Very British and Very, Very Good: My Opinion of Downton Abbey

27 09 2011

Copyright 2011 Carnival Films, ITV and PBS

So, extremely British historically infused period pieces about Bourgeois prim and proper English folk is generally not my cup a tea (aren’t I being clever for throwing in this wonderfully British saying here); however, I have thoroughly enjoyed the first series of Downton Abbey.  My girlfriend and I finished the seventh and final episode last night before bed and I couldn’t be more excited about its continuation on television in the second series, which plans to land on US soil in January 2012 on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic.

I caught wind of this wonderful piece of television making after it swept the Primetime Emmys with four wins, including Best Miniseries.  Having never heard of the show before, I researched further online and found out that it centers around the wealthy, fictional Grantham family from the period of 1912-1914.  Still not being completely sold, I did give the pilot episode a chance.  I was hooked from the introductory steadicam stroll through the family’s country estate, in real life portrayed by the majestic Highclere Castle.  The interplay between the brilliant ensemble cast, sharp writing from Oscar winner Julian Fellowes and meticulously well-directed and well-shot film looks almost out of place for PBS.  Can PBS produce material this amazing?  Well, with the joint efforts of ITV and Carnival Films it apparently can.

The analysis of English social and class mores in the ever changing terrain of this period in the 20th century provides not only an entertaining, but also historically interesting, premise.  Each episode blends seamlessly in with the next and continues a deeply complex narrative that focuses on a wide array of colorful characters.  In short, Downton Abbey is classic storytelling and classical filmmaking at its best.  No matter your walk of life, I would recommend this show, and rest assured you could find something entertaining or enlightening.  I can’t wait to see where it goes from here and look forward to the hope of following the Grantham family and their butlers, valets and maids for many seasons to come.

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Gear Review: Zeiss Compact Prime .2 Cine Set

20 09 2011

Stock Photo from Zeiss who owns Copyright

Make: Zeiss

Model: CP.2 Set

My use: I ordered the 7 lens set while at UNC-Greensboro.  Primarily, this lens set was to be used for the Panasonic AF-100; however, the lenses were also perfectly compatible with the 7d, 5d and RED One.  In fact, I got the Canon mounts on the lenses, as adapter rings on the AF-100 or RED One would sustain the weight better than on a DSLR.

Average Price: $26,700 (for 7 lens set; they are sold in a 5 lens set or individually as well)

My thoughts: To date, these are my favorite lenses that I have used.  They are compact, precise and an excellent quality of glass.  At UNC-Greensboro, we had a set of RED Pro Primes with the RED One package which included a 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 300mm and 18-85mm zoom; these Zeiss CP.2 blew them all out of the water.  Not only are they smaller and easier to handle, but more precise in measurements and calibration.  The 7 lens set includes an 18mm, 21mm, 25mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm prime lenses and two sturdy, well-padded hard plastic carrying cases with rollers.  Though the price sounds high, in terms of good lens cost, it’s actually very reasonable.  If I had the cash on hand and one lens set to buy, it would likely be these wonderful cine lenses.  Though I love Cookes S4s and ARRI Master Primes, these little guys can stand their own and are a fraction of the cost.  If you’re shooting regularly and have the cash on hand, these would be a wonderful investment.

Technical Specs from the Manufacturer (for 35mm Prime as representational of other 6 prime lenses included): 

Mount Interchangeable PL
Focal Length 35mm
Aperture T2.1
Elements/Groups 9/7
Front Lens Diameter 114mm
Minimum Object Distance (M.O.D.) 12″ (0.3m)
Length 3.15″ (8cm)
Weight 2.2 lbs (1kg)

Bottom Line: If you are ready to make the jump to professional grade cine glass, but want to do so at a fraction of the cost in regards to some of the competitors, then I highly recommend the Zeiss CP.2s.  In a perfect world, going with the 7 lens set complete with carrying cases, is a great buy.  But, these are still expensive lenses for small companies and individuals and can be bought separately and built into a nice set over time.  Either way, you will not be disappointed in the sharpness and quality of the image these lenses produce.  Furthermore, you won’t be breaking your back to lug these primes around on set.





The Netflix Split: or how I should stop worrying and love Qwikster

19 09 2011

Copyright Netflix

I’m sure many of you received the email from Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO of Netflix, this morning.  If you did not, essentially, what was put across is a fairly sincere apology for the little notice given in regards to the price hike that cost the company 1 million subscribers over the past few months and the announcement that streaming and DVD services will now be completely split.  Streaming will continue with the Netflix name, whereas DVD services will go by the name Qwikster.  Furthermore, the the two entities will have separate Web sites and NOT be integrated in their directory content lists.

When the substantial price hike and billing split between Netflix services occurred a few months ago, I didn’t get too upset.  I merely reduced my DVD intake from three DVDs to two, which I could have stood to do earlier since I have some DVDs that sit on the counter for months at a time.  Another reason you can’t get too mad at Netflix for this price hike is that it really isn’t their fault.  They are trying to provide the best content to the general public and, to do so, they have to work with the studios and distribution legs of the television companies that produce the content.  For those of you who don’t know, distribution companies do not like services like Netflix; services that provide content the way a consumer enjoys, cheaply and easily.  Why, you ask?  Because services like Hulu, Netflix, On Demand, etc. cut into their DVD sales which is a huge profit maker for film and television production companies.  So, to remedy their “loss”, they push the licensing fees up regularly to companies like Netflix, making it almost impossible for them to provide all the content consumers want at a low price.  The same problems hit cable companies as well and that’s a large part of the reason our cable bills go up and up and up.  So, if you really want someone to bitch to concerning the price hike, call one of five major media entities that control 98% of your content, those being: Viacom, Disney, NBC/Universal, NewsCorps and Time Warner.

Now, for the second part of Reed Hastings’s letter.  The separation of streaming and DVD seems a little silly to me.  Isn’t Netflix supposed to be a company that provides Media Content in general?  Why they have to specify this and separate divisions of the company is beyond me.  It’s like buying a a DVD and the cover art/case being sold separately; it just makes no sense!  But, if you can get past the illogical point of contention in this decision and just accept it, then you get to the real problem.  That being, why are they not going to integrate the sites?  In the new format, Netflix.com and Qwikster.com will be COMPLETELY separate.  So, if you want to look up if they have a certain movie, you will have to first check their streaming site and then check their DVD site for the title.  Why kill the ease of use for a consumer?  As consumers, we care about two things: cost and ease of usability.  I can understand and accept the cost issue being out of Netflix’s hands, but to give us one more step to go through when we want to watch or find content to watch is preposterous.

Reed Hastings was brave enough to open the blog posting that mirrored his email to comments, and I admire him for that.  I just hope he will listen to these comments.  I love Netflix and its service and I hope they will be around for a long time to come, but in short, the only companies that survive the test of time are those that listen, communicate and deliver to their customers’ desires and concerns.  We are making ourselves heard Netflix, please listen to us!





Five Cinematographers Who Shaped Me

16 09 2011

It’s getting later on a Thursday night and for some reason I’m feeling kind of sentimental, so I’ve decided to write a fairly personal post for you guys.  For of those you who don’t know, my passion and calling in the world of film production is cinematography.  I have lensed a variety of commercials, award-winning shorts, promotional videos, weddings (video and 8mm film, believe it or not), industrial films and live music acts.  In short, you name it, I’ve probably shot it at some point.  In the commercial world, there are times of true creative ingenuity, but for the most part, you are limited by what the client or employer desires.  For that reason, this post definitely relates more to my shaping as a cinematographer narratively.  Who are the five most influential cinematographers to me personally?  It’s going to be hard to narrow it down and I won’t be so daring as to try to put them in any order, but here are five true artists who helped change the way I looked at motion pictures.

1. Gianni di Venanzo (1920 – 1966)

Di Venanzo with camera; Francesco Rosi in foreground

Many cinematographers will tell you that one of the primary goals in perfecting the look of an image is finding the perfect balance between light and dark.  Perhaps no other cinematographer achieved this more exquisitely than di Venanzo.  The man who shot Antonionni’s La Notte and Fellini’s 8 1/2 had amazing control over the contrast of black and white negative.  The darkness of the blacks and blazing white highlights, coupled with his distinctive mood influenced lighting style, give all of his films a certified dream-like quality.  In looking through the nearly two dozen features he shot over the last 20 years of his life, you can see his personal stamp as an artist and technician indelibly printed.  Though the bulk of his work was with black and white negative, di Venanzo proved himself equally as awe-inspiring and versatile in his color work on Fellini’s epic Juliet of the Spirits.  Di Venanzo’s work has had such a hold on me that, when filming my directorial debut last fall (which was filmed black and white), his notable style was the only cinematographer’s body of work that I mentioned to our DP in helping define the mood and style of the film.  Di Venanzon died in a car accident in Rome while shooting a picture in 1966; it’s a wonder what other wonderful images he could have provided us with had his life not been cut so short.

2. Robert Surtees (1906 – 1985)

Robert L. Surtees

Whereas di Venanzo’s work brightly illuminated his personal flourish, Surtees was that of a chameleon.  Whether black and white, color, a bright musical or dark drama, Surtees could handle it all.  Many say that the best shot movies are the ones where the images don’t stand out; meaning, the visual beauty is not so much that it distracts from the story.  If this could be said of any cinematographer, I think Surtees is a fine example.  He was versatile and talented, giving each one of his narratives their own distinct feel.  A three-time Oscar winner and fourteen time nominee, Surtees’ work spanned over four decades and included Ben-Hur, The Last Pictures Show, Oklahoma!, King Soloman’s Mines, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Sting and The Graduate.  As testament to his versatility in an ever changing industry, when he shot The Graduate in 1967, critics and fans alike heralded it as new, innovative and cutting edge in its look and lighting design; Surtees was 60 years old when he shot this film.  A brilliant, brilliant cameraman, I will go out on a limb and say that if I could aspire to any style of another artist, I would like to be as good and versatile as Surtees behind the camera.

3. Jack Cardiff (1914 – 2009)

Jack Cardiff

Another artisan whose work stands out with his personal touch stamped on each and every frame.  I have elaborated fondly on the work of Cardiff on this blog in two other posts: Directors who Started as Cinematographers and in my review of the film Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.  To save those loyal readers the pain of my continued adoration of this wonderful cinematographer, I will keep his segment brief.  Working his way up from clapper boy in the 1920s, Cardiff became one of the most skilled, if not the most skilled, Technicolor lighting cameraman in the business.  His work with the Archers demonstrates some of the most brilliantly colorful palettes of filmmaking in existence.  When I think of the correalation between a great painter like Vermeer or Caravaggio in the film business, I think of Cardiff.

4. Gordon Willis (1931 –   )  

Willis behind the camera

People call Willis the “Prince of Darkness” due to his insatiable desire to push the bottom end latitude to the hilt in exposing his image.  His repertoire during the 1970s is almost unmatched with films like both Godfather movies, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, Klute, The Paper Chase and Manhattan.  His style is evident in each and every one, a gritty, dark and moody negative that puts the viewer directly in the story, but still holding a visually stunning image.  His style remains very unobtrusive, yet retains a certain classic beauty that leaves viewers pondering the visual panache of the film long after viewing it.  Though you may not recognize him by name, his images have all been a strong part of our cinematic histories.

5. Sven Nykvist (1922 – 2006)  

Sven Nykvist

The second and longest collaborating Director of Photography with famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, Nykvist is best known for his muted colors and soft lighting approach.  His work with Bergman alone is enough to solidify him in the annals of the best cinematographers of all-time with films like Persona, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander and Scenes From a Marriage.  But then, he came to work for American and English directors and provided us with further visual gems in films like Chaplin, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Sacrifice and Celebrity.  The muted, autumn-esque color palette and diffused, yet controlled lighting style that Nykvist incorporated create some of the richest and satisfying, yet subtle images ever put to screen.  His work is not necessarily flashy and he was a large proponent of natural lighting, but this minimalist nature, under his control, produced images that are in my opinion works of art.

Of course, there are many more DPs that I love and admire including, but not limited to, Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson, Freddie Francis, Guiseppe Rotunno, Nestor Almendros, Charles Lang, Vittoro Storaro, Gregg Toland, Lazlo Kovacs, John Alonzo and on and on.  However, if I have to narrow my influences due to personal taste and whose work most comes to mind when I think of shaping my own images, then these are the gentleman that come first.





Shorts and Festivals

13 09 2011

Copyright Walk in the Park Pictures, LLC

At Walk in the Park Pictures, LLC, where I serve as the Technical Director, we currently have two films that are making their festival runs.  The first is Dan A. R. Kelly’s Banks of Vltava which, based on folklore, tells the story of a young Rabbi during World War II who uses ancient mysticism to rise up against the Nazis and protect a group of Czechoslovakian Jews.  The second is my directorial debut, Beyond the Door, which is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same name.

Banks of the Vltava has screened recently at the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival and ConCarolinas.  Just yesterday, we found out that it has been nominated for four CLAW awards at the Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia.  The nominations were for Best Actor for our leading actor Rami Rothstein, Best Special Effects for Shane Smith, Best Director of Photography for myself and Best Horror Film.  Writer/Director Dan A. R. Kelly and family will be in attendance at the festival and we are all excited about the opportunity of presenting this wonderful short to audiences up north!

Beyond the Door received its first Official Selection from the ITSA Film Festival this past week.  This festival takes place in Groveland and Sonora, California over Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, 2011.  We are also very excited about this film’s acceptance to the festival and look forward to submitting this short to more festivals in the near future.

It’s an exciting time at Walk in the Park Pictures, LLC (www.walkintheparkpictures.com)!  I’m glad to be a part of such a wonderful collective here in the Triad region of North Carolina and look forward to future opportunities to screen these films, as well as produce new projects in the future.





Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story (2011) Review

12 09 2011

Copyright 2011 Lifetime Movies

★ ★ ★ (Non Harry Potter fan)/★ ★ ★ ★ (Harry Potter fan)

I just got cable recently for the first time in 8 years, so I’m still in the process of oogling over the station selection like I was seeing a flying car.  Maddie and I came across this movie on the Lifetime Movie Network; yes, that is correct, it is a Lifetime movie and I watched it.  Why, you ask?  Well, it is a biopic of one of my favorite authors of all-time, JK Rowling.  If I have to fill you in on her claim to fame, then you probably have been oblivious to pop culture for longer than I went without cable.

Story-wise, as you can imagine, it follows the natural flow of a biopic.  The first scene takes place in a limo after she has become famous.  She is talking with her husband about her nerves and how surreal it all is before the premiere of the first Harry Potter movie.  From there, we move into her child and go through the events of her life from about age 9 through the publication of the first book.  Throughout, there are flourishes of details in which she got ideas that were subsequently incorporated into the book series.  For instance, the character of Ron seems to be based partially on a good friend from her high school days.  Following college, there is a decent amount of focus on her time as a teacher in Portugal, her first marriage, which ultimately ended in disaster, and her time as a struggling single mother in Edinburgh.  Following the progression of her famous cafe writings, the film closes with a bookend where it began – at the premiere of the first film.

The story flows like a stereotypical biopic and it is really fun to see the fairy tale-like rise to fame and fortune on the screen.  Technically, it’s also a really polished movie for a made-for-tv film.  I’m not certain what camera was used for this production, but judging by look, I would say the RED One.  It seemed to have that RED-like warmth to the image.  It’s a wonder what cameras like the RED One and Alexa are doing for these lower-budget television movies.  It allows them to have all the polish and finesse, visually, of a major motion picture, and I think that is a wonderful thing for producers and audiences alike.

All three actresses who played Jo Rowling over the course of the film did a great job.  However, I was most impressed with Poppy Montgomery (who played Jo from around age 25 on in the film).  She really sold the part 110%, not just in looks, but she really picked up on a lot of the mannerisms you see from Rowling in interviews and the like.

In short, if you really love Harry Potter like I do, then you will likely enjoy this made-for-tv biopic.  If, however, you are not big into the series, I doubt you will find much here.  Her life definitely has some interesting parts, but not necessarily enough to keep a non-fan viewer fully engaged.





The City of Lost Children (1995) Review

11 09 2011

Copyright 1995 Club d'Investissement Média

★ ★ 1/2

One word can easily describe this movie: bizarre.  But, if you look at the front of the DVD case, then you can probably deduce that you are in for a film that is not going to be exactly normal.  Most of what I have seen by co-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet I have enjoyed, but this film I found less than appealing.

The story takes place in a steam punk-esque atmosphere that is never completely disclosed where or when it is.  Every character in the film is somewhat grotesque and quirky.  Daniel Emilfork plays a weirdo named Krank who runs a compound with a series of other freakish creations in the middle of the ocean.  Krank, among the others he lives with which include six men that look the same, a dwarfish woman and a brain inside a fishtank called Uncle Irvin, were apparently all created by a currently absent mad scientist.  Unfortunately, all of his creations had some deformity including Krank’s inability to dream.  To experience dreams, he steals children and tries to tap inside their minds with an odd looking machine.  One (Ron Perlman) is a circus strong man who travels with his little brother and some other guy.  When his little brother is stolen from their circus caravan by a blind cult, One goes after them.  Along the way he befriends a group of child pickpockets including the strong-minded little Miette (Juliet Vittet).  In their search for his little brother they encounter more odd characters and circumstances until they finally find the compound where Krank and gang are residing.

Now, after reading that synopsis, does any of it make much sense to you?  Probably not.  That is my problem with this film.  Stylistically, it is top notch; the cinematography, direction and production design all add up to create a lusciously weird atmosphere.  However, the story itself is so contrived and bizarre that the novelty of the style quickly fizzles out.  The one shining piece about the film outside of its beautiful design is Juliet Vittet as Miette.  She did a wonderful job in the role and I’m surprised we haven’t seen her in more productions in the years since.  This phenomena seems to be fairly standard for child actors though; for instance, whatever happened to the boy who played young Toto in Cinema Paradiso?  He was amazing in that.

In conclusion, if you like dazzling production design and enough odd characters to put Tod Browning’s Freaks to shame, then you may love this movie.  For me, however, I thought it lacked too much in the most important areas of film production: story and character.








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