Antony Berrios was one of the first directors I worked with when coming to LA in 2007. I lensed a short for him called A Nice Day For An Earthquake—it was the first time I used black foam core as flags that I could staple to the ceiling. And that technique has gotten me out of a lot of jams. Tony and I started bonding over arthouse cinema and have remained friends. He is a sought after docu-series editor and writes for the screen and the stage in his spare time while also directing projects in both mediums. The themes that interest him most are mental health, challenging relationships, and awkward situations. He invited me back to shoot his second and latest narrative film project—Tumble—a short black and white film.
Inspired by the shooting philosophy of Gordon Willis (The Godfather), John L. Russell (Psycho), John A. Alonzo (Chinatown), and more. Tony wanted to shoot the film using only one lens—a 50mm. Gordon Willis’s lens of choice was a 40mm (equivalent to 50mm in the format we were shooting). He felt like that lens best expressed the way he saw things. It was a starting point on some films rather than a rule—giving him a basis from which to motivate other options. If he was going to use a different lens, it had to be motivated by a reason that served the story and the scene’s blocking.
Tony also liked the creative challenge—using the one lens forced us to put the camera in places that we would not have considered otherwise. And because we didn’t take time to think about other focal lengths, the camera would often fall into place very quickly. In turn, this gave us more time to spend on “building the frame”—a time when ideas naturally presented themselves, capitulating on our prep work and understanding of the characters.
There wasn’t much in the budget for lighting and grip. After scouting the location, I decided on one bi-color LED panel—a litemat plus—to augment the Laundry mat’s overhead lighting. We went a little heavier on the grip side to flag off location lighting that spilled on the white walls.
While Tony was editing the film, he experimented with different LUT’s and grew fond of a black and white look for the film. It wasn’t our original intention. If it was, I would have done some things differently in production—tested some different wardrobe options for one. But I agreed with Tony that black and white served the story and location well. It really helped get into the heavy mindset of the characters. And in a literal way represented the predicament our protagonist was in—there wasn’t much room for error (limited grayscale), and if he failed, he’d be spending the rest of his life in prison (black and white).
On my end, when bringing the picture lock into the Davinci, I used the black and white LUT that I created for Butterfly Effect as a starting point. And Tony provided some references from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, shot by Robby Muller. There were few notes from Tony—he was thrilled to see his vision enhanced by a dedicated color-grade. And never hesitated to express his appreciation for the work I was doing for him:
There is a creative magic that happens when you can work almost telepathically with the people you pick. It’s an amazing feeling when things just click. It’s like being in a band improvising and riffing off each other seamlessly. That is the feeling I get when I work with Matthew Skala. The work he did on my short film Tumble is utterly amazing. Considering all the things we DID NOT have, he made the look of this short film really stand out. His ideas were always really spot on with the creation of this short film.
If a problem arose while shooting, Matt, in his meditative way, could get us through whatever the issue was and move on fast. We never had any big issues; everything on this project when very smoothly. The intuitive nature of how Matt works made the exploration and work on this film a great journey and a great process. -Antony Berrios
I hope you’ve been healthy and safe in these tumultuous times. This month’s web of curiosity spins from a resolute whim to re-watch RKO 281— awakening interests in child prodigies and renaissance men, the influence of theatrical lighting on film, the influence of night photography on film noir, and more.
Film I’m Studying
RKO 281 (1999), directed by Benjamin Ross, is a reflexive cinema gem. The title is derived from the original production number for Citizen Kane. The first half of the film covers the genesis of Citizen Kane, and the second half chronicles a nearly successful campaign to stop the film from being released and to burn all the negatives and prints. Offended and disgraced by the depiction of himself in the film—William Randolph Hearst led the charge. He had the studio executives in his corner–ready to accept bribes–but he was going bankrupt and couldn’t follow through. RKO 281 is based on the documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane.
It opens with a beautiful scene that inspires and excites the filmmaker in all of us. A young Orson Welles blows out the candles on his birthday cake,” Orson…” says his mother, “come into the light, never stand in the shadows, you were made for the light. Always remember that.”
And soon enough, we are watching a twenty-five-year-old Welles (Liev Schreiber), wandering around Xanadu in the middle of the night, conceiving the idea for Citizen Kane. “I’ve got it!” He says in voice-over, “I know what we are going to do, imagine a man who shaped his time, a titanic man of limitless ambition, a man with an empire at his feet, controlling the perceptions of everyone beneath him—a modern feudal lord. The great American biography, a journey into the heart of the beast.”
A sequence ensues with a rat a tat tat exchange of inspired and passionate ideas between writer Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) and Welles. Themes like “Love on your own terms” are pronounced with gusto and glory as we watch the vision for Citizen Kane take shape. Then Mankiewicz reveals that—for many years—he’s been keeping a file on Hearst, and their collaboration begins.
It captures the collaborative spirit with joyful nostalgia, leaving butterflies in the stomach. However, this is only one version of the story. In Frank Brady’s Biography, Citizen Welles, hewrites how Welles—at first—was just focused on finding the right character to play. He was looking for a larger than life persona that could highlight his talent and reputation as a theater performer and radio star. Brady then recounts a court testimony by Mankiewicz which suggests he was the one to offer up Hearst as the film’s subject:
In a court proceeding years later, Mankiewicz gave his account of how the idea of the Welles film began, saying that it evolved out of a discussion of technique: a character would be shown in a March of Time sequence, and then the film would tell us about the person. “We were going to do The Life of Dumas,” remembered Mankiewicz,” and then I told him about how I would be interested in doing a picture based on Hearst and Marion Davies. I just kept telling him everything I knew about them. I was interested in them, and I went into all kinds of details. In an odd way it wasn’t really Citizen Kane at all, because we were going to do a great love story, which you remember Citizen Kane didn’t turn out to be…
Welles was under contract to write the screenplay, and the studio wanted it that way for publicity reasons. But Welles wanted Mankiewicz to write it. And Mankiewicz contractually agreed to write it without taking credit.
Serendipitous to my research, David Fincher just released Mank on Netflix this month. It centers around Mankiewicz’s experience writing Citizen Kane while flashing back to his life as a writer and his relationship with Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. The film made it clear how critical Mank’s contribution was to Citizen Kane. And while I don’t recollect any reference to who suggested Hearst, it does address the credit in one of the closing scenes—starting as follows:
“You’re not going to like this Orson,” says Mank. “I want credit.”
“Come again,” replies Orson.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever written,” clarifies Mank.
It’s unclear how Welles really felt about this. The scene continues with Welles taking offense and throwing a tantrum. But in the subtext, I think his outburst was just a way for him to reconcile with his ego, while deep down, he understood and wanted Mank to get credit. What we know for sure is that Orson excepted Mank’s script—American, at two hundred pages—knowing, as Brady writes:
For many reasons, Welles couldn’t use a great deal of the script of American, errors of continuity, logic, and motivation being the most prominent.
but then adding that:
What is known and agreed upon by all concerned is that Mankiewicz came up with the concept of “rosebud,” the enigmatic word uttered by the dying mogul, the verbal icon around which the film revolves.
Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but it only won for best writing of an original screenplay—both Welles and Mankiewicz received Oscars. Years later, Orson admitted he couldn’t remember all the details of who came up with which idea.
Citizen Welles (1989) by Frank Brady is a detailed biography of Orson Welles. Brady spent a decade researching and writing the book resulting in the first definitive chronicle of Welles’ life, spanning from his birth to his death. Upon its release, the New York Times Book Review stated, “Citizen Welles may well be definitive.”
For me, the book really humanizes Welles, but still in a legendary way. The sticking point thus far is his serendipitous childhood—a time when angels seemed to be dropping out of the sky to nurture his natural talents while he exercised a knack for averting any traditional childhood protocol.
His mother Beatrice was a stalwart of his speech, and by the age of two, he was speaking in syntactically polished sentences. In the same year, he garnered a mentor in Dr. Maurice Bernstein, who was enthralled by Orson’s burgeoning intellect. At four, he avoided Kindergarten by faking an attack of appendicitis. And was then homeschooled by his Mother, while Bernstein—with backstage access—took him to all the new plays. At eight, he wrote a scholarly paper called ‘The Universal History of Drama.’ At nine, his mother died. And at ten, he started smoking cigars while writing a critique on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
He continued to excel beyond his age level in many areas but was unable to add or subtract. When confronted with this weakness, he was known to shrug and say that he would always keep people around to do the math for him. But he did eventually learn.
His father—along with Bernstein’s support—sent him to the Todd School For Boys, where he turned his ambitions toward painting. But, Academically, his performance at the school was so poor, he barely graduated. And by that time, his father succumbed to Alcoholism.
Bernstein took Welles in, and at sixteen, he went to Ireland for a countryside walk-a-bout. He intended on starting a career as a painter but ended up joining the company at the Gate Theater in Dublin—making such a splash that it launched him into a theater career.
After Gate, he spent a summer writing and illustrating a series of Shakespearean promptbooks. And when he was eighteen, they were published—to great success—by the world-renowned publisher Harper and Row.
As his theater career continued, he began an adjacent career in radio, starring as an acclaimed regular on the March of Time radio shows. At this point, the Great Depression hit, and the US government started to sponsor theater projects. Welles—now twenty—was hired to run the Negro Theatre Project. And for the first time in American history, white people stood in lines to attend a black production. After 144 performances, Orson moved on to the Federal Theater, where he revived the great dramatic classics—several times a week—to great success. David O. Selznick—from Hollywood—came calling. But Welles wasn’t done with theater, and at twenty-two years old, he founded the Mercury Theater in New York.
Welles learned a lot about lighting during these earlier years in theater, and the technology was advancing quickly. Abe Feder—master lighting technician—was a trusted collaborator:
Abe Feder was a master lighting technician—one of the best in the business—and followed, although not always agreeably, Welle’s dictates of helping to blend together the form and color of the set, the arrangement of the props, and the position and costumes of the actors, through the distribution of the variety of lighting. The slightly smallish stage caused design problems in creating the illusion of distance and perspective, and these, too, could be solved with nuances of lighting.
The light was the thing. As one writer pointed out two weeks after the opening, the effects were cinematic: as an actor moves downstage from under a shaft of light, his apparent size is seen to change most dramatically; in effect, the stage director is able to get more “shots” at distance and in close-up. When a sense of vastness was needed, the stage was more brightly lit; when compactness was necessary, it was dimmed. In all cases, the lighting followed the tempo of the play. To an audience brought up on evenly lighted rooms behind proscenium arches, the result was startling.
We haven’t even gotten to Orson’s famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds or come close to Citizen Kane. And this summary barely even scratches the surface of these earlier years. But the big question in the back of my mind is: Was he a child prodigy by nature or a child prodigy by design? His opportunities and influences seem to be so crucial to his genius; it makes me wonder.
Photographer that inspires me
Brassaï also intended to pursue a career as a painter and was a renaissance man like Welles. His name was actually Gyula Halász, but he wanted to save it for his “serious art” and used the pseudonym Brassaï for his writing, caricatures, and photography. He is best known for his night photography in Paris during the 30’s—published in the book Paris at Night. His dark and evocative imagery influenced photographers and filmmakers worldwide—feeding the aesthetics of an emerging film noir genre. Brassaï couldn’t escape his success as a photographer and made attempts—in his journal—to reconcile with his desire to be a painter:
Even though I had always ignored and even disliked photography before, I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all the things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing.
To monetize his burgeoning reputation, he worked commercially shooting everything from car tires to cigarette lighters—all while enduring an unfulfilled desire to paint.
I want absolutely to return to the plastic arts. This desire becomes more and more a physical necessity. Photography is more of a stimulant. A complete success in photography leaves something in one’s being unsatisfied. It is choice and not expression. Its laws involve limits, even if I know these laws and respect them in all humility. I am not unhappy to be able to maintain my anonymity. After all, photography enabled me to step out of the shadows to show what I see. That’s something. But even so, I must express one day what I am.
The Queens Gambit, now streaming on Netflix, is another story about a child prodigy. This one, however, is fiction. It follows an orphaned Beth Harmon as she falls in line at a draconian orphanage where each child is administered a daily dose of a tranquilizer to keep them calm. As addiction to the drug brews, Beth stumbles upon the building’s custodian while he’s playing himself at chess—sparking Beth’s interest in the game.
The series is based on a novel with the same name written by Walter Tevis. It loosely draws from Tevis’ experience as a class-C chess player—learning to play when he was seven years old.
The show has been received well by both entertainment and chess aficionados. The cinematography and overall design are on par with the best of today’s episodic cinema. “Cinema,” in this case, is used to describe how the use of lighting and other aesthetics profoundly serve and enhance the storytelling. A trend on the rise—for tv—during the last decade or two—in large part superseding the sitcom, reality TV, and soap opera.
Quote I am pondering
To have success in a particular domain incites you and constrains you to exploit that success and to practice professionally as a “specialist.” what you have done with the joy of an amateur. The dilettante’s passion for an art will always be stronger than that of a man who is gifted to practice it, for the dilettantes passion, like a love without hope, always remains unquenched. To protect the amateur’s freshness of vision and combine it each time with the knowledge and the awareness of the professional, that is what I have tried to accomplish all my life, whence my constant infidelities, diverse curiosities, my numerous and parallel occupations… that apparent incoherence was my coherence. -Brassaï
When entering discussions with The Human Example about his music video for Butterfly Effect, he shared with me his perspective on climate change, concluding with, “What we do today affects their world of tomorrow.” And he was referring to our children.
He wanted to invoke a sense of missing, of gone, of what’s left is only in our dreams and imagination, but even that is limited because as children, their experience is limited.
He shared his love for black and white cinematography with me and suggested we chart a course to achieve a look that is both authentic and thematic. I agreed immediately. We shared references and did some tests. And I created a black and white LUT that we used on set to make sure our lighting ratios and exposure were within the parameters of our final look.
Our primary lighting sources were large and soft. We dropped 12×12 rags of diffusion in front of 2K tungsten fresnels—which were often pulled back up to 20 feet behind the diffusion to enhance the softness. We used 4×4 floppy flags and 12×12 black rags to help control the spread of the soft light. Haze was used to envelop the themes of missing, gone, neglected, polluted, dreamt, remembered, and imagined.
In post, I used the LUT as a starting point for the color grade and overlayed some 4K scans of 35mm film grain. With a scan of just one type of film stock, I was able to fine-tune the final result to further augment the themes and authenticity of a black and white look.
“The Human Example” is an emerging LA-based artist. Butterfly Effect was produced and released pre-pandemic as part of a compilation of LA based label/collective—Tone and Manor.
Sometimes it’s hard to explain things, and sometimes we lack the words, perspective, or experience to explain something even though we understand it and empathize with it. On this month’s journey into the rabbit hole, I explore racial division through cinema and literature. And uncover some nuances that have helped further my understanding and improve my communication skills.
Film I’m Studying
I Am Not Your Negro fully realizes its director’s conviction. Raoul Peck set out to bring forward a voice from another era—a voice he felt we now lacked and desperately needed. After working with many writers, he feared the project wasn’t going anywhere. But then he was handed an unfinished manuscript by the James Baldwin Estate. It was the novel Baldwin was working on before dying of cancer in 1987. Its working title was Remember This House, and it contained 30 pages of recollections about his friends—civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Suddenly, Peck’s film was upon him.
Sometimes people say I am an activist, I say no, I am a citizen, I take seriously the rights that I have, I take seriously my responsibility. I would love to be able to make horror movies without having to think, like Scary Movie1,2,3,4,5, or 6, or Toy Story. But I take responsibility. I know the price we pay. I know the price my ancestors paid. I know the price young men like Medgar Evers, young men like Martin Luther King Jr., young men like Malcolm X, the price they paid, the price their kids paid, their whole family paid. How can we just say… well… we can just be happy and profit from whatever is going on? It’s my responsibility. The right to vote—people died for that. I know the price of my ancestors. – Transcribed from a special features Interview of Raoul Peck
And thus, a symphony ensues. Baldwin with his voice and pen, And Peck orchestrating a tale of yesterday amongst a tale of today.
Archived media from the civil rights era—interviews, stills, tv shows, and movie clips—build up the lion’s share of the movie. But to connect the history with what is happening today, Peck included stills and footage from modern-day protests and tragedies and some reality tv show clips. But it was—in good taste—kept to a minimum, not to distract from the actual history. And in the end, there are some very captivating modern-day video portraits.
Additionally, there isn’t a single contemporary interview in the film—scarce these days when it comes to documentaries. But the film is not without its genre tropes. Sequences with atmospheric b-roll garnish the film—mostly scenery as seen out the windows of a driving car. The footage was edited with an astute poetic sensibility and Samuel L. Jackson’s soft voice narration to invoke a sense of—this is James Baldwin driving around pondering the heavy themes of heartbreak that permeated the souls of blacks and empathizers throughout the era.
What touches me the most is the film’s embodied awareness. An awareness I was first exposed to in my late teens, thanks to some socially responsible friends. But this awareness did not come along with a good set of communication skills. And it was only the beginning of an ongoing journey—digging myself out of a deep cavernous pit flooded with naiveté. As featured in this film as a 1968 excerpt from The Dick Cavett Show,here are some words from James Baldwin that have helped me tweak my communication skills and understanding in regards to race.
I don’t know what white people in this country feel. I can only include what they feel by the state of their institution. I don’t know if white Christians hate negroes or not, but I know that we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal to me about a Christian nation. It means that I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don’t know whether Labor Unions and their bosses really hate me. That doesn’t matter, but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know if the real-estate lobbyists have anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know about the textbooks I have to give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life, my woman, my assistant, my children on some idealism that you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen. – James Baldwin
Go Tell It On The Mountain–published in 1953—is James Baldwin’s first novel. The Modern Library and Time Magazine both list the book amongst their top 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The book is semi-autobiographical, leaning heavily on Baldwin’s experience with an abusive stepfather—a sensationalist preacher. And ending on a depiction of his own “awakening” at the age of 14 when he became a preacher.
Baldwin scholars suggest that he invented his own way of writing and speaking that stemmed from his years as a child preacher. “He remained a natural, if somewhat reluctant, performer — a master of the heavy sigh, the raised eyebrow, and the rhetorical flourish.”
When you are born a black man in this country, you need to read Baldwin. Without question, no if or [about it], you need to read [him]. Whatever you do with it later, that is another question. It’s like learning how to read. That’s how essential it is. For me, that is what he did. He taught me how to read. He taught me how to read my life. He taught me how to construct my life. He taught me how to make decisions about my life. So once you have that kind of powerful thinking, you need to put it in the hand of every single child in this country.
Obviously, I am not black. But, I thought reading Baldwin for myself would help me to garner understanding. And after having an undeniable emotional response to the poeticism in Baldwin’s words as featured in I Am Not Your Negro, I was eager to read them first hand in one of his books. So why not start with his first. Here is an excerpt:
She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all—the white city, the white world. She could not that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, who they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.
Photographer that inspires me
James Karales observed his college roommate sweating over chemical trays in a darkroom and was inspired to change his major to photography. He graduated in 1955. And after spending two years under the tutelage of W. Eugene Smith at the Magnum Photo Agency, he set his sights on the working class in Rendville, Ohio, for his first photo essay. In its earlier years, Rendville was one of the few towns in the US to allow for workplace integration and was a stop on the underground railroad. His essay got noticed, and in 1960, Look Magazine hired him to cover the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. His access to key movement figures like Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in an incredibly intimate body of work, charged—by his compositions and choice moments—with undeniable emotional clarity.
Revisiting an anti-Latino past is an article written by Gustavo Arellano for the Los Angeles Times. It’s an honest reflection of the newspaper’s historical racism and how it has changed. What strikes me the most is how the newspaper is holding itself accountable with acute self-examination and commitment. Here is an excerpt:
The [Latin] elites were seen as cultured but good people whose best days were past. The rest were seen as halfbreeds and shiftless.” The dichotomy was there from the start. An 1883 story about northern Mexico’s “greasers” with the subhead “What They Are and How They Live” strove to distinguish for readers the difference between Mexicans with mixed heritage and those who were supposedly of pure Spanish blood. The latter were described as “bright, active and intelligent.” The Times cemented this myth in historical remembrances, serialized fiction, and news stories about society events where L.A.’s new white ruling class—including the Chandlers—dressed as the dons and señoritas of yore. Meanwhile, the city’s actual Mexican residents were written about largely in crime stories or what Gutierrez called “zoo pieces” — stories about Latinos not as individuals but as members of an ethnic group with little chance of being more than that.
Quote I am pondering
What I am trying to say to this country, to us, is that we must know this, we must realize this, that no other country in the world has been so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy and so irresponsible and so dead, no other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth and a wife and a house with a white picket fence and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives, then to marry and have the Plymouth and house and so forth. A great many people do not live this way and cannot imagine it and do not know that when we talk about democracy that this is what we mean. – James Baldwin