Interview with Cinematographer Jeff Cutter (10 Cloverfield Lane)

Chatting with Jeff Cutter about Cinematography and his career could have lasted all day. I generally like to limit the questions to about 10-15 when I do these film interviews because these are very busy people and generally less is more. With Jeff, I literally could have asked him 100s of questions as we were just scratching the surface. This is one of my favorite interviews to date. A must read for anyone working or wanting to work in the industry.

Jeff’s cinematography credits include “Gridiron Gang”, “Catch .44”, “Yellow”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “Playing It Cool”, and “10 Cloverfield Lane”

Matthew Toffolo: “10 Cloverfield Lane” is set to hit the theatres this week. Can you give us a sneak peak as to what to expect? How was your experience working on the film?

Jeff Cutter: Expect a taut, tense psychological thriller with 1 or 2 big surprises. I had a great time working on the film as we had a wonderful director in Dan Trachtenberg and an extremely supportive production company in Bad Robot. It was a relatively small budget, and had challenges as a result, but since it is mostly a very contained script we could maximize the resources we had.

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

Jeff: I am most proud of my latest film, 10 Cloverfield Lane, because the photography is very close to what I had hoped we could achieve, and in some scenes, better than I hoped. My favorite experience was receiving an email from JJ Abrams about 2 weeks into principal photography, telling me how great he thought everything looked.

PHOTO: Still Shot from 10 Cloverfield Lane.  Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.. Director: Dan Trachtenberg

10-cloverfield-lane-image-1.jpg

Matthew: You have DP’d many music videos. Is this something that you’ll continue to do? Do music videos give you a lot more creative freedom to explore being it’s generally an experimental type of story being told?

Jeff: I haven’t shot a music video for almost 10 years now, which makes me feel very old! Budgets have shrunk dramatically from the heyday of music videos when I started. Back in the late 90’s and early 00’s, music videos gave you so much freedom to explore, but also the funds with which to do it. So almost any crazy idea a director came up with, you could go and do. Traditional narrative tools, like lighting continuity, or realistic lighting sources, get thrown out the window. But creative freedom doesn’t always lead to good work.

Experimenting will inevitably also lead to some very bad work as well!

Matthew: What is the key difference when working on a horror film (Orphan, Nightmare/Elm Street) in comparison to doing a straight up drama (Yellow)?

Jeff: When working on a horror film, it needs to be, first and foremost, scary. So much of the camera work and lighting is dedicated to creating/enhancing the suspense and scares. When filming a drama, you use the camera and lighting to support the narrative story.

Matthew: “Orphan” is an amazingly photographed film. It really sets the mood, tone, and themes of this film and is truly a masterful job from a cinematic level. It executes and then heightens the story to a new level. How was your collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra?

Jeff: Jaume was an extremely well planned and thoughtful director. For him, setting the overall mood was the number one priority of the camera and lighting. We watched many classic thriller and horror films, as well as less conventional ones, and discussed the feeling that Jaume was looking for in the movie. Then we mapped out the shots and techniques that would help create this feeling.

PHOTO: Still Shot from Orphan. Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

orphan2009.jpg

Matthew: What type of film would you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet? Is there a shot/set-up that you’ve thought of already that you love to do in a film if it fits the story?

Jeff: I am prepping a comedy right now, and it’s my first one. It’s not that I necessarily love comedies or was dying to shoot one, but I do like the challenge of trying a new genre. If you don’t constantly challenge yourself, I believe your creative juices will stop flowing and you become complacent, and no good work comes from complacency. Whenever I shoot a film, regardless of genre, my goal is to create a film that looks different from what people expect it to. I’m not looking to do the typical, predictable thing. Of course, sometimes this results in failure, but nothing great comes from playing it safe.

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

Jeff: I first and foremost look to the director for a vision of the film. When I first read a script, certain broad ideas come into my head, and then when you meet with the director, you hope those basic premises line up with what the director had in mind. Then a good director will guide you into the more specific direction he wants the film to go in terms of lighting, mood and camera work. A good director will challenge you to not settle for less than great work. A good director will pull you back when you’ve gone too far and push you when you’re being too safe. A good director will also listen to you when you know you are absolutely right and they’ve gotten something wrong! These are all the things I look for in a director.

Matthew: Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?

Jeff: I don’t have a DP mentor as such, but I do have many cinematographers who’s work I admire and reference, and whom I hope someday to be half as good as if I am lucky. Working greats like Roger Deakins, Emanuel Lubezki and Bob Richardson along with geniuses no longer with us like Conrad Hall, Jordan Croneweth and Harris Savides.

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

Jeff: I look for guys who are confident in their abilities, unfazed by last minute changes and complications, willing to contribute ideas but not be upset when they are shot down, and last but not least, pleasant to be around. When you spend 6 and 7 days a week with someone for three or four months it’s much easier when you like them!

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

Jeff: In the future cameras will continue to get smaller while packing an even larger punch. And LEDs are the future for lighting. Eventually everything will be based around LEDs as they are fully dimmable, there is access to the entire color spectrum, they are light weight, can be customized into any configuration you want, and are extremely energy efficient.

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

Jeff: There are a handful of films that I have watched multiple times because the film making is of the highest order, and they are for me examples of perfect photography. These include “Apocolypse Now”, “Angel Heart”, “Jacob’s Ladder”, “Blade Runner” and “Seven” to name a few.

Matthew: What suggestions would you have for people in high school and university who would like to get into the industry as an editor?

Jeff: My suggestions to students interested in getting into cinematography: Watch and re-watch as many great-looking movies as you can, and any movies by the great cinematographers. Find what you like, then go out and shoot as much as you can as often as you can, and start experimenting. Make friends with as many people as you can and start building a reel.

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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.
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Interview with Cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Neon Demon, The Rover)

Natasha Braier is a Director of Photography on the rise. Her list of credits is already impressive, but 2016 could be her banner year. She is set to film “American Express”, directed by Nash Edgerton and starring Charlize Theron. Her film, “The Neon Demon”, will be coming out later this year. It stars Keanu Reeves & Elle Fanning, and is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Bronson).

For more information, go to: http://www.natashabraier.com/

It was an honor to sit down with the Cinematographer:

Matthew Toffolo: Tell us about THE NEON DEMON. What should we expect to see? Nicolas is a very visual filmmaker – shows more than tells. How was your working relationship with the director?

Natasha Braier: I think working with Nicolas Winding Refn is a gift for any cinematographer, because he is interested in visual story telling, in poetry, in suggesting rather than narrating. He doesn’t care about the conventional established representational mode of film story telling, he goes beyond, and for me thats what always been exiting in film making. I always tend to look for directors that are working in this direction, but Nic is probably the most extreme of them, and that’s what I love about him. He pushes me to get the bravest part of myself, to jump the abyss, he doesn’t care if we fall and crash while trying, he would rather try and fail than to stay in a safe territory. So, I love jumping with him, and most of the time, we don’t fall but we fly.

PHOTO: Elle Fanning in “The Neon Demon”

neon_demon.jpg

Matthew: You are set to DP the feature film AMERICAN EXPRESS, directed by Nash Edgerton. We showed Nash’s last short film at our festival last year. Lots of camera movement while showcasing the production design to give multiple feels and emotions to the viewer. How is your experiences in prep been so far?

Natasha: We are having a great time in prep, we start shooting tomorrow. Its very interesting that you mention about his camera movement because I love how Nash moves the camera and that’s one of the things that attract me of his work. Together with his sense of humor and his sensibility.

Matthew: After a string of successful short films, you jumped to features in 2005. How did you obtain your first feature film job? What has been the biggest thing you’ve learned as a DP in the last 11 years?

Natasha: My first film GLUE was directed by my then husband, Alexis Dos Santos.

He won a 30K development grant in Rotterdam and we shot the movie with that money plus another 15 I made on a car commercial. Glue won in Rotterdam and showed in more than 20 film festivals, Lucia Puenzo called me to do XXY after seeing Glue, so did Claudia Llosa for The Milk of Sorrow. So, that’s how it all got started.

Matthew: You still like to DP short films from time to time. What keeps inticing you to work on shorts? Do you like/love the medium?

Natasha: I shot a few in the last few years, Loxoro for my friend Claudia Llosa who I shot “Milk of Sorrow” with. I shot “Swimmer” as I admired director Lynne Ramsay who after that collaboration because a great friend. And a short film for Zegna with director Park (Chan Wook) another big hero of mine, whom I had never dreamed I would have the chance to work with. If these amazing directors are doing shorts, sure, I love shooting shorts with them. Also, short films are a format that allow for more experimentation, more poetry and freedom.

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

Natasha: I would love to work with Leos Carax. And I would love to do science fiction. I guess it would be dark, arty science fiction ha .

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

Natasha: Someone you respect as an artist and as a human. Someone who has something to say that I relate to and I feel I wanna help express with the tools of cinematography.

Matthew: What does a director for for in its DP?

Natasha: I guess that depends on the director.

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

Natasha: I look for the best technical expertise, an artistic eye and sensibility that resonates with mine, a passionate love for film making, and personalities I would like to have around for months.

You are creating a family that will support you not only technically but also emotionally, so the human aspect is as important as the technical one.

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

Natasha: I’m very sad to see film disappearing and I feel is our responsibility to keep fighting to keep it alive and to have the option to choose what’s the best format for each project.

PHOTO: Natasha on Set of the film “The Rover”:

natasha_on_set_the_rover.jpg

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

Natasha: Mauvais Sang, Leos Carax. I’ve seen it so many times I can probably draw it frame by frame.

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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 Mitesh Mirchandani (NEERJA)

Mitesh Mirchandani is a rising cinematographer in the industry who is currently based in based in Mumbai. Only 26, he DP’d the feature film Neerja, which could be the sleeper hit movie of 2016. From here on out, his future is bright.

www.miteshdop.com/

Interview with Mitesh Mirchandani:

Matthew Toffolo:  How is the film scene in India? What do North American audiences need to know about the films your country produces?

Mitesh Mirchandani: There are lots of films being made on a regular basis. Various different genre’s. Lots of interesting and original content coming your way. Indian cinema its not about song and dance anymore. Lots of the films being made in our country tap into the human emotion. So there’s an instant connect.

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

 Mitesh: The film currently in cinemas titled “NEERJA”.

Matthew:   Generally, how do you get hired to work on a film? You have worked on many different types of films, from light comedy to intense thrillers. Your range is wide and long.

Mitesh: We have a very few agents here in India. So we get direct calls from production houses asking about our availability. Yes I particularly don’t want to stick to a similar kind of film. I feel to explore all genres

Matthew:   The film NEEJA (2016) is a wonderful film that is just coming out in North America and I hope many people get to see it. What were you initial conversations with director Ram Madhvani on the overall cinematic design of the film? The film feels so real.

Mitesh: I must insist people go watch it, it’s really an amazing film not because I’m a part of it but its truly something you shouldn’t miss. A lot of the approach came from the director: No lights. No marks for the actors. 360 degree shooting. All handheld. Just capturing the moment rather than staging it. Long takes following the actors. We call this the “Indian Eye”. With a lot of clutter and ciaos visual cacophony.

We didn’t want to light the film and wanted it to be very natural. I did not use any lights and even the aircraft has only the existing lights – bulbs and tubelights. I lit the plane like a normal plane is lit. I spent a lot of time with the production designer figuring out where and how we could add practical lights everywhere.

PHOTO: Still shot from the film NEERJA:

neerja_2

Matthew:  You’ve worked on a lot of short films. What keeps inticing you to work on shorts? Do you like/love the medium?

Mitesh: Honestly any medium to tell a story. Be it a commercial a short of a feature. I enjoy all of it.

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

Mitesh: I think I’d love to shoot a si-fi, and maybe a drama/crime Mystery.

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

 Mitesh: A collaborator, someone with a vision. Someone they can get along with.

Matthew: What does a director for for in its DP?

Mitesh: I think someone who understands their vision and can add something of their own to the project. Enhancing the director’s vision in a positive way.

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

Mitesh: I think smaller and faster cameras. Similarly with lighting smaller more compact setups as the sensitivity of the cameras is increasing.

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

Shawshank redemption.

In recent times – Rush.

Both of cinematographers I completely look up to.

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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.

LENSES & FILTERS. How to get the best shots in filmmaking

LENSES & FILTERS
FILMMAKING NOTES

Cinematography is the art of manipulating light and shadow, and capturing it as a moving image.

CINEMATOGRAPHY – SHOTS AND CAMERA ANGLES

QUESTIONS TO ASK:
-What is the best viewpoint for filming this position of the event?
-How much area should be included in this shot?

SCENE defines the place or setting where the action is laid
SHOT defines a continuous view filmed by one camera without
interruption

SEQUENCE A series of scenes or shots complete in itself.

TYPES OF CAMERA ANGLES
OBJECTIVE – The audience point of view
SUBJECTIVE – The camera acts as the viewers eyes-movement
POINT OF VIEW – What the character is seeing

CAMERA ANGLES – Are the most important factor in producing illusion of scenic depth. Which angle the object is photographed.

FIVE BASIC ANGLES

EYE LEVEL SHOTS – Provide frames or reference. Audiences sees the event as if in the scene. Most scenes in movies are photographed from eye level. 5 to 6 feet off the ground. Capturing the clearest view of an object.
-Treating your characters as equals. Discourages viewers at judging them and permits audience to make up their own minds.

BIRDS EYE VIEW – Photographing a scene from DIRECTLY OVERHEAD. Hovers from above like all powerful gods. Idea of fate.

HIGH ANGLED SHOTS – Camera is tilted downward. Movement is slowed down. A person seems harmless and insignificant photographed from above.
– The higher the angle, the more it tends to imply fatality

-Heightens the importance of a subject. Scenes depicting heroism

OBLIQUE ANGLE – Lateral tilt of the camera. As though the object is about to fall to one side. POINT OF VIEW SHOTS.
-Suggests tensions, transitions, impending movement
IMAGE THAT SLANTS TO THE RIGHT – Acting forceful
IMAGE THAT SLANTS TO THE LEFT – Weak, static

ASK YOURSELF
-How much should be included in this shot?
-Where should the camera be positioned to view this particular part of the action?
A shot should be held no longer than required to make its point.

Approach each sequence with a fresh attitude and strive to treat the action in an individual matter.

A definite change in camera angles will assure a smoother flow of images.

“And later I thought, I can’t think how anyone can become a director without learning the craft of cinematography.”
– Nicolas Roeg

SIX BASIC SHOTS

1) Extreme Long Shot – Taken at a great distance. Almost always an exterior shot and shows much of the locale. Establishing shots usually
2) Long Shot – The distance between the audience and the stage in the live theater
3) Full Shot – Barely including the whole body
4) Medium Shot – Knees to waste up. Useful for exposition scenes, carrying movement and for dialogue
5) Close-Up – Concentrates on a relatively small object. HUMAN FACE
6) Extreme Close-Up – Might just show eyes or mouth

CLOSEUPS
-Are among the most powerful storytelling devices available to the filmmaker
-Allows removal of tedious or repetitious action
-Can be used to provide a time lapse
-Bring that dramatic punch

FRAMES
-Area near the top of the frame can suggest ideas dealing with power, authority and aspiration
-Left and right edges of the frame can suggest insignificance

DOMINANT CONTRAST – Area that immediately attracts our attention because of a conspicuous and compelling contrast

SUBSIDARY CONTRAST – Structured image so that specific images are followed in sequence. Whatever character or object that is most dramatically important will assume dominance.

The HUMAN EYE scans pictures from left to right

HORIZONTAL LINES – Move from left to right
VERTICAL LINES – Move from top to bottom
DIAGONAL OR OBLIQUE LINES tend to sweep upward
TERRITORIAL SPACE – movie images must tell a story in time. A story that involves human beings and their problems.
THREE VISUAL PLACES – MIDGROUND, FOREGROUND, BACKGROUND

SPACE is one of the principal mediums of communication in film

Dominant characters are almost always given more space to occupy than others are.

You can define, adjust and redefine human relationships by exploiting spatial conventions

ACTOR CAN BE PHOTOGRAPHED IN FIVE BASIC POSITIONS
1) Full Front – Facing the camera
2) Quarter turn
3) PROFILE – looking off frame, left to right
4) Three quarter turn
5) Back to Camera

FULL FRONT – Most intimate, vulnerabilities exposed-Audience agrees to become their chosen confidante.

QUARTER TURN – Involves a high degree of intimacy but with less emotional involvements

PROFILE – More remote.
-Character lost in their own thoughts.

THREE QUARTER TURN – More anonymous. Rejecting audiences

BACK TO CAMERA – Characters alienation from the world. Sense of concealment, mystery.

TIGHTLY FRAMED SHOTS – Confined

LOOSLY FRAMED SHOTS – Freedom

PROXEMIC PATTERNS – Climax, noise level and the degree of light all tend to alter the space between individuals

1) INTIMATE – Eighteen inches away. Distance of LOVE, COMFORT, TENDERNESS between individuals

2) PERSONAL – Eighteen inches to about four feet away. Reserved for friends and acquaintances

3) SOCIAL – Four feet to about twelve feet away. Business and casual social gatherings

4) PUBLIC – Twelve to about twenty feet away.

ANALYSIS OF ANY GIVEN SHOT – TWELVE ELEMENTS

1) SHOT AND CAMERA PROXEMICS
-What type of shot is it? How far away from the action is the camera?

2) ANGLE
-Are we looking up or down on the subject, or is the camera neutral?

3) LENS and/or FILTER
-How do these distort or comment on the photographed materials?

4) LIGHTING STYLE
-High or low key lighting? High contrast? Some combination of these?

5) DOMINANT
-Where is our eye attracted first?

6) SUBSIDIARIES
-Where does our eye travel after taking in the dominant?

7) COMPOSITION
-How is the two-dimensional space segmented and organized? What is the underlying design?

8) FORM
-Open or closed? Does the image suggest a window that arbitrarily isolates a fragment of the scene? How are the visual elements carefully arranged and held in balance?

9) FRAMING
-Tight or loose? Do the characters have room to move around in, or can they move freely?

10) DEPTH
-On how many planes is the image composed? What do we see in the background?

11) STAGING PROBLEMS
-Which way do the characters look from the camera?

12) CHARACTER PROXEMICS
-How much space is there between the characters?

MOVEMENT IS NOT SIMPLY A MATTER OF WHAT HAPPENS, BUT HOW THINGS HAPPEN.

The OBSERVER has to be the CAMERA and it needs to know where it s going.

THE VALUE OF A SHOT ALWAYS DEPENDS ON A NARRATIVE.

” You make the movie through the cinematography – it sounds quite a simple idea, but it was like a huge revelation to me.”
– Nicolas Roeg

THE PRINCIPLES OF PERSPECTIVE

-Finding the right points of the sequence and getting to tell the best narrative story

AESTHETIC DISTANCE – Phrase used to describe the degree to which a work or art manipulates the viewer

FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW – Sees events through the eyes of the character

THIRD PERSON POINT OF VIEW – Presents action as seen by an ideal observer

OMNISCIENT POINT OF VIEW – Having to know what the character is thinking. Requires a type of narration, voice-over or graphics

PAN SHOT, Used to:
-Include space greater than can be viewed through a fixed frame
-Follow action as it moves
-Connect two or more points of interest graphically
-Connect of imply a logical connection between two or more subjects

“Cinematography is infinite in its possibilities… much more so than music or language.
– Conrad Hall

CRANE SHOT
-Inherently majestic and holds our interest regardless of the subject because of the sheer physical pleasure of the move
-Permits us to feel the dimensions of the world by penetrating space, further endorsing its reality through the illusion of depth
-Eats up time on the set
-Careful planning and preparation is vital

TRACKING SHOT
-Used to follow a subject or explore space
-A dolly moves towards a subjects face can be used to emphasize a character’s moment of realization. A dolly always tends to isolate the subject as well

TRIPOD SHOTS
-Usually is used only in stable and relatively predictable shooting situations
-Makes very controlled transitions from subject to subject possible
-Makes very controlled image transitions possible
-Makes stable close-ups possible at the telephoto end of the zoom lens
-Conveys the cool, assured view

HANDHELD SHOTS
-Can react to events, much as we do in life
-Implies a spontaneous event driven quest
-Conveys a subjective, even vulnerable point of view

****

Submit your Film, Screenplay, Novel, Story, or Poem anytime to the festival today: http://www.wildsound.ca

Watch recent Writing Festival Videos. At least 15 winning videos a month:http://www.wildsoundfestival.com

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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.

Cinematography Interviews and Production Notes

Read the best of Director of Photography interviews and Cinematography notes from the to people working in the industry today: 

Interview with Cinematographer Chad Griepentrog (The Bachelor Reality TV Series)

https://matthewtoffolo.com/2016/02/17/interview-with-cinemtographer-chad-griepentrog-the-bachelor-reality-tv-series/

Interview with Cinematographer Albert Arthur (Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad)

https://matthewtoffolo.com/2016/02/16/interview-with-cinematographer-albert-arthur-better-call-saul-breaking-bad/

Notes on CINEMATOGRAPHY – SHOTS AND CAMERA ANGLES

https://matthewtoffolo.com/2015/06/01/notes-on-cinematography-shots-and-camera-angles/

Photography in Film. The art of Cinematography

https://matthewtoffolo.com/2015/05/14/photography-in-film-the-art-of-cinematography/

Interview with Harrison Norris, Director of the award winning film “A PEACEFUL MAN”

https://matthewtoffolo.com/2015/11/10/interview-with-harrison-norris-director-of-the-award-winning-film-a-peaceful-man/

Interview with director James Hartley (TWISTED)

https://matthewtoffolo.com/2015/12/08/interview-with-director-james-hartley-twisted/

Interview with Cinematographer Chad Griepentrog (The Bachelor Reality TV Series)

It was a blast sitting down with the Director of the Photographer of the hottest show on television: “The Bachelor”. Chad Griepentrog reveals a lot of funny behind the scenes moments, including shooting in the “fantasy suites” and trying to hold back his laughter with his fellow camera-operators so the shot isn’t ruined. Shooting reality television is a very difficult job. Enjoy the interview: 

Matthew Toffolo: What is your job as the cinematographer on a Reality TV Show set? From being in studio to on location?

Chad Griepentrog: My job is to basically try to make chaos look as good as possible without slowing down the production schedule or disrupting the cast. For the most part, reality shows are produced fast and cheap. Every shoot day is packed with locations and content that must be captured. The story is created through the actions of the cast members, so the mentality is to “shoot everything and the story will expose itself”. There can be several camera operators on the set at one time, in which case I’d be in charge of making sure everyone has the same camera settings, filters etc. The DP is also the sounding board for the camera department. The director or producers can come straight to me with questions or requests. If a show allows for lighting and art setups (like The Bachelor), I’ll get to scout locations before we start the season. During the scouts, I’ll make note of what looks best and at what time of day, the power available at that location, the limitations for gear load in, what we need to bring in as far as furniture or set dressing, what lights we will be needing and how to rig them, what we need as far as generators or big lifts for lighting, what camera extras we can employ (long lenses, GoPros, sliders, slow motion, etc.) and so on. On the day of the shoot, I’ll need to light areas for the cast depending on what the activities are. Usually it’s nighttime parties or romantic dates. Since content is king, I have to “walk away” once cast arrives. This means that once the cast sits in, I cant stop everything to run in and adjust a light or move a fork on the table that’s reflecting into someone’s eyes. You also have to light and dress for wide shots and close-ups at the same time. Oftentimes, the cameras will need to see 360 degrees, so there’s nowhere to hide anything like light stands or grip gear. It’s challenging for sure. And time is always a huge hurdle. There’s never enough! We always set up in broad daylight and the cast arrives right around sunset or soon after. This means that you have to prepare everything as best you can during the day, and once it gets dark, do the final touches and set levels as fast as humanly possible. Also, these are real people- not actors. The cast has to feel at ease- you can’t blast them with bright lights. They can’t possibly fall in love with one another with a camera operator breathing down their necks. So besides dressing and lighting in a way that lets the cast feel at ease, we play further back and wear dark clothes and keep equipment tucked away. You have to plan on people not landing where you want them to, or sitting super awkward and not falling into the proper lighting. Of course, I don’t do this all on my own. I work closely with the set dressers from the art department and the gaffer from the electrical department. Collaboration is the name of the game in TV and film.

PHOTO: The Bachelorette and her men inside the mansion:

the_bachelor_art_direction.jpg

Every show is a little bit different in what they ask of the DP. Most shows will have the DP shoot a little, but spend the majority of his/her time working on lighting or setting up scenes, or even doing B roll. -While oftentimes the smaller, lower budget shows might have the DP shooting everything. I’ve DP’d episodes of “Intervention” where I’m literally shooting all day. My job at that point falls into getting the best coverage I can to best tell the story and to give the editors the shots they need to cut together a story. It’s all about being flexible and telling the story with what you have- i.e. available light.

Matthew: You started off an a camera assistant on Fear Factor 15 years ago and have moved all the way up to being the cinematographer on one of the most popular television shows today in The Bachelor. What is the bigget thing you’ve learned climbing up the ladder of success?

Chad: Even before AC-ing, I started a couple years prior as an extra (background actor), then found a few jobs as a production assistant on super low budget movies…so I started at the very bottom. The biggest thing I’ve learned since getting into the business is the importance of having a good attitude. Having a successful career in this industry is extremely rewarding, but not easily attained. You’ll work insane hours for low pay, eat awful food, take direction from people who sometimes have no idea what they’re doing, you’ll work in horrible locations, sleep in terrifying places, miss holidays and family functions and so on. But if you can do all of this with a smile on your face, directors, producers and production managers will notice. Good attitudes are contagious to other crew members. Good attitudes will help you through the “dry spells”, where there doesn’t seem to be any work at all out there. Good attitudes will help you build a network and enable you to get on the jobs you’re most interested in working. Also, the ability to get along with others is extremely important. There’s always someone better than you, so having a chip on your shoulder doesn’t do you any good. Be humble. Let people do their jobs and respect them and their departments. Everyone is here for the same reason- because none of us could survive in an office!

Matthew: What is the craziest or zaniness show you’ve work on?

Chad: I’d have to say it was “The Joe Schmo Show”. That was insane! If you haven’t seen it, it’s a show where every cast member is actually an actor or actress and there’s only one “real” person, who has no idea what’s going on. Basically, it’s an entire show where the same person is being punked the whole time. It was hilarious and so over the top. You learn a lot about people while shooting “reality”. But every show is a little nuts if you think about it. The very first day of Fear Factor had people eating sheep eyeballs in a barn in front of live sheep! We broke for lunch right after and Joe Rogan was behind me in line and said “well, it’s been fun- but this show’s not going anywhere”. It ended up being the biggest show on NBC! Or Survivor, where people would starve until the day where they had a food auction. People were eating chocolate Sundays and cheeseburgers after existing on rice for a month. Right after, they all puked and had diarrhea about 10 feet away. Or on “Superstar USA”, where there was a singing competition, but the judges led on the worst singers to think they were the best. And so on…

PHOTO: The Joe Schmo TV Show:

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Matthew: Do the reality stars eventually forget that the camera is even there, or are most always aware that someone is recording them?

Chad: Usually- or let’s just say they get comfortable with them. Even more, they forget about the microphones they wear. Just look at the documentary “The Jinx”, where Robert Durst slipped up and confessed to the murders while he was alone in the bathroom- but still mic’d. But people do forget about the cameras. Sometimes it takes a while. It helps when the cast and crew don’t interact. People seem to be more distracted by the operator than the camera. On some shows it’s forbidden for camera operators to talk to the cast at all- we are invisible. There are also tricks we do to lead people to believe that we’re not filming. We know a lot of those, but it’s a secret!

Matthew: How many camera operators are there on a typical day on set for The Bachelor? How many hours of video is logged each day typically?

Chad: On “Bachelor”/ “Bachelorette” the number of crews dwindle as does the cast throughout the season. Night one (when the limos pull up and all the cast members are revealed, then go in for the big party) has 16 operators- that’s 16 camera operators who are working at least 12 hours- shooting possibly 10 hours of footage….that’s 160 hours of footage! By the end of the show, some 7 or so weeks later, there will be roughly 6 crews. Each crew consists of an operator, a camera assistant and an audio mixer.

PHOTO: The Bachelor Hot Tub Scene:

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Matthew: How is the setup for each camera operator? Do you work in a control room and guide the shooting while each camera operator has a runner/assistant with them?

Chad: Typically with that many cameras there has to be someone in charge, whether it be a house director, field director or competition director. Camera operators all get to know “the dance”. Basically, if there’s more than one operator shooting a scene, they will choose a “line”- referring to the 180 degree rule. That way, the eye line of every cast member will be going the correct direction and therefore easily editable. The operators spread out and cross shoot without going across the line. The operators signal to one another with hand gestures or over the walkies who has what shot (single, two shot, wide, etc.). That way everyone can make sure that they’re covering the scene without missing anything or replicating another’s shot. The director helps by alerting the operators of upcoming changes (someone new entering, who’s reaction to focus on, etc.) or they’ll help block out things like car pull-ups & exits, host or special guests talking to groups, etc.

Matthew: If The Bachelor goes on a group date for example with 10 other girls, how many times do you break to do the interviews during a typical date? How fast are you able to set up the interview spots when you’re on location somewhere?

Chad: During a group date, the interviews can happen at any time. Interviews are crucial to just about every reality show. They are the backbone of reality storytelling. Even when you think a scene speaks for itself, they’ll cut into an interview to hear what someone (whether in the scene or not) thought about what happened. Usually you want the interviews to take place immediately after something interesting happens so it’s fresh in the people’s minds and they’re still emotional about it. Before a group date starts, we’ll set up 2 or 3 interview spots. These are always in close proximity to the “hub” of the party, yet private and quiet. The interviews usually end up being in tiny hotel rooms with awful white walls that we curse while setting up. Sometimes you’ll se more immediate and less “set up” looking interviews. This is called “on the fly” or OTF. In this situation, there’s usually someone crying or very emotional in some other way and there’s no time to take them to a room and set them down. In these cases, you’ll be lucky to get a tripod and a light.

Matthew: Do you have a favorite behind the scenes Bachelor moment? Something the crazed fans would love to hear?

Chad: I’ve had so many over the years. Most include something related to the cool locations we get to visit- like animals attacking our gear in Africa, or scaring the crap out of each other in a dungeon in Prague. Or the time I was bucked off a horse and broke my hand because we thought it would be a good idea to shoot on horseback, or jumping off waterfalls with the cast in Hawaii, or getting stuck on a glacier in Iceland, or the scouts where we get to do all the things the cast does, but a week earlier. My favorite though is when I flew over my tiny hometown in Colorado in the Playboy private jet with only a producer, Hugh Hefner and his Playmate girlfriends. I wish my high school guidance counselor could see me then! One time I ordered pizza and hot wings for my crew. We were so hungry and excited to eat, but had to wait until after the interview we were shooting. During that time, one of the female Bachelor cast members ate our entire pizza and wings! Then she purged! Thanks a lot lady!

It’s always fun to try to make other operators laugh while shooting. There have been so many times where 2 cast members are in the “fantasy suite” laying on the bed, kissing and giggling and whispering sweet nothings- while I’m literally a foot from them and there’s another camera operator on the other side of the bed. A couple funny looks can lead to some pretty epic laugh attacks (but you have to hold it in so the cast doesn’t hear).

PHOTO: The Bachelor Fantasy Suite:

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Matthew: How has the technology changed since you started? Are the cameras easier to handle than in the past?

Chad: The technology has changed immensely. When I started everything was standard definition. I spent a couple years as a tech assistant and as a “mini cams” guy, where to do a simple helmet cam required a ton of gear- batteries, cables, recording decks, more batteries, cameras with dip switches for controls, padding for the recording decks, and if you wanted it waterproof….. Anyway, that’s all been replaced by GoPros, which are incredible in every way. Drones are another game changer. Many of the newer cameras have better images, but are much more difficult to operate. These would be the DSLR’s, Canon C 300’s & 500’s, Black magics, REDs, F5’s and F55’s, etc. By the time you have all the rods, focusing knobs, monitors, audio adaptors and cables in place, the cameras are 3x the size and make zero sense ergonomically. If you’re going to be operating for hours on end, you want to have everything at your fingertips. The Sony F800’s are the easiest, most reliable cameras for reality in my opinion. And for larger sensors, I prefer the Arri Amiras. They look incredible and are easy to operate. It’s crazy that our phones now take better videos than broadcast cameras just a few years ago. I’ve seen cameras produce better images for less and less money. Now literally anyone can shoot their own film. You no longer need a 35mm film camera, money for film stock or a grip and electric truck full of expensive lights.

Matthew: What film have you seen the most times in your life?

Chad: American Movie. It’s a documentary about a guy who is struggling to finish his short film. The movie is shot very simply but tells a great story and the characters in it are hilarious. Definitely worth the watch.

Matthew: Our of all the reality shows you’ve worked on, do you have a favorite or two?

Chad: Survivor and The Bachelor come to mind first. Survivor season 3 (Kenya) was my first legitimate travel show. I couldn’t believe that someone was paying me to spend 2 months on a private game reserve with a crew of a couple hundred super cool people from all over the world. Every day was like being on safari, but no tourists. Survivor Palau was incredible as well. Surfing and diving just about every day, let alone working in only board shorts on white sandy beaches. The Bachelor shows are amazing as well because we travel all over the place and get access to places that normal people can’t- like being the only ones in the Tower of London at night, or on the roof of the space needle- not just the top, or sports fields, castles, etc. One season of the Bachelorette, we spent time in Iceland, Portugal and Tahiti all in one season! What makes this show amazing are the people you work with side by side on a daily basis. It’s crazy how close you get with co-workers. In a couple months you might spend more time with your camera assistant than you did with any of your best friends from high school. On location, you see such amazing places and after a long day, you go out with the same people and explore the cities, then you fly together to a new place, then on your days off, you might surf or golf or dive or zipline with the same people. I can’t say enough about the experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have along the way. I feel like I haven’t “worked” in years. It’s not for everyone, but if you love adventure, it’s the best.

Matthew: What suggestions do you have for high school or university students who would like to be reality show camera operators?

Chad: I would say try to reach out to people in the field who you may know or even a family friend’s friend’s uncle’s neighbor. Email production companies to see if they’re looking for production assistants or interns. If you like a specific show, go on IMDB and look up the production company that produces it, or even the name of the production manager. Find them on facebook if you have to. It’s never been easier to get into this field. There are about a million reality shows out now. When I started there was one. There are websites like “staff me up” that list job postings. Maybe see if you can intern at a rental house- learn the gear inside and out first and meet cinematographers who are picking up gear. Like they say, it’s who you know that gets you the job, but what you know that lets you keep it . Also, you don’t have to live in LA. A lot of people work full time in Atlanta, New York, Miami, etc. Film school is good- but not 100% necessary. I studied film, but only truly “learned” by being on set. You can learn a lot on the web. Youtube. Forums. Look up hurlbutvisuals.com. If you work hard and keep a good attitude, you can get on those shows that interest you. If you want to shoot in Alaska or the swamps of Louisiana or film midgets in Utah, there’s a show for you. It may take a few years before you get a job as a camera assistant or operator, but be persistent. When I was a production assistant picking up trash on set, I’d talk to people from the different departments and learn about their jobs and ask a lot of questions. It wasn’t long before people would start asking if I could give them a hand on the next project. Be flexible and don’t give up!

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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 Albert Arthur (Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad)

What an honor it was to chat with the extremely talented Director of Photography Albert Arthur. A career spanning over 45 years, his brilliant cinematography can currently be seen on the hit AMC TV series “Better Call Saul”. 

arthur_albert.jpgMatthew Toffolo: You got the honor to DP the last episode of “Breaking Bad”. How did that come about? And how was the last day on set? It must have been very emotional.

Albert Arthur: Michael Slovis, the DP for most of the series, and who had been my gaffer many years ago, had been trying to get me to DP episodes he directed for a long time, but my schedule never worked. When it came time for him to direct his last episode, I had to say yes. Then the schedule for the finale got extended and he had a conflict. So I came back to shoot the finale. As you can imagine, the last day was very emotional for cast and crew. There were lots of tears and laughter. I felt honored to be a part of it.

Matthew: You then moved on to DP every single episode of the first season of its prequel “Better Call Saul”. Was it planned all along that you would move to the last episode of “Breaking Bad” and then start from the ground up with “Saul”? It’s like you passed the baton to yourself!

Albert: Michael had launched his career as a director, so they needed a replacement DP. Since I had already shot 3 episodes of Breaking Bad, and everyone was happy with the results, I was a natural choice.

PHOTO: Breaking Bad finale episode:

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Matthew: When did you first come aboard “Saul” and break down the cinematic design of the series? It’s a little different than “Breaking” in terms of feel and tone. I’m sure there was a lot of discussion as how to make it similar but also very different than “Breaking Bad”?

Albert: I started prep three weeks before the first day of shooting. I asked Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould if the wanted to continue the style of Breaking Bad, and their answer was that they did not want a complete break, but they wanted it to be different as well. They stressed repeatedly that they felt TV shows were all starting to look the same, and that they wanted “Saul” to look like nothing else on television. They showed me stills from “The Conformist” and from Kubrick’s work. Our first day of shooting was in bright sunlight in a skate park. I kept looking for Jean-Louis Trintignant in a period tuxedo, but he was nowhere to be found.

One point of departure was that they didn’t want the handheld look that gave ”Breaking Bad” its’ nervous energy. In fact they did not want any camera movement that was unmotivated. This was quite a departure from my last few shows, where the producers would start twitching if the camera wasn’t moving at all times. It required retraining my operators to avoid movement unless absolutely necessary.

Vince kept pushing the look darker and darker, saying “we know who they are, we don’t need to see them all the time”, which is a departure from what is essentially a comedy.

PHOTO: Better Call Saul first episode:

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Matthew: The opening series scenes in black & white in “Saul” is truly magnificent as it sets the tone of the entire series and hooks the audience. We know the ending, so we’re going to watch the series to see how Jimmy gets there. Can you let us in how those scenes were thought up and why you chose to do it in black and white?

Albert: I wish I could take credit for the decision to shoot the opening in black and white, but it entirely was Vince and Peter’s decision. I know they wanted Saul’s bleak present day situation in Omaha to contrast with the bright New Mexico colors of his earlier years.

Matthew: You DP’d an amazing 154 episodes of the landmark show “ER”. How many days did it take to shoot a typical episode? The show introduced the TV world the art of shooting 360 degree scenes, mostly with a Steadi-Cam. How did you bring in your own style from an already tried and true formula when you started working for the series in season 8?

Albert: ER had an established shooting style when I got there. My contribution was to rely much less on the overhead fluorescents, which were unflattering to the cast, and light the closeups individually where possible, and to bring more dramatic feature style lighting when we left the hospital.

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

Albert: I look for experience and social skills. We spend a lot of time together, a lot, so you want people that relate well and communicate well.

Matthew: The art of television is working fast, on schedule, and not compromising what is happening on the written page. I used to like to joke that the director on TV sets is the one who is the least experienced on set because most of the crew is there for the entire season and understands the show inside and out, while the director works at most 2-4 episodes a season. What are you mainly looking for in a director when he joins your TV crew set?

Albert: I find it ironic that I wouldn’t hire a gaffer with less than 15 features on this resume, yet directing is often an entry level position. Even experienced directors are often new to a show, so the producers look to the DP to provide a continuity of style.

I pray for directors who come prepared, collaborate well, and don’t act as if their episode is more important than the general well being of the cast and crew. I want them to prioritize their coverage so that the days can be kept to 12 hours or less. When you go past that, it takes a toll on everybody, the quality of work suffers, and people are endangered. The pros know that, and plan their days accordingly.

Matthew: Was being a Director of Photography something you always sought out to achieve in your life? Or did the job come to you?

Albert: It’s something that came naturally to me, that I have always enjoyed. I bought a 16mm camera when I graduated from college and would shoot movies for free or almost free, so I had shot 5 features by the time I was 25. Then I moved to Venezuela, where I shot 35mm features with reasonable schedules. I had to teach myself everything, but I’ve always believed in earning while I was learning. By the time I returned to the US in 1982, and shot my first Hollywood film, “Night of The Comet” I was a “new” DP with at least 10 feature credits.

PHOTO: Night of the Comet feature film:

night_of_the_comet

I had originally set out to become a “filmmaker”, but I spent 2 years trying to earn enough money to get my first documentary out of the lab, so I decided to focus on making a living. Luckily, I still love what I do. When people ask me what I’m going to do when I retire, the answer is to make movies I care about with friends.That, and sip cava in Barcelona.

Matthew: Did/Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?

Albert: I assisted Jerry Cotts for a couple of years and he was very supportive and generous. When he had to leave a movie he was shooting, “Is There Sex After Death“, I took over.

Matthew: I just recently watched “Happy Gilmore”. Just a zany film that actually still holds up today. What were you thinking during production? Who’s this Sandler guy and why are we shooting this crazy scene with Bob Barker beating him up? The love interest didn’t do so bad either – Julie Bowen (Modern Family)

Albert: The script made no sense to me. I never guessed it would become a classic. Adam seemed to be learning to act on the job. The director, Dennis Dugan helped him a lot.

Bob Barker was a last minute replacement. I think they wanted Lee Trevino. No one knew what to expect as Bob Barker had never been in a movie. When we shot the first take, we knew we had struck gold. Julie clearly was going to have a career. But this Sandler guy?

PHOTO: Happy Gilmore movie. Bob Barker vs Adam Sandler:

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Matthew: Have you mentored many people? Do you have examples of people on your crew, once upon a time, who have gone onto doing great things in the industry?

Albert: I would definitely count Michael Slovis, who I encouraged to shoot and steered him to a producer or two. He is now the producing/director on “Preacher”, Seth Rogen’s latest project. I have also moved a number of assistants up to operate (Tom Lohmann, and most recently, Jordan Slovin on “Saul”).

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

Albert: Apocalypse Now (director’s cut) and Touch Of Evil (director’s cut). All of Fellini.

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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.