Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

The Curse Of The Perfectionist: Why My Work Is Never Good Enough

Still From The Short: Two Wolves

Ever since childhood, when I began drawing and painting, I've been seeking to take the images in my head and make them a reality. At the end of every attempt, I would look at what I had created... and all that stood out to me were the flaws- what I could have done better. It was never good enough for my standards. This same drive (or curse... ) for perfection continues to follow me to this day. No matter what the size, scale, or budget level of the project, when I look at what I've created, all I can see is where I need to improve.

This is not to say that I'm not happy with my work. I am. But I know I still have a lot of room to grow in my craft. It is because of that push for growth that I am always critically evaluating my own work. So I thought it would be a good exercise to share with you what I see as my mistakes in a recent short film that I shot.


Excuses Are Not Acceptable
Last week, I shared the approach and thinking that I took during preproduction on AJ's short film 'Two Wolves'. And while I could point to any number of factors, like a small crew, limited resources, late nights, a tight schedule, etc. in the end none of those excuses are valid in my book. By better understanding where I fell short, I can equip myself to produce better results on the next project- regardless of the size and budget of the production.


My Mistakes-
Instead of boring you with the complete list of mistakes that I see, I'm going to point out three of the bigger ones that jump out at me. Please forgive the still frames, as I pulled these screen shots from YouTube- so they have been compressed and recompressed to death. :)

Mistake 01- Better Subject Separation:
One of the first things that jumps out at me in this film is that there were times when I let the subject go too dark, and did not provide enough separation between the subject and the background.


In this shot, I could have done a better job at separating his arm from the background. As it is, the lamp feels like it is floating through space.


The gun in this scene isn't fully revealed until the last shot, and although the viewer probably gets that it is a gun, I think it would have been more menacing to see the gun a little more clearly here. If I were to do this shot over, I would have added a very soft edge light to help pull it out from the background.



Although I like the moodiness of this shot, I think it would have been stronger if the viewer felt a bit of the background texture/environment. Adding in a soft glow/spill of moonlight to the background would have made her pop a bit more...


Here is an example of another shot that could have benefited from just a touch more texture in the background. If I had made the separation a bit clearer, then the motion of the character would have been more evident, making the next shot in the scene more disturbing.

Mistake 02 - Direction and Spill of Light:
In my lighting style I try to make the light feel as natural and authentic as possible. So I strive to make sure that where the light comes from, and what it illuminates, makes sense. Unfortunately, I don't always get it right...

In this shot the lantern light is too toppy. Where the lantern is placed, the light would not extend to the top of her head like it does in the shot. I should have worked the flags better to take it off, and make it feel like it was emanating from lower in the scene, like it would have been in real life.


In my opinion, this shot is way over lit. Not only is the lantern light too toppy, but it is too intense as well. I also think it would have been nice to add in a touch of edge light to help him feel a little more sinister and tough.


Too toppy again. If the light is coming from the lantern, then she wouldn't have any shadows under her eyes... I should have had the light lowered and repositioned.


I actually like this shot a lot, because I lit it with only two 4' MacTech tubes. One is hidden behind the barn, and the other just off screen, frame left. Unfortunately I did not do a good job of eliminating the spill. While I can "buy" it as a house light just out of frame, I think it draws too much attention to itself; the attention should be focused on the barn frame right.

Mistake 03 - Better Control Of Eye Lights:
One of the elements of lighting I have been experimenting with lately is how the shape, location, and intensity of eye lights add to the emotion that the character is expressing. And, for the most part, I like how I accomplished it in this film- but I could have done better...
In this scene, the character is going crazy and becoming un-hinged. To help support that feeling, I wanted to be able to see that in the character's eyes. So, to accomplish that, I used my iPhone (set to a white screen) and had someone hold it low, as the low position, and the small pin prick of light is unnatural, and adds to the unsettling nature of the scene.


At this point, our female lead is trying to seduce the male lead, and so I wanted an eye light that was big, soft, and attractive to add to her seductive nature. So far, everything is working as I wanted it to...


... except for the close up. I forgot to have the big soft eye light put back in- ugh!

Lessons Learned
So going forward I'll be pushing myself to pay closer attention to subject separation, controlling the direction and spill of light more precisely, and I'll make sure that I have my eye lights placed where they need to be- especially in the close ups. :)

While I do not think that any of these are deal breakers, or would have significantly changed the look or feeling of the film, I do think that they affect the viewer on a subconscious level. It is the little details like these that add to the film, making it stronger as a whole.

Are you cursed by perfectionism like I am- primarily seeing the areas of growth in your own work? What kinds of techniques are you currently trying to master, and are you having success with it?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
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