It is always a challenge trying to balance production value and time on any film set. There are so many people with so many different priorities that it is easy to get lost in the shuffle. For a cinematographer this means picking your battles and using quick tricks and techniques that are easy to incorporate and are quick to set up.
One of my favorite techniques to add some quick atmosphere in a sequence is through haze diffusion. The idea is simple enough, using a haze making machine (hazer) you can fill a location with a small amount of still fog or haze. Now you can go crazy with it for certain effects but I prefer putting just enough to not notice it. What it does is compresses the contrast in a shot allowing for the perception of added dynamic range. That is the technical stuff but in real world terms having a bit of haze in a shot adds atmosphere or a certain analogue feel to digital capture.
Click here for a more detailed article on using smoke machines and hazers by Shane Hurlbut ASC . He goes into great detail about the different reasons and scenarios where using atmosphere can help a cinematographer tell the story.
Here’s an example of the haze effect on a recent project I was shooting on the Red Epic. The set up for the shoot was pretty basic. We had a small crew which meant we were going to have to be very efficient if we were going to get through it on time. I needed to be quick and agile with my lights and set ups.
On the tech scout of the location I knew we were going to have to battle balancing the levels between the large windows and the fairly dark interior. The budget didn’t allow for crazy amounts of G&E so I made do with what we had.
What we had was a small 1.2k HMI, some negative fill, and a DH50 Hazer. The day was fairly overcast and we wanted the light to be a motivated single source hence the HMI bouncing through the window. The DH50 was there to add some mood and highlight the incoming daylight while the negative fill was used to spice up the ratios where we needed to.
I got the production designer to incorporate some sheer curtains into the set so that we could still see out the windows but it would knock down the light and also create a giant diffusion panel over the windows. We could open and close the sheers to our liking for exposure purposes. Quick and easy fix.
Here is a diagram of the previous shot:
In the next shot we wanted a silhouette of the main character framed within the window frame.
We employed the same technique with the hazer and the negative fill to cut down on light that was coming in the room and bouncing all over the place. This shot is light 100% by natural light but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any shaping going on. If we hadn’t played with the negative fill and the haze this shot would have had a very different look.
In the final shot we blasted the HMI through the sheers, walled the camera left interior with black sheets and hazed till it eyeballed nicely. The glow is a combination of the bounced light, the layer of sheer diffusion and the haze effect. It feels very analogue to my eye and that is exactly what we were going for.
Here’s the diagram:
As you can see you don’t need a 5 ton grip truck to get the feel that you are going for. You just need to plan ahead and communicate with other departments and then execute on the day. Oh and never leave home without a hazer.