the color film noir drama, "Bitter Heritage", as DP 1978
The late Rory Calhoun up. Rory was the most camera and lighting-savvy
actor I have ever had the pleasure to work with. He never missed a mark,
and could always tell where his key was by just feeling the heat of the lamp
I departed from the traditional "film noir" look in most of the scenes for this movie (hard edge shadows, high contrast lighting, etc.) and went with what I called a "soft noir" visual look (by keeping the shadow edges feathered and the contrast levels lower than the traditional noir style).
It still had a definite "noir" look but with a greater emphasis on the actors and set detail, and of course, it was shot in color.
This "soft noir" visual style also allowed me to shoot a lot of the scenes in masters only, shooting deep into the sets using camera moves and compositional actor placement instead of cuts.
In lieu of the traditional closeup (which of course there were also), I had the actors move in relation to the camera for character/scene emphasis (or de-emphasis), and in and out of strategically placed hard or diffused keys to give their dialogue scenes the proper impact and balance.
In a few scenes, I had three keys (corresponding roughly to whatever light sources I had already established), one as a rim, one overhead, and one at a 45° angle.
These were all augmented by small flagged or doored fills on the camera side to add detail lighting to the set and the actors faces on the down side.
The director could then block out the entire scene as a master, and if he wished, direct an actor's movement so that by moving a step or two (from one key light mark to another), the actor's visual characterization to the audience would change from benevolent to malevolent or vice versa.
Sometimes, different actors in the same scene would just "trade" marks, and by subtly tracking the camera I was able to give the audience an entirely new perspective of both actor and set without the audience (hopefully) ever realizing what we had just done.
The entire effect was that the scenes were never static, always giving the viewer something interesting to look at, but never distracting the audience from either the actors or their dialogue.
Another benefit of shooting those scenes that the story line allowed to be shot all in a master was the economics of both lighting and camera set ups.
While lighting a master the way I did on this show did take more time than a traditional master would have, the overall savings in time by not having to shoot (and light) multiple close ups, reverses, and inserts, was considerable.
I was fortunate on this show that both the director (Gary Troy) and producer (Robert Mayo) gave me a lot of leeway in setting up the shots and how the entire production was filmed.
I was even able to film a scene in "Heritage" as a small homage (without anybody else realizing it at the time) to Marty Scorsese (and DP Kent Wakeford's) 1973 "Mean Streets" (the scene in the hotel hallway that Scorsese's mother, Catherine, has a bit in).
Mike Cartel (the credited screenwriter of "Bitter Heritage", who was also an actor in the show) reprises Bobby De Niro's character perfectly, right down to the leather jacket and hair style.
The two hallways were so photographically similar, they might as well been one (which is what gave me the idea for the homage in the first place).
There was no "Italian lady" character scripted into our hallway scene, but if there had been one, I would've used my Italian mom for the bit.
Addendum: In a recent TV interview with my entertainment reporter wife (Staci Layne Wilson) for TV-Wire, the late Academy Award® winning cinematographer Connie Hall talks about the "soft noir" visual look he used in shooting Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition".
Click on the photo of Connie to view the interview footage (RealPlayer Video - 4.0 MB / 3.3 minutes running time).
guerilla movie making using up short ends on one of my early
Arriflex cameras for the French B&W noir thriller, "Déjà vu" (mid '70's)
(now you know why 35 Arri's shipped with those "useless" short mags :)
This was my first black & white feature film ("Il Giorno" was my last), and I shot it more or less in a traditional "film noir" style (as per the director's "vision"), but with a few personal touches.
This film was shot with blimped Arri IIC and Arri IIB cameras (crystal sync).
The personal style that I added to the traditional was to shoot wide open all the time (shooting wide open made the lenses less contrasty and softened the hard edges a bit, as well as giving me a better working stop because of the filtration).
I also used a bit wider lens than what one would normally choose (to keep the DOF to a reasonable level).
Since the lenses I was using were a bit soft wide open, I increased their apparent sharpness by using slightly harder light sources.
To soften the skin tones and contrast on the actors faces, I used a multitude of color filters and CC gels (I used no diffusion or fogs ever on "Déjà vu").
I decided early on to go with filters in the reddish range on the interiors (from very pale on the masters, to fairly deep on the punch-ups), and those in the deep orange and yellow/orange range for the day exteriors (night exteriors were shot bare lens, except for some of the punch-ups).
Before principal photography began, I did filter tests on the actors with the key make up artist.
We decided to go a little heavier on the eye make up, and use a darker shade of lip color on the female actors (and just a touch of color on the male actors).
The resulting look was that the actors looked entirely "natural" to the camera, but with slightly smoother complexions.
By manipulating the color sensitivity of the B&W film stock's curve using color filters, I was able to increase the contrast, and also lighten the face tones by about a full stop.
While the contrast between objects in a scene was increased, the contrast on the actors faces was decreased, making all the actors look a bit younger with a wonderful luminescence to their skin tones (the actors and director loved the resulting look).
The overall look of the film greatly enhanced the plot/story line and the actors' characters as well as disguising the film's modest budget.
B&W film can be manipulated in the camera by color filtration in a way that color film cannot (however, color film can also be manipulated in the camera to some small degree by use of CC gels) which gives the cinematographer working in B&W a wonderful extra tool to work with.
Because I was a successful fine artist (oil painter/sculptor) before embarking on a photographic career, I well understand the way colors are perceived by the human eye, and the manipulation of colors (by underpainting and color washes) to make them appear entirely different than what they look like "out of the pot".
The use of CC gels (acting on a very narrow spectrum of the films sensitivity curve), is very much like the use of under/over painting in the fine arts.
B&W has been defined as having an absence of color, but that's not entirely accurate. The "colors" are still there in B&W film, they're just not readily apparent to the casual observer, and because they exist, they can be manipulated.
Today, working in B&W has become a lost art, but in the heyday of B&W cinematography, you can bet that the DPs working in those days, knew all about the use of color filters and CC gels, but since many regarded it a trade secret, little was disclosed about the way they achieved the beautiful look of the films they shot.
In the making of this film, I used color filters for the major gamma shifts, adding CC gels as needed to fine tune the image. The end result was a classic noir look that had a definite ethereal element.
I also used a couple of "negative focus" shots (something like the use of negative space in a shot) for the first time on this show, along with a color bleed shot, both techniques which I later used to great effect in shooting "Il Giorno".
Most cinematographers that asked me how the film was shot, wanted to know what kind of esoteric raw stock or manipulated negative developing I had used to achieve the look I had (never realizing the look was mostly through the use of filtration).
A lot of the credit for the look of this film belongs to the French film crew I worked with, who understood that the language we had in common was film, and not the horrible French I speak. French crews are really great.
On a very cold night location shoot with Lennie Evans
Shooting the horror film "Night Ride" in Super 16 (1976)
Me (as DP) and Lennie Evans (operating) "Night Ride"
2nd unit (in the US) for the great Italian auteur, Pier Paolo Pasolini
(later murdered) — for an anti-war doc that he was never to finish (late 60's)
(our common passion was that films could change the world for the better)
fast action inserts for a commecial with one of my R16's
(crossing over from strictly still photography to cinematography)
To be continued...
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