Home Camera Tips on Creating a Look Part 1: Rules of Engagement For Telling Your Story

Tips on Creating a Look Part 1: Rules of Engagement For Telling Your Story

written by Shane Hurlbut, ASC

I was invited to speak at the Tiffen Booth at NAB Show 2017 about filmmaking. I wanted to share some important concepts I’ve learned and honed about the use of camera and telling your story. Here’s what I shared with the audience and now with all of you. Enjoy!

This is a concept that comes from my Act of Valor days. They had all these military terms that I couldn’t keep straight. One day I said:

You’re going to jump out of the C-130 and you’re going to land on that spot, right?

They said, Shane, that’s the LZ.

Ok, copy.  So you’re going to jump out of that plane and the LZ is over there.

It took a while for me to get all these terms down on that film. So I took that idea and started to create these rules of engagement. The rules of engagement are what the camera does and does not do throughout the movie depending on who our character is.

“It’s about being obsessed with the subtleties”

Each character had a specific camera emotion. In Fathers and Daughters, Russell Crowe’s character, Jake, is classic. The camera should be the same. He should be composed in the center of the frame throughout the movie until he starts to get tremors and seizures. This is the camera emotion we applied to that character. Every time he appears in frame, he is centered. When he starts to have these seizures, we start to slide him to the edges. When he starts to regain control of his sickness and his tremors, the composition moves back to framing him in the center.

Jake should be composed in the center of the frame up until he has his tremors and seizures

Jake still in the center of frame

Jake composed off-center once he gets sick

Another shot of Jake off-center

As he gains control of his sickness, the composition moves back to framing him centered

All of these rules of engagement mean being obsessed with the subtleties. In a 2 hour (plus) feature film, you’re not going to see it. Rather, you’re going to feel it. That’s what the emotion is all about. You want to feel it in some way and not be taken out of the film because of camera work.

Me and director Scotty Waugh on set for “Act of Valor”

The director and the director of photography both come together and discuss how to be able to pull this all off. Then you start to create these rules. Now, on set, you become the police officer. There’s a lot of times when the director comes in and he sees a performance and he’s like:

Shane, we’re moving the camera here.

I go:

Whoa whoa whoa! The rules say the camera does not move.

He says:

Yeah, but it just feels right here.

“The job of a cinematographer is really story assist”

At that point, you become the judge and the jury. If the rules need to be broken, you need to convince the jury, AKA yourself. So you have to sit down with yourself, so to speak, and talk it out. I’d maybe say, Ok the character took a turn that I didn’t think would happen, he’s going in this direction and I think we need to adapt. Absolutely. We’re breaking that rule.

Rules are meant to be broken. You just have to be that policeman when you set them up. Pre- production planning is so important because you do not have the stress, the time constraints, or limited resources of a production day. This is the time to dream.

With Russell Crowe, we were going to be using a Fisher 10 Dolly and we were going to be using a Steadicam. That was the way we were  going to depict his classic style.

Fisher model 10 dolly

Steadicam system

For Jake, we were going to use a dolly and a Steadicam

The rules of engagement for when Jake became sick were very important because his camera emotion was going to change. We were going to use extreme close-up photography with shallow depth of field. We were going to be handheld so that it moves slightly erratic. We went from a very classic shot with Jake in the center of the frame to something with more energy. This camera emotion will help Russell Crowe’s character development. We are there to help assist with his acting. The job of a Director of Photography is not to be the “look at me, look at me” guy, but rather become an asset in story assist.

ECU with shallow DOF to make it seem more erratic

We were also going to be drifting in and out of focus as he has these massive tremors. During his tremors, we were going to be finding focus on an eye, a bead of sweat, his hands trembling, the back of his ear. All of this was a part of this shallow depth of field that we were going for.

Drifting in and out of finding focus

In order to get the shallow depth of field that I wanted inside, I could easily light to a 1.3 or a 2. When you’re going for day exteriors, it gets a bit trickier. With digital sensors right now, there is a huge problem. When I want shallow depth of field, I have to be able to put around 8 or 9 stops of neutral density in front of the lens in order to get the exposure down to where I need it to be. If you’re shooting at 800 ISO outside on a high noon blazing-sun-kind-of-a-day, then you’re at a f/64. Somewhere in the middle there. Then, you have to take that down to a 1.3 or a 2. That’s going to be 8 or 9 stops of neutral density. So what’s going to happen to your sensor?

Depth of field means you need ND for day exteriors

Well, there’s some cameras with internal NDs that already have IR cut. These NDs are able to handle the IR pollution extremely well. Now, there’s a lot of other cameras out there. Take the RED Weapon, for example. It has an OLPF with an IR cut of up to about a .9 or a 1.2. Anything above that is going to go haywire. With Blackmagic, anything above a .6 and it gets real.

I’ve done some Tiffen ND filtration testing myself. I took the Tiffen straight NDs (the classic ND filters that I used back in film) and put them up against the Tiffen IR NDs (filters that came out during the beginning of the digital revolution) and Tiffen Natural NDs (a newer series of NDs that take out IR pollution).

Our first set of stills are clean. There was no filtration on these. What you’re going to see with the IR is that it start to get greener. What you’re going to see in the straight is that it gets browner and more purple. On the natural, it’ll stay absolutely consistent.

Ungraded wide shot with no filters in

Our ungraded wide shot with .3 ND filtration comparison

Our ungraded wide shot with .6 ND filtration comparison

Our ungraded wide shot with .9 ND filtration comparison

Our ungraded wide shot with 1.2 ND filtration comparison

Our ungraded wide shot with 1.5 ND filtration comparison. The Natural stays consistent

Our ungraded wide shot with 1.8 ND filtration comparison

Our ungraded wide shot with 2.1 ND filtration comparison

At a 1.8, the wheels are coming off. The straight ND here will definitely be a look for a movie that I do where they want a weird flashback sequence. The IR is doing a pretty good job, but it’s greener and then the Natural is looking completely realistic.

Alright, let’s grade these images.

Here’s the straight .3.

Our .3 graded wide shot Tiffen ND

Now we’ve got the .6. No change on the Natural.

Our .6 graded wide shot Tiffen ND

Here’s the .9. This is where most cameras are going to have that IR cut. Up to 3 stops. See how the greens have started to mute in the TIffen straights? Going from the .3 to the .6 to the .9, it’s evident. All the red/brown is being pushed into those greens.

Our .9 graded wide shot Tiffen ND

Our graded wide shot with 1.2 ND filtration comparison

Look at the 1.5. The greens have completely gone brown on the Tiffen straight. There is absolutely nothing you can do to bring that back. This is color graded to try and get rid of it. You can see that we were able to get rid of that brown but there’s a point where that process does not work anymore.

1.5 graded wide shot Tiffen ND

Here’s a 1.8. Monnette has a blue shirt on. Now it looks purple on the Tiffen straight. Look at the Natural; it’s absolutely spot on. The IR at 1.8 is starting to turn her shirt more cyan. What I also find with the IR filter here is that the skin starts to change. The IR cut on that is not as good and starts to change the skin.

1.8 graded wide shot Tiffen ND

Now let’s go into the close-up. You want a filter that has great vitality in the skin. That’s where the emotion comes from – the face. You want that to be as clean as possible. What I find is that a lot of other filters out there actually polarize the face. That’s not a great thing to do. There’s beautiful sheen happening on the African American skin here as well giving the Caucasian skin some wonderful life and character. When you polarize, you make everything the same so you lose reality. You lose depth and dimension in your image.

At a 1.5 ND is where this starts to get real. Look at all the IR pollution just browning out the Tiffen straight. In the IR, I’m starting to change my tones. For the Natural, there’s hardly any difference at all up to a 2.1.

Ungraded filtration on the left, graded cowboy shot in the middle, and graded close-up on the right

Get “Blackmagic URSA Mini Camera Test Series: Part 1 – 9″

This is something you have to understand, especially when purchasing less expensive prosumer cameras. They are not going to have the technology of these IR cut filters and you’re going to need to invest in this type of glass in order to pull that off. Tiffen and I have been working together for almost a year designing these Naturals because I am a huge stickler with IR pollution and how it affects the image. I think they’ve absolutely nailed it with their Tiffen Natural NDs and I wanted to pass that all onto you guys.

Stay tuned for more from the Tiffen booth and Tiffen filters!

Read Part 2: Filtration Used on “Fathers and Daughters” >>

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1 comment

John Dean July 27, 2017 at 12:15 AM

Authenticity for film makers is quite important..Because its all about crafting a stories brick by brick.Thanks for article


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