Discussions on Cinematography with M. David Mullen, ASC

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, March 2008. This Month’s Top FAQs:Discussions on Cinematography, Lighting, Film Stock, and More… Filmmakers Ask M. David Mullen, ASC. Pages 16 – 18, 20.

Which Film Stock?

Q: I’m looking to gain more knowledge about these different stocks. I’m going to be shooting Color Neg 16mm. It’s a dark romantic comedy. I’ve got an Arri light kit with a 300, 2 650’s, and a 1k. That should be able to expose any Color Neg stock and at different f stops, right? I don’t want to shoot this wide open.

I’ve shot with Kodak Vision2 500t before, and I was pleased with the look of it. My question is, should I spring for the Vision3 500t? It’s supposed to be improved with finer grain and more detail in shadow and highlights.

I’m also looking at the other stocks. As far as I understand, the 100t is the highest quality film they have which is why I would love to shoot it. I guess I’m wondering, why shouldn’t I film on this stock? What is the real difference between these stocks in look besides the grain size. If I can light it fine, I don’t see why I shouldn’t use it.

M. David Mullen, ASC: For most of those stocks, the only differences are grain/speed; the slower ones are less grainy.

If you need less grain but can’t drop to a 200T or 100T stock, I suggest you try the new 7219 500T stock. It would be closer to the grain of the 200T stock.

If you want a slightly softer and more pastel look, the Fuji Eterna 250T would be worth trying, too. Or, if you want a punchier, more saturated look, the Fuji Vivid 160T.

In terms of alternate looks, besides the saturated Fuji Vivid 160T, there are two lower-contrast, more pastel, and grainier stocks: Fuji Eterna 400T and Kodak Expression 500T 7229.

Otherwise, the stocks in a line are usually designed to match in terms of contrast and saturation and just vary by grain & speed.


Q: How do you work with subjects in front of windows? Do you balance the exposure or expose more for the background?

M. David Mullen, ASC: Depends on the look I want and the mood I’m trying to convey. Maybe two people in profile, nearly silhouette, is what I want. Maybe two people against a bright blown-out window is what I want. Maybe I want them balanced because something is happening outside the window that I want the audience to see.

If you’re asking for some generic example, though I don’t like to think generically, most people would say that on film, two to three stops overexposed looks natural for the view out the window – bright but with detail. Now on video, it may or may not hold detail even only two stops overexposed, so you have to be more careful.

But it really depends on how big the window is and how much of the frame it takes up, etc. And the mood you are trying to create.

Gel Questions

Q: In the following situations, what kind of gels would you use, taking in consideration I’ll be shooting with Kodak 250T film stock on a super 16mm CP16 camera, and I have tungsten lights.

Living room with sliding door (lots of daylight coming through) – will I need to light with my tungsten lights part of the living room where the light is not as strong?

Let’s say I have faster film and need to shoot a scene in a bedroom where the light will come from the window, and I want the blue cast we are used to perceiving as moonlight. How can I accomplish that – should I set the lights outside, shoot the grey card, and then, put gel on the lights? Or put gel, and then, shoot the grey card?

M. David Mullen, ASC: Well, there is no 250T Kodak stock, so I’m going to assume you mean the 200T stock, 7217…
If you have real daylight coming in, and you want to match your tungsten lights to that, you have to either gel the windows with Full CTO or Sun 85, or gel the tungsten lights with Full CTB (and thus lose two-stops of light output from them.) This is always the problem with shooting day interior scenes with small tungsten lights. You may be better off getting some daylight Kinoflos and small HMI’s. Unless it is a small window that is easy and cheap to gel to 3200K.

As for a moonlight scene, I would use 1/2 CTB on the lights, but remember to shoot your grey scale under white (3200K) light first, and make a note somewhere that the scene is lit for blue moonlight. You can make it look a little bluer than a 1/2 CTB gives you if you shoot the grey scale with a little warming gel on the grey scale light, like a 1/4 CTO.

Q: If I match my tungsten (by using full CTB) to the light coming in from the window wouldn’t the film be blue-ish when developed due to the fact that is tungsten film?

I’m new to all this, would you advise to someone like me to get a still SLR 35mm camera or a digital in order to practice?

Again, your advice is golden. I have a hard time getting advice or having my concerns and questions answered down here in Miami. Thanks a lot.

M. David Mullen, ASC: Yes, if you gel the tungsten to match the daylight, now everything is 5500K and will be blue-ish on the negative, unless you put an 85B filter on the camera to correct it overall to 3200K. Or, you can correct the blue out in post by shooting the grey scale under the same blue light and having the colorist make it neutral. Or, you can use a partial correction filter like an 81EF or a LLD or any pale warming filter, shoot the grey scale under the same filter correction, let the colorist make it neutral in the transfer or print.

You can practice certain things on a DSLR.

Color Balance & Night Time

Q: I’m coming upon a shoot, and it has a lot of night scenes. With my exposure, how can I replicate the feeling of eyes adjusted to darkness? I was thinking of underexposing my key a little more then a stop (maybe 1 and a half) and letting darker areas go more then 2 under. Then, bringing it down in post. Is that a good way of doing it?

And, I recently shot on 250D. The stock was beautiful in skin tones and color. I had an unsupervised transfer and the timer added blue as if I shot tungsten film uncorrected. Why would this happen? I shot a grey card at the head of each roll. For instance one roll was dedicated to shots done in sunlight, so I shot the card in that light. The other was for shots done in the shade under trees, etc., and I shot the card in that light. I numbered the sunlight roll 1 and the shade roll 2, so the first thing they transferred was the sunlight roll. The way I positioned the card was flat, no glare, it was brand new 18% grey, and had it lit by the sun+sky, or if I was in the shade then that light. Thank You.

M. David Mullen, ASC: If the grey scale was transferred incorrectly, then they made a mistake or ignored it. If you had instructed them to time to the grey scale, you can get them to redo the transfer.

Dailies can look blue-ish if you shot the grey scale under the rising morning sun, while it is warm, but then shot in the shade. But it sounds like they just ignored the grey scale shot in the shade.

Eyes “adjusted” to darkness sounds like they’d be seeing normally in terms of brightness, doesn’t it? After all, the eyes have now adjusted. Sort of depends on the look you want and what the eyes are adjusted to – seeing by moonlight? Seeing by candlelight?

If you mean that you want the room to feel dim, underexposed, but with some detail, then yes, some underexposure combined with further darkening in post works better than simply underexposing a lot. It’s certainly safer and less grainy that way.

Q: Thanks. I want the feeling of eyes adjusted to moonlight for some scenes and streetlight for others, giving the feeling of night. My concern just was 1 stop and a third under key would not be enough (which it isn’t.) But I wanted to be positive that if I have a ratio where my fill is dark and my key is a little underexposed (basically dim lit areas with dark areas) I could darken further in post to get to the feeling I want, rather then ending up with to grainy or thin of a negative.

M. David Mullen, ASC: Yes, you can easily take footage that is one-stop underexposed and darken it further in post to the level you like.

You can even try shooting your grey scale one stop overexposed so that they make everything one-stop darker to compensate; just warn them that the footage following the grey scale is supposed to look very dark. I have a bunch of signs on 8 1/2 x 11 card stock with notes in big bold letters like:








It’s all in a binder. I shoot the sign after the greyscale.

HDW 790 or 750 Paint Menus & Settings on the Field

Q: I am about to start a project on HDW 750 or 790 25P for DVD release. We will have time on the field to shoot nice, but the director asked us not to wait to post to adjust the image, so what kind of settings are worthy to do on the field? Which kind of filters or paint menu settings would you recommend? Is there any place to get the HDW 790 manual?

We are looking for a nice, soft, contrasty and classic-modern look. The topic is love in the world, and the visual reference some way between Wong Kar Wai films and modern TV commercials… (director’s words).

Also, which kind of lighting equipment would you recommend bearing in mind that I won’t have any grip or electrician help?

M. David Mullen, ASC: You can white balance in the field to get closer to the color you want, or use filters and gels. You can adjust the black level when necessary. It all depends on how much manipulation you really need to do in the field. I would keep things simple.

If you’re handling all the cameras and lighting yourself, there is a limit on how much you can carry around. It may be no more than an Arri or Lowell kit of lights, or a few Kinoflos, and maybe a Chimera for some of the lights.

Northfork Question

Q: Just saw Northfork, really superb work, although I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times… With the interiors and the blown out windows, how did you deal with lens flares? Every time I’ve tried lighting from outside, I always have to be incredibly careful with lens flares and pointing the camera directly at the window. Any tricks with that? I had to use 1k open face Arri lights, which were challenging to control. Does the light just have to be soft enough? Thanks.

M. David Mullen, ASC: Just depends on how hot the window is. Since I was using big HMI’s to light the interior to a decent f-stop, the balance with the exterior wasn’t too bad, not nuclear. Sometimes I put a double-net scrim outside the window to knock the brightness down a little since the Primo anamorphics were prone to flaring. A scrim on a frame is faster than putting ND gel on the window and it throws the view slightly out of focus, washes it out. But the main advantage is that the scrim can be a few feet away from the window so you can shine a light between the gap of the scrim frame and the window. Trouble with a scrim is that a double-net only cuts one stop of light – you’d need ND gel for anything heavier.

In the location for the orphanage scenes, the real view outside the windows was of a busy street in the middle of a city, so I put big frames of white Griflon out there to white-out the view, then lowered the blinds over the window to break up the whiteness. I could control how hot the white view was by how much light I put on them. Sometimes I didn’t put any light on the griflons, they just got ambient skylight on them.

M. David Mullen, ASC has earned two Independent Spirit Award nominations for best cinematography, for Twin Falls Idaho in 1999 and for Northfork in 2003. Photographing over thirty-five films, his filmography includes Assassination of a High School President (2008), Big Love (2007), The Astronaut Farmer (2007), Solstice (2006), and Akeelah and the Bee (2006).

Leave a Comment


Related Articles

Related Articles

Scroll to Top