Tag Archives: DP

Quick Chat: Filmmaker/DP/VFX artist Mihran Stepanyan

Veteran Armenian artist Mihran Stepanyan has an interesting background. In addition to being a filmmaker and cinematographer, he is also a colorist and visual effects artist. In fact, he won the 2017 Flame Award, which was presented to him during NAB in April.

Let’s find out how his path led to this interesting mix of expertise.

Tell us about your background in VFX.
I studied feature film directing in Armenia from 1997 through 2002. During the process, I also became very interested in being a director of photography. As a self-taught DP, I was shooting all my work, as well as films produced by my classmates and colleagues. This was great experience. Nearly 10 years ago, I started to study VFX because I had some projects that I wanted to do myself. I’ve fallen in love with that world. Some years ago, I started to work in Moscow as a DP and VFX artist for a Comedy Club Production special project. Today, I not only work as a VFX artist but also as a director and cinematographer.

How do your experiences as a VFX artist inform your decisions as a director and cinematographer?
They are closely connected. As a director, you imagine something that you want to see in the end, and you can realize that because you know what you can achieve in production and post. And, as a cinematographer, you know that if problems arise during the shoot, you can correct them in VFX and post. Experience in cinematography also complements VFX artistry, because your understanding of the physics of light and optics helps you create more realistic visuals.

What do you love most about your job?
The infinity of mind, fantasy and feelings. Also, I love how creative teams work. When a project starts, it’s fun to see how the different team members interact with one another and approach various challenges, ultimately coming together to complete the job. The result of that collective team work is interesting as well.

Tell us about some recent projects you’ve worked on.
I’ve worked on Half Moon Bay, If Only Everyone, Carpenter Expecting a Son and Doktor. I also recently worked on a tutorial for FXPHD that’s different from anything I’ve ever done before. It is not only the work of an Autodesk Flame artist or a lecturer, but also gave me a chance to practice English, as my first language is Armenian.

Mihran’s Flame tutorial on FXPHD.

Where do you get your inspiration?
First, nature. There nothing more perfect to me. And, I’m picturalist, so for various projects I can find inspiration in any kind of art, from cave paintings to pictorial art and music. I’m also inspired by other artists’ work, which helps me stay tuned with the latest VFX developments.

If you had to choose the project that you’re most proud of in your career, what would it be, and why?
I think every artist’s favorite project is his/her last project, or the one he/she is working on right now. Their emotions, feelings and ideas are very fresh and close at the moment. There are always some projects that will stand out more than others. For me, it’s the film Half Moon Bay. I was the DP, post production supervisor and senior VFX artist for the project.

What is your typical end-to-end workflow for a project?
It differs on each project. In some projects, I do everything from story writing to directing and digital immediate (DI) finishing. For some projects, I only do editing or color grading.

How did you come to learn Flame?
During my work in Moscow, nearly five years ago, I had the chance to get a closer look at Flame and work on it. I’m a self-taught Flame artist, and since I started using the product it’s become my favorite. Now, I’m back in Armenia working on some feature films and upcoming commercials. I am also a member of Flame and Autodesk Maya Beta testing groups.

How did you teach yourself Flame? What resources did you use?
When I started to learn Flame, there weren’t as many resources and tutorials as we have now. It was really difficult to find training documentation online. In some cases, I got information from YouTube, NAB or IBC presentations. I learned mostly by experimentation, and a lot of trial and error. I continue to learn and experiment with Flame every time I work.

Any tips for using the product?
As for tips, “knowing” the software is not about understanding the tools or shortcuts, but what you can do with your imagination. You should always experiment to find the shortest and easiest way to get the end result. Also, imagine how you can construct your schematic without using unnecessary nods and tools ahead of time. Exploring Flame is like mixing the colors on the palette in painting to get the perfect tone. In the same way, you must imagine what tools you can “mix” together to get the result you want.

Any advice for other artists?
I would advise that you not be afraid of any task or goals, nor fear change. That will make you a more flexible artist who can adapt to every project you work on.

What’s next for you?
I don’t really know what’s next, but I am sure that it is a new beginning for me, and I am very interested where this all takes me tomorrow.

The A-List: La La Land‘s Oscar-winning DP Linus Sandgren

By Iain Blair

Even though it didn’t actually win the Best Picture Oscar, La La Land was honored with five Academy Awards this year, including one for Best Cinematography for Linus Sandgren. This Swedish director of photography, known for his kinetic work with David O. Russell on American Hustle and Joy, collaborated closely with La La Land’s Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle.

Shooting with anamorphic lenses and 35mm film on Panavision Millennium XL2s (with one 16mm sequence) — and capturing his first musical — Sandgren rose to the challenge set by Chazelle (“make it look magical rather than realistic”) by continually pushing the film’s technical and creative boundaries.

That approach is showcased in the bravura opening traffic jam sequence where the camera feels like one of the dancers and part of the choreography. Designed to look like one unbroken shot, it’s actually three, carefully rehearsed, then shot on the freeway ramp over a weekend and stitched together invisibly and seamlessly. For another tour-de-force sequence where stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally fly up into the stars of the Griffith Observatory planetarium, the team used wires and bluescreen on a set, as filming wasn’t allowed in the real location.

I recently talked to Sandgren about shooting the film, working with Chazelle (see our interview with the director), the digital workflow and the importance of post to him as a DP.

Is it fair to say that the camera functions almost like another character in this film?
Yes, our whole approach was to let the camera act as both a curious character, with very active movement, as well as a musical instrument, so we had to move the camera to the rhythm of the music. We also designed many scenes in three- to six-minute-long single takes that often included a Steadicam that had to step on or off a crane, and sometimes we needed to shoot the scene in a very limited timeframe of about 20 minutes.

Was the framing also quite demanding?
Damien wanted the film to be very anamorphic and do it in 35mm with the old scope format — before the standard became 2.40:1 — so we did it in 2.55:1 like the old CinemaScope. Then I talked to Panavision and they built some new ground glasses for us, which added to the magic we were trying to capture in the look.

Damien told me that you and colorist Natasha Leonnet actually set the template for the look and color palette even before the shoot?
Yes, we began with the tests. To me, it’s really important to try and establish the look in camera as much as possible, so that it’s as natural as possible in post and you don’t have to tweak too much later. So in the test, in order to get that “Technicolor look,” we explored introducing blues and cyans into the blacks, and we tested anything from push process (over-developing) and under-exposing, and pull process (under-develop) and over-exposing the film. The push process gave us more contrast and grain, while the pull process gave us a softer look and finer grain, which we thought was more pleasing.

How did you deal with the dailies?
We decided we were going to use Efilm’s Cinemascan dailies, which meant we scanned all the negative with an Arri scanner instead of the telecine version, and then in post we re-scanned the negative in 6K and downconverted it to 4K. All the tests were done with Natasha, but for the shoot itself, I used my dailies colorist, Matt Wallach from EC3 Lab, which is the location operation run by Efilm and Company 3 together. It’s the same workflow I used on Joy and also on the upcoming Battle of the Sexes. Each day of the shoot the film was sent to Fotokem, who under-developed it one stop, and then it was scanned at EC3.

Linus Sandgren with is Oscar at the Lionsgate Oscar party.

Where did you do the DI?
With Natasha at Efilm. She got all the settings from the EDL and we generally tried to stay with the dailies look, which we were all pretty happy with. We used some windows and worked on the blacks, and me and Damien had about three to four weeks working on the DI, but not every day. We’d go back and forth, and Natasha also did some work by herself. I’m really involved with the whole DI process, and I even ended up doing a last remote session with Natasha from Company 3’s place in London when I was there at the end of the DI.

Obviously, the shoot’s the main focus for any DP, but just how important is the whole post process for you?
It’s incredibly important, and I love the DI and post process. The most important thing for me is that the film’s look is already established before we start shooting, and therefore it’s very important to involve post production creatives in preproduction. I could never shoot a project where people say, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix the look in post.” I want to go into the DI knowing that we already have the look, and then we can work on fine-tuning it.

Hands of Stone DP and colorist weigh in on film’s look and feel

By Randi Altman

“No mas! No mas!” Those famous words were uttered in desperation by legendary fighter Roberto Durán, putting an end to his rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard. But before that, Durán had impressively defeated the charismatic Sugar Ray, capturing the WBC welterweight title. Durán’s story — along with that of his trainer Ray Arcel — was recently told in The Weinstein Company’s feature Hands of Stone.

Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, the film’s DP was Miguel Ioan Littin Menz. He worked very closely with director Jakubowicz and FotoKem colorist Kostas Theodosiou to develop several different looks for the film, including for the different decades in which the story takes place, boxing versus training scenes in different locations (New York, Panama, Las Vegas) and flashback scenes.

Robert De Niro and Edgar Ramírez star in HANDS OF STONEThe film stars Édgar Ramírez as Duran, Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray and Robert DeNiro as Ray Arcel.

We were lucky enough to get some time from both Littin Menz and Theodosiou, albeit separately, for questions. First we caught up with Theodosiou.
Enjoy.

How early did you get involved with the film?
Theodosiou: Prior to my involvement in the project, FotoKem’s nextLAB was on location and involved in dailies acquisition and management. However, I started working with the filmmakers at the editorial stage, after the shoot was finished.

What kind of overall look/looks did the director and DP have in mind for the film, and how did they share that vision with you?
Theodosiou: Both the director Jonathan Jakubowicz and the director of photography Miguel Ioan Litten Menz were very hands-on. They supervised each session to make sure we created looks that best suited all the different time periods, as well as the variety of locations used in the production. The story involved multiple locations, including Panama, New York and Las Vegas.

Nearly every scene was shot on location to maintain authenticity, and it was important that we were true to the look and feel of each location. Jonathan and Miguel explained in detail what they wanted to achieve visually, so we created a unique look for each location.

kostas

Kostas Theodosiou

In addition, the story took us through many different time periods that spanned Roberto Duran’s life — from childhood through his entire career. Each time period also required a different treatment to establish its place in time. Every look we created had a purpose and is in the film for a reason. As a result, there are many different looks in this movie, but they all worked together to help tell the story.

You called on Resolve for this film. Can you talk about the tool and how it helps you in your work?
Theodosiou: Resolve is a great platform and allowed me to mix footage that was shot using a variety of different cameras, lenses and aspect ratios. The tools in Resolve helped me blend the footage seamlessly to enhance the filmmakers’ vision, and the results surpassed their expectations.

You mentioned that both the director and DP were in the room with you?
Theodosiou: Yes, Miguel and Jonathan were supervising the color correction from beginning to end. We all had great chemistry and worked together as a team. This was Jonathan’s passion project and he was very invested in the film, so he was deeply involved in the finishing process. And Miguel flew in from Chile to make sure he was here with us.

In the final stages of making the film, additional scenes were added and both filmmakers returned to FotoKem to work with me to make sure the new extended scenes fit in with the mood they were trying to portray. It was a very hands-on experience.

Now let’s hear from DP Miguel Ioan Litten Menz:

What were your first meetings like with Kostas?
Littin Menz: I was very pleased to hear that the color correction was to be done at FotoKem in Los Angeles. We chose Kostas because of his background — he’s worked for Paul Thomas Anderson; Robert Elswit, ASC; Christopher Nolan; and Hoyte van Hoytema, ASC. Since the first meeting, the connection and conversation about aesthetic was immediately understood. Our ideas and feelings about how to adjust the palette of colors for the final look of the film were in sync. He did marvelous work.

director-and-dp

Jonathan Jakubowicz and Miguel Ioan Littin Menz.

What was the general overall look the director had in mind for the film and how did he communicate that to you?
Littin Menz: In general, Jonathan talked about creating different looks between Panama and New York, and at the same time creating a look where you can feel an epic and intimate story at the same time. We want the audience to feel the wild, powerful and sensual colors around Roberto Durán’s life in Panama, and more plain, elegant and sober colors around Ray Arcel’s life in New York. In our research, we looked at thousands of photographs from sports magazines from that period, and also many documentaries.

And for my personal research, I again read Norman Mailer’s book “The Fight” and Jack London’s “The Mexican.”

How would you describe the different looks and feel of the film — decade by decade, location by location?
Littin Menz: I worked very closely with Tomás Voth, the production designer, who did amazing work. We described two very different worlds — Duran’s life in Panama and Ray Arcel’s in New York — so as a general concept we tried to create eclectic and powerful palates of colors for Duran’s life, to mimic his real personality.

For Ray Arcel, we used colors that were more serene and elegant, like he was throughout his entire life. Sometimes I used warm colors to evoke nostalgic times for Ray Arcel, and sometimes cool colors appeared in the sad times for both Duran and Arcel. Decade by decade, from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, we created different looks for timeline reasons but also as part of the intimate space for each character.

What cameras did you use, and why did you opt for three different ones? How did that affect the look and the grade?
Littin Menz: We relied on two Alexa XTs, one Alexa M and three Blackmagic cameras for VFX purposes. One of the Alexas, the B camera, was always prepared for the Steadicam. The C camera and the Alexa M were used for the fights. Also, we used Anamorphic Hawk V Lite Lenses. Kostas was thorough in making sure everything from the different shoots matched.

Can you talk about the shoot? Was there a DIT? If so, what role did they play? And what kind of on-set monitors were you using?
Littin Menz: The DIT was there mostly for making the back-ups and dailies. It was a lot of material every day. We also created LUTs for some scenes. The monitors were Asus VS197D-P 18.5-inch for video assist and a Flanders Scientific for the DIT station.

Was there anything unique or challenging about it that you are particularly proud of?
Littin Menz: On the technical side, it was very challenging to reproduce the big spaces and fights, in places like the Madison Square Garden in New York through three decades, the Olympic Stadium in Montreal and the Superdome in New Orleans, but I think we did it successfully.

Some of my favorite scenes were those of Durán when he was a kid in “El Chorrillo,” the poor neighborhood where he lived. We never forgot that the principal idea for the film was to tell the story through the clear and transparent eyes of that child — the story of a child who came from one of poorest neighborhoods of Latin America and became a world champion. I’m very proud to have been a part of this project.

Quick Chat with new ASC president Kees Van Oostrum

The Board of Governors of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) has elected Kees Van Oostrum as its president. This is Oostrum’s first term, which will run for one year, beginning immediately. The ASC Board also selected its slate of officers, which includes Bill Bennett, Dean Cundey and Lowell Peterson as VPs; Levi Isaacs as treasurer; Fred Goodich as secretary; and Roberto Schaefer as sergeant-at-arms.

“It is our task as an organization to educate the industry on the value of the cinematographer as the author of the images, to be involved in advancing imaging technology, and most importantly, to promote our artistry,” said Amsterdam native Van Oostrum.

Van Oostrum previously served as VP and has fulfilled other ASC board roles over the years. He is also the chairman and originator of the ASC Master Class, which takes place five times a year. The Master Class is one of several educational initiatives of the ASC. Inaugurated in 2013, the five-day course is taught by award-winning cinematographers and is designed for cinematographers with an intermediate-to-advanced skill set. It incorporates practical, hands-on demonstrations of lighting and camera techniques with essential instruction in current workflow practices.

In addition to the Master Class, other efforts of the organization include its Student Heritage Awards, Breakfast Club seminars, panel discussions by the Education and Outreach committee, the Friends of the ASC membership, and the ongoing committee collaborations with other industry participants vital to the image-making process. Possibly the most notable is the ASC Technology Committee, which has proven unique in its ability to shape the standards and practices of cinematography for digital workflows

Van Oostrum has earned two Primetime Emmy nominations for his work on the telefilms Miss Rose White and Return to Lonesome Dove. His peers chose the latter for a 1994 ASC Outstanding Achievement Award. Additional ASC Award nominations for his television credits came for The Burden of Proof, Medusa’s Child and Spartacus. He also shot the Emmy-winning documentary The Last Chance. Currently, he serves as director of photography on The Fosters which airs on Freeform.

Van Oostrum studied at the Dutch Film Academy with an emphasis on both cinematography and directing, and went on to earn a scholarship sponsored by the Dutch government which enabled him to enroll in the American Film Institute (AFI). Van Oostrum broke into the industry shooting television documentaries for several years. He has subsequently compiled a wide range of some 80-plus credits, including movies for television and the cinema, such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, and occasional documentaries.

Shortly after this news, we reached out to Van Oostrum with a couple of questions:

As a cinematographer yourself, what does it mean to you to now be president of the organization?
As ASC president I need to listen to and guide the membership in making decisions on key issues that impact all cinematographers in our international industry. In researching and addressing those issues, I plan to lead the process in a civilized and transparent way. Hopefully, those efforts will result in a greater understanding of what cinematographers do, why our work is so important to every production, and how we can help all of our collaborators excel — ideally, while helping the entire industry move forward, both technically and artistically.

You are already a big believer in educational initiatives, such as the ASC Master Class. What’s next?
Education is the strength of our future, and it’s the foundation for keeping cinematography both relevant and progressive as a creative craft. I consider us first and foremost to be visual artists and managers of a team. We need to stay up to date on imaging technologies and techniques. No one knows everything, but the ASC is supportive in providing an endless stream of knowledge to our members, to peers and to students.

What do you hope to accomplish in this role over the next year?
I would like cinematographers to feel like “Rembrandt” again. Our profession, like others in the filmmaking industry, has been democratized by technology. Cinematographers do much more than just “seeing”— we tell stories and we can create memorable images that evoke emotion.

In the end, every artist is edited. Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” had the sides chopped off because it did not fit between two doors, but when you enter the exhibition room to see it, you become momentarily breathless — the world around you disappears, and you leave the room a different person. That’s the “Rembrandt” business, and that’s what we do as cinematographers.

Quick Chat: DP Dejan Georgevich, ASC

By Randi Altman

Long-time cinematographer Dejan Georgevich, ASC, has been working in television, feature film production and commercials for over 35 years. In addition to being on set, Georgevich regularly shares his experience and wisdom as a professor of advanced cinematography at New York’s School of Visual Arts.

Georgevich’s TV credits include the series Mercy, Cupid, Hope & Faith, The Book of Daniel and The Education of Max Bickford. In the world of documentaries, he has worked on HBO’s Arthur Ashe: Citizen of the World, PBS’ A Wayfarer’s Journey: Listening to Mahler and The Perfumed Road.

One of his most recent projects was as DP on Once in a Lifetime, a 30-minute television pilot about two New Jersey rockers trying to make it in the music business. The show’s musical roots are real — Once in a Lifetime was written by Iron Maiden’s bass player and songwriter, Stephen Harris.

Georgevich, who was in Australia on a job, was kind enough to use some of his down time to answer our questions about shooting, lighting, inspiration and more. Enjoy…

How did you decide TV production and cinematography, in particular, would be your path?
Perhaps it all started when I hauled around a Bell & Howell projector half my size in elementary school, showing films to an assembly of kids transfixed to a giant screen. Working on the stage crew in middle school revealed to me that I was “a fish to water” when it came to lighting.

You work on a variety of projects. How does your process change, if at all, going from a TV spot to a TV series to a documentary, etc.?
Each genre informs the other and has made me a better storyteller. For example, my work in documentaries demands being sensitive to anticipating and capturing the moment. The same skills translate perfectly when shooting dramas, which require making the best choices that visually express the idea, mood and emotion of a scene.

How do you decide what is the right camera for each job? Or do you have a favorite that you use again and again?
I choose a camera that offers the widest dynamic range, renders lovely skin tones, a natural color palette, and is user-friendly and ergonomic in handling. My camera choice will also be influenced by whether the end result will be projected theatrically on a big or small screen.

Once in a Lifetime

You used the Panasonic Varicam 35 on the TV pilot Once in a Lifetime. Why was this the right camera for this project, and was most of the shooting outdoors?
Once in a Lifetime was an independently financed TV pilot, on a tight schedule and budget, requiring a considerable amount of shooting in low-light conditions. This production demanded speed and a limited lighting package because we were shooting on-location night interiors/exteriors, including nightclubs, rooftops, narrow tenement apartments and dimly-lit city streets. Panasonic Varicam 35’s dual ISO of 800 and 5000 provided unbelievable image capture in low-light conditions, rendering rich blacks with no noise!

What were some of the challenges of this project? Since it was a pilot, you were setting a tone for the entire series. How did you go about doing that?
The biggest challenge for me was to “re-educate my eye” working with the Panasonic Varicam 35, which sees more than what my eye sees, especially in darkness. To my eye, a scene would look considerably under-lit at times, but surpringly the picture on the monitor looked organic and well motivated. I was able to light predominately with LEDs and low-wattage lights augmenting the practicals or, in the case of the rooftop, the Manhattan night skyline. House power and/or portable put-put generators were all that was necessary to power the lights.

The pilot’s tone, or look, was achieved using the combination of wide-angle lenses and high-contrast lighting, not only with light and shadow but with evocative primary and secondary colors. This is a comedic story about two young rockers wanting to make it in the music business and their chance meeting with a rock ’n’ roll legend offering that real possibility of fulfilling their dreams.

How did you work with the DIT on this project, and on projects in general?
I always prefer and request a DIT on my projects. I see my role as the “guardian of the image,” and having a DIT helps preserve my original intent in creating the look of the show. In other words, with the help of my DIT, I like to control the look as much as possible in-camera during production. I was very fortunate to have Dave Satin as my DIT on the pilot — we have worked together for many years — and it’s very much like a visual  pitcher/catcher-type of creative relationship. What’s more, he’s my second set of eyes and technical insurance against any potential digital disaster.

Can you talk about lighting? If you could share one bit of wisdom about lighting, what would it be?
As with anything to do with the arts, I believe that lighting should be seamless. Don’t wear it on your sleeve. Keep it simple… less is best! Direction of light is important as it best describes a story’s soul and character.

What about working with colorists after the shoot. Do you do much of that?
As a DP, I believe it’s critically important that we are active participants in post color correction. I enjoy outstanding collaborations with some of the top colorists in the business. In order to preserve the original intent of our image we, as directors of photography, must be the guiding hand through all phases of the workflow. Today, with the advent of digital image capture, the cinematographer must battle against too many entities that threaten to change our images into something other than what was originally intended.

What inspires you? Fine art? Photography?
I make it a point to get my “creative fix” by visiting art museums as often as possible. I’m inspired by the works of the Grand Master painters and photographers — the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Georges de la Tour, Edward Hooper, Henri Cartier Bresson, William Eggelston — too many to name!  Recreating the world through light and perspective is magical and a necessary reminder of what makes us alive!

What haven’t I asked that you feel is important to talk about?
We’re currently experiencing a digital revolution that is being matched by an emerging revolution in lighting (i.e. LED technology). The tools will always change, but it’s our craft reflecting the heart and mind that remains constant and so important.

Setting the visual tone for ABC’s ‘Madoff’

Bernie Madoff, one of the most hated men on earth thanks to his massive Ponzi scheme, was recently the focus of a four-part ABC miniseries called, simply, Madoff.

Technicolor PostWorks New York colorist Anthony Raffaele worked directly with Madoff cinematographer Frankie DeMarco in finalizing a look of the series, which captures the big money atmosphere of Wall Street in the 1990s and 2000s.

 Directed by Raymond De Felitta, Madoff is told from the perspective of its title character (Richard Dreyfuss) and portrays his schemes to defraud investors and meticulous efforts to keep the truth about his activities hidden from the public and his family.

DeMarco shot the show with an Arri Alexa camera and used vintage Cooke Speed Panchro lenses to give the imagery a filmic look indicative of its time period. He also shot Super 16 and Super 8 film for Madoff’s childhood sequence.

“It’s a character-driven story told from one person’s point of view,” DeMarco recalls. “So, I didn’t want it looking too sharp or crisp. I used the vintage Cooke Speed Panchro lenses to give the movie a more round, human feel.”

Much of the action shifts between the 19th floor of the Lipstick Building in Midtown Manhattan, which housed the offices of Madoff’s investment firm, and a small boiler room operation on the 17th floor — this was hidden from all but a few insiders and is where the dirty work of the fraud scheme was carried out.

 The different atmospheres of these two settings are subtly reinforced through cinematography, lighting and color correction. “Everything that occurs on the 19th floor has a polished, crisp, business feel that’s accented by cooler tones,” says Raffaele, who uses a FilmLight Baselight. “Downstairs, where the fraud occurs, the look is contrasted by a softer, diffused look accented with uncomfortable colors like yellow and green.”

During final grading sessions, DeMarco and Raffaele collaborated remotely. DeMarco was in London working on another project, so Raffaele sent him materials each day that he could review on an iPad. “We had good control over the lighting on the set, so the color was very close when Anthony got it,” DeMarco says. “He did a lovely job of punching up things and fine tuning. He has a great eye and got what I wanted from the get-go.”

As the story progresses and Madoff’s scheme unravels, the look becomes progressively darker. Especially bleak are scenes set in Madoff’s jail cell, where the greenish overtones aAnthony Raffaele re pronounced. A different color treatment was applied to the dreamlike sequences representing Madoff’s thoughts, as he imagines what lies ahead when the truth about his activities comes out.

“Bernie’s visions have a high contrast look, which set them off as something that’s going on inside his head and give them an uncomfortable feel,” Raffaele explains.

Overall, DeMarco says Madoff does a great job of pulling viewers into its antagonist’s inner world. That, he notes, was the product of many factors, beginning with director De Felitta’s strong vision and Dreyfuss’ inspired performance. “There was a very collegial rapport on the set where everyone contributed ideas,” he explains. “It was a real treat to work with Richard Dreyfuss.”

DeMarco adds that the collaborative spirit carried through to post production. “I talked with Anthony before the shoot so we were already on the same page when we reached post — he took that ball and ran with it. It’s a sprawling movie — covering more than 15 years —but it had limited locations, so once we set a look, we were able to carry it through all four episodes.”

 

Quick Chat: Wildlife DP Andy Casagrande

Andy Brandy Casagrande IV, (a.k.a., ABC4) is a two-time Emmy Award-winning cinematographer, field producer and television presenter who specializes in wildlife documentaries.

From king cobras and killer whales to great whites sharks and polar bears, Casagrande’s cinematography and unorthodox Continue reading

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.

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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. 

‘Wolf Hall’ DP Gavin Finney: modern tech for a period drama

By Ellen Wixted

Based on Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall was adapted by the BBC in conjunction with PBS as a six-part series for television.  When the show first aired in the UK in January on BBC Two, the first episode attracted nearly six million viewers. In the US, the April premiere drew 4.4 million viewers on PBS and through streaming services.

Capturing the volatile mix of sex, politics and religion that defined Henry VIII’s Britain, Wolf Hall was directed by Peter Kosminsky and shot entirely on location by cinematographer Gavin Finney, BSC. The show stars Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Damien Lewis as Henry VIII.

I spoke with Finney about how he achieved the series’ distinctively fresh, contemporary look. The story of Henry VIII is familiar, but Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell is a significant departure from tradition. I asked Finney what the response to the series has been in the UK, and he was quick to note that while the historical events are well known to Brits, the show’s goal was to do justice to the novel — which is, at its heart, fiction. “Cromwell was the first plebeian power broker who wasn’t aristocracy or clergy,” Finney points out. “He was a mercenary, a lawyer and a banker.

Gavin Finney, behind the camera.

Gavin Finney, behind the camera.

In that time, especially, you had to be fleet of mind to stay alive. Typically, Thomas More is presented as a saint, but in Wolf Hall his darker side is portrayed, albeit with deep religious convictions. What’s great about Hilary’s writing is that no one comes through as an ogre or an angel.”

Documentary Immediacy Meets Historical Drama
Unlike most period dramas, which lavish visual attention on every surface, Finney notes that Kosminsky wanted the visual world of Wolf Hall to feel more like a documentary than a traditional drama. “For the people of the time, these weren’t historically important sites or fabulous costumes, they were the buildings they lived and worked in, and the clothes they wore.”

In the 16th Century, art played a key role in helping define the visual approach. “The witnesses to that time were the painters” points out Finney, noting that the team spent time in London looking not just at the Hans Holbein paintings that figure prominently in the story, but also at works by later painters from Caravaggio and Rembrandt to Vermeer and Gerard van Honthorst. “In that era, people are always painted by windows, and night scenes show how that world looked by candlelight. Peter staged the action so that interior shots are illuminated by natural looking light from the windows, and nighttime scenes are lit using candles.”

In part an aesthetic choice, the strategy had clear practical benefits as well. “Because we were shooting in some of the UK’s most important historical buildings — many of which Cromwell, Henry and Anne had walked through — we couldn’t just stick film lights in those rooms.” It also meant that the actors’ movements had to be carefully orchestrated in order to ensure they were illuminated, particularly in night scenes.

While accurate period detail was important, both Finney and Kosminski wanted that authenticity to be communicated without the visual grandstanding typically associated with period dramas. “We wanted the camera to be loose and fluid and reactive to the action, so the series had the immediacy of a documentary.” To that end, the team shot the entire series handheld — including most wide shots — to help place viewers in the action and give the show its unusual sense of intimacy.

The story is filmed almost entirely from Cromwell’s point of view. While true to the author’s intent, it also reinforces the show’s immediacy. “Almost all of the scenes in the show are witnessed from where Cromwell is standing,” explains Finney. “We don’t see Henry until nearly the end of the first episode, because Cromwell doesn’t meet him until then. Even though we had access to these amazing architectural spaces, we avoided using crane shots to move down through them because doing so wouldn’t make visual sense or be true to the novel.” The one exception — an aerial crane shot at Catherine of Aragon’s funeral — adds emotional impact in large part because it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the show.

Putting Digital To The Test
While Finney has extensive experience with both film and digital capture, Wolf Hall was Kosminski’s first foray into digital production. Two key requirements were that the camera had to be handheld, and the image quality — both in daylight and low light — had to be pristine.

The team spent weeks shooting test scenes with actors using a dizzying array of cameras and lenses. Cameras tested included the Red Epic and Dragon, the Arri Alexa and Amira, the Sony F55, the Canon C500, C300 and even the Canon 5D Mark III. They also tested multiple lens packages: the Cooke S4 series, Zeiss Master and Ultra Primes, Canon K-35s and Leica Summilux-C lenses. Shooting candlelight proved especially challenging with some of the camera and lens combinations — notably the Red cameras with Ultra Primes. The light from the candles reflected back onto the sensor and created a double image.

“We found the best combination was the Leica Summilux lenses on the Alexa,” says Finney. “Not only were they a kilo lighter — important given that I’d be carrying the weight for hours at a time on shoot days — but the lenses performed astonishingly well wide open. And the Leicas showed the least chromatic aberration of any we tested… even the Master Primes had some color fringing.”

The team shot ProRes 4444 Log C at 1920×1080 onto SxS cards on the camera. Files were then transcoded to Avid. LUTs were applied to dailies to convert them to REC 709, and a preliminary grade was applied using DaVinci Resolve so it was easier to visualize the end result.

“You have to test the full pipeline,” Finney insists. “Ansel Adams wrote in the 1950s that you can’t consider the film, camera and development processes separately. That’s still true today; you need to test your lens, camera and entire post pipeline before you can know what your image will look like.”

A Documentary-Style Shoot
Finney was responsible for filming all of the scenes in the series — literally. Shooting solo for 65 of the 85 filming days, Finney worked with a personal trainer in advance to prepare physically. Here again, approaching the shoot with a small, documentary-sized crew reaped big rewards. “The actors really responded to having such a small crew. They were able to walk into 500-year-old rooms that were dressed and lit the way they would have been at the time without the distraction of a large crew. There’s a scene in Episode 6 at Anne Boleyn’s trial — when [actress] Claire Foy entered the hall the first time, she gasped,” remembers Finney.

While replicating natural daylight through windows and using candles at night for most scenes, Finney used supplementary lighting for some shots. For night scenes, the team built reflective trays that contained 20 to 30 church candles, primarily so the lighting would be responsive to the actors’ movements. “Candles don’t flicker all the time,” explains Finney, “but the flames are very interactive when someone walks past. If you bring in extra light, you want it to behave the same way.” Finney also occasionally used Kino Flo LED lights, dimmed down to between 1.5% & 3% with diffusion filters and color gels.

Subtle Color On A Tight Schedule
Grading was done at Lipsync Post in London using FilmLight’s Baselight. Adam Inglis was the colorist. The grade for all six episodes took 13 days to complete, and both Finney and Kosminsky were present for the entire process. With such a tight schedule, it was imperative that the team collaborated effectively.

“Adam had a very sympathetic style, and really understood the very naturalistic, organic look Peter and I were trying to achieve. We didn’t want anything showy, and Adam was able to achieve fantastically subtle and precise effects very quickly and skillfully,” says Finney.

Reflecting On 4K
With a long and celebrated career to draw upon, I asked Finney about the changes he’s seen in the industry. “Obviously, it’s been a big transition from film to digital,” he says. “Film still has a place, but digital acquisition is now as good in terms of the dynamic range. For TV production, the transition to digital been massively positive; we can now use the same cameras and lenses as the biggest budget feature films, and we have a much greater ability to shape the picture in post than we did in the past. We couldn’t have shot Wolf Hall the way we did without the new cameras and lenses that are available.”

Gavin Finney

Gavin Finney

Finney began his career as a photographer, and he observed that if you want to know where cinematography is going, it’s smart look at the changes in still photography. “Still cameras have reached a point where you don’t need or want more megapixels; it just makes the images slower to process and move around… with more noise and less dynamic range,” he notes. “The public doesn’t benefit. The cameras I’m interested in are the ones that deliver greater dynamic range, less noise and more color depth.”

What does that mean for the push to 4K? Finney had strong opinions on the topic: “4K is great if you like sport, and it definitely matters for visual effects work, but super high resolutions aren’t necessarily great for drama, and I’m not convinced the public likes it either. I’ve never heard a critic wish for higher resolution, and the films that have recently won Academy Awards were all shot at 2K or 3.2K.” Finney notes that streaming services like Amazon and Netflix that are commissioning content are requiring 4K, but that his preference would be to spend the budget in other ways instead. “That said,” he concludes, “if I found a 4K camera that looked great, I’d use it.”

DP John Seale on capturing ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

This film vet goes digital for the first time with Alexa cameras and Codex recorders

Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth movie in writer/director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action franchise and a prequel to the first three. It is also the first digital film for Australian cinematographer John Seale ASC, ACS, whose career spans more than 30 years and includes such titles as The English Patient (for which he won an Oscar), The Mosquito Coast, Witness, Dead Poets Society and Rain Man.

Facing difficult conditions, intense action scenes and the need to accommodate a massive number of visual effects, Seale and his crew chose to shoot principal photography with Arri Alexa cameras and capture ArriRaw on Codex onboard recorders, a workflow that has become standard among filmmakers due to its ruggedness and easy integration with post.

Warner Bros.’ Fury Road, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, was shot in Namibia. The coastal deserts of that African country are home to sand dunes measuring 1,000 feet high and 20 miles long. Frequent sandstorms and intense heat required special precautions by the camera crew.

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“I’d shot plenty of film-negative films in deserts and jungles under severe conditions, but never digital,” notes Seale. “So I was a bit worried, but I had a fantastic crew of people who had done that… had worked with digital cameras in jungles, deserts, dry, heat, wet, moist, whatever. They were ready and put together full precaution kits of rain covers, dust covers and even heat covers to take the heat off the cameras in the middle of the day.

“We were using a lot of new gear.” Seale adds. “Everything that our crew did in pre-production in Sydney and took to Namibia worked very, very well for the entire time. Our time loss through equipment was minimal.”

Seale’s crew was outfitted with six Arri Alexas and a number of Canon 5Ds, with the latter used in part as crash-cams in action sequences. The Alexas were supported by 11 Codex on-board recorders. The relatively large number of cameras and recorders helped the camera crew to remain nimble. While one scene was being shot, the next was being prepped.

“We kept two kick cameras built the whole time and two ultra-high vehicles rigged the whole time,” explains camera coordinator Michelle Pizanis. “When we when drove up (to a location) we could start shooting, rather than break down the camera at one site and rebuild it at the next.”

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John Seale on location shooting Mad Max: Fury Road.

The original Mad Max is remembered for its gritty look. Fury Road took a different route due to the film’s heavy use of visual effects. “The DI and the post work is so explicit; almost every shot is going to be manipulated in some way,” Seale explains. “Our edict was ‘just shoot it.’ Continuity of light wasn’t really a question. We knew that the film would be cut very quickly, so there wouldn’t be time to analyze every shot. Intercutting between overcast and full sun wasn’t going to be a problem. On this film, the end result controlled the execution.”

In order to provide maximum image quality and flexibility for the post team, Seale and his crew chose to record ArriRaw with the Alexa cameras. That, the cinematographer notes, made Codex an obvious choice as only Codex recorders were capable of reliably capturing ArriRaw.

“The choice to go with Codex was definitely for the quality of the recording and post-production considerations,” says Seale. “Once again, we were a little worried about desert heat and desert cold. It changes so much from night to day. And during the day, we had dust storms, dust flying everywhere. We sometimes had moisture in the air. But the Codex systems didn’t fail us.”

Shooting digitally with Codex offered an advantage over shooting on film as it avoided the need to reload cameras with film negative in the blowing winds of the desert. “There is a certain amount of paraphernalia needed to shoot digitally,” Seale says. “But our crew was used to that. They built special boxes to put everything in. They had little fans. They had inlet and outlet areas to keep air circulation going. Those boxes were complete. Cables came out and went to the camera. If we were on the move, the boxes were bolted down so that they were out of the way and didn’t fall off. Sometimes we sat on them to get our shot.”

FURY ROAD

RF interfaces were used with the Alexa cameras to transmit images to a command vehicle for monitoring by director George Miller, who was not only able to review shots, he could edit material to determine what further coverage was needed. “For George, it was a godsend,” says Seale. “That refined the film shooting and made it a lot quicker than the normal procedures.”

It was that sort of flexibility that made shooting with Alexa and Codex so appealing, adds Seale. “I was a great advocate of digital 10 or 15 ago when it started to come in. Film negative is a beautiful image recording process, but it’s 120 years old and you get scratches and dead flies caught in the reels. It’s pretty archaic.

“I think the way digital has caught on is extraordinary. Its R&D is vertical, where film development has stopped. The ability of digital to record images coupled with the DI, where you can change it, manipulate it, allows you do anything you like. I know with Mad Max, it won’t look anything like a ‘good film image’ and it won’t look anything like a ‘good digital image’ — it will look like its own image. I think that’s the wonder of it.”

Director George Miller recently appeared at Comic-Con and seems to agree with Seale, “It was very familiar,” he said about returning to the Mad Max world. “A lot of time has passed. Technology has changed. It was an interesting thing to do. Crazy, but interesting.”