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.

What Happens When the Video Crew Forgets the Light Kit

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You and your video crew are on the road, traveling to the interview location when you suddenly remember... The light kit is still in the studio! You're too far down the road now to turn back (plus you have a schedule to keep) and the interview location is in a small town where there are no rental facilities or other production companies.

What do you do?

First of all, don't panic. And DEFINITELY don't roll up to the location and announce to your client, 'Well, I left all of the lights back at the studio!" There are still plenty of ways to shoot an interview using only natural light. Here are a few things to try:

  1. Place the subject right next to a window. The natural daylight is usually soft and even. If you find that the light is too harsh, hang a sheet or a silk in front of the window to soften it. You might also try lowering the shade if the window is equipped with one.
  2. Take the subject outside. Make sure the background isn't in direct sunlight. Otherwise it will blow out. Use reflectors and bounce cards to add fill light to your subject. The image at the top of this post is from an interview I shot several years ago using only natural light and bounce cards. Notice how the background is dark, maintaining proper contrast and exposure. The light on the subject is soft, even, and has a nice fall-off.
  3. Use mirrors to direct light exactly where you need it. If you happen to be shooting in a tricky location where it isn't possible to take your subject to the daylight, then try bringing the daylight to your subject. You can achieve this by using a combination of mirrors (or any other highly reflective surface), bounce cards, and reflectors. In the video below, the production crew came up with a creative way to bounce the daylight around a corner and on to the talent.

Take some time to search YouTube and you will find hundreds of tutorials on how to light with natural light. Have any other suggestions? Leave them in the Comments below.

Are Zoom Shots Wrong?

Image courtesy of  Juno Namkoong Lee

Image courtesy of Juno Namkoong Lee

I recently watched a promotional video that employed the use of zoom shots quite a bit. You've probably seen this technique used in corporate work and local commercials. You know, the shot starts out tight on the sign overhead the store front and then the camera slowly zooms out to reveal the building? Or the interior shot that starts out on a wide and slowly zooms in to a specific product on the shelf?

When I saw this technique used again and again in the video I was watching, I have to admit that I had a negative reaction. Then I started thinking, "Why?" What was it about seeing a shot zooming in or zooming out that affected my emotional response to the piece? Is it wrong? Is it a violation of some cinematographer code?

The short answer is, "Maybe." In my opinion, contrary to what others in the industry may say, zoom shots are not old-fashioned. Serious and well-respected filmmakers still use them, as the following video discusses. But before you consider this carte blanche to start zooming in and zooming out on every shot, remember that choosing to move (or not move) your camera will impact your piece and will result in an emotional response from your audience, whether positive or negative.

As you learned from the above video, using the zoom is another tool in the cinematographer toolbox. Like any tool, it should be used at the proper time to achieve the proper result. It should be used for good reason. I don't want to watch an entire video where every shot is either zooming in or zooming out. But I also don't want to watch an entire video that utilizes nothing but jib shots or dolly moves.

The problem with zooming is not the act itself, but choosing when to zoom. Every composition, every move, should be motivated. It should enhance the story you're trying to tell, not distract from it. If there's no good reason to zoom, maybe you should try a different technique. However, using the zoom at the right moment, and in the right way, can be beneficial to your video.

What are your thoughts on zoom shots? How do you feel about them? What advice would you give to other shooters? Leave your thoughts in the the Comments.