Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

22 12 2011

I apologize for the low amount of posts this month, but it has been quite a month.  I know not all of you care what I’m up to in my personal life, but I figure I’ll fill you guys in on a little bit of my latest happenings.

In addition to the normal routine of work mixed with movie watching, playing guitar, playing golf and working towards a novel, I have also been working on closing on a new house this month.  Having lived in a condo now for over 3 years, the new 2400 sq. ft. home with 1 acre of land will be a much welcomed amenity.  I will finally have the space for a true “man cave,” and have the yardage to grow a garden and possibly even practice my chipping.  If you haven’t been through buying a new home since the economy crash, it is about the most frustrating thing you will ever go through.  When I bought my condo in 2008, it was a breeze; but now, even a well qualified individual for a certain property has to go through more hoops than I care to remember.  However, it looks like all will work out, and we will be moving in just after Christmas into our new home.  To celebrate, we may even adopt a second dog (Maddie, if you are reading this, the key word in this sentence is may).

Anyway, I’ve felt blessed this year and happy with a lot of innovations that have been happening in both my work and personal life.  My novel is making good head way (20,000 words in!) and it’s the first novel I’ve began that I feel is actually a good, well-structured story even this far in.  In addition, I’m still in constant talks with filmmaking buddies about various projects we are hoping to pursue on the horizon and other exciting prospects in narrative and non-narrative film production.  I hope all of you are doing well and to sign out for my five day holiday vacation, I leave you with a short list of some of my personal favorite Christmas films:

5. Love, Actually













4. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation











3. A Christmas Story













2. Scrooged













1. It’s a Wonderful Life


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.

5 Mind-Blowing Movies You Must See

5 05 2011

A while ago I published a post on the “5 Silent Films You Must See.”  I’ve decided to take that a little further and do a small, continuing series for those that will consist of the same standard 5 film recommendations.  Topics will be years, genres, styles, actors, directors, cinematographers, you name it.  Today’s post we’ll be covering “5 Mind-Blowing Movies You Must See”.  This list consists of movies that are intricate, difficult to follow and blur the lines of space, time, story structure or other conventional cues.  Hope you guys enjoy these entries and feel free to recommend topics for future lists!

Copyright 2000 Summit Entertainment

5. Memento dir. Christopher Nolan (2000) – This was director Christopher Nolan’s first decently budgeted motion picture after the festival success of his first film, Following, which was an independent feature largely funded out of pocket.  The story follows Leonard (Guy Pearce), who is hunting a man he believes killed his wife.  The only problem is that Leonard has no capacity to store short term memory, his last memory being of his wife being murdered; as a result, he uses a system of notes, tattoos and other reminders so that he can remember where he needs to go and who he needs to visit next.  Essentially, the story is a noir with an interesting twist.  With two alternating storylines, one that moves forward through the film and one backwards, the film evokes an effect on the mind similar to that of what the main character is suffering.  This really is a brilliant film and gives an early insight into how apt a director Christopher Nolan is.  Last year’s Inception rekindled his affair with disjointed story structure, a style he is one of the best at pulling off.

Copyright 1990 Carolco Pictures

4. Jacob’s Ladder dir. Adrian Lyne (1990) – Following on the heels of Lyne’s extremely successful Fatal Attraction, this is what I feel is his best film.   The script, by Bruce Joel Rubin, was long considered the best script not produced in Hollywood, having floating around for the better part of a decade without being produced.  It tells the story of Jacob Singer, a member of a Vietnam battalion who was experimented upon with hallucinations, who returns home to find strange things happening to and around him.  Creatures appear, his dead son visits him, the government seems to be withholding information about the experimentations conducted on him and he begins to go through strange physical fluctuations and sickness as well.  The film as a whole leads from question to question without providing a lot of answers until the conclusion.  This film will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end and plays games with the viewer as much as it does with the protagonist.

Copyright 1965 Kamera Film Unit

3. The Saragossa Manuscript dir. Wojciech Has (1965) – This is an epic piece of Polish filmmaking that runs right at three hours long.  During the Napoleonic Wars, an officer finds an old book that relates stories his grandfather told him about being a captain in the Walloon Guard.  Though the following of Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), the original officer’s grandfather, is the main crux of the story, this film spans many stories that are all inter-related.  At one point in the film you are literally in a story within a story within a story within a story.  It’s a masterful combination of surrealism, fairy tales, legend and European folklore.  Needless to say it is one trippy experience, but not one that gets old even at its long running time.  Has’s use of dolly movement, crane and epic sweeps of the landscape and luscious sets, coupled with the brilliant black-and-white cinematography of Mieczyslaw Jahoda, create a very dream-like quality for the film as a whole.  As an interesting side note, this was Jerry Garcia’s favorite movie.

Copyright 2001 Canal+

2. Muholland Drive dir. David Lynch (2001) – Generally, you either love David Lynch or you hate him.  I, for one, am definitely an admirer of his work.  I knew starting this list that at least one Lynch film would make an appearance; after thinking long and hard, it had to be this one.  This takes the elements of all that is Lynchian and puts it in the most cohesive, entertaining example of his career.  The story begins after a horrible car crash on Muholland Drive in Los Angeles.  A mysterious young woman, Rita (Laura Harring), wonders away from the crash site with amnesia and ends up at a bungalow currently being lived in by Betty (Naomi Watts).  Betty has just arrived in Los Angeles and is staying at her Aunt’s place, so she thinks Rita is a friend of her Aunts at first.  When she realizes she is not, Rita tells her of the crash and they begin an investigation into who Rita really is.  Outside of that main story, there are also side stories including one of a film director, portrayed by Justin Theroux, who is casting for his next big picture, a man trying to steal a black book, a monster who leaves outside of a diner and other strange vignettes.  Halfway through the movie, everything changes and starts to blow your mind with multiple characters assuming other identities, goals and relationships.  Originally starting out as a television pilot, the film was completed as a feature after the pilot was not picked up.  It touches on all the great things that make a Lynch movie: dreams, surrealism, symbolism, odd characters, pandora’s boxes, etc.  I love this film, absolutely love it.  For his effort tying this mind boggling film all together, David Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award.

Copyright 1929

1. Un Chien Andalou dir. Luis Buñuel (1929) – This isn’t my favorite film on this list, but it was incredibly influential in all the other films on the list because it was one of the first strong visualizations of surrealism in cinema.  Buñuel is hands down, without a doubt, the king of surrealism in cinema, and together with Salvador Dali, they created this 15 minute short in the late 1920s.  A silent film, it opens with the infamous razor cutting the eye scene and becomes more and more bizarre as it moves forward.  A disjointed film, it is largely re-piecing of dreams and other strange subconscious scenarios out of the minds of Buñuel and Dali.  Upon release, it incited riots in the streets and was banned in many countries – now that is some achievement!  Though Dali and Buñuel went their separate ways after this short experiment in surrealism on film, Buñuel continued to make the best in surrealist cinema for another 50 years, eventually winning a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1972 for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise.  A feat he had earlier quoted as saying, “Nothing would disgust me more morally than winning an Oscar.”

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