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A conversation with cinematographer Michael Minock

By Randi Altman

DP Michael Minock is a 40-year veteran of the film industry who spends his time shooting films, television series, theme park presentations and the occasional commercial. He says that this diversity of projects helps keep him on his toes. Each type of job “presents different aesthetic challenges, which then necessitate a new technical approach.”

Not only is Minock a working cinematographer, he is also the co-founder and an instructor at St. Augustine, Florida’s The International Film & Digital Cinema Workshops.

We recently reached out to Minock with questions about teaching, the short film he shot about human trafficking called Don’t Look Away and his inspiration.

How did you end up teaching, and how does that play a role with your DP work?
In 1999, my girlfriend attended a Rockport, Maine Workshop. Others in my circle of professional friends had been there and raved about how good it was. But my girlfriend, whom I had mentored on several shoots, had a different idea — she thought I could teach there. She sent them my resume and credits list. A year or so later David Lyman, the founder of the workshops called me and asked me to come up.

I was floored, honored and scared to death all at once. He asked if I would teach Basic Film Cinematography. I went up and stood in front of 16 students who picked my brain for six days for 12 hours each. I was exhausted but thrilled beyond all expectations. We also shot real film with real cameras in real situations working as a real crew for very long hours.

Someone once said, “To teach is to learn again.” Well,  I learned something that week. There’s a lot of cool new filmmakers out there that I can help. That began a nine-year relationship that ended in 2010 as the result of an ownership change. Now I do workshops that I hope live up to the legend that was Rockport. Every instructor at Rockport was a current working professional. I intend to stay as current as can be so as to be also remain relevant as an instructor.

Michael Minock (foreground) with the Panasonic VariCam 35. “Don’t Look Away” director Stephen  Morgan is pointing.

Who influences your work? Where do you find inspiration?
My work is influenced by Conrad Hall, László Kovács, Vilmos Zsigmond, Russell Carpenter, Ridley Scott and others who had to do things the hard way. My inspiration comes from new filmmakers who don’t know what can’t be done.

How do you decide on what camera you will be using for each job? 
The script and budget drive the decision on what tools are selected. No use requesting an Arri Alexa with Cooke S4 lenses for a talking head shoot when the budget for camera is $1,000 a day. I have to understand how to eke out every bit of performance out of dozens of camera systems. I then submit my short list of suggestions to the producer. It then becomes a business decision.

What about lighting?
My preference is to use focus-able fixtures (i.e. Fresnels) mixed with a certain amount of soft sources. I don’t believe in blasting flat panels and Chimeras everywhere and calling it “lighting.” Now that manufacturers are actually doing photometric tests such as Color Rendering Index (CRI), I am giving LEDs a try, particularly the Fresnels.

What about lenses?
For 2/3-inch B4 mount cameras I choose Canon Cine. For Super 35mm I opt for Cooke S4 or S5i and Canon zooms.  Anamorphic? Nothing but Panavision.

Do you work with a DIT if possible?
I work with a DIT as data wrangler.  It is too fast moving and intense on the set to not have a data wrangler and a strict data custody protocol. Sometimes we are recording to something the size of a postage stamp that represents tens of thousands of dollars of time and labor.  It is irresponsible and unrealistic to expect a DP or operator to keep track of all of that, especially in a multi-camera situation.

L to R: Maurice Vega, 1AC; Michael Minock and Nilo Leon 2AC in San Marco, FL lensing Don't Look Away.

L to R: Maurice Vega, 1AC, Michael Minock and 2AC Nilo Leon in San Marco, Florida, lensing Don’t Look Away.

How do you work with the colorist?
If the budget allows me to participate in the grading sessions, I refer to camera reports when guiding the colorist. I never try to “bake” anything in, rather I try to supply a competent digital negative that could pass muster if post-grading were not possible.

I prefer the DaVinci Resolve with the proper control surface and that the colorist have and maintain a correct critical viewing environment with a proper monitor. So many don’t. We start with subtle subtractive changes before we get into the secondaries.

How do you prepare for greenscreen shoots compared to traditional shoots?
Greenscreen shoots are simple so long that you know that you are lighting two different things:  1) a screen, 2) a foreground. Two different types of lights are called for, as well as sufficient grip equipment for proper beam shaping. Otherwise it just looks like the weatherman on the local news.

From a DPs perspective, what is the most important aspect?
Understanding the nature of the background to be composited and lighting the foreground elements to tie in seamlessly.

What are some recent projects you’ve worked on?
Justice League: Alien Invasion (DC/Warner Bros.), Don’t Look Away (Studiotown) and Bachelor Party (TV series pilot).

Don't Look Away.

Don’t Look Away.

Can you talk about Don’t Look Away? How you got involved, what gear you used?
My involvement started serendipitously with a chance encounter with the writer/director/producer Stephen Morgan. He explained the project and I asked if he needed a DP. He said, “Yes, I do.”

Earlier that same day I had received an email blast from Panasonic announcing the VariCam 35 4K. I have had a relationship with Panasonic for years having taught VariCam workshops at the Rockport, Maine Workshops. I sent an email requesting to use the VariCam 35 for this film and they agreed.

I told Stephen that I had arranged this, and he was floored. The production value of Don’t Look Away had just taken an epic turn for the better. The challenge for me was acquainting myself with this radically different VariCam in a very short period of time. With the help of Wes Carr, the southeast Panasonic representative and some very thoughtful design and engineering of this new VariCam 35 4K, the learning curve was a non-event.  It is an elegant camera system with all of the best features of the Arri Alexa, Red and others rolled into a robust, flexible platform that is a worthy successor to the VariCam legacy.

Finally, what tips do you give your students about entering this field? What have you learned over the years?
I believe it was Charlton Heston who said, “The problem with show business as an art is that it’s a business, and the problem with show business as a business is that it’s an art.”

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