American Cinematographer: Creating <i>Cinematographer Style</i>

The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents October 2006 Return to Table of Contents
The Departed
The Departed DI
Cin. Style
Page 2
Producing CS
Production Slate
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
A new documentary features the insights of 110 directors of photography from around the world.

Unit photography by Brad Traver, Joe Christofori,
Shari Belafonte, Jared Jordan and Ambar Capoor.

Photos courtesy of Jon Fauer, ASC

The feature-length documentary Cinematographer Style is an inside look at what cinematographers do, why we do it, and how we get there. To quote a line in the film, making it was a series of “happy accidents.” The project began more than four years ago as an 8-minute short with a dozen interviews. Now it’s 86 minutes long and features 110 cinematographers from 15 countries. If we knew back then where we’d end up, the movie would never have been made; none of us would have had the guts to do it. It evolved step by step, with a few interviews here and a few there, sometimes piggybacked onto other projects, and sometimes shot when planets and cinematographers aligned. 

It happened because three individuals believed in the project and stuck their necks out to get it done. Executive producer Volker Bahnemann, CEO of Arri, Inc., made it possible with creative inspiration, trust, resources and financing; co-executive producer John Johnston, sales and marketing manager of Kodak, provided an almost limitless supply of film and good ideas; and co-executive producer Bob Hoffman, marketing manager of Technicolor, unflinchingly provided processing, printing, digital dailies, digitizing and distribution expertise. Many other companies joined in, and holding this coalition together was associate producer Franz Wieser, vice president of marketing for Arri. 

The concept for Cinemato-grapher Style was hatched in March 2003, when Volker suggested we add something to the second edition of The Arricam Book: a 10-minute film and DVD of cinematographers’ interviews to be called The Digital Age of Film. As with the first Arricam Book, proceeds from sales would benefit the ASC Building or Education fund. 

By May 2003, Volker had committed Arri to fund the film. A few weeks later, at a Greenwich Village bistro, I got together with Franz, John Johnston, John Dowdell (then chief colorist at Technicolor New York), Charlie Herzfeld (senior vice president of sales and marketing, Technicolor, East Coast) and Michael Phillips (principal product designer at Avid). Together, we outlined the production’s logistics on the paper tablecloth. It was a massive flowchart that included details like the 35mm camera negative, processing, DigiBeta dailies, 14:1 Avid media files, scanning, digital intermediate (DI), grading, filmout, release printing and DVDs. 

In June 2004, the Digital Age of Film short was released at Cinegear Expo. But Volker knew we were on to something and urged us to continue interviewing more cinematographers. Content got better. AC contributor Bob Fisher kept sending us cinematographers’ schedules, which told us who was where. This might be the first film in history where the producers said “keep shooting” and “don’t stop now,” and never said no. Before long, we were hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget, and, of course, we had no budget. Volker pledged funding from Arri to guarantee completion, a huge commitment.  

Over the years, we fell into a familiar pattern. Bob Fisher would call up and say, “Jon, you haven’t filmed Robert Richardson yet.” So, I’d call John Johnston: “J.J., can you please let us have just a few rolls of film to interview Robert Richardson?” We’d keep shooting other cinematographers, inevitably calling Kodak back for another four cases of film because Richardson wasn’t available, but by then Bob had wrangled another 20 cinematographers instead. 

The next call would be to Technicolor to see if they could deal with “just another few rolls of film.” The inevitable phone call the next morning from Technicolor’s Joey Violante (or his equivalent at Technicolor labs around the world) would confirm that all was well with chemistry and imagery, but not so with our arithmetic, because “a few rolls of film” is not necessarily a good quantifier for 30 or 40 rolls.  

Tim Spitzer, director of Goldcrest Post, was our tireless and patient post supervisor. John Dowdell, a true artist, was not only our DI colorist using Quantel iQ and Pablo, but also an honorary member of our grip, electric and art departments. From the beginning, I wanted to shoot in full-frame, silent aperture (sometimes called full-frame Super 35). This forced us into the DI process, which we knew was essential because of the archival nature of the project, and because cutting the negative would have been reckless. 

Dana Ross, Jeff Smithwick and Phil Downey at Technicolor supervised and tweaked the release prints with incredible care, knowing how critical our audience would be. (I’ve had a recurring dream where Gordon Willis, ASC calls me up and says, “Jon, it’s not dark enough.”) I was reminded time and again how printing at the lab is still an art, and Dana and colleagues are masters. 

Our production followed the domestic policy of U.S. President William McKinley, who talked to anyone who showed up on the White House steps. We were equally egalitarian; everyone who showed up was interviewed, and everyone who was interviewed is in the film. 

Avid provided two Media Composer Adrenaline systems, an Avid Xpress Pro Tower and an Avid Xpress Pro Laptop. We shared the same media files simultaneously, so a change in Los Angeles could be reviewed simultaneously in Boston, New York and on location anywhere in the world. Project files were e-mailed. Our wonderful editor, Matt Blute, figured out how to cut 110 talking heads into 80 minutes. That works out to about 45 seconds each, give or take. Some took more time than others, especially those whose native tongue has been described as a long, continuous, run-on sentence that starts with a noun, dives underwater, and re-emerges some 10 minutes later, at the end of a 1000' roll of film, with a verb. 

Many cinematographers professed to be shy or reticent about being on the “wrong side of the slate” for the first time. Well, if someone were casting for the part of a cinematographer, this would be the ultimate casting reel. We see 110 masters not only of cinematography, but also of lucid, articulate, thoughtful comments.  

In the film, we went out of our way to avoid touting any products or brands. We set out to explore the relationship of art and tools, technique and technology. And a lot of new technology went into the making of it. The film was made possible with significant cash contributions and equipment from Arri, negative from Kodak, processing and telecine from Technicolor, and additional support from Avid, Goldcrest, Denny Clairmont, Clairmont Camera, Joe Dunton, Postworks, Cineworks, Paramount, Universal, Culver Studios, Fox, Camera Service Center (CSC), Illumination Dynamics, Boston Camera, High Output, NT Audio, JL Fisher, Otto Nemenz, Facilis Technology, Taylor and Taylor, and many others. 

It began, for me, as a side project and became a full-time, three-year obsession … er, production. I think it was François Truffaut who said, “A film is like a stagecoach ride in the wild West. You start with high expectations, and halfway through the journey, your only wish is to reach the destination.” It was an amazingly smooth trip — until we reached 108 interviews. By that time, my only dream was finishing the project, so imagine my heart simultaneously sinking and seizing when Volker announced that the film was not complete without Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC. 

Vittorio and I had talked a year earlier, but our schedules had never matched. This time, however, he was about to receive a Coolidge Award in Boston, and Elizabeth Taylor Mead, events director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, graciously volunteered the space as a location. On Vittorio’s Web site, there’s a picture of him holding a lightbulb. He and I discussed this and agreed that a lightbulb would be a good, iconic prop. Gaffer Jim Hirsch took a bare 12-volt DC marine lightbulb, soldered clear zip cord to its Edison base, and ran the cord to a dimmer. (It’s important to note that Vittorio is holding a bare bulb with 12 volts DC running through it. As they say in the ads, DO NOT attempt this trick with standard 110 volts AC.)

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