Cybel DP Narrative, Spots & Docs Wed, 19 Apr 2017 11:51:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 56834248 TRAVELING AND FILMING THROUGH AN AMERICAN LENS Mon, 27 Jun 2016 21:29:23 +0000 Processed with VSCO with b5 preset

Let me create the scene for you. I was in Jamaica for a shoot. Traveling with me to the next location was another Black American, a Jamaican and a West African/Brit. The other American and I were snapping photos, enraptured. The color! The ebony black skin! Black people everywhere! Nature! Our two other traveling companions were unfazed. They hopped in the car. It was in this moment that the idea for this article began to germinate. There was nothing wrong with our enthusiasm but … was it an American enthusiasm? I’ve spoken passionately about the potential detriment of seeing foreign countries through a white male gaze. But what about the American gaze?

If you have an American passport, you are more privileged than most. In the past year, I’ve been to Ethiopia, Turkey, Jamaica (twice) and Brazil. My being black and female didn’t make me immune to cliches or eroticizing “the other”. It is my job as a human being and artist to challenge my American programming.

Visit the Actual Country Not the One in Your Head: Even though I’ve watched recent Brazilian films (check out “Casa Grande”, “Hard Labor” “A Wolf at the Door” “The Way He Looks” ) and kept up on the country’s current events, I still had no clue what Brazil would be like. I admit I was half expecting dancing in the streets 24/7 and gun shots. “Black Orpheus” meets “City of God”.

In the future, I want to watch more documentaries by native filmmakers and read more literature before visiting a country. I’d also like to read up on public reception of popular art. Since I was little, I’ve always loved the song “Zombie” by Fela. However, I didn’t learn the political significance of the song until seeing the musical. Similarly, I’ve been aware of the popular Telenovelas in Brazil but had no idea of their subversive past until reading this NY Times article. Even with additional research (plus whatever prep I do for each shoot), I will remind myself that I don’t know a country or culture – at all – until I actually visit it.

Local Fixers vs Tourism Board – Tourism Boards are extremely helpful when filming abroad. Thanks to them, we’ve gotten through airports quickly, were able to secure locations & film permits before landing and connect with additional crew. We’ve been able to shoot a lot in a very very short period of time. However, they can steer you towards filming the same sanctioned people and locations covered by countless other filmmakers. You trade a diversity of images and voices for ease.

Local fixers can also help with crew, permits etc. But their real value is in giving you access to regular life. A home cooked meal. The after after (after) hours party. How to use public transportation. Student activist gatherings. My experience has been that local fixers, perhaps because they have lives beyond helping the Americans, take longer to show you special locations or introduce you to people. You trade time and patience for uniqueness and exclusivity.

Choosing our local contact (governmental agency, tourism board, local journalist etc) is not part of my jurisdiction. I am *only* the DP. I don’t have to juggle the politics, schedules and budgets of filming abroad. But the quality of my footage and depth of our experience is definitely enhanced when we work with a local fixer.

Shout out to Kiratiana Freelon, photog Exu NYC and Zoe Sullivan for being a huge support during my trip to Brazil.

Have Difficult Conversations – This one is tricky. If I feel I’m in a safe environment and that expressing my opinion won’t harm production, I see immense value in arguing abroad. Not arguing exactly, more like a rigorous conversation. The goal being to share my perspective, have it challenged and learn something in the process. Foreigners often know a lot more about US politics than we do and are eager to debate. My nature is to avoid confrontation but I’m noticing from recent travels, that I learn more about a country and its people from debates than I could ever from a documentary or newspaper. I love the tv series “Homeland”. I relate to its cerebral, socially awkward, female protagonist. But by making myself open to other points of view, I’ve learned that people find it offensive; pointing to aspects of the the show I was blind to.

Be Willing to Throw Out Your Visual Plan – This is another really tough one for me. Anyone who knows me / has worked with me, knows how important pre-production and reference material is for me. If a director clearly states how they want a film to look, I promise to accomplish that. However, what dictates the look of our film? Choice of b-roll and cutaways? Background actors? Locations for interviews? Is it based on other films shot in that country? Cliches? Our agenda?

Everyone shoots men sipping tea or women at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, but what of the women I saw in tailored business suits and 3” heels easily making their way up a 45 degree inclined cobblestoned sidewalk, while I huffed and puffed in flip flops? Why didn’t I take a photograph of them?

Yes, travel with a visual plan but be open to throw it away and be inspired by a genuine experience. Regardless if shooting narrative/doc/tv/commercial, a difficult conversation or anecdote shared by your fixer, might inspire you to shoot at a different time of day, in a different location or even in black/white instead of color.

A Word About Security – Years ago, when I was prepping for a shoot in Johannesburg, a well meaning friend said “Don’t go. You’ll be raped”. The first time I went to Nigeria, I posted my excitement on Facebook. Friends, whom I forgot I was even connected to, materialized and begged me not to go. Most people were worried about my recent trip to Brazil. I believe each person was coming from a loving place. And I know there is validity to their concerns. A film producer friend was shot and killed in Nigeria. Two friends of a friend were killed during a carjacking in Brazil. However, on the day of the awful shootings in Orlando, I was nervously taking photos on a beach in Salvador de Bahia. I would think nowhere could be safer than Orlando. If that day taught me anything, it’s that nowhere is 100% safe.

I have a saying about accepting advice: “When someone gives you advice, consider the source”. Meaning, people’s advice is shaded by their history, experiences (or lack thereof) and beliefs. People who rarely travel internationally seem to share this bias: If a crime or terrorism attack occurs in a predominantly white city/country, they speak of it as an isolated event. But if a tragedy occurs in a predominantly brown city/country, it represents all of its people. All of the time.

Before letting your uncle, who considers a Sandals resort “roughing it” and listens to Fox News religiously (we all have that uncle) talk you out of backpacking through Central America, seek advice from someone who has actually done it. Prior to going to Brazil and to do everything in my power to travel safely, I spoke with friends who lived there, who had just returned, plus a friend who specializes in mosquitos and infectious diseases.

Become Multi-lingual -The first time I traveled to Ethiopia, I learned three words in Amharic per day. When I returned to Ethiopia, I learned three words of Tigrayan per day. A month prior to my trip to Brazil, I downloaded Duolingo and learned enough Portuguese to argue with a bus driver, convince a taxi to drive me for free and get keys for my apartment in Salvador. Even with a fixer and a producer who speak the language fluently, it helps production and eases my interactions when I know a few words. If you can learn slang, you can learn a few words of a new language. There will be frustration in not looking cool, saying it wrong and seeming childish. But that’s how we grow.

Besides, not knowing a language and not trying to is a lot like gentrification: I’ll visit your home and expect you to accommodate me.

If you want to see the impact of knowing a language on a film crew, watch the documentary “Living On Dollar”. See the whole documentary and look for their observations on Day #28 (around the 31:52 mark). It also shows the importance of the director communicating findings and updating the crew. My director’s research and daily observations affect my cinematography choices and inform me on how to interact more respectively with the local people.

Traveling as an American But… Who else has travel needs, perspectives and joys that are being ignored?

– At the beginning of this year, I had the incredible task of filming on the Soul Train Cruise. It was surreal to hold production meetings surrounded by water while Chaka Khan blasted on the loud speakers. My crew was amazing. I loved traveling, filming and problem solving in the Caribbean. But I’ve never been a fan of cruises. That is until I saw what a great, efficient and inclusive way it was for the young and old, out of shape and fit and most importantly, the able bodied and wheelchair/scooter bound to travel together. Seeing Jason DaSilva’s beautiful documentary, “When I Walk”, was the first time I really considered wheelchair access in NYC. Since I began working on Liz Ortiz Mackes’ doc “And… Scene, a Woman’s Journey to Walk Again”, I’ve become even more sensitive. However, it wasn’t until being on a cruise that I saw that this was a way to travel internationally, and still accommodate and honor the needs of everyone in your family. Why is this never addressed in travel shows?

– Another “privilege” I have is my sexual orientation and identity. They are accepted. Sure, I’ve been told I’m a second class citizen (by our local fixer), have been denied access to apparently the greatest chapel of the Lalibela Rock Churches and disappointed numerous people with my lack of husband or children. But I feel at ease sharing stories about myself. I also have plenty of gay/lesbian friends who constantly travel abroad. But I’ve never traveled with them nor seen, first hand, how they might have to alter their body language or conceal their relationships to travel safely. So I’m thankful for the few episodes I’ve seen of Viceland’s “Gaycation” with Ellen Page and Ian Daniel. I hope for more fiction and non-fiction content that celebrates the joy and exposes the terrors for those “traveling while LGBTQ” and the locals they meet.

Keeping It Domestic – What if international travel is not in your future? The above still holds true when filming in communities different from your own. 9 out of 10 New York filmmakers will shoot Montana like a Terrence Malick film. Watch more documentaries from filmmakers within a community. I’ve taken on the humbling of task of speaking Mandarin (I know about five sayings) when I’m in Chinatown.

We can all do better.


Shooting Virtual Reality for G-Technology & Reebok Thu, 28 May 2015 18:45:40 +0000 cybel-lexi.jpg (783×591)

Cybel Martin and Lexi Alexander. Infront of 360 Heros RV

Welcome to the Wild Wild West. Virtual Reality is the playground where filmmakers, gamers, visual FX and tech geeks collide. It’s brand new, unruly and exhilarating to shoot.

I was the Director of Photography on a Virtual Reality (VR) shoot for G-Technology. Directed by Lexi Alexander and produced by Lucas Wilson from Supersphere Productions. Our main talent were Mixed Martial Arts and Muay Thai champions: Zoila Frausto, Alexis Davis, Gaston Bolanos and Kevin Ross.

If you’re unfamiliar, VR is a 360 degree experience. With traditionally shot films, even those shot in 3D, the director dictates where the audience can look. In Virtual Reality, the director designs the world but the individual viewer can look wherever they desire. Think: “The Matrix”, “Inception” or  the holodeck in “Star Trek”.

There are many players in the VR market, designing hardware (headsets/goggles, camera rigs) and software (VR Apps, editing software). VR technology was thrust into the spotlight after Facebook’s acquisition of the headset manufacturer, Oculus VR. Google has created an ultra-affordable VR headset called Google Cardboard. I’m excited to try out the VROne goggles fitted with Zeiss lenses. The number of  VR Apps for Android and for iPhones is rapidly expanding.

Using VR content for gaming or amusement parks is a no-brainer, but how can it serve a commercial client? Dipak M. Patel, Executive Producer and VP of Intergalactic Sales & Business Development for G-Tech explained, “We wanted to showcase how this new medium of storytelling can help both small and large businesses, like Combat Sports Academy (CSA) and Reebok, engage with their communities in new and innovative ways.  It provides an immersive and transportive experience that global audiences will have access to. SNEAK PEEK: We will be debuting this content at the 2015 CrossFit Games in Carson California in the HGST Tech Pavilion. Also, Reebok and CSA will be publishing this content to their custom channels in a new user experience called Zeality. It will allow anyone with a smartphone or tablet to experience the content without the need for VR equipment. It will also allow Reebok, CSA, and any other content creator / producer to share their content via their own channels as well as have audiences / users connect with their communities in new ways.”

Traditionally shot videos of combat sports are already wildly successful. Why bother to shoot it in VR? My producer, Lucas Wilson’s perspective: “Any kind of combat sport is such a visceral, primal human experience. There is nothing quite like being at an MMA or Muay Thai match. VR is the closest we can come to ‘being there’. Immersion matters. And connecting fans and audiences in this way gives them a sense of experience and understanding of those sports that they would have a hard time getting any other way.”

My director, Lexi Alexander, in addition to directing “Punisher: War Zone” and “Green Street Hooligans” is also a former Karate and Kickboxing champion. These are her people. This is her world. What does she think of all the VR hype? I save her thoughts until the end.

I see countless possibilities in VR for different filmmakers. I DP a lot of documentaries abroad. Imagine how powerful our films could be if accompanied with a 5 minute VR clip that immersed the audience in a “foreign” community. I also shoot a lot of stylized narrative films. I’d love to shoot VR for a protagonist’s dream sequence.

While you start percolating on the VR possibilities, here are 5 Tips (from a DP’s perspective):

Cybel VR Post Pics

1. Saturate Yourself in VR Experiences. Just like I highly recommend that you watch a lot of films, pour over photographs or paintings to create the look of your traditionally shot film, spend time watching VR videos. Obviously watch any VR video that your director loves. Lexi was enthralled with an Icelandic VR clip. Now I want to visit Iceland and run with the horses. Perhaps because the technology is so new, it was very difficult to find a VR demo in New York CIty. I was able to watch three clips at the Samsung storeand additional clips when I met up with the production team. Watch and ask yourself what makes one VR experience stronger than another? What triggers your emotions? What helps to sell the world? What camera moves or visual FXs surprise you? Incorporate those “take-aways” into how you approach your project.

2. Learn the Rules. I devoured every BTS (“behind the scenes”) video or article I could find. My first stop was Lucas’ presentation on Virtual Reality at NAB. My Gaffer, Eric Blum, and I had a conference call with Stephen Fromkin from360 Heros (designers of our VR Camera rigs) to suss out the limitations of lighting VR and how to optimize the multiple cameras. This was beneficial in figuring out my final G/E and Expendables package. Once on set, I asked a lot of questions of Mike Kintner (CEO of 360 Heros) and deferred to him for many of my camera placement and setting decisions. We typically shot with two camera rigs, each housing six or seven GoPro cameras and shooting at a high frame rate (while sacrificing resolution). Cameras in our rigs had to be configured in a certain way to get a “clean stitch” (a poor stitch reveals the seam between HD captures and kills the 360 illusion).

Media management is crucial when shooting VR. Lucky for me that our client was G-Tech. More from Dipak: “VR is changing the game for content creators.  Not only do creators need to consider how to create content, but managing the data becomes extremely challenging.  The workflow flow and data requirements are extremely complex.  It’s important to have a boat load of capacity in systems that have tremendous performance characteristics to handle the intensity.  As you saw in the shoot at CSA, we used the G-DOCK ev and G-DRIVE ev modules for ingest along with the G-SPEED Studio XL for the stitching process.  Using these products significantly improved the downtime during the shoot.”

The VR industry is evolving rapidly. Technological advances will make a number of these rules obsolete by the time you shoot. Which brings us to …

3. Break the Rules. Remember: this is the Wild Wild West. Learn the limitations and question them. The biggest challenge when lighting VR is the cameras see 360 degrees. Everything is in frame. That’s what we were told. But then we learned there are blind spots and ways to hide your lights in plain site. My gaffer pulled off some lighting tricks that made my year. The other difficulty with shooting VR is there are limits to where talent can stand to get a clean stitch. Three feet from the camera, or less, and the illusion is blown. My director, Lexi, is known for her fight sequences: gritty and nasty or glossy and coordinated. How could I capture that energy if we can’t get in the fighter’s faces? We did several camera placement tests on set and found angles that heighten the intensity. My advice: instead of chewing it in your mind if you can pull off a lighting idea or camera move, just do it. Surround yourself with enthusiastic techno-geeks who love a challenge.

4. Think Like an Art Director. Although the viewer can look anywhere within the 360 world, your director will use action plus lighting and sound cues to draw their attention. Viewers of our content will obviously be focused on the fighters. Foot jabs. Uppercuts. Throws to the mat. But one thing I experienced when consuming lots of VR in prep, was how fun it was to look away from the main action and be dazzled by smaller details.

In addition to lighting the main stage and finding the optimal camera rig placement to capture it, I also lit the rest of the location in a stylized way. Through clever use of placement and duveteen, my professional lights became a part of the set. We dressed up the windows and diffused the available light to add to the gym’s atmosphere.

5. Communication is key. Currently, there’s no way to monitor footage from GoPros. There wasn’t instant playback. Because we were shooting 360 degrees, the crew couldn’t even be on set. Your 1st AD has to allot extra time for you to shoot, ingest and discuss takes with your director. We had our VFX Supervisor, Alex Henning, on set to communicate what he needed and what FX were possible. Much like the old days of shooting film without a video tap, it’s vital that you share pacing needs with your camera operators. Give them personality traits (walk boldly into the location, look around timidly) as guidance.

Cybel's VR Post Pics

I always write from a DP’s perspective but know many of my readers are directors. Here’s Lexi’s first impressions of shooting VR:

“No doubt that Virtual Reality can put you right inside another world, more so than a live action movie or documentary can. But in a narrative story, it can also take you out quicker as soon as you spot the crew/lights/camera. You can’t hide in a 360 shot. At first I thought “okay, this is not going to bother anybody who’s watching a documentary or an educational experience, or just somebody who wants to be beamed into an environment they have never been to. Our MMA spot was the perfect example of that. For someone who has never stepped into a gym like that, there couldn’t be a better experience.

But a thought hit me once I got home. I’ve seen plays that have moved me to tears or taken my breath away. The theater is live. There’s no editing of the scenic design changes on stage or hiding the cast walk on/offs. I even remember a play that had a mechanical glitch. Something that was supposed to turn a kitchen set into a bedroom set got stuck. A stage crew member had to step on and help push it. But that didn’t take away from how much I liked the play at all.

So, eventually, I came to the conclusion that VR may be the live theater of the 21 century … but that doesn’t mean we should replace live theater.”

Additional reading:

– “Shooting 360 Stereoscopic Video for the Oculus Rift”

– “The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality

– “How Hollywood Is Learning To Tell Stories In Virtual Reality

Shout outs to my crew: Matt Sheils (Cam Op), Raz Walden (Media Manager), Cliff Henry (Best Boy), and Brook Johnson (Key Grip).

Visuals are getting the majority of attention in VR but you can’t sell the world without convincing audio. Thanks to Sound Dept, Blas Kisic and Sheraton Toyota, for elevating my appreciation for sound.

Winter Is Bleak. But It Does Increase Production Value. Cybel DP’s Tips for Shooting in Cold Weather Fri, 13 Feb 2015 18:47:04 +0000  

I hate winter. But I adore how it looks on film. Dusting of snowflurries, dangling icicles, frosty breath are wonderfully cinematic. A field blanketed in snow can be mysterious, romantic, epic, portending death …or enlightenment. Film production (on the east coast) is very slow between November and March. Partially because of the holidays, award season and Sundance/Berlin Film Festivals. But also because it’s a pain to shoot in winter (from finding PAs who can drive on ice, to adequate well heated holding for cast/crew/extras, to keeping crew and equipment warm, comfortable and safe on set).

Unless warm weather is imperative to your narrative, I ask you to consider shooting a few scenes or your entire film during the winter. Most Hollywood films (regardless of where they were shot) take place during a perfectly sunny day. Only exceptions are when it rains for a funeral or lovers’ quarrel scene. Indie filmmakers do themselves a great disservice by trying to emulate the Hollywood aesthetic. That is part of why I wrote how to make “a low budget film more extravagant.” Choosing to shoot during un-Hollywood like perfect weather will actually increase your production value.

One of the many aspects I admire about Asian cinema is how they embrace the change in seasons, the weather and how it affects their characters. Tarantino, an Asian film maven, used snow wonderfully in the “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves” scene in “Kill Bill Vol 1.” I function differently in the cold. Wouldn’t the same be true for your characters? It doesn’t have to be a holiday film. It could just be cold. Hopefully a few of you will be inspired by this article to change your shoot dates, locations, interiors to exteriors, and take advantage of this (ridiculously awful) cinematic winter wonderland.

To get you started:

Winter films for inspiration:

These are some I love. Feel free to add your personal favorites in the comment section.

Dersu Uzala” – Akira Kurosawa

Alexander Nevsky” – Sergei Eisenstein

A Simple Plan” – Sam Raimi

“Dreams (Woman of the Snow)” – Akira Kurosawa

“McCabe and Mrs Miller” – Robert Altman

Let the Right One In” – Tomas Alfredson

“Fargo” – the Coen Brothers

“Citizen Kane (Boyhood scene)” – Orson Welles

“The Thing from Another World” – Christian NybyHoward Hawks(uncredited)

“The Thing” – John Carpenter

“The Shining” – Stanley Kubrick

“30 Days of Night” – David Slade

“The Ice Storm” – Ang Lee

“Transsiberian” – Brad Anderson

The Sweet Hereafter” – Atom Egoyan

“The Gold Rush” – Charlie Chaplin

“Spring Summer Fall Winter …and Spring” –  Ki-duk Kim

“Intentions of Murder” – Shôhei Imamura

“Lola Montes” – Max Ophuls

“Winter Light” – Ingmar Bergman
Once you’ve found visual inspiration, you need to make sure your crew, actors and equipment are taken care of. Before DPing any film in uncertain terrain, I always ask my friends and colleagues for advice and research various film forums. American Cinematographer Magazine also has a great online archive. Here are a few of my tips:

To Keep Myself Warm:

– Visit a sporting goods store and heed their advice. I learned this lesson the hard way  After Day #1 of shooting night exteriors, in New Jersey, for Booker Mattison’s “Exit 13”, I went crawling to EMS in search of advice. I’d never been so cold and uncomfortable. I give my directors space to be difficult, divas or eccentric on set but its the DP’s job to maintain a calm, respectful, energetic mood for the crew. And that New Jersey tundra was killing my joy. The EMS salesperson reprimanded me and my clothing choices. “Cotton kills”, he explained.

– I now wear and swear by Uniqlo’s Heattech. Super thin and keeps me toasty

– Always have hand warmers on set. Don’t. Be. Stingy.

– I’ve never bought from Northern Outfitters but hear great reviews

– An AD friend recommends Battery Heated Boots/Socks

– Make sure your winter coat is warm but thin. Bulkiness affects my ability to operate

– Fingerless Wool Gloves with Mitten Flap to keep you warm and dexterous

– Frequent bathroom breaks keep you warm. Make sure you have easy access to bathrooms and don’t grumble when crew needs to take 10

– Good hearty low carb meal goes a long way

– Don’t drink coffee (oops)
To Keep Gear Warm:

– Always tell your rental house what conditions you will be shooting in and if they recommend certain accessories

– If you are shooting film or working with mechanical (vs digital) gear/optics, they will need to be “winterized”. Film stock and mags must be kept warm

– If filming in the snow, do a test shoot in prep. You’re looking for how well your camera, lenses and film/hd dynamic range handle bright white and contrast. The more you know in prep, the less time spent outside. You might want to rent/purchase ND, Grad and Polarizer Filters to control contrast of bright white snow

– Keep your batteries warm. Cold weather causes them to drain faster. You can keep them indoors, in a warm vehicle, close to your body or tape hand warmers to them

– Bring camera out only when ready to shoot

– LCDs can be temperamental in super cold conditions. Monitors might be fuzzy, gray or lag behind the action. Give them extra time to warm up

– If shooting with a Steadicam, I’ve heard the green monitor works better than LCD in cold weather

– Waterproof your camera

– Body heat can be efficient in keeping gear warm. However, sweat can cause condensation on your gear which you want to avoid

– When returning inside, give equipment and crew plenty of time to acclimate to warmer temperature. This means less condensation. And grumpiness.

Happy shooting!

In Search of Films that Reflect Me Tue, 20 Jan 2015 19:51:34 +0000 0x5

The above image is from an ad my Mom created for the organization, BOCA (The Black Owned Communications Alliance). It should give you some idea of how I was raised.

I’m aware of the importance of seeing positive images of yourself in film/tv/media. But as a filmmaker and lover of film, I also believe a film should reflect the director’s reality. Not mine. These two beliefs often come to blows when evaluating/enjoying a film. As was the case with “Whiplash”.

“Whiplash” was a superb film. However, I kept thinking “what if it took place at a prestigious film school instead of a music conservatory?” I’d be sour. Really sour. Why? Because the student body portrayed in “Whiplash” was almost exclusively black and white men. I received my MFA from Tisch Film School. Maybe not as diverse a student body as “Fame” but we did have women. My identity is very much wrapped around my education and I’d take the absence of women as a personal slight. As if the director said “I can add a female student… or a potted plant to this scene. Same difference.”

Seeing yourself in media is a form of validation. That you exist. That your story, struggles and legacy matter. That they hold equal weight and value to those who appear different. But I rarely see a protagonist whose life resembles my own. Black female artist. Closest friends resembling an 80s Benetton ad. Surrounded by as many artist, as scientist. As many gay as are straight. Her parents still together. If not for Shadow and Act and Twitter, most people wouldn’t know a black female DP exists.

When writing for S&A, my main goals are to make you better filmmakers, more confident filmmakers and share in my love of film. I never want to gripe unless I can offer a solution or shift in perspective. Other writers have addressed the lack of diversity in front and behind the camera, pervasive whitewashing and a discouraging award season. I can offer no solutions beyond the obvious: write/direct your own films, promote and financially support films, filmmakers, festivals and awards that align with your politics.

What I can share is how I watch over 350 films/year and often see myself in those stories. Why did I love “Whiplash”? It showed pride in one’s education, was about an only child, who had a wonderful relationship with his father, lived in New York, had “complicated” relationships and a fervent belief in his artistic abilities. It was me.

The protagonists of most films won’t share my physical traits, but the film itself might share my personality traits and life experiences. Below is a list to help demonstrate what I mean. Many films could easily fit in multiple categories.

Cinematographer – I can’t help but identify with any film shot beautifully

Only Child – Clueless, Amelie, Spirited Away, Beasts of the Southern Wild, This is England

Positive Relationship with Both (Still Married) Parents –  Easy A, The Incredibles, Mean Girls, The Kids Are All Right

Optimistic / Sometimes Idealistic – Singing in the Rain, Happy Go Lucky, Thin Red Line

Child of the 70s – Any film shot during or about the 70s. From Foxy Brown, to Logan’s Run to Boogie Nights

Growth Prompted by Other Cultures – Ramin Bahrani films, Cairo Time, The Visitor, In America, Le Havre

Native New Yorker/Manhattanite – Shadows, Raising Victor Vargas, Audrey Rose, Midnight Cowboy, Please Give, Kids, Kramer vs Kramer, West Side Story. Noirs shot on location. Regardless of borough, I always respond to films about Black immigrants in NYC

Concerned with Urban Planning – The Pruitt Igoe Myth, Medicine for Melancholy, Poltergeist, Chinatown, There WIll Be Blood, Only Lovers Left Alive, Deliverance

Blue Collar Worker (aka Below the Line) – Edge of the City, Blue Collar, Silkwood, North Country

Proud of / Fascinated with My Friends – Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, Bridesmaids, Freaks, City of God, Tombstone, All About Eve, Pollock

Party Lover/ Party Thrower – The Great Beauty, Party Girl, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lackawanna Blues, every Fellini film

Strategic / Cerebral – Anything written by Brit Marling, Hannah, Heat, Any Given Sunday, David Mamet films, Bullitt, Fresh, The American, Headhunters, The Good Shepherd, I Saw the Devil, The Conversation. Blade Runner. Related to…

Fascinated by Physics/Quantum Physics – Shane Carruth films, Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Illusionist, La Jetee. Related to …

Constantly Questioning Reality – from the magical: Wings of Desire, After Life, The Matrix, Inception, Next Stop Wonderland, to the bizarre: Synecdoche, NY, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Enter the Void, anything by Tarkovsky or Leos Carax, to the dark: Every horror film

Traveller/Free Spirit – About Schmidt, Into the Wild, On The Road, Motorcycle Diaries, Thelma and Louise, Death Proof

Woman in a “Man’s Job”/ with “Men’s Interest” – Potiche, Love and Basketball, Norma Rae, Aliens, Jafar Panahi films, Elizabeth. Related to…

Challenging Women’s Roles in Society – Anything written by Sarah Polley or Lars Von Trier, most film noirs, Fill the Void, Mother of George, Wadjda, She’s Gotta Have It. Related to…

Complicated Romantically – Celeste and Jesse Forever, Reds, I Am Love, Last Time I Saw Paris, Rust and Bone, Blue Valentine, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Challenges of an Artist – Birdman, Seraphine, Poetry, Finding Vivian Maier, Frances, An Angel at My Table, Mishima. Julian Schnabel films. Too many to list.

Exultations of an Artist – Babette’s Feast, Rize, A Band Called Death, The Runaways

That’s some of my list. What’s yours? How could you describe yourself beyond the obvious adjectives? What films honor that aspect of you?

It doesn’t solve the problem in the film industry, but hopefully it gives you some idea of other ways to appreciate film.

Some suggested reading/watching re: representation in film/media:

Any book by Donald Bogle for Black representation in film/tv. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Reel Injun (Native American representation). Imaginary Witness (The Holocaust in film). Reel Bad Arabs. The Slanted Screen (Asian men in film). Latinos Beyond Reel. Wonder Women The Untold Story of American Superheroines. Representations of Labour: Images of Work and Workers in Film. Fatherhood and Hollywood: Dads in the Movies. Gender in Slasher Films. Miss Representation (Women in media). Racebending

How a Cinematographer Sees the Art of Sound Mon, 24 Nov 2014 18:32:04 +0000 -1

Dear White People’s” use of Schubert’s Piano Trio in E Flat made me giddy. I’ve always associated that piece of music with Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and loved it being reimagined for a modern tale of love, deceit and identity crisis.

Camera department gets a lot of attention but the sound for your film shouldn’t be an after-thought. It is the audio component (Texture of an actor’s voice. Ominous sound effects. Enchanting score) that solidifies the audience’s suspension of disbelief. David Lynch, a director who is always asking us to believe in the bizarre, said it perfectly: “sound is a great “pull” into a different world. And it has to work with the picture – but without it you’ve lost half the film.”

Obviously my creative strength lies in the visual. I thought I’d take you on my journey as I learn to see the art of sound. I start with my introduction to sound, proceed with advice from sound professionals, loop back to share tips on filming live music and finish with the role of film and music in creating social change.

So first. A few of my firsts:

1st favorite album – Tie: “Jungle Boogie” – Kool and the Gang; “Peter and the Wolf” – Serge Prokofiev

1st film score/music to impact me – “Fantasia” – Paul Dukas

1st film score/music to impact me (live action) – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – John Williams. He had my childhood on lock-down

1st soundtrack I begged and prayed (and begged) for – “Fame

1st “soundtrack” I loved and memorized before seeing the film – “Pink Floyd’s The Wall

1st score I remember my father racing to buy at Tower Records – “Blade Runner” – Vangelis

1st score I raced to download on iTunes – “Tristan und Isolde” (Melancholia) – Richard Wagner

1st unpaid job in music – Parents’ ad agency. I use to consult on music for tv and radio spots

1st paid job (2nd AC) on a music video – K-Ci & Jo Jo’s  “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” by Lionel C Martin (no relation)

1st (and only) score that always makes me cry – “Carnival of the Animals (Aquarium)” – Camille Saint-Saens. Not for its use in “Days of Heaven” but in the documentary  “Visions of Light”. (Yes, being a DP is that deep for me).

1st time I noticed the power of sound design – “Eraserhead” – David Lynch

1st time I noticed the power of overlapping dialogue (Oh right. No one pauses and waits for the other to speak in real life) – “Nashville” – Robert Altman

1st foreign film I was told to watch because of the score – Either “Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud” – Miles Davis or  “Orfeu Negro” – Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim

1st use of sound to make me paranoid –“The Conversation” – Francis Ford Coppola

1st TV title sequence (horror) to make me salivate “American Horror Story : Coven” and 1st to make me ridiculously nervous “The Walking Dead : Season 3”.

Only scene I refuse to watch without the audio:  “There Will Be Blood” – Jonny Greenwood

My directorial debut is a vampire film. Sound effects and theme music are especially important in horror. What sounds do I find unnerving or threatening? It’s a combination of location sounds (hollowness of an abandoned building for example) and “synth sounds”. What sounds do I feel describe the allure of darkness and evil? Timeless classical music. And cutting edge sound track. Should I favor synth vs orchestra music?

In order to get the best out of my sound department, I asked three friends, a Sound Mixer, Music Supervisor and a Composer, what advice they’d give me, a first time director. Their advice and pet peeves.

Judy Karp – Sound Mixer (“Half Nelson”, “Girlfight”):

“You’ll want to hire a sound person whose job experience matches the requirements of your shoot and directing style (narrative with a lot of improvisation? Run and gun?)

Bring your Sound Mixer on location scouts so they can come prepared. Let them see a full rehearsal first and decide how to mic it. (Don’t tell them to “go wire everyone”. Maybe the boom sounds best.) Partially because shooting on cards is inexpensive, directors like to shoot the rehearsal. The problem with that is it forces Sound to place mics in a safe area (in case the take is used), instead of the best area.

Deciding whether to do ADR or not is not exclusively a money issue. For example, I’ve gone to the sound mix with John Sayles. He has the resources and actor availability to

do ADR. In the session, he’ll ask to hear the production tracks again and opt to use them instead. They sound more alive. The performances and energy are there. You feel the location more.”

Barry Cole, Music Supervisor (“Home”, “Marley”, “Alive Inside”):

“Music licensing is no joke. Use a supervisor or a clearance person. I always tell Producers that I will save them more money than they will pay me as a fee.

If music budgeting isn’t sorted in pre-production, it can cost you more later or you will risk not being able to use it in a scene. The Producer needs to be honest and as firm as possible on the budget and schedule.

[this cracked me up] ”Distro doesn’t want to hear about music problems any more than they want to hear that Crafty didn’t have enough vegan options for the crew”

Segun Akinola – Composer (“1 Way Up”)”

“When working with a composer sometimes it takes a while before everyone is on the same page; in such situations it’s important to be a team and communicate effectively. Don’t worry about talking in musical terms, instead, ask yourself how you want the audience to feel and talk to the composer about this. I highly recommend talking over the phone or via Skype if you can’t meet face-to-face. This way there’s less room for misinterpretation (generally) which is especially important when giving feedback.”

My first documentary was on French hip hop. To this day, I really enjoy DPing films about musicians. I’ve shot lots of concert footage, album recordings and impromptu jam sessions (those are the best).

Here are two tips to make your live performance footage more dynamic.

Be stylized. Why should music videos have all the fun? Just because you’re shooting a doc with limited resources doesn’t mean you have to stick to available/source light, a locked off wide shot or going exclusively handheld. Play with your camera settings. Be inspired by photographers.

My title and photograph for this article is a “hat tip” to the extraordinary photographer Roy DeCarava. His book, “The Sound I Saw”, altered how I view jazz musicians. I shot the above image of horn players backstage at the Carrie Mae Weems Live event at the Guggenheim.

Film musicians like a sports team:

– know the individuals and group dynamics. Who has the bigger ego? Who is the rookie? Let that inform your composition, because it is informing their performance

– is this the home stadium? Are the audience members welcoming or not?

– the entire crew should know each “play” (song) prior to shooting. Helps to anticipate your camera move, how fast/slow, how wistful, how jarring it should be

When I fell in love with filmmaking, I was attracted to the medium’s visual expression and ability to reflect/cause social change. But I’ve become increasingly frustrated. DPing Dee Rees’ short film “Orange Bow”, about the social challenges facing black boys, was extremely important to me. After the huge success of “Fruitvale”, I naively thought that society and legislation would change to protect all citizens against police negligence.

As expressed by my friend, ReBecca Theodore-Vachon, aka @FilmFatale_nyc‘s tweets: “The thing that frustrates me is how movies abt social justice are loved by the public, but it’s not reflected in our society or politics… I’m happy people are loving #SelmaFilm. But look at what’s happening in Ferguson RIGHT now. The struggle from then and today is the same”

It wasn’t until seeing the excellent documentary  “Mr Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” that I surrendered the leadership role of “social change via the arts” to the music industry. I thought of the importance music played in the Civil Rights Movement. The music industry has the advantage of repetition. Radio play, mixed tapes, MTV rotation, cover bands and everyday people singing, rapping or humming their lyrics. There’s a reason I’ve not watched the video for Artists United Against Apartheid “Sun City” in 30 years but still remember all of the lyrics. The powerful film “Cry Freedom” came out around the same time and I remember very little.

TV shows could leverage their power of repetition to create social change. I’m sure seeing Dennis Haysbert’s face each week as President Palmer on “24” made it easier for some to see a then Senator Obama as their future President.

I also see parallels between the disturbing film, “Nightcrawler”, and tv news handling of Ferguson. Repetition can also deteriorate any sense of unity and social justice.

I’m still “chewing” on how I can use my arts (film, painting and photography) to positively impact society. I hope you do the same. Make sure to check out ReBecca’s “Film 4 Justice” Movement.

Share what you know and love about sound effects and music in the comment section.

Additional reading:

The Electric Side of James Newton Howard

Getting the Score: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Scoring

Robert Altman: The Sound Crew’s Best Companion

Additional viewing:

Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony

5 Tips For The DP Whose Director Is Also The Lead Actor #DPNotes Mon, 15 Sep 2014 21:05:41 +0000 cdn.indiewire

I just finished shooting the feature film, “Queen of Glory” directed, written and starring Nana Mensah. This was the first time I worked with a Director who was also the lead in our film. Not only was Nana the lead, she was in every scene.

If I have the opportunity to shoot for a Director/Lead Actor again, these are five tips I will definitely adhere to:

1. Create a Visual Shorthand – if you’ve been following my articles, you know how much I love pre-production and pouring over reference material with my directors. This is even more important if your director will spend the majority of production in front of the camera. During prep, Nana gave me over 10 films to watch or rewatch that emulated the style/tone she was going for. I countered with more film references and photographs that I thought would support her script and aesthetic. Once on set, if Nana said  “like the Big Lebowski shot” or “what we liked in Darjeeling [Express]”, I knew what to do next.

Aside: when it comes to reference material, my director and I will often formulate the look of a film based on established works of art. The colors of this painting. Mixed with the camera movement of that film. But with the lens choices of this photographer. But maybe you, the Director or the Production Designer would rather create original works of art to serve as a visual reference. See Akira Kurosawa’s amazing storyboards for “Ran”. Or read about Production Designer, Dante Ferretti’s work on “Gangs of New York” and his recent awe-inspiring show at MOMA, “Dante Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen”.

2. Rules of Your Visual Language. Once you and the Director have narrowed down your reference material, your likes and dislikes, the “rules” will be self-evident. I won’t give away all of our secrets yet, but each of the films Nana liked treated camera movement in a similar way and approached color in a similar fashion. In prep, you and your Director should come up with a list of rules for your film. For instance: only use the color purple to signify death or an eyelight to foreshadow “not guilty” (a personal favorite from the genius film “12 Angry Men”).

If you lose a location, lose a few hours and need to reimagine a scene on the spot, this list of agreed upon rules will cut short discussion on what needs to be done next. This predetermined set of rules is also a safeguard preventing the final film from emulating your, the DP’s, taste over the director. See my previous article on how those same rules will be supportive in post production.

 3. Second Set of Eyes on the Monitor. Our producer, Jamund Washington, was almost always by monitor protecting Nana’s vision as it related to direction, writing and performances. Even if you, the DP, have a strong background in directing and actors, that additional person keeps the film from drifting into a film you’d personally like to direct. The Director can ask a personal friend, co-writer, 1st AD, Scripty, Acting Coach or a Producer to stand watch.

4. Stay in Your Lane. Resist the urge to offer unsolicited comments about performance. This is not always easy. Film crews love to problem solve and help make a film better/darker/funnier etc. But too many voices offering their “two cents” creates an unhelpful and unwanted cacophony on set. If other actors have questions for you about their performance, steer them towards the Director or whomever is keeping watch by the monitor. On the set of “Queen of Glory”, I tried to keep my comments about blocking and acting only to what was affecting camera and what I thought would give us a more dynamic frame.

5. On-Set Camera Tools to Inform the Director. Playback was an invaluable tool. Relying too heavily on it eats up time. This is how we used playback efficiently: Whenever all departments felt we had a successful take, we showed it to Nana for her feedback and an “ok” to move on. Or if a scene/shot was developing in a way we thought wasn’t aligning with the script, and it was faster to demonstrate (playback) than discuss what wasn’t working. Then Nana could don her Director’s hat and make the adjustments she saw fit.

The Artemis Director’s Viewfinder App was another invaluable tool. I pride myself on instinctively knowing where to put the camera and which lens to use. But taking photos of the monitor or playing Nana’s stand-in so she could evaluate my choices was inefficient. I eventually surrendered to my 1st AC’s (Jason Chau) suggestion to use the App. It was a quick and easy way to show Nana our different lens options and speed up our set-up time. Besides, I like to limit how frequently my ACs move the camera..

Earlier this year, we lost a great and extremely influential Cinematographer,Gordon Willis. He shot eight of Woody Allen’s films and is probably the best example of a Cinematographer creating a signature look for a Director/Lead Actor. A little reading from the archives: “5 Tips from Master Cinematographer Gordon Willis



How to Guarantee Your First Professional Color Grading Session is a Success #DPNotes Thu, 24 Apr 2014 21:13:40 +0000  


Congratulations. You’ve graduated from presenting your video footage as is or altering some colors and contrast in After Effects to hiring a professional Colorist/DI Specialist. Now your film can realize its full visual potential.

Here are my guidelines to getting optimal results at your color correct session.

Before I begin, I want to share my philosophy on cinematography. This is not the same for every DP. Perhaps because I “cut my teeth” shooting film, I prefer to commit to the look in camera. (Some DPs prefer a flat image that they alter in post.)

My philosophy is to create/dream in pre-production, commit in production and confirm and finesse in post. In prep, the director and I pour over films, photographs etc and have fun dreaming up our film’s visuals. In production, I use my lights, film emulsions/camera settings and lenses to commit about 90% to the final image. In post, I confirm our original intention for the cinematography and use the talents of my Colorist/DI Specialist to further enhance our creative choices.

I recently finished grading the film “No Vagrancy” by Ernest Leif Boyd. I’ll share my #DPNotes as reference.


– Chose a post house with experience in your final output/media (tv, narrative, commercials, docs etc). They’ll be mindful of your deliverables, distribution, deadlines and will grade accordingly. Also, be realistic about how your film will be distributed. As much as I love the idea of a 35mm print, “No Vagrancy” was graded for a Digital Cinema projector.

-Don’t be swayed by the free cappuccinos, cozy couches and impressive film posters dotting the hallways. We did our color grading at the very sexy Harbor Pictures. They have all sorts of ammenities and treats which are wonderful for your clients/directors/producers. What mattered more to me were the DI Theaters with projectors (some places grade only on monitors).

– It’s extremely important to me that I work with a Colorist who is respectful of my directors, who may not know a lot of technical terms. I need a Colorist with patience and strong communication skills. It’s unfortunate how many may “phone it in” if they dislike your project or your budget. Tour a potential post house before committing. Ernest had worked on Black Nativity, which posted at Harbor. His having a prior relationship with them was persuasive.


In pre-production, my director and I have plenty of time to philosophize and explore creative ideas. You don’t have that luxury in post. You must come prepared. Color grading will cost you a few hundred dollars per hour. If you show up unprepared, you will waste time and money articulating what you want and likely leave with a film that is just “good enough”.

How I prepared for the “No Vagrancy” session:

– I rewatched the trailer (which was professionally graded). Ernest and I discussed the grading decisions made for the trailer (to be seen on a small screen) and what we’d like to keep or push further for the final film (to be projected theatrically).

– I reviewed the photographs used as reference material. In the past, I’ve emailed the references to my Colorist. This can’t hurt, but keep in mind they may not have time to review them. Plus you can’t guarantee that their monitor and your computer are calibrated in the same way and will render the images identical. When we began our session with Roman Hankewycz at Harbor Pictures, I went over our references and explained exactly what about the images I wanted to replicate.

– I wrote down my visual “rules”. For example, no color could be brighter nor more saturated than the female protagonist’s dress. These rules were determined by the script, our reference material and the results of my camera/lens/wardrobe tests completed in prep. Color grading requires several hours in a dark room. Your will brain freeze. These notes and rules will prove invaluable in reminding you what to focus on.

– I also reviewed my shooting lighting diagrams with corresponding script notes. We shot “No Vagrancy” two years ago and this helped to jog my memory of which gels I used, lighting ratios and why. For example: “use back light with Mist Blue gels to express vulnerability.”

– This article is written with DPs in mind who can easily articulate concepts about color and light. However, if you are attending a color session without your DP, definitely know in advance how to talk to your Colorist  about saturation, shadow detail and contrast. When speaking to Roman about “No Vagrancy”, I relied on references to printer lights, party gels, panettone and oil colors to describe the look. Thankfully, he always knew what I meant.


– Trust your Colorist. My directors may know a lot about cameras, but they ultimately trust me to create their vision. You must extend the same courtesy to your Colorist. Always be firm about your vision but respect your Colorist’s input. Your exposures, dynamic range/latitude, color bit depth and resolution will dictate how much “wiggle” room you have to alter and play in post. If a look can’t be accomplished, it’s probably because of your camera/lighting choices and not the incompetency of your Colorist.

“No Vagrancy” was shot on the Arri Alexa, ProRes Log-C 444. Thanks to its dynamic range, I had plenty of room to play with the image. There was only one shot I was concerned about and that needed to be “fixed in post”. I won’t say which but Roman did an exquisite job and the shot fits seemlessly into the rest of the film.

– Time management is key. If you are consumed with small details upfront, you’ll probably rush grading the rest of film. That scene will look ravishing, but what a waste if the rest is only “good enough”. Your Colorist will probably tell you how he/she likes to run a session. Together you will prioritize. For “No Vagrancy”, my main priorities were to do a complete pass (grade the entire film), be precise about the female protagonist’s yellow dress and maintain a certain level of low contrast. That was completed and we had time to spare. We were able to use our remaining time to finesse smaller details that still had a big impact on the film: color temperature of the shadows, diffusioning the light in certain scenes etc.

– The laser pointer will be your best friend. When I’m tired or stir crazy, I can lapse into calling everything and everyone “thingy”. Make sure you’re given a laser pointer to point out changes you’d like to make.


Chances are you won’t have a dialogue with a professional Colorist until after the film is complete. However, we are moving in the direction of artistic choices and time tables in production and post-production overlapping.

Last year, I visited the Cine Gear Expo in NYC. There were a lot of “toys” that caught my attention but I thought impossible to get on an indie film. However, after shooting with the MoVI System, on a documentary no less (small clip from Lana Garland’s doc “Living Off the Line”) I realized I never know what a producer will agree to.

Another toy I was excited about was Light Iron’s Lily Pad On Set Creative Suite. It can create and save multiple color looks on set and provide same day iPad timed dailies. Although my directors and I usually agree upon a look in prep, I like giving them creative options and flexibility on set. This tool, like generating a LUTs, will make it easier to communicate with my Colorist and speed up the post production process.

Production still above is from “No Vagrancy”, starring the wonderfully talented Roslyn Ruff.

Additional Reading:

Wonderful article about different DP & Colorists collaborations

Deliverables Demystified

Check out Malika Franklin, the first female Colorist I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting

Can Guerrilla Filmmaking Become an Addiction? My Thoughts on the Tragic Loss of Sarah Jones Fri, 07 Mar 2014 18:09:46 +0000 Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones was kin. I never had the pleasure of meeting her, so let’s call her my distant cousin “on the camera department side”. I look at her photograph and immediately connect with her exuberance. Huge smile. Huge camera. Film production can really be that awesome. I’ve always likened film crews to a family. Dysfunctional. But still family. This family has a habit, passed on from generation to generation, of evading authority for the “greater art”.

Orson Welles was our Godfather of Rebellion. From “The Making of Citizen Kane”:

“To keep studio execs off his back, Orson Welles claimed the cast and crew were “in rehearsal” during the first few days of shooting, when in fact they were actually shooting the film. It took a number of days before the studio caught on.”

I’ve always loved that story but thought of it differently after Sarah’s death. How can I reconcile my love for renegade filmmakers with a genuine panic that below the line’s safety is an after thought?

When It Comes to Films & Travel Shows Shot Abroad, Who Else Should Be In Front of or Behind the Camera? Sat, 25 Jan 2014 02:00:23 +0000 Cybel Nat Geo

My friends know I’m happiest when traveling. Multiply that joy by ten if I get to travel and work. So I get a little miffed by two occurrences: how rare I see films about African Americans traveling. And how frequently I see white men as the only on-air talent, photographers, writers and film crew for a travel show or documentary. They may have been credited with “discovering” foreign lands centuries ago but couldn’t we all benefit from seeing diverse perspectives on international travel now?

There are a handful of films about African Americans abroad. My favorite is Martin Ritt’s “Paris Blues”. The amazing cast includes Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier. Additional films are mentioned in Tambay’s post “Films About Black Americans Set Outside the USA”. In 2001, I saw Darien Sills-Evan’s film, “X-Patriots”, about two black American men living in the Netherlands. I ran up to him after the screening, at the Independent Feature Film Market, to express my absolute delight of seeing this often ignored scenario. We do travel!

International travel makes me a better person. In 2008, very much inspired by the book “Eat, Pray, Love”, I traveled to Nigeria (twice), London, Belize and Mexico. That was my best year personally and professionally. Being exposed to different cultures and working outside of my comfort zone deserved much of the credit.

And I know I am not alone. My travel mavens (Kiratiana Freelon, Greg Gross) and I have discussed the endless benefits of venturing abroad and how refreshing it would be to see our experiences on the big screen. (Aside: I’m glad to see an increase of diverse images in tourism and travel commercials. The #AdWin goes to spots).

#Protip #1 – International film festivals sometimes offer workshops in conjunction with their screenings. They will fly over filmmakers and pay them to lead their workshops. This is how I taught in Belize and Nigeria on multiple occasions.

Since I am a Director of Photography and not a writer, director or producer, I have no control over the types of narratives being made. Is it simply no one wants to fund these stories? Is no one writing them? I once received a very disheartening tweet on the subject. A black female Twitter follower explained to me, emphatically, that only rich African Americans travelled abroad. And “we” only felt comfortable in the Caribbean. I dislike arguing on Twitter so I didn’t reply.

However, I think of this tweet whenever I watch travel shows on the Discovery Channel, Nat Geo, Travel Channel or similar. The majority are hosted by white men seeking adventure, exotic animals, new arts, new music, dining delicacies and sacred spaces in foreign lands. I watch these shows for the vicarious thrill. But can these shows also alienate people? Do they reinforce a fear that traveling abroad is expensive, difficult or can only be experienced by “certain” people? Whatever the show’s host finds of interest is wonderful. But what other “wonderfulness” could we experience from a host with a different background?

Of course there are exceptions. I enjoyed “Dhani Tackles the Globe” for his international travel with a sports twist. The ultimate joy, that combines my love for travel and fascination with real estate, is “House Hunters International”. Fans of HHI love it for the assortment of people who move abroad, the diverse countries they pick and variety of living spaces. PBS’ “Grannies on Safari!” is one of the best concepts ever.

I used to look forward to Lisa Ling’s investigative reports for The Oprah Show. She was host for “National Geographic Explorer” for seven years but her reports on human trafficking in North Korea and the “Modern Day Geisha” in Tokyo for Oprah stayed with me.

Speaking of Nat Geo, I’ve always wanted to shoot for them. I imagined myself shooting Super 16mm while riding an elephant in Nepal. Or hiking through the Andes with lenses in my backpack. So when the call finally came? I had to laugh that it was shooting in Harlem. It was one of the best gigs ever and I got to work with director Marco Williams (see photo above).

Protip #2 – Nat Geo, Discovery, Bravo etc contract out their tv shows to different production companies. If you’d like to work on nature/travel shows, google the words “reality tv” and “production companies” to get started.

This is a perfect segue to my other concern: who is behind the camera? Does that affect the story being shown?

I watched a fascinating documentary recently that shall remain nameless. It covered the sexual exploitation and degradation of young women in a third world country. The entire crew was male. From what I could determine from imdb, most, if not all, were white men. My “buttons” were pushed.

Every documentary crew member (sound, shooter, producer) comes with their own sensitivities and beliefs about the story being told. If you combine doc crew members with diverse interests, your footage can be richer, more dynamic. When given the authority, I like to chose 2nd Unit DPs for documentaries who are, of course, professional, fast and creative. But I also want them to have different “buttons” than I. They may see real life stories unfolding that the director and I can not, because our backgrounds are different. My personal sensitivities are the welfare of women and children, group activities (sports, dance troupes, protests) and urban renewal.

In the case of this one particular documentary, I was concerned by the social dynamic between the destitute, brown women, sharing their stories of sexual abuse with the white, (relatively speaking) privileged, male filmmakers. Did the women feel heard? How did it feel to have these men in their homes? Doc crews spend a lot of time with the subjects before and after interviews. I hope the women and their boundaries were respected during those moments.

I wish there had been at least one female behind the camera to show compassion and reflect back understanding to the women. Not that men can’t express compassion or understanding. Of course they can. I’ve also worked with women who were cold and manipulative.

And I’m practical. Sometimes your crew comprises of who’s available. Who you always work with. Who has gear. It’s often easier and cheaper to rent hotel rooms if everyone is the same sex.

But the next time you watch a documentary or reality tv show, examine who is working behind the scenes. Did that have an impact on the “reality” being told? And be mindful when crewing for your own documentaries. In my experience, the best way to find crew is by recommendation. Protip #3: Join groups like The D-Word for additional help in finding crew.

This brings us to a letter I wrote to “Departures” Magazine about their October 2013 “Africa” Issue. “Departures” is a beautiful, glossy, “delicious to look at” Travel & Lifestyles magazine published by American Express. It’s one of the few magazines I must experience in print. Of the 26 contributors for their October issue, 7 were women and all but one (it seems from the photos) were white. They may or may not print my letter but I wanted to share it with you:

“Dear Departures Magazine,

I love your magazine. It consistently delights and makes me want to board the next flight. To anywhere.

However, I was very disappointed with the lack of diversity amongst your contributors, in particular, for the October 2013 Africa issue. The content and photos were superb, but I’m personally tiring of magazines such as yours, Nat Geo and similar tv shows hiring almost exclusively white men to travel, explore and report back. I’m glad you had a few female contributors, but I believe only one person of color?

I am a cinematographer and huge travel enthusiast. Last year, I shot a documentary in Tanzania and Ethiopia and was keenly aware (especially in Ethiopia) how people could feel violated by the camera’s presence. Sometimes having a person of color behind the camera put people at ease and encouraged them to show a different side of their personality and experiences.

Writing, photography and cinematography are all arts. We make decisions on framing, people to follow and lenses etc based on what fascinates us. It is subjective. I’m sure all of your contributors had the best of intentions. However, limiting your group to a predominantly white gaze, restricted how Africa and it’s people would be portrayed.

I hope you take this letter and my concerns to heart. The American Express brand does a strong job of representing diversity in its advertising. I’d love if that commitment spilt over into your creative staff.

Warm regards,

Cybel Martin”

Cybel DP’s 15 Unconventional Tips to Making a Low Budget Film More Extravagant Fri, 06 Dec 2013 21:49:27 +0000 www.indiewire

“It’s always good to make up for a lack of (financial) means with an increase in imagination.”

— Wim Wenders

Friends who know me, know I really dislike talking about limitations. I prefer to dream big and be optimistic. I’m a “let’s put on a show! ” type optimist.

However, I will need to dip my toe into the murky pool of limitations for a second. Stay with me.

There are a lot of indie films being made with fascinating stories. Yet too many have mediocre to painful to look at visuals and poor production value. We can adjust our approach to storytelling and raise the bar of expectations regardless of budget.

I’m sure that I speak for many DPs. I’ve no delusions of shooting the next Bond film but hoped for more, given my experience, education & resources, than interviewing to shoot on a 5D in the director’s apartment. I “should” be shooting features with $3-10m budgets but US film production has lost it’s middle class. Or as DP Ryan Walters says in his post “Three Reasons Why It’s Bad Business to be a Cinematographer”, there is an “evaporation of the middle market”.

I love our Indie Film producers, even though they speak with limitations. Many are of the “we don’t have. You can’t have” variety. A film crew’s natural instinct is to problem solve & figure a way to make your film better. However, many producers hear our requests as saying they are incompetent or that crew wants to cheat them out of more money. Make too many suggestions & we can be labelled difficult and replaced. So we keep quiet. And you get what you get.

In 2012, 2% of films were shot by female DPs. When I am offered a gig, the last thing I want to do is lose it to someone who “looks more like a DP” because my inquiries and suggestions deem me “hard to work with”.

In the same way I gave advice that 1st time doc filmmakers are unlikely to hear, here are some creative suggestions I wish low budget directors would entertain and their producers be open to.

If you do nothing else, seriously consider your approach to camera movement and scene coverage.

1 Shoot High End & Rearrange the Budget. I’m prepping a low budget feature to hopefully shoot in 2014. I told my director (Don’t worry, she’s on the hunt to attach the right producer) that if we shot on 35mm or the Alexa, I guarantee we would not rent Grip/Electric equipment. The only exception would be if she wanted a dolly or car rig. I’m very comfortable with both the Alexa and Kodak stocks. I know the combination of latitude, how I can manipulate available light and decisions made with the Production Designer, will create the director’s desired look. I’d commit to not changing the total amount budgeted for cinematography, just how we allocated funds.

Shooting 35mm for a low budget feature film is nothing new. “George Washington”, “Duck Season”, “Napoleon Dynamite”, “Pariah” and “Chop Shop” were all impressively shot on 35mm for budgets under $1 million.

For inspiration on how to shoot with an Alexa and mostly available light, read about DP Yves Belanger’s work on “Dallas Buyers Club”.

2 Hire a Professional Production Designer as a Consultant. A PD’s ability to elevate a story via color, space and furnishings is it’s own form of wizardry yet frequently an afterthought in low budget films. Before putting your best friend’s unemployed roommate in charge, see if you can consult with a pro. Pay them well for three days work (instead of 2 months) to offer suggestions on the overall look of your film, advice on which resources and locations are budget friendly and to recommend crew who can do the “day to day” and operate successfully within your limitations. Ask how they’d like to be credited.

3 Color. I’ve already discussed at length the importance of color. Also see “Blue Caprice” for white wall interiors handled beautifully and “The Loneliest Planet” for subtle yet stylized use of color in nature.

4 Radical Story = Radical Visuals. Don’t play it safe visually if your film is crafting a new “reality”. Consider: “28 Days Later”, “Eraserhead”, “Pi”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. A new reality means you and your creative team can experiment and redefine what NYC looks and feels like at 120 degrees (in December) or how someone’s vision changes when they’re “one of the infected”. Have fun, be bold and let your restrictions work in your favor.

5 Go International. Adding footage from a different country can have immense visual impact on your story and in explaining the inner lives of your protagonists. Hire a filmmaker friend in another country to shoot b-roll. In a similar vein, shoot visually captivating insert shots that don’t require actors nor much crew. I was extremely moved by the time lapse in “Boys Don’t Cry”.

6 One Hyper Realistic Scene. If your budget, resources and narrative dictate simple visuals, see if one scene can be stylized to play against that. I don’t want to spoil it but there is a perfect example in “Dallas Buyers Club”. Low budget horror films will do the same: save their money for one big scare or special FX. Budget for a lean crew and hire “day players” when needed.

7 Shoot B/W. It gives the lowest budgeted film a certain panache. Even subjects that you think “should be shot in color” can be more effective in black/white.

8 Sound Affects Cinematography. Poor location audio can ruin the most gorgeous of images. Innovative sound design can make them more powerful. I can’t imagine my beloved “There Will Be Blood” without “the work of Christopher Scarabosio and Matthew Wood. Instead of spending money on music rights, collaborate with your Sound Dept. Tap into their creativity the same way you would with your DP.

Access is key. What do you have free access to that you take for granted?

9 Access to a Vehicle (motorcycle, car, bus, boat, hoveround). I recently saw “Bellflower” ($17k budget). It benefits from a unique twisted premise, an extremely crafty DP and a road trip. It’s amazing how a change in terrain makes me feel like they’ve spent a lot of money. Think “Easy Rider”, “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, “Thelma and Louise”, “Little Miss Sunshine”.

10 Access to a Visually Unique Location. Before you set a scene in your dorm room or parents’ suburban home, ask yourself where else do you have access? Production value increases even more if you can show the “behind the scenes” of a location. Access to your aunt’s jewelry shop? Also film in the back where she does repairs.

11 Access to a Major Public Event. Protests, holiday fireworks, parades, carnivals etc. This is my favorite. Examples are “Get On the Bus”, “Medium Cool”, “La Haine”, “Blow Out”, “The Official Story”. Take advantage of someone else’s big budget or event planning. The b/w photo above (Actress Susan Heyward with my 2nd unit camera op) was taken while filming a narrative during the 2009 Inauguration in DC.

12 Access to a Niche Culture. A glimpse into another community offers immeasurable production value.  It can provide not often seen locations, costumes or people. Your Capoeira club. Your Dad’s union meetings. When you have access, creatively exploit it: b-roll, using real people as extras, consider how it reflects on your protag and their journey (see the Housing Rights Committee scene in “Medicine for Melancholy”).

13 Access to Under-represented Weather. Does every exterior scene take place on a partly sunny day? That may be easiest to film but snow, during or after the rain (see “wet down“) or fog could be more dramatic. The short film,“A Story of Water”, co-directed by Truffaut & Godard wonderfully takes advantage of the flooding of Villeneuve Saint George.

14 Access to Other Arts/Artists. Are you also a visual artists? Use photography (opening scene of “My Brother the Devil” and of course “La Jetee”) or animation. Almodovar is brilliant at incorporating known performers into his films. Buika, in the “The Skin I Live In”, was more than a beautiful singer, she epitomized “enchantment”. The same could be said of his use of Caetano Veloso and Piña in “Talk to Her”. Cooking is also an art. Think of all the films with beautiful cooking sequences.

15  Access to Your Old Films. You can use footage from your previous shorts, docs, or film tests for atmosphere, for flashbacks (see “The Limey”), for dream sequences etc. Unfortunately we all have films we are extremely proud of but couldn’t finish. Can you recycle that footage?

Finishing a film of any genre, length or budget is a huge accomplishment. More people talk about it, critique it than can actually pull it off. I hope I acknowledged our limitations but left you armed with new creative tools to make a good film great.

Cybel DP PSA: Show some love to your favorite small town and Indie movie theaters this holiday season.

Happy Holidays and I’ll see you in 2014.

Additional supportive articles:

No Film School’s DIY Rigs

Low budget special effects

The Ultimate Guide to Production Design for No-Budget Movies

Filming in NYC? AGAIN? How To See It With Fresh Eyes When Working With A Limited Budget