How to Cheat at Cinematography and Get Away With It

Avatar Cinema Summit | July 12, 2018

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Cinematography Tips

There are a million cinematography tips out there, and the truth of the matter is that there's no such thing as cheating in the film industry. It's called "movie magic" for a reason. This business is filled with weird hidden secrets that help to tell the story. From special effects to camera techniques - no department is free from cheats.

Now, with that being said, what we are about to go over seems like cheating, because it makes everything so much easier for you as the cinematographer. But, it's actually all standard practices that you should be participating in on every shoot that you do.

So let's get down to business.

The Perfect Image Every Time

Years ago this notion was a pipe dream. Every cinematographer, AC, operator, loader, or whoever else touched the camera was biting their nails when it came time to see dailies. 

There's nothing worse than getting footage back from the lab that is over exposed or out of focus...


This went away slightly when HD video taps were perfected, but there was still a number of hazards that could reach your precious negative before it hit the lab.

Nowadays, there is almost no excuse for not capturing the image correctly. You have all the tools at your disposal to know, as you are shooting, EXACTLY what the image will look like.

But, the thing that some people don't realize is that this may NOT be true if you are just shooting from your camera straight out of the box with no accessories. Let me explain why.

With this rising popularity of DSLRs, many novice and amateur shooters came out of the woodworks and proclaimed themselves as filmmakers. And yeah, it became pretty easy to get nice looking footage. At least, nicer looking than we were used to from our miniDV camcorders up to that point. But, one thing we started noticing was that the focus was pretty bad, and the exposure was slightly off. Or, in the case of many Canon shooters, the image looks rather warm - leaning toward Magenta. (You know what I'm talking about)

Why was this? What happened that made these ultra powerful cameras spit out imperfect images?

The answer may seem pretty obvious. But it was the screen.

Feast Your Eyes on this Tiny Monitor

If you've ever had the unfortunate task of shooting straight from a DSLR monitor, then you know the challenges at hand.

The monitors on these cameras are TINY! And, until recently, they didn't really move and adjust to be viewed properly at any position other than right in front of your face.

This, combined with people shooting wide open on a full-frame sensor for the first time ever, caused a lot of footage to go in and out of focus.

Not only that, but it became difficult to judge exposure. There were no tools that anyone was used to on these cameras. No zebras, no waveforms, no false colors. All you had was a completely inaccurate mini-monitor that MAYBE had a histogram feature that you could pull up.

This is what caused what I call, "The DSLR Look".

But, it didn't stop there. Just when you thought you finally had the hang of your camera - you could shoot well and knew exactly how to expose properly for your particular piece of gear - you get asked to shoot on a new camera.

Oh the horror! Now what? You've never shot on this thing before in your life. You don't get a prep day. You are expected to show up on set the morning of the shoot and start producing beautiful images within minutes of arriving. Well, that's where the cheat comes in.

The Cheat

So, now for the cheat. And again, it's not really a cheat. It's a cinematography tip. It's a beautiful tool that you should have at your disposal, and that is a professional monitor.

Yes, that's right. My favorite cheat is to have your own professional monitor that you take from shoot to shoot. It's the one thing that you can control no matter what the production decides to shoot on - the monitor remains constant.

So, that means. You need a professional monitor that can be calibrated, has all the special tools to make your life easier:

  • Focus Assist
  • False Colors
  • Scopes
  • check
    Anamorphic Desqueeze
  • check
    Image Flip
  • check
    Aspect Ratio Guides

Just to name a few.

With these tools, assuming you have the ability to calibrate the monitor on a regular basis, you will be able to take your cinematography to the next level.

Instead, you can get accustomed to your new monitor and understand it's quirks, the way it renders colors, highlights, shadows compared to the raw output, so you don't have to worry about working with a new monitor every time.

This Doesn't Fix Every Problem

Some of you are already throwing chicken wings at the monitor, and yelling expletives. 

Yes, I know this doesn't fix everything. You aren't going to get a monitor and magically have great images. There are other factors at play.

Yes. 100%.

Every camera has a different sensor and software making the thing tick. And with this, there are fun issues that will arise. Each sensor will have different color science and dynamic range. You'll get different shadow detail and highlight detail, as well as slightly different color shifts depending on the lighting conditions.

Seasoned cinematographers know that this is where camera tests come into play.

You will want to get your hands on the camera ahead of time to make sure you understand all of these things and aren't caught off guard on the fly during the actual shoot.

But, IF you MUST be thrown into a situation where you are using a new camera that you've never touched before, with no prep days allotted, having your trusty monitor will be the only thing bringing you comfort.

You should be able to get a pretty good idea of what you'll be dealing with and the quirks of the camera with your calibrated monitor. You'll be able to see the color shifts and correct for them, as well as seeing how the camera deals with highlights and shadows.

Not only that, but when combined with the power of LUTS, you'll be able to send footage to post that is already very close to the desired outcome - with only minor tweaks by the colorist.

Having this secret weapon in your kit will make you a more confident and better cinematographer overall. And, I think you'll find the investment to be far more useful overall than simply buying your own camera.

Give it a try, and let us know how it has worked out! What monitors do you prefer?

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