Cinematography landscape is developing at a fast pace and as we no longer use a whole truck of light there is place for a wider creativity when it comes to the art of capturing unique tabletop shots. In our new series of DoP to DoP talks – Mikołaj Krawczunas, a DoP passionately interested in latest technology, invites various cinematographers to the table, and asks for some little behind the scenes of their work. His first guest is Winnie Heun, a Berlin based DoP specializing in tabletop.
Winnie, how would you describe your lighting approach?
For me contrast is everything. I am not a fan of too much fill light and I love hard Tungsten beams. But overall speaking my lighting approach on things is changing constantly due to the fact that I am changing myself too, I guess. On live action and tabletop shots there is no right way of lighting a scene or product. I hate routine, so I try to give every shot a new eye. At the moment I am using reflectors in various sizes such as the CRLS system. I built my own reflectors, though.
I prefer LED fixtures to avoid too much heat on set. I am testing new lighting fixtures a lot such as the new Laser from Sumolight or Moving Lights. The moving lights I like a lot. They are coming more from show lighting and for that you need a good dimmer board operator and a gaffer who knows what he/she is doing. On high speed shots I am able to use spining gobos during the take, that makes it less static. I like that effect especially on pouring shots.
Sometimes it’s great to switch off certain lights after you are down lighting a scene. It’s good to see what certain fixtures do but switching a few of them off might look even better.
Many times less is more and I think my lighting setups are getting easier and easier. I am not a big fan of huge equipment orders just to play safe.
I try to order what I’ll need and not more. Call it production friendly or not wasting resources. Very often we used every piece of equipment on the trucks.
My goal is to make the director happy and to bring his/her vision to life. Sometimes I can contribute more and sometimes less. It really comes down to how specific the director’s vision is. I’ve been lucky so far.
What is your favorite tabletop commercial you’ve worked on and why?
I very much enjoyed the commercial shoot for a Mexican hoover brand in Guadalajara. I shot the live action part and the tabletop part.
Xander, who directed that tvc and myself joined with a very limited rigging, SFX and Bolt-crew, had many days, prior to the main shoot, full access to the studio and the product with no rush at all. We shot maybe 1-2 shots a day, playing around, trying different things and setup’s.
What was the biggest challenge when shooting Ichiran „Ramen“?
From time to time I shoot little test commercials with director Xander Bartole in my backyard. We are challenging ourselves and are eager to try new things. We are getting new toys from vendors for the test. That way I got the chance to test the Robusto from Infinity. However, on the project for Ichiran we got a whole lot of Ramen noodles sponsored. Xander told the company we are doing a film for their product but we could do whatever we liked. Completely freestyle. So we treated it as one of our test commercials. At that time shooting in a volume was the “latest hype” so we wanted to try it out ourselves. We had no budget so we shot in my backyard with Xanders’ home consumer LED beamer. We borrowed many props and our friend and Food Stylist Pedro Torres did the food styling. The model @annabelle_lifelover was acting it the film.
We were looking for a gritty and dirty look. We had around 4 people on set. I think shooting with a very limited crew with more shooting time is the way to go in tabletop. It’s a more playful way of shooting and on the way things are happening and you have more time to think about them.
Pedro fighting the Octopus and foodstylist Pedro Torres in action
Due to great new remote filming services the client and agency doesn’t have to be on set anymore. For them the result counts and if you have more time at your proposal to pull certain shots off that is just fantastic. In the end it’s not more expensive I guess because your crew consists only of 5 people or so, but I am not a producer. I just love to work in such a way. Testing prior to the shoot is important and necessary but when it comes to the real shoot things (good or bad) can happen. The bad things you fix and the good things you push further and for that you will need time. Oh, and good music on set is really important too.
What is your favorite lens for macro action? (and why :))
I really love using my vintage still photo set of Nikon prime lenses. I collected step by step a full set of macro, shift & tilt, wide angle and long lenses. They are fitted to work with remote focus. My focus pullers hate it because they are so tiny but the look is just great. I also get less hassle at the immigration when flying because they don’t look professional. Kinda helpful if you are in a hurry. Of course snorkel lenses are a mandatory part of the lens package. Most of the time there is no time to fly in lenses from other rental houses so I take whatever is available locally.
The hardest tabletop scene to be lit so far was …
It is always shooting @1000 fps or higher with the Laowa Probe lens. It just burns the set and sometimes the poor food stylist. Really challenging if that shot has to be seamlessly intercut in existing footage (which was shot nicely with a Venice or Alexa at 25 fps). A gaffer I was working with made himself flags out of carbon fiber just to resist the enormous heat. It was cool we were still able to modify the light beams that way.
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Your favorite light is …
That keeps changing. We are in the middle of a lighting gear revolution. There are new toys out there every week. At the moment I like the Nanlux Evoke 1200 with Fresnel attachment and various moving light units. My favorite piece of lighting gear is not necessarily the lighting unit itself but my set of reflectors. The light unit is almost never angled directly to the product; there is “stuff” in between such as gels, curtains, glass or my reflectors.
What’s the craziest story from your Wescam time?
Oh, there are many more stories than just one. Wescam doesn’t exist anymore; it was a gyrostabled film camera attached to a moving platform such as a helicopter. It was all on 35mm film at that time. Nowadays you shoot that much easier with a Cineflex digitally.
One day we shot a revealing shot in Alaska at a high altitude mountain range for a Guiness beer ad. We took the passing over the rim of the mountain too deep and the helicopter crashed. We got lucky because the round angled skids of the helicopter slid off the rocks and we fell down quite a bit before the helicopter floated up again. That was it for the shoot. The helicopter was destroyed, we packed our things and flew back to Los Angeles where Wescam was based and I lived at that time.
Another was on the shoot for Titanic down in Rosarito in Mexico. The director James Cameron, d.p. Russel Carpenter, John Trapman the operator and myself as a Wescam technician and focus puller were cramped into a little metal cage hanging from a huge construction crane filming bird pov moves over the large Titanic set. The Wescam was hanging underneath the cage. We shot a scene with two actors in the crows nest of the ship really high up in the air. The video assist image was really crappy at that time so I quickly went soft and focused again on my remote focus unit. James Cameron was communicating with a megaphone with the cast on the boats deck, when he saw that the monitor went soft for a second he turned around, with his megaphone, and screamed at me “Did you get your fucking focus?”. I just said “Yes Sir!” and got lucky that he didn’t fire me on the spot. I heard that he is a nicer person now.
On the shoot for “The day of the Jackal” we had a great shot with Bruce Willis on a car ferry on the Cape Fear river in North Carolina. We started in a close up and then the helicopter pulled away revealing the entire river and area around it. It took several tries. After completion we rushed back to our base camp airport flying at a really low altitude with blasting music of “The Doors” in our headsets. I think that is something to expect from former Air Force pilots.
How do you manage with working on two units (or more) simultaneously?
Only two units at a time? It’s more than 4 units nowadays. Some units take a long time to shoot f.e. time lapse shots, others need a long time to reset, so there’s time in between where you can check out the other setups. Most of the time we hire additional camera crew to scope with that issue of multiple setups. It’s never ideal and a compromise. I would rather concentrate on our main camera especially if there are actors involved. It’s a lot of running between the setups. A wireless communication system between the 1.A.D., the technical crew is mandatory. The producer has to consider if it might be cheaper to open up another shooting day. On multiple setups you need so much more equipment and manpower. I must say 2-3 different cameras are more or less standard already.
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The biggest inspiration for your work …
Is my gaffer “Lupo”. I learned so much from him when I started out as a young d.p. Not so much technical, more how to behave on set and how to protect your crew. Lupo passed away a long time ago but what he taught me is still in my heart.
Who is your favorite photographer and why?
I admire the work of Gregory Crewdson, he treats his photo sessions like film shoots. I like his fictional and psychological approach. He is more a team person and not a lone fighter as many still photographers are. Gregory even hires a d.p., gaffer and key grip when he is shooting. I studied photography at the “Lette Verein” in Berlin. I knew that I didn’t want to work as a photographer. I found out early that my ambitions were more towards motion pictures. Photography is great but I miss editing, music, acting and the overall collaborative process. It gives you more dimensions. I like people and people on a set. Film people are special in a way, maybe a bit crazy. Love it!
Is virtual production the future of cinematography?
I shot several projects already on virtual production stages. It’s a new toy on the palette. It’s not good for everything and it has to be done right otherwise you are still fixing problems in post production. The nice thing is to do it in camera while you are shooting, it’s good for the carbon footprint of a production. The downsize is the huge amount of time and decision making prior to the shoot. Endless conversations with the digital department and content creators. VP studios are also very expensive.
For tabletop shots it’s a very nice new tool but you cannot shoot high speed with it.
I think at the moment there is still a hype about VP but it will come down to a normal tool soon, but instead of 3D I think VP is going to stay.
What do you think about AI? Is it going to influence your work?
AI is going to change our business tremendously. I think in 3 years from now we’ll see how it will affect everybody. Already today directors are relying on the help of AI while preparing their Directors Interpretations, scripts or storyboards. It’s going to be a game changer in every aspect. You gotta be open for it.
Winnie Heun, originally passionate about Stills Photography, I quickly turned addicted to cinematography as well. I love many kinds of photographs; from food photography and tabletop to graphic compositions in life action. If the main thing is the subject that‘s pictured or filmed, I also believe the technical aspect is important and can enhance the emotion that may pop out.
Being part of an international team, sharing taste and knowledge is fulfilling. That‘s the beauty of working as a cinematographer. I love the whole process. Prepping, working on ideas and trying new things, grading and being on set of course.
Prior to becoming a cinematographer, I worked many years as a camera assistant in Norway and as a Wescam technician in Los Angeles on large scale feature productions such as Titanic, The Jackal, Hard Rain, 13st Floor, Multiplicity, Murder in the First…
I am based in the city of Berlin with my lovely wife, two daughters, a cat and a dog.