Trent Opaloch is easily the most talented and sought after cinematographers in the world today. He has DP’d for director Neil Blomkamp on “District 9”, “Elysium”, and “Chappie”, and director’s Anthony & Joe Russo on “Captain America: Winter Soldier”, and the upcoming “Captain America: Civil War”. It was an honor to sit down with him to chat about his career and the art of cinematography.
Mathew Toffolo: You first worked with director Neil Blomkamp on the short films “Tempbot” and “Yellow”. How did you two meet? What makes your director/DP relationship so successful?
Trent Opaloch: I met Neill shooting low budget music videos. We shot a handful of videos & short films while I was working at Clairmont (camera rental house) & he had just left a vfx house here in Vancouver.
He used to do all his own vfx work back then so it was really interesting to see the the whole process. That was all happening at a very exciting time for vfx where some pretty sophisticated tracking software was coming out and it really freed up the camera & made it possible to use that hand held energy with extremely realistic visual effects. It was great because it was the first time your imagination wasn’t limited by what you were able to build in reality. It opened up the possibilities for story telling and those shorts and small projects were a great training ground for the big vfx movies that we’re doing now. You can apply those same basic principals on a much larger canvas at bigger budget levels.
MT: You both leaped into the feature film world in the highly successful film “District 9”. How was the initial experience moving from shorts to features? Do you remember the initial cinematic design conversations you had with Neil about the film?
TO: It was a pretty easy transition for Neill & I to go shoot District 9. We had developed a good short hand over the years on the shorts and music videos so it was just a matter of doing our thing with a much larger crew. The challenge is to communicate with the crew so everyone is on the same page. That’s a different dynamic to how we would have worked on the smaller things with just a few people.
The way Neill described the film to me, and to this day this is the best pitch I’ve ever heard. He said imagine there was a documentary made by the NFB (National Film Board here in Canada) that was about these aliens landing in Johanessburg in the 80’s. And someone taped that documentary when it played on tv in the 80’s on a vhs tape and then threw that tape in a drawer for 20 years. And you come along and blow the dust off it & pop it into your retro vhs machine & press play. That was his pitch for District 9 and it instantly communicated everything you needed to get the film. Brilliant.
Now things changed in the process of course so it wasn’t as degraded an image as that. I actually wanted to shoot on 16mm with the NFB doccie esthetic in mind but Peter Jackson bought a boatload of RED ONE cameras so that was nipped in the bud.
PHOTO: Cinematography of the film DISTRICT 9:
MT: What were your reactions to the success of “District 9”? It must have really changed your life and career path?
TO: Well it was pretty amazing to work on something that was so well received around the world. It was a difficult film to make in some pretty harsh environments but we had a great group of people on it. It sort of felt like there weren’t any ‘grown ups’ around to tell us what to do really. Neill had set things up so that were on our own to make the movie our own way which was pretty amazing when you think it was his first feature.
MT: What brought you to the Captain America movies? How is it to DP a film that has two directors?
TO: I’ve actually worked with directing duos quite a bit in commercials so it wasn’t that strange for me to step into that sort of thing for Winter Soldier. I got the call for the first meeting with Joe & Anthony Russo and I was really impressed with them and their approach and how they wanted the film to feel.
I actually don’t mind the director duo thing as long as they have their dynamic figured out between them. Different directing teams work in their own way that is specific to their combined personalities so you get different approaches. The fact that Joe & Anthony are brothers is great because they have this great bond between them that goes back decades and they’ve worked together on so many things in films & tv shows that they have a good system down.
MT: “The Winter Soldier” was an amazing comic book/action film. Even the Fanboys couldn’t help but give it ultimate praise. What were the broad strokes ideas you had with the Russo’s in terms of the cinematic life you gave the film? It was a different feel to the other Marvel films, but it still was a Marvel film. A fine line to balance one would assume!
TO: It’s funny because I never really planned on ever shooting anything like that but I loved the creative approach that the Russo’s had for the film. Our whole thing was to take the edge off the genre of it all by basing it in reality as much as we could. I really liked the idea of shooting the film like a 70’s conspiracy thriller to ground the whole thing a bit. We referenced films like “Marathon Man” & “The Three Days of The Condor” early in prep.
PHOTO: Chris Evans in Captain America: Winter Soldier:
MT: You have a big film coming up in “Captain America: Civil War”. How were you experiences working on that film? Can you give us a sneak peak as to what to expect? It seems like all of the stars of the Marvel Universe are in this film!
TO: It was great to get back with the Russo’s and the team again for Civil War. We had just an amazing crew so that makes the whole experience so much better. The people around you are very important when you’re up against challenging situations. We shot quite a bit of our exteriors on the Pinewood backlot in Atlanta & the heat & humidity can be quite brutal.
On a movie of this size it’s assumed that everybody knows their jobs at this point so it really comes down to having a great attitude under pressure and being there together for the film.
We were also very fortunate to work with a great German crew in Berlin that made our transition over there very smooth.
There were a ton of actors on this film and that was actually quite challenging to shoot them all with their crazy schedules. The tough thing is that you can end up shooting someones close up in another country and weeks after you’ve shot the other side of the conversation so it’s always a challenge dealing with changing weather conditions etc. to maintain some cohesiveness to the scene.
I’m starting up prep on the new Infinity Wars films that we’re shooting back to back with the Russo’s later this year & the scale of those two films combined is a bit mind blowing so it’s good that these last two films have ramped up in terms of scale and complexity because each one prepares you for the next.
PHOTO: Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War:
MT: How much of the Captain America films are storyboarded? Are you a part of that process in pre-production?
TO: These films are heavily boarded & pre-vised, far more than anything else I’ve ever done. The pre-vis process starts very early in the film’s development so that’s when you have to get in there to help start guiding the process along with the directors so that it fits in with what everyone is aiming for and what the production team is going to do on set.
The Marvel films are incredibly collaborative and that’s a huge part of their success I think. We have worked with the vfx supervisor Dan Deleeuw on these last two films and he is in charge of building the pre-vis sequences so that is an invaluable resource to start the discussion with the whole team before you get out there on the real-time clock burning production money.
MT: You have obviously mastered the cinematic artform of the intense action/thriller film. Is there another genre that you like to work in?
TO: I don’t have any specific genre goals as far as the types of films I’d like to work on really. I’m always just looking for scripts that I enjoy and that hopefully have something to add to what’s out there already. I shoot a lot of commercials in between film projects so I don’t mind turning down things & waiting until something interesting comes along. Feature films have such a long development period & then you’re away from home for most of the year prepping & shooting so you have to choose your projects carefully.
MT: What advantages/disadvantages do you think you have had starting in the short film/indy world in comparison to other DPs who worked through the Unions to become a cinematographer?
TO: The biggest thing I feel was missing from the early days was the opportunity to see how other cinematographers worked. That’s the nice thing about working your way up through the ranks. You’re in the front row watching how the big boys do it. I used to do set visits when I worked at the rental house & it was always cool to see the different lighting approaches or specific rigging that someone had done.
Also my step dad had a subscription to American Cinematographer so I had read every single page of every issue since I was 16 years old. That was invaluable, of course this was years before the internet and the behind the scenes special features on dvd’s & blu rays that we have now so that was the best way of seeing how things were done at the time.
I think the advantage of starting the way I did is that you’re doing what you want to do from the beginning so you start developing right away. The trap in working your way up through the different crew positions is that you can get trapped there. All of a sudden you’re 15 years into working sets and paying off a mortgage so it’s tough to make the leap & reimagine your career as a DP. I think if you want to do something than you should just start doing it at whatever level you can.
MT: Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?
TO: I don’t have one individual really but there are countless people that I learned from when I first started shooting. I started working at Clairmont Camera in Vancouver after film school so I was around professional camera crews full time & just tried to learn everything I could, just hoover up as much information as you can. Why that lens over this one, when to use a fluid head vs. wheels etc. Just tons of little details that you absorb over time. I think that was a great introduction to how things worked on set but at the same time I wasn’t that interested in working on tv shows or MOV’s at the time so I shot my own stuff or with friends on the weekends & was able to develop over time and make mistakes in a safe environment where there wasn’t a ton of money on the line.
MT: Where do you see the future of camera/lighting technology in film?
TO: Well it’s an exciting time as far as what’s out there already & what’s coming out. The camera technology just keep getting better every year and LED lighting is really coming into it’s own so it’s great to have options available to you to choose from the toolbox for different scenarios. I’ve really been enjoying running our lighting setups through DMX lighting consoles and media servers for the last couple of years. You just have almost infinite control over the quality and the dynamics of the light as far as movement and colour.
MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?
TO: That’s a tough question. Probably “Blade Runner”, “Heat”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Jaws”, “Godfather 1&2”, “Stalker”, “The Conversation” “Apocalypse Now” all the classic iconic movies. There’s a ton more for sure. There are just some films that you come across on tv and it’s impossible to stop watching even if you’ve seen it a hundred times. My parents had “Das Boat” and “Fitzcarraldo” basically on infinite repeat in my house when I was young too which drove my sister and I crazy at the time.
MT: Where did you grow up? Did you always want to be a cinematographer?
TO: I was born and raised in a place called Thunder Bay in Ontario Canada. It’s quite a small town and I moved away for high school but went back to film school at Confederation College so it was great to be back in my home town, starting a new chapter of my life. I was more into music as a kid and played in different bands growing up so I never really thought of film as a career until my early 20’s when I went to film school.
My step dad was a nature cameraman when I was a kid so he took me out on his shoots and taught me how to load film and thread the camera etc. Of course it was more documentary work so there was no lighting at all but it was a good introduction to camera and sound equipment. I used to go into the post production offices where they cut his films and would see shots that we had taken cut into the edit so it was almost like pre-film school for me as a kid.
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.