Bryan Koss Interview: How Not to Drown Your Actors in C-Stands
Comments: No Responses
Filmmaker Guy Birtwhistle interviews Bryan Koss, cinematographer on their beautiful short film Love at First Heist. The shoot required some special considerations since it consists almost completely of still frames, reminiscent of La Jetée.
What is your lighting process when you first show up to a location?
The blocking is very important. When I get to a space, and I’m speaking here about narrative filmmaking, I meet with the director and talk about the script and ask him exactly what is going to be happening in this space and what will the blocking look like. Not just the technical things about, for example, this person will be here and this person will be here, and how will they move to here, but what is the point of the scene in the story, what is the scene about? From there I’ll figure out where I can put the camera that helps us tell the story the best, and how much room will I have to create the lighting effect.
So you decide where the camera goes?
Sometimes the directors know exactly what they want. They know exactly where they want to put the camera and why, and other times the director will give me that responsibility because they know exactly what they want to happen but they want me to be in charge of how they are going to capture it. I’ll walk them through my ideas. We’ll go over it ahead of time, what the scene is about and what do we want to emphasize as far as story points or feelings. I’ll digest everything and through the technical side of me, spit out a blueprint of what I think we can do to best pull that off. We go over that ahead of time and sometimes it will be my responsibility, and sometimes it’s a total collaboration, a director will have an idea and we’ll build upon it and visa-versa.
How do you get from there to “action”?
I’ll visualize what’s going to happen before it happens. I’ll visualize what the lighting is going to look like and I’ll work with my gaffer and my key grip and their departments. We’ll talk about what’s the most efficient and effective way to get that look with the limited amount of time we have and the resources we have. Even though it’s very demanding moving the gear and putting it up, it’s also very technical and very creative because there are so many ways to light a scene and to rig the gear so it’s film friendly. You still have to have the space to work and move in and out and not have the actors too tangled in a forest of C-stands.
Do you light the actors first or the background?
It’s case by case. Sometimes I’ll want to light the foreground where the action is happening. I’ll want to light that first for whatever reason because its dependent on the space we’re in. Other times if we’re in a place where the background is just as important, the architecture for example, I might want to start with the furthest away light and work towards the action. I’ll have the background in place but bring to life the elements in the foreground and the subjects we’re shooting. It’s a new process every time and no two projects are the same. I’m still learning ever day when I get on set. I’m very confident that it’s going to look great, but I’m still open to learning and trying new things, and challenging myself. I still feel I have so much more to learn about this art of cinematography and getting that one particular look. I’ve got to keep searching for that image. That’s the driving force. I don’t think it will ever be perfect. I think that’s the perfect thing about filmmaking and cinematography and lighting and looking through that lens and viewfinder is that I don’t think you ever want to be satisfied. I think you always want to keep going, keep pushing and learning and that’s the driving force. It’s very frustrating and at the same time very rewarding. It’s a roller coaster but it keeps you moving forwards, it keeps you on your toes.
How did you prepare for ‘Love At First Heist’?
Our producer had pitched me on the project and it was very interesting and ambitious so I knew that going in, which is still always very exciting. We would be shooting without permits in downtown Los Angeles, three people, no assistance, run and gun, natural light. I thought, this is the perfect project for my Canon 5D Mark II, and my Canon L-Series Zoom lenses. I armed myself with a couple of 32gb compact flash cards, 6 batteries, and ND filters. I wanted to be as run and gun and as discreet as possible while shooting in these locations. We brought some 1×1 Light Panels and a bounce disc.
It hardly rains down here in Southern California and I actually got very excited when the weather report said it’s going to rain. We were driving downtown to the location that morning and it started raining. It wasn’t coming down heavy, it was sprinkling, it was just enough for me to smile because we were getting a free wet down. On movie sets when you’re shooting at night it’s often custom to hose down the roads and sidewalks so the light reflects off of them. In our case during the day, the wet down would cut down the intensity of the highlights on sidewalks as well as provide some nice reflections. I knew it would make my life easier as well as the cloudy overcast look we had that day. It gave us a nice soft fill for shooting close-ups of these good looking actors and actresses (laughs). I also wore some waterproof pants, boots and a lightweight rain poncho. I think that’s essential because you can stay dry, stay comfortable and you can keep your mind focused on the shoot.
How did you compensate going from exterior to interior and drastic light changes with no lights?
I used Light Craft Workshop’s Fader ND filters for our exteriors. I wanted to maintain a shallow depth of field to isolate our characters in the busy background at times and not be completely dependent on the shutter speed. We were shooting in locations that were so different from one another. You are always reacting to how the light is going to be each time. Is the light going to be bouncing off the ground? Are we getting a hard backlight when the sun pops through the clouds? How is it reflecting off the walls, the windows, or if we’re in some sort of tunnel or open area. I wasn’t doing many changes within the actual camera.
You shot both still and video for this project?
The video scene at the end is the thrilling climax. It’s the first time, since before the chase through the subway, that the man gets within arm’s length of the woman he was love-struck by in the cafe. It’s the first time he was able to catch up with her. I think going from stills and jumping into video brought you more into that moment, you weren’t expecting it, and it made it all feel so real.
It was a very technical shot, it was late in the day we were losing some light. It was technical for many reasons, the blocking was very important. We had to get out of stills mode, get out of the luxury of just moving the camera and taking a still to absorb the emotion. We had to get into a cinematic mode where everything was moving, the camera is moving, the actors are moving. The most important point was that we were dealing with a sharp weapon and fake blood. We only had enough for one or two of these stunts. We all had to do it 100%, we were there in this little doorway stairwell area and it’s raining. We wanted the blood to look real and the stab to look real and sell that realness through an effect and we just, I don’t know, we did it (laughs). It worked out great, and we only had to do it once. And it felt really real. It’s that moment in the film where you hold your breath and you wait for the scene to be over before you come up for air because you were on this chase and all of a sudden someone is stabbed and you see the look in their eyes. It’s just a very neat part of the piece.
Someone sitting a home they want to be a cinematographer, what advice can you give them?
You can’t be sitting at home, you’ve got to go out, you’ve got to shoot something. You’ve got to keep working at it and understand light and capturing performances with the lens. That’s what it comes down to. And to be always open to learning.