Daggers in my eyes: 3D spectacle and human evolution

Yesterday, I attended the SOC General Meeting at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where we had 2 guest speakers: a doctor at CHLA discussing stereopsis from a medical/human standpoint, and a rep from 3ality discussing 3D camera rigs. I found the doctor’s presentation much more fascinating, but I also appreciated what the 3ality rep had to say regarding “tools of cinema”.

Simply put: the doctor explains how our eyes work to detect 3 dimensions through stereopsis in the real world (both eyes converging on an object point in 3D space to detect depth), and the 3ality rep explained how we fool the eyes (2D focal plane, the screen, and fooling the mind into thinking it’s 3D).

When they were discussing the reasons why much of the 3D audiences develop headaches, which afflicts my fiancé, I found it fascinating that we’re still continuing to push 3D, namely the spectacle of 3D, as a reason to shoot 3D. I concede that perhaps someone has ideas for how to use 3D for storytelling, but I guess I’ve never seen it when that tool always boils down to a shark jumping out of the screen.

As a camera operator, I often ponder the subtle differences between the camera frame as the audience’s eye, or as the omniscient “eye of God”: uninhibited by gravity or spatial limitations. I know when I watch a movie, I’m encouraged to disregard the dark theater, the seats, the arm rests, the people around me, and to focus solely on the screen (which reminds me of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave).

Step away for a moment and re-read (or read for the first time) Walter Murch’s letter railing against 3D. A snippet: “their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another.”

The rep from 3ality seemed to think that a cause of headaches for audiences is this contradiction to our evolution: not only do humans rarely need to focus and converge so rapidly, we never need to do both so divergently. In nature, we’re not required to focus and converge on two different planes, let alone simultaneously, randomly, repeatedly and rapidly.

As an operator helping to author the director’s images on Plato’s cave wall, directing the audience’s eyes through my framing, I’m left to wonder if the spectacle of 3D actually diminishes the storytelling by distracting audience from their experience when a shark jumps out at them. A function of 3D filmmaking, in the interocular control, could make apparent size increase or decrease, which certainly translates to a tool of the form, but is it a tool we don’t already have through lighting, art direction and lens choice?

Furthermore, if the screen is our eyes interacting in that world, then how often does a shark jump behind our eyes? I would say never does the dagger get in our eyes, or behind them (looming over the audience in dark space), and the novelty is like a prank, upsetting the audience and returning them to the real world only for a moment. What a waste of the empathy built up to that point! What a betrayal of the performances and summation of effort made by all those individuals, to let all the tension and believability of that world ease for a moment because someone thought a buzzer under the audience’s proverbial seats would be fun. For “Piranha 3D”, that’s probably right on target. For a hefty drama or Oscar contender, is it right?

Personally, I would think that 3D offers an aesthetic opportunity that keeps the audience invested in the story, but also marveling at the majest of fooled depth: convergence at the screen plane, depth in positive space (behind the convergence/focal point). What if that theater screen truly were a window into another world? What if the images made you wonder if you weren’t looking at photographs suspended in “persistence of image“?

I went to a presentation by Sony in Culver City for their F65, and we saw some amazing footage shot on the F65 but also projected on their 4K projector. Some of the shots genuinely looked as clear, gorgeous and bright as looking through a window. How interesting would it be if our theater experience were the same? How would we experience stories we remember and love? How much more entrenched would we be in the emotions and zeitgeist of those characters, devoted to their causes, hopeful of their success, crestfallen by their loss?

How much more like the human experience could 3D bring us in cinema, in storytelling, in growing as people? Until then, I imagine audiences will stay disenfranchised by hefty premiums paid for inferior quality. A dagger in their mind.

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Are we dreaming? Imagination and cinema

When I first decided to get into filmmaking, I was first drawn to the notion of helping people dream. As filmmakers, we help bring our director’s vision to screen, aiding them in shared dreaming with the audience, but not in an “Inception” way. We don’t mean to fabricate or mislead the audience; rather, I again go to the quote from “The Prestige”:

“The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you… then you got to see something really special… you really don’t know?… it was… it was the look on their faces…”

I’ll admit right now: my dreams rarely make any sense. I dream of hotels, landscapes and farscapes, things that defy logic, physics or even realism, but when you’re dreaming, it’s real. We experience film much the same way, like that magic trick: we were fooled, and we wake up knowing we’re back in the boring, solid world with gravity, lack of control and death.

I have to wonder, then, with all that we’re capable of when it comes to filmmaking, why we have nothing truly “other-worldly”. A few recent films come to mind, some with very enjoyable stories and others with little or no stories. Some make the point for complete immersion in that world, others just take a journey through the world without ever giving a reason to stay.

Films like “300”, “MirrorMask”, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”, “Blade Runner”, “Star Wars”, “Minority Report”, “SuckerPunch”, “Lord of the Rings”, etc. I don’t really want to comment on which of these films I consider either a great experience or both, but I really appreciate the fact that they went so far into that world.

I guess I have to wonder why we don’t have more films like that? Perhaps budget? The original “Star Wars” trilogy did so much with a modest budget, and they legitimized science fiction fantasy for generations to come. “MirrorMask” was filmed in approximately 30 days of production, rendered in a basement and was incredibly clever, witty and inspiring.

I had a lot of hope for a “Bioshock” movie, considering it’s steeped in potential for art direction, story and style. However, I think the “video game” genre has never gotten a fair shake, as any budget for a video game adaptation is slashed in half upon uttering “Super Mario Bros: the Movie”. Or “Doom”. However, I anticipate with the adaptation of “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”, we’ll see the genesis of a new genre for cinema the same way “X-Men” broke ground and gave way for comic book movies, which are arguably the highest grossing features in theaters today.

I like the collaborative spirit of filmmaking, and the end result. Unlike dreaming, or even playing make-believe, the results are on the screen to be shared with everyone. Experience is not just story, as even oral tradition engages the imagination with embellishment, emphasis and energy. Our medium can literally take the mind away to another earth, another world, another universe even…

…so why aren’t we?

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Uncanny valley and medium: is digital “too real”?

I don’t think I can manage to write this post without somehow stepping into the argument of film vs. digital acquisition for motion picture filmmaking. Personally, I would operate a Pixelvision camera if it serves the story. The story is the cine qua non of filmmaking, otherwise we’re just shooting perfume commercials from the mid-90’s.

I had a thought recently that related to digital vs. film that correlates to my previous post about the “uncanny valley”. If you haven’t read that post, please give it a read?

Film seems more capable of preserving highlights, but digital can “see in the dark”. I wonder, depending how it’s shot, developed and projected, if digital has a hurdle to overcome with believability since film is already “flawed”, or “aesthetically imperfect” for its grain and limitation?

I was watching “The Dark Knight Rises” on Friday night, although not in IMAX which was how 60% of the film was shot. The razor-thin depth of field was just gorgeous, eye-catching and narratively compelling. However, Wally Pfister ASC’s lighting style got me thinking of the likes of Gordon Willis and Jordan Cronenweth (which I intend as a huge kudos to Wally Pfister).

One scene in particular caught my eye, and whose imperfections kicked off this whole thought. During a minor conversation, Joseph Gordon-Levitt sits on a couch in his Gotham PD street cop uniform, the room dimly lit by a tall window camera right (talent’s left). As per the story, the house’s dreary and dim lighting reflects a somber, lethargic mood. In the lack of light sources, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Gotham PD outfit loses most definition. The creases in his outfit disappear, as do the buttons and folds in the cloth. A badge barely remains.

From what I understand, “The Dark Knight Rises” was primarily shot on Kodak Vision3 5207 (250D) and 5219 (500T), film that some argue has 13 stops of latitude. Also, as a purist (though some might characterize in a negative sense), they still finished “The Dark Knight Rises” photochemically (no digital intermediate). I’m not a photochemical expert, but I believe this limits their ability to play with that latitude in post. In that scene with JGL, they weren’t fighting highlights. Further, to match the mood, perhaps the decision was made to underexpose him one or more stops? The film apparently didn’t “see in the dark”, and we lost his costume.

Is that bad?

Reading around online, something like 30% of people need glasses, not to mention how many people develop age-related macular degeneration and other vision degradation over the course of their lives. Most people who still have their vision rely on it daily, and in relating to other people, we dig out that uncanny valley by which we’re accustomed to realism vs. photorealism. So what happens when our media, our entertainment/art, exceeds our normal capabilities?

In an article published on July 15, 2012, entitled “The Ghost in the Machine: Unraveling the Mystery of Consciousness“, they quote Alva Noë:

“It’s almost as if each of us is a submariner in a submarine and we’re traveling around. There are no windows on the submarine. We know nothing about the world around us other than the data we pick up, and we try to construct some model of what’s going on outside, but we’re trapped inside. For most neuroscientists who think about consciousness, the assumption is that we’re trapped inside our heads.”

I would suggest that, when sitting in a movie theater, we’re no longer “trapped” in our own heads (perhaps just sequestered), but suddenly trapped inside the heads of our filmmakers as they play make believe. Normally, we have our own eyes which we control and frame our worlds, thereby shaping our input. In the darkness of the theater, our filmmakers control our eyes, although we scan the screen for what we take in and leave behind (which opens up questions about framing complexity, substantive hinting towards a subject and the foundations for why and how we frame subjects e.g.- the “180”, proxemics, etc).

With the advent of digital cinema, 4K+ cameras and high definition imaging, what happens when scanning that screen with our own eyes, locked inside the minds of our filmmakers, and we start seeing the world with a visual clarity we subconsciously find “uncanny”? We normally do not see skin tone and complexion with the clarity of HD, and if we do, perhaps we don’t pay as close attention to it. 

Perhaps this is worth considering: every frame of film is chaotic, unique fingerprint of silver halide crystals that are burned to film. If you filmed the same static setting for 10 frames or 10,000 frames, no two frames would look the same because of the film grain. In many ways, each frame is as unique as a snowflake (although recent studies said that even snowflakes aren’t as unique as “snowflakes” were once thought to be), and it’s imperfect.

Our eyes do not remain perfectly still, mostly because of our Orienting Response, constantly seeking changes in our environment for the sake of self preservation. Our head never remains still (but they’re also no frantic crazy handheld). We’re alive, and our vision is alive.

I wonder if film has worked so well with the human audience because film, for all it’s imperfections, when projected, looks less perfect than how most of us see the world? Does a locked off digital camera replicate the imperfections in the world? Does a digital projection create the minor flaws, perceivable only by our subconscious, such as a registration pin locking into film passing through a gate, “nearly” placing the frame in the same symmetrical place?

Is digital eery, in the way we see more clearly than we ever do before? Can we still connect with the story when our distracted subconscious becomes unnerved by these changes? What does this hold for the future of 4K projection, 48fps filmmaking, or 3D? Has 3D never exceeded the level of spectacle because of how different it is from anything close to a human experience?

I’m not trying to take a position on the film vs. digital debate, but rather discuss the possible setbacks in the advancement of new technology. I feel very lucky and try to stay respectful of the notion that, for those people in the theater, I operate their eyes and help filmmakers tell their story. I feel very fortunate for that opportunity, and want to help us all understand the very human questions about how we play make believe. How good is too good? How perfect is too perfect? At what point do we lose our audience?

Know your audience. Demographics mean nothing when you disregard their humanity.

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Favorite shots: “Michael Clayton”

When people discuss Steadicam, they often go straight to the iconic shots that define our craft without going any further. They talk about Larry’s “Goodfellas” shot without acknowledging the incredible oners performed in “Raising Cain” or “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Now, I in no way mean to marginalize Larry’s “Copacabana” shot in “Goodfellas”, but I mean to expand on just that and perhaps discuss my take on the other iconic Steadicam shots. 

I like to tell people “We all know the ‘Goodfellas’ shot, let’s come up with the shot other people will refer to your movie when discussing oners.” I put the story above all things, and a great Steadicam oner is what tells the story in a way no other tool could have. Every instrument has the potential for a great solo, but often times it’s the symphony that gets noticed as much as the solo. 

To start this off, I’d like to highlight a shot that I think tells an amazing story: Scott Sakamoto’s incredible oner in “Michael Clayton“. If you haven’t seen the movie, please check it out, probably one of my top films of all time. Great suspense, great drama, great performances and direction. 

***SPOILER ALERT*** If you haven’t seen the movie, going beyond here will spoil a part of the movie ***SPOILER ALERT***

Anyone left? OK, good. 

Two hitmen are contracted to kill a primary character in the story, and the shot lasts just over 2 minutes. Imagine the efficacy of the scene when reading the script: two trained killers are hired to take down their target in 2 minutes or less, undetected and otherwise unnoticed. Their efficiency makes them professionals, and to cut the shot up could undermine their capability. So, in less than 3 minutes total, they can attack, immobilize, kill and disappear. How terrifying! What better way than to show this skill with a single, unbroken Steadicam shot? 

We start in a lockoff that pulls back with Tom opening the door to see him stunned and dragged back inside by our killers. We push in and follow them, booming down and tilting down to stay sympathetic to Tom, now paralyzed and under the control of his assailants. We lockoff for an additional medication, and he’s laid down. When brought back up, his head is down, and we instead tilt up to stay with the killer’s face, ready for his line. They lift, and the operator compensates with a boom up to let us see Tom’s paralyzed but terrified expression while they carry him across the room. 

The blocking works perfectly with the push left, as the operator enters the bathroom, leading the killers and never revealing where they’re taking him. He also has a chance to land and prepare his lockoff (boom down, slight tilt, and land) just as Tom comes to rest on the floor. If you watch the corners, you’ll see how after all this movement, the operator still lands a beautiful lockoff although his heart is likely pounding (roughly :48 seconds since the shot began). After 10 seconds of lockoff, the operator slowly pushes in, timing his landing to the needle entering Tom’s foot to deliver the lethal injection. No sway, no over-gripping the gimbal, no boom wobble or bounce. The operator then reverses his movement and slowly pulls back while tilted down and boomed low.

He seems to bring Tom’s hand back into frame at exactly the moment his hand convulses in an eery last grope for life before expiring. However, he’s far enough back to see the killer on camera right’s face as he casually scans the bathroom. These slow moves are where operators can blow the shot and distract the audience, but Scott Sakamoto keeps focused on the drama. Keep an eye on the corners while pulled back, even after all this time, Scott’s lockoffs are incredible. No wobble, no drift, no breathing, nothing. Really great stuff!!

As if that wasn’t enough, once Tom is deceased, the camera pushes in and tilt down to hold on his face for the remainder of the shot and scene. One last time, a killer’s hand checks his pulse, and then they disappear. Walking in while tilting in a slow move that lands in the tilted lockoff, the total final part taking 20 seconds, shows a great deal of skill at the end of an otherwise very well planned shot. Many kudos to Scott Sakamoto for this shot, and here’s hoping I the chance to have a shot like this on my reel or in theaters someday! 

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The “Uncanny Valley”, success of CGI, and the human storyteller

In the June 2012 issue of International Cinematographer’s Guild Magazine, Garrett Brown was interviewed about his work as a cameraman and his revolutionary invention, the Steadicam. In reading the review, I came across this snippet:

Will the human touch of an operator moving a camera through space lose favor with younger audiences weaned on a diet of CGI moves and effects?
GB: I surely hope not because that human presence is our connection to the narrative. The speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi was effective because the POV was somehow still anchored and terrestrial – I was actually walking through the woods. The CGI boys would have made the trees ten thousand feet tall, and the speeder bike would have been flying at absurd altitudes, like a dogfight. Look at the pod race in the fourth Star Wars film. To my eyes it’s less gripping, yet much bigger in scale.

For those unaware, he shot the plates for the speeder bike scenes “Return of the Jedi” as well as the speeder bikes on a stage. In those plates, Garrett actually walked through a real forest with camera on steadicam, brushing past branches and downed trees at normal speeds. The result was the intense, fast-paced chase scene in the legendary final installment of the Star Wars trilogy.

He also refers to a scene in “Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace” which features an epic “pod racer” scene. Here, you have two similar scenes: fast paced, super kinetic race/chase scene swapping from lead to follow of multiple subjects, including the story’s protagonist. Both required plates and practical work, but even by the person involved in shooting the former, the latter seems less compelling.

Years ago, I was anticipating a feature film called “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”, mostly because I couldn’t wait to see a “Final Fantasy” story transition to the screen (I’d recently finished Final Fantasy VII, and to date it’s one of the best game stories ever made). Moreso, I was really enthusiastic about the technology driving CGI graphics towards “photo-realism”.

The film “bombed”. With a production budget estimated at $137 million, the film has earned since release on July 11, 2001 $85 million globally. The story was reviewed mostly as acceptable, and the effects were “revolutionary”. So, why did the film tank? In a way, it was a 108 minute pod-racer scene, only without any of the practical filming. The entire film was pushed to the limits, “photo-realistic” computer generated human actors created in CG realms. Was computer generated imaging to blame?

However, since 2001, audiences have supported the success of countless Pixar, Dreamworks, Fox Animation Studios, Nickelodeon Animation films and more. Clearly, audiences are hungry for CGI films, so much so that on January 12, 2004, Walt Disney Studios closed their Florida animation studio. Many cited that Disney was banking entirely on the popularity of CG animated films, allegedly declaring 2D animation (the style that created the Walt Disney empire) “dead”.  The human hand was officially severed from animation.

Why is CG the way of the future of special effects and animated film? Why has it done so well for itself in the last 10 years despite the failure of “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”? And why did the pod-racing scene fail to thrill when the speeder-bike scenes in Jedi succeeded? Why isn’t “better” best?

In 1970, robotics professor Masahiro Mori released a paper entitled “Bukimi no Tani Genshō”, in which he coined the phrase “the uncanny valley”. In quick summary, the theory hypothesizes that human subjects have a familiarity and acceptance of things mimicking human likeness up unto a point where nearly-real has a rapidly degenerative effect on realism to the point of rejection, uneasiness and rejection. Moving humanoids have a greater rate of acceptance, but also have a deeper “valley” of rejection as they approach near-realism. The rapid change from acceptance to rejection before approaching acceptance again for real humans is the “uncanny valley”.

With the uncanny valley in mind, let’s consider the change in CGI film since “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”. 9 of the 10 highest grossing animated films of all time are CG animated films released after November 2, 2001 (“Monsters, Inc” was released 4 months after “Final Fantasy”).

None of them made any further attempt at photo-realistic humans. All of them, while epic in scope and compelling in animation technology, made no further attempt at depicting humans any more than “cartoonish”. Non-humans, animals, monsters were all impressionistic creations with exaggerated liberties but no attempt at realism, from simple humans in “Shrek 2” (highest grossing of all time) to “Up” (6th highest grossing) with a square-faced curmudgeon “human” star.

Also worthy of note: “Toy Story 3” and “Finding Nemo” (#3 and #4 grossing) have significantly reduced human screen time of any kind. The audience knows the whole movie is a cartoon.

I think animation studios got the idea early on: photorealism will always hit a barrier with connecting to human audiences when depicting humans. What about live-action filmmaking? The pod-racer scene had countless non-human characters on screen, none even attempting humanoid appearance. They even featured a real human protagonist in a practical pod-racer. So why do so many people skilled in cinema say it’s “less gripping”?

I would argue that filmmakers are discovering what the CG animators discovered back in 2001: tactile realism is a tool of the storyteller, and to fake realism to excess means a quick freefall into the “uncanny valley”. I would even suggest that this goes beyond human appearance and acceptance, but also event appearance and acceptance.

I was pleased to read this quote on the uncanny valley, the theory they’re still apparently testing last year the University of California San Diego:

“The brain doesn’t seem tuned to care about either biological appearance or biological motion per se… What it seems to be doing is looking for its expectations to be met – for appearance and motion to be congruent.”

Perhaps these discoveries support the idea that appearance and motion congruence goes beyond human interaction, but also events and landscapes? We don’t know what to expect of magical effects, so perhaps a quick wand blast in “Harry Potter” doesn’t offend us quite as badly as a 20 minute elongated fight scene between King Kong and multiple T-Rex dinosaurs? Maybe if the film’s world reflects no similarity to our world, the higher the peak before falling into the uncanny valley?

More filmmakers return to tactile realism every day. The most recent, and largest scale, I can think of is Ridley Scott and “Prometheus”, where actors reported minimal green screen work and real stage/set building:

“There was basically no [green screen], maybe looking out of a window occasionally,” Pearce added. “But no, it was all built stuff. I remember seeing a couple of sets and being completely awestruck over a couple of days and then somebody saying, ‘But oh, have you seen the big stage?’ And you go, ‘Oh? There’s more?'” -Guy Pearce

I enjoyed “Tron: Legacy”, even in 3D, but I had one gripe that seemed to contradict an otherwise well done film: Jeff Bridges on the bed with his son at the very beginning of the film, and at the door. The CG effects to recreate a young Jeff Bridges were done as well as technology would allow, and in “the grid” (inside the computer), the “uncanny valley” wasn’t so eery: we were inside a computer landscape, so an “eery” effect was tolerated because of the context. However, I always felt introducing that special effect so early on in the film felt disturbing because they made such an effort to delineate “the grid” from the real world (the real world was 2D filmmaking, but “the grid” introduced the 3D effect).

I think moreso, filmmakers are reintroducing the human hand into filmmaking. A human can help other humans anticipate the expectations of an audience far better than a tyrannical computer model, no matter how “photorealistic”. Quite literally, if we don’t consider the audience’s expectations, we may never keep them from stumbling into that valley, and then we’ve lost them for that precious moment or minute of screen time.

“Rango”, an entirely CGI “photo-realistic” film that looked incredible still degraded the characters to the point where photo-realism wasn’t pushed beyond it’s limits. Further, the film (and others, including Oscar nominated Pixar film “Wall-E”) had ASC member Roger Deakins as a lighting consultant. Once again, the human eye was needed to help fool the audience.

What is the truth? The truth is the audience knows those X-wing fighters are on strings. The audience knows, for our purposes, those speeder bikes were in a soundstage somewhere, not zipping through a redwood forest. To quote “The Prestige”: “The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder…”. I would suggest that you cannot give them that wonder if you’re straining their notions of acceptable. Grander isn’t necessarily better. As Garrett put it, larger scale doesn’t necessarily make it more gripping.

A director should always have a hand on the story, and I’ll always try to have a hand on the camera.

I recommend you read the wikipedia article and supporting articles regarding the “uncanny valley”, as I think it’s quite fascinating and relevant to our future as storytellers. 

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Myths of handheld and Steadicam time-saving vs. dolly, sticks and planning…

Myths of handheld and Steadicam time-saving vs. dolly, sticks and planning…

We should never make aesthetic choices based on economic choices. However, with the economy and industry we work in, we sometimes have to make aesthetic choices based on economic choices. Budget won’t allow for a technocrane, so perhaps a simple jib will suffice? However, when we operators hear arguments supporting aesthetic choices that are clearly uninformed budget choices, I feel we need to make ourselves heard.

Myth: “Dolly takes too long, let’s just do it on Steadicam.”
Fact: Dolly always hits their mark. Dolly doesn’t get tired. Dolly takes as much time to lay track and block out if everyone is aware as soon as possible.

For many years, I worked G&E while operating and doing Steadicam on the side. My passion was for filmmaking, so working in any capacity gave me a paycheck and an education. I feel, as an operator, the ability to speak in the language of grip and lighting is as indispensable as the language of blocking and shots. As another operator, Eric Fletcher, has frequently said: “We are the DP’s conscience.” We’re another key position that should support aesthetic decisions that best benefit the project and the DP’s collaboration with the director.

Myth: “We have a tight schedule, so we’re doing it all handheld.”
Fact: Does your story want to be all handheld? Is that how you envisioned it? We can help manage a tight schedule, but give you the aesthetic you want. Let’s talk!

I personally have laid dolly track. I’ve laid track over 40+ feet on uneven rock and dirt/sand terrain. I’ve laid track over uncut grass, washouts in the desert, even over asphalt to sidewalk curb. Even the most challenging dolly tracks I’ve laid, were it 6 sticks of 8’ straight track or straight and curved track, all took less than 10 minutes. I remember someone saying a film set is “the world’s most expensive taxi cab: once you’re in, that arm drops, and time costs money.”

Myth: “We’re losing the light, come on let’s just pop it off and do handheld.”
Fact: You may spend those last few minutes of light trying to figure out how to do it handheld when you probably could have done it the way you wanted if you’d consulted the proper people and executed it as they suggested.

They also say “$2,000 spent in pre-production and planning will save you $200,000 in oversights and problems ‘on the day’.” Whenever I heard someone say “We don’t have time for dolly track,” I can’t help but wonder, “Why not?” Does the production not have time, or do you personally not have time? Did you not allot time for dolly? Was this dolly shot a surprise?

In a perfect world, we would make the aesthetic choice the story demanded every single time, without influence of time or budgetary constraints. While we do not live in that world, we do live and work with skilled technicians who know how much time things take, and 5 minutes spent planning will save you 20 minutes spent hurrying.

The 6 P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

Last minute decisions happen. Change happens constantly. However, anticipation of those changes and keeping your DP and operator in the loop will make the difference between operating like you have that perfect world where aesthetic choices rule and hurrying. While lighting is finishing up, we would be happy to figure out start and end points for the next dolly shot. While we’re cleaning up this scene, the grips are already prepping for the next dolly setup. 5 minutes preparation means we walk into a set track when “moving on” instead of 20 minutes waiting while the right equipment makes it to the set.

Do “we” not have time? Or did “you” not make time?

The Steadicam has proven itself a great tool, but so too is the dolly. Handheld has a powerful aesthetic, which made it the primary tool of film movements like cinéma vérité and French New Wave. Does it save time? Perhaps only when rationalizing it before you attempt it.

“Block, Light, Shoot”

The blocking discussion does not become simpler if the camera is on my shoulder, on my Steadicam, on a dolly or even on sticks. They’re all complicated, and to regard one as “quicker” or “easier” is to disrespect the shot’s purpose, the performances, the lighting and any other nuances that tell the story. We will always need to know where the camera should be and what it should see throughout the shot.

Handheld may save you the 2 minutes it takes to bring in the sticks and set the height, but shallow focus and imperfect distances from the focal plane to the subject could compromise fidelity of the focus. Same can be said for Steadicam versus dolly: I do my absolute best to hit my marks, hoping the actors do as well. However, the dolly ALWAYS hits their marks.

The point I’m trying to make (albeit fairly sloppy) is that your camera operators and Steadicam operators are skilled technicians, not just with their equipment, but with the language of film, the intricacies of blocking and the methods to best achieve your vision. The more of your vision you share, and the more of the constraints you share, the more we can collaborate with bringing your vision to the screen.

Give us those 5 minutes, and we’ll help bring your audience the exact aesthetic you wanted, not the one others convinced you that was all you could afford. “So while we’re waiting for these last minute tweaks, what’s the next shot? Cool, I’d love to go take a look at it while we’re waiting.”

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Hiring a Steadicam Operator

Note: this is the first 2 pages of an evolving document I plan on editing, changing, and adding to as time goes on. This reflects my current thoughts on the topic, and something I intend on sharing with my producer friends to assist them in hiring a great candidate for their next project (when I’m not available, obviously!)

Hiring a Steadicam Operator

A checklist for hiring your next Steadicam Operator

Your next Steadicam operator may just be your highest-paid skilled technician and camera operator on set. Here’s a primer for understanding how to find a new candidate worthy of your expenditure.

Questions for your candidate:

  • When you call, are they friendly, professional, and courteous?
    • An old adage says “If you’re at a restaurant, and you want to know if someone’s a nice person, don’t watch how they treat you. How do they treat the waiter?” So pay attention to their phone etiquette; how they negotiate on the phone is probably a good example of how they work and interact. Basic, I know, but worth mentioning.
  • Do they own their stabilizer equipment?
    • Investing in equipment isn’t just a statement about finances; in the LA market, and with many lower-cost stabilizers on the market, lots of people can “afford” a camera stabilizer. Owning equipment is moreso about:
      • Familiarity with their equipment, i.e.- how would you react if your dental hygienist asked a coworker “how do you turn this thing on again?” Add a wide variety of cameras and accessories, and problems need to be solved. Owning your equipment guarantees they know their tool and how it’s used.
      • Use of equipment as a form of income, i.e.- owning the equipment means he’s using it frequently for his business.
  • What camera stabilizer system do they own?
    • It’s OK to ask, you should ask; we get excited when we can sell you on our equipment. Most stabilizer operators can send you a PDF or even a website with details on their equipment. Every skilled stabilizer operator has a preference for their equipment. Familiarity with quality equipment is what’s important, and you’re concerned with the stabilizer “arm” and stabilizer “sled”, particularly the “gimbal”. Look for these buzzwords as quality equipment:
      • Manufacturers: GPI-Pro (or just Pro), XCS, Tiffen, Cinema Products (or “CP)
      • Sled: GPI-Pro Sled, XCS Ultimate 1 or Ultimate 2, Tiffen Ultra or Ultra 2, Master Series, CP EFP or EFP modified,
      • Arm: GPI-Pro Arm, Tiffen G-50/G-70, Tiffen Ultra arm, Tiffen Master Series arm, CP 3A arm (or a modified, rebuilt or upgraded/Luna upgraded arm)
      • Gimbal: GPI-Pro gimbal, XCS gimbal, Tiffen “stock” gimbal, CP 3A gimbal.
    • Other manufacturers exist, and ones not mentioned here may work great for that particular operator. However, in the film industry overall, these are seen as the “top of the line”.
  • What cameras have they used before?
    • Generally, this is a bragging point for most camera stabilizer operators and camera operators in general, but it’s also a good chance to see where they spend most of their time. Are they mostly familiar with HD? Have they primarily used film cameras? How does this compare with the camera you’re considering? No experience with a camera doesn’t mean they’re a bad candidate, but their enthusiasm about using your camera tells you a lot.
  • Do they want to know about the shots?
    • “Yes.” Always yes! We don’t hire a mechanic to work on our car unless we know they have the tools to get the job done, but also they understand what needs to be done. They should ask about what shots are planned, but you can also bring it up (or maybe see if they do?). Explaining the shots in detail, whether it’s you, your DP or your director, is critical to completing your day. Some operators don’t always bring a vehicle hard mount, and you have some shots on an ATV planned? That small disclosure could make the shoot run much more smoothly. Likewise, your director may want “Steadicam” for the first time, but doesn’t understand the operator cannot “leap over the fence and chase our actor across the field.” That’s a discussion that may influence the hiring altogether, and we want you to have the right tools.
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“It was the look on their faces”

Let’s get this blog rolling…

My name is William Demeritt, and I’m a Steadicam and camera operator based in Los Angeles, CA. I used to “blog” more frequently on other sites, and contribute to a number of forums about filmmaking. I decided to make my own so I could create a diversity of posts in a single place rather than posting a diversity of ideas in several places.

The things I plan on sharing here are not only my thoughts on my craft, my colleagues and my industry, but also articles I find fascinating and relevant to those topics and life on a whole. I love technology, primarily anything that changes how we live. Yes, I’m a computer geek, technologist, soon-to-be husband, and more.

I will wax philosophically about movies, my industry, and my craft of camera operating in general. I’ve worked in the film industry for quite a while now, but I’ve also watched movies all my life… and thought about movies ALL MY LIFE. People compliment me on my instincts and intuition, but that’s because for my while life, I have framed my world with my eyes as a camera operator lines up his shot. I don’t consider my photographic eye separate from my own eyes; they are one in the same, in that I get a chill looking at something incredible the same as I do when I photograph it properly.

Rumor has it when shooting the arrival of the “sackers” to Sam Shepard’s farm in “Days of Heaven”, Nestor Almendros pulled back from the eyepiece with tears in his eyes, answering his AC’s concern with: “It’s just one of those shots.” I’m not that emotional a man, but I know how that feels. I go to work every single day hoping to get that feeling.

Most film professionals who decided to quit their 9-5 and change career paths have a remarkable story about making movies with their parents camcorder or super 8 camera. I just have a lifetime of film watching, discussing, framing and feeling.

I’m here to help you play make believe, tell a scary story, and take your viewer inside your head.

“The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you… then you got to see something really special… you really don’t know?… it was… it was the look on their faces…” -Robert Angier, “The Prestige”

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