Frame of Mind: How to Serve a Story

Well, hello there. How are you? It’s been quite sometime since my last installment of the least viewed thing on the vurbmoto: Frame of Mind.

A lot has happened since the last installment. Brandon Carter made a vurbmoto vlog that included me and, based on what I was told about the feedback (I don’t read comments. A wise lesson learned from the great and powerful Joe Rogan), a lot of people not only missed my incredibly dry and sarcastic tone, but also strongly disliked me. At least that is what I’ve been told. Luckily, I’ve spent most of my career in the dirtbike industry as a loner and moderately disliked because of my style of work, dry humor, and quiet disposition that I suspect is perceived as, “That guy is a dick.”

Let’s see, what else has happened? Oh, my wife and I have become super fans of Gordon Ramsay’s TV show, Hell’s Kitchen. Currently, we are binging all of the seasons on Hulu. My new favorite word to describe a person is by calling them a doughnut or a muppet right before I tell them to piss off. Gordon is a hoot and truly inspiring my vocabulary.

*Note: I would never tell anyone to piss off. I am far too polite and shy to do such a thing. But, we can all have dreams, right?!

I’ve been kicking around some ideas that I’d like to discuss in this forum. The ideas range from breaking down my post-production organizational system, having respect for those who have come before you, the creative slump we often deal with, the trend of unoriginality I’ve been seeing in some cinematography work lately, and/or when in the hell Grand Theft Auto 6 is finally going to release because I am real tired of cruising Los Santos with my online homies. We need a new city, dammit! But, I digress.

Today, I wanna discuss the idea of serving the story. What story are you visually trying to tell and what are you doing to best serve that story? As I’ve progressed within my career, making the slow push into scripted narrative filmmaking, listening to DP’s that are far, FAR better than myself, I’ve uncovered some interesting bits such as beautiful cinematography can truly distract from the overall story. I believe I referenced this before, but I barely got through The Founder because the cinematography and lighting was literally so perfect it’s all I could focus on. I kept noticing the lighting and framing, and I wasn’t paying attention to the story.

Recently, I was doing post-production on a client job (only post, I did not shoot, nor was I ever on set). It was a doc style piece, shot on an Arri Alexa Mini (my dream camera) with anamorphic lenses. Instantly, your thought is, “Fuck yes. Literally dream setup!” Okay, sure. But, in this process of working with said footage, I gained even more knowledge about selecting your camera package, understanding the director’s vision and, again, serving the story. The anamorphic lens is a popular piece of glass amongst many of us. Not so much in the sense that we use them often, but more so in the sense of, “That would be badass to run anamorphic glass. It would look so cool.”

Apparently, this is a photo of Cowling and his crew “serving the story.” Seems aggressive, man.

And, therein lies the problem: “It would look so cool.” Correct, it would and does look so cool. But, unless used properly, they can also be wildly distracting and take away from the story. Before I go on, for those that are unaware of what an anamorphic lens is, let me give you a very shitty and quick synopsis based on my limited knowledge: essentially, an anamorphic lens stretches the image vertically to cover the entire frame, which results in a higher quality but distorted image. Correcting the image in post-production will stretch out any distortions and achieves that oval type bokeh and widescreen with black bars we are used to seeing with anamorphic glass. That’s the gist anyway. The aspect ratio for anamorphic is 2:39:1.

The project I was doing some post production work on had shot on anamorphic glass. Visually, the project had a lot of big landscapes and part of the story was about this rough and rugged landscape. However, what I was realizing was that despite the “cool” factor of this glass, it was very distracting to the overall image. The landscape needed to be its own character within this story and it needed no help in looking beautiful. However, the chosen lenses really took away from the environment due to its dramatic oval bokeh and overall style of the lens. Now, maybe that’s the look the DP wanted. Honestly, I do not know. For me, given the option of anamorphic or spherical, I would’ve chosen spherical for such a job. That’s also where this job is so endlessly subjective, too. What I dislike, another DP could absolutely love and vice versa. All of us have a different approach in how we view the world and the story we are trying to tell. Just because this DP made a choice that I did not agree with, does not mean he is wrong. It’s a fine line of being subjective and objective and, surely, he believes the lensing choices he made was correct for the story.

Another example of this comes from a scripted narrative job I DP’d last year. The director and I spent quite a bit of time discussing the overall look and feel of the film. Visually, the director had a certain feel they were looking to achieve, which brought us into the conversation of how we wanted to lens the film. There was a certain grit and dirtiness we wanted to have within our image while also having a warm and smooth feel with some soft roll off.

Colored frame from Cowling’s narrative project last year which shows some of the soft roll off and warmth of the Cooke Speed Panchros, coupled with a digital sensor.

I’ve also really started noticing how sharp these digital sensors are today. Almost too sharp, actually. For example, pairing a RED sensor with a set of Rokinon glass has moments where it feels far too sharp for me. So, knowing the feel we wanted for lensing and that I wanted to knock down the sharpness a bit, after doing some research, I ended up landing on a vintage set of Cooke Speed Panchros T2.2/T2.3s rehoused by TLS (True Lens Services). Based on what I was learning via my research about this glass, it appeared to be pretty on point with the overall look and feel we wanted to achieve and it helped us to knock down some of that sharpness from the digital sensor. Now, granted, some of this we could achieve in post, but I really believe in doing as much as you possibly can in camera so that post-production is streamlined and as simplified/efficient as possible.

Colored frame from Cowling’s narrative project last year which shows some of the soft roll off and warmth of the Cooke Speed Panchros, coupled with a digital sensor.

Overall, the lens choice we made for this film really complimented the story and tone as a whole. The only real issue we ran into was that our widest lens in the set, a 25mm T2.2 didn’t fully cover the sensor. Thus, we had some massive vignetting going on to the point where I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to use the 25mm. Luckily, we only had one shot that we used the 25mm on and, because we shot in 5k, this allowed the editor plenty of room in post to punch in without losing image quality. Another nice thing about these lenses being rehoused by TLS was that the focus gears on each lens were consistent, meaning that anytime my 1st AC needed to swap from a 32mm to 40mm and so on, our follow focus system fell into the gears without needing any readjusting (this can be an issue with some vintage lenses if not properly rehoused).

A closer look of the GEMINI running the Cooke Panchro 75mm.

I really loved working with these lenses, and they are a set of lenses I would most certainly rent again. Granted, at T2.2, they are not exactly super speeds, but they did exactly what we wanted to them to do and helped us achieve the overall look we were after. Would I buy a set of this glass? Absolutely not. Why, you ask? Aside from the egregious price tag to own such a set of glass, they are not something I would use for every project. When you get into the more high end narrative work, every piece of equipment is a tool and not every tool is right for every job.

If I shot vurbmoto’s Black & White series on Cooke Speed Panchros, aside from being wildly inefficient, wouldn’t fit the overall look and feel of the show. If Wes and I started shooting Red Bull Moto Spy on a set of anamorphic glass, again, we’d run into the same problem of being inefficient and the wrong look for the job. Hell, if you listen, watch, and read about the process of ASC level DP’s, they are very specific about what type of camera sensor they believe fits the story.

For example, Roger Deakins explained that Arri got him a Alexa Mini LF for 1917 months and months and months before the camera was going to be ready for the consumer. This was because of the technical aspect of the film. It was a one shot film and he needed a very small, light, and nimble camera. He’s said in several interviews that there is no way they could’ve shot 1917 on any other camera. The Mini LF was the right tool for that job. An Alexa 65 or a RED Monstro would not have gotten the job done for Deakins.

Cowling and his crew, somehow, pulled permits to shut down a street in the Los Angeles, CA for this scene. They even had a police escort! Art Dog has gone full Hollywood on us.

Within our industry of dirtbikes, I realize some of or a lot of this does not apply. It’s more so about run whatcha brung. That was exactly the situation for me with our vurbmoto Original: No Runners. I had to literally use only what I had in front of me to bring that film to life. However, had I had dollars to spend, I would’ve approached the film differently in terms of renting glass, hiring a gaffer and grip, sound mixer, colorist, etc. Hell, I may have considered an entirely different camera package all together. But, one of the things that I believe makes our niche of filmmaking so unique is our ability to do a lot with a little.

Let’s be real, nobody filming dirtbikes is getting rich. Most riders who even have a pretty good career still have to get a job after they retire. So, that should put some perspective into how much money there is (or isn’t) in filming dirtbikes. As I used to say when I worked on the World Famous Jungle Cruise at Disneyland back in 2005, “Stay in school kids, or this could be you.” Yeah, no, I really said that as part of my trip around the jungle. Actually, I even think that “joke” was in our script… Maybe?

To maybe raise a tad bit of excitement, I am in the very early stages of working on my next No Runners style film for vurbmoto. Nothing has been shot or dates scheduled. But, the athlete has been secured and the concept roughly outlined, but there is still a ways to go before we get a camera up. I am telling you this because I am already thinking about the overall look and feel of the story. How am I going to visually tell this story? I want the cinematography to compliment the story, not distract. I wan the lighting to compliment the story, not distract. Basically, like I tried to with No Runners, I don’t want you to notice the cinematography and I don’t want you to notice the lighting. I am kicking around color palette ideas, aspect ratio, what type of glass best first this story, time of day for certain sequences, and so on. There is a lot that goes into something like this. Maybe we can document the entire process this go around and make it a Masterclass of some sort for you guys? A Masterclass of Doing Art, perhaps? I say that art shit jokingly. But, it could be cool to document the entire process. What do ya think? Leave your comments below. Or don’t. Because you don’t read this, or you quit reading this after the first paragraph. Okay, that’s all I have for today. In the words of David Goggins, “Never let people who choose the path of least resistance steer you away from your chosen path of most resistance.”

KC’s recommend film to watch:
-Directed By: Sam Mendes
-Cinematography: Roger Deakins, ASC, CBE, BSC -Genre: War/Drama
-Language: English

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