The Case Against Compression
A counterintuitive approach to low-budget camera choices.
Cinematography costs money. I sometimes think of my craft as being as straightforward as writing, but that every word I use costs money. Indeed, if each kind of shot — static, handheld, dolly, crane, steadicam, helicopter — carries meaning within the visual language of cinema (and they do), then they are very much like words. And they all have an associated market rate. Imagine how dull a piece of writing would be if the author couldn’t “afford” adjectives, or how boring a specific adjective would become if the author could only afford a few of them, having to repeat them. This is all too often the case within the world of low-budget cinematography.
A director of photography is constantly asked by producers to cut the “toys” in an equipment list. In one sense — perhaps a self-righteous sense — this is like asking a writer to use fewer adjectives, because they’re becoming expensive. But the dilemma is real, with valid points on both sides, in spite of the egos involved. A steadicam shot, which enables a specific kind of move and thus creates a specific meaning due to cinematic conventions and viewer expectations, can only be achieved if one uses a steadicam, validating the cinematographer’s point of view. But these “words” actually do cost money, validating the producer’s point of view.
In the world of low-budget filmmaking, a cinematographer is more likely to shine if he or she is able to thrive within the context of a highly efficient, visual haiku.
Switching gears, one might ask, what is the ultimate goal of cinematography. Within a narrative context, the goal is to support the actors’ performances and to serve the needs of the story. Of primary importance, then, is the visual preservation of every nuance of an actor’s performance, and of every detail within the world they inhabit. Unaffordable shots are secondary to actually being able to retain the most detail in the shots that are affordable.
To that end, the biggest decision that will affect the rendering of the world on screen isn’t whether to use a steadicam, it is the choice of camera. Producers with a low budget are likely to try to sell a DP on using a DSLR because it is cheaper, and the proverbial steadicam will be affordable only if a DSLR is used. The assumption is that an expensive camera should only be used when everything around it can also be expensive.
But visual language, even with its specific and expensive “words,” is amazingly resilient to the restriction of certain words, given talented filmmakers, just as a well-crafted haiku can be impressively expressive within its efficiency, given a talented writer.
This is the case for using an uncompressed camera to record low-budget content. It might sound ridiculous to shoot a web series on a Red Epic, but I’ve seen it done, and the resulting product was far above the quality of 99% of all other web content, and people are taking those filmmakers more seriously than they would if they hadn’t risen above the cacophonic noise of most internet content.
Whereas a large studio feature or television series might have the money to light a large night exterior with 100,000 kilowatts of lighting equipment burning, the low budget night exterior is a very different scenario. Using a slightly more expensive camera to record a modestly-lit night scene (or a day scene with an overbearing sun) will retain the highlights and shadows that a DSLR or compressed format would otherwise destroy, because an uncompressed camera is able to record a larger dynamic range given identical real-world lighting conditions.
But a cinematographer’s equipment isn’t the only thing on a set that costs money. There are so many departments working in tandem, whose work will all eventually end up on screen, that it becomes a travesty to immediately undermine their long hours by destroying highlights and shadows that, due to lighting constraints, couldn’t realistically be brought into the limited tonal range of a cheaper, compressed format.
Using a DSLR or other compressed camera as a primary camera on a low budget shoot, while it could save upfront costs and look good for the bottom line, is an unwise decision. “Challenging lighting situations” is a coded phrase for a situation where the tonal range of a scene exceeds that of the recording format. Typically this is referring to situations where either the shadows are too deep for a compressed format, or there is too much direct sun and not enough available fill light for a compressed format. These situations are common on a low budget shoot, due to time or gear limitations. The real challenge of a “challenging lighting situation”, then, is not a lighting challenge at all. It is a challenge to fight wisely for an uncompressed format.