I have always been intrigued by others’ work and art, and constantly wanted to learn on how to improve my work. I learned from books, other photographers, online articles, videos, seminars and workshops. For seminars and workshop, I am usually rather picky in selecting them because they are not inexpensive, especially workshops. Great workshops would cost thousands. I have to be careful in investing on them, sometimes prioritizing based on my needs.
The first time I heard about the Illumination Experience seminar/workshop was from the promotional email from MZed. I’ve attended great seminars and workshops under MZed, for example those taught by Jerry Ghionis, Lindsay Adler and Lou Freeman. However, they were all specifically for photography. The Illumination Experience was actually for cinematography, for film making – a different field from my profession. Usually I wouldn’t really care for film making workshops. However, this workshop was different. Although it was not a photography workshop per se, what made me curious to dig in further was that the instructor, Shane Hurlbut, ASC, was the cinematographer of multimillion dollar blockbuster films such as Terminator Salvation, Need for Speed, Act of Valor, Drumline, Greatest Game Ever Played, and many others. He also had worked with famous celebrity actors and actresses such as Russell Crowe, Zoe Saldana, Jane Fonda, Kevin Costner, Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Eric Bana, Matthew McConaughey, Michael Keaton, Paul Walker, Josh Brolin, Will Ferell, Kirsten Dunst, Jessica Alba, Shia LaBeouf, and many more! I immediately thought, “Whoa!”
Alright that surely caught my interest, but then I wondered what would I get from the class? What would Shane be teaching?
The Illumination Experience Web page listed, among them:
– Determine camera placement and composition to bring out the emotion of each character.
– Lens choice and how each lens would have different impact on the emotion and viewers attention.
But what really caught my attention was:
– Learning to analyze light, determine what kind of lighting needed and how to manipulate them to bring out the most emotional impact.
This is what I really want to learn!
See the detailed lessons you would learn from the Illumination Experience class.
However, although I have seen some of the movies, I have never heard of Shane Hurlbut let alone about him teaching a class. I tried to Google him, but didn’t find any reviews yet of his teaching. I guess it was because this would be his first workshop tour which had not even started, so there were no reviews yet from anyone. On the other hand, I didn’t want to loose the chance of getting an education from someone who seemed to be one of the best in his field. I didn’t want to wait too long to decide and lost my chance because the class would be full/sold out. I asked MZed, but unfortunately they didn’t know either. Nevertheless, they said that it was their first ever to have someone with his caliber. Not saying that the others weren’t good, but none before with his kind of stature who had done Hollywood movies. Well, I could see that his work was great, but unfortunately not all artists could teach, let alone delivered interesting and captivating class. It’s not a combination that all great artists have. On the other hand, I was blown away and got really excited after seeing the trailer video of his work compilation. I felt that I really needed to learn from this guy. Another strong consideration for me to take the class was that, out of the 26 cities he would come for the seminars, he would only do the hands-on experience workshop in 8 selected cities, including Washington DC. It felt like a calling to me. This might be once in a lifetime chance. So I decided that I should go.
Afterwards, I found out that Shane and his wife Lydia dedicated their time to provide information and shared their knowledge for the film making industry on their blog, Hurlbut Visual, HurlBlog. I also learned that Shane earned his ASC title as a member of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers who recognized him after his feature film “The Rat Pack”.
The next step would be asking my wife, my “CFO”, for her permission, since it involved quite an investment, a.k.a. not cheap. After showing her what I would learn and also the reel of Shane’s work compilation from several movies, she approved and supported my decision. Woohoo! 🙂
After several weeks, finally, the workshop day arrived. I was excited and a bit nervous because I was pretty sure that I would be the sole photographer-only student there, and the rest would either be in the film industry or in videography. During the class introduction, Shane asked who among the attendees came from the furthest place. Few mentioned some states, then one mentioned Hawaii, and another one said that he was from Paris, France! Though technically Hawaii is farther than France, it revealed how well known Shane was that he got followers from all over the world who even made the special trip out of the country just to learn from him. I felt like I had hit the jackpot! This showed how lucky I was since DC area was only about an hour drive from where I lived.
On the first day, Shane gave lots of theories accompanied with lots of live demonstrations with model actress and actor. He taught different lighting schematics and showed how each setup changed the emotion and the look on the model actress. He also showed us how he would approach a scene based on the script and director’s vision. For the first demonstration, he did a reenactment of one scene from the movie Crazy Beautiful. The set was a school lab room during daytime. He showed what lights and other modifiers he used, how to light the actors to convey the emotion the director was looking for, and how he would shoot it. In this particular scene, Shane wanted the actress to look damaged and depressed, and the actor to look calm and composed. The shot for the actress would have to look chaotic, while the shot for the actor had to be neat and in order.
The first day was actually not just a seminar but also a workshop. However, the hands-on experience was for those who wanted to volunteer. I was hesitant to volunteer because I didn’t know a lot of the film making terms. I didn’t want to be given an instruction and not know what Shane was talking about or not knowing what to do. So I was merely an observer on the first day. I had to ask other attendees and some of the staffs about what seems like stupid questions to me.
In the evening, Shane showed a lighting scenario similar to one of the scene in the movie Rat Pack using his regular Hollywood lighting.
Next he also showed a DIY setup for budget lighting using alternate stuff we could get from Home Depot instead of renting expensive gears. The result surprisingly looked amazing just as if you’re using those expensive gears! But of course you have to know how to direct and modify the lights! 🙂
At the end of the first day, after about 12 hours of learning, we were given homework that evening to prepare ourselves for the workshop on the next day. We had to read several scripts, study the lighting scenario, and try to figure out how we would approach the scene.
While on the first day I could avoid participating, on the second day, everyone must participate. Shane said that we shouldn’t be afraid to do it, because it’s time for us to learn, make mistake, and for him to “catch us when we fall”. Even so, the toughest role was being the DP, the Director of Photography. The DP would be the one who would have to understand the director’s vision, interpret the scene from the script, then decide how he would light the studio set to look like either daytime or evening in a certain environment, determine which angle to take the shot from, select what lens to use, and perform other critical decisions. Not only did they have to make those detailed decisions, but they were also on a strictly limited time because in the real world of film making, you always have to be on schedule due to the time and budget constraint.
Since the DP is such an important role, Shane did a ticket raffle for the position for each scene setup. The rest of the attendees were divided into 3 groups and rotated to do either Electrical, Camera, or Grip. In each group everyone would take turns so that each person would be able to experience different positions. Those who weren’t assigned to any position could either volunteer or follow and observe Shane and watch the monitors to learn.
For my very first position, I was assigned as the dolly grip for the day scene in the Air Force One setup, which was reenactment of one scene from the Swing Vote movie. I was really excited because earlier in Shane’s career, he had actually started out as dolly grip, gaffer, and even drove truck! Although it seemed easy, moving the camera dolly on a rail was not a simple task. It required one to know the script well and to pace the dolly speed so that it would start and stop at a certain time at certain words in the script. It did take me about 3 takes to get the speed and timing just right.
After we finished the first setup, we continued on to the next. There were several scenes to finish. However, each individual scenes had different setups, for example the master shot, camera angle for actor 1, and camera angle for actor 2. A different DP was selected for every setup because each would require different lighting scenario, camera angle and camera movement. Even for the camera movement, the DP had to decide whether to use a Movi, slider, or a dolly on a rail. Every time they did the raffle, to be honest I hoped that it wasn’t my ticket number because I felt that I was the most inexperienced student in the class in the film making field. I didn’t want to drag everyone down due to my lack of experience.
On a different scene of the same Air Force One set, at the nighttime scene, I was the 1st AC, First Assistant Camera. This was also a skill of its own. I would be responsible to keep the camera in focus, and to follow focus if necessary. That would be keeping the camera in focus although the camera moved in or out of the scene.
Towards the end of the day, I decided to experience all positions because it might be my last and only chance to experience them. I wanted to understand what were the difficulties of each position, to see and experience them from different perspectives. These are the things DP need to understand, what each position could do and what their limitations are. On the last scene, we did a reenactment of the same scene from the movie Crazy Beautiful from the first day but set at nighttime. Here I willingly volunteered to be in the Electrical and Gaffer team since for some reason I had never been assigned to any position in Electrical. During the setup I almost crushed another attendee’s finger when trying to adjust the height of one of the heavy lights. My excuse was that I used to work with air-cushioned light stands with much lighter-weight lights. The C-stands used in movie setups were not air cushioned and the lights resting on the top were very heavy. Unlike some experienced students who came prepared and brought their own work gloves, a lot of the class attendees were not wearing any.
Because everything was really fast paced to be on time and on budget, you would see all the crew almost running here and there. Although moving in fast paced, the crew had to handle heavy equipments and dangerous hot lights. They had to secure things so the equipments wouldn’t fall or caused people to trip. Working in a film set feels like working in an unfinished construction site with all the risk of things falling on the film crew or even the actors/actresses. Therefore, safety is important as well.
After each scene, Shane showed his work on that particular scene we tried to reenact. He also showed us the imperfections, if any, and told us how he would fix it or how he would do it differently now since he became more and more experienced. These were the things our untrained eyes would not have noticed before. But after doing a few scenes, we could see few imperfections which would be distracting to the viewers. Not that most people would notice anyway when watching the movie, because these details are more of a distraction to the trained eyes. Shane also mentioned that sometimes due to time constraints, the DP has to learn to let go and not being completely perfect. It takes time to be perfect. Unfortunately, most of the time the other crew (actors/actresses, make up artists, etc) cannot always wait for us. They are limited on time as well. Permit for location use may also be brief. So sometimes we just have to do the best we could and have to accept few imperfections.
After two days, with about 12-hours of class each day, I acquired so many new skills. I understood that certain lens are used for certain mood, and certain key lighting scheme creates different mood. I learned about different angles of light, light temperature, light color matching, light contrast, flagging to block light, and negative fill. I knew how to make backgrounds looked more interesting, or less cluttered and less distracting. I noticed that Shane used the color meter a lot with the Sekonic ProDigi Color C500. He showed what problem we would encounter if we do the white balance color correcting on post production instead of getting the correct temperature on the set. I am amazed how sensitive his eyes were in seeing color temperature or white balance imperfections. He would notice if a skin tone looked a little magenta from a light source, and he would then put a gel on that light to correct the white balance. In this case it was putting a green gel on the Kino Flo LED light panel which tends to have a magenta-ish color cast.
From the two day seminar and workshop, I also became acquainted with new terms such as stinger (which is actually an electrical extension cable), roll the camera, Variac (a light dimmer), practical, filter types such as half frost and half grid, single, double, floppy, and book lighting. Not to mention that I also became familiar with equipment brands and models I have never heard of before because I never had to use them, for example LUT monitor, ProDigi C500, Kino, M8, Joker, Leko, etc. I also learned that when clapping the slate, the clap sound must be loud enough because this would be used for the sound editor to sync up the sound from different cameras (if using multiple cameras). “Scene 3B, take 2, marker!”, then the clap!
To summarize what I learned in the class, I think the key to a great cinematography is what Shane said repeatedly:
“It’s important for you to understand how you start to paint on that canvas. Light placement is everything. It is like your first stroke, the brick and mortar that creates your work of art.”
“For the key frame, if we were to do the one shot that has all the emotional firepower for a certain scene, what would that key frame be.”
Again if you would like to learn more, please go to Hurlbut Visuals. You will get tons of information there!
See the preview video of the Illumination Experience workshop in DC. You may see me in some of the scenes listening to Shane and operating the camera.
Big thank you to Merwen for taking almost all of these awesome pictures! Please be sure to check out his site as well! 🙂
You will notice that the images from Merwen would have his logo. The ones I took (or asked another attendee to take it for me) would have my logo. Please excuse the quality of these photos because I didn’t bring my DSLR camera and had to use my cell phone.
Finally, after the workshop, I came home and watched one of the episodes from the HBO TV series, “True Detective”, staring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. I felt that I began to see things differently. Now loaded with more knowledge, I saw the movie from a different perspective. I could reverse-engineer the lighting, figured out how the lighting was set up and how they shot the scene. I understood why the back light on the actor had to be a certain color to make it looked like that it came from the fluorescent lights in the back, although in reality it came from a different light source.
That evening, while going to bed, I saw street lights from outside coming through the window. I became aware of the direction of the light. In our bedroom, with all the interior lights off, I noticed the subtle light that fell on my wife’s face, which any current modern camera would probably won’t pick up without the ridiculous noise. I started to ponder on how amazing the human eyes are, to be able to adjust to any lighting situation in an instant with super dynamic range capability. It makes me truly appreciate this particular God’s gift.
Thank you so much for opening my eyes, Shane. You are a great educator.