Designing For The Camera – Understanding Cameras & lenses

New Master Class – Pre-Sale at 50% Off Until May 15

Until now, no one has created a class that explains cameras to designers.

You’ll not only learn the technical information that will help you understand the mechanic of cameras and optics, but you’ll learn how they capture your scenery and how they can affect your design decisions.

Image: Warner Bros Studios

As a film designer you must understand how cameras capture and record images, because that’s how the audience sees and experiences your work.

Few if any film design schools include optics as part of the curriculum leaving film designers with a huge disadvantage when working with the cinematographer on a new project.  The information in this course will help you create effective and believable sets that help the camera tell the film’s visual story as successfully as possible.

Image: Netflix

With this course, you will be able to discuss the camera requirements for your sets with the cinematographer and visual effects supervisor and not be excluded from important decisions that affect your designs. It will further your knowledge for a successful career in the Art Department as a set designer, art director, or production designer.

What you’ll learn in this course:

  • Cameras – Film vs. Digital
  • Lenses – spherical vs. anamorphic, prime vs. zoom
  • Specialty lenses – lenses and attachments that solve tricky shooting issues
  • Understanding focal lengths
  • Understanding depth-of-field
  • Aperture settings – F-stops vs. T-stops
  •  Dynamic range – over and under exposure comparisons
  • Lighting – color temperature, typical lighting styles
  • The Inverse square law of lighting
  • The basics of optics for in-camera effects such as foreground  miniatures and forced perspective sets.
  • Understanding color grading vs. color correction,  and digital intermediates or D.I.’s
  • Why is resolution important? Understanding the race for more pixel depth.
  • User Manual – you’ll get a manual with both text and diagrams that explains the concepts of the course for later reference

You will also get access to the weekly Community Lounge where you can get questions answered and meet other members of the film community.

In addition, I’ve included a special section that analyzes a number of the shots from the new German film, “All Quiet On The West Front” (Im Westen Nichts Neues). which won Oscars for both Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction in 2023.

With 3D model recreations of some of the sets and locations, I’ll discuss why certain shots were difficult to get and how they achieved them. I’ll also discuss how physical locations and built sets can sometimes make shooting problematic and how careful pre-planning can avoid frustrating situations during production.

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The $150 Forced Perspective Miniature – Part 2

A diagram showing the set shot at the widest angle with a 25mm lens.

( This is the second part of a previous blog entry -Read Part 1 here. )

When the work print arrived from the lab, I couldn’t get it up on the flatbed editing machine fast enough. These were the days when you didn’t know for at least 24 hours whether or not you had captured anything on the film stock, much less something that looked any good.

A miscalculation in an exposure setting wasn’t something you could see beforehand on a monitor. If you had flubbed up, it could mean jettisoning the whole scene altogether. Sometimes reshoots, like this one, were just impossible. It wasn’t for nothing that I was nervous. The first scene of the film would end up having to be reshot twice. Once because of a mislabeled neutral density filter and another because of a sloppy meter reading.

This was when you kept Pepto Bismol handy for the times when you finally saw your footage and realized you had just spend a lot of time and money on film and processing for nothing.

The print ran through the viewer and the scene appeared on the screen. It was just a single-light print but I was relieved. We got a good shot. The next scene looked good too, exposure wise. Still, there was something that bugged me.

Never Work With Children Or Animals, Or . . . .

Miniatures of static or physical objects is one thing, but shooting miniatures with natural elements is another thing altogether. Replicating rain, bodies of water, smoke, and fire are tricky.

It’s the reason most model ships for films are built at a large scale. The model for James Cameron’s Titanic is over 25 feet long. It was a true milestone when VFX artists were able to create believable water effects.

Making a fire look like a really big fire or making water behave naturally in a smaller scale usually requires over-cranking, shooting at a faster frame rate so when you slow it back down to 24 frames a second, it smooths out the movements to a speed that looks more believable to the eye.

Unfortunately combining over-cranked footage with in-frame live actors was beyond my capabilities. Today this whole problem could have been solved by a high school student with a green screen and Premier Pro editing software. Not a big deal. I was stuck with in-camera effects.

So, the fire effects weren’t quite up to my expectations but the fact I had gone for a bigger size (as in extensive) backing helped minimize the effect. The focal length of the lens helped too, along with the shallow depth of field.

Analyzing Different Set-ups

Diagram of camera set-up

How could I have improved the flame effect? Well, I could have built the facade at a larger scale. Below is a diagram showing the scale of the backing compared to a full size person.

On top of the backing is an icon of a person at the scale of the facade.

Below is an image of what the facade would have looked like at twice the scale size.

Angle of view on a 25mm lens
Angle of view on a 75mm lens

Yes, the flame effects would have been even more frightened real. The fire would have also been at the scale of an actual small house fire and without a lot of fire suppression in place, it would have been incredibly unsafe. The detail of the backing would have also needed to be much more realistic. I also was trying to capture a feeling of isolation, and the scale I used allowed me to portray the actress as being farther away from the fire than I would have been able to achieve given the size of the pond.

The fire burned itself out quickly. We went in and put out any remaining embers with a fire extinguisher and Hudson sprayers. I’m sure the firemen were even happier than I was that they got a good show and hadn’t had to drag their firehose through the mud, which would mean spending the rest of the evening cleaning firehose. And that, I can tell you, is really not a fun job.