Last week I attended the Illumination Experience, a cinematography workshop on lighting taught by Shane Hurlbut, ASC. I went through the course once in Charlotte, N.C., and dropped everything to do it again in the Washington, D.C. area so I could participate in the Master Class. Yep, I went through the course twice!
It was an epic week. To say the least.
The reason I share this with you is two-fold: (a) my family, friends, and fans tell me they like hearing what I’m doing and (b) I hope my fellow filmmakers will sign up and experience this for themselves — even though I receive no benefits for encouraging such a thing. It’s just that good.
Without further ado, here are some of my take-aways from the Illumination Experience Tour:
1. Sculpting light is way more fun than I thought.
Creating another three-point studio set up for an interview had somehow become boring. It’s good enough but a little less than inspiring. I’d accidentally stopped caring about lighting as a result.
This workshop helped me cherish light studies once again. Turns out, I’ve been obsessed with studying light since I was a little girl growing up in rural eastern North Carolina. It was where I fell in love with watching the sun set and moon rise over the Pamlico River. I just lost touch with that joy of it somewhere along the way.
In the workshop, we looked at how light plays on a person’s face and how that can change the person’s personality. As Shane put it, it could make a young girl turn into a vixen or a devil. Pretty powerful stuff. So that’s how we connected the light to the character an actor portrays; it can strengthen or weaken the story.
We learned how to create morning, late afternoon, and evening light. How to put the light where we want in a shot to tell the story well. We learned how to use professional equipment, and mimic that with a $200 set up from a home improvement store.
To put it succinctly: we learned a lot about lighting. Ha.
2. WHY v. HOW
While the technical aspects of lighting are important, we also discussed WHY a scene is shot a certain way.
The light and camera movement evoke certain emotions. It adds to the setting, which can influence everything in a story. The camera movement and light are storytelling devices that should be strategically planned from the get-go.
The “why” is crucial. And, a lot like improv comedy taught me, every thing means something. Great storytellers the tools of the trade wisely, so each decision is made with purpose.
The camera movement and lighting hint at what’s really happening in a story. So they can make a scene feel like a slasher film instead of a heartfelt romantic moment. All of which builds upon the Directing Motion Tour with Vinecent Laforet, which I took in Charlotte, N.C., in July 2014.
In the past year I’ve personally become obsessed with WHY in relation to everything I do, both personally and professionally. The workshop helped me connect the dots on some seriously big things. I’m incredibly grateful for that.
3.How to communicate your vision. (AKA: Cinematography is addicting.)
Before this course I loved filmmaking but when I left the Illumination Experience, that low flame grew into a raging fire. (Not literally. Don’t be silly.) I’ve been obsessed with filmmaking since I was a little girl, but for the first time I feel like I can articulate precisely why my favorite movies are so attractive.
Now I can point out the specifics of the camera movement, lighting, and emotions in a scene. I can tell you exactly what I loved about it. That’s absolutely priceless because it means I can work with a DP to get closer to bringing my vision to life.
As a director, I want to get as close as possible to delivering the vision that’s in my head. That vision is what keeps me up at night. It’s what tortures and simultaneously inspires me. (Suggestions for improvements can, of course, come from anywhere; I’m always open to them.) Up til now I’ve struggled to communicate that vision really well — but not for lack of trying.
For the first time in a really long time, I feel like I’m close, though. I feel like now I understand how to work with a DP in a truly collaborative way. I see an easier path forward. It’s really exciting.
By the way, DPs, when we work together one day, you should know that I’ve now worked side-by-side with Shane Hurlbut to bring a specific vision to life. So the bar is set really high. Hah. Seriously, though, I almost punched him in the arm in D.C. when he tweaked one little thing that made that scene just perfect. I was so excited because it was exactly what I had in mind! It was beautiful.
I’m really excited about a more collaborative effort in working with a DP closely through every stage of production on my next films. I’m stoked. I’m writing up some stuff to shoot in 2015 here in North Carolina, plus a feature-length fiction film to shoot one day when I have a MUCH bigger budget. So stay tuned.
4. You can do a lot with a little.
Boy, don’t I know it. I’ve been working on low budget films for so long. We’ve had to beg, borrow, and steal to make stuff happen. (OK, maybe we didn’t steal anything but it sounds better if I pretend we did.) These zero-dollar budgets have made me creatively use what I have, which is a good thing.
The workshop helped me see how to do the same with lighting. You don’t need a crazy expensive set up, even if it’d be easier. You can do a lot with a little here, too. Both a little budget and a little light, like a lamp.
Learned a $200 set up (using stuff from a home improvement store) to get a $20k Hollywood set up at the @illuminextour. Not too shabby! #latergram
In the workshop, we recreated a scene from The Rat Pack using pro lights. Then we did the set up again using a set up from a home improvement store which included flood lights, hand-painted bulbs, and shower curtains. Oh, and a blue bed sheet! So great.
Favorite line of today @IlluminExTour from @hurlbutvisuals, “Bring in the blue bed sheet!” — Camden Watts (@cammicam) September 30, 2014
5. Stay innovative and don’t be afraid to fail.
The tools we use are always changing: lights, cameras, editing software, distribution methods, etc. Try to keep up with it but, more importantly, embrace the change that comes with innovation. Otherwise we’ll stagnate and fall behind.
Also, don’t be afraid to fail. We’re all trying to figure it out. So don’t fear the screw ups; learn from them. Those are the best opportunities.
When I started my first film, I was completely clueless. That challenging experience meant I got comfortable with failure and exploring the great unknown. Now the chaos and discomfort feels more like home than anything else.
So don’t get comfortable and bored. Don’t be afraid to explore. Don’t fear the failures. That space, my friends, is where we can truly feel alive.
For example, I pulled focus for the first time on the Illumination Experience Tour in D.C., and completely botched the job. I’ve always had great respect for focus pulling because it seems like such a mystery. Now I can give mad props to anyone who does a good job with pulling focus because I know exactly how difficult it is. (So sorry for mucking up your scene, Larry.)
My first time pulling focus. I need way more practice!
PS: Even if you’re the only woman in the room, it’s still OK to mess up. You’re not representing all women, even if it feels like it at the time. Everyone messes up. Just learn from the goofs and try not to repeat them.
BONUS: Cherish great talent.
For years I’ve spent a lot of energy building amazing crews. Some of the most talented, kind, and fun people have helped me make my films. I’m so grateful for their talent, humor, and expertise.
I love to form teams that work well together. When my guys don’t want to go home at the end of a long day, I know I’ve done that job well. One of the greatest compliments I got this year was, “Wow, this has been an incredible day; one of the best shoots I’ve ever been on. Please call me when you’re filming again so I can be a part of it.”
The course reminded me, once again, that I must cherish great talent.
Filmmaking is such a wild collaboration and I cherish the chance to work with people like Shane Hurlbut and his crew. The people are one of the things I love most about making movies. The discovery, challenges, and magic that happens in the process is unlike anything else.
The only genuine comparison I can draw is sailing. There are so many different skills and personalities needed to make a large vessel move in one direction. The journey itself can be rough — but when you’re with the right people, it’s also an unforgettable adventure. There are some dark, stormy days when you feel completely beaten at the end of it. Then there are really beautiful days when the sun shines on your face, the wind hits your sail, and you feel in sync with the world. It’s magical.
Was this workshop worth every penny? Absolutely. I obviously went through it twice — following the tour from Charlotte to D.C. If I could afford it, I’d meet them in Chicago or L.A. to do it all over again. I learned so much and experienced so many firsts.
The first time you do anything, you can’t expect to be a pro. That’s why the word “pro” exists; it infers that you have enough experience to know what you’re doing. This is why I dropped everything to go through the course a second time, and have the chance at participating in the Master Class. Not to become a pro overnight, but to have at least a second go at it.
The course offered me more than a few firsts:
- First time pulling focus
- First time sitting on a dolly
- First time shooting on a MoVI
- First time with a $20k lighting set up
- First time with a custom-built set for a scene
- First time acting as a DP alongside Shane Hurlbut
If you’re a filmmaker contemplating the course, stop wasting your time and sign up already. It’s worthwhile. Shane Hurlbut is an excellent educator. He’s patient, funny, and incredibly knowledgable. His crew is top notch, and they’ll help you find the way as well. (Remember, I’m not an affiliate so I get no compensation for encouraging you to sign up.)
Indie filmmakers like me need more courses like these so that we can improve our storytelling. While these courses could be more affordable (pretty please?), filmmakers need to start investing in education as much as we invest in gear. Even if it’s just so we don’t have to work quite so hard, waste so much time trying to figure it out on our own, or feel quite so lonely. We also need to find ways to raise money so that we can raise the level of professionalism. (That’s exactly why I’ve created Crowdfund Your Film but we’ll talk more about that another day.)
As I continue to process all that happened, I’ll be sure to share those thoughts here. My mind is still swimming with inspiration. I’m trying to keep up with it.
In the meantime, you can listen to Shane Hurlbut’s interview with Ryan Connolly right here (also embedded below). Ryan Connolly is from Film Riot, a YouTube channel which I’ve found super helpful on many occasions. They even built a DIY light bar like Shane Hurlbut’s battons, which you can check out here. Very helpful.)
‘Til next time, y’all.
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My name is Camden. I’m a film director and producer based out of Raleigh, N.C. This blog is where I share my experiences with my friends, fans, and family. Since I’m working on a number of really fun projects, we should totally stay in touch.
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