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Rembrandt Rob

Muscles of Love

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Some of you may have read this exerpt from "Diary of a cameraman" before but for those who haven't...

The camera doesn't lie. Of course it doesn't, it's just a tool, it's like saying that a paintbrush or a pen doesn't lie. It's the person using the tool who can manipulate, distort and disguise the truth. Before going into a philosophical essay on moral truth I think I'll quickly nail my colours to the mast and state that it's the ability to use filters, lighting, effects and other tricks which makes a good camera(wo)man.
The job was a sequence for a documentary about bodybuilding and we surfaced at an "Xtreme" contest to film the participants and interview as many of the contestants as we could. The producer was determined to make an impartial documentary, not sending up or ridiculing the bodybuilders but looking at the health aspect of the whole set-up.
One problem was that nearly all of the contestants were short. I'm just under six foot tall and the muscle men barely came up to my shoulder, five foot and a few inches seemed the average height. This created a problem when it came to filming them from a standing position since it meant that I was looking down on them, especially when physically close in with a wide angle lens. The camera angle has a strong effect on the viewer. A high angle, looking down can make the subject look weak and insignificant. A low camera angle, looking up, makes people appear more powerful and strong. Most politicians are aware of this effect and will try to insist that the camera is below their eye level in order to make them seem important. Since a lot of politicians are shorter than you'd expect, I tend to try and interview them sitting down, thereby saving strain on my bent back!
Eyelines are also important. Normally the interviewer will sit next to the camera, at lens height so that the subject is looking stright ahead. If you make the subject look down with his or her eyes, they can look shifty or a bit ashamed, making them look up can make them appear dreamy and unsure.
With the bodybuilders, it was tempting to show them as short, insecure performers but that would have been a manipulation too far in our producer's opinion. Yet filming them with the camera tucked under my armpit gave them a stature and height which was just as misleading. In the end I shouldered the camera but moved it down underarm when I came in close. Going in for close-ups also caused a moral problem. Before the show the bodybuilders plastered fake tan and make-up all over (most of them had skin like the moon's surface with spots, pimples and blackheads) which looked okay on the stage but in close up it had a comical quality. To ridicule them would have been like shooting fish in a barrel but it would require a lot of manipulation to become "impartial", and is that more, or less honest? Who said videographers aren't philosophical?
When it came to an outside interview with a female bodybuilder a decision had to be made whether to "soften" her or not. My connundrum was that she had very hard features, skin like leather and lots of facial lines. Normally this wouldn't have been a problem, I would have used an i-ring on the lens (a net which fits on the back of the lens and softens lines without losing definition or giving a "romantic" look) and not just because she was a woman, men can also benefit from a bit of "net" to stop them looking like a focussing chart. Unfortunately in sunlight it can give a bit of a romantic fuzzy look which didn't suit the theme at all and made the woman look daft.
If you use diffusing filters then you have to match the diffusion to the focal length of the lens (changing the strength when you zoom) and the aperture. All of which is a right faff in a situation where you've got enough testosterone to supply a rugby team coming from a woman with shoulders like a beam engine. In the end I just slipped a warm promist 1/2 in front of the lens and held the shot without zooming too much.
To avoid the harsh sunlight creating hard shadows I placed her with her back to the sun, then used two photoflex reflectors, one to bounce a lot of soft light into her face and the other from the side to give her muscles some definition. I then used an on-camera light close to the lens to fill in any remaining facial lines and give a bit of "bling" to her eyes. This isn't manipulation, as far as I'm concerned, it's just getting the best out of a person's looks.

There was also the fact that her biceps were bigger than my thighs and I have this aversion to pain...

If nobody objects, I might just post a few more of these blogs "day at the office" and try and slip in a bit of useful advice at the same time.

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  1. Raj's Avatar
    As always a fascinating delve into the life of a proper cameraman.
    I certainly wouldn't object to a few more "Day at the Office" blogs