Concert Etiquette

On a recent evening, British musician Jessie Ware performed at the Wiltern in LA. Near the concert's end, Ware paused and addressed her audience. “So this is actually my last stop,” she said, referring to the promotional tour for her fantastic second album, Tough Love. Her face crinkled up, and she gripped the microphone stand, as if she was about to start crying. “I knew this would be pretty sad, but you have all been so wonderful tonight. Thank you.”

After seeing that performance, I have a ton of respect for Ware. She has a lively and engaging on-stage presence; she even apologized for “having a raspy voice,” which I didn’t notice because that voice has a Paul McCartney-like resilience. Ware sounds so beautiful live, I now wish her albums didn’t have superfluous backing vocals and effects.

But I don’t think Ware owed this audience anything: my fellow concert-goers were awfully rude. More than half of them were on their phones the entire time. A number of people took group selfies, complete with blinding flash. Someone next to my boyfriend decided to take care of bank payments on her iPhone. People were having loud conversations the entire time, and they were louder still because they had to talk over the loud music. (Whodathunk they were at a concert?)

A couple of people gave me shit for being tall and for partially obstructing their view. “That guy’s like, 7’ tall!” one woman passive-aggressively complained to my boyfriend’s friends. (I’m actually 6’3".)

Let’s contrast the concert-goers’ behavior with the audience’s at a Punch Brothers concert I attended in 2012, with my aunt Karen.[1] There was much less phone use and fewer conversations. People just seemed nicer. When someone dared to carry on a conversation, Karen turned around and asked her to be quiet: the woman complied and stayed quiet for the rest of the performance.

Admittedly, Punch Brothers have a slightly older audience, and the Belly Up is a more intimate venue. But anecdotally, younger audiences lack concert etiquette. At the recent Wiltern concert, Jessie Ware sang passionately and worked her ass off. Many of my peers returned the favor by staying on their phones and recording or sharing the moment, in order to induce jealousy among their virtual acquaintances. They didn’t actually live in that moment, and they treated Ware as if she was a prop.

Unfortunately, I don't really find concerts appealing anymore. Or maybe I’m old at heart and just wasn’t made for these times.

  1. Fun fact: Karen was the sound engineer on Phil Collins’ Face Value, as well as many other albums in the ’70s and ’80s. She eventually left the music industry because she kept running into the glass ceiling.  ↩

MacBook Pro Woes

Clarification Apr 11, 2015: This article originally stated that Apple will "repair vintage models or newer," which implied that Apple repairs Macs that are less than seven years old. But in most countries and states, Apple only repairs Macs that are less than five years old (i.e., ones that have not yet turned "vintage"). The only exception in the U.S. is California, which requires Apple to provide service for all vintage Macs.

Update Feb 26, 2016: Added yet another repair for August 2015.

In light of yesterday's announcement that Apple is initiating a repair program for certain MacBook Pros, I figured now would be a good time to talk about my problem-prone 2011 15" MacBook Pro.

2011 15

First, let's learn about vintage and obsolete Macs. From Apple's support page:

Vintage products are those that were discontinued more than five and less than seven years ago. … Obsolete products are those that were discontinued more than seven years ago. Apple has discontinued all hardware service for obsolete products with no exceptions.

If your Mac has a hardware issue and is less than five years old, you can pay a flat-rate $310 repair fee[1] and have Apple ship it to a centralized repair facility. (In California, Apple is required to provide service and parts for vintage Macs, so that gives consumers a seven-year window for repairs.) Apple technicians will then repair or replace every hardware component that’s faulty. This is actually a pretty good deal if your Mac has a bunch of accumulated issues.

Second, if you had to pay for a repair, and later discover that there’s a repair program for your model,[3] Apple will reimburse you. I had to pay for my iPhone 5’s battery to be replaced, just a day after its one-year warranty expired. When Apple announced its iPhone 5 Battery Replacement Program, I called AppleCare, and the advisor happily gave me a refund.

These are all of the repairs and modifications I’ve made to my four-year-old MacBook Pro.


  • I replaced the stock 4 GB of RAM with 8 GB of cheaper, third-party RAM.

July 2012

  • Problems: The battery began to fail, and the right-hand speaker was vibrating annoyingly.
  • Solution: Apple replaced the battery and the speaker.
  • Cost: Covered under AppleCare.

April 2013

  • I replaced the stock 500 GB, 7200 RPM spinning hard disk with a 250 GB Samsung SSD. App launch times, noise level, and battery life improved enormously.

Feb 2014

  • Problem: The top row of letters on the keyboard was broken.
  • Solution: Technicians replaced the top case, an integrated unit that includes most of the MacBook Pro’s chassis, keyboard, and trackpad. This is a complicated and expensive procedure; even the most diehard DIYers recommend having a certified technician do this.
  • Cost: Covered under AppleCare, which was going to expire a month later.

Jul 2014

  • Problem: The GPU failed, likely due to long-term thermal stress. And since the GPU is soldered to the logic board, the logic board failed, essentially killing the computer.
  • Solution: Apple sent the MacBook Pro to a repair facility in Texas, and ended up replacing a shitload of hardware, including:
    • The logic board and GPU.
    • The Hi-Res Antiglare display.
    • The left and right speakers.
    • The microphone.
    • The bracket for the front of the top case, because some cables were defective.
  • Cost: The flat-rate repair fee. Apple reimbursed me for this repair on Feb 19, 2015.

Aug 2015

  • Problem: Yet another GPU failure.
  • Solution: Replaced both the logic board and the display.
  • Cost: $300, the flat-rate repair fee.

    In short, I have new:

    • RAM
    • Battery
    • SSD
    • Top Case / Keyboard
    • Speakers
    • Microphone
    • Display (2x)
    • Logic board and GPU (2x)

    So yeah, I’m basically using a new computer for free—albeit one that’s a cobbled-together, Frankenstein’s monster-like monstrosity. Even though it’s been incredibly unreliable, I could easily use this computer for another year or two.

    But hey, it could be worse. I could still be using my 2007 MacBook, which liked to shut down after playing Netflix videos for 10 minutes because doing so exceeded the CPU’s thermal design.

    1. As long as there isn’t any damage or signs of water intrusion.  ↩

    2. Usually as a result of class-action lawsuits.  ↩

  • Back to the Frame Rate

    N.B. #1: A couple years ago, I wrote a nerdy article for Yahoo about the history of and technical challenges surrounding frame rates. Unfortunately, Yahoo removed its Featured Contributor website, so the articles I wrote for them no longer exist. This is a fragmented attempt to reconstruct and expand on my original piece.

    David S. Cohen, writing for Variety last December on director Peter Jackson’s approach to the aesthetics of the second installment of The Hobbit Trilogy:

    “It was interesting to try to interpret what people’s reaction was,” Jackson says. He concluded the problem was that the image looked like HD video, and was simply sharper than people are used to in cinema.

    “So what I did is work that in reverse,” says Jackson. “When I did the color timing this year, the color grading, I spent a lot of time experimenting with ways we could soften the image and make it look a bit more filmic. Not more like 35 mm film necessarily, but just to take the HD quality away from it, which I think I did reasonably successfully.”

    Jackson’s tweaks sound like a post-mortem stopgap, as if he’s trying to amend a poorly executed paint job. The first film has a simple, but fatal, flaw: it doesn’t have a point-of-view. The filmmakers lose track of whose story to tell—it should be Bilbo Baggins’, obviously—and every aspect of the production, from the acting to the cinematography to the production design to the sound design, suffers from this lack of focus.

    But this matter can’t be closed with that terse a verdict. By shooting The Hobbit at 48 frames per second (FPS), Jackson and his collaborators made a worthy attempt at weaning audiences off movies that remain needlessly beholden to a recording / filming / projection standard of 24 FPS.[1]

    1. Technically, 35mm projectors use 48 FPS, to make the flickering between frames less annoying. So when you’re sitting in a theater, half of the time, you’re actually sitting in darkness. Digital projectors do not have shutters, and instead refresh 144 FPS.  ↩

    An excerpt, from research I did for that now-lost article from 2012:

    For over 80 years, films have been shot and projected at 24 FPS. Studios didn’t establish this standard because it was perfect; they just needed film to run at a regular speed for playing back sound…

    The cinema “look” we are familiar with was just a compromise from the late 1920s, after a sound engineer averaged out how fast theaters were projecting films. Many theaters at the time played their movies back faster than was intended, to get audiences in and out of their seats faster.

    If you've made it this far, you owe it to yourself to watch this fantastic presentation on the current state of frame rates by Bruce Jacobs, Mark Schubin, Douglas Trumbull, and Larry Thorpe, who are, collectively, formidably erudite.

    Off the bat, Mark Schubin offers this money quote:

    There is absolutely nothing special about 24 frames per second. There is no particular psychological reason for it, no mathematical reason for it.

    The Man has been giving my classmates and me a tour of his company’s state-of-the-art facilities these past several hours. Unlike many peons working in Hollywood, he’s dressed sharply, in a fine suit and dress shoes. The company recently completed an impressive restoration of a 50-year-old epic, so I believe the Man’s sartorial instincts are justified.

    But he’s been unintentionally rubbing my professor and classmates the wrong way with certain off-the-cuff remarks. For instance, his company’s post-production capabilities allow producers to “fix the frame" if they see something they don’t like. [1] Things come to a head when the Man flippantly says that he and his company have never come across a project shot in 30 FPS.

    My professor speaks up: “I’m a fan of 30 frames per second. It’s a shame it never really caught on.”

    The Man remains silent for several, pregnant seconds. He sticks a hand in his jacket pocket.


    “Yes.” My professor sticks to his guns. “I always felt 24 frames per second had too much strobing. It just has too many compromises.”

    1. To get a sense of how my classmates and I feel about having above-the-line people fixing things in post, as opposed to in pre-production or on set, check out my article Pulling Focus From the Monitor.  ↩

    There's a truth to what my professor says. And there's a reason why Douglas Trumbull spent the 1970s and '80s developing Showscan. The ASC Manual devotes scores of pages to charts that illustrate how fast a camera operator should pan if he's using different focal lengths, because it's easy for objects to look like they're strobing, particularly on larger screens. Another excerpt from my research:

    There tends to be a lot of flickering at 24 FPS, which becomes particularly noticeable the larger and brighter a screen becomes. If a character moves a bit during an IMAX screening, for instance, she’ll move the equivalent of several feet on-screen. That displacement can be jarring and exhausting for audiences to endure.

    Consider It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The filmmakers, knowing that their film would be projected on larger screens, chose to shoot at 30 FPS.[1] They understood that audiences would inexplicably feel more exhausted if they had to endure a three-hour movie projected at 24 FPS, because they would unconsciously attempt to fill in the on-screen displacement, those gaps between frames and movements.

    1. You can learn more about Ultra Panavision vs. Super Panavision vs. Todd-AO if you’re a pedant, but I find reading about the miniscule discrepancies in their technologies and copyrights soporific.  ↩

    Solutions / Paradigms / the Future

    In The Hobbit, was anyone else bothered by the way characters moved when they were in smaller spaces, like the hobbits’ homes in the Shire? Something about the higher frame rate made them look awfully twitchy, like trapped hummingbirds flitting about in a flask.

    In order for movies with higher frame rates to catch on, filmmakers and actors need to develop a new aesthetic, a new approach to their craft.

    Here are a few changes that would help audiences to be more accepting of movies shot with higher frame rates, under the current paradigm:[1]

    • Production designers and art directors may have to build larger-than-normal sets.
    • Camera operators and dolly grips may have to slow down their movements, so audiences don’t perceive their work as being subjected to a VHS-style fast-forward.
    • Actors may have to modulate their timing and blocking, to avoid the trapped hummingbird effect.

    Higher frame rates have the potential to create new paradigms that enable filmmakers to expand audience’s expectations for what’s possible with recorded media. But this potent tool must be thoroughly considered from the very start of a project (i.e., while writing a script)—not two movies into a multi-billion-dollar trilogy.

    1. I define the “current paradigm” as the system that reinforces the perception that audiences expect to see a certain kind of movie in theaters. To keep my definition nebulous and flexible, these movies generally possess a familiar structure: a narrative, characters, and dialogue.  ↩

    N.B. #2: This post’s title was inspired not by Back to the Future, but by the 1979 Wings album, Back to the Egg.[1] My former housemate Judah hung an LP of Back to the Egg on the wall of his bedroom because it made for a decent poster. So even though I’ve never listened to the album, I nonetheless have fond memories associated with visiting Judah’s room and seeing that bizarre photo.

    1. Its release was ultimately overshadowed by Japanese officials arresting and detaining Paul McCartney for possessing a shitload of pot.  ↩

    Thoughts on Pono

    Max Siegel-Pono Player

    Let's move on from sad topics and delve into a new and superfluous bit of technology: the Pono Player.

    Yes, it looks like a Toblerone. And something about the design harks back to the Game Boy Advance SP. The oversized "Plus" (aka, "volume increase") button looks so much like the Game Boy's D-Pad, I absentmindedly kept clicking different parts of the button, expecting my inputs to affect on-screen navigation.

    But not to worry, the Pono Player has a touch screen—albeit an awful, pixelated, sluggish one that looks worse than an iPod Photo's. On the plus side, the garish, Pikachu-yellow-colored silicon case feels surprisingly comfortable in hand. I imagine this is the type of material John Siracusa pines for in iPhones, which have a tendency to slide off armchairs because of their aluminum chassis.

    My good friend Max preordered a Pono Player during the surprisingly successful Kickstarter campaign. Other Max is bullish on the device’s potential to increase people’s awareness of high-resolution audio. And if it makes my friend happy, then I’m happy for him.

    But he also wanted to prove to me that it could and should also make me happy. What songs do you want to listen to, Other Max texts me the night before we’re to meet up. I suggest he have songs off Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Peter Gabriel’s So handy, because I’ve grown up listening to both albums.

    It’s futile to impart my impressions of the device’s sound quality because there were too many variables in my “test.” The 24-bit version of So seemed to hold up better in busier sections, compared to the CD version I’m used to, while the drums on Rumours sounded muddy and flat. But I was listening to songs on Other Max’s noise-canceling Bose headphones, instead of my usual set-up: a pair of Sony headphones plugged into a MacBook Pro’s 1/8" audio port.

    What role does the Pono Player actually serve? When describing the digital music explosion of the 2000s, audiophiles tend to take a fall of mankind approach. They feel that the vast majority of people were duped into buying low-fidelity songs that sacrificed quality for the convenience of portability.

    And while there’s truth to that—particularly in the early days of DRM-ed, 128 kbps MP3s and AACs—people have a tough time distinguishing between lossless and lossy audio. (I highly recommend checking out Marco Arment’s thoughts on the real-life effectiveness of high-resolution audio.)

    Neil Young, the founder of Pono, promises to take things a step further. His player is capable of playing back 24-bit audio files, not just 16-bit files that most consumer DACs are limited to playing. In the current market, 24-bit-capable DACs cost over $1,000, while the Pono Player costs a mere $400.

    But again, IRL, people normally can’t tell the difference between lossless and lossy audio files, no less 24-bit and 16-bit ones. By design, the Pono Player encourages listeners to use it on the go, a use-case where differences in encoding quality are largely irrelevant because of extraneous background noise and activity.

    I’m far more worried about the recording and mastering of music itself than the quality of the digital package containing that music. I didn’t know why contemporary recordings sounded bad until I read Greg Milner’s fantastic book, Perfecting Sound Forever. Milner’s sobering chapters on the ongoing loudness war—which has resulted in songs that are literally painful to listen to—show how important it is for consumers to be discerning and proactive about the quality of music.

    Does the Pono Player do anything to aid the good guys (i.e., audiophiles and music-lovers) in this war? It’s a conversation starter, for sure, but ultimately, it’s an expensive niche product.

    David Getman

    Erin Sherbert, writing for SF Weekly on Wed, Aug 27:

    The Medical Examiner's Office this morning said it was 22-year-old David Getman who was hit and killed by a Muni bus earlier this week. 

    According to police, Getman, a Berkeley resident, was walking along Lyon Street near Geary Boulevard early Monday morning when he was struck by a 38 Gear bus…

    This is incredibly sad news, which I just belatedly found out about. David and I met in the fall of 2010, through our work at The Daily Californian. (He had just begun his studies at UC Berkeley; I was a senior.) Even in the early stages of his professional writing career, David had a tremendous, one-in-a-million voice. Take the lede from his review of a Ryan McGinley photography exhibit:

    Stripped of clothing and inhibitions, Ryan McGinley's nymph-like models bound through nature: They climb trees, roll down sand dunes and splash in waterfalls. It makes for an atmosphere at once sensuous and innocent, like his photographs were shot in the Garden of Eden, if Eve hadn't taken a bite out of that apple and Adam was bi-curious.

    That voice—conversational and slyly droll—was something I always looked forward to reading throughout his stint at The Daily Cal.

    I'm not going to lie, I had a crush on the guy. He looked like David Byrne, only taller, lankier, more Jewish, and more adorkable. I was disappointed when David turned me down, but he did so in a kind and direct way that's rare in the gay dating scene (and even rarer among 18-year-olds).

    Regrettably, we didn't stay in touch after I graduated from Berkeley in 2011. I thought we might be able to catch up in person one day, since I lived under the illusion that people in their twenties are practically invincible.

    It doesn't help that the articles about David's death lack details. What was he doing in San Francisco around 1 a.m. on a Monday? Isn't there more information about the Muni bus and driver? These unanswered questions almost compel me to start a Serial-like investigation.

    But in the end, David and I were just acquaintances.

    David Getman

    Perfect Shots

    A few of my friends on Twitter have been retweeting posts from an account called OnePerfectShot (aka Perfect Shots). As the name implies, Perfect Shots posts stills from movies that its author considers to be aesthetically perfect. To be clear, I enjoy the outpouring of appreciation for aesthetics, and for cinematographers in general. Plus, the author of Perfect Shots, Geoff Todd, hates The Boondock Saints, so kudos to him.

    But it's wrong to think of movies as a series of beautiful shots. Photography and cinematography are very different art forms, and conflating the two can be a career-ending mistake for a young cinematographer. The former attempts to tell stories in single frames, while the latter consists of many shots in many sequences that must work together in the context of the entire movie.

    Here's a recent still that Perfect Shots posted from a scene in Zodiac:

    It's a nice shot of a letter, but this single image is only significant to people who have already seen the movie and understand the full context. Everyone else misses out on the fact that it's taken from the midst of an initial build-up, in which the filmmakers cross-cut between the respective journeys of the Zodiac Killer's letter and Jake Gyllenhaal's character. It's a great scene from a great movie, but it isn't a great shot. And it wouldn't be fair to the filmmakers to sum up their feature length-long efforts in a single frame.

    Before going to Chapman’s graduate cinematography program, I primarily dabbled in photography, not videography. To be honest, I wish it had been the other way around. The biggest challenge, my first year in school, was to break out of a photographer’s mindset. What may look and feel right, or “perfect,” in one shot may be completely wrong for the movie as a whole.

    Consider Atonement, which most people tend to remember for its epic tracking shot of British soldiers on the beaches at Dunkirk. In his review for the New York Times, A. O. Scott succinctly summarizes the hazards filmmakers face if they treat a movie as a collection of great shots:

    And even the most impressive sequences have an empty, arty virtuosity. The impression left by a long, complicated battlefield tracking shot is pretty much, ‘Wow, that’s quite a tracking shot,’ when it should be, ‘My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.’

    Now consider John Toll and Terrence Mallick’s work in The Thin Red Line. (It just so happens to also be a movie that takes place during World War II.) That movie's “perfect shot,” as far as I’m concerned, begins 10 minutes prior to the opening artillery barrage of the Battle of Mount Austen. It starts with extended Steadicam shots, which allow us to relate to the soldiers cautiously treading through the island’s overgrown grass. That buildup concludes with a graceful, hardly noticeable crane shot that arcs through the grass, rising above the soldiers to reveal the island’s hilly terrain.

    That's when we finally realize, Holy shit, these guys are fucked. And then a barrage of artillery shells rains down on them from the ridge of a seemingly peaceful hill.

    Most people wouldn't consider any of those shots, taken individually, to be "perfect." And they wouldn't be able to easily explain why they're so cumulatively effective in an image or a Twitter post. By design, they are greater than the sum of their parts.

    I didn't intend for this article to be a full-blown appraisal of John Toll’s career. But if you look at the rest of his filmography, from Braveheart to Almost Famous to Tropic Thunder and beyond, you can tell that the guy has a natural gift for telling a story visually over the course of an entire movie. There aren't any stills that stand out to me from his films, but the movies themselves are memorable, thanks to his intelligent, overarching approach. I hope that followers of @OnePerfectShot learn more about that approach, as they transition from being casual cinephiles to filmmakers or students of film themselves.


    During a lecture in grad school, my cinematography professor argued that a successful movie imperceptibly transports viewers into its world, and then “returns the audience to their seats” when it draws to a close. Ideally, it wouldn’t have any issues that could distract viewers from the experience, which I’ll call a movie’s “potholes.”

    With that thought in mind, let’s take a look at Weekend. I recently showed it to my boyfriend, Che, because it’s the best film in the world about a gay romance. (I even splurged and bought the lovely Criterion Blu-ray.)

    But almost immediately, Che spotted a problem. The film’s protagonist, Russell, is a semi-closeted, 20-something-year-old lifeguard living in the Midlands. Che’s brother is a lifeguard, so he knows what a lifeguard’s salary is. How could Russell afford to live in a nice, one-bedroom apartment? Wouldn’t it make more sense if he had roommates or lived in a complete shithole?

    I was bothered by the consistently haphazard focus pulling, which the filmmakers should have noticed while watching dailies and fixed on-set. But frankly, Che was bothered about the right kind of pothole. Russell’s apartment is too nice, which punctures the movie’s premise — a bit like Goldfinger accidentally decompressing Pussy Galore’s jet.

    That said, Weekend works in spite of these issues because the elements that truly matter, work extremely well: the actors and the script.

    Tom Cullen and Chris New’s performances are once-in-a-lifetime marvels. Both Che and I became teary-eyed at certain points, and I’d be shocked if the filmmakers recording their interactions weren’t also affected.

    The script is also a marvel. Bill Hader once said that The Venture Bros. episodes are so tightly written, “you can bounce a ball off them.” (This partly explains why each season takes at least two years to make. Ah well.) Andrew Haigh’s script is also carefully written, and has a wisely limited scope. The time frame: a weekend. Characters: Two, plus a couple of peripheral friends. Locations: Russell’s apartment; gay club; public pool; train station.

    As Haigh says in an extra segment on the Blu-ray, he wanted the characters and locations to be as specific as possible, so their experiences would be more universal for viewers living outside the Midlands. Haigh seems to understand that the actors and the story are at the heart of a movie. The rest is icing on the cake.

    I would prioritize these elements in a movie, in order of decreasing importance. The further down the list, the less the potholes matter.

    1. Actors (to win over viewers)
    2. Script (to sustain viewers’ interest over the course of the entire movie)
    3. Sound (a single mistake often indicates future potholes)
    4. Cinematography (to tell and enhance the characters’ story; “normal” people can ignore most deficiencies in this regard if the above elements are working)

    Thoughts on 'The Thing'

    Note: This post is filled with spoilers. Continue reading only if you've seen The Thing.

    What if "Norwegian Passenger with Gun" had been a better shot? The "wolf" may have been killed, but then we wouldn't have this amazing film.

    My brother, Ben, tells me that he loves The Thing because you can't trust what the movie shows. I have to disagree. What I love about The Thing is that it's relentlessly honest. The filmmakers have great faith in the to-this-day-still-horrifying models and special effects, and they don't hesitate to show them in all their gory glory.

    The Thing has a sizable budget, which allows John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey to shoot the Antarctic camp in wide shots. This is important because it creates the illusion that we know how everything in that camp is laid out. But what happens just off-screen, right outside our hero, MacReady's (played by Kurt Russell), field of view? It's that mystery, and the characters' paranoia which arises from the Big Unknown, that drives the narrative.

    What is the Thing? It's many self-replicating Things. Once the team kills one generation, it devours another team member, because it was with them all along. Despite all the theories the characters toss out, they remain just that: unproven hypotheticals. Who has time to figure out how the Thing actually works while it's on a rampage?

    Also, this might sound strange, but the Thing is kind of adorable: especially when it's a walking head with spider legs, trying to flee from MacReady's flamethrower.

    Speaking of MacReady, Kurt Russell is perfectly cast. He's so effortlessly assured that the audience immediately accepts him as a natural leader. Which works brilliantly when the filmmakers sow seeds of doubt about his true nature. Maybe he is too perfect, so he's got to be the Thing. Right?

    And what does all that paranoia lead to, in the end? A station that's been blown to smithereens by the survivors. Only MacReady and one other teammate remain, eyeing one another with suspicion in the burnt remains of their former home, as they wait to freeze to death.

    Follow-up: Pulling Focus From the Monitor

    Evan Luzi, founder of the popular camera-assistant-centered website The Black and Blue, wrote an article based on my thoughts about camera assistants (ACs) who use monitors to pull focus. He writes that relying on a monitor is a bad habit to learn, and a difficult one to break:

    [W]hen you learn to do something for the first time a certain way, it can be very tough to forget. (Not to mention a whole generation of ACs started their careers with access to crisp HD monitors.)

    This, however, is no excuse for consistently using the monitor as the crutch. When you are given the tools to pull focus properly in the right circumstances – cinema lenses with witness markings; a solid follow focus or wireless setup; time for marks and rehearsal – you should be measuring distances, marking your follow focus and watching the shot unfold in front of you so you can make adjustments.

    "In the right circumstances." That phrase drew criticism from a number of Evan's readers and several acquaintances of mine. Cinematographer Stephen Scavulli comments on my original article:

    But a great deal of the time, you either don't get properly collimated lenses, you're pulling off modded or unmodded still lenses, or you have to be flexible for any number of reasons.

    I think the lesson you preach is still a valuable one, though. I just think it should be expanded. Know when to use different techniques and tools as the situation calls for it.

    Evan echoes this sentiment in a follow-up post, in which he addresses the criticism and backpedals a bit from his previous stance. He argues that certain, less-than-ideal circumstances are "acceptable and encouraged uses of the monitor to aid in pulling focus."

    After reading feedback, it's clear that the biggest issue isn't ACs who rely on monitors to grab focus: it's a prevalent on-set culture that regards rehearsals and marks as unnecessary luxuries for contemporary filmmaking.

    In my experience, "shooting the rehearsal" ends up costing the production additional time and money, as crew and talent attempt to fix things on the fly. ACs who are involved in productions where they're forced to use, say, still-camera lenses without rehearsals have little choice but to rely on monitors to try to keep things sharp.

    I don't think this culture will change until key members of production teams realize they're shooting themselves and their financial backers in the foot.

    Pulling Focus From the Monitor

    N.B. This article was updated on Mar 28, 2014, and Mar 31, 2015.

    A couple of summers ago, I crewed as camera tech on a music video that used Arri Alexa 3-D rigs provided by Cameron-Pace Group. The set was initially overwhelming, but I had the good fortune of working with Richard Moriarty, a supportive camera assistant (AC) who had been in the business for over a decade.

    When we had some down time, Richard allowed me to play with our rig's wireless focus assist, which was fine and dandy. Until he caught me looking at our camera's monitor to check focus.

    "Don't do that," Richard snapped. I glanced up at him, startled by his proverbial slap on the wrist. "You shouldn't ever look at a monitor when you're pulling focus," he said. "It isn't accurate, and it's not what the production's paying you for."

    I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but Richard's admonishment was one of my best on-set lessons. In the two years since that shoot, I've seen so many camera assistants on student-film sets pulling focus from monitors — which are either mounted on the camera or stationed far away, at video village — that I have to comment on the practice.

    Seasoned ACs keep shots in focus using these methods:

    • Measure the distance from the film plane to reference points or actors' marks, with a laser pointer or measuring tape.
    • Use apps or charts to calculate how much depth-of-field they have to work with.
    • Rely on rehearsals and camera operators to make sure everything focus-related works.
    • Stand close to the camera while pulling focus, so they can keep an eye on both the distance marks on the lens barrel and where the actors are moving.
    • Use the "force" (i.e., their talent) when working with a shallow depth-of-field.
    • Most important, their work should be invisible. If a shot is slightly soft, they gradually move to the correct focus mark.

    Here's my theory on why younger ACs prefer to pull focus from a monitor. Most of us learned how to take pictures on early digital cameras. While these tools had extremely limited capabilities by today's standards, they did have displays affixed to them. These gave young photographers an idea of how their photos turned out, right after taking them.

    It feels natural for filmmakers in my generation to view monitors because they've been trained to look at them for immediate feedback and gratification. But I'm afraid this frame-of-mind has infected the filmmaking process. Now, this topic could lead me down a rabbit hole of on-set politics (who's in control of the final image?) and the "proper" way to direct actors (from video village or from right next to the camera?).

    For now, I'll argue that ACs who pull focus from a monitor are: 1) Making their job more difficult for themselves; and 2) Doing a disservice to productions by performing less-than-stellar work.

    Monitors tend to distance filmmakers from what's going on in the story and on set. Instead of thinking about story beats and how they'll affect an actor's movements, ACs fill their entire field-of-view with a monitor. There's a reason why great camera operators keep both eyes open while looking through viewfinders: it forces them to be aware of their surroundings.

    I've seen first-hand how this separation from story negatively impacts focus. While looking at some dailies on a recent project, I noticed that my AC kept adjusting focus in the middle of a static take, diving forward and backward until it presumably looked sharp on the monitor. I wasn't able to catch this mistake until the image was blown up on a larger screen. Unfortunately, no matter how great the actors' performances were, those takes won't be usable. The AC's reliance on a monitor cost the production money in terms of lost footage.

    I believe monitors are only useful to ACs when a camera is on a longer lens and there's an in-frame cue they have to hit for a focus pull. But even then, ACs can avoid this use-case if they're familiar with the script and have a system of communicating cues with their camera operators.

    When I'm shooting a project, I feel I've succeeded if my work is invisible. If someone compliments me on a "great shot," I wonder why the shot may have failed in the context of the rest of the movie. Experienced camera assistants feel the same way about their work. A shot that momentarily goes out of focus distracts viewers and takes them out of the story. An AC's primary goal mirrors that of the production's key creatives: to keep audiences invested in the movie until it comes to a close.

    UPDATE Mar 31, 2015: Richard Moriarty, the AC I wrote about at the article's beginning, recently gave me another note on pulling focus from a monitor: "You are reactive, not proactive. You are reacting to the buzz in focus." For a contemporary example, watch an older episode of Louie. I love the show, but it's obvious, particularly in those early episodes, when the ACs fish for focus.

    UPDATE Mar 28, 2014: Evan Luzi, founder of The Black and Blue, wrote an article based on my thoughts here. The next day, he wrote a follow-up based on readers' comments. I then wrote a follow-up to his follow-up, which Evan worried would create a rip in the space-time continuum. 

    The '50–50'

    In a recent class, my cinematography professor brought up a study about bandage-removal techniques in ERs, which found that patients prefer nurses who slowly and gently remove their bandages. Yet even with this knowledge, nurses strongly prefer to rip bandages off in one fell swoop.

    What accounts for this discrepancy? It’s for the same reason a recent ex of mine (who is, coincidentally, an LVN) decided to break up over text, rather than face to face: it causes less suffering for the doer. The nurses didn’t want to see their patients’ suffering drawn out; my ex-beau admitted that he texted me because, "It's just easier."

    So now, we come to the “50–50.” If you’ve seen enough student films, you’re familiar with this kind of shot, where two characters stand face to face in a flat composition. It often demonstrates that the key creatives know nothing about their characters’ motivations, so they take the easy way out by giving both people equal visual weight. My professor, bringing the bandage-removal study full circle, noted that the “50–50” allows filmmakers to avoid their characters’ gaze, since the camera is positioned perpendicular to their eyeline.

    The Chapman thesis film I’m shooting in a few weeks is about a difficult subject, a father who’s so in love with his drug-addicted daughter that he goes to extreme measures to protect her from harm. I’ve heard classmates describe the movie as a thriller because of several violent scenes, but it’s really a romance gone wrong. The characters don’t have an explicitly incestuous relationship, but let’s just say that the father has an unhealthy attachment to his daughter.

    In order to give this disturbing story the treatment it deserves, my director and I must avoid the “50–50” and its attendant mediocrity. It requires breaking down each scene so we fully understand the characters’ motivations. And it requires having the fortitude to place the camera directly in line with the father’s gaze, when he comes to the horrific realization that his efforts to protect his daughter were for naught.

    I like to think people watch movies because they value originality, not because filmmakers take the easiest and most predictable route. Great films are the antithesis to the “50–50”'s laziness. They force viewers to think that, maybe it’s OK to re-evaluate their lives and make difficult decisions that build character.

    UPDATE Feb 8, 2014: My friend Michael Trevis comments, "I think there is importance in the objective and subjective in films, and maybe the '50–50' is one strategy for objectivity." I agree, but few filmmakers are able to effectively employ the technique. Beginning filmmakers, in particular, tend to use it as a crutch to hide from their characters and avoid unpleasant topics. Director Andrew Haigh proved to be an exception in his 2011 debut, WeekendHaigh and cinematographer Ula Pontikos use the "50–50" to visually underscore how an introverted gay guy suddenly finds himself on equal footing with a one-night stand who's very different from himself.

    LACMA on Kubrick

    It would be an understatement to say I’m a fan of Stanley Kubrick. A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove and The Killing are among my favorite films. And Kubrick is directly responsible for sparking my passion for cinematography.

    I found the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition at LACMA a letdown. But I'm worried the exhibition may have done more harm than good to casual visitors. Although it closed last month, the exhibition will travel to other museums over the next several years. I’m going to focus on three specific issues, in the hopes of sparking a discussion on how best to approach a program about Stanley Kubrick.

    The Layout

    The exhibition is most successful at the beginning. Visitors enter a pitch-black space, illuminated only by a pair of projected scenes from Kubrick’s films. In the dark, I could make out fellow visitors sitting on benches or leaning against the back wall, taking in the images. After a few moments, I noticed an opening ahead, between the two screens, leading to a large, white-washed room.

    Museum-goers are familiar with this type of transitionary space. It functions much like the air gaps on modern airplanes, which physically separate the cockpit’s and passengers’ electronic systems, to reduce the risk of interference. In the Kubrick exhibit, this space serves two essential purposes: 1) To bring visitors into a movie-going-like state of receptiveness; and 2) to create a barrier against the outside world within a relatively small floor plan. It also reminded me a bit of an actual cinema — or, more tangentially, outer space.

    But up ahead, in that white-washed room, lies a disastrous design flaw. Upon reaching the Dr. Strangelove junction, my friend Patrick and I faced a conundrum. On the left, the exhibit wound backward and seemed to reach a dead end. On the right, we spotted a sunlight-filled hallway with people milling about. Drawn by the light and movement, we naturally headed to the second hallway.

    But there was nothing there but posters for Kubrick’s unfinished Aryan Papers project. Patrick and I stood stupidly in the middle of the stream of people for several long seconds before realizing:  Yep, this is the exit. As it turns out, we should have taken a left down that narrower, more circuitous hallway.

    This design flaw is the equivalent of a theater’s house lights coming on. It completely destroyed the movie-going-like illusion set up by the opening Air Gap. And it made me begin to question the rest of the exhibition.

    The Details

    Remember that white-washed room I mentioned earlier? On one side, visitors find a wall coated with posters from various Kubrick films. In the middle, visitors can ogle at a glass-covered case, filled with lenses used on Kubrick’s sets. The posters and lenses make it apparent that the curators intend for this exhibition to be all about Kubrick’s work. To put this philosophy another way, Let the artist’s work speak for the artist himself. (There isn't anything inherently wrong with this approach, but I'll talk about the downsides later.)

    The exhibition’s superficial quality comes to a head in the Barry Lyndon section. The curators summarize the film’s groundbreaking cinematography in a single sentence (I’m paraphrasing here): "Kubrick used lenses that created a more painterly feel."

    I have no idea what this means. Maybe they’re referring to the specially adapted, NASA-made lens that Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott used. That lens could open up to a then unheard of F-Stop of 0.7. This means that, even though Alcott was able to light interior sets with only practical lights, there was essentially no depth of field. If an actor moved, the shot would be out of focus. This method of shooting was just as risky and revolutionary as Gordon Willis’s eye socket-shadow-inducing toplight in The Godfather.

    But how does such a lens produce a painterly feel? Perhaps by relying on practical lights that can be seen in the frame, rather than large lamps hung on pipes? Or perhaps because a lens with such a wide aperture is theoretically more likely to flare, resulting in a lower-contrast image. Which maybe some art historians consider a more painterly aesthetic?

    The film’s painterly quality doesn’t really have anything to do with the lenses. It has much more to do with the ending compositions of many of the film’s shots, which adhere to real life paintings that Kubrick and Alcott extensively researched and referenced.

    The curators’ decision to omit — or, more disturbingly, their ignorance of — any of these details is mind-boggling, especially considering that that special lens is actually in the lens display case near the exhibition’s beginning. This omission is a disservice to visitors, who wouldn’t otherwise know the risks Kubrick and his team took in making Barry Lyndon.

    The Sex

    In a recent review, Anthony Lane described the strange costumes and rituals in Eyes Wide Shut as “the asexual’s idea of what sex is meant to look like.” This synopsis seems spot on. To many viewers, sitting through Eyes Wide Shut can be an insufferable experience. Until they realize that Kubrick is telling the story from the perspective of Tom Cruise’s character, who, as an asexual person, can’t comprehend what sex means. (Patrick told me, “‘Let’s fuck’ may be the best closing line in any director’s filmography.”)

    I have no idea if Kubrick was asexual or a sociopath. But — it could explain why his films are, well, the way they are. It would explain why HAL 9000, a supercomputer, shows far more emotion than any human. Or why, in The Killing, Marie Windsor’s femme fatale-to-end-all-femme fatales is so capable of manipulating Elisha Cook, Jr.’s milquetoast-to-end-all-milquetoasts. Or why Kubrick seemed drawn to sociopathic characters like Barry Lyndon, or Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

    But this is all speculation. Remember that white-washed room? And letting a filmmaker’s work speak for itself? This approach doesn’t work with Kubrick. I suspect visitors would have much better appreciated the Eyes Wide Shut section if the exhibition had talked more about the director's personal life. How did he get along with people? Did he have any family or children?

    In the Lolita section, I looked in the margins of a draft of the script, and spotted a fascinating Kubrick-written annotation: "I should love to get hold of a real French girl."

    I'm very curious what he meant by that, but I doubt we'll ever know. The only objects in the Eyes Wide Shut section are those “asexual” costumes and a nebulous description on the significance of the color red in Kubrick's films.

    So, what is the exhibition’s intended audience? For diehard Kubrick fans, it’s neat to see the actual props, but the superficiality of the exhibition leaves them hanging. I worry casual visitors will feel they’ve learned all they need to know about the filmmaker. After all, they visited a museum exhibit titled STANLEY KUBRICK. It’s a tragedy they won’t know what they’re missing.