Cinematography With Gabe Mayhan

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I had an opportunity to attend this month’s Shoot & Splice, a monthly filmmaker forum presented by IndieMemphis and Crosstown Arts. The guest speaker was cinematographer Gabe Mayhan, whose reel includes shorts, features, documentaries, and broadcast projects. During a Q&A session, Gabe showed samples of his work while discussing his approach and thought process on each project. Here are some of the takeaways from his presentation that hopefully will help you on your next film project.

  • FILMMAKING IS COLLABORATIVE - There are many people on set who all contribute to the final product. Gabe was quick to point out how he couldn’t have done his job properly without a solid production designer who made sure that each set felt authentic.

  • HAVE CONVERSATIONS WITH THE DIRECTOR EARLY IN THE PROCESS - Go through the script with the director. Get an idea of his/her vision. Gabe pointed out that with the feature Antiquities, the director wanted the entire film to “feel like Grandma’s pillow.” That led to a very warm look overall. It also meant that Gabe couldn’t rely on the existing fluorescent lighting at the antique store location. He needed practicals to motivate his tungsten approach. And so he discussed his needs with the production designer (see #1 above) and they were able to secure low-hanging tungsten fixtures and add them to the set (see image below).

  • DIAGRAM EACH SET UP - Gabe admitted that this technique doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s something he does for each project. He will go through the shot list and plot a diagram for each camera set up, noting the placement of actors, the camera, and all G&E. That way, on the day of the shoot, there will be no questions as to what gear is coming off the truck. Gabe noted that for low-budget indie features, you will be working on a tight schedule (somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 days; sometimes 10-12) and diagramming each shot in pre-production will save the crew a lot of time on set.

  • EYE LINE SAYS A LOT ABOUT CHARACTER AND RELATIONSHIPS - For Antiquities, Gabe kept the main character’s eye line very close to camera, but always kept the eye lines of other characters further away from camera. Although it drove the Script Supervisor crazy, Gabe said this was a conscious choice on his part to subtly bring the viewer more into the main character’s head space. If you want to read more about eye line in the context of documentary filmmaking, read this post.

  • USE MORE WIDE ANGLE LENSES - Gabe said that he rarely shoots on a lens longer than 40mm. He touted the benefits of using wide angle lenses, like how they can help the cinematographer create great reveal shots (For an example, see the shot at 7:23 below). Wide angle lenses are also great for establishing spacial relationships between characters and communicating a sense of place. They put the viewer directly in the world that the characters inhabit.

  • CONSIDER SCREEN SIZE WHEN USING CLOSE-UPS - With today’s digital distribution models, people are watching more films on their personal devices, meaning that filmmakers can get away with super tight close-ups. However, if your film screens at a theater, bear in mind that a close-up that looked good on a TV or tablet might feel uncomfortable to an audience on a 50 ft. screen. Therefore, consider how your film will primarily be viewed when making your shot list and frame accordingly.

  • USE TECHNOLOGY TO YOUR ADVANTAGE - Apps like Helios are invaluable tools for predicting where the sun will be at any given time of the day. This will help not only your exterior setups, but also interiors where outdoor lighting is an important element in the scene.

Overall, it was an excellent Q&A session with a lot of valuable information for current and aspiring cinematographers.

On-Camera Interviews and Why Eye Line Is Important

When setting up to shoot an interview for your video project, how do you decide where your subject’s eye line should be? I’m sure a majority of interviews you’ve seen feature subjects looking slightly off camera. Still, there are others that feature subjects looking directly into the lens.

So which is it?

When should a subject look off camera and when should a subject look directly into the lens? And even if you decide a subject should look off camera, how far off should they look?

The answer depends on three main things:

  • The topic(s) that the interview will cover

  • The subject’s relationship to those topics

  • The immediacy of the topic itself

Remember, every shot selection you make in your video will communicate something to the viewer. So, even when setting up for an interview, the lighting, the camera angle, and even where the subject is looking will tell the viewer something about the person and the nature of the story.

When to look directly into the lens

When I’m shooting interviews, I only ask my subjects to look into the lens when they are telling a very personal story that centers on their own experiences and the experiences of their immediate family members and/or close friends.

Why?

When you see someone looking directly into the lens, what does that shot communicate?

  • It’s intimate. The subject is treating you, the viewer, like a close, personal friend or confidant.

  • It’s vulnerable. The subject is opening herself up to you, laying her emotions out there on the table for your consumption and consideration. The subject wants you to listen, and listen carefully, and really understand her point of view.

  • It’s immediate. Even if the events covered in the video happened decades earlier, looking directly into the lens conveys a sense of immediacy to the subjects being discussed. It may have happened years before, but it’s still very important to the person speaking.

Consider this video essay about looking into the lens and what it communicates to your viewer:

When to look off camera

As I stated earlier, most on-camera interviews are conducted with the subject looking at someone off camera. But have you ever thought about why it’s usually done this way?

For me, seeing someone look off camera tells me that the person speaking has some authority about the subject, but not necessarily first-hand experience with the topic.

Now, obviously this isn’t always the case, as demonstrated by the above video. An interview subject may look off camera and still have had a first-hand experience with the topic. But looking off camera does communicate some level of emotional detachment, whether intentional or unintentional.

So, if you decide that you want your subjects to look off camera, be mindful of how their shoulders are positioned in the shot. To maintain a more three-dimensional look to your composition, make sure that the subjects square their shoulders with the person doing the interview. This will give the shot more depth and make it more interesting and pleasing to look at.

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This is a nice set up from Dream Engine. Notice how the subject is looking slightly off camera and his shoulders are also facing slightly away from the lens and toward the person conducting the interview. If this subject’s shoulders remained flat to the camera, with only his head slightly turned, the composition would have less depth.

As stated earlier, this kind of shot is a very standard interview set up, but when might you want to have your subject turn even further away from the lens? What would a shot like that communicate to your audience and when might you want to use it?

Consider this interview set up from the mini series Band of Brothers:

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It’s a very striking frame, and yet it isn’t very often that we see an interview subject looking so far off camera. He’s almost in profile.

When might you frame up your interview like this? I can think of two instances:

  1. When the environment is just as important as the subject. Maybe you’re interviewing an artist in his studio, or a craftsman in his workshop. If the environment tells the viewer something about the subject’s character, you might have him or her look far off camera and shoot wider so you can show off the space more.

  2. When the subject is discussing topics that, for him, are: a) distant memories, b) tragic and/or painful, c) still unresolved in some way. This set up is almost like an aside; a soliloquy from the theater. The subject is not so much telling his story for our benefit, but for his own, because he’s trying to reconcile something within himself. For me, the composition tells me that the subject is almost talking to himself; thinking through things that still need closure.

I hope this post encourages you to think through the interview set ups on your next video project. Remember, every shot tells a story and communicates something to your viewer, even your talking heads. There should be a purpose and a reason behind every shot selection.

Have something to add? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section.

Why Shot-Reverse Shot Is So Important

In an earlier post I wrote about the importance of thinking critically as you watch a film or TV series. If you are a filmmaker, it's important to analyze what you see on screen and consider why directors make certain choices, and how these choices convey information about story and character.

One of the things to look for is how a director shoots a dialogue scene, Shot/reverse shot is a trait common among every film or TV show and yet the audience can still learn a lot about tone, themes, story, and character just by observing the composition of these shots (if done well). 

For starters, watch this video essay on shot/reverse shot from Every Frame a Painting:

Okay, so what other examples can we examine, and what can we learn?

First, it's easy to rely soley on a typical over-the-shoulder (OTS) shot for every dialogue scene. It's pretty standard and can be seen in every film, like this example from The Dark Knight:

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When you start storyboarding your film, think strategically about how to compose your dialogue scenes. Don't rely on the over-the-shoulder look only. It certainly has its place (like orienting the viewer by establishing line-of-sight and spacial relationships)  but I don't believe every dialogue scene should be shot in this manner. I think the content of the scene, along with mood, theme, subtext, and where the scene fits within the larger narrative, should dictate how you frame up dialogue scenes. Consider what we can learn about character and the story from the following examples:

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

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Greengrass loves to dirty the frame when shooting dialogue scenes. In this image from Captain Phillips he's using a longer lens, which compresses the spatial relationship between Tom Hanks' character and the Somali pirate. This makes it seem as though the two characters are in very close proximity, emphasizing the threat posed to Captain Phillips and his crew. Shooting over the pirate's shoulder emphasizes the voyeuristic feeling, as if we the audience are peering into a situation that we really don't need or want to be involved in. And since Greengrass likes to shoot handheld a lot, the added shakiness of the camera adds intensity, edge, and danger to the scene.

MR. ROBOT

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Mr. Robot uses unconventional framing, often placing characters on the short side. So what does this tell us about character and story? When you see something like this, it might tell you that the character is quirky in some way; that he/she is different from the norm and doesn't follow conventional societal rules. It might also convey a sense of paranoia; the idea that there's always something lurking behind the character, or that there's something from the character's past that he/she is running from, but can't quite seem to shake.

For more on short-side framing, what it conveys, and how to do it well, check out this article.  And for an analysis on the cinematography of Mr. Robot, watch the following video essay: 

 THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

In The Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme made the bold choice to center characters in the frame during dialogue scenes and have them talk almost directly into camera.  

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This technique has many affects:

  • It's very unsettling. We aren't accustomed to watching dialogue scenes play out in this manner, so it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable (Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who maintains intense eye contact the entire time? Then you know what I'm talking about), which fits perfectly with the tone of Lambs. 
  • It places us right there in the scene with Agent Starling (Jodie Foster). This is her story; her journey. Throughout the film she's trying to prove herself as a capable agent when many look down on her because she's a woman. We're seeing things a lot through her eyes. And when we see other characters staring back at us in these dialogue scenes we feel what she feels - that she's being scrutinized, evaluated, and critiqued.

HOUSE OF CARDS

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The technique of placing the camera behind the actors while they sit next to each other (on a park bench, for example) or stand next to each other (while at a bar) definitely says certain things about the characters and the story that's different from scenes where the camera is placed in front of the actors. For shows like House of Cards, this framing device communicates the idea of secrecy. The characters are closing themselves off to the camera and, therefore, to the world around them. They don't want others to see/hear what's going on. If you pay close enough attention, you will see this kind of composition in different spy and espionage films.

A director definitely has thousands of considerations to make when shooting a film and each decision has a lasting impact on the final product. In this post I've attempted to give a general overview of shot/reverse shot composition options, but I didn't even get into decisions like focal length, camera angles, and how dirty the frame should/shouldn't be when shooting over-the-shoulder. Hopefully this post has shown how much a director can convey about story and character even when shooting something seemingly as ordinary as a dialogue scene. 

If you have anything you would like to add to the conversation, please do so in the Comments section. 

Which Prime Lens Is Right For Me?

I recently had a young film student reach out to me and ask if a 50mm or an 85mm prime lens would be better for shooting interviews. He plans to start work on a documentary in the coming months and wants his interview compositions to have a nice, soft background. If you're currently in the market for a good prime lens and want to know which one to rent or buy, this post is for you.

Here's the short answer: get both. The 50mm and 85mm prime lenses are great choices for shooting interviews and are excellent additions to your kit. You will find yourself reaching for both constantly throughout your shoot. 50mm is a popular focal length because it most closely mirrors how the human eye perceives the world. But let's say you can't afford to purchase or rent both. What then? Well, here are a few other considerations to help make up your mind.

Composition

How do you want to frame each interview? If you want each interview to be framed in a medium or medium-close shot, an 85mm lens might be right for your project.

If the background itself is important to the story, or to the person you're interviewing (like a craftsman, artist, musician, actor, etc.) you might go with a 50mm lens (or wider) so the viewer can see more of the space. Remember, not every interview has to be a super-tight, 20/20-style frame.

Crew & Conditions

Sometimes your circumstances dictate which lens is right for the job. Will you be shooting in a controlled environment? Will you have a crew helping you?

The film student who first asked me this question plans to shoot on his own, out on the street. So, most likely it will be a very noisy environment. If you find yourself in a situation where you have to handle interviews on your own, my recommendation is to shoot on a wider lens. This means you will have to move the camera closer to your subject, which is beneficial for the following reasons:

  • It will give you better reference audio for post-production.
  • It will allow you to stand closer to the subject during the interview, which will help you maintain a more comfortable, conversational distance. You don't want your subject feeling as though he/she has to yell during the interview to be heard.

Comfort 

Being a good documentarian means knowing your subject. Building rapport means building trust, which lends itself to more genuine interviews. So, you should determine how comfortable your subject is with the camera before the interview takes place.

Some people become very nervous and closed off if they sense that the camera is right on top of them. For these people, the camera needs to be a good distance away, so they don't have to think about it being there. For these situations, a longer lens is needed.

For those subjects who are very natural on camera, then you can afford to use a wider lens and bring the camera a little closer.

Remember, lens choice, camera placement, and composition say a lot to the viewer, even if subconsciously, and should be carefully considered. Listen to cinematographer Roger Deakins talk about his philosophy on lens choice and camera placement in this video essay (starting around the 1:32 mark):

Have any other tips for aspiring filmmakers on lens choice? Leave your thoughts in the Comments section below.