Quick Chat: Dictionary Films director/DP Michael Ognisanti

Dictionary Films, the production arm of Cutters Studios, has expanded its roster with the addition of director/DP Michael Ognisanti. He joins from Chicago-based production company MK Films where he worked from 2004 to 2015.

While there he trained as a motion control operator and began assistant directing and shooting under director Mark Klein. Over the years, he built a reputation as a tabletop director and DP for commercials and documentaries. His credits include spots for Bobble, Bud Light, Coors, Giant Eagle and Golden Corral.

Let’s find out more.

You recently joined the roster of Dictionary Films. Can you talk about that and why you made the move?
I’ve always loved the idea of merging the production and post worlds closer together.  One of my first jobs out of college was as a videographer for a local news station. Between the reporter and myself, we would write, shoot and edit pieces daily. Being that close to the whole process of putting a project together was important to me. That is what I’ve found at Dictionary and Cutters Studios. Editing, effects, graphics, it’s all under one roof so those channels of communication are more available. I can feel more connected to the project and give my input along the way. I’m sure the editors will love that (smile).

You have a rich background in production, but your expertise seems to be tabletop. Can you describe the differences, if any, between directing tabletop and traditional shooting?
In general, there is not a huge difference. In the commercial world at least, the goals are still the same: we are trying to find the best ways to communicate a certain feeling through our images.  Composition, lighting, blocking, environment, they all work together to achieve that. That is the same whether it’s a live-action scene or a product-only scene.

That being said, the biggest difference is that a traditional live-action shoot revolves around what the talent is doing. We rely heavily on dialogue, action or facial expressions to get our message across.  When we shoot products, we obviously don’t have that, so we have to pay close attention to how we can make our subject visually pop off the screen and draw in the viewer. This is where the details become so important.

Anyone who has ever been on a tabletop set knows what I’m talking about. The backgrounds and surfaces and propping become much more essential to our work. Also, many product shots accompany the live action, so there is a constant battle for screen time. You may only have a couple of seconds to grab someone’s attention, so you have to make it count.

What about being the DP on a tabletop vs. traditional shoot?
I’ve found I use a lot of the same techniques on a traditional shoot that I would on tabletop, only on a bigger scale. It’s still crafting light to make the subject look interesting. Some of the lights might change but you still have to make the same decisions. Should the lighting be hard and contrasty, or soft and airy? It all depends on the message we are trying to convey.

Different types of shoots, different type of vibe?
I think tabletop does move at a slower pace. In some ways it can be more like a still shoot. The sets are usually smaller and more low-key since we are rarely dealing with talent and extras and intense location changes. However, I do think it’s a more detail-oriented way of shooting. We work on a micro level. We spend a lot of time making intricate adjustments to the lighting and framing; something you don’t normally see on a live-action set.

Any tips for those working in tabletop? What do they need to know?
Give away my secrets? Are you crazy?! I’m kidding, of course!  Nowadays you can pretty much learn anything on the Internet anyway. One thing I would say is that it’s easy to get too attached to one shot and not realize that what you are doing is a part of a bigger piece. Everything we shoot should be able to be put into one coherent piece. So you might have a really cool idea for a particular shot, but you have to ask if it actually works with everything else you are shooting.

Also, many times we are shooting product to accompany a live-action piece. Do the elements all work together cohesively? That is really important and sometimes it can get lost when we get sucked into our own world. I’ve also learned that it’s important to be very nice to the food stylists — they can be life-savers!  You can have the coolest, most dynamic shot ever, but if the product doesn’t look good, it’s all for naught.

BL_lime_stil copy Kitchen Aid_still copy
Michael Ognisanti’s resume includes spots for Bud Light Lime and Kitchen Aid.

Does the experience of working in tabletop help when you shoot more traditional pieces? What about the other way around?
I think they can complement each other nicely. For me, I like working on as many different types of projects as possible. That way, you pick up new tricks along the way and apply them in different situations. I found things I thought we would only do in tabletop work on a live-action set. The reverse is true too.

Can you talk about the tools you use?
In terms of camera gear and lighting, we use a lot of the same gear as we would for traditional shoots, although our lights might be smaller since our sets are smaller and we don’t need as much power. I’ve found macro lenses are important since sometimes we want to get right in on the subject but still want the feel of a wider lens, so the close minimum focus is key. Motion control is also a big asset for us. I was trained as a motion control operator (using Kuper Controls) so designing dynamic camera moves can really bring a uniqueness and intrigue to the shots.  Especially since much of the time the products are simply sitting on a surface, adding some dimension can be a nice eye-catcher.

In addition to the gear we use, any good food stylist will have their own bag of tricks that can help food stay fresh on set under the hot lights.

What project are you most proud of?
I don’t know if I can name one project specifically, but the most rewarding jobs for me are the ones that involve a lot of collaboration and problem solving. It’s inevitable that you will get stuck on a shot and either the specific action you are trying to achieve isn’t working or maybe the shot just doesn’t look good. But when we all come together —agency, client, crew — and find the answers in a collaborative way, that’s the best part. That’s when I feel most proud.

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Cutters Studios is a full-service company with offices in Chicago, Detroit, LA, New York and Tokyo. The Cutters Studios group also includes Dictionary Films, Chicago-based sound company Another Country, design/animation/VFX company Flavor (which has offices in Chicago, LA and Detroit) and Detroit-based Picnic Media. 


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