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 Jon Aguirresarobe

jonaguirz.jpgAfter completing his postgraduate studies at the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI), Jon has been part of the team in great productions of the likes of Twilight, Eclipse or Fright Night, among others. He currently works as a cinematographer for several fiction and publicity projects in both the United States and Latin America. It was a true honor to interview this extremely talented DOP.

http://jonaguirresarobe.com

Matthew Toffolo: Where were you born and raised? Was being a cinematographer something you always wanted to do?

Jon Aguirresarobe: I was born and raised in San Sebastian, in the north of Spain. But I moved to Madrid when I was 18 years old. I always wanted to be a painter and I pursued that dream for a bit. When I was 26 I used to work for commercials and a little pic into a narrative project make me decide to become a cinematographer. Something that was close to me, thanks to my dad, for my entire life.

What film that you DP’d are you most proud of to date?

“Hunter Gatherer” is the film that I am the most proud of. We shot it with a minimal crew and lots of love and I believe you can feel that while watching the movie. Its an incredible honest movie and it gave us so many rewards.

 PHOTO of the film “Hunter Gatherer”:

huntergatherer

What was the biggest thing you learned working on the many short films you DP’d? Is there a place where we can watch some of them online?

I publish some of them on my website: http://jonaguirresarobe.com/. I´d rather be on set working on set than home so I have done many shorts before starting on the feature world. I got a lot out of them. On shorts you have the chance to try things, get hours on set and you never know, maybe meet someone that you can keep working with. In my case I met Director Eric Kissack who is one of the responsables of my careers growth.

What are you generally looking for in a director to make sure you do the best job possible?

I like to see the Directors passion and commitment with the story they want to tell. See if they know what they want and if they are clear and realistic about it. I like to understand what they like and sometimes even more important, what they don´t like. I do love directors that challenge me and push me out of the comfort zone. Then, in the perfect world, I like to see that the way the director is dreaming the story is the same way I am dreaming it.

What do you think a director is looking for in their cinematographer?

I believe they are looking for a person that is capable of putting into the image the vision they have in their mind. Someone that can add a unique point of view as well. I feel like today is also important, to be fast and resolutive. I think something they also look into that.

What is your passion in life besides cinematography?

I enjoy art, photography, family, friends and my bicycles.

What cinematographers (dead or alive) would you love to have dinner with?

Rodrigo Prieto, his work is impeccable and he is capable to adapt and fit any kind of story with the most elegant and fine style. He can shoot Beautiful and Passengers and adapt himself to completely different styles. He is incredible.

What movie have you watched the most times in your life (besides your own)?

It may be “Magnolia” from Paul Thomas Anderson. That movie motivated me to became a cinematographer.

What advice do you have for young photographers who would eventually like to be a cinematographer in the movies?

Always work towards the story you are telling. The cinematography is not always about pretty images, cinematography has to fit the script and the concept you are trying to tell the audience.

Work hard, take any opportunity to be on set and be nice, you never know who you have in front of you.

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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.

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”:

nerve_still.jpg

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 Director Kjersti Steinsbø (HEVN)

Kjersti Steinsbø’s feature film HEVN (Revenge) is a fascinating take on a classic movie plot. What happens when you seek revenge? It also tackles the subject of sexual abuse and the men who get away with it.

HEVN is currently playing at the TIFF Lightbox in downtown Toronto.

HEVN is a terrific film and it was an honor to sit down with the director.

kjestisteinsboInterview with Kjersti Steinsbø:

Matthew Toffolo: Watching the film definitely makes you want to go to Norway, especially the beautiful opening. Of course it also serves as a metaphor where dark things happen in a beautiful exterior. How was your collaboration with your cinematographer Anna Myking?

Kjersti Steinsbø: This was the first project we did together. We’ve known each other for years. In 2011, Anna became the first female to DP a feature film in Norway, which is kind of strange because our country generally has a great record for gender equality. She’s a dear friend and we love working together.

Anna has done so many documentaries and because of that she is great at capturing the mood and thinking ahead. She has a quick head.

MT: This is your first feature film. What was the most important thing you learned making this film to help you on your next feature film?

KS: It’s all about having a good team around you. To try to work within a bubble while you’re shooting. You want to create a family community on set while we all work hard to make a film.

MT: What attracted you to making this film?

KS: I like the ambivalence of the main character. She is the victim and almost turns into an offender herself. Is she doing the right thing or not? It’s not a black and white story, and these are not black and white characters. She goes a bit too far.

MT: Do you want the audience to root for her revenge?

KS: Revenge is a difficult and complex emotion. Like jealousy, it’s destructive. Revenge is interesting to discuss in terms of whether it’s good or bad, but does this revenge make her a good person in the end? I don’t think this is a happy ending.

PHOTO: Still shot from the film HEVN:

hevn.jpg

MT: She’s done bad for the sake of good.

KS: She’s a moral criminal now.

MT: How do people in Norway feel about this story?

KS: In Norway, we are quite proud of our society and how well functioned it is. But we are also aware that there are still improvements that need to be made. Sexual abuse is one of them. In Norway, we do have a discussion going on how we treat rape victims and the punishments they receive.

MT: If someone gets convicted of rape in Norway, what is there prison sentence?

KS: It can be anywhere from a couple of months to a year. It’s not that much. There are so many cases where people get a fine or just a month or two in prison. Most cases don’t even get a trial because it’s so hard to prove and the conviction rates are so low.

MT: The supporting character “Bimbo”, for me, is the moral compass of the film. He’s the one who changes the most as the other characters you kind of know where they stand. He wasn’t a character in the novel though. Is that true?

KS: Yes, I took a few characters from the novel and turned him into Bimbo. I do agree, he is the moral compass. He wants good but he’s a bit jaded by events and life.

I like the concept of having an event that occurred years ago that involved many people, then in present day having those people in a room talking about what happened. And they’ll all have a different perspective and story to tell.

Bimbo’s arc is that he doesn’t want to be a coward anymore. I very much like this character and the actor (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) who portrayed him.

MT: Yes, that actor was terrific as he really showed the conflicts of this man without saying a word.

KS: He definitely has the most interesting journey in the film.

PHOTO: Actor Anders Baasmo Christiansen in HEVN:

Anders Baasmo Christiansen.jpg

MT: Has the novelist, Ingvar Ambjørnsen, seen the film yet?

KS: Oh yes. He gave us total creative freedom for us to do whatever we wanted. He’s one of Norway’s most famous novelists. He’s had 7 of his novels made into a film.

MT: How is the film and TV scene in Norway?

KS: We are currently the little sister to Sweden and Denmark but we are really growing in the last 10 or so years. There’s more interesting projects being developed. We didn’t start having film schools in our country until recently and Sweden and Denmark have had them for years. That’s why they are ahead of the curve. Now we’re catching up.

I’m very optimistic of our future.

MT: What do people in Norway watch on television?

KS: They same as North American audiences. We binge watch American TV just like the rest of the world.

MT: What movie have you seen the most times in your life?

The Big Lebowski. It’s the characters. They are remarkable and so funny.

MT: What do people in Norway think of the whole Donald Trump and current USA presidential race?

KS: They find it completely ridiculous. We are kind of amazed that this is really happening. Many people want him to be elected so we can sit on the sidelines and see the mockery of the whole situation. In Norway, like Canada, we vote for the party and not an individual. Money isn’t involved in Norweigan politics.

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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.

juliomacat.jpg

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:

crazyinalabama.jpg

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 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”:

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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.

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

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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

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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.