.

“Lighting” is as much placing lights to create an effect as it is preventing unwanted light from hitting the subject or background.

So let’s look a little closer at the fundamentals of lighting.

Contrast Ratio

This is something I’ve rarely seen covered in lighting tutorials, yet it is a fundamental building block of all lighting, so it’s worth knowing. It’s also fun.

Please bear with me on this. I’m not a mathematician and I’m not trying to impress you with numbers. This is simply the language of lighting exposure. It’s not hard to understand, but it is important that you do understand it. Once you do, a lot of things make sense and you’ll find it very easy to create just about any effect or mood you want to.  So if in what follows you feel at any time that you’re starting to lose the plot, slow down, read it over again, think of real examples or whatever you need to do to realize the simplicity of what I’m talking about here. Deal? (And those of you already familiar with these principles, there still may be a trick or two following that may be helpful).

For simplicity, let’s first consider a single, focused halogen light hitting a human face from the side in an otherwise dark room.

“Contrast ratio” refers to the ratio between the lit part of the face and the shadowed part.

For purposes of example, let’s consider that we’re shooting in a black room. Because there is no ambient light from any other source, the only light that will hit the shadowed area would some light bouncing off the walls from the main light source which would be very little as there will be very little bounce light in a black room. Therefore the ratio between light and shadow is likely to be 32:1 or greater.  The bright portion will be at least 32 times brighter than the shadowed portion. The shadowed portion will be at least 1/32nd the brightness of the lit portion.

This would be a very dramatic looking scene.

In actual fact, at a ratio of 32:1, the shadows would render totally black on both film and video. No detail in the shadow at all.

Film and video cannot render detail in a contrast range much beyond 8:1. At least that was the case in the 1990s when I was shooting film and just starting to shoot video. It may be better now, but not much compared with the human eye.

The human eye is capable of detecting detail in a contrast range as great as 1,000,000:1.

In other words, if the shadowed area is 1/1,000,000 the brightness of the lit portion, the human eye is still capable of detecting details in the shadows. Not so with film and video.

Here’s a real example anyone can relate to as it has nothing to do with film, video, or artificial light sources.

Outside on a clear day (clear blue sky) with bright sun, the contrast between light and shade is between 16:1 and 32:1 depending on altitude and other environmental factors. Yes, the sun is BRIGHT, but that big bowl of clear blue sky acts as a shadowless fill, so the contrast won’t be much greater than 16:1.

Anyway, that is why “fill lights” are used to fill the shadows cast by the main light.  Without “fill”, facial shadows would always be inky black on film or video.

So how come on exterior shots in film or video with a 16:1 contrast ratio the shadows cast by the sun on the actors faces are not inky black?  Ah ha!  That’s what the lighting people and director of photography are doing with their lights and other equipment on exterior shoots, and it’s all quite variable.

In Westerns (Cowboy and Indian movies) shot under clear blue sky, those actors had a hell of a lot of light being pumped onto their faces by multiple 12,000 watt arc lamps and or “sunny boards” (which are large boards covered with shiny tin foil that reflect the full intensity of the sun back onto the scene).

This is probably why John Wayne had a permanent squint.

Other methods to reduce that contrast involve flying huge white translucent screen above the actors to cut the intensity of the sun by 50% or so, reducing the contrast ratio to maybe 8:1, then using lights to reduce it down to 4:1 to give a better approximation of what the human eye would see.

I mentioned other variables. They include hazy skies whereby the sun is diffused by a thin layer of clouds—which reduces the contrast ratio. Etc.

Of course most of the time they just put the sun behind the subject and exposed the shadowed faces to appear as it would to the human eye resulting in a slight, but acceptable over-exposure of the background. If that background was a low reflectant one (a forest, the shadowed side of a mountain, dark storm clouds or house, etc.) you’d have a pretty good looking scene. And that bright sun on the hair and shoulders of the subject would separate him nicely from that darkened background.

Next point: The degree with which you fill the shadows determines the mood of the shot. That applies whether it’s an exterior shot or an artificially lit interior shot.

You video guys instantly see the contrast when you look at the LCD screen of your video camera.

Film people won’t see it until the film is developed. So they have to use light meters to determine and set the contrast ratio with their fill lights in order to control the eventual effect they will see once the film is developed and screened. (I know, they use ‘video assists’ these days, but they also still use light meters to expose film)

How much fill they add depends on the mood they want. It goes roughly like this:

Low Key Lighting (High Contrast)

For a dramatic look they’ll go for a contrast ratio of 4:1-6:1.  Night scenes would generally have such a contrast ratio as it’s what the human eye expects. There is no big blue bowl of sky to fill the shadows.  Remember, once you go to about 8:1, neither film or video will see much detail in the shadows. So if an even more dramatic look is wanted, the director of photography may set the contrast to 8:1 or even 12:1 to make the shadowed areas deliberately black.

On most interior night scenes, contrast ranges will probably by set to about 4:1 or 6:1 because, unlike a daylight interior scene where light may also be coming in through windows to fill those shadows, a night interior scene will normally be more contrasty. Lighting is set to create the appropriate illusion or mood. High contrast scenes like these are called “high contrast”.

Don’t worry about these numbers.

High Key Lighting (Low Contrast)

At the opposite extreme, however, there’s something called “high key” (low contrast), where the relationship between light and shade is very little.

An upbeat or “happy” scene would generally be shot with low contrast; very little difference between light and shade.

“Flat lighting”, as discussed early in relation to early “TV lighting” would have little or no shadows at all.

In any case, the deliberate use of varying degrees of contrast is for creating specific “moods” for any given scene.

Now let’s get back to how this relates to “run ’n gun” videography mainly for people shooting corporate videos, and most specifically to the shooting of interviews.

Subject to Background Contrast

If you think about it, the whole idea of a posh looking interview close-up comes from the Hollywood close up.

Most people assume the main difference between a video shot and a film shot is depth of field. In other words, the film shot has that nice out-of-focus background.  While that is a factor, it is less important than the lighting of the film shot.

The director of photography not only ensures nice modeling and contrast on the actor’s face (suitable to the message of what’s being shot), but also the contrast of the actor to the background.

In a typical daytime scene, for a nice looking shot with good depth, the contrast ratio is set to around 3:1. That means the main light is 3 times brighter than the wall behind the actor. You could also look at it as the wall  being 1/3 the brightness of the main light on the actor, but the first way is the correct way to define 3:1..

For a night scene, that contrast will increase to 4:1 or greater.

Now let’s leave Hollywood and move on over into a typical corporate interview.

You’re in an office. What color are the walls?  That’s right, white (more often than not).

What’s the light source? Overhead fluorescent lamps, most likely. And what do they do?  —The give a pretty much overall even illumination to the entire room, but since they’re directly overhead, they tend to cast eye socket shadows on your talent.

If you were to use the overhead fluorescents to light the interviewee (god forbid), guess what the contrast ratio from interviewee to the background is going to be.  That’s right, about 1:1 which is no difference. The background is the same brightness as the subject. Worse, the subject’s facial tone will be less reflective than the white wall, so the background will appear to be brighter.

And right there is a typical scenario that any corporate videographer runs into routinely.

What can you do about it?

You can do more or less the same thing that the Hollywood crew would do on location. You reduce the light hitting that back wall. That’s the first thing they’ll do, because it is the brightness of that background that will determine the brightness of the main light hitting the actor.

Sure, you could leave the wall and just pump up the light on the actor and create your desired contrast ratio that way. But two things are wrong with that. a) you’ll fry the actor (and he’ll sweat), b), you’ll increase the f stop (iris) on the lens and increase your depth of field.

There’s an advantage to shooting at low light levels. The set is cooler (in terms of ambient temperature) and the iris of the camera lens is wide open or close to it which means your depth of field will be shallow (which is what you want in a close up).

Ok, let’s go back to the corporate shoot scenario with our videographer.  If you’re like me, you travel light with fluoro soft boxes (or LEDs) rather than halogens. Not a lot of horsepower there, even with the biggest ones. So you can’t compete with sunlight coming in through the windows very well.

A sequence of actions for lighting a corporate interview

1) Frame the interview shot including composing the background (which normally involves moving a few things around)

2) Now reduce the light hitting the background by any of or a combination of the following:   a) turn off the overheads, or a portion of them, even if it means unscrewing the bulbs or taping some black foil over an offending lamp, b) close the blinds wholly or partly, c) cover the windows wholly or partially with black cloth.

This is not a robotic exercise. Perhaps there is a light pattern created from a window source you’d like to have in there for a little background modeling. The point is not to simply cut out all or most of the light. The point is to bring down the light level while retaining as much as possible of any directional lighting pattern that may be there that will enhance the overall shot.

If you want to use some of the sun effect, you can put some neutral density gels on the offending window which will knock down the intensity without changing the pattern.

3) Now you’re ready to light the subject, preferably with some nice modeling by proper placement of the main light (called the “key light), but certainly brighter than the background.

4) Add a backlight, and now you will have a corporate interview that has a nice “filmic” look by lighting alone because you will have a nice contrast ratio from subject to background with a nice backlight that further separates subject from background and a nice contrast ratio on the subject’s facial lighting.

If you also happen to be shooting with a DSLR or a full sensor shallow depth-of-field video camera, you will have that nice filmic look everyone wants.

Remember, it’s not just depth of field that makes up the “filmic look”. The better part of that filmic look is lighting and contrast.

Here’s a video frame from a recent video I did that illustrates my point.

Jennie's Journey interview lighting

Let’s evaluate it:

1. We have some nice facial modeling from the main light which was placed above and to the right of the person.

2. We have a nice backlight on her hair and the plants behind her which separate both from the background and give the scene a rather polished look.

3. We have good separation of subject to background (approximately 3:1 contrast ratio).

Note: There is a “romantic filter” on the scene which caused the outer edges to appear as a slightly blurred vignette; something I don’t normally do, but in this particular case the interview was with a cancer survivor and I felt it added to the spirit of the interview which was very upbeat.

Here’s the good news for the lone shooter:

That scene was lit with a single softbox fluoro!

How did I do it?

Exactly as I outlined in 1-4 above.

In this case, the one thing I did not and could not change was the brightness of the sunlight coming through the window. Instead I limited it by the amount I closed the curtains.

So I set exposure to make the backlight that hit the subject (created by the sun) appear correct.

That left me with a near silhouette of the person.

Next I added a main light (key light) and positioned it for best modeling. I had to get it really close to achieve enough brightness (which wasn’t enough), so I compromised and opened up the aperture to get my exposure which made the backlight (the sun) brighter than it should have been, but acceptable.

As the “softbox” fluorescent lamp has a broad source, it tends to cast soft shadows. Nevertheless, with no other light source in the room I would have needed a fill light to fill in those shadows a bit or they would have appeared too “dark” or “dramatic”. And this was an upbeat interview, so fill was required.

Fortunately the ambient sunlight bouncing off the walls in the small white room gave me sufficient fill light on her face for the modeling I wanted.

But the key light (though it was deliberately positioned at an angle to minimize background spill,_ being a diffuse source was still lighting the wall behind her to a degree causing the subject to background contrast to be nearly 1:1 (probably about 1 ½:1).  Flat looking, no depth.

To handle that I suspended black foil from a light stand just above her head to order to block most of the spill light that was hitting the back wall. But I allowed a little of the light to escape around the right side of the foil so it would still  hit the edge of the bookshelf in the right background, thus cheating on the atmospheric lighting. If I had blocked all the light the background would have appear flat and dull back there.

Result: By utilizing and controlling existing ambient light, and adding a single key light I was able to produce a scene that looked like a portrait shot or a “Hollywood close up” lit by a director of photography and team of gaffers using anywhere from 3 to 6 lights or more.

To be fair, they probably would have made it look better, but remember, I’m addressing the lone shooter or small production company in this book and the point I will continue to make is that if you minimally understand the basics of what I’ve described in this chapter, and take that little bit of effort to deal with basic lighting and contrast, your shots will definitely look better than most of your competitors. I know because I have looked. And that’s why I am writing this book.

Lighting basics

To be fair, I haven’t at all covered the basics of lighting which are aptly covered in great detail in Gerald Millerson’s ‘The Techniques of Lighting for Film and Television’, and which can also be found in one form or another in many internet tutorials on lighting.

I really do think it’s wise for any videographer to study and understand these basics so that he or she can then use the tools he has to hand (actual lighting kit plus extant ambient lighting conditions at the site) to optimize lighting. While a thorough study of the subject is beyond the scope of this book, I want to cover the rock bottom basics in brief so that anyone unfamiliar with the subject will have some idea of its make-up.

If one were to light a Hollywood set inside a studio somewhere, there are 5 types of lights which are used to create the illusion of atmospheric lighting.

  1. Key lights (the main lights that hit the actors or subject)
  2. Fill lights (the soft light used to fill the shadows cast by the key lights to the desired contrast ratio)
  3. Set lights (which independently light the set, including walls, furniture, etc without hitting the actors or subject.)
  4. Effect lights (supplemental to set lights to create effects such as sunlight or moonlight streaming through a window, off-scene lightning flashes, car headlights, etc. and even lights used to bring out detail on surfaces, fill dark shadows or simulate the effects of off-scene lamps from adjacent rooms)
  5. Practical lights (which are actual lamps visible in the scene, such as table lamps, wall lamps, chandeliers, etc.

There are typically multiples of each of these types of lights to light any given scene. Indeed, a seemingly simply lit scene may have dozens of lights totalling 80,000 watts or more creating that illusion.

Obviously, that’s a bit out of the league of the run ‘n gunner.

But if you understand the basics of how these illusions are created, you’d be surprised how well you can adapt to make the best of what you have and what is otherwise available to create lighting illusions far better than the amateur who just comes into the room and turns on his camera with no understanding or regard for lighting.

Remember, lighting is considered the “lifeblood” of cinematography. It deserves some attention.

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If you’d like to watch the video that the still frame above is from, here it is. This is one of those rare cases where all I had to do was turn on the camera. She talked non-stop for 14 minutes.

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