Rapid Progression in Filmmaking Tech Mirrors Leap for Emerging Cinematographer Awards Honorees
by David Heuring and Beige Luciano-Adams
By PVC News Staff | September 10, 2012
Another year, another giant leap in progression for the industry's most prestigious event devoted exclusively to up-and-coming cinematographers. New digital camera technologies, along with traditional film emulsions, were used to produce what ECA Chairman Jim Matlosz calls "the most challenging year yet for our selection committee, due to the extremely high quality of work." The cinematographer and long-time Guild mentor says the "excellence meter" jumped, in part, due to the ECA's growing exposure across the breadth of the Guild and the entire film and television industry. "All of the attention we've received has really helped those members [attending the event] understand what it takes to create and submit a film that is truly great," Matlosz states.
For the 2012 Emerging Cinematographer Awards (set to roll Sunday, September 12th at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles), judges had to cull through a record number of 104 submissions. Eight were chosen, including The Carrier, by John Barr, Ripple Effect, by Daron Keet, Angel, by Brian O'Carroll, Don't Let Your Love Annihilate, by Michael Pescasio, Only Child, by James Takata, Carjack, by Peter Villani, The Girl in the Dark, by Robert C. Webb, and The Money Pet, by Stewart Whelan. Honorable mentions were Dawn, by Michael Lloyd, and Cowards & Monsters, by Basil Smith.
"Every year this event grows in esteem in our community," Local 600 President Steven Poster observes. "That's clearly evident in how many new sponsors now approach the Guild wanting to be involved with the ECAs. They know what an important opportunity this is for the honorees as well as for the future of our industry."
John Barr - The Carrier
Operator John Barr, who began as a gaffer in Maine before coming to L.A. in the late 1990s for a temporary stint on a television show, says he had no intention of staying. But a childhood passion for movies and lighting kept him tethered to Hollywood.
He joined the Guild in 2003, working mainly in commercials, and then later with Adam Kimmel, ASC on Capote, and Salvatore Totino, ASC on Frost/Nixon.
The Carrier, directed by Scott Schaeffer, stars Rita Wilson as a woman who becomes both messenger and spectator in the painful unraveling of a family secret. Barr says his background in naturalistic filmmaking helped reinforce the fluid, handheld camera style he used to capture Wilson's emotionally charged confrontations.
"It's pretty much an all-female cast, so that introduces its own [lighting] challenges," Barr explains. "Maintaining the mood of the scene while creating beauty light can be tricky." The final sequence, shot night-for-day indoors, illustrates the point. According to Barr, it included a dining-room window with 10-foot high shrubs three feet from the window and "a serious lack of space." Barr tied a 12-20 ultra bounce to the shrubs, into which he bounced six 4-4 Kinos. "It created the illusion of soft daylight outside the window. It took a bit of finesse, but it finally fell into place and worked."
Barr's all-union crew included Steadicam operator Dan Coplan, 1st AC Arien Hatch, 2nd AC Eric Jensch, gaffer Tony Bryan and key grip Walter "Bud" Scott. Shooting film to help Schaeffer "maintain the best quality possible," Barr opted for an ARRICAM LT from Otto Nemenz, Cooke S4 lenses and a variety of Kodak stocks that included 5213 (200T), 5207 (250D) and 5219 (500T).
Daron Keet - Ripple Effect
Velvet A. Smith's Ripple Effect is about the unspoken alliance between a young Afghan and a U.S. Special Forces soldier in wartime. With L.A.'s Blue Sky Studios standing in for Afghanistan, 1st AC Keet, who hails from South Africa, took his aesthetic cues from conflict reportage - press stills that sometimes veered toward the abstract.
Keet says he delegated some of the more artistic cutaways to operators. "When I saw the finished product there were lots of wonderful shots that crept in, which would have been a real luxury for a one-camera shoot."
In fact, to execute the 20-page script in just four days, Keet knew he'd need more than the single Sony 900 allotted by AFI's Directing Workshop for Women, which sponsored the project. He ended up with two Sony CineAlta 24P HDs (one on a Steadicam), film lenses from Clairmont to add shallow depth-of-field, a Sony PMW-EX3 XDCAM, a Canon 7D - plus a Y3HDiablo for slow-motion shots. Keet says his director's careful scheduling propelled them through many complex car rig scenes.
Keet managed to spend his compulsory year of military service in South Africa behind the lens, having bluffed his way in as a photographer.
"I didn't even know how to load film, but I got a book," he recalls. "For one year at the army's expense, I was just taking hundreds of photos and learning the craft."
Soon after, he was assisting Academy-Award-winning DP Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC on The Ghost and the Darkness and climbing the ranks, before the 1992 U.S. Green Card Lottery brought him to L.A.
Brian O'Carroll - Angel
Brian O'Carroll is a native of Dublin who has worked in the New York documentary, music video, and commercial production worlds for two decades. He was previously recognized with ECA nods in 2007 for Cherry Bloom and 2011 for 8 for Infinity. His r©sum© includes the documentary Heroes of Ground Zero and the narrative feature Conventioneers, which won the IFC John Cassavetes Award, given to a film made for less than $500,000. His recent feature credits include Echo Prime and Blue Caprice, both with director Alex Moors.
Angel is a glimpse into the life of a working-class woman who saves lives. But in her personal life, she is at the mercy of others as she struggles for her own survival. The film was shot in Dublin with a RED ONE camera.
O'Carroll and director Ruan Magan wanted to create a look and feel that were moody yet hopeful. "I did a color pass with Lenny Mastrandrea at Nice Shoes in New York," O'Carroll recalls. "I began by suggesting saturated pastels. That's a bit of an oxymoron, but featuring the dominant colors present in Dublin at that time - faded denim/cyan and orange - brought us from day to night and cyan/sodium vapor.
"There's a big wide shot in the flats, when Angel has almost reached the apartment in the projects, that I love," he says. "It's where she seems both strongest and most vulnerable simultaneously."
Michael Pescasio - Don't Let Your Love Annihilate
Camera operator Michael Pescasio hails from Baltimore, Maryland, where his interest in optics was piqued by a pair of polarized sunglasses. That led to photography, and a summer job at the local cinema. When the Barry Levinson feature film Tin Man came to town, he was hooked.
Pescasio worked as a union grip and electrician during and after his studies at USC. As a Technocrane operator, he worked with many top cinematographers. He also spent 12 years as a gaffer.
The first project he ever shot, Mrs. Marshall, earned an ECA nod in 2004.
Don't Let Your Love Annihilate is a long-form music video directed by Bruno Miotto. The leads are a flirtatious girl and a boy who is intrigued by her. Two different visual environments were planned - blue for the boy and pink for the girl. The film was produced on practical locations in Venice, California with an ARRI ALEXA.
"The look and feel were dictated by the locations," says Pescasio. "We were running around grabbing shots and using a lot of available light. For most of the shoot, my only lighting gear was a 1-1 panel light with a belt battery."
One set was constructed in the producer's living room, where Pescasio was able to finesse the lighting. "This scene was the actress's introduction to the world," he adds. "She plays sexy, yet also insecure, and you can really feel her inner turmoil."
Pescasio's recent assignments include a pilot for a children's show called Shushy Bye and a spot for the Tennessee Lottery.
James Takata - Only Child
Operator James Takata, who has a fine arts background, says he was "brought up by the Guild" since joining in 2002 and working his way up through every camera department position. After five seasons on The Ghost Whisperer, with James Chressanthis, ASC, Takata now works on The Client List.
Only Child is his first effort as director of photography. Takata describes how his director, graphic novelist Christian Gossett, articulated a clear vision with storyboards.
" The five-minute experimental film is a charming portrait of a Chinese factory worker who, while hand-painting dolls, spins off into flights of cerebral fancy," Takata explains. "Since the story kind of takes place in the painter's head, " Takata explains, "we tried to create a space that is realistic but also dreamlike."
The film's warehouse setting was lit minimally with fluorescents, work lights, and Kino Flos, with no light bigger than 1K. Takata used a Fisher dolly on a 360-degree track, circling the actress as she played out her scenes.
"There are some parts where she starts to get more agitated and paranoid and the camera work tries to mimic that," he adds. "We did tried to intentionally go for some stuff to make [the camera moves]it off-putting, - not graceful."
Takata says the digital camera he used two years ago to shoot Only Child would now be considered "archaic." Clairmont provided Zeiss Super Speed MKII primes and an Angenieux 17-102-mm zoom - a choice he partially attributes to budget, but adds, "I also think those older lenses counter-balanced the crisp reality of HD. I feel like it gives it this distinct look, and that the lenses these days are almost more important than the camera these dayschoice."
Pete Villani - Carjack
Camera operator Pete Villani studied at Chapman University, where his plan to become a director was altered by his interest in camera and lighting. His cinematography professor at Chapman, Jurg Walthers, taught him to think organically, through lens choice and lighting. Eventually he earned his Master's degree at the American Film Institute under the teachings of Bill Dill, ASC. During his last year at AFI, Pete interned for Allen Daviau, ASC.
Carjack is about a car thief who gets more than he bargained for. The film grew out of discussions Villani had with his frequent collaborator, commercial director Jeremiah Jones. "We discussed shooting digitally, but after scouting and considering all the day exterior work, we chose film [3-perf Super 35 mm at 1:85]," Villani recalls. "I had to shoot fast, and because of all the camera movement and action, I didn't want to worry about things like rolling shutter [shooting digitally].
"We had short November daylight hours and a child actor whose time was limited. For practical purposes, shooting film allowed me to move quickly and not worry about clipping due to a hot sky or a reflection off a car window."
The goal was a look that felt gritty without being grainy. Villani shot 500 ASA 5218 and 5219 to lengthen his days, and to limit grain, he researched shooting Super 1:85.
Villani's recent credits include shooting some additional footage for the film The Babymakers, directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, a Fox digital short he shot, and a Web series, directed by Martha Coolidge, for which he operated.
Robert Webb - The Girl in the Dark
Camera operator Robert Webb grew up in Southern California and became interested in cinematography while working at a video store. As a result, he changed his major from architecture to film production. Eventually he earned a degree at Cal State Long Beach. He joined the Guild after working as a best boy electric and a B-camera operator.
The Girl in the Dark is about a boy who tinkers with a video camera and discovers that he is able to record the ghost of a little girl. Webb had worked with director Luke Frydenger on commercials, music videos and other projects. To shoot The Girl in the Dark, they used a Canon 7D DSLR, often mounted on a Chapman Super Pee-Wee dolly operated by Keith Talley.
"Because the story is a paranormal mystery, our main objective was to create that sense of mystery through the use of light and darkness," says Webb. "The images follow a progression. First we established a sense of warmth and security, and then a sense of uneasiness when the ghost appears. Lastly, we wanted to communicate a sense of sweet relief at the end, when the boy and the girl share a brief moment of bonding."
Webb says his favorite shot starts on a close-up of the boy sleeping and then booms up, dollies back and pans over to the closet as the door opens. "I like this shot because it signals a shift in the story, and reveals the appearance of the ghost," says Webb.
Webb is currently working in Spain on a feature film called Blue Lips.
Stewart Whelan - The Money Pet
First AC Stewart Whelan's love for photography began at age 11 in his native Dublin, Ireland, when his brother bought him a camera. His filmmaking education started in earnest when he worked as a camera trainee on In the Name of the Father, the feature film photographed by Peter Biziou, BSC. Later, on the crew of John Seale, ASC, ACS, Whelan says he learned the importance of being true to the story no matter what the medium.
The Money Pet is a modern-day fairy tale about a talented dog that eats some loose change and later passes the currency with compounded interest. Whelan and director Gary Hawes produced the film over the course of two days using two RED MX cameras.
"I had used the RED MX extensively, so I was confident we could achieve the rich, warm look we wanted," Whelan states. "Most of the shots were mapped out, and our main challenge was keeping a tight schedule. Having a professional crew meant we were able to move fast."
The comedy was portrayed with wider lenses, often close in. The warm light was achieved partly with 18Ks with Â½ CTO and later full CTO, along with a small amount of additional yellow added in the DI.
"My favorite shot is toward the end, when the Slacker is awoken by a news report on TV," says Whelan. "I wanted it to be very moody but maintain that sense of fantasy. Four 6K PARs with full CTO gave me one very bright source through a small opening in the set. The Slacker has a nice glow when he awakens, and I love his reaction."
Michael Lloyd - Dawn
After touring in a band for several years, 2nd AC Michael Lloyd opted for film school. But his most profound education came on the set of Hugo, where he spent three months apprenticing for Oscar-winning VFX Supervisor Rob Legato. There, he also got to watch Oscar-winning DP Bob Richardson, ASC and his crew at work. "I learned more from being on that set in one day than I did in film school, period," Lloyd says.
Dawn, a joint thesis project with director Joshua Matthews at the Savannah College of Art and Design, centers on a widower, whose grim reality unhinges when a mysterious woman turns up on his property. The film was shot at a preserved Civil-War-era valley, where Lloyd's camera drinks in the Kentucky countryside in wide, languorous stares.
Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven and Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC's work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford served as initial inspiration. But the filmmakers also looked at classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Italian Renaissance paintings for what Lloyd describes as a carefully designed "slow burn" visual theme.
Dawn was shot with the RED ONE (Mysterium-X) at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, using a few old Cooke Zoom lenses and a Kinoptik 9.8-mm prime, which Lloyd says "combated that really sharp digital look." He used passive muslin bounce for a soft return from the sun or negative fill to shape his subjects, improvising his own lighting rigs and enhancements for night shooting.
"I wanted it to be very natural and minimalistic," he concludes, "like a drummer who only has a kick, snare and hi-hat and still plays something very beautiful."
Basil Smith - Cowards and Monsters
As an adman in Dubai in the late 1990s, 1st AC Basil Smith began to gravitate toward the camera. "I didn't understand what I wanted from the film business, but I knew I liked the visual medium," he says, recalling a fascination with Monday-morning commercial blocks and war reportage as a child in South Africa. His break came assisting Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, PSC, who later made him 2nd AC on Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. On Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, he met John Mathieson, BSC, who became an important mentor. Smith moved to Los Angeles from London last year.
For Tristan Goligher's Cowards and Monsters, which unfolds inside an unlit apartment in the thick hours after a man discovers his partner's infidelity, Smith chose Panavision Anamorphic to capture the lead character's dark trajectory. He says he aimed for a color palette that suggested "emotional entrapment and then release."
Smith concedes that shooting anamorphic in low light, on a shoestring budget, was challenging, but it suited the introspective story. "We knew going into the film that we would hold on single shots for lengthy periods in the edit and we had be sure that these would hold up to audience scrutiny," Smith recounts. "Each frame needed to be a portrait."
Cowards was shot with the Panaflex G2 camera, Primo anamorphic lenses and Kodak 5219 35-mm film stock, a cocktail that Smith says was a perfect match. "I think if we'd shot on a lesser format, the movie would not have had the response it had."
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