I hate winter. But I adore how it looks on film. Dusting of snowflurries, dangling icicles, frosty breath are wonderfully cinematic. A field blanketed in snow can be mysterious, romantic, epic, portending death ...or enlightenment. Film production (on the east coast) is very slow between November and March. Partially because of the holidays, award season and Sundance/Berlin Film Festivals. But also because it's a pain to shoot in winter (from finding PAs who can drive on ice, to adequate well heated holding for cast/crew/extras, to keeping crew and equipment warm, comfortable and safe on set).
Unless warm weather is imperative to your narrative, I ask you to consider shooting a few scenes or your entire film during the winter. Most Hollywood films (regardless of where they were shot) take place during a perfectly sunny day. Only exceptions are when it rains for a funeral or lovers’ quarrel scene. Indie filmmakers do themselves a great disservice by trying to emulate the Hollywood aesthetic. That is part of why I wrote how to make “a low budget film more extravagant.” Choosing to shoot during un-Hollywood like perfect weather will actually increase your production value.
One of the many aspects I admire about Asian cinema is how they embrace the change in seasons, the weather and how it affects their characters. Tarantino, an Asian film maven, used snow wonderfully in the “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves” scene in “Kill Bill Vol 1.” I function differently in the cold. Wouldn’t the same be true for your characters? It doesn’t have to be a holiday film. It could just be cold. Hopefully a few of you will be inspired by this article to change your shoot dates, locations, interiors to exteriors, and take advantage of this (ridiculously awful) cinematic winter wonderland.
To get you started:
Winter films for inspiration:
These are some I love. Feel free to add your personal favorites in the comment section.
“Dersu Uzala” - Akira Kurosawa
“Alexander Nevsky” - Sergei Eisenstein
“A Simple Plan” - Sam Raimi
“Dreams (Woman of the Snow)” - Akira Kurosawa
“McCabe and Mrs Miller” - Robert Altman
“Fargo” - the Coen Brothers
“Citizen Kane (Boyhood scene)” - Orson Welles
“The Thing” - John Carpenter
“The Shining” - Stanley Kubrick
“30 Days of Night” - David Slade
“The Ice Storm” - Ang Lee
“Transsiberian” - Brad Anderson
“The Sweet Hereafter” - Atom Egoyan
“The Gold Rush” - Charlie Chaplin
“Lola Montes” - Max Ophuls
“Winter Light” - Ingmar Bergman
Once you’ve found visual inspiration, you need to make sure your crew, actors and equipment are taken care of. Before DPing any film in uncertain terrain, I always ask my friends and colleagues for advice and research various film forums. American Cinematographer Magazine also has a great online archive. Here are a few of my tips:
To Keep Myself Warm:
- Visit a sporting goods store and heed their advice. I learned this lesson the hard way After Day #1 of shooting night exteriors, in New Jersey, for Booker Mattison's "Exit 13", I went crawling to EMS in search of advice. I'd never been so cold and uncomfortable. I give my directors space to be difficult, divas or eccentric on set but its the DP’s job to maintain a calm, respectful, energetic mood for the crew. And that New Jersey tundra was killing my joy. The EMS salesperson reprimanded me and my clothing choices. “Cotton kills”, he explained.
- I now wear and swear by Uniqlo’s Heattech. Super thin and keeps me toasty
- Always have hand warmers on set. Don’t. Be. Stingy.
- I've never bought from Northern Outfitters but hear great reviews
- An AD friend recommends Battery Heated Boots/Socks
- Make sure your winter coat is warm but thin. Bulkiness affects my ability to operate
- Fingerless Wool Gloves with Mitten Flap to keep you warm and dexterous
- Frequent bathroom breaks keep you warm. Make sure you have easy access to bathrooms and don’t grumble when crew needs to take 10
- Good hearty low carb meal goes a long way
- Don’t drink coffee (oops)
To Keep Gear Warm:
- Always tell your rental house what conditions you will be shooting in and if they recommend certain accessories
- If you are shooting film or working with mechanical (vs digital) gear/optics, they will need to be "winterized". Film stock and mags must be kept warm
- If filming in the snow, do a test shoot in prep. You’re looking for how well your camera, lenses and film/hd dynamic range handle bright white and contrast. The more you know in prep, the less time spent outside. You might want to rent/purchase ND, Grad and Polarizer Filters to control contrast of bright white snow
- Keep your batteries warm. Cold weather causes them to drain faster. You can keep them indoors, in a warm vehicle, close to your body or tape hand warmers to them
- Bring camera out only when ready to shoot
- LCDs can be temperamental in super cold conditions. Monitors might be fuzzy, gray or lag behind the action. Give them extra time to warm up
- If shooting with a Steadicam, I've heard the green monitor works better than LCD in cold weather
- Body heat can be efficient in keeping gear warm. However, sweat can cause condensation on your gear which you want to avoid
- When returning inside, give equipment and crew plenty of time to acclimate to warmer temperature. This means less condensation. And grumpiness.