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Archive for the ‘Close-Ups’ Category

David Riker is currently in post-production on what will be the second feature film he has written and directed, “The Girl.”  His first feature, the highly acclaimed “La Ciudad,” began as part of Riker’s work as a student in NYU’s graduate film program.  Among his other work in between those two projects, David won awards for screenwriting on “Sleep Dealer.”  David provides personal and professional perspective for Chapter 5: Personal Expression and Studio Production.  

Abbie Cornish and Maritza Hernandez in David Riker’s “The Girl”

Did you have any early inspirations to use moving images to communicate? 

I began taking photographs as a young teenager and remember building my first darkroom in the boiler room of our house, and standing there, sweating, as I tried to teach myself how to wind my negative film into a Patterson developing tank. I may have been thirteen years old. None of my friends were interested in photography but I befriended the owner of a photo lab and he began to take me under his wing. My camera – first a Kodak instamatic, then a Brownie, and finally a 35mm Praktica SLR– became my closest friend, a kind of magic carpet that seemed to open up a new universe to me.

Writer and director David Riker

In what ways did you first become involved in making movies?

It was much later before I began to make films, and the journey was not an easy one. My early love for photography was later given direction when I began to see the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Donald McCullum, the great documentary photographers. Suddenly, photographs seemed vital to me in a new way. I was at university at the time, and an activist in the anti-nuclear movement, and I began to document the peace movement in the United States, Europe and Japan. By my senior year I had assembled a large portfolio of images and was dreaming of one day joining the Magnum Photo Agency, home to so many of the greats.

But then I had a strange epiphany. Looking through my portfolio one day I realized that I didn’t know the names of most of the people I had photographed. I didn’t have an address, or any way to contact them. I realized I knew next to nothing about the subjects of my photos. The photographs had visual integrity, and some of the images were quite strong, but I couldn’t help feeling that they were lacking in some fundamental way. I wanted the people in my photos to speak, and I felt that I had somehow rendered them mute. In what was one of the most painful experiences of my life, I put my camera down and stopped taking photographs.  Then, after some delay, I realized that if I wanted the subjects to speak I would have to begin making films.

David Riker, at right, directing “La Ciudad”

How did you move on from those initial steps?  What were some useful lessons you learned through your first experiences with motion pictures? 

The first footage I ever shot was on a hand-cranked 16mm Bolex; the longest shot limited to about twenty five seconds. But I was still using the camera as I had my still cameras – I filmed footage of Puerto Rican children breakdancing, of women trying to shut down the Wall Street Stock Exchange, demonstrators protesting the US war in El Salvador. But I still didn’t know the names of the people I was filming, and the Bolex was silent.

A few years later, Sony introduced the Hi-8mm Handycam and I rushed to make a documentary – for the first time with sound. Over the next few years I made a number of documentary videos, teaching myself along the way, but realized that I needed to deepen my understanding of film. I knew that great films were capable of stirring the deepest feelings, but I didn’t know what the secret was to their power. I was twenty seven when I enrolled in graduate film school.

In your feature La Ciudad, you shot the film in black and white.  Were you inspired by any particular filmmaking traditions to make this choice?  How do you think this decision helped to establish a unique style in the film and particular storytelling values? 

At film school in the early 1990s, students learned their craft by shooting on 16mm cameras and editing on flatbeds. There were no digital non-linear editing systems. In the first year everyone was expected to shoot in black and white, and the films were silent. Frustrated at first that I was still working without sound, I began to realize that the key to cinema is visual language. And slowly, deliberately, I started to learn its vocabulary and rules. It was a second epiphany for me, like uncovering some long-hidden mystery.

“Bicycle Thieves” by Roberto Rossellini

It was during this period of intense discovery that I began to make my first feature film, La Ciudad.  I was inspired in part by the Italian films made right after WWII, the so-called neo-realist films – Paisan, BicycleThieves, La Terra Trema. These were films that seemed to reflect life as it was really lived, but with a lyrical voice. Unlike many contemporary ‘realistic’ films that were using a gritty, handheld style, the neo-realist films were eloquent, the choice of images — deliberate, striking, even poetic.  I know that as I struggled to find an articulate language in my own film, the images from these masterpieces were hanging above me like golden signposts.

When you approach writing a screenplay, how do you develop a sense of ways in which the visuals will help to communicate the story?

It is tempting, when writing a screenplay, to think in images, and to some extent it’s necessary to ‘see’ the film as you’re writing. But the essential task of the screenwriter is not to visualize the film but to understand and control the dynamics of the story itself. The craft of writing a screenplay is separate and distinct from the craft of directing a film.

What has been your experience of the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process?

All filmmaking is collaborative, and this makes it one of the most complex and powerful of the arts. Many of us know that Avatar was made by James Cameron, but we should also know that he was assisted by a crew of more than ten thousand. For reasons too complicated to discuss here, the director has been elevated above all others in film.

I think the most important experience for young filmmakers is to learn as many aspects of the craft as possible – to understand the unique challenges of the writer, the cinematographer, the gaffer, the sound recordist, the actor, the editor. A composer must learn each of the instruments before composing for an orchestra.

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Below is the full text of the interview that was conducted with Hiro Narita for Moving Images.  It is featured at the end of Chapter 4: “Storytelling with Light.”

What first inspired you to make movies?

I went to art school and at the time I wasn’t thinking of getting into film. For the first ten years I worked as a graphic designer, and then by chance I got involved in helping filmmakers design movie posters and so forth. And then that led to, “Can you take some stills?” And then to, “Are you interested in filmmaking? Maybe you can shoot a documentary for me.” That led to moviemaking.

Now, having said that, when I realized that I was interested in visual storytelling with moving images, I remembered that when I was a kid I went to see these movies from everywhere, from America, from Europe (this is in Japan when I was little) without really knowing what they were, just because there was no other entertainment, you know. As soon as I had a dime or a nickel, I went. And even though this was a short period of my life, maybe just a couple years, that may have had something to do with it too.

Cinematographer Hiro Narita

But you drifted from graphic design to cinematography very naturally, because filmmakers were asking you to help on their projects? 

Right. In fact, I was almost 30 when I made the shift into cinematography. And it was not easy to make a living, just proclaiming yourself a cinematographer. I learned a lot from old master gaffers. They really taught me. I knew what looked beautiful to my eyes, but I didn’t know how to get it. So the old lighting masters would say, “If you use a 5K here and diffuse it, this is the kind of quality you get.” I learned most of my trade on the job.

 

How did you move on from those initial steps?  What were some useful lessons you learned through your early experiences with motion pictures?

I started to do some corporate slide shows, and that led to corporate identity films, and that led to more legitimate documentary films – not selling products, but selling personalities or ideas, telling stories or capturing emotions or whatever with moving images. That really was fascinating to me. I had to catch up with the technology, of course – I was always a few years behind the technology. But if you have the desire to tell visual stories, the equipment is just a tool, and I wasn’t embarrassed that I didn’t know how to load cameras, that I had to ask people to do it for me. I was constantly learning.

When I did documentaries and I was taking decent stills and so forth, young filmmakers would say, “I’m going to make my first film. Are you interested in working on it?” That’s how it started. In the beginning, I did all sorts of films that I don’t want to even mention, like horror films, boxing films. But those experiences really taught me what to do.

I think it’s the human story that I wanted to tell. I wasn’t interested in the corporate story. I didn’t care about this company selling a plastic-piping-whatever. Now, to sell that, I’m sure it takes a talented advertising mind. But I didn’t care about plastic. I was interested in human experiences, emotions. I was asked to film a documentary on children with leukemia. That really fascinated me. Just to see these young kids telling their experiences to the camera – brave souls, you know – just to see those images of people was much more fascinating to me than shooting beautiful shoes or… you know what I mean. Though some people are really great at it.

One of the first things I learned was how to establish relationships with actors.  Now, I saw – I mean, even today I see directors treating actors like props. That’s the worst thing you can do. Experienced directors know how to deal with actors, how to deal with their psychology and they know how to turn them around to perform for you, the audience. You have to let the actors feel that they’re making a contribution rather than just being told what to do. Young directors tend to say, “Well, this is my film, and I’m not getting it, I’m not getting it!” It really exhausts actors. Not to disagree with some great actors who have some incredible arguments and discussions before the camera rolls.

Star Trek VI, directed by Nicholas Meyer

You see, as a cinematographer, one of the first things I learned is to respect and appreciate what actors do. Some actors like to be helped by the cinematographer, they like to be told that if they turn this way they will look more interesting or whatever. And other actors don’t want to hear any of it because they know what they’re doing, you just put the camera in the right place and get it. Understanding the different types of actors, and learning how to communicate with actors so that they feel comfortable, is very important.

How do you work with directors and actors to balance lighting and movement? 

The cameraman is not the person who decides the actors’ movements. We participate. There are some directors who are more open to suggestions, but surprisingly some directors don’t want to hear any of it. That’s okay. Some directors are very visually oriented and they do express it, they say, “I’d like to see this scene lit only by the table lamp, no other light, very moody.” And if the director has such a strong feeling, then sure, let’s start with that and see what happens. I would try to support that idea. When I first read the script and interpret the scene and form a visual idea, I’m always telling myself, “This is only the beginning. Don’t force that initial idea.” I think it is important when you are a cameraman to discover. Some of the most interesting stuff that I see on the screen, I’m not convinced that the cameraman preconceived that imagery. He or she discovered it as the scene unfolded.

People think cinematography is about adding lights, but you also need to know how to take out lights. There are three schools. The first is that you start with total black and add lights. That’s a very slow way of lighting a set, but some fairly old-fashioned DPs insist on that kind of control. The second school is that you imagine where the natural light source would be. In a room, if there’s some northern light coming through a window, okay, let’s use that as a starting point. Or a night interior? Let’s start with that desk lamp. Then there is a third school: you can completely manufacture the lighting concept. By that I mean the lighting doesn’t need to have any literal logic. You can ignore the window, you can ignore the lamp. But if the lighting makes sense to the viewer, and it helps them respond emotionally, that’s good lighting. And sometimes that lighting has nothing to do with where the desk lamp is or whatever. It’s illogical, but it makes sense to your psyche. Now that’s the lighting that I began to learn much later. It’s been done for many years.

I recommend that people go see The Last Emperor by Vittorio Storaro. He has been doing this almost all of his life. On a cloudy day, he will have sun on some person, only one selected individual. Or in an early evening scene, when the sun has just set, he will have sunlight in only one corner of the screen. You wonder, “What’s going on?” But it looks so beautiful. In his interiors, you begin to see that not every window is lit, only selected windows have sunlight coming through. He said, “We don’t have to follow any rules. This visual world of cinema has its own logic.” I’m fascinated by that.

Regarding one of your films, how would you describe the style of Never Cry Wolf ?

I’m always asked in the beginning of the film, after reading the script, “What sort of visual style do you conceive?” And I say, “I don’t know. Why would I conceive the visual style even before shooting it?” I already question those people in my mind. You don’t tell actors… well, you might say to the actors that, “Your character is this and that,” but that’s only the beginning of the discussion, the beginning of the adventure. In the case of Never Cry Wolf, the only thing that Carroll Ballard showed me was a picture of a painting by the illustrator Maxfield Parrish. He just said, “There’s a magic hour in here, there’s no direct light but there’s a magic hour.” He didn’t say, “I want Never Cry Wolf to look like this.” He said, “Do you get this weird lighting? If we can capture that in our film, I’ll be happy.” But beyond that he didn’t say anything.  Even though it was a Disney film, he said, “I’m not making a Disney picture here. I’m not making wolves into cute dogs.” Which Disney wanted in the beginning. I was almost fired because I wasn’t using enough fill light on the wolves

Because more fill light would have made the wolves look cuter?

I guess so. More like an animated Disney film, where you see everything. Yeah, because they had never seen their animal pictures with silhouetted… (laughs).  When we started to shoot, we both responded to this landscape that was just out of sight – Alaska, Yukon Territory, British Columbia – the most incredible places. I’d never seen anything like it. And Carroll said landscape is a part of the characters in this film. To me, in that particular film, the landscape, the animals, and how people were seen against this incredible landscape created its own visual style. I mean, we weren’t conscious of it. Carroll Ballard is a very visual artist, and when we saw wolves running through the trees, the trees were just as important as the wolves. Now, if the director didn’t see it, just saw wolves running around, I’m sure it would have ended up a lot different film.

You would begin each day of shooting without storyboards, without plans?

Carroll never had storyboards. He would talk about scenes. I’d really like to see more directors think that way. “Here’s a scene in which this scientist is initiated into the wild animal’s world. This is an initiation scene.” That’s all he talked about. He maybe wrote on a napkin or something, but he never drew pictures, he never said, “Okay, here’s a guy and I want to see hundreds of caribou like this.” This is another thing that I really like to talk to young filmmakers about. Storyboarding, to me, is okay because you are preparing something, but you are preparing at the desk. I tell students that those things you draw are something you’ve already seen. You cannot draw something that you haven’t seen yet. Just start out with the storyboards as homework, but when you go to the set, ignore them.

Now the problem today is that producers want X number of pages shot. They’re looking over your shoulder: “We need to shoot five pages today. Do you guys have storyboards or a shot list?” They want a guarantee. You do have to be disciplined enough to say okay, you can finish this today. Because I’ve worked with directors who are so frightened that they spend all day stuck on the first two pages. So I can see that in order to meet that kind of requirement and pressure, it is great to have homework. For me though, the films with all these elaborate storyboards often end up visually dull. It looks like you’ve seen it, like it’s been done before. Though you can’t say that about Hitchcock.

I was about to say. He’s the famous example, right?

For him, the movie’s made once it has been storyboarded and the rest is a pain in the ass, dealing with actors and all that stuff. Because in his mind the beautiful movie is already there. That’s a whole different thing. I don’t think Hitchcock started out like that.

That was fifty movies later.

Exactly. And then that becomes his style. I don’t think he said, “I have a style,” I don’t think he’s telling that to himself. Anyway, we all start with some idea – we have to – but don’t let that crystallize everything before even a foot of film or tape rolls.

What approaches have you taken on some of your other films? 

James and the Giant Peach is a very different film. That had a predetermined idea. The animation part had to be storyboarded, because it takes so long and you can’t have any extra footage. So they already had a pre-cut animated storyboard before they shot. Their concept for the live action part was that it should look like a storybook, but no fancy stuff, and I agreed with them. It was storyboarded, but we had freedom. When a certain angle looked better, Henry [Selick] was open to doing it, rather than just recreating the storyboard. But in the case of that film, I realized the storyboarding was a legitimate process. Henry was very open. He even told me, “I don’t want you to talk to Peter Kosachik,” who was the animation photographer. “Don’t discuss anything. I don’t want you to have any kind of agreement or disagreement. Just go ahead and do your thing.” So, I don’t know. I don’t remember whether I had a visual reference. Sometimes art direction kind of determines visual style.

Still from The Rocketeer, directed by Joe Johnston

Like on The Rocketeer. The color of the set, color of the costumes, all had to do with capturing that period without making the film into a comic book. In fact the director said, “I don’t want to make a live action comic.” I tried to find the right color schemes. The production designer, a terrific production designer, already had his idea, but he was smart enough to say, “This is my idea and how could you enhance it?” I had been thinking of a period piece in the mid 1930’s. It was only the beginning of color movies, and most movies were black and white, but the posters were all in really wonderful color. I liked the greenish-bluish shadows. So I kind of took a cue from 1930’s movie posters. That’s how I think the creative process starts on some films.

 

How about Honey I Shrunk the Kids?

Honey I Shrunk the Kids was another one of those Disney concepts. Here’s a huge grass set, which they built. This is before digital computer animation, so everything for the visual effects had to be shot on eight-perf, bluescreen – very, very complicated. But anyway, my feeling with the grass set was that it should look real. I mean, if you look at actual grass, it’s dark in there, with maybe a slash of light. So that’s how I started. Disney freaked out. “We’re not making a horror film here. Lighten it up. Use a lot more fill light!” And I didn’t quite understand it, but I started to do it, because they complained. I started to add a lot of fill. We were saying, “Well, this is not visually exciting, but Disney’s not saying anything.” Then, halfway through production we got a message from Katzenberg saying, “I think I like the earlier version.” So we went back. In the film, some of the best stuff was shot in the first three weeks.

Why the ‘best’ stuff?

Because we weren’t hearing that comedy should look this way or that way. The director and I felt that part of the film should look really scary and foreboding, you know?

All cameramen have stories like that. I was talking to Vilmos Zsigmond, and he said he was almost fired twice from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, because of the way he was doing interesting stuff – scary, silhouetted figures.

 

Can you give us an example that illustrates how cinematography affects storytelling? 

The last picture I did is called La Mission. This is a film where the story is uniquely San Francisco, uniquely about the Mission district. And the temptation is to show the story through city landscape. But the director [Peter Bratt] and I talked about it and he said, “I’m not selling San Francisco. I’ve seen so many movies that have to have that shot of the Golden Gate Bridge or whatever. How can we show San Francisco without emphasizing it.” And he had some ideas. One was that we should show that tower, Sutro Tower, from different angles, not show it but it’s there, and we did, whenever we could, it’s in the frame for whatever reason. That’s the extent of “San Francisco.” The rest – the story takes place in the Mission, so we were very conscious of color, but we didn’t want to change anything. Capture it, but don’t change it. In the end, I think we succeeded. The color of the Mission District is there without us saying, “Take a look at this.” So the only thing that I would have done differently is that in some scenes I would have used light a little more differently to create a stronger mood. This project was shot in 27 days. I don’t think I used more than four lights a day because we didn’t have time to do it.

We would look for – Okay, let’s use this corner because there is sun here. Or if we put a small HMI from the window, that’s it. All filmmakers deal with the balance between aesthetics and economy, or the conflict between art and finance.  If we all became artists and all did things we want to see, it would take 200 days to make a movie, whereas you have to do it in 25 days. So that’s the nature of the beast.

You have photographed both big Hollywood studio productions and low-budget independent films. From a cinematographer’s point of view, is there much difference? 

No. My attitude is the same. In any given situation or project, I’m asking myself what is the best solution for this particular scene? In The Rocketeer, there was a two-story nightclub set. And when I saw it, I said, “I need hundreds of lights.” As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a technician, and I don’t know how to figure out how many 10Ks we need to hang there. So I go to a gaffer and I say, “I need to have at least a 2.5 exposure here, and I need to see this beautiful nightclub – but not overlit – and I think we ought to put some light in that pool.” So I initiate a conversation like that. That’s how I solve my problems.

But you can’t quite solve your problems that way if it’s a movie being made for $10.

Exactly. And if that nightclub scene is in La Mission, I tell them, “Okay, are you ready to spend $50,000 on lighting? If not, take the scene out of the script” (laughs). Or, you have a dark nightclub with a couple shafts of light. There is actually a nightclub in La Mission, and we used whatever light they had and added a few of our lights, so it worked out. You have to know how to make the best use of what’s there.

In the movie, there’s a kitchen scene, I think it is described as “Morning – Kitchen”, where the son reveals to his father, “I’m gay, this is how I was born. There’s nothing I can do.” And the father [played by Benjamin Bratt] says, “What do you mean nothing you can do? God created men and women.” It takes place in the kitchen.  Nobody stands up – maybe the son stands up once – they are all sitting. And I wanted to keep it very moody. Actually I had one light, a small HMI out the window, and the rest was florescent bounce. The director didn’t want to lose too much time setting up the shot, because he wanted more time with the actors. And I was thinking, okay, we didn’t know exactly what they were going to do, but I didn’t want lit actors going into darkness, so I kind of lit it flat, except the window.

Now, when I was shooting I wasn’t paying attention that behind the father there is a stove, which is white. If we had the money, we wouldn’t use that white stove in there, we would replace it, because white picks up light and gives a lot of unfortunate reflections. But we didn’t have money or time to replace it, so we left it. But because I used a little more even light, when I see the scene now these things really bother me – they are interfering with the performance. I wish I had cleaner light on the actors. I don’t think we even needed to see the kitchen wall, because we’ve seen it already, in the viewer’s mind it’s there.  I overestimated what should be seen. I should have been gutsy.

The audience has an incredible capacity to imagine and connect the dots, so the filmmaker has the freedom to make a kind of a leap without disrupting the flow.  Same thing with lighting.  If you’re watching dailies, you might say, “It’s kind of dark in the background,” but when the film is put together, all those worries are unnecessary.

But there must also be some sort of pleasure in working quickly like that? 

You’ve brought up a very interesting point.  When you are under pressure, your perceptions excel. It’s been proven. In the creative process, when you are under pressure – I’m not encouraging this – things happen. When the producer tells you, “You guys have to shoot this scene in an hour and a half. I know you have 20 shots – what can you eliminate?” then you start thinking really fast. I do think everyone needs to experience that heightened moment. I don’t know how it happens, I have no idea. I don’t want to exaggerate these experiences.

It happened a couple times on La Mission. The director said, “You know, Hiro, the sun is going down and we need to shoot this scene today on location, we can’t come back here. What can we do?” I looked at the shot list and asked him, “What is it that you’re trying to do?” He says, “I want to create this sensation, this and that.” And I said, “Well, to do that, for me, I don’t think you need all these shots. Go from there to there.” That’s how we solved the problem. I think we cut the shot list to at least half. There was no other reason to shoot all this stuff. Then, as Peter edited the film he realized, “Oh gosh, why do we need this stuff?”

 

Tell us about the relationship between the director and the cinematographer. You’ve worked with many of the biggest American directors of our time – Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese. Do each of those people interact with the cinematographer in a different way?

In the case of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I did just a small segment, reshooting a scene with Harrsion Ford. Now Spielberg I think makes movies in the editing because he shoots a lot of different angles. We were shooting this one scene in the cave where Harrison Ford’s character wakes up and finds that he is surrounded by thousands of candles, and I think we shot like twenty different setups. And Spielberg thinks fast. In those days, between setups he would go play videogames. Then he would come back and say, “Okay, let’s go. Shoot.” Now, George Lucas was watching, and said to Steven, “If I were you I would do this in one shot,” and Steven looked at George and said, “But I’m not you.” In the end I think he must have used only three shots for that scene. But that’s how he approached moviemaking, I think, and he would make the decision in the editing room, he could afford to do it. Other directors make the decision on set. I took a much larger role in a film called Always, did visual effects photography, but in that case I didn’t have direct contact with Spielberg because there was a second unit director.

Give me an example of another director working in a completely different way than Spielberg.

Then there are other directors like Lynn Hershman. She always says, “This is a scene about this or that. Where do you want to put the camera?” And then I would say, “Okay what about this? This angle is interesting. What do you think?” And she would say, “Oh yeah, let’s shoot it.” Then she says, “Okay that’s enough, let’s go do another scene.” And I would say, “What if this scene is too long, where would you cut it?” “Oh, I don’t know.” And I would say, “I think we should shoot another angle, just in case.” This is how she and I work. She doesn’t care about the master shots and the close ups.  She says, “That language to me is uninteresting,” and I agree with her. So Lynn is another kind of director, and I came to enjoy that way of working because I like to find out what unfolds.

And what is she focused on?

She’s focused on a kind of perception, how the mind works. As you know she’s an artist, and she too is trying to find out, “How am I going to capture that experience that I cannot explain with words.” So that proposes an interesting challenge, a very different kind of challenge.

She leaves almost all the visual camera decisions to you? You guys did Conceiving Ada and Teknolust together?

And a couple documentaries. And of course very low budget. Like in Teknolust where [Tilda] Swinton plays four different characters, Lynn was adamant about not using any fancy visual effects. Instead we used split screen and photo doubles. That’s the challenge that I think was interesting.

Hiro Narita with camera filming actress Tilda Swinton

But it is just as pleasurable for you to work this way?

I enjoy in fact working on a project that’s not over-storyboarded. A shot list is one thing, but storyboards are another. Then there is another kind of director who is more into listening to dialogue, saying, “Oh this is going to work. Alright, all I need is a close up.” But if that’s the case, every scene throughout the film is a close up scene of talking heads. And he knows that that’s not a movie, so he knows we have to open it up and… you know. Every film is different.

 

You brought up with Teknolust this idea of fancy special effects. How do you think the advent of digital technology has changed cinematography?

It has made it technically a lot easier for us. I mean, I can make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes I can see a light stand or a c-stand in the finished shot, and rather than reshooting it, it’s cheaper to remove it digitally. If someone’s microphone comes into frame, I don’t worry about it. I’ll take it out.

Sometimes, in the final color timing of the film, I say, “Okay, this scene could be a little lighter, a little darker, more blue.” But your perception changes every day. Sometimes I show up the next day at the timing session and preview the previous day’s work, and I say to myself, “Holy mackerel, I must have been out of my mind yesterday.” And because of the technology now you can keep changing it, it’s so easy. If the contrast doesn’t look right, you can even change the contrast on the face.  You’re painting a scene and it’s endless. With a film, the film color timer would say, “Okay this is it, I can only change the exposure, I can’t change the contrast.” If the director can’t make up his mind this color timing can go on and on.

Putting aside post-production for a moment, do you feel that digital technology has changed the art of cinematography itself, that people approach the craft now from a different point of view?

There is a danger, from the cinematographer’s point of view, because in post things can change, I mean drastically. A color scene can be desaturated or saturated or made black & white. Sometimes I have no control. Like if the producer decides that, “I’m going to do the color timing in Seattle or New York, and I can’t bring you up there, can’t put you up in a hotel.” That means I’m letting someone else play with it.

That used to be a time-honored part of the cinematographer’s job.

Absolutely. It’s in the contract. I’ve seen a couple of my films that I don’t even recognize after the color timing, and it is sad to see them.

Do you have the sense that the safety net of digital technology makes cinematographers sloppier when they’re working? 

I think so. And yet I love new technology. I’m not exaggerating that ten years ago I absolutely believed that high definition was going to take over. They were saying, “No way, it’s not art.” Just imagine, first of all, black and white photography. There was no black and white painting in the Renaissance or any other time. Black and white technology was all that they could come up with. So photographers began to experiment and they saw that if they used a red filter the sky would go dark. Ansel Adams photography is beautiful, but it is so far away from reality. It’s not a realistic photograph. It’s manufactured. Then black & white photography became color, and people were in shock – “This is so anti-art! So gaudy!” Then we went into reversal film, and negative, and digital. Twenty years ago, people like Antonioni were saying that this is the medium of cinema artists. He was completely married to it.

 

He was saying that about what – about digital?

In those days it was not quite digital. Videography.

 

Antonioni thought video was the future?  

Absolutely.

Riots from Zabriski Point

What did you do on Zabriskie Point?

I supplied a lot of riot footage, from the Chicago convention, San Francisco State. I shot one of the screen tests in San Francisco for this ACT actor, and he liked my photography. Antonioni asked the producer, “Can he work as one of the cameramen?” He had brought the Italian DP and camera operator with him, but he needed multiple cameras. And the producer found that I was not in the union and said, “No way that we can do this.” So Antonioni gave me a project to do: that if any kind of riots broke out, I was supposed to go there and shoot them as reference material.

So when the ‘68 riots broke out you flew to Chicago to shoot them for Antonioni? 

I was there! Chicago, Watts, San Francisco State – that was the longest, three weeks, I went there every day

You’ve been a cinematographer for thirty years and you’ve seen prevailing styles change. Do you have any gut feeling about where cinematography will go, stylistically, in the future? Has everything already been done? 

I think everything has been done. If you go back and see 30’s German Expressionism, they tried everything. Even here in the United States, in the 1930s films the lighting and compositions are magnificent. Because at the time, German Expression came out of not being able to afford enough lights, right? And so they thought, “Let’s create mood with shadows or whatever. And that came back to the United States with film noir, with, “The sets look terrible? Well, let’s not see it.” And that’s been repeated in everything from Scorsese’s films to Batman Returns.

I don’t think that in the human mind the desire to tell stories or the desire to hear stories has changed in a couple thousand years. Technology has changed. Now, whatever you think can be realized visually, which is just mindboggling. You can create King Kong in 1930’s New York more believably than if you had a camera there.

Our taste might actually go back to simpler film, I think.  It’s all visual style that changes, from fresco to oil to watercolor, but story hasn’t changed that much.  It may go through a few more changes. I think the problem now is that the younger generation is losing the ability to watch an hour and a half or two.  They think everything is 30 sec to 3 minutes. And unfortunately the industry is going to take advantage of it and create a whole bunch of three-minute films. They’ll think that’s the thing. That will be a shame.  But storytelling is not going to change.

Also, another thing for young filmmakers is to not separate the craft of editing, acting, cinematography and all those things for the time being. The more I work in the business, I see that they are all connected.  As much as I admire “Academy Award winning cinematography,” you can’t take over the story. You can’t have fantastic editing or great music but terrible acting. When the marriage between everything works out, then it’s a success.

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The second chapter of Moving Images is titled “Inventions and Origins,” and in this unit students learn about and explore the origins of motion pictures and the early developments of filmmaking and visual storytelling.  For this chapter, it was particularly satisfying to feature an interview with a filmmaker whose career has been at the cutting edge of a contemporary revolution in moviemaking that serves as a mirror to the story forged by the initial moviemaking trailblazers.  Digital visual effects have been in a state of a constant transformation throughout late 20th and early 21st centuries while they have been profoundly altering the ways in which we experience and create moving images.  Greg Butler has been involved closely with this story for the past two decades.  His credits include the Lord of the Rings series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part II), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Prince Caspian, G.I. Joe (here is a great interview he did at the Paris FX 2010 Expo for it), and many other movies.  Currently, he works for The Moving Picture Company, which is one of the most active and innovative visual effects production houses in the world.  Check out my following post for info and links for media about visual effects.  

What were your early inspirations to use moving images to communicate?

I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s. Between the ages of 7 and 12 alone, I saw some amazing films, many of them multiple times; Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars trilogy, Superman and Superman II, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., The Dark Crystal, just to name a few. Most of these films would now be called “special effects driven” films, but to me they were just amazing stories that completely drew me in. Of course, I wanted to find out anything I could about how the effects were created. In those days, there was not a lot of information available about how these films were made. There was the occasional TV special, but it usually consisted of interviews with the actors and other more general topics. Home VCR’s were still a few years away and DVD special features were a completely unknown concept. In fact, since the only way to see a film was on one of the three television networks or at the cinema, many popular films would be re-released every couple of years. Luckily, I grew up in a small town and our one theater often showed “second run” films for only 99 cents.

 

In what ways did you first become involved in making movies?  At what point did you begin to become involved in CG? 

I remember running around the second grade playground acting out scenes from Star Wars.  A few years later, my brother and I teamed up with the two girls down the street and started making short Super 8mm films under the “Blossom Street Productions” banner. We did versions of The Dukes of Hazard, James Bond, and untitled monster and space movies. They weren’t very long, but we planned them first and occasionally built props and attempted basic special effects. After a gala screening for our parents, we would move on to the next project.

In 1989, I went to a small liberal arts college initially to study history and avoid math. In my first semester I applied to get into both film and video production courses, both of which were very popular. I didn’t get into either, but I did get a work study job in the engineering department. I quickly found that my combination of curiosity, technical aptitude, and a set of keys to all of the video production facilities was getting me all sorts of new connections and acquaintances in the film and video departments. I started helping older students and some of the professors with their productions.

In my third year, I was asked to be the director of photography for a friend’s final video project. After graduating, she got a job at Industrial Light and Magic.  She helped me to get an internship and later my first job. I started at ILM in the commercials division and quickly transferred to an entry level job in the new computer graphics department.

What were some useful lessons you learned through your early experiences with motion pictures?

One of the most important things I learned about the filmmaking process is that it is incredibly interdisciplinary and requires a tremendous amount of planning and organization. As a result, films of any significant length can rarely be completed without a large number of people working closely together. A film can succeed or fail at so many different points. Everyone involved needs to keep focused on their job and work well with everyone else.

Motion picture history has been propelled many times by new generations of innovators, from the first filmmakers discussed in Chapter 2 of Moving Images to the pioneers of CG.  How did you experience the evolution of digital effects in moviemaking?

I started in the film industry just at the moment that the transition to digital was occurring. While I was a camera engineering intern at ILM in 1992, they had just completed Hook and Death Becomes Her. Both films effects used some digital compositing, but were mostly created with traditional techniques such as hand inked rotoscoping and optical printing. At the same time, the small computer graphics department was doing tests of digital dinosaurs for Jurassic Park. When I returned a year later to start my first job, the company had almost completed its transition. The optical printers were being dismantled and a number of departments had disappeared or been computerized (fx camera, rotoscoping, opticals). Computer graphics in visual effects had graduated from one-off “gimmicks” like the water creature in The Abyss to become an integral part of the filmmaking process.

Starship Troopers

In 1996, I worked at Tippett Studio on Starship Troopers. Phil Tippett and many of my colleagues at the studio had worked in stop motion animation for years and were finding innovative ways of incorporating digital tools into their process. For example, Tippett Studio was awarded a technical Oscar for the “Dinosaur Input Device” (DID), first used on Jurassic Park to animate digital dinosaurs using stop motion techniques.

Working for Phil Tippett was a great experience. It’s where I really learned about visual effects and animation. I was constantly surrounded by reminders that computer graphics are just a new way of working in a much older craft. The same rules still apply.

 

How does your role in the visual effects department fit into the entire process of film production?

These days, very few films don’t include some level of visual effects. Sometimes, it’s simply to save money on locations or big sets, to increase the safety of actors or stunt people, or just to save time during the shoot. And of course, there’s still a lot of demand for us to create what doesn’t exist, like dinosaurs or space battles. The visual effects department is now part of the process from the very beginning: creating a budget, then planning the shoot,  and finally working on all the vfx shots in post-production.


 

An example of an “invisible effect” in which the visual effects artists take the initial photographed image, at left, and use digital fx to transform the scene into the intended setting. These images are from “Amazing Grace,” about abolitionist William Wilberforce (directed by Michael Apted, 2006). Courtesy Walden Media

Filmmaking has always been an expensive and time consuming “group project”. Visual effects and computer graphics have only increased the time and amount of people needed to make a film. With more people involved, there are many more decisions needed, both creative and technical. My collaborations are mainly with the film’s overall vfx supervisor and the senior artists on my vfx team, such as an Animation Director or CG Supervisor. The film’s director is always involved of course, in setting the overall goals, in terms of the story, style and the look of the film.

 

What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced during your filmmaking endeavors? 

It can be challenging to maintain the focus, commitment and enthusiasm necessary to make it through a project, while at the same time not having it completely take over the rest of my life. The hours can be very long, with no weekends off during peak periods of the production. I usually spend about 8 – 18 months working on a film, although I was on The Lord of the Rings films for over 5 years.

Creating Gollum for The Lord of the Rings

What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in moviemaking? 

In early 1999, I joined a group of around 20 digital artists in New Zealand for The Lord of the Rings. I had never been to the Southern hemisphere or spent more then a few weeks outside of the US. All of us knew we were at the beginning of something special. The Weta vfx crew grew much larger as the years went by the work we did got bigger and better too.  Playing a significant part in something that will last is certainly among my most fulfilling experiences.

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Nanette Burstein (2nd from left, seated) with American Teen Cast

At the end of each chapter of Moving Images, there is an interview with a filmmaker whose work reflects the professional domains, topics, and themes of that unit.  Chapter 1, titled “Motion Picture Language,” features an interview that I conducted with Nanette Burstein, one of the most dynamic and compelling directors working today.  Her productions have consistently remained on the cutting edge of the current revolution in content and form between non-fiction moviemaking and storytelling techniques.  

In fact, her recent movie “American Teen” is a new addition to the list of feature films suggested for possible use with Chapter 1.*   This film raises many pertinent issues for class discussion and writing, including relationships between documentary source material and narrative structure, a wide variety of communicative techniques, and many familiar themes of teen life today: bullying, financial pressures, college and professional life, and dating (among others!).   

CC: Did you have any early inspirations to use moving images to communicate?

NB: For me it was a combination of different experiences.  I was a cinephile growing up and had the great fortune of growing up in the 1970s – well, I was pretty young in the seventies – so I got to see such great cinema and then I did a lot of theater in high school.  In high school I also went to Nicaragua and there was a war going on and it was very political.  I started to realize you could use cinema for social change.  At the time I thought “I’d love to tell stories” and I didn’t know if it was going to be journalism or if it was going to be movies but I was interested in that whole world so I got into film school.  And pursued all aspects.

CC: In what ways did you first become involved in making movies?

NB:  I went to NYU film school and started making short fiction films and during that time I started my junior year interning in the edit room for a documentary series.  I got hired as an assistant editor, and then they ran out of funding and I offered to edit the last movie in the series for very little money, which they let me do.  So I was pretty young, I was 21 when I had my start at a professional documentary, and it was an interesting experience because the directors weren’t involved in the editing room, they were just hired to go out and shoot the film and then it was left to the editor to figure out the story line, so there was a lot of freedom which made me really excited about documentary.

CC: How did you move on from those initial steps?  What were some useful lessons you learned through your first experiences with motion pictures?

NB: Through having made my own short fiction films I had to do a lot of jobs myself.  It’s very hands on.  And then following that up with editing non-fiction films, when I went to make my first feature-length documentary, I had both of those experiences in fiction and non-fiction and I decided to meld the two and shoot a non-fiction film, to film real people but have in mind a story that has a narrative and can be shown in a three-act structure and not be a meandering story.  Something that would appeal to me thematically would be compelling to me as well, and I could develop a style that is appropriate for that subject.  At the time of this project, that warranted being very gritty because I didn’t have any money, so it had to be gritty.  So all of these experiences led up to shooting my first film.

CC: During your career, you have worked on documentary and fiction films and television production. What has led you to make decisions about the types of movies you have made?

NB: I have had equal interest in both from the beginning.  At the time, non-fiction seemed more feasible: I could shoot it for no money, I could use school equipment, I could shoot it on video before digital video existed.  So, it seemed a more practical way to try to tell a more compelling, dramatic story that interested me.  I would have needed more money to do it on a fictional level.  So that’s kind of what dictated the path I chose.  But because my interests were in both, it was fine by me.  I was anxious to make a movie that I was proud of, and could put my heart and soul into and whether it was with real people or actors, it wasn’t as important to me.

CC: In a number of your films, you use motion picture form to create unique viewing experiences.  In what ways have you used visual storytelling to structure your movies and communicate distinctively to viewers?

NB: For me, the style is always dictated by the subject matter.  If I have a subject matter that I’m interested in telling, I try to find the most appropriate style to communicate that cinematically.  And if you move between varied projects, the style can change quite a bit too.  And so, my first film, On the Ropes, was about boxers in Bed-Stuy, a very poor neighborhood, and it was very important that the film not be heavily stylized or glossy, that it be real and gritty and that the soundtrack came from those streets.

Documentary about movie producer Robert Evans

My next film, The Kid Stays in the Picture, was about a Hollywood producer who’s completely larger than life, so I felt like the cinematic style needed to reflect that.  It needed to be kind of surreal and everything’s big – you know, the visuals were big.  There wasn’t a lot of subtlety there because there wasn’t any in his character, so it was almost like the character could direct the film; it was how he would do it.

Then the next film, American Teen, was about high school kids and I really tried to embody the kinds of feelings and emotions that they were going through and how they saw the world and how they viewed their own culture in a fish bowl.  I wanted to show their fantasy life, which is such an important part of that time in your life.  I felt that doing a re-enactment would be too bizarre and take the audience out of the story.  I also interviewed them, but just showing them talking about it, you don’t really get a sense of their fantasy.  So I thought the best way to express this was to really visualize that fantasy, and it should be animation.  It could be that larger than life imagination that you have, so I just try to use cinema to illustrate characters’ – and people’s – emotions.

CC:  Have you been inspired by any particular filmmaking traditions to make certain choices in your work?  How do you think these decisions helped to establish effective stylistic approaches and storytelling values in your movies?

NB:  Again, I think looking at a certain subject matter, I try to find their inspiration for that particular movie.  Of course, there are certain filmmakers that I greatly admire across the board.  For On the Ropes, I watched everything from Hoop Dreams, which is a great sports documentary, to Scorsese’s Raging Bull to Spike Lee’s films.   Films that have dealt with that culture before.

The Kid Stays in the Picture is very influenced by the movies that Robert Evans was making all through the 1970s, and that actually is some of my favorite cinema.  So everything from The Godfather to Harold and Maude, those kinds of storytelling devices, were influences.

And then American Teen was heavily influenced by great teen movies, John Hughes films, and borrowed from that genre and used it in a way to comment on it.  But there are certain things like there are shots in the film where you can see the characters alone, reflective, and I decided to use a voice-over where you hear what they are thinking, which isn’t that revolutionary, but I was struck by Alexander Payne’s Election where he does it in a far slicker way than I did because it’s a fiction film.  He does a series of dolly shots as you’re getting to the election, and I borrowed from that technique.

CC: A number of your projects have dealt with creative and collaborative processes.  What are some of the most important decisions you made to communicate to viewers about these processes?

NB: Any kind of “making of” story has endless conflict because to arrive at a final product there’s just so much fighting and heartache that happens along the way.  So Film School is about showing the conflict that’s happening in trying to collaborate which invariably appears.  And then we also chose to come up with animation to show the fruit of their idea, the idea at the beginning that described what their movie is.  We wanted to use animation to show a storyboard of the film in their head.

CC: Among your many projects, what have been key experiences in regards to the collaborative nature of filmmaking?  Are there particular relationships that have been fruitful to you in your career?

NB: For the first couple of films I collaborated with Brett Morgen, and I think we had very similar sensibilities.  We complemented each other.  I think I was a little more focused on story and he was a little more focused on style, and we learned a lot from each other that way.  When you are just starting out and you don’t have the money to hire a lot of people to help you make the movie it can be absolutely critical that you have a partner to share the load.  For documentary, it can be necessary to make a film with a really small crew, or just you and another person as it was with our first film On the Ropes, and I couldn’t have done it without him.  So, I’m very grateful to have had a partner at the beginning.  I think we’re both stubborn and opinionated so it came to the point where we did have financing to go off on our own and we had slightly different visions so it was the point for us to go different routes, but I think in the beginning it was very critical that we work together.

Also I think your editor is so critical whether it’s fiction or non-fiction film.  Sharing the same sensibility and helping you really mold the story and the tone is really, really important.  I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with amazing editors on every project.  Once I can sit down and cut a scene and they can cut a scene and we just help each other and learn together and really work together as a team rather than just sitting in a room and pointing and snapping – just giving directions.  It’s a real collaboration.

CC: As has been mentioned in our discussion, you have worked in both fiction and non-fiction.  What are some of your observations of comparisons and contrasts between working in these different formats?

NB: Ultimately, you’re trying to arrive at the same goal, to tell a really honest, compelling story and use the same sort of dramatic structure for either medium.  The route to get there is rather different though.  For a fiction film it’s so important for your script to be as good as can be, because you’re going to shoot your script.  You’re going to be limited with your choices in the edit room.

Whereas, in a non-fiction film you have a very high shooting ratio but you also have little control, comparatively.  You’re in the hands of reality, unless you’re doing an archival film, but if you’re doing a cinéma vérité documentary, you’re trying to come up with your characters and context to mold your story, but you might miss something or people doing the unexpected.  You’re not production designing what their house will look like or you’re not able to do a crane or dolly shot to evoke certain emotions.  In a fiction film you control every single aspect that doesn’t exist without exerting your control and you have to think about every tiny detail beforehand – and hope that you get it right because that’s what you end up with in the edit room!  Obviously, there are still moments where you don’t have the same degree of freedom that you have with documentary.

In a fiction film that I made, I directed performances to make them feel as honest as possible, and as real as possible, like in a documentary where you try to get your subjects to feel as honest and real on camera, because they have a camera in their face and you are sort of altering reality.  In a way, you are trying to figure out “how can they be themselves?  How can they be most natural?”  The difference is they are that person rather than embodying a character through lines they’re supposed to say.

CC: What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced during your filmmaking endeavors?

NB: In non-fiction films – and cinéma vérité documentary – the great challenge is “how do I capture every important moment?” – without literally moving in with the subjects!  Sometimes the anxiety of that is overwhelming.  You really want to do justice to their story and not just have it recounted in interviews, these dramatic moments.  In my feature On the Ropes, when the main character is having a trial – it’s a big part of her story – I had been filming pre-trial hearings without any problem and then we showed up for the trial and the judge just said “No.  You can’t.”  The trial hadn’t started, they were still having to complete jury selection, so we very quickly had to hire a lawyer who specialized in this.  We contested it, and questioned whether the judge was really allowed to say no, whether it was for a specific reason, such as if this were a minor or involved sexual violations, and they got it overturned.  That was a very frightening period.  It involves so many issues in relation to what the subject is going through, having to film this very sensitive issue and worrying can I film this or not film it.  It was a very difficult time.

With The Kid Stays in the Picture, one of the big challenges was that we had a big disagreement with the studio that was financing the picture over the structure of the movie, and we had to go on a hiatus for several months and thought the film was never going to get finished.

On American Teen – and I knew this going into the project – it was dealing with teenagers who have a Lord of the Flies culture, they do not trust adults.  They know adults will not approve us, so in order to gain their trust and get the kind of access I needed was very challenging.  We’d go up and down all year long, what they would allow and not allow in developing relationships and that was very hard.

With fiction filmmaking, it was a unique experience for me to work with actors, but I think I rose to the occasion and really enjoyed it.  It was a learning curve, and some of the scenes we would clearly be writing them as we were shooting.  It’s such a tight schedule and there’s so much money on the line, you can feel that stress and pressure every day.  That can be very hard.

In documentary filmmaking, you are asking people to open up their lives to you, and you have to gain their trust, and with actors – even though they’re a trained professional playing a part – you are guiding them into how they should appear on screen and they equally need to trust you in a different way. They need to trust that they’re in good hands and that when you ask them to do something in a certain way they won’t end up looking like fools but they will actually be complimented by that process.  When you’re a first-timer, you have to earn their trust.  You can’t say “Oh, look at such-and-such movie that I did.”

CC: What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in moviemaking?

NB: For me, it’s always been the first time I’ve premiered a movie, and watching the audience respond to it.  That’s always a great experience.

I think that non-fiction is a really interesting arena to explore because a lot of what’s been done has stayed fairly conventional.  Obviously, there has been experimentation, but there is so much more experimentation that can be had in non-fiction that hasn’t been done before.  It seems like a wider arena to be more groundbreaking, whereas with fiction it’s been around longer and it doesn’t seem as open a playing field to try new things, even if of course there are always new ways of communicating in fiction movies.  I don’t know if audiences are open to it, because there are distinct conventions in what people expect in non-fiction and how they expect it to be presented.  But facing this challenge can be very fulfilling.

*Teachers use the “Critical Notebook 1c” exercise from Instructor Resources for questions about “American Teen” in order to develop students’ analytical skills and understanding of media messages.  

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