by Ben Allan, CSI
It has become one of the catch-cries of the industry… Fix It In Post! The pervasive attitude that surely everything will be easier for the digital wizards in post to fix than it is spending time and resources on a fast moving set. Of course this inevitably leads to things being left to post that should have been fixed on set but equally I’ve seen cinematographers agonise over fine tuning on set that could be accomplished with no fuss or hassle in the grade.
So how does it work when one person does both roles? For over a decade now, I have been serving as both Director Of Photography and Colorist on the majority of the projects that I do and that phrase “Fix It In Post” takes on a whole new meaning when you know that you’re the one who will be doing the fixing!
The first thing that I like to make sure I’ve got right on set is exposure. This may sound obvious and of course with RAW and high bit depth LOG formats there is often a huge amount of latitude to correct exposure. However, I’m seeing an increasing tendency for cinematographers, particularly some of the younger ones coming up through the ranks to assume that if you get the exposures close, that’s fine. The big problem here is of course consistency and although it’s possible to easily correct the exposure levels, getting the right subtle consistency of feel shot to shot becomes a much more fiddly job when the exposures are jumping around in the range. To me, this is dead time, not furthering the creative look of the project, just fixing errors that could have been fixed on set. Consistent exposures require discipline, not time or money.
I do find that using a lightmeter on set helps with an extra degree of precision compared to the other exposure tools available and then a waveform or histogram becomes a quick double check that everything is sitting where I think it is. I find that if my eyes, meter and waveform are all telling me the same thing, then it’s going to be an easy grade.
Another trend that worries me is cinematographers constantly exposing to “protect the highlights”. While there are odd occasions when it is important to retain specific highlight detail, the midtones are usually so much more important and it’s tragic to see otherwise good pictures compromised because the skin tones are jumping up and down through the camera’s dynamic range out of fear that digital can’t handle highlights!
One thing that used to take lots of time on set is darkening down backgrounds, particularly walls in small rooms while using soft light. In the late 90’s when shooting on film, I often had actors making their way through an obstacle course of cutters and C-stands just trying to stop light from bouncing around the room. It worked, but a big soft power window, tracked when needed, does the job at least as well and so much more efficiently. Being able to often work with just the light sources not only speeds up the shoot but also gives the actors and director more freedom, so that’s a no-brainer.
More recently, eye-lights were something that still needed to be done on set but more and more now I’m finding that I have more control by doing them in the grade, so rather than a time saver (although it is), that one is a creative control issue.
One tool from post that has made it’s way to set now is the LUT. I find that using a LUT helps me more as a cinematographer than as a colorist. Essentially a LUT is just a color correction that has no variables. As a cinematographer your job is to control all the variables in the imaging chain so this can be quite helpful. On most of the projects I do, we use a single LUT which is either supplied by the camera manufacturer or one that’s hand made for the job. To then be able to work within that LUT on set as well as having it applied to the dailies is great for keeping track of how the look is progressing with lighting, lenses etc and it also makes it easier to spot and solve with technical issues such as exposure calibration, light pollution or noise.
Having the LUT applied to the dailies and the proxy files that go to editorial mean that everyone is one the same page creatively throughout the edit process and this is a huge help when we get to the grade because there has been time to get to know the footage with the intended look and identify what needs to be fixed or enhanced.
In the grade I usually use this same LUT on a node so that it’s easy to work above or below the LUT to fine tune to look and only tend to occasionally remove the LUT and grade from scratch when there’s a particularly challenging shot, such as one recently where we lost direct sunlight on a drone shot and needed to rebuild the contrast to match the earlier footage.
I realise that I have been very lucky to be able to be both a cinematographer and colorist for so many years on such a wide variety of projects. Once upon a time it was virtually impossible to learn both crafts because access to the tools was so prohibitive that it took total commitment to even learn one. But as the access to the tools has become more and more easy, I have been surprised by how few cinematographers have started to learn to grade.
In the future I believe that it will become expected for a cinematographer to know how to grade in much the same way as it is expected that we know how to pull focus or set up lights. In the same way most will work with specialists in each of those roles on most projects but as grading gets more and more powerful and efficient, a deep understanding of the craft and how it works will become more and more important for cinematographers and their capacity to collaborate effectively with the artists who finish the work they start.
Equally there should be more opportunities for colorists to be involved in pre-production. I know many productions are starting to do this but for me, one of the biggest advantages of doing both roles is that it guarantees the colorist is always around in pre-pro and the DP is always around in post. This makes it easy to solve a lot of issues before they become problems and keep the technical from getting in the way of the creative process. By doing this that question of fixing in post or on set becomes a constant and beneficial discussion rather than just a casual statement.
Ben Allan, CSI is an award winning cinematographer, producer and colorist with over twenty five years industry experience. He has a background in shooting and post with both film and broadcast technology and has over 1,500 TV commercial credits as well as work in documentaries, features and primetime episodic TV.