Thursday, 18 February 2010

A technical question about cameras, film, and 30 Rock. After a trying week of marking papers, teaching, and generally being run ragged, I spent far too much time last weekend watching 30 Rock. As to the content of the show, all I can say is that I find it remarkable that a program dedicated to the inside baseball of running a network variety show is even intelligible, much less popular. Then I remember The Muppet Show exists or watch episodes of Saturday Night (not yet Live) from the year I was born, realize how old the trope is and find it remarkable that 30 Rock managed to enliven it. If pressed, I'd argue that its success has something to do with the meaningful inclusion of the network brass, which is in marked contrast from Lorne Michaels playing himself on SNL, but tonight I'm more interested in why the cast seems to have such huge heads: In this frame, the camera and lighting conspired to make Tracy Morgan's character, Tracy Jordan, look like something the first 10,000 fans under the age of 13 receive when they come through the gate. How did this happen? I don't know for sure, but thanks to an article [.pdf] in the Spring 2009 issue of Exposure magazine, I think I can make an under-educated guess. In it, chief cinematographer Matthew Clark says he employs wide-angle cameras to create a shallow depth of field in order to "lend a sense of immediacy to what's going on," which is all well and good, except that wide-angle cameras do the opposite. He also notes that because the sets are so small, they are warmly and dimly lit, so in order to create any contrast, he has to shoot with a wider iris to allow in more light, and doing so diminishes the depth of field. It would seem that balance is struck: wide-angle creates a greater depth of field, the low-lighting and wider iris shallow it out. The only problem, as evidenced by the frame above, is that the balance is frequently out of whack, and because wide-angle lenses exaggerate the distance between objects, whenever a character leans forward, their heads appear much bigger than the bodies they're attached to. I think. I welcome those of you who know more about cameras, lenses, lighting and film stock to correct me.

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