Tami Reiker Shoots BLACKBIRD with Director Gina Prince-Bythewood

When I last spoke with Tami Reiker, ASC, almost ten years ago, it was the night she won an ASC Award for her work on Carnivàle. Soon after accepting the honor, she gave birth to a son, Phineas, and since then she’s been juggling single motherhood and cinematography. It seems like there ought to be some kind of award for that, right?

Tami recently turn her eye to Blink, a pilot for CW she shot in Vancouver on Alexa. Blink was directed by Peter Hedges, for whom Tami shot Pieces of April (2003). With director Peyton Wilson, she shot a short on the Canon 5D titled The Bronzer. It’s a ten-minute portrait of a passionate, quirky door-to-door salesman, a glimpse into a way of life that is passing and a commentary on human nature.

“That was really fun,” says Tami. “Peyton and I had done a whole series of commercials together on the 5D, and many other commercials together as well, traveling all over the United States. She wanted to make a documentary about this wild character that bronzes baby shoes. She flew me out to New York and we rented a car and followed him. It turned out beautifully. Together, Peyton and I would plan out the next day, waking up at Holiday Inn Express at 6:00 in the morning and going on calls with this passionate, quirky guy and chronicling his life in small town America. I literally had written on my hand with Sharpies, ‘Make sure mic is on,’ ‘Batteries in car?,’ and other reminders, because no one was there to check for me!

“I loved working that small,” Tami says. “We had done documentary-style spots for the Navy with a crew of 30. Here, it was just the two of us.”

The film was a hit, garnering attention from agencies in the commercial world and coverage in The Atlantic magazine, and becoming an official selection at a slew of festivals, including Santa Barbara, Starz Denver, Mill Valley, Austin and Raindance. It was also a “Staff Pick” on Vimeo, where you can see it at http://vimeo.com/59669088.

More recently, Tami finished a feature film called Blackbird. That project shot in the Los Angeles area and was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, with whom Reiker had previously collaborated on Disappearing Acts. The cast includes Minnie Driver, Danny Glover and the regally named Gugulethu Mbatha-Raw. The project was a welcome return to narrative feature filmmaking for Tami, after a long break.

In Los Angeles, Tami and director Gina Prince-Bythwood plot their strategy on BLACKBIRD.
In Los Angeles, Tami and director Gina Prince-Bythwood plot their strategy on BLACKBIRD.

She used Alexa cameras with a Codex/Arriraw workflow. “There were more cables than I’d seen in 25 years,” she says with a laugh. “We had the M model, with the Codex box attached to the ‘brain’ of the camera. The whole movie was handheld, and three-quarters of it was at night, so I’m sure the extra picture information will help us. The difference is significant. The studio, Relativity, insisted on Arriraw – they bought the Codex recorder and the Vault, and they will use it on other movies. Luckily things are getting simpler now with onboard recording.”

Single motherhood and cinematography can co-exist, especially with the right collaborators, says Tami. Blackbird was a case in point.

“When Gina and I did Disappearing Acts, we weren’t mothers,” she recalls. “And now Gina has two sons — 9 and 12 — and it was really great to have the amount of energy we did on this movie. She’s amazing and really focused. On weekends, she would come to my place, or I would go to her house. The kids would play and we’d work everything out.

“I filmed a movie when Phineas was seven months old – Mr. Woodcock – and that was just really hard,” Tami says. “That’s like four months of his life. The movie was in LA, but it didn’t matter. You know, I would get home at 6 a.m. and the nanny would be there to take him at 10, and I was gone — with zero sleep.

“On the other hand, I’ve taken Phineas all over the world,” she says. “He’s been everywhere with me on commercials. I tell him the whole story, and he comes to the set and meets everyone. He’s been to Barcelona and New Zealand and Thailand. When we went to Vancouver for Blink, we went dog-sledding. I always have a few days off between the scout and the shoot, and we always make it an adventure. It’s been great getting back into long-form narrative. He’s older now, and in school, so I can see doing a feature every couple of years.”

Tami and her son, Phineas, in Vancouver during the filming of BLINK.
Tami and her son, Phineas, in Vancouver during the filming of BLINK.

Blackbird will premier in Los Angeles and London soon.

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