A View From Behind The Meter :
Nancy Schreiber At The ASC Breakfast
It’s been a couple of months since I had attended the ASC breakfast in which Nancy Schreiber was the guest speaker. It was very well attended, and the crowd filled the ASC clubhouse to capacity. I have been an avid supporter of the ASC’s breakfast program, because I think it brings the new filmmakers into a closer association with those experienced professionals that they have admired and respected for so long. These new filmmakers look at these great cinematographers as icons of the industry, but when they begin to speak, the human element supersedes our entire pedestal placement of these individuals. As one begins to listen to the very real problems that they encountered on the set, a bong forms that all of us share.
Filmmaking is a difficult problem-solving business that requires creative thinking at every step of the process. I have listened to Nancy during the camera prep of one of her many productions bemoaning the lack of funds given to her. Time after time with little financial backing, she produces images that rival the highest budget epics of the studios. The audience while listening to her methodology were all are aware that their budgets are also dwindling in this economic recession. Shooting features on $250,000.00 budgets and making them look like five million budgets is a godsend to the low budget producer and Nancy has been doing it as a matter of course for years. Her emphasis on lighting and camera movement (Mostly hand holding camera movement) was very instructive to the audience and when she detailed her choices in this endeavor you could hear a pin drop.
It was fascinating for me to hear her speak about the excessive sharpness of the digital cameras in this digital camera revolution. This is something I had not thought about and I can see where it could be a concern. What she does to soften the image through the lens I have been employing with light on the talent for years and for the same reason. Almost all the light indoors, where we have most of our interaction with people, is soft overhead light. Both at work and at home the presence of hard light is an exception rather than the rule. For almost a hundred years, the primary lighting systems that we have to illuminate our subjects is point source hard light instruments. Seldom, however, do we view people in hard light with the obvious exception of outdoor sunlight. “The harsh light of day” as we call it in slang, is not generally a part of most of our communication with our fellow human beings. In most of our retail stores it is overhead fluorescent lighting and in our homes the light is usually filtered through lamp shades, so that our eyes are attuned to interacting with each other in soft light not hard light.
I came out of live stage theater, and all of the lights we used were Fresnels or parabolic reflector leko lights and these are all hard lights. Now for stage it makes a lot of sense because of the distance most of the audience is viewing the action but for the intimate nature of movies it is counterproductive. In the past, whenever I used hard light it was for the special effect of creating shadows. Horror films are a perfect example of this technique, as are suspense dramas, in which you want the audience to feel uncomfortable. The hard edge and high contrast from light to shadow creates anxiety in the audiences mind whether they are aware of it or not. Nancy was relating that the same concept is applicable to the camera image. Excessive sharpness is not how we normally view people in our daily interaction in life so why place it on the big screen where we can examine every pore in the human face. Film seemed to naturally do this and now the future cinematographers will have to keep this in mind because digital cameras are inherently sharper than most of us view our surroundings.
In the last year I’ve attended each of the breakfasts with at least one of our young technicians both to familiarize them with ASC and to have them get invaluable information about the career they are entering. We have listened to such wonderful creators as Dean Cundy, Claudio Miranda, Haskell Wexler, Victor Kemper, and David Mullen as well as the truly incredible Nancy Schreiber. Each has brought keen insights to their methodology and the constant difficulties that had to be overcome in order to create their notable films. I cannot think of a better place to interact with your fellow film makers and meet those people who are just as involved as you with making a living at this profession. Here is the place to ask that question of “how did you do that?” in a comfortable intimate environment and get the answer from the horses mouth. These horses, however, are successful horses, who have run the race and won, and that is the true value of this venue. It can be found no where else.