Exclusive interview conducted Nash Choudhury
Peter Stein, ASC has been shooting films in one way or another for over thirty years working on a wide variety of films from horror classics to children’s comedies to incisive documentaries. Beginning his career in cinematography with one of the highest grossing films of 1981, Friday the 13th Part 2, Mr. Stein has worked his way through some of the seminal horror movie classics of the eighties including Pet Sematary and C.H.U.D. But what really draws Mr. Stein’s passion is his documentary work including the one he is currently working on – documenting the life of his father Fred Stein, a renowned still photographer. We talk with Mr. Stein about how he got into the business, the changes he has seen, and his current work.
STUDENTFILMMAKERS: How did you get into cinematography?
Peter Stein, ASC: Well, my father was a great still photographer. His work is in a lot of museums and galleries around the world. His name is Fred Stein, and you can see his work at FredStein.com. So I grew up with still photography, and I used to take a lot of still photos all through high school. In fact, I won a Kodak National High School Photo Contest when I was in high school. So, I was always interested in still photography and sort of learned composition but not really lighting and still photography.
STUDENTFILMMAKERS: At what point did you transition over to film?
Peter Stein, ASC: Actually, it was quite late in life. It could be an inspiration for some of your readers but I didn’t get into the film business until I was twenty-seven years old, and I kind of worked my way up from there. There weren’t a whole lot of film schools back in those days, and I worked my way up. I started as a messenger with a film company that made documentary films. Then I talked my way into becoming an apprentice editor and then an assistant editor and I got a job working in films. I started working as an AC in documentaries and then worked my way up.
STUDENTFILMMAKERS: Tell us a bit about the differences between lighting a still shot and a motion picture.
Peter Stein, ASC: I haven’t really thought about it very much but if you’re lighting for a still, usually it’s for an advertisement. I’ve never really worked with strobe lights or so on but the thing about movies is that the people and the camera are moving so you have to light for a few different areas as opposed to one area. The way I light is I like people going in and out of light. That thing is not necessarily what a still photographer would do. When I was shooting stills, I wasn’t lighting. I was just shooting with available light so I don’t really have a whole lot of experience in lighting for stills. If I’m shooting people and there’s not enough light, I’ll bounce it. I’ll light them in a portrait kind of style as if I was shooting an interview in film, which I’ve shot a lot of interviews in my day. The concepts are still the same, the key light and the fill light and the back light and the background light, those four areas that you think about but it’s different in film because of the motion picture aspect of it. You can cover large areas where people are walking around and going back and forth with different motivated lighting in a room so if they’re a little dark in one area it’s okay. What I usually tend to do, in film, is when people come to a stop to have a conversation or if it’s one person and they stop in one area that’s where you concentrate your lighting. In their transitional areas, when they’re going from one area to another, if the lighting is not perfect or they go dark here and there, it’s nice. Whereas in a still,
that is where you’re lighting for, where the still is taking place.
STUDENTFILMMAKERS: You’ve talked a bit about shooting interviews for your documentary work, which you’ve done quite a bit of. Can you talk a bit about the way you change the way you work in shooting documentaries versus narrative fiction films?
Peter Stein, ASC: Well, in a narrative film, you have to think about the story and what the emotion is that you are trying to convey and how it fits into the story. So if it’s dark or a silhouette, you wouldn’t particularly shoot an interview as a silhouette. But that works very nicely in a narrative film if that’s what the scene is about and it works well with the story. So, in a narrative film it’s all story and the photography is servicing the story, in service of the story. And in an interview, there’s a certain amount of information you want to convey to the audience. You do want to have a certain consistency to the look of the interviews but it’s not particularly or mainly the photography that’s helping the story, it is the story. In the interview, it’s really about the information that you’re looking for from the person who’s giving the interview so it’s much less about the emotion of the lighting that you’re trying to work with. Certainly, interviews have different looks and you might shoot all your interviews with not so much fill light or with certain colors or keeping the background soft or sharp or colors in the background.
So there is certainly that aspect in an interview, there is a certain look that you are trying to give it. But it’s mostly about what the people are saying and how they are informing the film as opposed to taking the audience and leading them along in a story fashion which is what the object of photography is in a movie. You just want not to pull the audience out of the story. You want them to be totally engrossed in the story. I mean, on certain occasions, you want them to be aware of the photography but mostly it’s about the story.
STUDENTFILMMAKERS: You’ve worked on some of the most seminal cult horror movies of the eighties. Can you tell us a bit about some of the tricks you might have used when shooting the low budget special effects on these movies?
Peter Stein, ASC: There were great special effects people I’ve worked with. Someone like Carl Fullerton who was on Friday the 13th Part Two and he had all sorts of wonderful special effects all worked out. If there were questionable areas of the scene or of the frame that we didn’t want people to notice we would just light them darker. There were wires, for instance, on a comedy film I did, Ernest Goes to Jail, there was a scene where he becomes magnetic and all sorts of metal objects are attracted to him, like knives, staplers, paper clips, and all sorts of various things jump on to him so we had wires. It was shot in reverse and the special effects people just pulled things off him with wires. In order to not see the wires, we would use Magic Markers and keep them dark and put them in dark areas of the set and not light them or especially not backlight them so you would notice them. So it’s things like that, where you put the light and where you keep things dark and what part of the frame you keep them in so that they’re not particularly lit. C.H.U.D. was actually a funny film because there were these creatures that were supposed to dart around in the sewers, just really fast. One second you saw them, the next you were dead they were so fast. But the film had to be shot right away for tax reasons, I believe. It had to be done really quickly. It was a question of whether or not the CHUD’s would be people in latex suits or would they be bodybuilders who were made up. The producers decided that they wanted them in latex suits. Well, the CHUD’s weren’t ready until about halfway through filming and that was the first time we saw them. We were all gathered with our cameras to shoot some tests and it turned out that in these latex suits they were blind and they would just stumble and bump into each other and fall over. (laughs) It was hysterical. Here were these guys who were supposed to be darting around and they were like blind men bumping into each other and falling over. It was very hysterical but it was too late to change anything by that point. So, we had this set, it was also a warehouse, so what we decided to do was we would do whip pans. Somebody would look and we would whip pan onto a CHUD. (fake screams) And they didn’t move at all in the film. They might move their arm or move their bodies a little bit but it was all done with the camera.
STUDENTFILMMAKERS: You’ve been shooting film and documentaries since the early seventies. What have been some of the greatest changes in shooting film since you started out?
Peter Stein, ASC: The cameras and the film stocks are much faster. And the lenses are really fast. So you can shoot in low light really easily whether you’re shooting in film or digital. And the cameras are much lighter. Lighting is completely different now with fluorescent lighting and the LED lights. And because the stocks are faster and the lenses are faster, you can use smaller units. So that’s a major change. I would say that’s probably been the greatest change. But being able to change your frame rate while you’re shooting is a nice thing to be able to do. All the different kinds of cranes and image stabilizers, the jib arms you can use for jibs and remote heads, that’s have all changed since I’ve started shooting. And while I’m shooting, all these new things started coming into play which really enable you to move the camera and to shoot in all kinds of situations. When the Steadicam came out, that was a brilliant, fabulous, tool that could be used by filmmakers. To be able to rig things like the helium balloons to put lights in are fabulous to be able to send lights up in a balloon and put it over an area where you couldn’t
get it in previous generations. So those kinds of things, moving the camera, rigging the camera, and the speed of the film and the use of new tools. The LED lights are incredible. They take no power. And they’re coming out now with lights that are extremely powerful and with some diffusion on them, they’re just remarkable. There’s the profile of the lights, so small. Even in documentaries and handholding, put a little LED light on top of your camera and you don’t need any system batteries or AA batteries. You can go for a long long time with a little light on your camera for handheld shooting. It’s amazing and just using the DSLR, which I’ve been using to shoot a little documentary I’m doing about my father, you can shoot with no lighting at all and get beautiful images. You can’t create a mood or a look without lighting but just going with available light, you can certainly get a great image with the camera.
STUDENTFILMMAKERS: Where do you see that camera technology going in the future?
Peter Stein, ASC: I don’t think I’m qualified or have a good handle on where it’s going. My feeling is that it’s really important for young filmmakers to still understand the classical techniques because lighting is lighting and creating a look or a mood in films, I mean, yes, you can get away with not using any lights almost with HD but if you want to do a murder mystery or a horror film or something really dramatic you really need to know what you’re doing and why. I had a student at NYU, he shot an award winning film with his cell phone. But he had an idea of what he was doing. The bottom line is that the story has got to be great. I don’t really know where the technology is going other than lighting units are going to be smaller and need less power and the cameras will get faster and the lenses will get faster and if you’re shooting film, the film is going to get faster. It’s going to be easier technologically and it will be cheaper to shoot your films but I think the knowledge of how to create a good looking film is still going to be important. It will be different because they will be using different kinds of units but the difference in the quality of the light whether it’s soft light or hard light, no matter how small the lights are, there will still be that difference. You still need to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
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