Kommer Kleijn, a digital pioneer…

This post is also available in: Français (French) Nederlands (Dutch)

Director of Photography, keen stereographer, teacher at three different film schools, a specialist in VFX, as well as motion control and animation, co-founder of several capturing processes, a scholar in the field of audiovisual perception, passionate defender of higher frame rates, a digital pioneer: Kommer Kleijn is a true genius who contributed greatly to major advancements in our profession. An active member of several committees and professional guilds such as the SBC, IMAGO, UP3D, EDCF, SMPTE and the AES, he was honored with the Lumière prize for best European stereography in 2017 by the AIS, UP3D and “ Stereopsia” for his dedication to stereoscopic photography over the past two decades, as well as best 3D image for Above Us All by Eugenie Jansen at the 3D image festival of Lodz in 2014. IMAGO has decided to celebrate this wonderful man giving him a honorary membership from March 16th.

So many hats for one man… Is your brain exceptional or have you just been working like a maniac in order to accomplish so many things during such a short period of time?

KK: Your question is very interesting, as to be honest there is a bit of both. My brain is indeed kind of special and I have been working hard my whole life. In fact, both these characteristics are the result of a handicap which was unfortunately diagnosed very late in my life. Following a major breakdown, the doctors told me in 2013 that I was suffering from autism. This is a generic term which defines a range of handicaps as varied as the amount of people afflicted, and in my case was diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome. I have a form of autism that has a substantial impact on the way I lead my life. My conscious brain works like the average person, and I don’t have a speech impedimentt. But this form of autism causes anomalies to the non conscious functions of the brain. Fortunately, as a consolation prize I was gifted with great intellectual abilities that have allowed me to achieve all that I have.

As for the second part of your question, this is easier to describe. Autism literally means one is introverted. Suffering from this handicap, I have been struggling to understand the social world I live in and to establish healthy social connections, and have over-compensated for this through hard work. I was simultaneously scared to be rejected whilst telling myself that if I was dedicated to my work, then my peers wouldn’t notice my social failures as much, as well as distracting me from my loneliness.

With a brain like yours, you could have achieved anything: designing spacecrafts or medical research. How did you end up working in film?

KK: I believe it was a combination of random circumstances. Ultimately, this outcome is not the most positive, as choosing a film career was not to be advised to anyone with a condition like mine. This is what caused my current illness, a condition far more problematic than my cerebral malfunction. By which I mean my current inability to work. I found it very difficult when I was told I wasn’t fit to work in 2013, as I have always loved what I do.

So how did you end up working in film?

KK: For the simple reason of cinema being deeply attractive, I did not take much convincing. (Laughs)

Truthfully, I was raised by a family of musicians: my mother and my sisters are professional musicians and my dad, although an engineer by trade, is a passionate amateur violinist. Music, the art of performing to entertain, was a core component of our family life. Due to my handicap being undiagnosed, I was at odds with my parents which created tension. Furthermore they were naturally more advanced than me musically, and ultimately they did not share my musical tastes ( I loved pop rock and wanted to play the drums). Music was just completely out of the picture for me. I organically developed a special interest in photography, a medium as technical as it was artistic. I spent long hours in the dark room, constantly fixing things like  electronic components in my room and this half technician/half artist path suited me well. Thinking about it now, I was following the path of both of my parents: the musician and the engineer.

My first encounter with film occured by chance. My dad performed in a string quartet and Dutch tv came to film one of their rehearsals at our home on a Coutant 16mm camera. So obviously I fell for this wonderful tool which was able to process not just one but twenty four frames per second!

You are dutch I believe, so how did you end up at Insas?

KK: That much is true. As my father was an engineer, I was very able with electronics and initially went to a polytechnic school. I immediately approached final year students to enquire about potential graduate work positions, and I have to say I was not thrilled at the prospect of fiddling with electronics in an office. (Laughs) My mother’s friend at the time had a husband who worked as a DOP on TV in France. She phoned him to ask if I could go and spend some time with him. The second I walked on a film set,  I was hooked. I passed my initial exams to enrol at the National Dutch Film School, but I was so eager that I ended up failing. Thankfully, these exams were held before the summer which left me time to apply for other schools in the neighbouring countries. Belgium was a true haven for film schools. Also, my sister studied music at the conservatory in Brusells and her teacher was an Insas fanatic. I nevertheless applied to both Ricts and Insas. Ricts advised me against pursuing their cinematography course in favour of their directing course instead because according to them, I was too intelligent! When my application to Insas was successful, I chose to go there because I loved the films of Cloquet.

Your teachers were Charlie Van Damme and Ghislain Cloquet. How did it feel to learn from such iconic giants of cinema?

KK :I was very lucky to have them as mentors. We were not taught by Ghislain for an entire year as he was working on the set of Polanski’s filmTess. But as soon as he got back, he more than compensated for it. He walked into the classroom, opened his on-set bag, threw its content over on the table and magic happened. Charlie was perhaps not as eloquent, but after graduating from Insas, I worked with him as a second assistant camera on Benvenuta. There I learnt so much from him. He is a wonderfully gifted man.

After some time, you specialised in ground breaking technologies : digital, composition, 3D and more. Could you explain how this came about?

KK : There are two distinct ways in which to explain it : on one hand, the way I experienced it at the time and on the other, looking back at it retrospectively following my diagnosis. I was utterly passionate about this profession. Fascinated with using the camera as a tool to convey emotions. Aspiring to be a DOP on feature films came naturally to me. At the beginning of my career there were no issues. During school I wasn’t lacking offers, the aspiring directors studying at the school often wanted to work with me. Similarly after graduating; doing shorts, and I had an exemplary career as a camera assistant too. Offers to be a DOP on feature films however, were much more difficult for me to obtain. People were happy for me to be a technician or DOP on short films, but as projects became more substantial, they were looking for something else. As I was stubborn and unaware of my handicap, it took me a long time to realise that I wouldn’t be a DOP on feature films. After a number of years I came to terms with it without understanding the reasons why. I had invested so much of my energy attempting to achieve this and on the side I have always made a living working as a technician. People noticed I was excelling when there were more unusual techniques at play. I was also enjoying that and in demand for that kind of work. At first, shooting in black and white, then when VFX were involved; blue key, composition, motion control etc. I shot a lot of stop motion too and then stereoscopic 3D. 

Were you never the DOP on feature films, even 3D films? 

KK :I have only been at the DOP table on one fiction feature film, as a stereographer on Above Us All by Eugénie Jansen. I was very happy to have made this film as it corresponded with my vision of 3D filmmaking and the way I believed a 3D film crew should work together.

How do you explain that you never had the opportunity to be the DOP that you wished to be? Was your handicap the root of the problem?

KK: Yes, in effect. Even though on one hand my autism doesn’t affect my creativity, on the other hand it does produce a problem with communication. Contrary to popular belief, my autism doesn’t produce empathy issues, but I do have difficulty reading the muscular clues taken for granted by others as a tool to read expressions. My brain lacks the function of automatically being able to understand this code. My conscious self is forced to analyse the data and attempt to interpret it ‘manually’. So not only is my conscious brain having to function at full speed to compensate, which is exhausting, but it is also only interpreting 15%-30% of these clues correctly! The main task of a DOP is to understand and feel what the director wants to say. At Insas or on a short film, a director was primarily concerned with his DOP exposing the film correctly. At that time I was valued by my peers because I was meticulous and technically able. However, on a feature film the main concern for the director is to be understood. 

Earlier, you spoke about “Above Us All” and how it corresponded with your vision of 3D filmmaking and the way you believed a 3D film crew should work together. What did you mean by that?

KK: For me 3D filmmaking, as with any technological progress, only makes sense if it becomes part of the narrative. It is no wonder viewers are bored with 3D films after just one or two when most 3D films are just 2D films shot with a 3D camera. For the viewer, watching a 3D film is 2 Euro more expensive and has to be watched through diving goggles that make everything darker. So if all we are offering is the occasional perception illusion from time to time, it is no wonder the viewer loses interest. Above Us All  is a true 3D film as it offers a new film language that only works in 3D. In fact, there is no 2D version of the film. A film that would work equally in both 2D and 3D would appear suspicious to my eyes. When the journalists left the film and told Eugénie, who is not autistic, but is a little bit stubborn (laughs), that it was very unusual to refuse to screen her film in 2D, she told them that she also refused to screen her film in black and white or mute!

Also, on set we established every set up the three of us together; the director, the DOP and myself.

For me, a stereographer is not just the person who presses the buttons on the 3D camera, his role is to be in charge of the framing of the third dimension, in other words, the depth. But, as everyone knows, framing is not limited to positioning the camera. The operator also has the edit in mind and can suggest changes with the set dressing, blocking etc… To be a stereographer on a ‘true’ 3D film is to contribute as much as the DOP to all these components, which is what we achieved on Above Us All. We constructively collaborated harmoniously, inspiring each other.  

If I am not mistaken, this is not the only technical innovation of this film?

KK: Precisely. People don’t believe me when I tell them that it happened by chance, but it is true that this film, to my knowledge, is the first film truly shot and screened at high speed. Again by ‘truly’ I mean that high speed is actually used for the storytelling. Above Us All is not only 3D, but also constantly in motion. The film opens with a still shot and then after a few seconds the camera begins to pan right and never stops. The scenes consist of  plans-séquences where the camera pans continuously, sometimes up to the full 360°. There are cuts in the film, but we move from one panning camera to another. As this is a bit of a risk, the producer required us to do three days of tests, shooting three entire scenes of the film in order to release the budget. So we shoot, we screen it and then catastrophe strikes, the frames appear blurry and display stroboscopic effects! There ia a debate about this, I raise my hand from the back of the room and I say that this probably wasn’t my concern as I have been employed as Mr. 3D, but in other circles I am also known as Mr. Frame-rate, and that the problem can be simply resolved by shooting at 60 frames-per-second. The reply is that this will cause slow-motion. I object, saying that you would also have to project it at sixty. The producer tells me that this is impossible because cinema does not project at 60fps and I tell him that myself and others have fought for a decade about the International standards. We conduct more timed tests and then a miracle happens, the frames are sharp and there are no more strobes. So, in the end, we shot the whole film at 50fps and it was always screened at 50fps. In the same manner as it is for 3D, there is no version at 25 frames as the film would be unwatchable. So the higher frame rate has truly been utilised. It is not just a ‘gadget’,  without it the project couldn’t be made in the way the director imagined it. In my opinion, this is the first film to achieve this. There have previously been other films shot and screened at higher frame rates, such as Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’, but they did not fully exploit the potential of this change in frame rate. These other films are not edited any differently and “24” versions do exist, in reality it is a film at a normal speed but shot with a high-speed camera. Similarly to a 2D film shot with a 3D camera, shooting at high speed without exploiting the new storytelling possibilities that it allows, has no interest. Furthermore, capturing and projecting images twenty four times per second creates a whole set of anomalies that people ended up loving, as it means that they are watching a cinema film. This is what we call the “Love of Artifacts”. If, like these directors, you make something that changes the emotional value of cinema and you fail to give anything back (justify in your storytelling) , the viewer is left disappointed.

This brings us back to another of your hobbies, projection. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

KK: Actually, it is not projection that I am interested in per se, I am continually fascinated by the same subject: the way cinema can convey emotions to the viewers. But for me, to be interested in this, one must consider how images are going to be projected and therefore received. Thus projection has always been of huge interest to me as a DOP. My final year documentary at Insas was about the projectionists in my neighbourhood cinema because I noticed that they shared the same bug we students had for the wonderful medium of cinema. As I was one of the first to shoot digital, I was also present at the first ever digital projections at Kinépolis. For me, cinema is a medium designed to transmit emotions and therefore altering the projection and doing that badly can destroy the whole thing. I took an interest in everything that could enhance the medium; IMAX, Showscan etc…the problem with film stock is that all these upgrades come at a significant cost that therefore have consequences for the shoot (bigger film stock, larger and noisier cameras etc.), so when we shifted to digital, I saw a huge potential there as these constraints disappeared.

Earlier you mentioned the downsides of 24fps that viewers have become accustomed to. Can you list those?

KK: The major disadvantage of 24 is simply that the frame becomes “blurry”, as spatial definition is limited as soon as there is movement. The only way to make it sharper without creating strobe effects is to shoot at a higher frame rate. This is not just a detail, it is a huge mistake that hinders improved image quality! Using a 4K camera at 24fps doesn’t make any sense. It sends a message to the world that you are shooting with the latest technology but in actuality doesn’t enhance anything. Traditional cinema frames are rarely above 1K or 1.5K at 24fps. In fact, frames cannot exceed this definition otherwise as soon as the frame itself moves of a subject within it moves, then strobe effects appear. Even if you comply to the 7 second rule (it takes 5-7 seconds minimum for an object to cross through a shot to prevent a strobe effect). 24 is very far removed from the human eye and the risk of strobing at 24fps is so high that it forces us to create images that contain movement to be slightly blurry. In fact, for 100 years we have had to limit strobe effects by reducing the spatial definition creating motion blur, exposing each frame for longer, even longer than in any stills photography. This solution is both simple and yet genius; by exposing at 1/48th of a second as soon as anything moves, it diminishes the resolution and the more an object or the camera moves, the more there is motion blur. It is useful because we can avoid 90% of the strobe problems, but also it limits the resolution of the image itself. On the contrary, if one diminishes the exposure speed to sharpen the image, then the strobing becomes unbearable, unless both the actor and the camera remain completely still, which obviously makes no sense in cinema. This is the reason why camera testing on a fixed axis doesn’t make much sense, it fails to measure the resolution during realistic shooting conditions, with an actor and camera in motion.

What would your thoughts be about the philosophical debate that the essence of art is not about hyperrealism or  that technical achievement is not the purpose of art?

KK: Ithink its a false debate! He who can do more, can do less. I’m not prescribing what to do, if people prefer 24fps then let them use 24. It is a particular style which suits certain stories very well. I am simply suggesting that higher frame rates should be allowed too, I didn’t ask that lower frame rates be forbidden. Similarly, if one wants to make a film in Super8, even though most cinemas have 35mm projectors, I don’t have any objection to this. On the contrary, what I do find problematic is restricting those to film and project in 35 because you believe that Super8 is more dreamy due to its imperfections. 

This debate arises with every technical advancement. For instance, when colour film stock appeared, black and white DOP’s were opposed to it because it would inherently change the way they light. Their wonderful creative know-how, enriching black and white images with lighting techniques compensating for the lack of colour, would have been redundant. Although colour was not only a technical advancement, it enables an ability to tell more, provided it is used as a narrative tool. But this required changes in the way of working. 

Man seems programmed to resist change no matter the advancement; sound, colour, digital, 3D, higher frame rate, true HDR, there has always been resistance at first. Amongst DOP’s but beyond that; directors, actors, producers, the whole industry resists as each change aims to redefine habits and previous modes of working.

Sometimes one has to return to school, which can be very unsettling at first, so people invent problems. But this is all nonsense! Not only are they afraid of the new technology but furthermore they have to utilise it successfully. In order to do that, one has to create a new language which is not yet written. This is not apparent to everyone. In fact, what I offer is not an attempt to perfect an already existing medium, but to add communication tools which can create a new medium. If used properly, it will be stronger than the previous one.

What comes with higher frame rates?

KK: It allows genuinely augmented image definition in film. I am talking about image sharpness, rather than motion definition. This is also enhanced but is not the main focus here. In fact this development actually changes everything! Whether you are director or an actor you are well aware these days that when the actor is moving their facial expressions won’t be the sharpest, even if all they are doing is speaking. Therefore both director and actor approach their work with an awareness that they can afford to be less precise when a shot contains movement. Altering the spatial definition during moving shots dramatically boosts how much narration one can tell in the span of a minute. Directors who integrate this notion to their workflow open up infinite possibilities of storytelling. Obviously this is true for action films but not limited to these. The issue being that you constantly have to offer new content in front of the camera. It needs to be valid, serving the narration as well as bringing emotions and beauty. This doesn’t appear on its own. Using the latest high frame rate cameras to shoot with the old method is a complete waste. It is as if one picked up the newest color camera, back when color was the latest innovation, and just shot grey scaled or ugly tones sets and costumes, to complain in the end that color film is awful. New camera technology requires a renewed creative process along with it. This often met with resistance…

In my opinion, motion sharpness is the most crucial improvement but not the only one with higher frame rates. It also allows for innovative camera movements traditionally avoided because they induced strobing. That’s it! I got it off my chest! What an absolute conundrum this thing is! (Laughs) Until now when filming a close up shot, we had to blur the background and pretended it was a genuine artistic choice, but actually it was a technical constraint, as it was necessary to avoid strobe artefacts.

But stopping down the aperture does help to increase the depth of field?

KK: True, but actually, the shot will be unusable and end up in the bin. During a tight shot, if your actor moves and the camera also moves to follow him, and the aperture is closed down to keep both the background and the foreground in focus, then the background will strobe so much that one wouldn’t be unable to capture the actor’s performance. So obviously it is ok if the background is just a plain white wall, but as soon as it is more detailed, the shot could become absolutely unusable. The only way to solve this is to blur the background. Which makes it not an artistic decision but a technical imperative. At higher frame rates, you could still blur the background but then it is because it is a real artistic choice.

To conclude and return to your initial question about the benefits of higher frame rates, one could assume that when the frame rate doubles then the shutter speed has to be divided in half in order to get double the spatial definition. In fact, it is actually much more effective than that, because when shooting at 50fps, one can lower shutter speed as much as needed without worrying about strobe effect. A new artistic tool is available with shutter speed. A well known setting to play with for stills photographers and not available to DOPs for a century because they were restricted to shooting at a lower frame rate.

I wrote my thesis about using vintage glass in the digital era and I already have the feeling that many DOPs find 4k image too detailed, lacking the rounder texture of photographic film which is why tend to use that kind of glass. What’s your opinion about this?

KK: Indeed 4K can become counterproductive in some cases, if the shot is stationary and the actor moves in the foreground, the set becomes sharper than the actor which obviously does not serve storytelling. I believe this is the reason why there is a love of filming with vintage lenses and filters, because at 24fps 4K only enhances what does not move (the set) instead of what does move (actors). The DOP attentive to storytelling has a right to blame the image for being too sharp (the set) distracting from the actor’s performance (suffering from motion blur). Making the whole picture fuzzy with filters is a relief from this issue. In a way this is perfectly legitimate. It would then be logical to wonder whether there is a purpose to pick a 4K camera. I offer an answer that allows the image as a whole to be sharp. Sets and actors. So that actors remain our main focus, even in 4K. 

However it has been argued that the detailed definition of skin texture might reveal the cast’s imperfection as we adopted high definition?

KK: It is right to say that each technological progress make us transform the established norms. Higher frame rate images bring more realistic definition so one cannot get away with filming cheap sets or casting actors in their forties to play girls in their twenties. Inevitably there are consequences but it does not ruin the cinematography. Everything appears more detailed so more relevant content must be in front of the camera.

Are there downsides to shooting at a higher frame rate?

KK: The major downside we can see this within is the infamous “Love of artefacts”. The camera work does not display the previously mentioned anomalies from the past that we had become accustomed to. But also the fact filmmakers need to adapt. Both temporary though. We could also object to it as it generates a bit more data. Honestly this is both right and wrong at the same time. If you think about it 4K or even 8K does not add much more in terms of definition these days so can also use higher frame rates whilst going back to a smaller resolution in order to limit the amount of data. In the end shooting at 50fps multiplies the data by two whilst shoot 4K at 24fps multiplies it by four and it is visibly clearer. So if one is scared of costs increasing then we might be temporarily better off using 4K. Although there are people who are not scared of data: Ang Lee shot Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk at 120fps in 4K 3D, which means 240 4K frames to process per second which is obviously quite something. Ultimately it is all downscaled to 24fps for distribution purposes. Peter Jackson and Ang Lee also committed the error of shooting at a 360 degree shutter angle. The issue that arises is it turns the image even more blurry than before. This is the reason why their HFR films do not display any visible advancement.

It seems to me that “The Hobbit” was shot at 48fps. In your case you mainly spoke of 50 and 60. Is there a particular reason? 

KK: The benefits that come with high frame rates are in theory already achievable at 48. Visually there is not much of a difference between 48, 50 or 60. On the other hand 48 works on a cinema digital projector but does not function on DVD, neither does it on Blu-Ray or broadcast TV.  The result is that “home entertainment” version are at 24fps. Getting rid of one frame out of two. So what is the interest? 50 and 60 though are good in cinemas, on DVD and Blu-Ray, or on TV …

From what I understand high frame rates are achievable in camera and from cinema projectors, even at home, so what else needs to be transformed, apart from use and practice?

KK: Nothing! It is recent as it has only been for one or two years that everything is set. In fact five years of international militant activism were needed for higher frame rates to be included in the DCP official  and then, the same amount of time to be implemented in all the mastering and projecting tools. We also had to wait for 35mm film projectors to disappear as they are limited to 24 or 25. But only quite recently have all three factors become commonplace. What needs to happen now is for filmmakers to do their part. To be ready to launch into new discoveries and impactful experiences, as revolutionary as color.