Was I asked a trick Question?
I was on set directing a scene in my Directing II class. We all take turns directing a scene every few days, with all of the other students in class acting as crew on eachother's projects.
After we built the set, the cinematographer and I began to discuss camera placement/composition, along with the placement and blocking of the actors. We didn't even have our camera set up yet, but I had a general idea where I wanted to place it. I told the cinematographer that once we had the camera turned on and put in the right place, we will move the camera from their in order to determine the right composition.
Then,...the gaffer comes over. He asks me, "What's our focal length of this scene?" As a Directing Student, I didn't know much of the details we were talking about. The cinematographer stood silently, and I replied with "We haven't even gotten the camera set up, yet. However, the camera will be placed between 6-8 feet away from the actors." He quickly replied to me harshly...saying " That's not what I asked you. What's your focal length?" As the cinematographer still stood their without an answer, I then replied with, "Look, we're going to figure that out in a second." (The camera wasn't even set up.) The gaffer responded by giving us a dirty look, shaking his head and walking away.
1. Now, first of all...I was originally taught that focal length was the distance between the focal plane on the camera/lens to the Subject in focus. If I am wrong, I apologize, but this is a film school! We are aloud to fail. If I wasn't correct, someone please correct me.
2. How could we have determined focal length without a camera set up? We dont have any viewfinders in our class.
3. Was it right for the cinematographer to just stand there and allow me to be embarrassed? He never asked about the focal length.
4. Why does the gaffer need to know the focal length?
5. Was the "focal length question" a serious, innocent question of importance? Or did this gaffer ask simply to throw me off base? He never asked anyone about focal length before. Why was he so concerned? Is focal length EVER determined before the director or cinematrapher even turns on the camera and puts it in place?
Yes...this was for a class...and no....the professor was not on set.
Yes..I was embarrassed..because I've never talked about focal length while Directing a scene before. I thought that it was the cinematographer's job to figure that out, but I'm in no way dismissing the importance of it.
This class is full of competitive sneakiness that makes me sick to my stomach. People have been contradicting and disagreeing with eachother solely for the purpose of ego, with nothing to do with "right or wrong." the size of ego's and the amount of thick headedness in our class is absurd for a film school.
The gaffer was entitled to know what focal length you intended to use so that he could estimate the size of the shot you wanted lit.
Focal length has nothing to do with the distance to the subject, but rather the size of the lens. By telling him, for example that you were using a 6mm lens on your 2/3" HD camera, he'd know it was a wide shot and he could calculate how much power he'd need to distribute, the quantity and size of the lights and what to tell his crerw to do.
Without this information, he and the crew would be standing around picking their noses and you'd be asking them what's taking so long with the lighting after you finally got your camera up.
Lighting crews are often gruff, because it's hard and often dangerous work, so they've learned to be efficient to save energy, rather than move heavy gear more than necessary. Anything that production can do to give them the important information they need to get going is very helpful and ultimately will save timne and energy.
He was asking what the focal length of the lens was....18mm....25m....ok...I get.
This means that a camera or viewfinder must be set up in order to determine the focal length correctly..... Right? There was no camera or viewfinder on set at that moment. How could we have figured it out without it set up?
What I dont get....is...why my cinematographer did not reply or at least have input on the situation?
If we had the camera set up & turned on...then that could all easily be determined, couldn't it?
How could it have been determined without a camera, viewfinder or measuring tape on set? The cameras we are using are old school Sony Betacams that only the cinematographer (teacher's assistant) is trained for. The students in the class actually have no training on the cameras that are used, so we rely heavily upon or cinematographer (aka teacher's assistant) when it comes to working with the camera.
your help is much appreciated.
Yet...how can I determine focal length without a viewfinder, camera, lens or measuring tools on set?
yes the cameraman should have spoken up, and he just reveals his inexperience and insecurity by not doing so. at the least he should have described what was included in the shot so the lighting crew could have proceeded; even you could have done that, maybe the cameraman and you had not had that discussion yet. someone has to be in charge!
Courtesy and respect to and from everyone on the set is basic protocol. I give and expect it all the time, and spread that to the graduate lighting classes I teach at the San Francisco Academy of Art. I'm curious what school allows such shoddy behavior.
In any case, the focal length question is well answered. If you shoot long enough with the same type of camera, you will instinctively know what focal length you want. I can do that easily for 35mm and 16mm film, but haven't yet learned it that well for video. But the simplest answer would have been something like, "We are framing just wide enough to cover Actor A and Actress B from head to knees, and the camera will be here. So everything from X to Y will be in the shot." As the director, you are likely to have a pretty good idea about that field of view. However, there are directors who don't have much of a clue on such issues, and leave it up to the DP to figure out framing, angles, coverage. As a student director, you will find it more than a little useful to constantly be breaking down your scene into shots, if only in your mind, well in advance of the shoot. When the shoot days come, you will undoubtedly change everything, but having pre-viewed your shots, you will be even more able to adapt and improvise when your actors come up with some new and terrific ideas -- though you may decide their ideas don't really fit the film and have to reign them in. It's a constant dance between you, the chef d'orchestra, and everyone else on the set.
I have one and only one rule about someone on the set being rude or lazy or indifferent: I never hire them again.
director of photography
In all my years (25), I've only had one director that asked me to set the lens to a certain focal length. Most of the others thought that "focal length" had something to do with which reading glasses to wear.
It sounds like they were experienced guys who had their fun making a joke about you. this was entirely uncalled for, especially because you are a student.
However, because you are studying to become a director, do yourself a HUGE favor and get yourself over to FilmTools and buy a "director's finder". What directors do is 1. Stand in the camera position, 2. look through the finder and set the frame size, 3. Ask the operator to set the lens to your number.
They are on sale right now. http://www.filmtools.com/nekistdivi.html'> http://www.filmtools.com/nekistdivi.html
By the way, directors are not expected to know the focal length of the lens. It's a big plus because that would put you a notch above the others.
Shame on those guys. They're jerks. If that happened on a set of mine, it would have consequences.
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In a situation where someone asks you a question that you don't know how to answer, it can be extremely helpful to simply ask for clarification.
I was once given a job to edit a kinescope using a list of edge numbers so that an optical house could create a trailer from the conformed film. I had no idea what I was doing and when I talked to someone at the optical house, they were very annoyed at me. It occurred to me that it would be to everyone's advantage if I didn't try to come off as if I knew everything and instead just asked what they would need from me so they could do their job. Once I asked that, the person was happy to explain it to me. I learned something and the job got done efficiently.
As has been mentioned in other answers to your question, politeness and decency toward each other is very important. It sounds like you have a lot of people in your class who are insecure and want to prove that they "know more" than anyone else.
It is probably fair to say everyone knows something that you don't. You can probably learn something from everyone, no matter how rude, and you can disarm their rudeness by treating them with respect. Yes, people will ask you trick questions just to put you in your place. If you were to respond with "I'm sorry but I don't know the focal length. Could you explain what you need to know and I'll answer what I can," there is no way for the grip to put you down. He may continue to try, but if you are polite, it can be quite infuriating to someone who is desperately trying to be rude.
It seems to me that we do not work in a "communication arts" industry. I think it is more accurate to say we work in the "mis-communication arts." If we are honest and direct in what we say we can work more efficiently. If you set the example of proper respect and politeness, you might be surprised at who follows your lead.
In 20+ years of directing I've never had a DP ask me the focal length, let alone the gaffer. That's a conversation between the DP/LD and Gaffer not me. And, any gaffer with that kind of attitude would not be working very long in my world.
Pen to Pixels, Inc.
[Ryan Domis] "This class is full of competitive sneakiness that makes me sick to my stomach. People have been contradicting and disagreeing with each other solely for the purpose of ego, with nothing to do with "right or wrong." the size of ego's and the amount of thick headedness in our class is absurd for a film school."
In all the 13 years that I have been building online communities now, I have learned that just as the COW is made up of its team, there are many teams that I know that work together in the film and broadcast worlds. On the film and broadcast projects that I get to work on, they are always with the same people. It's the old saying: It's not what you know, it's who you know. Teams seem to surface and resurface often on various projects. So uncontrolled snide and condescending egos are a sure guarantee that Mommy & Daddy's monies paid to the film school are likely to be a bad investment and are just as likely to be monies spent to teach these kids a powerful lesson -- and that is that many people with degrees end up working in fields unrelated to the ones in which they have their degree. :o)
Most all of the incredibly talented people I know in this industry have two things in common: They are incredibly talented and while they are indeed self assured and have strong egos, they are also very nice (most of them) and understand that they are surrounded by talented people whom they must interact with to get their jobs done and create something of value. The ones who aren't nice are at least smart enough to keep their egos in check to the degree that they aren't so obnoxious that they make themselves untenable on a project. If they are not, then they aren't likely to work on many projects.
Set your goal to be part of a team and look for those that understand that principle. Oh, and don't let the bastards get you down.
Remember: Burt Bacharach lied. What the world really needs now is an undo button.
Was I asked a trick Question?
No, you were asked a prick question. The DP should have stepped in and answered, but it certainly sounds like the guy was just being a jerk. I'd tell him to go get coffee while the DP and I work the shot out. I've been both a director and DP for over 30 years and have never been asked that question. Best advice... deflect jerks with humor and honesty. And it goes without saying to avoid hiring or working with that person again. Life's too short.
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I wouldn't just assume that the gaffer was being rude or condescending to you or just out to embarrass you. Perhaps he was just frustrated that you weren't as prepared as you could have been.
"1. Now, first of all...I was originally taught that focal length was the distance between the focal plane on the camera/lens to the Subject in focus. If I am wrong, I apologize, but this is a film school! We are aloud to fail. If I wasn't correct, someone please correct me. "
As has been covered in this thread, the question is really an issue of framing, e.g., wide angle, telephoto, etc.
"2. How could we have determined focal length without a camera set up? We dont have any viewfinders in our class.
This was probably the crux of you issue and it's a lesson that you need to learn, not just the gaffer or the DP. You don't need a camera set up to tell framing. You don't need a viewfinder. That's what pre-visualization is for and it's a key element of what a director needs to learn how to do. You should already have broken down the script, done a blocking diagram with a general idea of camera placement, a rough storyboard of the scene, and a shot list. Even in the context of your class, you should have done this, at the very least, when the set was being built.
3. Was it right for the cinematographer to just stand there and allow me to be embarrassed? He never asked about the focal length.
He may have been just as curious as the gaffer was. As a director, you need to learn to have a thick skin. Why are you embarrassed? Why blame the DP? You are all learning.
4. Why does the gaffer need to know the focal length?
For framing. It tells him how much of the set needs to be lit. DPs usually don't hang lights, the gaffer and his crew do. And this takes time, and it waste time when you are waiting for the camera to be brought in and set up first. It's about time management. If you're some artiste director, do what you want, but most directors need to be aware of time constraints and making things happen - especially in film school.
Not to mention that if your DP wasn't very helpful to you, he may not have been offering any guidance to your gaffer. Is your gaffer a lighting student? Is he a fellow directing student? You should consider other things outside of your own viewpoint.
5. Was the "focal length question" a serious, innocent question of importance? Or did this gaffer ask simply to throw me off base? He never asked anyone about focal length before. Why was he so concerned? Is focal length EVER determined before the director or cinematrapher even turns on the camera and puts it in place? "
Yes, ALL the time. Maybe not in beginning film classes, but in real life. And film school is the time to learn how to do this. For instance, you're shooting in a bathroom in tight quarters. Based on the blocking, you know you are going to need a wide lens. Do you wait until you are ready to shoot with your camera to realize that that 25mm lens isn't going to cut it? Is that the time to call for a wide angle converter or another lens? It doesn't mean you don't look at what you are getting and change your mind, but it is considered in advanced.
Even more importantly, focal length is an aesthetic tool critical to conveying key emotional and story elements of a film. Different focal lengths will have different psychological impacts on an audience. It's an invaluable tool in the director's arsenal. Focal length comes into play even before you even have sets. Some directors don't care at all about focal lengths (Penny Marshall comes to mind), others (Stanley Kubrick) are very specific. When directors leave it up to the cinematographer, the DP will think long and hard on the focal lengths he/she will use and incorporate it into their visual storytelling ideas.
"This class is full of competitive sneakiness that makes me sick to my stomach. People have been contradicting and disagreeing with eachother solely for the purpose of ego, with nothing to do with "right or wrong." the size of ego's and the amount of thick headedness in our class is absurd for a film school. "
And you are standing outside of all of this? I've been in film school, and it can be dysfunctional at times, but I wasn't immune to that dysfunction. Part of the learning process is to understand what's going on and try to influence it in other directions. So the question is "was your gaffer trying to embarrass you or were you just embarrassed and instead of confronting your own embarrassment, you're blaming the gaffer,and to a lessor extent, the cinematographer?" If you're embarrassed, then that means your ego is involved, too. As a director, you need a strong ego, as in a strong sense of yourself. You might want to look at your own insecurities. We all have them. As for other students, just ignore it or use it as a lesson in understanding human nature. Remember, preparation goes a long, long way to the smooth running of a film set. It is the rare director that is really as prepared as they can be. Stay focused on being as prepared as you possibly can be and don't worry about things outside of your control.
I'd also really recommend that you go and chat with the gaffer, not in a blaming way, about what happened and how he was feeling or what he was thinking. You could say something like "hey, about that situation, I didn't give you want you needed, but I'm still learning. What do you think I should have done?" This isn't a reality show where someone's getting voted off, is it?
In a larger sense, a director is like a servant to everyone on the set. He/she plays the father, the mother, the maid, the psychologist, the minister, etc., in addition to making the film.
The gaffer’s behavior was rude and strange and uncalled for at best.
I did about 60,16mm, charity stories and CEO messages, for a production company over a six year period. (We finished last year) They were done all around the country (including Hawaii). I probably used 45 to 50 different gaffers -- (crews) (some cities we went to more then once or cities where located close to other cities.) All those different gaffer and 99 percent trouble free -- most were outstanding to say the least. (I brought my AC, and the production company -- with my suggestion at times--the soundperson) I only had one problem in all that time -- and that wasn’t because of arrogance -- it was that he didn’t really know what he was doing and tried to hide that by being, how can I say it? An ass I guess. He just tried to bull he’s way through it. He owned the lighting company and I think he had got into it without near the proper experience and training. He had a great grip working for him and I asked the producers that they hire another grip (they did) and kind of promoted the grip to gaffer. Later he became a gaffer and a good one at that. I used him a few years later on another job.
The only time I had a gaffer cross the line was about 20 or so years ago. We were doing a low budget 35mm PSA for the government. (It was me, my AC, the gaffer, one grip, food stylist and makeup -- we also had a Fisher -- my hands were pretty full)) Again I was on the road. We had a young girl talent -- towards the end of the day I overheard the gaffer say something to her like, ‘don’t worry, someday you’ll be in a real commercial’. I went to the producer/director ( a good friend of mine) and said I was going to fire the guy. He talked me out of it -- only a couple hours to go, we wouldn’t be able to get somebody else, etc. Needless to say I never worked with that guy again. But boy did that eat at me. All the way back to LA I was just fuming. I really wanted to tell him to get the hell off the set. I could never understand why a gaffer would say something like that to the talent. In 40 years I’ve been doing it I’ve never heard such rude behavior before or since. And I don't think that I've ever had a gaffer ask me what focal length I’d be using. It usually goes like this: We have a lot to do, the first setup will be such and such with the dolly and the talent walking in front of this or that (windows, etc.) The next set up is going to be in this room and it’s a teacher and kid together -- maybe something soft, a kino? HMI through a silk? What do you think? We work together and work out what has to be done. I’ve exasperated gaffers at time -- mostly by working to fast or having the director want to get a kid’s (in a documentary type setup) reaction or some special moment was happening. Once in New Orleans, we were working very fast, and the director wanted this shot right ‘now’. So we spun around and got it but like light stand,C stands, sandbags, one steps, etc. were all in the way. Later the gaffer said that if I only could tell him which way the camera was going to be pointed he probably could get it lit for me and keep most of the equipment out of the shot. That cracked me up. He was a good guy. I’m surprised a lot at how hard they work, really helping me with the look, coming up with great ideas, working through lunch at times, etc. And never having a bad thing to say. At the end of the day they’re loading the truck and talking about what shoot they’re going to do tomorrow. Either I’m very lucky or there is a ton of great, personable, talented professional gaffers out there.