“What’s it like shooting for David Fincher?”

Christopher Probst

Logo - The ASC

Christopher Probst, ASC, is curating The ASC’s Instagram for March.

Christopher Probst, ASC
March 2, 2018
The ASC (Instagram)

Hello and thanks for the warm welcome! I’m honored to be hosting this month and look forward to posting a variety of images/topics. Being a nerd, there’ll be plenty of technical posts about cameras/lenses, but I’d also like to draw on my teaching at Global Cinematography Institute and writing/editing for American Cinematographer for the last 24 years. To begin, I’ll start with a little Mindhunter anecdote.

Over the past few months I’ve been asked, “What’s it like shooting for David Fincher?”

Coming up the camera department as a 1st AC/operator then shooting music videos and commercials, I’ve operated most of my projects. Simultaneously, I’ve also been writing for AC since 1994 and its Technical Editor since 98. That enabled me to literally corner many of the DPs I admired and pick their brains under the guise of some altruistic journalistic cause (but always with the underlying motive to learn from idols like Conrad Hall, Deakins, Chivo, Khondji, Harris Savides; and directors like Spielberg, Bay, the Coen bros., and Fincher). Like many of you, I’ve admired/studied David’s work, so thinking myself somewhat clever and not without operating skills, I opted to operate A-camera on my episodes.

Early in the schedule, we were shooting a prison corridor as Jonathan Groff is led to meet the serial-killer Ed Kemper. We had 2 cameras on 150’ of dolly track: a 65mm locked-off closeup and a 29mm low 2-shot I operated remotely. We did a take and David said, “That’s great, but pan a little to the right.” Ok… note taken. Next take. “Pan to the left…” What the hell? Ok, what’s he looking at? We shot Mindhunter in 6K framing for a 5K extraction, so I was mainly looking where to place our lead in this low 3/4 shot. You know, rule-of-thirds kind of thinking:

Mindhunter S01E02 - Christopher Probst 02

Then it dawned on me. David’s looking for balance/symmetry in all aspects of his work. Forget what books say. He’s looking at the shot as a whole. Not just the actors. As the two walk, if I framed only for Ford, the guard may be at the edge or even cut off. Anything but symmetrical! But once I got in David’s head, I moved back from the monitor and tried to NOT look at the actors and just balance the sides of the frame.

That level of symmetry/precision permeates all aspects of a Fincher film. Working with David is full of moments that strengthen you as a filmmaker if you are open to challenging yourself and your preconceived ideas.

Mindhunter S01E02 - Christopher Probst 03

Hello and thanks for the warm welcome! I’m honored to be hosting this month and look forward to posting a variety of images/topics. Being a nerd, there’ll be plenty of technical posts about cameras/lenses, but I’d also like to draw on my teaching at and writing/editing for American Cinematographer for the last 24 years. To begin, I’ll start with a little Mindhunter anecdote. Over the past few months I’ve been asked, “What’s it like shooting for David Fincher?” Coming up the camera department as a 1st AC/operator then shooting music videos and commercials, I’ve operated most of my projects. Simultaneously, I’ve also been writing for AC since 1994 and its Technical Editor since 98. That enabled me to literally corner many of the DPs I admired and pick their brains under the guise of some altruistic journalistic cause (but always with the underlying motive to learn from idols like Conrad Hall, Deakins, Chivo, Khondji, Harris Savides; and directors like Speilberg, Bay, the Coen bros., and Fincher). Like many of you, I’ve admired/studied David’s work, so thinking myself somewhat clever and not without operating skills, I opted to operate A-camera on my episodes. Early in the schedule, we were shooting a prison corridor as Jonathan Groff is led to meet the serial-killer Ed Kemper. We had 2 cameras on 150’ of dolly track: a 65mm locked-off closeup and a 29mm low 2-shot I operated remotely. We did a take and David said, “That’s great, but pan a little to the right.” Ok… note taken. Next take. “Pan to the left…” What the hell? Ok, what’s he looking at? We shot Mindhunter in 6K framing for a 5K extraction, so I was mainly looking where to place our lead in this low 3/4 shot. You know, rule-of-thirds kind of thinking. Then it dawned on me. David’s looking for balance/symmetry in all aspects of his work. Forget what books say. He’s looking at the shot as a whole. Not just the actors. As the two walk, if I framed only for Ford, the guard may be at the edge or even cut off. Anything but symmetrical! But once I got in David’s head, I moved back from the monitor and tried to NOT look at the actors and just balance the sides of the frame.

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With the advent of digital motion picture imagers, the nature of monoplanar (single chip) sensors inextricably ties the dimension of the sensor to the engineering specification of the individual manufacturer’s photosite (not a pixel, btw) design. . With film, for decades we had Academy/SMPTE designated gate specs that cameras and lenses could be designed for, and relied upon. Now, as every digital camera is slaving their sensor dimensions to a targeted resolution for their own proprietary photosite pitches, digital gates run the gamut. . We have now seen this phenomenon with every new digital camera unveiled by manufacturers… some less than Super35, some greater, some FF, and some beyond that. This has presented cinematographers we new challenges to tackle, namely ascertaining if a certain lens or family will work on a particular camera they’d like to use. The chart on the first pic shows a small sampling of various popular dimensions a cinematographer may need to take into account. . Over the last few years, a good portion of my prep and designing going into a project has been in casting this camera/lens pairing to the look I wish to achieve. . When I was considering these factors on Mindhunter for example, I conducted several tests to determine lens coverage and distortion characteristics. To help pick the lens family, I borrowed Red president Jarred Land’s 8K VV Dragon @reddigitalcinema to be able to test a number of lens family’s and see what covered what and where performance dropped off at the edges. We ultimately opted to shoot in 6K (framing for 5K 2.2:1) with Leica Summilux-C lenses @cwsonderoptic for their fast speed, low distortion and minimal breathing. – Christopher Probst, ASC (@probstdp) . #lensesofinstagram #reddigitalcinema #mindhunter

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I’d like to talk a bit about an idea that I happened on many years ago in my early days of shooting music videos. Color Contrast. In lighting, we talk about contrast as defining dark and light. Light and shadow. Silhouette or highlights. But since the adoption of color-sensitive films in motion pictures, we have color as well that we can play with dynamically. To make an analogy to dark and light, with color, we can consider primary and secondary colors as a way to achieve contrast. Red vs. green, Cyan vs. magenta. Blue and yellow, etc. . A garish example of this applied to a scene may be hitting an actor with red light on one side of the face and green light on the other. What I like to do instead, is stretch the dynamics of a scene in a more subtle way. I may key with a slightly warmer light, with say, a Tungsten source with 1/4 CTO on it. And then have a soft overhead fill with a cooler tone, maybe a Tungsten with 1/2 CTB and 1/4 Plus Green (slightly cyan). . This adds a contrasting range of colors in a very subtle, organic way and broadens the color-channel exposure on the sensor. Take a look at the images provided above. The first pic is from an Eminem video for “Space Bound,” which has some color dynamics going on inside, as well as from the window in the background. Then there’s an image from Chris Brown, “Crawl” with some warm/cool dynamics at play (look at his white shirt). Next, I have two pics from “Love the Way you Lie.” This first is how the shot appeared in the video. The second, I’ve cranked up the color a little bit to exaggerate the dynamics of this key/fill idea. The next two images are more subtle examples of this idea from a recent video I shot for Rita Ora. (Continued)

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I’d like to talk about something that may be a bit of an intimidating term (though you may be embarrassed to admit it)… Digital Exposure. Rewinding the clocks, say, 40+ years ago, exposing for film was much less forgiving than today’s digital imagers. Cinematographers working first with slow black-and-white emulsions, and then color films, had to hit a much smaller window to capture the range of tones they were looking to render. This often meant that every aspect of the scene had to be lit to specific values. This lent to the look of the films of that period, where hard light sources were aimed and set to exacting levels to match the dynamic range of the film stocks they were using. . Though much broader in tolerance, digital sensors can be thought of like reversal film. With reversal stocks, the philosophy was to protect (expose for) your highlights and then light to the black level you wanted detail in. This is where digital sensors, especially earlier generations, are similar. . Looking at the first image, we have a typical depiction of a histogram with the three color-channels superimposed over one another. The second image illustrates where in the exposure range in this visual representation falls. Shadows on the left, Mids in the middle and Highlights on the right. But now I want to add another level of thought process to this illustration. We often hear about a camera being 12-bit, 14-bit, or even 16-bit… But what does that exactly mean? . It means that we have 12, 14, or 16 binary bit values (in digital we only have base-2 numbers, 1s or 0s…) per color channel. So an 8-bit number has 2 to the power of 8 values (or 256). A 16-bit number has 65,536 values. With me so far? . Our digital camera systems work in RGB, so in a 16-bit camera we have approximately 65K values for Red, 65K value for Green and 65K values for Blue. Take those values and multiple them together, you get 281.474976 TRILLION values. Compare that to an 8-bit system, that only has 16.7 million values. (continued)

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As a continuation to the topic of color contrast, one component that I use hand-in-hand with creating contrasting tones is a technique I adopted from the legendary Conrad L. Hall, ASC… a term he dubbed Room Tone. Room Tone in essence is any soft, overhead illumination providing some degree of fill from above. In Connie’s method, he used it to raise the base level of exposure for a scene, setting the detail in the blacks he desired. If you open up any book about film lighting techniques, you’ll invariably find mention of 3-point lighting. Key, fill and kicker (backlight). Usually for these demonstrations, they have a key light aimed from the floor at one side of the face, and a lesser-intensity fill-light from the other side. . What room tone does is pull this fill source off the floor from an opposite, shadow-casting angle, and provides it more invisibly from above. This has several advantages, there is less obvious directionality to it, it creates pleasing drop shadows under the nose and chin that still feel natural and it can allow one to introduce a color contrast at the same time. It’s also like a “free” bounce, and if you use a unit like an LTC Source 4 ellipsoidal, you can easily shape and cut the light with a minimum of grip gear. . The first pic is a frame grab from Mindhunter. Shot on soundstage in Pittsburgh, PA, this shot was primarily lit by the practical lights in shot, an Arri L7 on a tall stand outside the window meant to feel light a streetlight and then another dimmed-down L7 bounced into the ceiling to provide a subtle lift to the shadows in the shot (look at the tone on the back of his shirt. In this case, I didn’t go for color contrast, but utilized the idea of room tone in its most basic form. . 2. Shooting the short film Power/Rangers, we had a sequence in a practical trailer. In this image you can see a 400-watt Joker with some additional blue gel on it bouncing into the practical ceiling. For tight spaces with white ceilings, this can be a god-send to aid in lighting the environment. (continued)

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As I have mentioned before in my previous posts, another lighting technique I use in conjunction with both Room Tone and Color Contrast is what is sometimes called Shadow-side to Camera. The name basically says it all. If you have a person in front of the camera it with a light with any degree of directionality other than straight from the camera’s axis, if you shoot towards the side opposite that light — the shadow side — it is a nice way to create depth, dimensionality and mood to the image. . The first image is a frame from the 2nd episode of Mindhunter. With scenes like this one at a bar, the motivation of the lighting falls nicely in line with the concept of shadow-side lighting. However, where you place your camera could also fall with the character being more front-lit in this same scenario. In fact, often, just beyond the edges of the frame you may elect to block off any more of that light source as to not continue to add light that would fill in the shadow side. . The 2nd image is a crude lighting diagram illustrating the idea. I often use larger sources, 8x and 12x frames of diffusion and try to play them as close to the talent as I can to create a soft, wrapping source. Then, if I use a little overhead room tone, I’m able to fill in the shadow side to taste, right on camera. Is the scene darker and moody like the first 2 Mindhunter images? Or is it more like the 4th pic of Amy Lee of Evanescence, where I had the frame literally touching the matte box on frame right. I also had the frame right on the edge of frame for the image of Chris Brown, but just played the ambiance more moody. (continued)

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Thanks to Joe Frady.

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