DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video

DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video

by Kurt Lancaster


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DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video by Kurt Lancaster

Large sensor video cameras (DSLRs) offer filmmakers an affordable, high-quality image previously impossible without high-end cinema cameras. These video-capable DSLR cameras have revolutionized filmmaking, documentary production, journalism, television, and even Hollywood cinema. This book empowers the filmmaker to craft visually stunning images inexpensively.

DSLR Cinema presents insight into different shooting styles and real-world tips and techniques indispensible to any DSLR filmmaker. This updated and expanded edition includes new workflows for Adobe Premier and Final Cut X-from syncing external audio settings to using the right settings. It also covers the workflow for using Technicolor's picture style, CineStyle, designed on consultation with Canon scientists.

DSLR Cinema features case studies of an international cast of cutting edge DSLR shooters, including Philip Bloom, Shane Hurlbut, Bernardo Uzeda, Rii Schroer, Danfun Dennis, and many more. The films are examined in detail, exploring how each exemplifies great storytelling, exceptional visual character, and how you can push the limits of your DSLR.

Also be sure to check out www.kurtlancaster.com to view the videos discussed in the book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780240823737
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Publication date: 10/16/2012
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kurt Lancaster has shot documentaries that have screened nationally and internationally. He has also consulted for the Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, training some of their print journalists in video journalism, as well as shooting and editing documentary journalism pieces. He is also an assistant professor of digital media in the School of Communication at Northern Arizona University, where he teaches courses on documentary multimedia production, scriptwriting, and production techniques.

Read an Excerpt

DSLR Cinema

Crafting the Film Look with Video
By Kurt Lancaster

Focal Press

Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-240-81552-7

Chapter One

Composition, Blocking, and Camera Movement

Composition, blocking, and camera movement are the building blocks of your story. They're intertwined like DNA. You cannot have one without the others, so this first chapter begins with defining these three elements and showing examples of how DSLR shooters compose their image along the golden mean, how they tell a story through the blocking of performers, and how they utilize camera movement poetically.


Your three-dimensional subjects and the scene they're in are composed through your lens. This composition relies on many factors, including lenses and shot sizes, as well as camera angles. But one underlying principle can't be understated: the golden mean appearing in nature, a ratio studied by mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (whom you might recall from that high school geometry class). Many cameras are equipped with rule-of-thirds grid lines, which provides a decent way to compose your images—keeping eye lines on the top third of the image and your subject in either the right or left third, for example. But photographer Jake Garn argues that the Rule of Thirds isn't as naturally dynamic as the use of the golden mean, which we can see in one of his photos in Figure 1.1—the girl in the foreground composed along the golden mean.

Garn explains how Mario Livio explores this topic in his book, The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World's Most Astonishing Number (Broadway Books, 2003). The ratio provides a spiral and rectangular pattern that reflects a pattern found in nature and, when used by photographers and cinematographers, can create powerful compositions.

If you want to learn how to do this and train your eye to compose your images around the golden mean, the Shutterfreaks team—a group of photographers who have created a website with tips and tricks (shutterfreaks.com)—offer a Photoshop application that allows you to take stills of your compositions and see how well they fit within the golden mean. You may download Shutterfreak's application for Photoshop, so you can analyze a still within a golden mean grid; see http://www.shutterfreaks.com/Actions/RuleOf Thirds.php.

Vincent Laforet's Reverie, shot on a Canon 5D Mark II was the first sensational DSLR web hit that highlighted the low-light capabilities of the camera. It features a man longing for a girl, failing to find her during a late-night rendezvous. Let's look at a few random stills and apply Shutterfreak's golden mean app in Photoshop, just to see how it holds up compositionally along the golden mean (see Figures 1.2–1.4).

Another aspect of composition includes creating the illusion of three dimensions by providing depth to a scene. The woman in Figure 1.4 appears to stand out from the background due to the fact that lights are on in the background—this gives the scene depth. Also, you may stage background and foreground characters and move them along different planes of action to signify the sense of depth as well.

Practicing with depth, light, and placement of your subjects is the best way to train yourself for good composition. Ultimately, there are no rules, only what looks and feels right for the story. But an understanding of where and why these rules work—and a mastery of them in your DSLR shooting—is important if you want to create powerful shots. Don't break the rules until you know how to use each of them well.

Checklist for Composition

1. Who owns the story and/or who owns the scene? Your compositional choice may revolve around your central character or characters. Know who they are so your composition can reflect the central power, point of view, and/or ownership of the scene.

2. What is in the frame? What you see is what you get. If you don't want something in the frame, get it out of the way or move your subject(s) until everything you see is meant to be there.

3. Place your main characters along the golden mean for strong composition. Follow the general principles of framing a character screen left if they're looking right and screen right if they're looking left. Keep eyelines around one-third from the top as a general rule. Break these rules when your story demands it.


Blocking is where, when, and how subjects are placed and move in the composition, whether working with actors or characters in a documentary. How they are placed, when they move, where they move from, and where they go are dependent on the story. There should be nothing random because these movements (the blocking of the performers) need to be motivated; otherwise, random movements not grounded in the story will appear weak on-screen. The job of the director is to shape or choreograph the blocking (see Figure 1.5), while the cinematographer needs to capture these movements with the camera.

Po Chan's approach to blocking in The Last 3 Minutes (featured in Chapter 12) is as precise as her direction on all aspects of the short: "All elements in this short film, from casting and the music to the wardrobe; from makeup (the choice of lipstick color) to the hairstyle and hair color; from the patterns and textures of the set dressing pieces to the looks of the crystal itself, are all carefully chosen so that they all work in harmony to tell the story," she explains to me in an interview on set.

In the scene, Po takes time to set up the physical actions for actor Harwood Gordon, as his character William Turner has a heart attack and collapses to the floor. Po knows what she's looking for. She understands very well (and is glad) that Gordon has had no such experience before. She goes into extreme detail and wants Gordon to convey the pain in this moment. She explains to him the different layers of emotions that should be inside him in this scene. By doing so, she keeps the actor fresh in his imagination, and the physical action conveys that naturalness she's looking for. Some actors may be hands off with the director, but Po says she looks for actors she can communicate with, heart to heart, look into their eyes, and know their feelings: "I trust them and I want them to know that they can trust me."

Every gesture Gordon does, every expression he makes, is carefully observed by Po. In this scene, there is no dialog, so the physical actions are the main vehicle to convey the story. "I trust my instinct within—it's always correct," she says. She puts herself emotionally into the scene as she directs: "If my actor cries, I cry. I apply myself to them. Even though I can only live one life, I can experience many more different lives through the art of cinema." Figure 1.6 shows how the blocking in this scene is tied to the shots.

There are several possible combinations of blocking with a camera:

* A performer can stand still and the camera remains locked down.

* A performer can stand still and the camera moves.

* A performer can move and the camera is locked down.

* A performer can move and the camera can move.

Each one of these changes the dynamics of the scene. There is no "right" choice since it depends on an understanding of the story and what you want to convey to the audience. Each scene has an emotion shift, a change that alters the emotion of the scene, and an understanding of when this change occurs will help you make the better choice.

For example, in this particular scene (refer to Figure 1.6), the camera remains fairly static (with slight handheld motion, but no dolly or crane shots), and the character moves. In the second image, we see a low camera angle looking up before it cuts to the third image, when Gordon drops into a tight close-up frame of the camera. These two shots contain the shift in the scene—conveying to the audience the suddenness of his heart attack in the first, while the close-up expresses his surprise and pain. This is the first time the tight close-up is used in this scene. It's the crux, the point where the scene shifts into a new direction. In the beginning of the scene, William is mopping the floor, alone with his thoughts. But in the close-up, we see his pain and struggle, and the scene shifts as he struggles for a meaningful heirloom in his pocket and his life flashes before his eyes. The filmmakers could have added camera movement at this point to emphasize this point, but it may have come across as melodramatic or overly manipulative, whereas the low angle followed by the tight close-up does

the job in this particular instance. In summary, blocking is the visual depiction of the story by actors' bodies—their body language, gestures, and movement through space—and this blocking must be tied to the shot, whether the camera is locked down or moves. In the opening sequence to The Last 3 Minutes, we can see how the story is fully told by not only how the character of William is composed in space, but how he moves and how the camera captures his movements. Whatever decision you make as a cinematographer when shooting with DSLRs, be aware that blocking and camera movement are intrinsically tied together (see the next section on camera movement).

Checklist for Blocking

1. Who owns the scene—the point of view character? This is the character who, perhaps, has most to lose in the scene or the character impacted by the events in the scene. When you know who owns the scene, then, as the director, you can determine what the emotional state of this character is at the beginning of the scene and at the end of the scene: where does this change occur? You need to know this to be able to effectively block the scene (and determine how you'll emphasize this moment—through shot size/angle changes and/or camera and/or actor movement).

2. Set up your camera so that you capture not only the action of this character, but more importantly, the reaction of the character to the events occurring in the scene—especially where the scene change occurs. The character's actions and reactions will motivate where and what you capture on camera—and will help immensely in editing. The choices for blocking and the use of the camera include these four combinations:

* A performer can stand still and the camera remains locked down.

* A performer can stand still and the camera moves.

* A performer can move and the camera is locked down.

* A performer can move and the camera can move.

The choice you make should be dependent on the needs of the story; this takes analysis (see Chapter 7 on stories for more details).

3. Make a list (mental or physical) of the shots you need to tell the story—and for editing, especially as it relates to the scene's emotional shift. Think about the actions of the characters and what they're doing from shot to shot. What shots do you need to tell the full story when you edit? Where do the performers' eyelines take us? This is one good clue to choosing shots to edit, and a good shooter needs to capture these eyelines. What will the shots look like as you edit? Do you have enough shots? Can you condense several shots into one shot with camera movement? Documentary filmmakers the Renaud brothers mention how important it is for shooters to be editors: "We started out as editors as I believe all young filmmakers should do. If you can become a good editor first, it is easy to become a good shooter."


If blocking expresses the movement in the composition of a scene, the camera movement moves the composition and will result in strong visual dynamics. Just as a character needs to be motivated before moving on-screen, the camera needs to be motivated in its movement. The camera's movement needs to be tied to character motivations and movements because the camera captures emotions and actions through its lens.

To quickly attain an amateur look in your DSLR projects, just handhold the camera and move around a lot. Controlling the movement of a camera takes discipline and proper tools. And DSLR cameras are less stable than typical video cameras; they're shaped for photography, not for handheld video movement. When you are engaging in handheld movement, the cameras are awkward and difficult to keep stable for longer sustained shots. One of the problems with handheld work is that it's hard; it's easy to make the movements unprofessionally shaky! Move in slow motion and make the camera feel heavy. It's easy to whip a light camera around and make it jiggle too much as the body of the DSLR shooter fails to remain still. You must Zen your body and focus your attention on the shot. In many of the shots of The Last 3 Minutes, Shane Hurlbut, ASC, handheld the camera, but his body was rock steady and the movements of the camera were slight and were never jerky.

Several companies have designed a variety of handheld and shoulder-mounted stabilization devices for helping with handheld shots. But they can still provide poor results if you're moving around and bouncing too much. Holding still, moving in slow motion, and moving as if you're carrying weights will help your handheld work. Proper stabilization, whether using a tripod or Zacuto's "Target Shooter," for example, when properly practiced, will help provide a professional cinema look.

When handholding shots, you may tilt up and down along the vertical axis (yaw) or move side to side, left to right (pitch). A roll occurs when you move front to back like a ship riding waves at sea (rarely used).

One of the safest ways to get a clean shot is to use a tripod ... when the story warrants it. It's one of the best ways to get stable and acceptable shots for DSLR projects, but the shots may appear too static, so some slight motion may be needed. Again, let your story determine the best way to convey the emotion you want in a scene. You may pan or tilt on a tripod (whether on a tripod or handheld), but be sure to move in slow motion to minimize shakiness and the "Jell-O effect" of the camera's CMOS sensor—when vertical lines shift diagonally while panning when you move the camera fast because the sensor speed is too slow to keep up with the movement. Also, remember that the longer the lens, the faster the apparent motion and the more unstable the shot will be when handholding. It may be best to use a tripod when using a long lens.

Camera movement includes

* Pan: left to right on the tripod axis (see Figure 1.7a)

* Tilt: up and down on the tripod axis (see Figure 1.7b)

* Push-in through space (see Figure 1.7c)

* Pull-out through space (see Figure 1.7d)

* Tracking (or dolly): lateral movement through space (see Figure 1.7e)

* Crane: up and down movement through space

Despite the suggestion of using a tripod, one of the most powerful tools to create the film look revolves around camera movement—that poetic push-in or tracking shot that moves the viewer smoothly through the space of the cinematic world. But getting a dolly that works really well will blow the budget (let's face it, cheaper tripod dollies—tripods with wheels attached to them—just don't cut it). And the skateboard dolly or wheelchair trick goes only so far (and requires a smooth surface). Laying down tracks just isn't doable for most DSLR shooters, either.

However, there's an affordable way to get that high-end filmic look: the Kessler Crane Pocket Dolly Traveler, a fairly inexpensive device that can produce high-end results. In Philip Bloom's short, Salton Sea Beach (http://vimeo. com/10314280), he masterfully attains tracking shots by using this dolly (see Figures 1.8 and 1.9).

High-end dollies can be bulky and expensive. For low-budget DSLR shooters—especially those one man- and one woman-band shooters—the 25-inch pocket dolly (see Figure 1.10) becomes a portable solution that can be thrown in a tripod bag.

If the Pocket Dolly Traveler adds a rhythmic beat like a line of poetry, Ken Yiu's use of Tiffen's Steadicam Merlin presents a song. He achieved amazingly smooth handheld shots in Wedding Highlights with a Panasonic Lumix GH1 with kit lens (see Figure 1.11).


Excerpted from DSLR Cinema by Kurt Lancaster Copyright © 2011 by Elsevier Inc. . Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I Using the Cinematographer's Toolkit to Craft Astounding Images with DSLRs
Chapter 1 Composition, Blocking and Camera Movement
Chapter 2 Lighting
Chapter 3 Tonal Scale, Exposure, and Lenses
Chapter 4 Using Picture Styles
Chapter 5 Recording Quality Audio
Chapter 6 Postproduction Workflow and Techniques

Part II Master DSLR Shooters at Work
Chapter 7 Case Study 1: Getting the Film Look in a Short Fiction: Casulo (2009), directed by Bernardo Uzeda, Brazil, 17 min.
Chapter 8 Case Study 2: Getting the Film Look in Documentary Journalism: 16 Teeth: Cumbria's Last Traditional Rakemakers (2009), directed by Rii Schroer, England, 2:29 min.
Chapter 9 Case Study 3: Getting the Film Look in a Short Documentary: A Day at the Races (2010), directed by Philip Bloom, United States, 6 min.
Chapter 10 Case Study 4: Getting the Film Look in a Short Fiction: Chrysalis (2010), directed by Jeremy Thomas, United States, XX min.
Chapter 11 Case Study 5: Getting the Film Look in a Short Fiction: The Last Three Minutes (2010), directed by Po Chan and Shane Hurlbut, ASC, United States, 3:37 min.

Part III Getting the Gear and Telling Your Stories
Chapter 12 DSLR Cinema Gear by Budget
Chapter 13 How to Tell Better Stories with Your DSLR

Afterword by Philip Bloom
Appendix I Image Resolution
Appendix II ISO Tests for the Canon 5D Mark II and 7D
Appendix III Exposure and Dynamic Range
Appendix IV Luminance and Chrominance Compression

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a great help in my study of photography.. ^_^
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