Three examples, serving a director’s vision

With three very different films in festivals this year I want to write a little bit about the Cinematographer’s role in serving the director’s vision from script to screen.  

Before thinking about equipment or logistics I spend time with the director and try to get inside his or her head to understand his vision and where it comes from. I read the script and find something that motivates and inspires me. I read it again and again until I completely understand the conflicts between darkness and light, the fundamental truth and concepts that make up the story. Also, I make sure to completely understand how the director wants his audience to feel.

Based on this understanding I put together a tool kit that includes many essential items which all contribute to translating the director’s vision on to the screen. One of those items is the camera and that is the focus of this article.

Republic Of Rick

This feature directed by Mario Kyprianou is a Texas secession satire based on Rick Mclaren’s (Dave Abed), quixotic attempt for Texas independence in the late 1990s. Mario was inspired by the news coverage and interviews which chronicled the actual events. This footage was in standard definition and he loved the way it looked when blown up to High Definition on his HDTV. It made him feel like he was watching a real documentary from the 90’s and wanted his audience to feel the same way.

We started off with two choices. Use a modern camera and manipulate the footage to simulate this same look or use the same news gathering camera that was popular in the 90’s. After a lot of tests we decided on the 90’s news gathering camera–a Sony Betacam. It would save us loads of money in both production and post while giving Mario exactly what he wanted without any fuss. As a bonus, the camera system–together with period wardrobe, hairstyles and set pieces–evoked a certain way of working that made us all feel like we went back in time.

For a deeper look behind the scenes go here.  

Republic of Rick Frame Grab for film directors vision article

Teacher of the Year

Surrounded by the eccentric faculty of Truman High School, Mitch Carter, played by Matt Letscher (Her, Boardwalk Empire, The West Wing) wins the California Teacher of the Year award and immediately receives a tempting offer that may force him to leave his job–where squabbles with principal Ron Douche, played by Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele, MADtv, RENO 911!) escalate beyond control.

Teacher of the Year was shot in 720p HD to garner the authenticity of a slightly more modern documentary. And despite recognizable actors, helped evoke a feeling of a true documentary even though it’s a satire.

Jason wanted the movie to look like Waiting for Guffman and Waiting for Superman—two films whose shooting styles could be called “Waiting for a Grip Truck.” Guffman was filmed on Super 16mm, but that wasn’t an option because of our budget. Superman used a Sony PMW-EX3 and a dated 720p HD camera; a Panasonic AJ-HDC27 Varicam which was among the first HD cameras to rival film. The images from the Varicam were closest to what we wanted: not too nice, a little rough yet soft on the faces, and a homemade feeling. We went a step up and used the P2 card version of the camera, the HPX-500. This gave us the same quality images but with a more cost-effective and efficient workflow.

As an ENG shoulder-mounted camera, the 500 was a perfect fit for our cinema verite approach, with the action feeling unplanned and the characters often conscious of the camera and interacting with it as though it was another character. To create this illusion of documentary filmmaking, I operated the camera handheld for most of the movie–covering multiple scenes in one shot: starting wide, moving in, and panning from person to person to catch their lines. If the action in a scene felt more private, I would keep my distance and use the zoom rather than physically moving closer. It didn’t have to be perfect. Jason wanted it too look unrehearsed and, on a few occasions, he had to tell me to make more mistakes, miss more lines, pan to the wrong character, let someone stand up out of the shot and then catch up with him, and other illusions of spontaneity I had to fight against my instincts to achieve.

For a deeper look behind the scenes go here.

Keegan-Michael Key in Teacher of the Year

The Big Meet

A grungy screenwriter takes a meeting with a Hollywood executive and makes a “killer pitch…” But is he actually a killer?

A Red camera did make an appearance for The Big Meet. With budget and story in mind, we chose to shoot digitally in 4K raw with the Red One MX and a set of Red Pro Prime lenses.

We were going for a slick and modern Hollywood look with rich blacks and vibrant colors. Elder wanted a dark and dingy noir feel to the images. This excited me. I imagined a similar look when reading the script and I enjoy exploring the dark side of things. Light is interesting when it fights its way through the darkness–having a life of its own–triggering an emotional response in both the artists and their audience.

For a deeper look behind the scenes go here.

The Big Meet Frame Grab for film directors vision article