HBO recently released Craig Mazin’s miniseries Chernobyl. While nothing in this life is perfect, Chernobyl comes pretty darn close. From acting to directing to art direction to sound design, Chernobyl is a masterclass in filmmaking.
But the biggest story is probably the story itself. In the television world, screenwriters hold the creative power and, as writer and executive producer, Mazin made a variety of bold and effective decisions. For example, the explosion takes place in the first few minutes of the mini-series. He doesn’t make the audience sit through a lengthy first act or ordinary world, and it’s spectacularly powerful. But his reasoning behind the decision is what will really make things click for filmmakers.
In addition to the show, Mazin recorded a companion podcast with NPR host Peter Sagal to accompany each episode. In it, he explains his creative decisions. He shares insight about story structure, adapting true stories, portraying gore on screen, sound design, and even accents. It’s entertaining, engaging, and informative. It’s unfiltered information coming from a filmmaker at the top of his game.
Taken together, Chernobyl and the companion podcast are worth far more to aspiring filmmakers than anything you can find in a university catalogue. The podcast is free and HBO Now has a 7 day free trial. You have no excuses. If you want to learn about the craft of filmmaking, Chernobyl is a must.
You’ve either seen it on one of those posts that point out some of the ridiculous “things we’ve learned from movies” or maybe you’ve even noticed it yourself. But right there along with always finding a parking spot in front of the courthouse and every tank you shoot with a bullet is highly explosive, you’ll discover that everything at night is perfectly visible, but slightly blue. What’s up with that?
Well, the first thing is, it has to be visible. As I mentioned in a previous post, film is a method of preserving light. No light? No movie magic. Blue helps indicate that something different is going on, mainly the passage of time. It’s one of those subtle things that Hollywood hopes you pick up on, but don’t really notice. But why blue?
If you’ve been shopping for lightbulbs recently, you’ve probably seen this little diagram.
That’s right. Lights are different colors. Chances are, you’ve never even noticed this before. Your brain has a habit of calibrating to subtle differences. That’s why you don’t go insane with all of the noise in a city and you stop noticing the tint on your rose colored glasses after a while.
But if you pay attention, you’ll start to see nauseating scenes like this.
Filmmakers put a lot of effort into making sure this kind of catastrophe never appears on the big screen.
The thing is, you really only notice the different colors on their own. If the entire wall were orange or blue or green, the lights would have that distinct hue, but your brain would tune it out. It’s the comparison that makes it noticeable. What color is the sun? Well, it looks pretty blue when you compare it to a campfire.
Moonlight, after all, is just reflected sunlight. I don’t know about you, but I’d say that night scene is pretty blue looking.
The other major source of light we’ve had as humans has been the incandescent lightbulb, which also glows at a warm orange 3200K*.
So why color temperature?
There’s a bit of physics involved here, but the basic idea is that if you heat something to a particular temperature without it bursting into flames, it will start glowing. So an incandescent bulb (which glows because it’s being heating) is, in fact, pretty close to a temperature of 3200K.
Daylight is measured between 5500K and 6500K. The sun’s light is diffused by the atmosphere, so it’s a little bit of a moving target. But the actual surface temperature of the sun? 5778K. Not too shabby.
Fluorescent lights and LEDs do not use heat to produce light, but are still measured on the same scale.
Human eyes detect light with two different kinds of cells: rods and cones. Rods simply detect light, not color. Cones are sensitive to particular wavelengths of light and separate out small (blue), medium (green), and long (red). The other colors are made by blending wavelengths. At low light levels, only your rods will activate and the world will be a series of shadows and silhouettes. But as more light is introduced, the small cones may be activated, and you’ll start to see a little bit of blue first.
So don’t feel blue the next time you’re riding off into the moonlight, even if everything may look it.
*Color temperature is measure in Kelvin (K), named after Lord Kelvin who created the absolute temperature scale. Since 0K is so cold molecules would stop moving, it’s also called absolute zero. (Yes, Andre 3000, that’s cooler than being cool.) Also, Kelvin is just Kelvin, not degrees Kelvin.
On Sunday night, HBO suckered Game of Thrones fans in for what was touted as a two-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, a glimpse into the magic of the making of Game of Thrones. I’ve seen most of the bonus features on the Game of Thrones Blu-rays. They’re well-produced and informative. This sounded like it would be a great retrospective on the series and an emotional farewell tour. Instead, HBO gave us a cloying, aimless, slice-of-life piece that ranks somewhere between a vacation slideshow and college project.
There are plenty of behind-the-scenes shots in The Last Watch, but they completely lack context or explanation. My wife called it pretentious. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘You don’t understand what we do, and we’re not going to explain it to you.'” I agree. Hundreds of people worked on the show, but the documentary only covered a handful of crew members and none of them very well. No one from the camera, grip, electric, props, sound, video, or AD departments were interviewed. There was no story. There was no narrative (ironic for a show whose finale centers on a speech about great stories). There were some heartfelt moments, such as when makeup artist Sarah Gower explained that because both she and her husband worked on the show, neither of them were at home with her daughter. Sad? Yes. A two hour story? No.
In many ways, it felt as though these crew members had drawn short straws and were being saddled with the BTS crew because no one else wanted to talk to them. That may have been the case, but the documentary did have a way out. Andrew McClay, a background actor who played a Stark soldier for multiple seasons, seemed to love the BTS crew. He was the perfect, humanizing connection between an epic fantasy series and the audience at home. Just an average Joe trying to make a living. But the documentary failed in some very basic ways to craft that story. Can we see where Andrew lives? What did he do before GOT? How did GOT change his life? What do his friends and loved ones think of all this? With so many unanswered questions, maybe he’ll get a spinoff series…
The documentary avoided discussing creative decisions in the final season, in depth interviews with major cast members or the show’s creators, or even a broad representation of the cast. Fingers crossed, those things will appear in the Blu-ray. Last night however, we were given a voyeuristic opportunity to fawn over Emilia and Kit (or Keeeet as the Spaniards call him) and a very brief glimpse at the humanity of a very small slice of a very large crew. Not exactly the kind of documentary quality I’ve come to expect from HBO. Did it fill two hours of programming and keep some of Game of Thrones fans tuning in for another week? Yes. But it could have been so much better.
The last episode of Game of Thrones will go live in just a two days and the internet is still roiling about last week’s episode. “What have the writer’s done?!” I can’t be certain how D&D plan to resolve this mess, but I can guarantee no matter what happens some people will hate it. Is all of the Sturm und Drang really merited?
I’ll start with a bit of a humble brag. I was a fan of the books. I was ecstatic to hear that HBO would be adapting them into a show. And for the most part, the series stayed true to the books, which is to say, it stayed true to human nature.
The thing that struck me about Game of Thrones was its realism. Sure, you had to get past the dragons and the army of the undead, but in many ways, George R.R. Martin’s world felt more authentic and his characters felt more real than most things you read. Writers – screenwriters in particular – rely heavily on preconceived notions (also called cliches) to keep stories moving forward. When you’re telling the story of Odysseus, you can’t get hung up what oarsman #3 is doing.
Martin didn’t let that bother him. Oarsman #3, the red-headed prostitute, and the kennel master’s daughter were just as likely to have staring roles as the king and the elite assassin. No one was purely good and no one was purely evil. Everyone was just trying to get by in this nasty and brutish world Martin had created. It was enthralling.
It also came at a cost. Descriptions could be burdensome. Do we really care what all eleventeen courses were at the feast? Or whose bannermen wore what sigils? All of the descriptions, details, side quests, and characters made each book in the series a massive tome somewhere in the 1000 page range. And then there was the killing of characters.
I started out rooting for Ned. Here was a man who was going to get things done. It’s not a spoiler at this point to say things didn’t pan out for him. Then I rooted for his son, Robb… and then Jon. But the last time Martin mentions Jon, he’s, well, dead. Then Martin went off and wrote a book on a an entirely different continent with other characters. (As a reader, I was none too happy about it and couldn’t decide if I would finish the series. But I’d like to point out that, despite some angry fan mail, if anyone is winning the game of thrones, it’s Martin.)
HBO took the same route, shocking audiences each season. There was Ned, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, the Great Sept. How do you top that? Looking back on it, however, the question isn’t about “topping” the previous season, but treating Westeros with the same reality the books did.
Life is messy. The people who you want to win don’t. The people in charge are often war criminals. The people who should be in charge don’t want the job. Siblings fight and betray trust. Some people redeem themselves. Others don’t. Game of Thrones created a world that was big enough to be treated realistically rather than having to rely on the tropes that govern most stories. Last week’s episode was a case in point.
Was Danaery’s a long con? Did D&D spend nine years building empathy for a character they knew would turn out to be an unhinged megalomaniac? Or maybe like the gods whenever a Targaryen is born, they just flipped a coin in the writer’s room. The point is, even though it frustrated a huge portion of the audience, it felt strangely inspired. It felt real. We don’t get upset when our deadbeat friend does something stupid. We get upset when our heroes and mentors do something stupid. That’s why this episode bothered us so much.
There are many theories about what will happen in the final episode, some of them more disappointing than others. But I can honestly say, I have no idea what will happen. That’s been the shocking fun of Game of Thrones since day one. Let’s be honest, for a show that killed most of its characters off, it would be completely “in character” for them to do something shocking, absurd, and brutal. I’m fully expecting that. The disappointment won’t be how it ends, but that it’s ending.
I’m hopeful though. Game of Thrones took chances with traditional storytelling, creating something new and complex and engaging. HBO adapted it – warts and all – into something we love, and love to hate. I hope that complexity affects television for years to come. In the meantime, I know what I’ll be reading.
Like all aspects of filmmaking, lighting has subtle, psychological effects on the audience. Knowing what these effects are and knowing how and when to use them will greatly enhance any film you make.
Low Key*: Darkly lit or low light scenes evoke a sense of mystery and danger, like this shot from The Shape of Water.
High Key: Brightly lit scenes like the opening of La La Land tend to be happier.
Soft Light: Few or poorly defined shadows create a sense of fantasy. For example, I find dragons and armies of undead more realistic than the fantasy world created in Letters to Juliet.
Hard Light& High Contrast: Well defined shadows create a grittier look like Sin City.
Warm Colors: Orange hues can evoke warm feelings and romance.
Cool Colors: Blue is used to create a sense of cold or uncaring.
The previous two images are both from the movie Limitless. You’ll notice the color difference the most by looking at Bradley Cooper’s skin tone. Skin tone one of the first reference points audiences latch onto.
Other colors can be used to create a sense of unease, like something isn’t right. The Matrix, for example, was decidedly green.
Knowing the Toolkit: Skilled cinematographers, of course, can also use these techniques ironically or to create a new meaning with juxtaposition. One example is flash photography.
You get this effect by having a harsh, bright light source right next to the camera (as you would on a disposable camera or smartphone). Things close to the camera (like faces) get washed out, while the background is underexposed. It also creates harsh shadows. (Look at the distinct black line on the left side of the red coat). It looks amateurish. But if you want your project to look like it was made by amateurs, this is your ticket. Thank you, Blair Witch Project.
One Final Thought
When you think about it, all movies, all TV shows, all video games, every viral video you watch on your phone is really a manipulation of light on a screen. The realty – the screen – remains unchanged. The meaning comes from your mind’s interpretation of that light and the story it creates. Controlling that light is the difference between staring at static and touching an audience.
*The “key” in “low key” and “high key” refers to the “key light” or main light source.
What is it with films and lighting? It’s right there, number 1 in the most cliched of all Hollywood phrases*. And if you’ve ever been on a film set, you know that the vast majority of time is spent lighting and relighting the scene. But why?
At its basic level, film (and the modern equivalent of digital video) is actually a way of recording and preserving light. So while we think of films as epic stories with huge budgets and special effects, it’s really a specific kind of recording device. On a technical level, you could compare film to taking a plaster impression of an animal print or recording tremors with a seismograph.
For those of you old enough to remember developing photos from 35mm film, this is “film” at its most basic. Photons bounce off an object, are focused by a lens onto the film, activate photo-reactive chemicals, and leave an impression. The film is then developed into a negative, and the negative is used to produce the positive picture.
The thing is, that 35 mm film from your disposable CVS camera is actually the same film used in movie cameras and was essentially unchanged for 100 years. Today, the process is digital, but essentially your iPhone and a professional movie camera work the same way. And it’s all about capturing light.
What are we waiting on?
So why does it take so long to light a film set? There’s a problem between seeing and seeing. Your brain plays probably about the same role in sight as your eyes. Yes, your eyes perceive light, but your brain needs to decide what to focus on (literally and figuratively). In addition to actual focal distance, it must determine proportion, patterns, colors, shapes, and movement. Are you looking at a cat or a lion? Or a toy lion? Or a picture of a lion?
Our brains concentrate on only one small part of what we actually see. But when a filmmaker sits you in a darkened room and projects an image 30 feet tall and 100 feet wide, they need to direct your attention. They have to be sure what they are showing you is more interesting than the exit sign in the corner of the theater or that weird haircut on the guy two rows in front of you.
Just to be clear, your director of photography and the camera are taking the place of the two most complex organs in the human body. This involves framing shots appropriately, dressing and costuming appropriately, and making sure the correct subject matter is in focus. And it also involves a LOT of lighting.
Consider this shot from Citizen Kane.
It’s both simple and incredibly effective. The main sources of light come from the back of the room, creating a hard silhouette of both subjects. They are both easy to see while also being obscured. The light beams add a sense of depth, while the desk lamp fills in some of the void. That way we aren’t merely looking at silhouettes.
This shot required critical placement of the lights, camera, and actors. The lights had to be focused and balanced in intensity so the desk wasn’t too dark or the beams too bright. Smoke or fog played a critical role in creating those beams, too.
Physics of Photography
Whether you’re taking photos at a wedding or shooting a film for Spielberg, everyone’s playing by the same rules. Light and film have certain properties and limitations. A lot of cinematography is understanding these limitations and finding a way to get the look you want with the tools you have.
There can be a lot of stuff in a scene: actors, props, sets. How does your audience know where to look? Light, of course. Here’s a very messy photo from my office.
Now where did I leave that fine point black Sharpie? When I change the lighting, it’s a little easier to see.
Ever had an annoying camper shine a flashlight in your eyes in the middle of the night? First, it’s painfully bright. Then it takes your eyes a few seconds to readjust to the darkness. Your irises make minor adjustments constantly, and because it happens so fast, you don’t usually notice. What happens if you’re filming a scene that includes very bright and very dark parts?
Here, Phillies Bear and Phanatic Pillow Pet are very excited to watch the Phillies (currently number 1 in the NL East!), but the problem is, the window behind them is grossly overexposed.
If we set the exposure for outside, it looks like they are sitting in a black hole.
The solution is to add light inside the room or take light away outside (most likely by putting filters on the windows). Either way, it’s going to involve some lighting.
The intensity of lights decreases as you get further away. Not by a little, but by a LOT. In fact, light follows the inverse square law. That means if you double the distance between your subject and your light source, but want to keep the same light intensity, you need to quadruple your lighting power. Bigger shot? More lights.
How many lights did it take to illuminate this post-apocalyptic set from Bladerunner: 2049?
Well, start counting.
You’re out of your depth.
Lighting adds a sense of depth to a scene. After all, we see in three dimensions, but movie screens are flat. If there were no depth, everything would look like a cartoon. In the shot from Bladerunner: 2049, you can see the silhouette in the foreground, our actor in the middle distance, and hazy ruins in the background.
This shot from The Third Man, shows the depth of a tunnel. Even as a still frame, you get a sense of the dimension.
Today, many movies are shot in 3D, but lighting still plays a critical role in creating the space for a scene.
That covers some of the technical hurdles that go into lighting a scene. In the next post, I’ll cover some of the other things a director of photography considers on a set.
*The phrase “lights, camera, action” was probably never used to get a film crew rolling. Even today, lights take a while to warm up. There is also some dispute about the origin of the phrase. In reality, the dialogue before a take goes something like this:
1st Assistant Director: “Let’s roll.”
Production Assistants: “ROLLING!”
Sound department: “Sound speeds.”
2nd Assistant Cameraman: “101 take 1. A mark.” (Hits slate.)
Film sets can be dangerous places. There’s heavy equipment, high voltage, and people working 70 or more hours a week. Every day, we do our best to work safely and return home to our families, but as a new person on a film set, it’s important to stand up for yourself and your safety. More importantly, it’s incumbent on department heads, production managers, and producers to look after their crews. A film set isn’t different than other kinds of work. A producer is the same as a business owner, a foreman, or a school principal. It’s your job to make sure your employees are safe.
Strangely, people get very worked up about trying to get some particular shot before the sun sets even though they don’t have the right gear or the manpower or the permits to do it. They act as though it’s going to win the war or cure cancer, but it’s not. We’re just making movies. Don’t let the pressure get to you.
The reason I’m writing this now is that a friend of mine from high school died recently in a driving accident. He did not work in the film industry, but he had been driving an Isuzu cab-over box truck — a truck that was identical to one I had driven for years as a production assistant.
It takes some skill to drive a truck. They do not stop quickly. They take wide turns. They have poor sight lines. But for some reason, production managers will often assign the job of driving a production truck to a recent college grad without any training. The first time I drove a truck for work, someone threw the keys at me and said, “You know how to drive a truck, right?”
Fortunately, I’d had some experience helping friends move, and I knew enough to take my time and watch my overhead clearance. After some time, I carved out a niche as a “truck PA.” I knew how to load a truck. I knew all of the common stops in New York, which tunnels you could use, what roads had low bridges, and what the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requirements were. And because of my added experience and responsibility, I asked for a higher rate.
Most producers paid it. Some did not. They asked if I could recommend other drivers that would work at a lower rate. I refused. They hired people with no experience and they ended up paying for it in other ways.
The people involved in these accidents were okay, but they should never have been put in those positions in the first place. We are only making movies. Don’t put your crew in dangerous situations. Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. It’s going to be okay. Take your time. Be safe. And get home to your family.