The following is an interview with Gavin Culbertson conducted by a film production student at Columbia College Chicago. He had seen Gavin’s cinematography reel online and wanted to get his input on the technical craft of filmmaking for a college paper. Gavin is the producer/director and cinematographer for Empowerment Arts’ current production, A Paper Tiger Burns. Any Empowerment Arts fans who are student filmmakers themselves should find this of interest:
1. What age did you become interested and started working with cameras, photography, and cinematography?
I think I began making my own films in middle school. My family was always really into film, we watched a large variety of movies, and when Hi-8 came out my brother and I started to make lots of home videos. I became interested in filmmaking as a profession early on, making a feature length documentary for my 8th grade final project, and my first narrative feature film for a final project as a senior in high school.
2. What got you interested in cameras and photography?
My interest in film and the power of storytelling led to my interest in the technical side of the craft. I quickly gained an aptitude for the camera language once I started using it to create the visions I had.
3. In a growing digital landscape, do you find yourself leaning towards using digital, or sticking with film? Why?
I’ve always been a proponent of digital. But I’ve shot on film for film classes, ha. I actually convinced my reluctant film/cinematography teacher to embrace digital cameras by the end of my four years in college after many stubborn arguments. He went from saying digital would never look as good as film to 4 years later saying everything was going digital, teaching an HD class, and then going TOO far and making all his films in Maya!
I look at it from a utilitarian standpoint: filmmaking happens in spite of the process, not because of it. Easier, cheaper, faster, etc, are all good things, especially for an independent filmmaker. (I think Robert Rodriguez said something like that). From a technological standpoint, advancements are happening rapidly in the digital framework, whereas film technology has limitations in that image quality can only be made better by using a larger film negative…
While everyone was arguing about film vs. digital on technical grounds, I bought a camera and filmed a documentary during my study abroad semester in China.
I spent a lot of time in college debating this when it was a contested issue, and it’s kind of a tired argument/discussion now. However, I find the renewed interest in Imax (70mm) film exciting because I’ve been working part time as a projectionist at a Imax Dome theater for a few years now, and I handle the giant film regularly, and the films look great…
4. What kind of camera do you use (for photography, filming, etc.)
Canon 1D mounted with a magic arm clasp and gaff tape to a motorcycle in La Union, Colombia.
I currently am shooting with a Canon 1D Mark IV DSLR for both video and photography. It was a perfect camera for my recent filming for weeks in Colombia, South America. It’s a tough camera designed for journalists on the go, so it was well suited to hiking up mountains and backpacking everywhere in city and countryside. Durable and reliable.
Location scouting in the Smoky Mountains region
5. What is your process for assessing a scene and determining how to go about shooting it?
Location is key. First I visit and find the location, and run through the blocking of the scene (however, sometimes, I may have written a scene around a location to begin with). I figure out what time of day will be best for light, or for indoor, figure out where lights could go, and the mood to create. By the time I return for shooting with actors and crew, I have a pretty good idea of what I will be shooting and how, but I like to leave some flexibility and expect the wonders of randomness (say an actor improvises use of something in a location, or an eagle lands on a roof nearby, or the light changes and highlights a certain space). Storyboarding is evil and will kill creativity; ask Werner Herzog. (Though you might need to storyboard if you’re doing something with heavy special effects to coordinate with a large visual team).
6. How important would you find lighting to be in regards to quality of the shot?
What we see is only the property of light, so… salient… What makes a great painting (in realist genres)? Usually in addition to the creativity of the image, it’s also the lighting chosen. See Vermeer. Love me some window light.
It’s also important in telling the story by setting the mood. Great technical lighting is not a ubiquitous answer, as not everything has to be 3-point lit with a 3/4 backlight or whatever; it’s important to light for the scene and the story. It also shouldn’t draw attention to itself in most cases. Don’t over-light; you don’t want your film to look stark blue and orange like Mortal Kombat.
7. How long does it usually take for you to set up the lighting and aesthetics for a shot?
It depends. For the shot I did fairly recently of a karate champion sitting at home with dozens of his trophies surrounding him, it took several hours in addition to getting equipment there and setting the scene, and the crew was up all night… for one shot. When you want to create a specific look from nothing it takes a lot of work, but it’s hopefully worth it. Other times, choosing the location gives you the light, and so most of the work is done prior to the day of production.
8. Do you prefer shooting on a set, where you can manipulate the light completely, or shooting outside, relying on natural light in harmony with artificial light?
Both can offer magical images… Outside you’re fighting clouds and time, more patience is required. Inside(or outside at night) you usually have more complications and setup. I like working with both, and can deal with the challenges of both… I’ve always avoided stories where the characters never get outside (boring), and I’m glad I have experience in multiple settings. You can manipulate in both settings: outside you can sometimes change the position of the action to make a front light a backlight, cheat blocking here and there, use reflectors… there’s still control. You have to be creative to get what you want inside and outside.
Using a reflector in the mountains of Bogota, Colombia
9. Where do you start in regards to building your own equipment? (Where do you get the materials, tools, etc.)
Using a home-made steady-cam device during a festival parade in La Union, Colombia.
I’ve always been a handyman; if I need something I can make it with the tools I have. Early on, the tools may have been just plastic and a hot glue gun, but whatever is affordable/available to me I’ve been able to get creative with it. Your local Lowes can be a filmmaker’s playground of equipment parts. With most things in flimmaking, it boils down to creativity. I made a steadycam in high school that I still use today, and in some cases is still more effective for me to use than a multiple-thousand dollar spring balanced steadicam. It cost $15, and consists of three pipes and a weight.
The internet is a great resource, obviously. When I began looking for ideas to make this steadycam many years ago, I asked for the help of my physics professor who made rockets for NASA. I figured he could help me brainstorm with his genius! He told me to check online; someone else has probably already done it!
10. What is the process to building lenses and optics? How long does it usually take, and what advantages come with building lenses as opposed to purchasing them?
You can buy a perfect optical lens by going to Adorama.com to buy some clean, new Canon lenses. Their optics render some of the most accurate and sharp images possible for commercial use, and photojournalists swear by them for their most amazing shots. However, filmmaking is a creative, expressive medium, so the crisp clean perfect image may not always be the best choice.
35mm film depth of field to small chip camera via ground glass and relay lens system.
The first lens system I made was in response to a complaint anti-digital people had saying that digital cameras just didn’t have the “film look”. What they really meant was that it wasn’t at 24 frames per second and that the depth of field wasn’t shallow (everything was too sharp and in focus with video)… A frame rate option was offered soon after in all types of video cameras to allow for the low temporal resolution look of film, but people still complained about the lack of that mysterious out of focus look.
It had nothing to do with film vs. digital sensors; it was the physics of the optics. Basically, a larger film frame changes the range of the depth of field by virtue of having less diffraction. At the time, most video cameras had small sensors at 1/3”. So, I made an optical lens system that allowed me to change the range of depth of field on a small chip camera using 35mm format film lenses and a relay lens setup with an intermediate film plane. Around the time I was making my own setup, the idea became fairly popular for a few years (Letus 35, Redrock Micro, etc.) until camera manufacturers started offering cameras with larger sensors. So I don’t need to use that system anymore, but I have thought of making a large format adaptor just because…
I did a lot of research and development to do that myself. I worked with my university physics professor and contacted several optics experts around the world. Testing and building parts took longer, and I collaborated with a lens mount manufacturer in Belarus to have the necessary adaptors made. It was a good time and I learned every facet of optics and lenses. Even when I’m not using a specific lens system, this knowledge is helpful and allows me to be creative.
Canon 1D with Russian Oct-19, 35mm film format Lomo lens.
My latest bout of lens creativity has been to search out specific types of lenses, and to use them to create a look. For example, I am fond of the Russian Oct-19 Lomo lenses and the Pentacon Six medium format lenses. I started using the medium format lenses for their unique characteristics, and also for the possibility of using a tilt mount (also a type of depth of field manipulator), by taking advantage of the larger image circle. You can see examples of this in the recent trailer for a film I’m currently working on.
As another example, you can watch the latest J.J. Abrams Star Trek film. He had the anti reflective lens coatings removed from his set of lenses to get a more “airy” and bright look from the resulting lens flares. He said something to the extent that he liked the idea that space was really bright, and that optical effect created that look. So again, Canon lenses are doused in AR coatings and made with corrective elements to avoid all aberrations… J.J. Abrams didn’t use them because they would not give him a unique look to serve the story.
11. What techniques do you use for camera movement?
I do a lot of movement either handheld or with a steadycam device. The most important aspect of technique is in efforts to move the body efficiently. You are the machine: the best and most advanced device to move things, including a camera. Watch almost any professional steadicam operator in action, and you will see they all walk a “little funny”. They walk in a way to minimize the impact of striking the ground and minimize swaying and bobbing. I find that walking by striking the forefoot first and rolling to the heel vs. heel->toe creates much smoother movement. You can take this further by being mindful in squatting motions and tracking and moving to follow action.
12. In talking about physical training for better movement, what exactly would you recommend for a camera operator to do in order to keep in shape for production?
Become a better mover. I’m not talking about body building or preparing for a marathon, just learn to move. Most of today’s population is deconditioned and suffers from all sorts of inefficient movement patterns. There are a lot of great resources out there as general fitness and personal training begins to shift away from the bodybuilding of the 50’s. The Ido Portal method is all about becoming apt in movement, and Shawn Mozen’s Canadian fitness company Agatsu’s catch phrase is “Masters of Movement”.
Basically, training involving joint mobility and connectivity between muscles is really important for someone who wants to move a camera. There are a number of ways to do this, and I wouldn’t want to force the idea that what I enjoy as my own means of training is what everyone should do, but I’ve found great benefit in kettlebell training, giant weighted weapon katas, yoga, capoeira, and bodyweight exercises/ calisthenics.
I participated in an annual capoeira training event to learn more about the martial art and prepare for A Paper Tiger Burns filming in Bogota that features a capoeirista character.
To reference the above suggestion of movement for steadycam walking and running, I find training in the barefoot style of running very helpful (landing on the forefoot first not the heel), and also walking like that too. For daily practice on that, you’d need to wear shoes with a low heel… But seek someone experienced to show you if you want to try it.
Also, pure and simple strength (aerobic and anaerobic) is important. No amount or type of skill will do you any good if you can’t get the camera and your gear up the hill. Do some heavy squats and presses, get your heart-rate up from time to time; seek a qualified personal trainer (maybe a NASM CPT and certified Agatsu kettlebell instructor like myself!).
Step one: getting the gear up the mountain.
13. How do you go about building mounts and stabilizers for the camera? Does each custom built mount/stabilizer work with multiple kinds of cameras, or are they sometimes built for a specific camera?
Unfortunately, camera equipment is extremely over priced, and lot of companies make more money by customizing each product to be proprietary. Find what you like and get your setup streamlined. For example, I like the v-mount tripod plates, so I’ve gotten one of those v-mount quick release plates for each of my mounting systems, (tripod, steadycam, magic arm, etc.) so that I can quickly change the camera from one to the other. Adaptors are key, and most things can be customized for all of your gear to work well together.
14. What techniques for shooting DSLR video do you have (Compromises, optimization)?
Working with actor and young filmmaker, Antonio Zapiain Luna
Most things work pretty well. I like using motion picture camera lenses that have smoother focus than still camera lenses. I use an external audio recorder. It’s easy to piece audio files together in post by using a good on-camera shotgun mic placed on the hot shoe and inherently synced to the video in addition to the external audio on set at the same time. The audio can be synced automatically in post using a program like Pluraleyes.
One unique technique I started using recently as a compromise/optimization is what I call a “rapid fire” shot. The 1D Mark IV can take high quality stills at 14fps for several seconds, so to get high resolution landscape images I lock the camera down and take a bunch of stills. Then in after effects I can create a jpeg sequence, tweak the time stretch and use a program like Twixtor to create a nice looking super-resolution shot of something rather static that looks better with high spatial resolution.
15. What is your future outlook on ideal digital cameras?
The technology’s always improving, everything will be 4k resolution or more soon. I really hope the latest 3D fad dies out even sooner. I feel like it’s a frivolous gimmick that so far has more than often just forced producers to include some animated thing to float in front of viewers to the distraction of the story.
Having been the projectionist at an IMAX dome theater during the Dark Knight Rises, I’m continually impressed with giant screen technology, especially on a dome, which is an under-appreciated technology. “More 3-D than 3D” by having the screen physically wrap around your full field of view…
So, where I would like to see digital step in is in better acquisition at higher resolutions, and it’s happening. There’s also a lot of new flexibility in form factor to be provided by manufacturers. For example, sometimes a cinematographer may want deep depth of field (Citizen Kane), so why not revert back to that advantage from small chip video sensors? One interesting way to do this would be to have a sensor agnostic form factor, where the DP could switch out sensors like a lens. A large sensor would change the range to a more shallow depth of field, and also would give better light sensitivity and create a wider image for each given focal length. A smaller chip set in the camera would offer deep depth of field and increased sharpness (great for landscapes), would maybe require a little more light as the pixels would be more dense, and would also change the range of lenses slightly more telephoto… Options!
Frame rates can be increased for a higher temporal resolution, which would be great for giant screens. The new Hobbit is already trying this out. Also there could be a more common option of frame rate ramping for dynamic slow motion effects. A prototype camera, the Kinetta, had even promised a hand crank for ramping the frame rate like an old film camera design! Why not? These are all things that could allow us more creative freedom. There are just so many more options and advancements that we, as cinematographers, will soon have as tools to better tell the stories.
So, I’m eagerly awaiting a real cinema camera to come along with a dropping price point.
16. Have you used IMAX film? What differences (if any) are there when using an IMAX camera and film?
Dave Gioia, my supervisor and Chief Projectionist at the Omnimax Theater during a lamp change brightness test.
My hands on experience with 15/70 Imax format is as a projectionist. I’ve seen a lot of the films and work closely with the technology on that end. The main thing to keep in mind for large format cinematography is to keep in mind the difference in the screen. The proscenium arch doesn’t exist because the screen is often wider than your typical field of view for focusing on everything; there will be an area of ambience for purposes of theatrical immersion. So, the framing of action where people might be blocked must be done in a smaller area of the entire frame with a sweet spot in the lower middle. Of course, there are options here and plenty of opportunities where you could use the whole frame (floating through space, immense landscape, etc.) Other things to consider are that the camera needs to be more steady on average since any movement will be magnified significantly and you don’t want to make people sick! Also, Imax film cameras only shoot for about 3 minutes, so there is a production limitation (though you wouldn’t want to shoot much anyway because it’s so expensive!). There are plenty of die-hard 15/70 acquisition producers as with MacGillvary Freeman films, but others have been successful shooting with digital cameras for Imax.
17. What is the process for converting IMAX film into digital video like?
More importantly, is what the Imax DMR process reveals, showing that an upconversion then downconversion does work and makes the image look better. Lower resolution digital camera images can be upconverted in post processing and look as good as film acquisition.
18. Finally, you also build your own editing computers and systems. What is the process for that, and what software do you use?
Macs are overpriced and there are always faster computer technologies out by the time Apple gets around to delivering a fancy box to the consumer. So, I find it much more practical and easier to keep a home built PC upgraded for NLE use. It’s an important skill for a cinematographer (especially an indie one) because a lot of the look of a film these days can be created in post. There are good resources out there; I’m fond of the computer building DIY templates provided by HDvideoguys.com , and parts for computers can be ordered from Newegg.com very easily. I use premiere to edit with, but an important software I use is the Cineform codec (now owned by GoPro). Going back to the revelations of Imax’s DMR process, it’s a great boon to image quality to use an intdermediate codec, especially one you can upconvert to high resolutions and colors space prior to an HD or theatrical release export.