Flagstaff, AZ, updated 28 July 2010
DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Focal Press.
My book will likely be out in November, but it is available for presales on Amazon.com.
The Foreword is by Shane Hurlbut, ASC and the Afterward is by Philip Bloom.
For those who are interested, this is an un-edited excerpt from my book describing a bit of what’s in each chapter:
What’s covered in the book
The writer assumes you already know how to shoot and edit. At the same time, the importance of basic cinematography will not be assumed, and even if you already have this knowledge, the review may be beneficial, since the examples used draw from a DSLR perspective. In either case, the first part of the book covers what I call the cinematographer’s toolkit, the tools needed by DSLR shooters to attain a cinematic look, the “film look”—or at least an HDSLR cinema aesthetic that sets their work apart from normal video.
Chapters 1-5 include a checklist, so you can plan each element as you begin to master them, or use them as a helpful reminder. All of the chapters include working examples from some of the best DSLR shooters in the field in order to illustrate the technical and artistic expression of cinematography. It’s not an exhaustive overview of DSLR shooters, however. Only a very few were selected for this book—based on availability and the author’s sensibilities. There are many, many others that just could not be included. Chapter six covers postproduction workflow, which chapter 7 provides an overview and exercises on storytelling so you can quickly think about the number one reason to get a DSLR in the first place—to tell good stories.
The goal isn’t to master the entire art and craft of cinematography in these chapters, but to expose you to some of the basic principles so you can begin shooting DSLR projects cinematically, to help engage a cinematic look. Ultimately, the film look is actually different from the cinematic look of HDSLRs, which I refer to as the HDSLR cinema aesthetic—however, I do refer to the film look throughout the book as a shorthand, a simple way to explore that cinematic look that’s far different than conventional video. I’ll return to an exploration of this in the Conclusion.
1. Composition, Blocking, and Camera Movement. These are the basics, the first tools needed to begin to master what it means to make cinema. It examines the golden mean in composition, the importance of working with actors to tell a story visually through body language, as well as why camera movement is one of the most powerful elements in cinematography.
2. Lighting Your DSLR Shoot. Without an understanding of light and shadow, the DSLR shooter will never break out of the flat video aesthetic. Lighting sets the mood of every scene and just because DSLR cameras are good in low light doesn’t mean you can ignore the most important tool in cinematography.
3. Exposing Your Shots with DSLRs: Metering with the Zone System and Using the Right Lens. Technical geek stuff, but a cinematographer wouldn’t consider herself a cinematographer without an understanding of how to utilize these tools to shape the look and feel of their digital films. A mastery of the tonal scale will teach you how much light to use on your subject and in the background. Exposure will not only help determine how much light hits the sensor, but how much depth of field you’ll have, while the ability to use a variety of lenses already sets the DSLR shooter’s work apart from most video shooters.
4. Using DSLR Picture Styles: Pitfalls of Presets and Creating Custom Styles. Shane Hurlbut, ASC, says that with DSLR cameras, you have to get the picture close in-camera, since there’s not much latitude for color grading in post. Picture styles is one of the most powerful tools a DSLR shooter can use to get their look before shooting. The chapter also covers the use of flat and superflat settings, in addition to exploring how to change color temperature in-camera.
5. Recording Quality Audio with DSLRs: Yes it’s Possible! Not enough can be said about the importance of getting clean audio. It’s more important than getting a good picture. Poorly recorded sound will prevent an audience from seeing your film. This chapter goes over some of the technical aspects of microphones, and includes recommendations for equipment. It also includes the best way to get the cleanest sound for DSLR shooters—the external audio recorder.
6. DSLR Postproduction Workflow and Techniques: Transcoding Footage, Syncing Audio, and Color Grading. The steps required to convert DSLR footage into a form friendly for editing and color grading using Squared 5’s MPEG Streamclip, Cineform’s NeoScene, and Apple’s Final Cut Pro’s Log and Transfer setup. In addition, it includes steps for using PluralEyes, the software that will sync external audio recording with in-camera sound. Furthermore, the chapter includes a basic overview of Magic Bullet, an easy to use and powerful color grading software tool.
7. Telling Better Stories with Your DSLR. This chapter is for those who want to make good on their traditional storytelling skills. It’s one thing to buy a DSLR camera and start shooting stuff, but to enter the world of professional cinema, a mastery of storytelling is essential. The chapter provides the basics of the three-act structure, as well as covering the importance of visual storytelling through the actions characters take, and tips on writing good dialogue. It uses Vincent Laforet’s Reverie and Jamin Winans’ Uncle Jack as a case study. In addition, it includes ideas on how to get good story ideas.
Part II presents five case studies of master DSLR shooters at work. It includes examples of short fiction and short documentary projects.
8. Crafting the Film Look with Postproduction Work in the Short Fiction, Casulo (2009), directed by Bernardo Uzeda, Brazil, 17 min. A team of Brazilian filmmakers put together one of the most visually attractive DSLR projects to date. The film, Casulo, was shot on a Canon 5D Mark II and earned the top Brazilian cinematography award in 2010. The director of the film, Bernardo Uzeda told me that after a screening of the film (the work was transferred to 35mm film), some experienced post-production people felt the print contained “such sharpness and rich colors that it looked like as if it was shot in 65mm. I think this kind of a result for a camera that costs even less than the lenses and accessories we were using, is quite a revolution.” For those with an eye for film, the Canon 5D Mark II stood out due to its VistaVision-size sensor. The before and after shots of postproduction noise removal and color grading included in this chapter reveals the importance of taking the time in post to do it right.
9. Crafting the Film Look by Building a Rapport with Characters in the Documentary, 16 Teeth: Cumbria’s Last Traditional Rakemakers (2009), directed by Rii Schroer, England, 2:29 min. This short, but sweet piece of documentary journalism by German photographer Rii Schroer shows how a one-woman team can get superb results when not only using a Canon 5D Mark II, but the care taken to build a rapport with her subjects actually helped achieve a cinematic feel, which was also shaped by avoiding the standard TV news style of shooting and narrating with a reporter’s voice.
10. Crafting the Film Look with Cinema Lenses in the Short Documentary, A Day at the Races (2010), directed by Philip Bloom, United States, 6 min. Neil Smith, mentioned earlier in this introduction, wanted Philip Bloom to shoot a project on a Canon 7D fitted with a special PL mounting plate that can take cinema lenses. Lenses are important to the DSLR shooter, but this project shows what kind of look can be attained by using $20K Cooke lenses. It reveals Philip Bloom’s signature style with close-ups of faces in and around a racetrack.
11. Crafting the Film Look with Location and CGI Art in the Short Fiction, The Chrysalis (2010), directed by Jeremy Ian Thomas, United States, 6:54 min. The importance of getting the right location is highlighted in this case study, as Jeremy Ian Thomas shows off the capabilities of the Canon 7D in the Salt Flats of Nevada—it also showcases how digital 3D graphics becomes incorporated into DSLR footage. In addition, it includes details from the preproduction meeting I observed before the team went out to shoot.
12. Crafting the Film Look with Light, Composition, and Blocking in the Short Fiction, The Last 3 Minutes (2010), directed by Po Chan, director of photography Shane Hurlbut, ASC, United States, 5:18 min. I was on set during the shooting of this ambitious film shot over a period of five days with eighteen different locations. A heart-rending story that flies by quickly, and it shows off the power of cinematic storytelling with the Canon 5D Mark II. The chapter includes interviews with the writer-director, Po Chan, as well as with Shane Hurlbut, ASC, the cinematographer on the project.
Part III, Getting the Gear comprises the last chapter of the book and breaks down what kind of equipment you can get on a variety of budgets.
13. DSLR Cinema Gear by Budget provides a list of some of the equipment being used by HDSLR shooters. In many cases, it showcases how the equipment was used. At the same time it provides a brief overview of what the equipment does. Essentially, the chapter includes three different sets of equipment that can be purchased by budget size—but it does not include big ticket items seen in a full production package in Hollywood. Rather, these are the different kinds of equipment designed for the solo or small team DSLR shooters who need portability, who are on the same budget, and who are not going to buy or rent a set of tracks, for example. The equipment includes some of the DSLR cameras (not an exhaustive list), audio equipment (such as microphones and external recorders), portable lights, tripods, steadicams, shoulder mounts, handheld gear, backpacks, lenses, and so forth. Most of the equipment I mentioned are being used by DSLR shooters and there is far more equipment being manufactured and sold than could ever by covered in a single chapter of a book.
14. Conclusion: From Film to HDSLR Cinema. Where we are and where we are going with HDSLR cinema.
This is one of the most exciting times to be a filmmaker. Potential filmmakers and students got excited with miniDV and the later, prosumer HD—but these didn’t really break through to the cinema world, other than with a few exceptions. When it comes to the HDSLR cinema revolution, there’s been nothing like it in the history of cinema. The closest we get was the breakthrough by Richard Leacock and Robert Drew who developed a portable 16mm sync-sound film camera that changed how documentaries were made (see, for example, Primary, 1960).
What kinds of projects and what styles of filmmaking will develop from HDSLR cinema? You, as a DSLR shooter, will pave the way for a new kind of cinema, a cinema that could never have been previously attained on such a small equipment budget.
Show us what you can do.
Kurt Lancaster, PhD, is the author of “DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Focal Press, 2011.” He teaches digital filmmaking at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication.
Flagstaff, AZ, updated 28 July 2010