Week 8 Epiphany

Even though Paul and Robin think that learning the technical skills surrounding filmmaking is ‘boring’, I think a lot of us enjoyed and were actually quite productive in Wednesday’s class. For the two hours, we solely concentrated on the technical functions of video cameras. We investigated controlling the exposure/aperture, neutral density, white balance, focus, focal length and gain in a number of practical exercises.

I have had some experience with controlling the exposure of shots, more so on DSLR cameras though, so it was good to learn the slight differences there are when dealing with aperture on cameras built solely for the recording of moving images. On my digital camera you only change the F stop on the body of the camera (not on the lens), so I liked having a play with the iris rim on the EX3s.

Recently I have been using one of my dad’s old manual cameras from the 70s, pretty much just as a learning tool (and because of the grainy aesthetic that it creates). This has been an invaluable exercise, because it has taught me to really take notice of the individual camera settings. With film cameras there is always going to be an element of taking that little bit more care and time with setting up a shot in comparison to digital cameras which allow you to take numerous shots, very quickly to ‘test’ the exposure. I brought the analogue camera overseas with me earlier this year, so I would force myself to use and learn the manual functions (I often end up just taking photos on auto if I have my digital camera because it’s easier and quicker). This camera actually had a very small ring on its lens that controlled the aperture, which was helpful for this week, because it meant that I wasn’t totally unaccustomed to the idea.

The main difference with controlling exposure on the EX3s in comparison to other cameras I have used, is the zebra patterning function. In previous exercises this semester I had used cameras where the zebra patterning had been turned on, but I had no idea why the lines were there, I didn’t even know how to get rid of them. On Wednesday we were taught that the lines indicate the parts of the frame that are over-exposed. I found this an extremely useful tool in terms of getting the exposure just right. Sometimes those tiny display screens on the cameras are actually quite hard to see properly – especially when looking at details. Quite a few times this semester, when we had thought the exposure looked fine while shooting, when we started editing, parts of the frame were actually blown out. The zebra patterning is helpful, because it gives you a digital (and thus relatively reliable) indication of the exposure, which can inform your aperture settings.

Prior to this class I didn’t even know a neutral density function existed. We learnt that it was like putting sunglasses on top of the lens. This can particularly help when your shooting outside; in addition, if you want a shallower depth of field, you can open up the aperture and put your ‘sunglasses’ on, so the frame doesn’t look over-exposed. On Friday, we also learnt that because the ‘sunglasses’ are a neutral grey colour, they do not change the overall colour temperature and thus changing the ‘ND’ will not affect the white balance.

During these technical exercises, we had a DOP, actors and a ‘focus puller’. Although I knew big film productions had crewmen who would solely control the focus of the lens, I never thought we would actually get to isolate this role at university. Although we weren’t doing it quite how the professionals would because they work with prime lenses (instead of lenses where you can change the focal length), it still felt like a very ‘real world’ practice. We blocked our shots by marking the positions the actors had to hit at various times in the shot with tape.  By doing this we could make sure the subject was focused at all times. We noted the focal length and the focus range for each position and marked and numbered the points onto tape (which we stuck onto the focus rim) with pen. I am hoping to take this practice into my own filmmaking. Although this would be quite a hard exercise to do individually (it would be difficult to control the movement of the camera and the focal length), I think it would still be possible with a static shot. Overall, simply learning to stick a piece of tape to a focus rim was my biggest epiphany this week. Why have I never thought of doing this before? In the past I have always just fluked pull/rack focus shots or just done numerous takes until I have gotten it right. By using tape you can almost guarantee that you will get the focus perfect from take one.

In Friday’s class we also practised pulling focus over a long distance with people running towards the camera. This proved a lot harder than the exercises we had done on Wednesday where we could direct the actors to move as slowly as we wanted. For shots like this I think you would need to have a mechanised focus pulling device, so that you could control the timing of the change of focus more closely.

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