How I discovered my love for cinematography

Article / 16 July 2018

In 2013, last year of high-school, I was in a learning spree.

At the time, I wanted to become a 3D lighting artist. I was E-mailing industry professionals all the time, asking for advice, etc.
I didn't get replies all the time, but some artists really helped.

Benjamin Venancie is one them. He is a lead lighting artist at Dreamworks and I had just asked him something along the lines of:
"On an artistic level, how does one learn about lighting? Any books or methods to recommend?"

I'm going to try my best to paraphrase and translate the answer, in a way that can help others develop their taste for cinematography.


  1. Photography: 
    Being a good lighter, it's first of all about a global understand of images, not just the light but also the composition and everything that has to do with the camera. A good way to understand the basics is to practice and study photography. It enables you to "train" your eye and taste, meaning when it's time to make a call, you can make good choices for the lighting.

    Recommended readings: The negative, The camera, and The print by Ansel Adams. (Note: very long and technical, but it covers the fundamentals of photography). Photographing Shadow and Light by Joey L. (Behind the scenes and lighting positions diagrams)
    Additional links: Guess the lighting, this website describes the lighting positions diagrams of fashion and editorial photographs.
    LightFilmSchool channel on YouTube to know more about light placements for film.

  2. Films:
    Benjamin gave me a list of movies that impressed him from a cinematography standpoint.
    I will now list every one of these movies and what I learned, how my taste evolved from watching them.

    Barry Lyndon (1975) directed by Stanley Kubrick.

    What I learned:
    Practical vs Natural
    From a cinematography standpoint, the interesting part of this movie is that it was entirely shot using natural light.
    You see usually when there's an interior shot, and say people are gathered around a table, on the table is a lamp.
    That lamp is called a "practical", but most of the time is just there as a "motivator" (reason why) that justifies the existence of a huge fresnel lamp off camera, pointed at the actor's faces. The reason why this is done is that the practical lamps often don't generate enough light for the sensitivity of the camera.
    What that does, is that any interior shot before recent groundbreaking ISO sensors has been "faked" with various levels of success.
    Compare two master of their craft Stanley Kubrick (and Larry Smith), and Roger Deakins.


    In this shot from the movie Skyfall, you can see Deakins uses the restaurant's table lamp as a practical to justify the lighting on the actress.
    A common practice is that the lamp should not be blown out white, as it's considered ugly. From a natural lighting perspective, this shot is unrealistic though, as the light would have to be blow out to light the actress that much. My guess would be that there is a diffuser hidden under the table, the angle and softness is slightly off. The image looks pleasing, but you know you are looking at a movie.

    Instead in this shot from Eyes wide shut , the practical is the sole light source on the actor's face. It is blow out to white because of the intensity, you can hardly see the actor... But doesn't it feel much closer to the feeling of being inside of a busy restaurant with Christmas lights?

    Bravo for practical lighting! If you want more information on Kubrick's use of practical lighting, check out this excellent video.
    (I think both options are perfectly valid, but as artists, we should know when we are breaking the laws of physics, and what we are trying to achieve by doing it).
    I will now post more of my favorite shots from Barry Lyndon:


      


      


      


      

    One of the reason I think the choice to go all-natural for the lighting of a period film, is that it feels familiar due to the fact that the classical painters had no other tools than the the sun, the sky, windows, and candles to complete their masterworks.
    Bonus : It's kind of obvious, but ominous skies as a foreshadowing device is really effective.

    In the Mood for Love (2001) by director Wong Kar-wai


    What I learned: Poetry within Chaos
    Christopher Doyle has to work fast. The productions are low budget, most of them shot on real world locations and in tiny cramped apartments. The director has no script and decides what to shoot right on the spot. Whoever thrives in this environment has to acquire a taste, an eye that can detect beauty within urban concrete jungles and neon lights.

    I really did not expect to like this film.
    In the following shots I want you to pay close attention to 1) the unexpected color choices, 2) the use of frames, windows, mirrors and pure black to create negative spaces.




    Now let's contrast this poetry by making a 180 degree turn to look at another movie with Christopher Doyle as DOP

    Hero (2002), directed by Zhang Yimou.


      


      


      


      


      



      



      



      



      

    What I learned:
    Simplicity is key in composition; Central compositions and symmetrical designs make the visuals stronger.
    Go bold with color. If you stick with mostly earthy/desaturated tones, reintroducing a single color color at a time makes for very bold images.

    Skyfall (2012) directed by Sam Mendes. Roger Deakins as DOP.

    What I learned:
    Silhouettes silhouettes silhouettes.
    Leading lines.
    Selectively lighting a part of an actor's face.


      






    The Fall (2006) directed by Tarsem Singh. Colin Watkinson as DOP.

    What I learned:
    The Fairy Tale Aesthetic
    Transitions (as seen below from a butterfly to an island)



     




  

What's really interesting in this movie is the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate elements to highlight the creativity of the young girl who wants her stay in how the fairy tale unfolds. Beautiful movie, I highly recommend.

On Benjamin's movie list was also Blade Runner, but I think we don't need any more Blade Runner inspired concept art these days :D
That's why I refuse to show it, however cool it looks like!

Overall, watching these movies and paying attention to the craft of cinematography set me on a watching spree, studying many other films and absorbing on-set dvds about lighting. I think you need to have watched a lot of good films to know what your taste in films is.
The same goes for painting, drawing etc.

I think I also need to stop there because I'm not sure the Arstation Blog feature was meant to handle 100 images.
I will leave you with the short film The bloody olive, I think the exaggerated lighting effects make it a great case study.
As a final note, I would like to thank Benjamin, and all the people who take the time to reply to emails to help people out.

What's your favorite film or short from a cinematography standpoint? Share in the comments below!

The list of cool stuff for learning [updated]

General / 28 January 2018


I get asked pretty much every day about what resources to use, which videos to learn from, etc, so I decided to compile a list of the stuff that really taught me a lot :

BOOKS:

The art and science of digital composting 2nd edition  (Ron Brinkman)

A huge, complex but complete volume on anything digital composting ; history of VFX, computer graphics math components, the nature of digital images, signal, all the way to production breakdowns of some of the most groundbreaking VFX shots of the last two decades.
I think I read it about 4 times, one of my friend borrowed it but I forgot who that was, so I'm probably going to order it again, just to have it in my library :D

Framed ink  ( Marcos Mateu Mestre)

Practical examples of framing, lighting and storytelling  (comic book oriented).
Cheap and good .

Framed perspective ( Marcos Mateu Mestre)

Great book on perspective drawing, I also recommend Framed perspective Vol. 2

Alla prima II  (Richard Schmidt)

A must have for every wannabe painter, you can easily apply that stuff to digital painting.

The Color Correction Handbook (Alexis Van Hurkman)

This book goes really in depth about color grading for cinematic images, but it drops some little gems of knowledge about human perception of colors, temperature and contrast along the way.

The VES Handbook (visual effects society)

If you thought the other books I mentioned are in depth, here comes the winner!
This books covers the entire  visual effects (VFX) production system down to the last polygon, it's organised by chapter, each one being a discipline / role in a VFX studio,
prepare for an avalanche of information!

COURSES:

Schoolism:


They just recently started a new subscription model, for a hundred bucks  you have access to all the courses (1$ to switch, hehe), it used to be like 500$ a course when I started out , so you guys are so spoiled ! Here are a  few that I recommend :

Lighting fundamentals (Sam Nielson)

This is the courses that transformed me into a lighting geeeeek, I just loved his scientific approach to a seemingly abstract topic, this is a really complete course.

Designing with color and light (Nathan Fowkes)

Listen to this guy's smooth voice as he explains lot of cool stuff about light and composition, great for beginners.

Painting with light and color
 (Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo)

I was quite surprised by this one, I was expecting to be a bit bored since I learned a lot about lighting already, but they have some interesting way of explaining things, and also the way they use digital life painting to explain is great.

EdX : (website)

EdX is a online learning platform hosting various MOOC (massive online open classroom).
I think platforms like these are the future of scalable, high quality education.
You can get free courses from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley.

FXPhD: (website)

Same kind of subscription  deal  as  schoolism, y'all lucky!
The website is focused on technical VFX and 3D animation training.

I recommend you start out with :
History of visual effects , I promise you'll have 10.000 more questions by the end of lecture, this is the perfect place to answer them :)
I recommend any courses by Matt Leonard or Mike Seymour, (especially on math stuff), if you want to go deep into software training, they got you covered!
Also they have theses great breakdown and blog post about news and technology advancement.

YOUTUBE / FREE VIDEOS:

Free doesent mean bad ! so here's a list of good ones:

Cinematography Database is a YouTube channel dedicated to explaining cinematography and cinematic lighting techniques trough 3D rendering and how it translates to a real world movie set. ( Thanks to Marek Tamowicz for the suggestion )

Industrial design & entertainment  from my friend Mike Hill, inspiration to do better than just brainless slot machine entertainment, but crafting meaningful experiences.

Illustration vs concept art (design cinema EP 53)

Visual library (design cinema EP 52)

CTRL PAINT this Matt Korh dude put so much work into making this library of free videos, high five!
It can cover you from total noob to beginner in digital painting.

FESTIVALS / WORKSHOPS

THU is a crazy awesome festival that happens in Portugal in September,  but it's also 50 hours of kickass content for about a hundred bucks. The conferences are really packed into content so it's definitely a good one if you're short on time! btw fuck you Andre <3

IW  is a ton of cool workshops happening  in London also in September, like THU,  it's getting better every year, like a bottle of wine.

IFCC Was very interesting too. It's happening in Zagreb, Croatia.


I will keep adding things as I probably forgot a lot of cool ones, but this is the list so far, I hope you are hungry for knowledge, because dinner is ready !