Madagascar and quiet revelation for a Lighting Cameraman
I was trained as a lighting cameraman back in the days of film. That’s right, the first moving images I every captured were onto emulsion film stock. Video did exist (I’m not that old!) but the best images for documentary broadcast were made on super 16mm film, and that’s what I wanted to shoot on. So I bought myself a H16 Bolex, a clockwork camera, and some film.
In an age where even a low end smart phone can shoot higher resolution footage than this trusty old camera you’d be forgiven for thinking that today it must be much easier to become a cinematographer than ever before. And you’d be sort of correct, it certainly is easier now than ever before to capture moving images and to share them, but I contend that the skills learned with expensive film and a camera with a clockwork mechanism that winds down in 20 seconds flat and requires you to wind it up again before shooting can resume teaches the budding cameraperson a great deal about the process of filming. No internal light meter, much less any kind of auto gain or zebras meant that careful consideration of the available light was essential before shooting (Fluffing up was expensive, and I fluffed up a lot!) and very often, such was the poor light sensitivity of film, additional lighting was needed. This was one of the key skills I learned from veteran lighting cameramen (there were women filming back then, but not many and I never had the pleasure of working with them) and later from legends such as Sean Morris whilst working as the staff cinematographer at Oxford Scientific Films – the skill of lighting. It’s easy to shine a 2000watt HMI light on a subject, but much harder to make it appear like natural light on screen. Playing with shadows and the way light falls of different surfaces, subtle use of gels, flagging multiple lights to create convincing natural light in a deep set built in a studio in Oxford or Bristol but needing to look like a rainforest in Ecuador or monsoon forest in Australia. It’s a craft and I love it.
However, today we have cameras that have 15 stops of dynamic range and sensors so sensitive that dawn and dusk light hold no fear for even the slowest lens. It’s amazing and a gift for cinematographers. I was recently working in Madagascar, and at about 4.30am the local fishermen accumulated on the beach in front of where i was lodging, to carry out their daily ritual of casting nets with the help of small dug-out canoes. On my second morning it suddenly dawned on me – I can film this with natural light! Only 5 years ago, the situation would have been unfilmable without additional lighting. I settled in with camera and support, one zoom lens and a sense of being oh so lucky. Sometimes past limitations can be very inspiring.