What I Learned in Professor McDonald’s Cinematography Class

photo by Natalie


To me, the word “stop” had always meant a red octagonal sign posted at a street corner.  Or a place where buses stop to pick up passengers, or the word placed between sentences in an old-fashioned telegram.  But I also knew that “stop” meant something to do with light.  I’d never been exactly sure what it meant when my mommy would say, “That window blind must reduce that light by two stops!” and my daddy would nod.  Or when my daddy would say, “The light coming in that window was definitely a few stops over.”  I’d been hearing “stop” used in such ways for my entire life, not quite sure what it meant, but satisfied with my own definition – “something to do with the brightness of light.”

Then there were the other words: rate, latitude, color temperature, and footcandle.  They had been floating around in my parents’ conversations for years.  I was quite certain that “rate” didn’t mean “it was definitely five stars!” and “latitude” didn’t sound like the sort that had to do with longitude.  Nor did I think that “color temperature” had to do with how hot or cold a color was, or that a “footcandle” was a candle in the shape of a foot.  But I never bothered to ask – I had my own vague ideas of what they meant, and could fill in the rest.

So where do you learn about such things?  I suppose having parents who are filmmakers is a good start.  Or going to film school, which I ended up doing during spring quarter at UCLA when I audited my daddy’s undergraduate cinematography class.  I was quite excited at the thought of learning about cinematography and a bit nervous at the prospect of taking a class with twenty-year-olds.  But I knew the professor “rather” well.

On the first day, Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” resonated throughout the room as the class settled.  It is the CD my daddy plays for every first class he teaches on the soundstage.  I happened to be learning one of the variations on the piano, and hummed along as class began.

“Good afternoon,” my daddy (also known as Professor McDonald) said, smiling out at the class of about twenty.

Fifteen feet above us hung a wood scaffolding called a catwalk, with huge lights suspended from the beams.  A small set including a living room, dining room, and kitchen encircled the class, and a camera rigged to a dolly (a cart for moving the camera) stood in the corner.

“Cinematography is a balance of technology and art,” explained Professor McDonald.  “And one has to learn to balance these two effectively.  The cinematographer is responsible for making a story come to life through images, images that can use light, color, or texture to communicate a time, place, or feeling.”

The lecture was three hours long each Thursday.  I sat, furiously writing notes in a composition notebook, FTV-150 – Cinematography written at the top of my paper.  Some of the juniors tapped away at their iPads, and leaned into the aisle with their cameras to get a photo of a diagram on the board.

Now and then during class I would almost fall off my chair laughing at a hilarious story my daddy would tell.  Every so often, however, my daddy would use a certain word while telling a story, grin sheepishly immediately afterward, and reach into his pocket.  We had an arrangement that for every “rough word” he used, he would owe me ten cents.  By the end of the first class, I had the small fortune of 30 cents.

At the beginning of each class, the teaching assistant, Sandy, would pull a large reel of film from a box, and thread it onto a projector.  The last twenty minutes of class were filled with a slight “click clacking” as the projector rattled away in the back and the dailies were screened.  Dailies are the exercises the students shot the day after lecture during the lab, which I did not attend.  One day, Sandy asked if I wanted to thread the projector.  She gave me a lesson, first showing me how to check if the film was heads out (if the film was tails out, the dailies would play reversed and upside down), then on threading the film through various wheels and plates.  Initially, I had difficulty with remembering whether to go over or under a certain wheel, but by the fourth time, I was successful, and was promoted to TAA (teaching assistant’s assistant).

In the middle of June, after the students had all finished shooting and editing their two-minute films, I sat in Bridges Theater, perched at the edge of my seat, and in my role as TAA introduced the films.  The subjects ranged from dance to boxing, play auditions to friendship.  As I watched film after film, it was amazing to think that these beginning filmmakers had used the same knowledge to make these films that I had gained in my daddy’s class.  I had learned that to “rate” film means to calculate the level of light needed to achieve the optimum exposure of a certain film stock, and that “latitude” describes a film stock’s range of ability to capture images in a range of low to high light.  “Color temperature” varies according to how blue (high color temperature) or red (low color temperature) light is, and “footcandles” are a unit measurement of the brightness of light that translates to the camera.  And it turned out, I was correct about “stops.”  They do have “something to do with the brightness of light,” and exposure as well.  “Stops” are a representation of different amounts of light, which is one of the most important components of cinematography.

When I first watched the movie “Paper Moon” about two years ago, the cinematography really struck me.  I wasn’t sure why it did, though in the special features László Kovács, the cinematographer, mentioned that he had used a red filter while shooting.  “Paper Moon” is a black-and-white film that takes place in the 1930’s Midwest, and there are many shots of expansive skies over wide plains, the clouds extra white and the sky extra dark.  In my daddy’s class, we studied color as well, and learned that certain colors of light cancel others.  For example, red light cancels blue.  A red filter cancels the blue light of the sky, and not as much light strikes the film in the blue areas, so that those areas are underexposed, making them darker.  Of course, if the sky is darker, the clouds will be lighter, which is the exact effect achieved in “Paper Moon.”

You can have images be overexposed as well as underexposed.  When film is overexposed, the light is so bright that it washes out the image.  However, overexposing can be used strategically, as it often is in a practice known as blowing out windows.  In the recent movie “True Grit,” there is a scene that takes place in a courtroom that has a row of windows against the back wall.  The courtroom is really on a soundstage, and those windows look out onto nothing more that a corridor of cables, lights, and wooden boxes.  But if light is blasted in the windows quite a few stops overexposed, none of this will be visible, and it will seem like nothing more than a very sunny day at the courthouse.

“I’m not ruining the experience of watching movies,” my daddy would always smile after explaining a certain cinematographic part of a movie and all his students would groan, thinking the magic gone.  “I’m enhancing it.”  And it’s true.  Movies have become interesting layers of story, art, and science the more I learn about all that’s behind them.  Besides, now I know exactly how to describe the window blind in our living room – it most definitely does reduce the light by at least two stops.


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