Interview with Cinematographer Tobias Datum (Imposters, Mozart in the Jungle)

tobias_datum.jpgIt was a pleasure to have the very talented Director of Photographer Tobias Datum answer some questions.

Go to his website for more information: www.tobiasdatum.com

 Matthew Toffolo: Is there a project to date that you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?

Not really. I do love all the things I have worked on. I put my best effort into all of them.

Sometimes they turn our great, sometimes they are less successful (according to my personal opinion) but I have yet to have a bad experience making a movie (knock on wood).

What was the biggest thing you learned working on the many shorts that you DP’d?

Shorts can be a great opportunity to try things out. They have a very different rhythm from features and are less forgiving than a longer project can be. You need to find your groove on set a lot faster because the schedule is shorter and the same goes for what you are shooting.

Everything is a bit tighter and you can’t slip

What suggestions would you have for up and coming cinematographers who want to be where you are?

Just keep working.

Keep your expenses low so you can afford to take on projects that don’t pay much but are projects you feel strong about.

Be nice to everybody, stay curious and excited about the work

You have been in a unique position where you were the Director of Photography on two seasons of “Mozart in the Jungle” and the current 1st season of “Imposters”. How have those experiences been like working with different directors for each episode while being the driving force for the look and tone of the television series?

Both of those shows are pretty intimate affairs.

In both cases the majority of episodes are directed by the creators and over the now 3 years of “Mozart” we have grown into a bit of a family.

Outside directors are usually pretty good fits into the existing group. In both cases the creators of the show have a lot of control over the show and the hiring.

I have only had great experiences with the “outside” directors.

In prep the first AD will also give them a good idea of where the challenges are and we then tackle those together as a group.

Most of the time the directors will have a very good idea what the show and are there to play and all of us, cast and crew, are open to play as well.

What are you looking for in your director when working on narrative shorts or features?

Mostly whether I can imagine spending a lot of time together with that person and enjoy it.

What is a director looking for in you?

If I knew… it’s probably different every time.

Is there a project that you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet? (genre, style etc..)

Anything Azazel Jacobs is going to make in the future.

Where were you born and raised? What becoming a successful DP something you always dreamed of doing?

I was born and raised in Frankfurt, Germany.

No one in my family worked in film or media related jobs and I also didn’t watch much TV or go to the movies as a child and young adult.

I always had jobs as a teenager and ended up being involved in a little music/theater venue. There were a few par cans and a little dimmer board there and one day a friend who also worked there asked me if I could imagine working with him and 2 other guys at a much bigger venue in the summer for an annual theater series. I said yes and I ended up working there for 3 summers.

In that period of time the audience number grew so big that they had to hire someone who was certified. I was 18 at that time. That person took me on as an assistant and introduced me to film. Somehow I liked what a DP did and started exploring anything visual. I did internships/apprentice ships at a post production, editing and animation and worked as a electric and grip and ultimately applied for film school in Berlin, Germany.

After that I went to AFI where a met a lot of people who I still friends with and work with as well.

In short it was a bit accidental and I am still learning as I try to catch up.

What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most time in your life?

Perhaps Harold and Maude. Not sure. I do like american movies from that time for sure.

In general I gravitate towards older movies. Often international movies.

I really like that streaming service https://www.filmstruck.com/

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 2 times a month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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Interview with Cinematographer Michael Simmonds (Nerve, Vice Principals)

Michael Simmonds is a wealth of knowledge when he chats about his love of cinematography. He is a man who is constantly looking into the future and only looking back when inspiration is needed. He is a rare talent who is able to move seamlessly from documentary to TV to feature films.  It was an honor to chat with him.

Matthew Toffolo: What are the biggest things you learn when you work on documentaries that help you when making live action feature films and TV shows?

Michael Simmonds: There are many ways to approach shooting a Verite documentary. Sometimes you need a complete and editable scene every ten minutes. Meaning, you are constantly getting CU’s, inserts and establishing shots over and over again, regardless of what is happening. Or you can approach a doc like you would going fishing–you stay back with the camera and drift around until something interesting happens and let that lead the way for the camera.

Shooting a documentary makes you figure out coverage really quickly. All storytelling needs to have shot size variation to show the audience what is “important”. Verite documentary is basically filming a live event. The people move around and interact with other people and space and you have to make visual sense out of it for the audience. In narrative you can use this technique by blocking a scene as an “event” and keeping the blocking of the actors “loose”. This works well in chaos scene with lots of people. The actors perform the “event” and the camera films the scene like a doc, meaning there is no formal shot list or “plan”.

PHOTO: Michael DP’d the landmark film “Project Nim”:

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MT: Out of all of the projects you’ve worked on, what film are you most proud of?

MS: I only focus and think about whatever I am currently prepping or shooting. I try my hardest and show up to set with all the energy and focus I can muster each and everyday. As for the final product, I often joke that I would enjoy filmmaking just as much even if the camera was never recording. The finished film is of little interest to me aside from a sense of curiosity…

As for “what of my work can I watch and enjoy”; that would be “Plastic Bag”. It’s a short film about the life of a plastic bag. It’s a lot of fun to watch and I have fond memories of making it. The filming of it involved lots of throwing bags into the air and shooting leaf blowers at them, it was ridiculous so we laughed a lot.

MT: You DP’d the entire 2nd season of Vice Principals. I heard that most scenes were improved by the actors. How is that experience working on a set where you don’t know what’s going to happen take after take?

MS: I don’t think most of the scene were improvised. It wasn’t like a Judd Apatow film where you can feel the dueling two camera set up and the actors riff off each other. VP had very tight scripts and David Gordon Green would create film level blocking. The actors definitely added to the dialgue, but not any more or less than other projects I have been involved with. On a comedy, even if the actors improvise, its in regards to dialogue and not their actual movement, so it does not effect me. I alwas operate with headphones on so I can hear the actors perfectly and I can anticipate their movement.

Photo: Danny McBride vs Walton Goggins in “Vice Principals”:

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MT: Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?

MS: I would have and currently would want a DP mentor but unfortunately I never had one. Amir Naderi was a director I worked with early on who taught me about composition and framing. He has a very sharp eye and was always pushing for a perfect take. Ramin Bahrani and I would discuss story structure endlessly and I still read Alexander Mackendrick’s “on filmmaking” every year. Understanding story is the foundation to understanding how to film a scene.

I learn more and more about lighting on every job. In my opinion lights are the hardest medium to work with. They are like painting with water color paint. You never really know what they will do. There are so many variables that will effect the way they function in the photography.

MT: What do you look for in your director?

MS: I want a good collaborator in a director, someone who is not afraid of communication. Good ideas come from lots of ideas. Although a director needs a “vision” they also need to explore all possibilities in a scene. They must be a leader and exciting, but egoless. Their decision process should not be based on fear, which is rare. Most people make decisions based on fear, which makes for a weak film. Bold choices make good films.

MT: What do you think a director looks for in their cinematographer?

MS: Fuck if I know…!

It’s a myth that directors alone choose a D.P. or make any big hiring decision alone. A director might push for someone they have worked with or they could advocate for someone they want to work with but all decisions usually have to go through a producer, financier or studio. Usually a director would be given a list of people to choose from… Of course on more “auteur” films this is not the case.

How do you get on that list that gets handed to the director is a whole other question…

MT: Ideally, how much preparation do you like to do before you begin principle photography? Do you like working with storyboards?

MS: Prep depends on the scope of a film. Nerve needed lots of prep due to the logistics of the stunt sequences. You need a storyboard since so much of that work is a “cheat” and takes place in a “fictional” space. By fictional space I mean that the space as presented on the screen does not exist in the real world. For instance a snorkel lens shot that feels “inside” Dave Franco’s helmet does not need to be filmed on park ave south. A storyboard also lets you understand what shots need the actual actors opposed to the stunt people.

A good stunt sequence is a lots of micro stories that fold into each other and those have to be mapped out.

White Girl didn’t need any storyboards since the film didn’t require cheating any spaces or stunt sequences… the front door to the protagonists apartment was actually the real front door…
A film like white girl doesn’t even require a shot list. We would block out a scene and film it as a moving master and then do some pick up shots for specific moments.

Photo: David Franco and Emma Roberts in “Nerve”:

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MT: Where do you see the future of camera/lighting technology in film?

MS: Although there is a romance and nostalgia for film negative, digital imaging has really improved lighting for movies. We are much more comfortable with underexposing now than in the past. Of course Savidis, Khondji and Willis did great underexposing and making bold lighting choices, but now you see modestly budgeted TV shows that look bold and interesting.

Focus pullers often use large HD monitors to pull focus which has allowed for super shallow depth of field that didn’t exist when I started out.

I have no idea where imaging will be in 10 years but the technology has been a mixed blessing with lots of advantages.

Although there is a lot of new technology coming out for camera support, no one product has replaced an older one. The movi did not replace the steadicam and the steadicam did not replace the dolly… its just more tools to use.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

MS: Probably something like RepoMan or something culty like the Warriors. Or maybe Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels since it was such a game changer in how movies looked. I am often going back to watch Danny Boyle’s work. I truly believe he is the best populist filmmaker working right now. He isn’t scared of technology and he is keeping up with how people currently read images…. Currently I’m not interested in filmmakers that are referencing the past.

But when I am in a hotel room I like to watch something like Runaway Train.

MT: Where did you grow up? Did you always want to be a cinematographer?

MS: I grew up in Scarsdale, NY. It’s a suburb 30 mins from the city.

Most filmmakers have a romantic story about a super 8 camera etc… My history wasn’t like that. My eyes have always been super sensitive to light. I get migraines in the sun and I was always particular about lighting in rooms, even at a young age. I was strict about when a household light would be turned on and which ones. I also liked to boss my friends around…. These qualities probably lead me to my profession.

Around the age of 18 I wanted to go into filmmaking. I started out at Hampshire college but there wasn’t enough of a focus on commercial filmmaking, so I transferred to a school of visual arts and started to focus on cinematography.

Before that I wanted to be in a rock band…. But I didn’t like staying up late and carrying equipment. Little did I know that cinematographers stay up all night and have a heavy camera on there shoulder all the time!

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go towww.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Cinematographer Trent Opaloch (Captain America: Civil War)

Trent Opaloch is easily the most talented and sought after cinematographers in the world today. He has DP’d for director Neil Blomkamp  on “District 9”, “Elysium”, and “Chappie”,  and director’s Anthony & Joe Russo on “Captain America: Winter Soldier”, and the upcoming “Captain America: Civil War”. It was an honor to sit down with him to chat about his career and the art of cinematography.

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Mathew Toffolo: You first worked with director Neil Blomkamp on the short films “Tempbot” and “Yellow”. How did you two meet? What makes your director/DP relationship so successful?

Trent Opaloch: I met Neill shooting low budget music videos. We shot a handful of videos & short films while I was working at Clairmont (camera rental house) & he had just left a vfx house here in Vancouver.

He used to do all his own vfx work back then so it was really interesting to see the the whole process. That was all happening at a very exciting time for vfx where some pretty sophisticated tracking software was coming out and it really freed up the camera & made it possible to use that hand held energy with extremely realistic visual effects. It was great because it was the first time your imagination wasn’t limited by what you were able to build in reality. It opened up the possibilities for story telling and those shorts and small projects were a great training ground for the big vfx movies that we’re doing now. You can apply those same basic principals on a much larger canvas at bigger budget levels.

MT: You both leaped into the feature film world in the highly successful film “District 9”. How was the initial experience moving from shorts to features? Do you remember the initial cinematic design conversations you had with Neil about the film?

TO: It was a pretty easy transition for Neill & I to go shoot District 9. We had developed a good short hand over the years on the shorts and music videos so it was just a matter of doing our thing with a much larger crew. The challenge is to communicate with the crew so everyone is on the same page. That’s a different dynamic to how we would have worked on the smaller things with just a few people.

The way Neill described the film to me, and to this day this is the best pitch I’ve ever heard. He said imagine there was a documentary made by the NFB (National Film Board here in Canada) that was about these aliens landing in Johanessburg in the 80’s. And someone taped that documentary when it played on tv in the 80’s on a vhs tape and then threw that tape in a drawer for 20 years. And you come along and blow the dust off it & pop it into your retro vhs machine & press play. That was his pitch for District 9 and it instantly communicated everything you needed to get the film. Brilliant.

Now things changed in the process of course so it wasn’t as degraded an image as that. I actually wanted to shoot on 16mm with the NFB doccie esthetic in mind but Peter Jackson bought a boatload of RED ONE cameras so that was nipped in the bud.

PHOTO: Cinematography of the film DISTRICT 9:

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MT: What were your reactions to the success of “District 9”? It must have really changed your life and career path?

TO: Well it was pretty amazing to work on something that was so well received around the world. It was a difficult film to make in some pretty harsh environments but we had a great group of people on it. It sort of felt like there weren’t any ‘grown ups’ around to tell us what to do really. Neill had set things up so that were on our own to make the movie our own way which was pretty amazing when you think it was his first feature.

MT: What brought you to the Captain America movies? How is it to DP a film that has two directors?

TO: I’ve actually worked with directing duos quite a bit in commercials so it wasn’t that strange for me to step into that sort of thing for Winter Soldier. I got the call for the first meeting with Joe & Anthony Russo and I was really impressed with them and their approach and how they wanted the film to feel.

I actually don’t mind the director duo thing as long as they have their dynamic figured out between them. Different directing teams work in their own way that is specific to their combined personalities so you get different approaches. The fact that Joe & Anthony are brothers is great because they have this great bond between them that goes back decades and they’ve worked together on so many things in films & tv shows that they have a good system down.

MT: “The Winter Soldier” was an amazing comic book/action film. Even the Fanboys couldn’t help but give it ultimate praise. What were the broad strokes ideas you had with the Russo’s in terms of the cinematic life you gave the film? It was a different feel to the other Marvel films, but it still was a Marvel film. A fine line to balance one would assume!

TO: It’s funny because I never really planned on ever shooting anything like that but I loved the creative approach that the Russo’s had for the film. Our whole thing was to take the edge off the genre of it all by basing it in reality as much as we could. I really liked the idea of shooting the film like a 70’s conspiracy thriller to ground the whole thing a bit. We referenced films like “Marathon Man” & “The Three Days of The Condor” early in prep.

PHOTO: Chris Evans in Captain America: Winter Soldier:

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MT: You have a big film coming up in “Captain America: Civil War”. How were you experiences working on that film? Can you give us a sneak peak as to what to expect? It seems like all of the stars of the Marvel Universe are in this film!

TO: It was great to get back with the Russo’s and the team again for Civil War. We had just an amazing crew so that makes the whole experience so much better. The people around you are very important when you’re up against challenging situations. We shot quite a bit of our exteriors on the Pinewood backlot in Atlanta & the heat & humidity can be quite brutal.

On a movie of this size it’s assumed that everybody knows their jobs at this point so it really comes down to having a great attitude under pressure and being there together for the film.

We were also very fortunate to work with a great German crew in Berlin that made our transition over there very smooth.

There were a ton of actors on this film and that was actually quite challenging to shoot them all with their crazy schedules. The tough thing is that you can end up shooting someones close up in another country and weeks after you’ve shot the other side of the conversation so it’s always a challenge dealing with changing weather conditions etc. to maintain some cohesiveness to the scene.

I’m starting up prep on the new Infinity Wars films that we’re shooting back to back with the Russo’s later this year & the scale of those two films combined is a bit mind blowing so it’s good that these last two films have ramped up in terms of scale and complexity because each one prepares you for the next.

PHOTO: Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War:

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MT: How much of the Captain America films are storyboarded? Are you a part of that process in pre-production?

TO: These films are heavily boarded & pre-vised, far more than anything else I’ve ever done. The pre-vis process starts very early in the film’s development so that’s when you have to get in there to help start guiding the process along with the directors so that it fits in with what everyone is aiming for and what the production team is going to do on set.

The Marvel films are incredibly collaborative and that’s a huge part of their success I think. We have worked with the vfx supervisor Dan Deleeuw on these last two films and he is in charge of building the pre-vis sequences so that is an invaluable resource to start the discussion with the whole team before you get out there on the real-time clock burning production money.

MT: You have obviously mastered the cinematic artform of the intense action/thriller film. Is there another genre that you like to work in?

TO: I don’t have any specific genre goals as far as the types of films I’d like to work on really. I’m always just looking for scripts that I enjoy and that hopefully have something to add to what’s out there already. I shoot a lot of commercials in between film projects so I don’t mind turning down things & waiting until something interesting comes along. Feature films have such a long development period & then you’re away from home for most of the year prepping & shooting so you have to choose your projects carefully.

MT: What advantages/disadvantages do you think you have had starting in the short film/indy world in comparison to other DPs who worked through the Unions to become a cinematographer?

TO: The biggest thing I feel was missing from the early days was the opportunity to see how other cinematographers worked. That’s the nice thing about working your way up through the ranks. You’re in the front row watching how the big boys do it. I used to do set visits when I worked at the rental house & it was always cool to see the different lighting approaches or specific rigging that someone had done.

Also my step dad had a subscription to American Cinematographer so I had read every single page of every issue since I was 16 years old. That was invaluable, of course this was years before the internet and the behind the scenes special features on dvd’s & blu rays that we have now so that was the best way of seeing how things were done at the time.

I think the advantage of starting the way I did is that you’re doing what you want to do from the beginning so you start developing right away. The trap in working your way up through the different crew positions is that you can get trapped there. All of a sudden you’re 15 years into working sets and paying off a mortgage so it’s tough to make the leap & reimagine your career as a DP. I think if you want to do something than you should just start doing it at whatever level you can.

MT: Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?

TO: I don’t have one individual really but there are countless people that I learned from when I first started shooting. I started working at Clairmont Camera in Vancouver after film school so I was around professional camera crews full time & just tried to learn everything I could, just hoover up as much information as you can. Why that lens over this one, when to use a fluid head vs. wheels etc. Just tons of little details that you absorb over time. I think that was a great introduction to how things worked on set but at the same time I wasn’t that interested in working on tv shows or MOV’s at the time so I shot my own stuff or with friends on the weekends & was able to develop over time and make mistakes in a safe environment where there wasn’t a ton of money on the line.

MT: Where do you see the future of camera/lighting technology in film?

TO: Well it’s an exciting time as far as what’s out there already & what’s coming out. The camera technology just keep getting better every year and LED lighting is really coming into it’s own so it’s great to have options available to you to choose from the toolbox for different scenarios. I’ve really been enjoying running our lighting setups through DMX lighting consoles and media servers for the last couple of years. You just have almost infinite control over the quality and the dynamics of the light as far as movement and colour.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

TO: That’s a tough question. Probably “Blade Runner”, “Heat”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Jaws”, “Godfather 1&2”, “Stalker”, “The Conversation” “Apocalypse Now” all the classic iconic movies. There’s a ton more for sure. There are just some films that you come across on tv and it’s impossible to stop watching even if you’ve seen it a hundred times. My parents had “Das Boat” and “Fitzcarraldo” basically on infinite repeat in my house when I was young too which drove my sister and I crazy at the time.

MT: Where did you grow up? Did you always want to be a cinematographer?

TO: I was born and raised in a place called Thunder Bay in Ontario Canada. It’s quite a small town and I moved away for high school but went back to film school at Confederation College so it was great to be back in my home town, starting a new chapter of my life. I was more into music as a kid and played in different bands growing up so I never really thought of film as a career until my early 20’s when I went to film school.

My step dad was a nature cameraman when I was a kid so he took me out on his shoots and taught me how to load film and thread the camera etc. Of course it was more documentary work so there was no lighting at all but it was a good introduction to camera and sound equipment. I used to go into the post production offices where they cut his films and would see shots that we had taken cut into the edit so it was almost like pre-film school for me as a kid.

 

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Cinematographer Julio Macat (Home Alone, Wedding Crashers, The Boss)

What an honor it was to sit down with Director of Photography Julio Macat. Julio has DP’d most of the top comedy films in the last 25+ years. His list of credits include: Home Alone 1, 2 & 3, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,  The Nutty Professor, The Wedding Planner, Wedding Crashers, Winnie the Pooh, Pitch Perfect, and the upcoming comedy The Boss, starring Melissa McCarthy.

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Matthew Toffolo: You have worked in the Hollywood Film Industry scene for the last 36 years. What has been the biggest change in the filmmaking process from 1980 to present?

Julio Macat: The biggest change in our industry has been the choice of material that studios and most independent financing companies green light, as what films are made. It used to be that a film like ORDINARY PEOPLE would have no problem going forward, especially with a good director attached. Now, great films like that rarely get made anymore. I miss that.

MT: Of all the productions you’ve worked on, what film are you most proud of?

JM: Without hesitation it’s HOME ALONE, it was a rare combination of all the elements of film making coming together harmoniously with a result better than expected.

PHOTO: Cinematography in the film Home Alone:

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MT: Home Alone is one of the most successful films in movie history, and it’s a film that really stands the test of time. During filming, did you ever imagine that this film would be as iconic as it was?

JM: No I didn’t. My hope was that it would be liked as much as I liked A CHRISTMAS STORY and that kids could relate to and be empowered by it. But It’s unusual to sense that you are doing something that special because you are in a vacuum, trying to do the best you can in your department (the visuals) and just hope that everyone else had their act together as well…Fortunately our young director Chris Columbus, had a great vision of what “it could be” and he guided us all in a great direction. The film was that unique circumstance where every layer that was added made the film even better…and John Williams’ score was truly icing on the cake.

MT: You’ve definitely been a part of some of the most successful films in the last 25 years (Home Alone, Wedding Crashers, Pitch Perfect to name a few). Is there a film that you worked on that didn’t do well at the box office that you consider a terrific film that people should see?

JM: Yes In comedy, I loved MY FELLOW AMERICANS which came out at an odd time and no one saw and the drama CRAZY IN ALABAMA which was a bit too long and did not connect with American audiences.

PHOTO: Crazy in Alabama. Starring Melanie Griffith:

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MT: You just wrapped “The Boss” starring Melissa McCarthy, Peter Dinklage, and Kristen Bell. Can you give us a sneak peak as to what to expect?

JM: I have not been this excited about a comedy coming out since I photographed WEDDING CRASHERS!

JM: THE BOSS is the perfect vehicle to show Melissa McCarthy’s incredible talent. I think she is the present day Lucille Ball, someone who can and will do ANYTHING for a laugh and unlike other comedians, it’s ALWAYS really funny. She has the uncanny ability to step outside herself and correct situations to make them hilarious without being self conscious! There is a scene in which she puts on a teeth whitener to have Kristen Bell clean her teeth and holds a conversation while they are being cleaned. I assure you that this will have the people in theatres roaring with laughter! We had to start the scene again repeatedly, because the other actors and the crew could not stop laughing during the takes.

PHOTO: Melissa McCarthy in THE BOSS: 

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MT: Some of the comedies you work on the director demands the actors stick to the script, whereas other films, like Wedding Crashers, there is a lot of improvising occuring. Do you have a preference when shooting? How does the scene lighting setup change when you know the actors are going to go off script?

JM: It’s been my experience that comedy is an imperfect and individual science. The best results come when you leave an opening for great accidents to happen. So I try to not lock in actors with blocking that is too precise, and for example, if the scene develops into being filmed in an area that we had not anticipated, well, that then turns into a fun challenge!. Hopefully this adds to the piece. Ben Falcone and Melissa were eager to want overlaps in dialogue and action in some of our scenes, to be a part of the looseness of the jokes, so they asked that I cover these scenes with three angles simultaneously. It was challenging photographically, but the results were worth the effort and we got many “improvised “ moments with the proper intercut coverage.

MT: Since you started in the camera department, do you prefer operating the camera yourself? Or does this all depend on what type of film (budget/Union guidelines) you’re working on?

JM: I love operating the camera myself, and on some productions I prefer it.

But since I’ve now done 17 films with first time directors, lately, I find that all can go faster when I spend more time by the director’s side and away from the camera. I do love stunts, however, and I love operating on the tough shot …so that we get it in one.

MT: What’s the main thing you look for from your main crew members? Gaffer, Key Grip, Camera Operators etc…

JM: My most important criteria in choosing crew is PERSONALITY. After this many years in the film industry, I found that many people are qualified for the job description, not as many have the agreeable, kind and respectful personality that I require to be in my crew.

I like to be the example of being respectful to actors, directors, producers and other crew members. I expect my crew to do the same.

It’s amazing how much you can achieve with a hand picked crew that has a positive attitude and general kindness toward each other, I am always amazed at this, especially when we work under such tough circumstances that we often encounter. With this approach, when the pressure mounts with things like weather challenges, not enough time, locations changing, etc. etc. which by the way, are actually the daily obstacles of filming, one can rely on the crew to process it, deal with it professionally and find a solution with kindness achieving much better results.

MT: What do you look for in your working relationship with your director?

JM: A collaboration, Hopefully I look for this person to be someone who will do their homework, roll their sleeves up along with me and work as hard as I do.

I look for the director to be considerate of my craft and the elements I may need in order to help them realize their vision for the film And finally, maybe most importantly, a sense of humor.

MT: What movie, besides the ones you worked on, have you seen the most in your
life?

JM: It’s a three way tie: In this order though…

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
LOST IN AMERICA
JERRY MAGUIRE

Cheers
JULIO MACAT, ASC

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Cinematographer Adam Stone (Midnight Special, Take Shelter)

In his brief career, Adam Stone  has already established himself as one of the top DPs in the industry today. It was an honor to sit down with him to talk about his craft and the exciting films he has coming out in 2016. This weekend his film “Midnight Special” is being released to rave reviews.


adamstone3Matthew Toffolo: You have worked with director Jeff Nichols on many films. Where did you first meet? Why does your working relationship work so well? 

Adam Stone: Jeff and I worked on a total of 5 films (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special, and Loving). We met in film school at the UNC School of the Arts in the late nineties. I shot 2nd unit for a few of David Green’s early films (George Washington and All The Real Girls) and I guess Jeff liked what he saw. He asked me to come out to Arkansas to shoot Shotgun Stories in the summer of 2005. The project had absolutely no money but we convinced a core group of friends and family to crew-up and Joe Dunton Camera essentially gave us a Moviecam and some anamorphic lenses for free. We were fortunate to have talented people that believed in us. Without them the film would have never seen the light of day.

PHOTO: Cinematography for the film “Midnight Special”

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While working on Shotgun Stories, Jeff and I found we had quite a bit in common. Aesthetically we liked to shoot in the South against a backdrop of kudzu, rusted out cars and interesting characters. We also shared a love of widescreen cinema with simple, yet stately, camera work. We combined those ingredients into a form of southern cinema people seem to enjoy. We have definitely come along way since the days of Shotgun Stories. It has been a great evolution with a true friend and mentor.

MT: “Midnight Special” is set to hit the theatres this week. What can we expect to see?

AS: Midnight Special is a unique movie that’s kind of hard to categorize. It’s a genre bending mash-up of a road movie and sci-fi flick that pays homage to Perfect World, Starman, and Close Encounters. The movie starts without much explanation or backstory, all we know a man is on the run with his son. As the movie progresses we learn the boy has special powers and is dying. His father must keep him alive while the government and a religious sect are in pursuit. Despite all of the characters, themes, VFX events, and unanswered plot points the film is very simple. At the core, it’s a story about a father’s love for his son and how he will do anything to save his boy.

MT: Another film with Jeff, “Loving”, is also set to hit theaters in 2016. It’s set in the 1950s. When DPing period pieces, what type of research do you do? Was there another film(s) that was the inspiration to the cinematic design of the film?

AS: To be honest, Loving is the first period piece I’ve had the pleasure to shoot. Jeff’s script was based on a true story about a Supreme Court case so there was plenty of material to unearth. One of the greatest treasure troves was the work of Grey Villet. He was a super talented photographer that documented the story of Richard and Mildred Loving for Time Magazine in 1965. The pictures he took influenced the script, production design, costumes, and the cinematography.

I really fell in love with the objectiveness of Villet’s work. He always employed a wide lens so he really had to campout and wait for candid shots. Jeff and I adopted this technique and let a number of scenes play out in wide observational shots. We also recreated several of Villet’s photos in the movie. It was really cool to see his black and white work come to life in vibrant moving color. To be honest, Jeff and I had to get acclimated to dailies since we had been referencing Villet’s work for so long.

PHOTO: On set for the upcoming film “Loving”:

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MT: Do you have a favorite experience in your work as a Director of Photography? What film are you most proud of?

AS: Most of the projects I shoot, whether features or commercials, don’t ‘really’ contribute to the greater good of society.  They might be artful or compelling but they do not teach or enlighten. That’s why I’m proud to have worked on Loving.  Loving sheds light on an important part of history while telling a meaningful story.

I’m also proud how Loving looks. The camerawork is very simple and the lighting is very organic. My main goal was to let the cinematography be an afterthought.  I wanted the audience to pay full attention to the story, characters, and locations – not the camera.

MT: You have Dp’d a few documentary films. What is the general difference between the working on a documentary in comparison to regular narrative film?

AS: I have always had a deep fascination and love of documentary films. The cinematography of Ron Fricke and the still photography of Dan Eldon compelled me to get behind a camera in film school. At that point in life, I wanted nothing more than to travel the world and shoot amazing people and locations at golden hour (to be honest I still have that desire and wanderlust).

Production-wise documentary work and features are not too different. Both utilize similar equipment, call sheets, tons of planning, long hours, and figuring out a creative way to shoot the story. The biggest difference between the two is the time it takes to complete a documentary. Many docs enlist several shooters because of the length and sporadic nature of the schedule.

MT: What type of film would you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

AS: That’s a great question. I’d love to work on a film where the camera is constantly on the move and has the ability to effortlessly traverse every spatial plane. That approach totally goes against how I usually shoot a film where the camera is moored, grounded, and is always someone’s point of view. Seldom do I move a camera for the sake of moving a camera – I guess that’s why I have a fascination with moving it.

I believe my lust for camera movement is directly attributable to the amount of the Red Bull Channel I consume. I really love to veg-out and watch how they fly the camera. Fortunately, I might shoot a film this summer that begs for some fun full-throttle camera movement and I’d love to incorporate more techno crane and steadicam into the equation.

MT: What does a DP look for in a director?

AS: Before I take on a project I have to be intrigued by the script and most importantly believe in the director. The director is the captain of the ship and must have a clear vision and game plan to lead the film from its inception to the very end. Besides being a strong leader the director should be compassionate, open-minded, and have a sense of humor. If all these qualities align, I’m more than enthusiastic about taking on the project and working with the director.

MT: Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?

AS: I had a dear friend that was my cinematography teacher and mentor in film school. His name was Robert Collins and he really taught me to be a compassionate filmmaker. One of the biggest lessons I learned from him was to surround myself with good people on set. He always said the friends you make in film are more important than anything you shoot. I totally agree with his sage advice. Unfortunately, Robert passed away several years ago and he is deeply missed.

MT: What do you look for when hiring your main team? Gaffer. Key Grip. Camera Operator. Etc…

AS: I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work over and over with same core group of individuals.  The crew I work with are my best friends and co-creators. On occasion, when I hire a new member he/she must share the same attributes as the rest of the crew. He/she should be kind, artistic, hard working, honest, and most importantly soulful. It can also be noted, I rather hire someone that is green and enthusiastic over someone more experienced and jaded.

PHOTO: Adam and the camera department from the film “Midnight Special”

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MT: Where do you see the future of camera/lighting technology in film?

AS: Though I’m a proponent of celluloid I love where digital filmmaking is headed. Digital filmmaking has come a long way over the past decade. Camera sensors have gotten better and the lenses look more filmmatic and less clinical. I really admire films such as Revenant that use digital cinema in a smart way. Lubezki made a beautiful movie harnessing the best attributes of digital. He used great equipment (Alexa 65 and Panavision Master Primes), shot in amazing light that accentuates a digital sensor, and flew lightweight digital cameras. That coupled with jaw dropping landscapes, a simple story, and seamless VFX work made for a movie that really resonated with me. I truly love when movies use technology to advance a story instead of letting technology overtake the story.

Lighting has also come a long way in the past 10 years. LED, plasma lights, and iPad enabled dimmer boards have evolved and become onset staples. The ability to control all of the lights on set, whether on a stage or location, from a tablet is amazing. With just a few finger swipes you can audition lights (even dim and recalibrate the color temperature). This is a great timesaver when lighting a big exterior night scene.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

AS: I really don’t watch the films I shoot once they are released – since I see them so many times in post. I guess the two films I’ve seen the most is Some Like It Hot and Baraka. I have a weird ‘thing’ for old screwball comedies and I have always been obsessed with Baraka. I guess if I was stuck on a deserted island those would be my go to films.

PHOTO: Adam Stone at work: 

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Cinematographer Adam Kimmel (Capote, Lars and the Real Girl)

It was a great honor to sit down with the very talented DP Adam Kimmel. His career has spanned almost 30 years, starting out as a teenager being an apprentice for Cinematographer Michael Chapman.

His Cinematographer credits include: “The Ref”, “Beautiful Girls”, “Almost Heroes”, “Jesus’ Son”, “Capote”, “Lars and the Real Girl”, & “Never Let Me Go”.

Website: AdamKimmel-Cinematographer.com

adam_pic.jpgInterview with Adam Kimmel:

Matthew Toffolo: One of your first jobs was as a Camera Apprentice on the film “RAGING BULL”. How was were your experiences working on the iconic film? Were you like a sponge at the time, taking in everything around you?

Adam Kimmel: I was 18 when I trained on Raging Bull and it was my second film in that capacity so my experience and perspective were still pretty limited. So yes, of course I knew the work of both Martin Scorsese and Robert Deniro at that point, but also of Cinematographer Michael Chapman who had shot the first film I trained on, The Wanderers. One of my strongest memories of that experience and learning process came from watching Michael Chapman collaborating with Scorsese after watching him for 4 months with Phillip Kaufman on The Wanderers. I was amazed that the same man was doing the same work and yet it seemed so different, and I had this moment of insight Into what it takes to be a Cinematographer – I saw that you need to be as adaptive and versatile as you are creative and technical, and that each collaboration will be different and draw on different strengths and experiences.

There was also a real coin drop moment for me when many months after the film finished shooting, I saw it in the theater and was just completely crushed by the power of that experience. I had been there for every day of it, watching every moment as it was crafted and yet seeing the finished film I felt completely unprepared. The power that film making can have and the complexity and vision it takes to put all those pieces together in a way that can cause people to feel so much, became even more exciting and mysterious to me.

MT: Out of all the projects you’ve worked on, what film are you most proud of?

AK: Well I guess it’s like your own children, you can’t pick favorites, but when I consider the films I’ve shot, Capote, Jesus’ Son and Never Let Me Go are the projects that I’m most likely to recommend to someone that wants to see my work.

MT: Generally, how do you get hired to work on a film. You seem to always choose films about the human condition. Is this done on purpose, or is this also something that producers and directors know you’re very good at?

AK: Thanks for noticing and I’d love to think I’m known for that. but the truth is that past choices do lead people to think of you for certain projects.

Of the scripts I’m sent, I think that first I respond to stories that I understand in an emotional way. I’ve read scripts that I admire and know will be good films but feel I may not be the best choice for, and for me, beyond that it’s always about the director and their vision of the script. When those things add up, it’s an obvious choice.

MT: The film CAPOTE (2005) is a wonderful film. What were your initial conversations with director Bennett Miller on the overall cinematic design of the film? There were not many camera movements in the film. And very intense/sad shadows throughout.

AK: Well, the process of spending time with a director and a story allows you to find the language that’s right for them. Bennett and I talked about the honesty and integrity of the image, about not getting in the way of the story or letting any of the choices draw attention to themselves, but I think we arrived at the style of the film with equal parts creativity and practicality.

It needed to be an efficient shoot that allowed as much time and concentration with the actors as possible and for me the way to accomplish that was to plan as carefully as possible where we wanted to watch that story unfold from, and then trust those choices and not steal from ourselves by betting against them.

PHOTO: Cinematography in CAPOTE. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman would go onto win the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Truman Capote:

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MT: From CAPOTE, you moved onto DPing LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (2007). A completely different tone and feel, but similar themes. How was working on that film with director Craig Gillespie?

AK: Well Craig and I had been working together in commercials for a long time at that point and I loved the idea of making a film together, but I also saw the opportunity in telling that story with that cast. There was a purity and complexity in the script that I was really drawn to and since I knew I would never get to shoot a Hal Ashby film, I figured why not…?

PHOTO: Ryan Gosling in LARS AND THE REAL GIRL. Perhaps the most underrated film in the last 10 years. A film that will make you laugh and cry multiple times:  

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MT: You’ve worked on more than a few short films. What keeps enticing you to work on shorts? Do you like/love the medium?

AK: I think a good short film can be really powerful, I really haven’t done that many but I probably choose them the same way I do a full length film, but I do like having all the same elements concentrated into much less screen time. It’s a different challenge but it allows a lot of the same processes to take place. I shoot commercials for the same reason, it’s a different way to exercise creativity.

MT: What type of film would you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

AK: I never know what’s going to spark my interest so I really don’t have a checklist, I just want to be involved with projects that allow a clear point of view to tell the story and add something to the experience of life.

MT: What does a DP look for in its director?

AK: I think Curiosity is a great quality, as is having trust in the people they hire, the ability to share their questions and ideas,
and a sense of humor helps.

MT: What does a director look for in its DP?

AK: I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that, but I think a lot of the same things as the previous answer.

MT: Where do you see the future of camera/lighting technology in film?

AK: There are so many new toys coming out all the time now it can be daunting, but I like to approach the choices I make from a place of having a vision for where we’re headed and never allowing the equipment or technique to lead that. I always welcome lighter, smaller and more versatile tools and the freedom they afford us as filmakers, but in a way it puts even more importance on knowing where you want to go before you start making those choices.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

AK: I have to say I rarely watch films that I’ve shot, I bet most Cinematographers would say the same thing, by the time I finish a film I feel I know it really well, and then it becomes about other peoples experiences of it.

But other peoples films I can watch over and over, and I do.
Being There, The Thin Red Line, Beiutiful, The Godfather films, Children of Men, Midnight Cowboy, Straight time, The Conversation, The Great Beauty, The Master, The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, Sophie’s Choice, The Deer Hunter. Days of Heaven, Before Night Falls, Fat City, Wings of Desire…

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Cinematographer Checco Varese (The 33, Miracles From Heaven)

Chatting with Cinematographer Checco Varese on the phone for almost an hour inspired me. He brought so much passion to the way he talked about cinematography and creativity in general. He’s a man that obviously loves what he does.

To learn more about Checco, go to his website: www.checcovarese.com

checco_varese.jpgInterview with Checco Varese:

Matthew Toffolo: Tell us about “Miracles in Heaven”? How were your experiences working on the film?

Checco Varese: It’s a very beautiful movie. It’s more than a faith based movie. It’s really a spirituaul film. It was shot in Atlanta, Georgia – a fantastic experience.

MT: This is your 2nd film in a row that’s based on a true story. You want to tell a cinematic story of course, but I’m assuming you also want to keep the real experiences as accurate as possible. What is the process of making this type of movie?

CV: With true life experience movies, you’re always walking on this imaginary line that you never want to cross. You want to make it entertaining but also make sure it’s real. You have to pick your battles and make the most insightful film possible, but you also have to support what really happened and translate the real story. These are real people and you have respect that. That said, you still have to engage the audience and make it a movie experience. These are tough films but also very rewarding to do.

MT: “The 33” is a stunning film based on the true story of the miners trapped underground for 69 days. How did you come up with the cinematic design of showing the effects of the entrapment underground and making if feel real? How was your working relationship with director Patricia Riggen?

CV: This is my favorite movie. It’s a work of love. When someone asks me what my favorite film I’ve worked on was, I always say my last film. But I can’t say this anymore – “The 33” was the best experience. It was a physically, emotionally, and mentally hard movie to do.

We shot it in a real mine. The whole crew had to drive two and half miles to the set everyday. We were there 12 to 15 hours a day. It was brutal. The rules for a miner is that they can’t work in the mines for longer than 8 hours a day. We were practicially doubling that daily. Every single scene in that film was shot in a real mine.

The look is very specific. When I first read the script, Patricia (the director) told me that you have to find the language that reflects the movie. When preparing for a movie I always ask what painter or photographer best reflects this story.

PHOTO: Behind the Scenes on the film “The 33”:

33_behind_the_scenes

I looked at the Italian painter “Caravaggio” for inspiration. If you look at his work they are paintings of men suffering, and there is always a bay of light coming in from the distance. He makes things look beautiful, but also dramatic and spiritual.

We used the lights on the miners helmets to light the scenes and the actors. One Sunday before filming I went by myself and brought a few lights and did some measuring. I had 4 lights: a little light, a bigger light, a flashlight, and a miner light helmet. I did my work: testing, measuring distance etc… and decided to do one last thing.

I’ve never been in a mine before and I needed to understand the setting. So I turned off all of the lights and decided to sit alone in the dark for 45 minutes. After 10 minutes, I got very scared and ran out. But that’s when I realized what the minors were going through when they were trapped. Alone, underground, in the dark. It’s a frightening thing to experience and that’s when I found the language of the film.

MT: Your wife is director Patricia Riggen, the same director of “The 33”, and “Miracles from Heaven”. You have also worked with her on “Girl in Progress”, “Lemonade Mouth”, and “Under the Same Moon”. When does the husband/wife relationship start and stop, and when does the DP/Director relationship begin and end?

CV: We met working on set. The respect and then love started there. We do separate our relationship. That said, we do talk about work at home. I have to say, our personal relationship really helps our working relationship.

There are very few, almost none actually, director and cinematographer married couples, so we had nothing to compare it to. But we really make it work.

It works for me as a cinematographer because I’m aware of the film long before most DPs are. Most cinematographers join the film 6 weeks before filming begins. I am fortunate enough to know about the film months, and sometimes years beforehand. So I’m already preparing mentally for the film. That’s a big advantage I have.

That is gwhat happens in many famous creative relationships. You are working on a project for a long time. It’s a marriage of convenience on a creative level. It’s very rare, but amazing.

You do have to separate things at home and not talk about the work. It’s broken sometimes, usually by me, but when one of us doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, we just say stop and move on.

PHOTO: Checco and Patricia work together on set on “The 33”:

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MT: What is a Cinematographer looking for in their Director?

CV: The main thing you like to have is a director with a strong opinion on their vision for the film. We are the painters and they are the storytellers.

If they have a vision, then there is a good collaboration. They also need to let the DP do their job. If they don’t, then it becomes a difficult shoot.

MT: You were the Director of Photographer: b camera on Pacific Rim? What does that mean being the “b camera” DP?

CV: I was the 2nd Unit DP, but the director Guillermo del Toro also was the 2nd Unit director. Union rules don’t allow the main director to also be the 2nd Unit director, so I was called the b camera DP. Guillermo has a strong vision so he wanted to direct even the 2nd Unit sequences.

He was working on both units simultaneously. His energy is unparalleled. I don’t know anybody who’s like him. A bundle of emotion. We would have two sets going on the same day and he would jump from set to set and direct the scenes. He would work through lunch and 15-18 hour days.

MT: You’ve started as a camera assistant as for a news program, what brought you to working on films?

CV: I began as a camera war correspondant. We would shoot in some very dangerous situations. I never really wanted this world and was lucky to get out of it. I took a steadicam course and that became my profession. I got lucky landing a job after someone else backed out. The rest is history.

MT: What makes a great steadicam operator? When was the last time you performed the steadicam?

CV: The camera should not move, unless it’s necessary for the story. One of the most difficult things about being a steadicam operator is that it’s the beginning of a shot or scene. It’s difficult to start a shot and end a shot, anyone can start in the middle of a scene.

It’s like riding a bike. I haven’t done it in years. I surround myself with great steadicam operators, so I don’t have to do it anymore.

When it comes to hand-held shots, I always take those shots. I was a camera operator for the news, so I’ve done these shots thousands of times.

MT: Where do you see the future of cinematography in film heading from an artistic and practical standpoint?

CV: This is a two part question. We’re still trying to define the movie language of the 21st century. We don’t know what it is yet. It will probably take about 10-15 years to figure that out. And then another 10-15 to define it.

In our craft, yes, things have developed….a lot. None of this change has been the choice of the painter. The change is based on what the movie industry wants. So you have to go with it.

The worst thing a cinematographer can do is get caught up in the technology. It’s not about the tools – it’s about what story you’re trying to tell.

Initially pianos were only made for specific people, then eventually pianos became accessible to everybody. Just like cameras etc.. were only used by a specific amount of people, and now everyone has one. In today’s world, eventually a Mozart will emerge, and that is amazing. A 12-13 year old kid who makes a masterpiece of a movie. 3% of YouTube videos are fascinating. 97% is unwatchable. That’s the process.

People have a tendancy to talk about technology too much. They try to overwhelm you with tech-gargle. You can’t get caught up in this. It’s all about the result.

It’s easier to worry about the tools. It’s hard to really talk about your skills and talent. What you are capable of. The tools will only take you so far. Technology will always have its limits.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

CV: Lawrence of Arabia. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Battle of Algiers. Die Hard. I like to watch those 1980s action flicks.

MT: So, if I’m reading between the lines, it seems like you want to DP an action movie some day?

CV: Of course. Action movies are armies. 17 cameras and 17 camera crews on a single day on set. DPing an action movie is broad strokes. Large canvasses. It’s like being a foreman on a construction site. All kinds of tools and machines to make a great building. And a lot of skilled people who are good at performing those tools and machines.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.