This is my second post in a series I’m doing called DP Decisions. It’s intended to break down the choices I made and why I made them. This time, I’m dissecting a project I shot for AFI with choreographer Arlene Yuan. This is great place to dig into something cinematographers must always work under: limitations.
You will never get the time, equipment, and manpower to do the job the easy way, and that was certainly the case on our 16mm MOS assignment. For this project, Dance, we had to use our own money (or loans) to self-produce a short film. It had to tell a story and work within a few parameters:
• 200′ of 16mm film
• Photographed in chronological order
• No sound
• Cannot leave campus
• 5 working hours
Usually the starting point for any project is the story, but sometimes, I’ve found that the real starting point for DPs is in knowing the limitations. Instead of asking, “What do I need to tell the story?”, you must ask, “What story can I tell with what I have to work with?”
As I always have a few ideas that I can’t get out my head, that’s where I started the creative process for this short. And at the time, I was mulling over the concepts of:
• Black and white
• Light transitions
So, I built a story around those ideas.
INT. EMPTY VOID
In a white space, a ballerina warms up. She stretches her feet. Her back as well. Her muscles flex and ripple before disappearing into her beauty.
She bursts into movement. Powerful and abrupt motion. She is practicing. Attempting to physically and mentally find her stage.
With each stance, she relaxes more and more. And we are sucked into her world...
With concepts like this, the rules are out. You can do anything. I decided to tie the lighting of the world to the psychological state of the dancer. As she got into “the zone” the lights would slowly fade into stage lighting.
While I pushed the limits of the lighting, I did the opposite with the camera. I decided to limit it. It would always stay frontal and only move on the z-axis. The ballerina and lights would move in front of it.
This was partially due to my location limitations and partially a creative choice. I only had a small part of my soundstage to build on and limited time in which to do so. Logistically, the stage wasn’t big enough for me to move the camera around a lot. Creatively, I believed that practical limitations actually made space for creative freedom. Because my brain was free from having to conceptualize camera movements, it was free to conceptualize lighting changes. And given that I only had 5 hours to shoot, fewer decisions meant better decisions.
I designed my lighting to create 4 looks: two “practice” looks and two “stage” looks. The two practice looks were soft, overhead lighting that could fade from back to front. So, either the ballerina was dark and the background was white—or the opposite. I used a row of China Balls behind her for back light. And a row in the front for front light.
The two stage looks were hard, stage lighting that could also fade from front to back. The front light was done with a simple Source4 with an operator using it like a follow spot. The back light was a row of Tweenies flaring the lens.
The following video is a previs I did using Cinema4D. It very quickly moves through the lighting setups: practice-back, practice-front, stage-front, stage-back. Apologies in advance for the crude attempt at simulating dance…
Because every light was in place and just had to be dimmed up or down, we never had to relight. This allowed for a nice workflow on each shot: block the dancer, set the lens, set the initial lighting setup, set the end, set the duration, rehearse, and shoot.
Before the shoot, the choreographer and I came up with a general flow of how the dance would go. We decided when major lighting changes would happen and shifts in the style of dance. The rest was crafted on set.
Despite the fact that we were limited to a 5-hour shoot and had only 5 minutes of film, we got nearly 20 shots and had time to discuss each shot…all because we worked with the limitations instead of fighting them.
Take a look→
And a special thanks and shout-out to Satoshi Mark Noguchi who scored the piece.