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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.

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Gear Review: Lowel Rifa-Lite EX 500w Soft Light

30 08 2011

Stock Photo from Lowel

Make: Lowel

Model: Rifa-Lite EX55

My use: I’ve used these lights on an array of projects and ordered two of these during my tenure at UNC-Greensboro.  I used them primarily for a key light for interviews and green screen shoots.  Chances are, I will buy one for my personal kit in the near future.

Average Price: $488.50

My thoughts: I love this light.  Absolutely love it.  It is compact, easy to carry and works as a wonderful soft key source for interviews and green screen shoots.  In larger productions, it’s useful for bringing up the ambiance or a small fill.  The light is soft, flattering and has a nice warm tinge (which I prefer).  I bought these lights primarily as replacements for what I was using Kino-Flo lamps for work.  To me, Kino-Flos have always burned a little cool (the 3200 lamps) and never match properly with the rest of a tungsten set.  Now, to be honest, I do love Kino-Flos under certain conditions, especially if time is of the essence or for small doses daylight fill, but for interviews and the like, they are hard to control, burn cool and bulky.  With a Kino-Flo you need to mount on C-Stands, plug the header in the ballast and then the ballast into the wall, which is just a pain in the butt in a small office or the like.  The Lowel Rifa 55 comes in a carrying case that contains the head with folded chimera, stand and power cable; furthermore, it’s about two feet long.  Setting these up takes no time at all and the tungsten filament, though it does get hot, provides a pleasant glow.

Technical Specs from the Manufacturer: 

Rating 500 watt maximum
Socket (Lampholder) 2-Pin
Lens (Condenser) Not Applicable
Reflector (Mirror) Silver interior softbox
Mounting Fits any standard 5/8″ stand or stud
Yoke Not Applicable
Cable 4′ Captive cable, 120V power cable, line switch, 120V Grounded Edison Plug
Focusing Not Applicable
Weight 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg)
Dimensions Collapsed length: 24″ (61 cm)
Face: 21 x 21″ (53 x 53 cm)


Bottom Line
: If I’m traveling light and shooting interiors, then chances are I have one or two of these instruments with me.  They are a versatile, compact soft light that provides a beautiful warm glow, perfect for interior interview setups, lighting talent on green screen shoots and easy-to-tuck away fill/ambient lights on larger sets.  For the price, you can’t beat it.





Gear Review: K5600 Joker Bug 800w HMI

14 08 2011

Copyright K5600 - Joker Bug 800w Kit

Make: K5600

Model: Joker Bug 800w HMI

My use: I ordered two of these during my time at UNC-Greensboro’s Office of Online Learning.  At the time I ordered these, the division didn’t have any HMIs.  We rarely had large lighting setups, so extremely powerful HMI instruments weren’t needed.  However, I did want to build a small HMI arsenal, and wanted what we ordered to have some punch, so I went with the 800w version of the Joker Bug (K5600 also produces 200w and 400w versions).

Average Price: $6,390 per kit

My thoughts: For the type of work we used our HMIs on, the Joker Bug 800’s were a perfect fit.  They pack a sold punch lumen-wise, but are small enough instruments in regards to electrical pull that you can plug them into standard wall outlets.  One of the nicest attributes of these instruments were the compact case in which they came.  The small hardshell case was on rollers, stackable and contained everything you needed for the light: head, ballast, header cable, 4 lenses and barndoors.  Being PARs, these little guys really dished it out, and with the various lenses that include Super Wide, Wide, Medium Flood and Frosted Fresnel, you could easily shape the output for your desired look on set.  With a little diffusion, these instruments were also a wonderful exterior fill, and compact enough to not break your back on location.

Technical Specs from the Manufacturer: 

Light Fixture
Rating 800 Watts
Socket (Lampholder) G22
Lens (Condenser) 4- included: Super Wide, Wide, Medium Flood, Frosted Fresnel
Mounting 5/8″ Stand mount
Weight 6 lbs (2.7 kg)
Dimensions 13 x 9 x 4.25″ (33 x 23 x 9.1cm)
HMI Ballast
Rating 800W, 110 – 240V AC, 50 / 60Hz
Cable 25′ VEAM 1/4 turn twist
Weight 8 lbs (3.6kg)
Dimensions 10 x 9 x 3.5″ (25.4 x 22.8 x 8.9cm)
Kit Weight 41 lbs (19kg)


Bottom Line
: These are extremely versatile small wattage HMI instruments.  If you are a smaller production company or a freelancer that doesn’t do too many large scale productions, then I highly recommend these units if you are looking to build a small HMI arsenal.





Our Official Entry into the 48 Hour Film Project Greensboro: “Eat Me!”

4 08 2011

About six weeks ago, I put out a post based on my experiences with the 48 Hour Film Project.  Subsequently, a few weeks later, I posted on some administrative changes to the Greensboro 48 Hour Film Project that I felt were pertinent for continued success of this filmmaking collaboration in our region.  As of yesterday, our entry into the 2011 Greensboro 48 Hour Film Project has been posted online at vimeo.com.  I have provided a link below for all those interested in viewing the film in it’s entirety.  Do note that a few extra sound effects were added that were not in the original entry; however, other than those minor changes, all is the same.

I hope you enjoy and can’t thank my collaborators enough for a wonderful 48 experience on set!  If anyone has any questions related to production of this short or how the 48 works, just post them into the comments section and I will do my best to answer.

Our criteria was as follows:

Genre: Comedy

Line: “Where did you go?”

Prop: Crayons

Character: Plumber – Don or Donna Hastert

 





Book Review: The Film Director 2nd Edition by Richard L. Bare

13 07 2011

Copyright Richard L. Bare and WIley Publishing 2000

My personal library of books on film history, theory, production process and reference numbers currently at just over 100 books.  Of that lot, I would say about 10-15 are books on directing, which include such classics as Making Movies by Sidney Lumet and On Film-making by Alexander Mackendrick.  This book, by television and motion picture director Richard L. Bare, was the latest edition to the “library,” and I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised with the information contained within.

Richard L. Bare himself is probably not known to the mainstream by name, but I’m sure you’ve seen his work before.  The majority of his professional career was spent in television, where he directed episodes of such classic shows as The Twilight Zone, Petticoat Junction and Maverick, among many others.  However, he is probably best known for directing the lions share (168 episodes), and being a driving creative force, behind the popular CBS program Green Acres with Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor.

I came across this book upon reading background information on a recent Twilight Zone episode I had watched.  Intrigued, and with the price not being very high from Amazon, I decided to go ahead and buy the book blind and give it a shot.  Of all my books on directing, I’ve never really felt like there’s been one that touches on the practicalities of directing in the precise manner in which I had hoped.  Some are wonderful personal accounts of a career, some tinged in personal philosophies and many are very existential musings on the process of directing and taming performance.  However, none has fully satisfied my desires on practical text until this one.

Of course, you can’t learn all the complexities of directing and how to become a great director from a book; this book will even tell you that!  A truly great director takes a certain God given trait, but the ability to learn how to properly make a movie in the director’s chair, can be covered.  This is what The Film Director does for you.  It lays out every facet of what a director has to do in pre-production, production and post-production to make sure that a picture is produced correctly, on time and how to stay in budget.  Bare covers how to deal with difficult actors, short cuts you can utilize when budget is an issue and other inside information that only a learned director could tell you.

In addition, Bare recounts his own experiences becoming a director and some of his other personal trials and tribulations in the field.  He makes it clear that it is no easy process as well.  An early graduate of the University of Southern California’s film program (he’s 97 and still kicking!), Bare won the coveted Paul Muni award for a short film he did in school, The Oval Portrait, based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name.  This was a national award and he was invited to wine and dine with many of the industry’s top producers and directors.  However, in the end, it was still another seven long years before he was able to gain employment from a studio.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book for someone who hasn’t any idea the role a director plays all the way to a practicing director with many various films under his belt.  You’re never too old to learn something, and this is the most practical, straight-forward text on the role of the film director that I have yet to come across.  Note that the original text was written in the early 1970s, this 2nd Edition of which I am reviewing was updated by Bare in 2000 to include some of the advances in the process of filmmaking and the industry itself.





48-Hour Film Project Greensboro 2011

27 06 2011

Quick snap off iPhone while setting up for a dolly shot. Co-Director/Writer Dan A. R. Kelly is explaining the scene to the actors.

I was asked this morning to do a little write-up for our company newsletter, The Cube, and I was planning on documenting my 48 experience on this blog as well.  In addition, there is a blog on the 48 Hour Film Project Greensboro’s Web site that they like filmmakers to recount their experiences.  So, to kill three birds with one stone, I am going to write up the complete experience, post here, post on 48’s Web site and submit to the company newsletter.  How’s that for efficiency?

I was part of Frowned Upon Media’s team this year.  It was my fourth year working on a 48 team, some of our members first year, and we even had someone who was participating for their sixth year.  The kick-off ceremony began on Friday night at 7 p.m.  Our team leader, Patrick Griffin, and our Editor/Co-Producer, Bryan R. Higgins, were at the ceremony to draw our genre and find out what the other required components of the film would be.  Our genre ended up being Comedy and the required elements for all teams were: Character: Don or Donna Hastert, plumber; Line of Dialogue: “Where Did You Go?”; and Prop: crayons.

Following the drawing, Patrick alerted everyone via text or phone call what the essential elements and genre were, and we began brainstorming for ideas.  Most everyone met up at our sound designer, Jon Fredette’s, house (I was in via Skype) and we brainstormed for about two hours.  By 9:30 p.m., we had our idea good to run with.  Also, by this time, we knew how many characters we needed, which ended up being 10 overall.  Patrick and Dan began locking down actors from both our standby list and some cold calling.  Our Writer/Co-Director/Co-Producer, Dan A. R. Kelly, went home to hole himself away in his office with his laptop and begin writing the script.  At midnight, we had a first draft, and by 2 a.m., a final draft.  Also, by this time, we had 8 of our 10 actors locked; two female roles were all that remained to be filled.

For the story, we needed an elegant house to play as a mansion.  My uncle Mike has always had nice houses; one of his favorite past times is buying and re-decorating elegant homes and then moving on to the next “project”.  I called him at about 10 p.m. to see if we could take over his home in Bermuda Run West until Sunday morning at the latest.  Luckily, he agreed!  With our sole location locked, we planned out what time everyone needed to be there.  I, who served as our Director of Photography, Co-Director and a Co-Producer, arrived at 3 a.m. with my brother Patrick, who served as a bit actor and G&E, to tech scout.  Patrick Griffin, Production Coordinator, Co-Director and Co-Producer, arrived with most of the rest of the team at 4:30 a.m.  The final lot arrived at 5:30 a.m. and we immediately began shooting what we could.  Unable to fill one female role, we nixed the part and went with 9 overall actors.  Most of the actors arrived between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., with the last ones arriving by noon.

Our film was in the can completely by 10 p.m. Saturday night.  Several runs to our editor were made once certain sequences were shot, so that he could stay busy and move forward on the cut.  Higgins continued editing through the night Saturday, while the rest of the production crew got some much needed, but small amount, of rest.  Our Sound Designer, who also composed music, arrived back on the scene around 8 a.m. Sunday morning for duty.  I arrived at 11 a.m. and worked with Higgins to tighten the cut from a directorial stand-point; the other two heads of our directing team arrived soon after me and added their notes.  We had picture lock at 3 p.m. Sunday and I began color correcting while Jon layered in score and did post-production sound design.  Shane D. Smith, who was a G&E member on set, took our title sequence shots and finished the title sequence Sunday afternoon.

I finished Color Correction by 5 p.m., tweaks on the cut were done at 6 p.m., Shane arrived just after 6 p.m. with the title sequence and Jon worked diligently until 6:30 p.m.  At this point, we rendered what we had, minus score and sound design, and Dan A. R. Kelly went to the drop-off location with paperwork and an Oh S#%t copy, as we like to call it.  We continued layering everything in and began a burn for a final copy at 6:50 p.m.  Because of a codec difference in the timeline, the export started going REALLY slow at 89%.  I went ahead and got my car, turned it on and got Jon to ride with me as a navigator.  When the export and burn finished at 7:15 p.m., Patrick flew out of the door, handed the DVD off to me and I sped out of the driveway.  We made it to the drop off point with the better copy at 7:21, 9 minutes before cut-off.  Our film was in on time and the best version we could do in the 48 hours was received.

You’re probably asking yourself why I haven’t given any of the storyline away?  Well, I don’t want to spoil any of the film or the fun!  Screenings for the 48 Hour Film Project are on June 29 and June 30, divided into three groups.  Our group is in the Group C Screenings, which will be on 9:30 p.m. Thursday night.  Tickets are $10 each and there are about 15 films per group screening, all ranging 4-7 minutes in length.  If you can make it out, we’d love to see you there!  Otherwise, if you know one of us personally, I’m sure you’ll catch the film in due time.  Screening limitations are definitely in place currently, but as leniencies open up – I’m sure you can catch it.

From the beginning, we decided this wasn’t one person’s film.  Like any filmmaking endeavor, it’s a group process and, because of this, we decided no one would get a producer or director credit.  Instead, we simply gave that credit to the team, Frowned Upon Media.  This was our team: a super talented cast including: William Davis, Rachel Brittain, Dan A. R. Kelly, Edwin Wilson, Lee Armstrong, Karen Price-Crowder, Annabell Simpson, Robbie Pitchersky and, Patrick Mandarano; crew including: A Story by Patrick T. Griffin, Dan A. R. Kelly, Matthew Mandarano, Jon Fredette, Bryan Higgins, Shane Smith, Robbie Pitchersky, William Davis and Brook Corwin; Writer, Dan A. R. Kelly; Production Coordinator, Patrick T. Griffin; Director of Photography, Matthew Mandarano; Sound Designer and Composer, Jon Fredette; Editor, Bryan R. Higgins; Title Designer, Shane D. Smith; Grips and Electricians, Shane D. Smith, Robbie Pitchersky and Patrick Mandarano; and a VERY Special Thanks to D. Michael Hendrix, my uncle, who let us take over his beautiful home (which is for sale by the way!) for a day and a half.  Frowned Upon Media is Patrick T. Griffin, Matthew Mandarano, Bryan R. Higgins, Jon Fredette and our Honorary Member Dan A. R. Kelly.

We had a great team, I think a great film and a great bunch of actors to bring it all to life.  I can’t thank every member of this wonderful cast and crew enough and am looking forward to the wonderful films our fellow 48 filmmakers have produced.  As always, it was a wonderful, yet tiring, experience and one I hope to be a part of in years to come.  Until next year, that’s a wrap!





Recent Shoot Log: UNC-Greensboro “Viral” #1

16 06 2011

It’s been months since the idea of shooting some marketing content for the UNC-Greensboro Office of Online Learning started talks.  If you’ve never worked for a state agency before, then you don’t know what the term “lots of red tape” means.  It takes lots of patience, time, meetings, more meetings, discussions, vetos and did I mention meetings? for ideas and projects to fully get off the ground.  Luckily, however, our division’s new marketing head and team are persistent and do a great job at pushing these projects down the line to let them be the best they can be.

In a world where text-on-a-page Web sites, documents, etc. are taking over our lives in this digital age, we were commissioned to design a marketing campaign promoting our multimedia-infused alternative.  The end result are a series of videos that will show text literally bombarding everyday life.

The first video for this campaign was carefully thought out between Patrick Griffin, A. J. Lee, Brooke Corwin, myself, Bryan Higgins and Jon Fredette.  We decided that the first one would be more of a “draft” than anything.  It was still unclear whether the idea was exactly what the higher-ups were interested in, so we decided to go with one of our many ideas that was the least daunting.  The idea ended up being of a girl, in her cubicle at work, who is caught in a raining “text storm”.

Pre-production was pushed through fairly quickly and we locked a location in our offices; the location ended up being coder, Colin Dai’s, cube.  We had to sissify his cube a bit since it would be a female actress playing the lead role.  The principal role went to actress Elise Duquette (apologies if I spelled this wrong, Elise!) out of the Charlotte area.  With a little time and bringing a female’s touch for a little help, we had a well-dressed location.

The project was lit with a variety of instruments.  All overhead practicals were turned off because of being a low quality fluorescent.  A Jokerbug 800 with 1/2 CTO was bounced off the ceiling for a bit of overall ambience, a 500-watt Lowel Rifa light was used as a key over the front cube wall at an angle, backlight was a 650-watt ARRI with diffusion rigged on a C-Stand in the cube behind, a 250-watt Lowel Pro Light with 216 was placed on the desk to keep exposure on the face when the umbrella went over and two 500-watt Lowel Omni’s with Opal diffusion created the slashes on the cube sides during the pull-back.  To add a bit of spice to the scene, a practical china light was placed on the desk and allowed to highlight out a bit.

A RED One was used to shoot the project in 4k 2:1 24fps mode with a shutter of 1/48.  The original shot was an actual dolly shot that was beautiful, but due to compositing factors, a static was used with a digital zoom added for practicality.  To all you budding cinematographers out there, sometimes it’s not always your favorite shots that get used, but sometimes it’s for the better of the project.

Bryan Higgins, our effects heavy lifter here, spent many hours compositing each of the little “texts” falling.  Afterwards, Jon Fredette did the sound design and I did very minor color tweaks on the final image.  All-in-all, it came out to be a nice little draft; nice enough, in fact, that the division decided to use it as the first of the campaign and commissioned us for two more.  Our second in the series has already been shot and is in the editing phase, and the third (which will be shot on 16mm film) will be produced in the next week.  Updates and posts on those two will be forthcoming.  The video for our first campaign is below (don’t know why the thumbnail looks so funky, but it works out when you play it):








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