Steve Hammal is a professional Filmmaker, Editor & Photographer. Steve has over 20 years of experience in the industry. He has worked in television, creating Broadcast content for ITV and the BBC and also in the UK film industry on such movies as Tomb Raider alongside Angelina Jolie. We had a very candid talk with Steve and he shared his vast experience of working in TV, Films and documentaries- his key learnings and the challenges he faced.
By Steve Hammal
What is your biggest learning in working for a television broadcaster like ITV or BBC?
My biggest learning opportunity when I worked for broadcasters was getting up to speed with nonlinear editing. I was taught how to use nonlinear editing systems and software. I am talking about a time 15 years ago, but that that was a big thing at the time because digital was still quite in its infancy and digital editing systems were pretty fresh to the market. So to be able to get up to speed and, and learn early on that type of technology and be able to also work with broadcast cameras and equipment on things like outside broadcasts and shooting news packages out on the road, using a vision mixer in a gallery and mixing sound for a live TV broadcast was all very helpful. These were lessons that helped me when I started my own company.
What are your key takeaways from working in the film industry on movies such as Tomb Raider? How is it different from working in television?
In working on movies, such as Tomb Raider, I found that movies tend to have a slower pace of production. There is a huge list of Hollywood talent, a large number of crew members in each department, all pulling in the right direction to try to achieve the director’s vision. For example, it can take a long time to get the lighting right. It can take a long time to reset after every day, particularly if there are a lot of moving parts. For instance, if there is tracking in a dolly that the cameras got to sit on to do specific camera moves, they’ve always got to go back to number one. As they say, back to one to reset after every take. That takes quite a long time. At that time, I was doing video playback in the film industry. For me, personally, the whole pace was very slow and there was a lot of waiting around. I think there is a misconception amongst people that haven’t really been on a large movie set, that it is a really glamorous, exciting, dynamic world. In short bursts, it is true, but in longer bursts, there is a lot of hanging around and waiting for things to happen. I found that quite tedious and it was certainly not really feeding the creative side and the creative expression of what I wanted to achieve in my career. I found that was the case unless you are lucky enough to be the cinematographer or the director or the editor on a major motion picture. Everyone else is just a technician and you find yourself like a quite a small cog in a large machine. Hence there isn’t really much scope to have any kind of creative input into the finished movie. Hence I found that creative freedom wasn’t really there for me with films, and I wasn’t prepared to wait around working my way through the hierarchy which can take one 20 to 25 years to reach those positions.
Although, it can be done quicker nowadays on commercials. If you are a cameraman and you want to try and shoot commercials, short films or light-independent features, digital has speeded up the whole process.
For me, it was a more ponderous pace on a film set than what I found with television.
Since you also work on documentaries, what are some of the best documentaries according to you?
I love doing documentaries because of the research. No matter how great the shots are or what happens day-to-day in terms of their schedule and what you are filming, if the research hasn’t been thorough of the specific topic that the documentary is covering then you are not really going to get to uncover much of what the documentary is about, what the heart of that story is, what that person’s journey is or what sort of facts that documentary is going to communicate on earth. I watch a lot of documentaries. I probably tend to watch more factual stuff now than I do narrative television. TV dramas are fine. They are often quite semi. Normally, you can find the documentary which reveals the actual true story and is often a lot more compelling and riveting than the dramatised version of that story. So for me, I think documentaries are a great way for filmmakers to really cover the whole gamut of research, pre-production, getting to the heart of how you tell a story with pictures. It involves working on your feet, as you cannot really do things again, you cannot ask people to recreate or fake things or can they do this again because you were not ready or you did not happen to capture a particular moment. Documentaries really teach you to think on your feet and be kind of agile and ready to capture something that might happen and might really improve or have some sort of contribution to the overall overarching story of that documentary. So you have always got to be ready. You have always got to keep your skills sharp and be able to work quickly. And that’s what I love about documentaries a lot. There is a lot more kind of adrenaline involved.
How do you generally hire a director of photography and the other team members for your shoot?
With my kind of background with camera and editing, I learned camera skills early on in the broadcasting world working for ITV and the BBC. I was able to quickly grasp digital cameras, film format type cameras, 35 mil sensors. With these skills, I class myself as the lighting cameraman or the director of photography and so I tend to class myself as a self-shooting director. I come up with the plan for the film shoot and do any of the research, the prep, the scriptwriting. When it gets to the actual shoot days, I am normally behind the camera, operating the camera myself. Hence I tend to act as my own Director of Photography. Although, if it is a larger set, where I am just in control of directing, and I am bringing other crew members on board, to fulfil those roles, I normally go to places like shooting people or Mandy. I also have a network of freelancers that I have on file that I call upon. Those are the kind of avenues that I use when I need to bring on the crew for larger productions. Going forward, I can also use Moonworkers as a platform to find the right talent as well. That is another good reason for having a profile on such a platform. I am always pleased to be on such platforms where you have access to a whole roster of new people and new talent. It has never been easier to crew up on a shoot and find skilled and decent people that you know you will get along with and would like working with and that are all going to make the end piece.
Are there any good 360° cameras? What is the best video camera for TV production and for films? Would you recommend different ones?
The camera technology in 2020 has almost hit a critical mass where any kind of digital filmmaking camera that is above the £3000 price point will give great results. Often, if you are shooting a low budget, feature film, for instance, you can still achieve amazing results and get the type of fidelity and resolution in the image that you need to be able to project onto large cinema screens. You can easily achieve that with cameras and wall recorders that cost £3000. With most of the Shogun type recorders, you can take a raw signal out of these reasonably cheap and affordable cameras and be able to achieve extremely high fidelity images.
This is amazing to me because I studied at the end of the 90s and did my film course and went to film school at the end of the 90s in the UK, which was pre-digital. I wanted to achieve high-resolution images, as we were just getting into the dawn of kind of Hd 1920 by 1080 pictures. If I wanted high fidelity, high-resolution cameras to shoot those sorts of images back then, 25 years ago, the cameras cost hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds. It would cost one to rent £1000 a day.
It’s just incredible with cameras today’s day. It’s really kind of levelled the playing field and it’s democratised the industry because it means you don’t have to have endless access to huge budgets or huge streams of cash to be able to go and get a camera in your hands which will give you a beautiful image. Obviously, if you’re shooting a 35 mil feature film, which is for theatrical distribution, and you’ve got named actors on board or if you’re shooting a commercial which you know has a reasonable budget then the go-to cameras are the Arri Alexa, the Alexa mini and these sort of cameras with mini prime lenses. But if you’re shooting documentaries, even documentaries for broadcast or a lot of documentaries are for YouTube distribution or online distribution you can use cameras such as Sony FS5. It is for £4000. Sony has just released a camera called the Sony FX9. It has quite an amazing sensor that can now shoot 6k imagery. All these cameras have what is called a very high dynamic range. So you can shoot beautiful images you can get a wide contrast from exposing for bright skies or into deep black, deep shadows and darker areas. Hence you are really getting on into a sort of playing field where you can achieve fantastic results with the right lighting, the right lenses, you can achieve fantastic results with cameras that are £3000- £5000. So to be in an age where you have that available to you, and you don’t have to have £80,000 to £100,000 to know that you’re going to get a really great image and you can visualise your project to see how it is going to look in your mind’s eye, is for me, it’s like being a kid in a sweet shop. Since I come from that era where it was really hard to achieve something if you didn’t have access to huge budgets or rental houses that would do your favours but you’d still end up paying tens of thousands of pounds to hire a camera for a few days then. This era is just amazing to me. I’m really excited about camera technology. But as I say I think in the current age, the cameras are kind of so good. It doesn’t matter which manufacturer you choose. Panasonic has got some amazing cameras. Canon has got some amazing digital cinema cameras. I would say that Sony is very much pushing the vanguard in terms of what they’re releasing.
So really, the choice of camera is kind of almost becoming a moot point now.
All in all, chatting with Steve was very insightful. Today, Steve offers tailored video production and photographer services, to companies looking to benefit from the power of visual content, to promote their goods, services social campaign or brand message.