Purism has no place in film

Perhaps because it’s an industry where you have nothing to show for your skills until you have a movie out, young filmmakers develop ways to show that they are good at what they do. I’ve found myself in many a pissing contest over who has seen more Kurosawa films or tips on lighting a scene, and it’s all fairly annoying.

The worst and most insidious, though, is the idea of some technique or set of techniques as pure and fundamental to making films. “If you don’t use actual film, you’re not really making a movie.” Another one I heard last night, referring to punching in on a 4k image to reframe shots: “It’s cheating.”

Cheating is a funny word in a profession whose goal is to create the illusion of an artificial world that doesn’t actually exist. Cheating implies that using technology to the fullest is lazy and implies poor preparation – that there is something sacred and important about doing things the way they were done by previous generations. But that is not in line with the history of this great medium.

The history of film is the history of the down and dirty hack. Lights can be strung up with duct tape or on professional stands – what matters is only the final work you produce, and in producing that work film is about utilizing all your assets to the fullest. If a new tool makes one thing easy, then use the extra time or money you’ve been given to do something else better.

I love the look of 35mm film, though I rarely want it for my own work. Compared to digital, film to me feels like it sits between the viewer and the characters. It’s a (now expensive) stylistic choice, and if that works for you then do it..but don’t pretend your work is more important or correct from having made that one choice.

I punch into shots when I am editing. I relight scenes in color correction. (You can see a before and after of that here.) I shoot a bunch of takes and roll during rehearsal. Because of this, when a singular acting moment shines through on an actor’s face, I can use it…purity be damned.



5 Comments to “Purism has no place in film”

  1. a filmmaker 4 December 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    Lighting and cinematography is an art unto itself, just as essential and core to any film as the drama; in fact, it along with sound is responsible for creating the whole world of a film. Anything that calls attention to itself in the final product, whether it be poor lighting, sound, editing, etc completely takes me out of the drama of what is happening in the picture, sometimes to the point where the film will lose all of its weight, or even become laughable.

    Why are you opposed to discussions of ‘tips on lighting a scene?’ Can’t see how that can turn into a pissing contest. As a director you should probably value that stuff.

    As a cinematographer and teacher the one thing I hate most is the now-prevalent ethos of “we’ll fix it in post,” or “we’ll create it in post.” What is the point of proper cinematography and lighting then? That kind of ethos always means in every case that you’re short-changing the film by not crafting the desired image (or what you can closest to it) in-camera, where it will most of the time create a stronger effect. That kind of ethos for me does imply laziness and poor preparation–if you want your shot a certain way, plan for it in pre-production! Doing things in-camera makes you a more efficient filmmaker, as not having to alter so much in the image later will save you loads of time and money at the post house.

    I have a bit of a problem with your use of the word ‘re-light’ here–I don’t think you can truly ever ‘re-light’ a scene. The positions of the lights, their intensities, color temperatures, spread in the scene, the camera angle, etc, can’t really be altered in relation to each other in post. If it could, why would we have to light a scene at all! Why not just save all the rental money and throw in all the lights in post! Of course color correction is key to every picture, but I wouldn’t ever dare calling it ‘re-lighting.’

  2. Mike 4 December 2011 at 8:13 pm #

    Thanks very much for the comment. A lot of things to address here.

    I think the key phrase in what you said is “where it will most of the time create a stronger effect.” I’m not convinced that this is true. If you are consciously using the entire process, from production to post, to create an image, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are making sloppy mistakes and then paying someone else to fix them, that’s a different story, and it’s not what I’m advocating (however, if your subject matter is best served by down and dirty shooting with mistakes corrected later, and you wouldn’t get the material otherwise, then that sounds like the correct path to me.)

    The economics of time here has changed, and composing a shot perfectly in camera does not always make you more efficient. If you are shooting in 4 or 5k and rendering to 1080, isn’t it more efficient to frame wide and light a scene so that you can use this single shot for a closeup if you want to? Doesn’t that allow you to get the shots you need quicker? Existing rules were developed with the technology they grew up with.

    We could debate what is “relighting” and what is “color correction,” but have you seen what can be done with modern color tools? A lot can be changed to draw attention to a subject, change color balance, even recolor individual clothing items. To make a good image, this has to be done in conjunction with proper lighting to start with.

    And that’s the key distinction for me – not thinking things through and having to clean up your mess later is laziness. Planning to get a shot through means not available 10 years ago is not. Neither is having to clean up messy shots because, due to time or budget constraints, they could not have been captured otherwise.

  3. a filmmaker 4 December 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    I light and frame every shot with intention–if it’s a master, it’s framed and lit for a master. If I did in fact want a close up the angle certainly would be different, the lens, and obviously the lighting as well (I usually make adjustments anytime the camera moves more than 10 degrees off its axis). Of course you can frame a bit wide for safety, but I don’t see how a master could be anything but… maybe with the rare exception. Cinematographic language has evolved since the inception of cinema to arrive to the way we see, shoot, and watch things today, and for a reason.

    And yes I have definitely seen what color tools do, but I maintain always that everything in a shot starts with the lighting (lighting meaning using lights, not software). I would any day prefer to spend the time getting the correct setup than try to extract something out of the image in post, that wasn’t incorporated during production. It’s called lighting for a reason! I am absolutely convinced that the result will look best when the image you have to work with is closest to what you want out of it in the end–especially with lights, I think there is no question about that. Anything that could have been achieved in-camera but wasn’t is a compromise for me. I think you are undermining the jobs of DPs!

  4. Mike 4 December 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    But the DP can and should be involved throughout post production as well, and why shouldn’t they plan to use whatever tools available, at their discretion, to create a look? The role of a DP as you are defining it evolved in a world where you couldn’t do what you can now in post processing.

    Again, we’re talking about utilizing all available tools, not poor planning. Also doing the best you can within a budget – not everyone will have the time and money to get a flawless take for every shot. Are you saying the Blair Witch Project should have been shot on 35mm film because doing a computationally intensive blow-up is “cheating”?

    I think this is getting pretty off topic, though, as I never said that you shouldn’t correctly light a scene or frame a shot – only that there are now many more options, and the right choice is not necessarily the one that would have been made with earlier technology.

  5. a filmmaker 4 December 2011 at 10:58 pm #

    I would zoom in into an image (I’m assuming that’s what you meant by blow-up, not printing onto a larger gauge film) if it was absolutely necessary for a better edit, but would never go into production with the intention of getting shots so that I could later zoom in into them. For me it seems like a gateway to sloppiness. It would only be something of an emergency procedure in post that I’d use that.

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