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

We arrived at the Coolidge on a cold, rainy Boston morning and had the theater lit with a backlight glinting off the tops of the antique chairs, and Vittorio pre-lit with a couple of HMI Pars coming through a giant 216 diffusion frame. Vittorio came in, we went over the bare-lightbulb-on-a-dimmer gag, and he asked, “Why don’t we also put this big diffusion source on a dimmer, and also do a light change from cool to warm light?” Of course, I hadn’t ordered any tungsten lights in the package from High Output. But, thankfully, prescient gaffer Jim Hirsch had put them on the truck anyway, along with a dimmer board. He wired four 5Ks to the dimmer board, two with Full CTS and two with CTB. 

A few months later, when I assumed (and hoped) we had wrapped the production with 109 cinematographers, we screened the final cut with John Johnston and Volker. When it was over, they turned to each other and then to me and said, “What about Gordon Willis?” I replied, “Great, but he’s in Cape Cod, and it’s going to be very expensive.” They said, “Let’s do it.” 

Cut to Cape Cod, a few weeks later. The largest grip/electric truck the world has ever seen is backing down Gordon’s driveway. One slip of the truck’s brakes and the beautiful Willis house below will be reduced to toothpicks. (We have the truck and all the equipment because we’ve been told the house is new, and it would be bad manners to mess it up, gouge the floor with light stands or get cable grease on the nice carpets. So we decided to light from outside with big lights.) All of this early-morning commotion has awakened Gordon, who comes outside in his bathrobe. He takes one look at the enormous truck and equally abundant crew and says scornfully, “What is all this stuff?” (He may have used another word for “stuff.”) 

Luckily, we had a secret weapon with us: Tibor Sands. Tibor was Gordon’s camera assistant on The Godfather and many other pictures, and served as our production manager for this leg of the production. Tibor and Gordon are great friends, and the night before, we’d had dinner and listened to the two of them topping each other with production tales. To Gordon’s query, Tibor replied, “Well, Gordon, we didn’t want to bring any lights into your house.” Gordon shot back, “Nonsense. You don’t need all that stuff. Just bring a Kino Flo inside.” 

One Kino Flo it was, a 4', four-bank unit with a 4'x4' frame of 216 in front. Plugged into the wall. Couldn’t have been simpler. Halfway through the interview, Gordon turns to our gaffer and says, “Hey, turn that key light off.” He’s now silhouetted by the window behind him. “There, that’s better, isn’t it? No light at all.” Yes, it was. As we wrapped, Gordon was heard asking the grips to sell him some 20'x20' solids to darken the exterior outside his picture windows, which afforded beautiful views of the surrounding landscape but were, to Gordon, “much too bright.” 

Music was an important ingredient to set the tone and indicate transitions, and Matt Blute cut in a good scratch track. The film is basically three acts linked by musical transitions. Three maestros in Munich were engaged: Florian Schlagbauer, Thomas Schlagbauer and Christian Bischoff from Arri Music. They sampled an orchestra and then digitally composed the haunting musical theme that opens the film and punctuates it with mood and style; we called this piece “March of the Cinematographers.” 

The style of Cinematographer Style is part of the story, and we set out to give the documentary a narrative structure with a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning, we’re introduced to the cast of “characters” as each gives his or her name. Next, we learn how most of the cinematographers got started. Then we get to the theme: that the style of every film, television show, commercial, corporate film or documentary is a cinematographer’s individual choice, an almost ineffable thing, sometimes random, sometimes deeply researched. Often it begins with the script, but many times it happens by accident, evolves, or is determined by external forces. Finally, the film gets into technique and technology — the influence of art on the tools of the trade, and how equipment and lighting can often change style. 

Having shot many documentaries, I’ve never liked talking heads, but Cinematographer Style has 110 of them. The key, we found early on, was that cinematographers are incredibly interesting people, and they speak a universal language. We could quickly cut from one to the next, continuing the train of thought in a compelling progression. Matt Blute’s cutting created a colloquium of cinematographers discussing and debating common themes. From the beginning, I resisted cutaways to clips of the films being discussed. It was simple math: 110 cinematographers in roughly 90 minutes provides less than 45 seconds of screen time each. Because the interviewees were so articulate, it became evident that the audience could actually “see” the films being described. Just as in fashion cinematography, where we can often be more suggestive by being less revealing, I wanted the audience to look at the cinematographer and the lighting, and one cinematographer becomes the “cutaway” for the next. 

Most of the “portraits” are lit with two 6K HMI Pars or two 10K (sometimes 20K) tungsten Fresnels, one raking 3/4 from behind, and the other at 90 degrees to the side. These were softened with the largest diffusion we could fit in the stage: usually two 20'x20' light gridcloths placed as close to the subject as possible. We sometimes further diffused the light with a 4'x4' 216 frame closer to the source. There was rarely any fill, occasionally a 12'x12' unbleached muslin to bounce back a tiny amount of the key. Most of the time we rolled in anti-fill: lots of 12'x12' and 20'x20' solids. Jeff Laszlo and the other cinematographers on our side of the camera meticulously kept the framing interesting and unbalanced, pushing the subjects to the edge of the frame and varying the frame size every time I asked a question so we’d avoid jump cuts. 

Our adventure doesn’t end here. Perhaps we’ll do a sequel, because despite our best efforts, conflicts in schedules and the random nature of this business prevented us from interviewing everyone who should be in the film. 


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