June 5, 2024

Shogun director Jonathan van Tulleken and cinematographer Christopher Ross, BSC

The FX miniseries Shōgun takes viewers on a journey filled with action and adventure through historically accurate 1600’s Edo-era Japan. Englishman John Blackthorne arrives on a Dutch trading ship after a rough voyage, interested in beginning trade with the Japanese. The country is governed by five regents locked in a power struggle, and the ruler Toranaga thinks the Englishman might be useful to him.

Director Jonathan van Tulleken and cinematographer Christopher Ross worked on episodes one and two together, establishing the look of the series. They have a deep understanding of each other’s creative vision, collaborating on several TV shows over the years. For Shōgun, Jonathan and Chris created a visual experience that honors both the grandeur of feudal Japan and the disorientation of a foreign visitor like the “anjin,” John Blackthorne. The two met and created a look book and sizzle reel to present to FX. Jonathan drew inspiration from movies such as The Revenant and Apocalypse Now. Chris was influenced by classic Japanese films Ran, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Akira Kirosawa’s jidaigeki (historical drama) films. Most importantly, they wanted the show to be bold and stand out with a cinematic look and genuine artistic intention behind it. Chris chose anamorphic lenses and wider aspect ratios for the first two episodes, playing with the point of view of the outsider’s subjectivity and disorientation. The choice of anamorphic lenses, which create a lot of background blur but keeps the character in crisp focus, may have seemed controversial, but has become more widely used on today’s television shows. (Read this article from The Ringer to learn more.)

Shōgun was shot in British Columbia during the winter, with the wild ocean shores of Canada and carefully designed soundstages standing in for Japan. Jonathan, Chris and the production team chose a lighting and color palette of browns and greens for the warring factions. Opulent costumes, warmer lights and colors represented palace life in Osaka, while in the village, the use of blues and grays reflected the harsh realities of the time period.

The dialog is almost entirely in Japanese, and Jonathan actually enjoyed directing in a language he didn’t speak. “It meant that you were not giving line readings, you couldn’t give line readings. You had to direct in a much more pure way, dealing with the bigger arcs of the scene, the character development, without getting into very macro stuff that isn’t helpful. I think you could just feel the emotion.” Chris agrees. “What you’re hoping to achieve is some sort of emotional resonance with a character that is in tune with what they’re saying and synchronous with what they’re saying.”

Find Jonathan Van Tulleken: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1743387/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

Find Chris Ross: Instagram @edjibevel

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May 30, 2024

VFX pioneer Scott Ross, founder of Digital Domain

As a pioneer in digital visual effects, Scott Ross was instrumental in the advancement of VFX in Hollywood. He led groundbreaking work at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and co-founded Digital Domain with James Cameron and Stan Winston. Scott looks back on his career, discusses systemic problems within the VFX industry, and possible ways to fix them.

Scott began his career in sound recording for television and film in the San Francisco Bay Area for a video production company, becoming president of the San Francisco office. The success of Star Wars ignited a space race for studios, and ILM became the holy grail for VFX artists. “I get a phone call from a headhunter who says, ‘Hey, Lucasfilm is looking for somebody to head up production operations at Industrial Light and Magic.’ And my head exploded,” says Scott. “If you’re going to live in San Francisco, you want to work at Lucasfilm. That’s how I got hired.” At the time, ILM was creating visual effects for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His experience in the nascent digital video industry sped up the process, and by 1989, ILM developed a technique to work in a digital medium for making special effects. While Scott was at ILM, the company won five Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects.

However, ILM’s creative spirit began to wane under corporate pressure. “It turned into cubicles and whatnot,” says Ross, favoring a “work hard, play hard” environment. This philosophy fueled his decision to leave and co-found Digital Domain in 1993. “When I started Digital Domain, we’re going to play hard, work hard and party hard. And that’s the culture that I wanted to create. I think generally we did a pretty good job of it.” Digital Domain became a leading VFX company, creating visual effects for films such as Cameron’s Titanic.

The VFX industry is notoriously troubled, with visual effects houses underbidding on projects to stay competitive and creating dismal working conditions for employees. “There are certain companies that the only way that they could stay alive is by taking advantage of their employees, not paying them overtime, not having health care,” says Scott. “That really comes as a result of the way the clients, studios and the directors deal with the visual effects companies.” He blames a producer mentality that prioritizes squeezing VFX houses rather than fostering a sustainable industry. “The visual effects industry workers need advocates for themselves. Currently, they have no one fighting for them. They need an international trade association that changes the business model.” Today, effects workers continue to voice their need to form a union. The rise of AI further complicates the picture, with some fearing job replacement.

Find Scott Ross: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottross/
Instagram: @scott_ross

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April 10, 2024

Strada CEO Michael Cioni: Using AI to simplify workflows

Michael Cioni is one of the film industry’s most influential people in digital cinema and post production technology. He is uniquely gifted at identifying and following fads that turn into trends, and trends that convert into industry standards. Michael was always drawn to the challenge of helping filmmakers figure out their best workflows. “I really wanted to embody knowledge to help workflows, so that I could inform customers, partners and filmmakers. And then together we would figure out what’s the best recipe for this particular film.”

Michael began his career at post house Plaster City, then co-founded the post house Light Iron, which was acquired by Panavision. He then worked for Frame.io where he found several workflow shortcuts, including Camera to Cloud. Shortly after Adobe acquired Frame.io, Michael started paying closer attention to a new trend: AI. Last year he decided to leave Frame.io and together with his brother Peter, they founded Strada. With Strada, Michael wants to enable creative professionals the freedom to work entirely from the cloud, using helpful AI tools. “The most lucrative, and I think the most useful forms of AI is in utilitarian tasks. The first major part of filmmaking workflow that Strada wants to use AI to eliminate is the mundane aspects of creating a story. If creative people can get rid of the boring, mundane, repeatable, low-skill stuff, then it means we have more time to do the satisfying, creative, fun stuff.”

Strada can transfer assets from cloud to cloud without having to download them and then reupload them. Using AI, Strada can provide a transcription and a translation of narrative content early and up front. It can also tag and analyze images so that it’s easy to search using just one word for a specific scene, saving hours in the editing process. Plus, all the work can be done remotely, from any location, because everything is stored in the cloud.

Strada is currently still in private beta but anyone can apply to try it. If you have a project you’re working on, go to Strada’s website to contact them about trying out the beta version. The company plans to start rolling out the public beta by fall 2024.

The entire Strada team will be at NAB Las Vegas next week April 13-17 at the Atlas Lens Co. booth in Central Hall C5539 to provide live demos of the AI-powered workflow technology platform and allow filmmakers to test out Strada’s capabilities firsthand.

Find Michael Cioni: Instagram: @michaelcioni
Strada: https://strada.tech/

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November 8, 2023

The Holdovers cinematographer Eigil Bryld

The Holdovers is set in the early 1970’s at a New England boarding school where a few students have to stay on campus over the winter holidays. Cranky ancient history teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) has to stay and supervise. Slowly, the curmudgeonly teacher, the school’s head cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and the one remaining student, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), form a family-like bond.

Eigil Bryld is an accomplished Danish cinematographer, known for his work on In Bruges, House of Cards, Ocean’s 8 and much more. He thinks of cinematography as a kind of performance art. Making a movie means working with different people across departments who have complex and artistic personalities, and interacting with actors who are responsible for playing different characters. All these human elements of a movie must then be orchestrated in the best possible way and captured on film at one single point in time.

Eigil found it a true delight to work with director Alexander Payne on The Holdovers. Payne has a great sense of humor and is genuinely interested in people and their lives, which is always a thread in his movies. Eigil had known Payne for a few years, but this was the first movie they have worked on together. He loved the script and found himself laughing out loud several times, while also finding the characters rich and poignant.

The Holdovers is a 1970s period film, so Eigil and Payne had lengthy discussions of how it should look. Eigil referenced films from the early ’70s, such as the Hal Ashby movies The Last Detail and The Landlord. “The problem was that everyone has an idea or recollection of what the ’70s looked like, but that’s probably very far from what movies ACTUALLY looked like back then,” Eigil says. “One of the things we tend to forget in the ’70s, they would do everything to avoid grain. I mean, it’s ironic nowadays, everybody’s fighting to have grainy images. Back then they would fight to have the best possible lenses and now there’s this gold rush for old lenses with lots of mistakes and half of it is not really in focus.” He and Payne went through a testing process to find the right 1970’s look. At first, Eigil tested period lenses and cameras, but realized it was more about capturing the spirit of the time- early ’70s mid-budget movies had a kind of freedom to them, using lots of handheld shots and mostly available light. He tested 16 and 35mm cameras, but ended up shooting digital on an ARRI Alexa Mini and worked with the colorist to create a LUT with lots of yellow tonality in the highlights. Eigil shot The Holdovers with just one camera, and was also the sole operator. Camera placement was very important, with many of the shots in the movie framed portrait-style.

The Holdovers is currently in theaters.

Find Eigil Bryld: https://www.eigilbryld.com/
Instagram @eigilbryld

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October 11, 2023

The Creator cinematographers Greig Fraser ASC, ACS and Oren Soffer

Filmmaker Gareth Edwards and co-cinematographers Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer embraced the unconventional while making the new science fiction movie The Creator. From the camera used, to how it was shot, to the visual effects, the team brought together film techniques both new and old.

It’s rare to have two cinematographers working on the same film, but Greig Fraser had a set date to begin prepping for Dune and could not be on location in Thailand for shooting The Creator. Gareth was the co-writer, director and camera operator on the film, and Greig knew Gareth needed support prepping the camera and lighting each location. Greig enjoyed the close collaboration with another cinematographer while shooting the series The Mandalorian and he knew having a second DP would be the ideal situation for shooting The Creator. Cinematographer Oren Soffer was brought in, and Oren, Gareth and Greig all prepped the film together, discussing in detail how Gareth wanted to tell the story. Once shooting began, Greig was tasked with managing the LUT and screening the dailies in a Los Angeles theater, while Gareth and Oren managed the day to day on set. Oren and Greig would talk every day about lighting setups, and they both appreciated having another DP around for feedback and ideas. With a collaborator, they both felt like working on the film was less stressful and it led to better creativity.

As Greig told us in his interview with The Cinematography Podcast in 2022, The Creator was shot on a Sony FX3. The FX3 is a very affordable, small, lightweight camera that Gareth was familiar with. It was easier for him to move around handheld, explore his shots, and have the freedom to interact with his actors. Gareth’s approach to The Creator was documentary-style, much like his first film, Monsters, but it was important to him that it still looked composed like a film. The FX3 could deliver a quality image at the level they needed for color grading and for visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic to add VFX. Oren points out that if a camera can deliver an image quality that looks like what you want, and fits the technical specifications you need, then any camera the director or DP chooses is the right tool. The images shot on the FX3 did have a lot of digital noise at higher ISOs, but this was a look they embraced for its similarity to film grain. The tools a cinematographer uses will continue to evolve and unlock more creativity. With advances in post production and lighting technology, how the image is made matters a lot less. The most important thing to consider is how does the audience respond to the film? Is the cinematographer doing their job as the storyteller? For his part, Greig likes to know about all the tools available to tell the story, and he wants to have enough knowledge about what’s possible to pass on to a director when he’s asked.

While shooting The Creator, Gareth would let the crew know the general story beats they needed for the day, but he would not share the shot list- it was a reference he kept for himself, so that he could shoot on the fly in an improvisational manner. As the operator, he didn’t need to spend a lot of time explaining the shots he needed to get, or rely on storyboards. Since the visual effects were designed after the footage was shot, the storyboards only acted as a reference. Gareth wanted all of the pieces, including the action, to have the energy of spontaneity. Oren was able to “set up the sandbox for him and the actors to play in. It meant lighting more broadly, but we would know which direction he’d be shooting, and augmenting it on a shot by shot basis with small LED lights or a helios tube on a boom pole. It was like growing a film in a pot of dirt in your backyard.”

For the visual effects on The Creator, Gareth chose to be very sparing in his use of 3D special effects., spending the budget only when it was needed to render detailed objects like the robots. As a big visual effects nerd, Oren says a key component to creating a sci-fi world like this is having a director who knows what they want and having very talented VFX artists such as those at ILM who understand what is needed without wasting time on 3D images when a 2D matte painting would work just as well. The intricate 3D modeling was saved for what is seen in the foreground. An on-set visual effects supervisor gathered information, mainly about how things were lit, that could be used for 3D modeling later.

For Oren, the whole experience was life-changing, shooting all over Thailand, in over 80 different locations throughout the country. He’s very proud of the movie, and felt very inspired to work with a director like Gareth, a maverick who’s constantly open to exploring new things. He was also inspired by Greig’s equal openness and creative collaboration.

The Creator is currently playing in theaters.

Find Oren Soffer: https://www.orensoffer.com/
Instagram: @orensofferdp

Find Greig Fraser: http://greigfraser.com/work/
Instagram: @greigfraser_dp

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July 26, 2023

The Martian, Valiant One cinematographer Dan Stilling, DFF

With five different projects set to come out this year, Danish cinematographer Dan Stilling, DFF is finding fulfillment and pleasure in his career path. He’s learned that even when working with a larger budget, you can figure out how to get the best out of very little with the right people and the right gear.

As a teen, Dan played in a band and began to learn sound engineering. He got a job at a local TV station in Denmark as a sound technician and was inspired to become a Steadicam operator. After his training, Dan worked on a variety of TV shows. His first big break was working on the medical comedy Scrubs. He then transitioned from Steadicam operator to director of photography, which has informed Dan’s style as a DP for framing shots. Over the years, Dan has explored many different genres: documentary, commercials, reality television, dramas, and comedies. He’s found that as a cinematographer, you are asked for your opinion a thousand times a day, so it’s important to have an informed opinion on everything you’re responsible for.

Dan was a huge fan of Andy Weir’s book, The Martian. Once the movie started shooting, he was thrilled to be hired as the second unit DP. Additional photography in The Martian included footage of of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Dan shot the launch of the Orion capsule and all the background plates at Kennedy, including a beautiful time lapse of the sunrise at Cape Canaveral.

Dan’s film, Valiant One, shot in Vancouver and releases later this year.

Find Dan Stilling: https://www.dandop.com/
Instagram: dan_stilling_dff

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May 10, 2023

Cinematographer Xavier Dolléans, AFC on the Peacock series, Mrs. Davis

Cinematographer Xavier Dolléans has worked extensively in France on films, commercials, music videos and the award-winning French series, Germinal. The Peacock show Mrs. Davis marks his move into working on more U.S. based productions. Xavier was the DP for the Spain unit of the show. He enjoys working in narrative storytelling, where he can tell longer stories and find a look that creates the rhythm of the story.

Mrs. Davis is a humorous, dramatic and action-packed science fiction show about a powerful artificial intelligence known as Mrs. Davis. The algorithm has taken control of most people’s every day lives, and they worship Mrs. Davis with cultlike devotion. An unconventional nun, Sister Simone, has made a deal with the AI to find and destroy the Holy Grail in return for it destroying itself.

Xavier began five weeks of prep in Spain for Mrs. Davis, which takes place across the globe. The production shot in several different parts of Spain to stand in for other countries, such as Scotland. The northern part of Spain looked enough like Scotland and was far less cold and rainy. Xavier worked with a mix of American and Spanish crew. The production used U.S. production standards, with very little overlap between departments, but with European labor rules of working just 8-10 hours per day.

When Xavier first read the script for Mrs. Davis, he could understand what was happening in each scene, but the overarching story was extremely complex, exciting and unpredictable. He enjoyed the depth of the story which is only revealed a tiny bit at a time. Xavier was able to give hints with camera framing and movement of what is really happening or what a character is thinking. A camera move can reveal a lot in each episode, and all of the visuals were intentional and carefully shotlisted. Xavier and cinematographer Joe Anderson used Caldwell anamorphic lenses, which created the flare and bokeh they were looking for.

Xavier began his career in filmmaking working in visual effects. He had the opportunity to spend time on set as an assistant director, and discovered he liked the job of DOP because it combined the technical with the artistic point of view of the story. Xavier sees filmmaking as a lifestyle for the mind and the body. It’s important to stay educated and up-to-date on new systems and techniques, and to keep your body healthy and well rested so you’re in the best condition for the job.

Find Xavier Dolléans: http://www.xavierdolleans.com/
Instagram: @xavier_dolleans

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May 3, 2023

Comedian and director W. Kamau Bell on the new HBO documentary, 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed

Comedian and director W. Kamau Bell has been a fan of documentaries as much as a fan of comedy. As a kid, he would sit down with his mom and watch documentaries on PBS, since there were only a few broadcast TV channels when he was growing up. He came of age at a time when lots of documentary filmmakers were putting themselves on screen and telling personal stories. For Kamau, it’s always about looking at the material and the story you want to tell.  As a comedian, he’s skilled at bringing humor into more serious subjects. But there is a clear difference between something personal that happened to him that he can joke about in his standup act vs. something with more nuance and depth that can be explored as a longer-form project.

1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed is very personal to Kamau, since his children are mixed race. He wanted to talk to his three daughters about their identity and experiences, something they discussed often in their household. He also included interviews with his wife, mother and mother in law. The production team cast several other kids in the San Francisco Bay Area, including friends of his daughters, to expand the focus of the documentary further. The intention was to keep it lyrical and light, and temper any intense or heavy topics with humor when possible. On set, Kamau made sure the kids were as comfortable as possible and that the cameras were always framed at their level so they could look him straight in the eye. The set was a rented house that they intentionally decorated to feel homey and welcoming, and Kamau made the children feel at ease by showing them the cameras and equipment first. The parents interviewed in the documentary found that the project led to them having deeper conversations about their racial identities with other family members. HBO and the producers decided to keep the edited time of 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed down to just one hour, so that families could sit and watch it together.

Kamau thinks 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed is just the beginning of what could become a bigger project. He would love other directors to talk to kids in different parts of the country, because there’s lots of kids out there with different experiences than those in the very liberal and diverse Bay Area.

1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed is currently available on HBOMax.

Find W. Kamau Bell: http://www.wkamaubell.com/
Instagram & Twitter: @wkamaubell

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April 27, 2023

David “Gribs” Gribble, ACS on his long career and films Cadillac Man, The World’s Fastest Indian, The Quest, Jesse Stone

David “Gribs” Gribble grew up in Brisbane, AU and began studying photography at night school. He became a photo assistant, moved to Sydney, and found a job at a local film studio making commercials and low-budget movies. At the time, in the 1970’s and ’80’s, Australia was experiencing a resurgence of its cinema, known as the Australian New Wave. The government provided tax incentives for ordinary people to invest in movies, and established the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. The country’s film industry was jump started, and the genre known as Ozploitation was born.

Gribs learned camera operating on the job. His first feature film was The Man From Hong Kong, followed by the Aussie cult classic race movie, Running On Empty. The film Monkey Grip won some awards, and Gribs was asked to shoot his first American movie, Off Limits, starring Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines. He thinks that working with American actors was different than working with Australian actors- the Americans seemed to be more prone to distraction and sensitive about their appearance. Gribs learned to “light faces, not places” since that’s where the dialog comes from, and flattering actors by telling them how great they look in a particular spot, to give them tools to make themselves look better on screen. He also learned that in lighting, it’s better to work with a broad brush and shoot before you’re ready- as a cinematographer, don’t indulge yourself too much.

The movie Cadillac Man was challenging to shoot for a few reasons. The movie takes place almost entirely in one location- at the car dealership. Gribs had to combat flat lighting up against the walls of the office, as well as dealing with reflections from shiny cars and large windows. Director Roger Donaldson shot take after take, because actor Robin Williams was constantly improvising off script. Gribs found him extremely funny, and says there was so much extra footage of Williams that was cut out, it could probably make another movie.

Gribs also discusses working with Anthony Hopkins on The World’s Fastest Indian, Jean-Claude Van Damme on The Quest and shooting the Jesse Stone movies starring Tom Selleck.

Find David Gribble: Instagram @gribshott

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April 19, 2023

Mark H. Harris, film critic and author of The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar

Mark Harris has enjoyed watching horror movies since the age of about 10 or 12. Growing up in the 1980’s with so few Black characters on TV or in movies, he always noticed when there was a person of color onscreen. It stood out even more in horror, and the Black character would inevitably end up dead since they were never the main character. As an African American horror movie fan, he decided to start keeping track of the countless ways in which Black characters were killed. In 2005, Mark started the website Black Horror Movies, where he reviews the portrayal of Black characters in genre movies all the way back to the beginnings of cinema. Mark’s website provided a lot of the background information he and co-author Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman needed for their book, The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar. While the subject matter is serious, The Black Guy Dies First is a fun read, written with humor and insight. It includes lots of pop culture references, timelines, photos and concrete examples of Black representation in horror.

Mark and Ben discuss many of the topics and issues raised in The Black Guy Dies First. Horror movies have always been seen as the ugly stepchild of Hollywood, and many people still think of horror as inconsequential. But this also allows horror movies to be transgressive, and push boundaries because the expectations for it to perform with mainstream audiences are low. Scary movies have a tendency to explore different avenues and reflect society’s fears and anxieties. Race in America is one of the biggest touchstones as far as fear and anxiety, so it’s valuable to analyze it as part of the horror genre. The trope of “the black guy dies first” is a history of how Black characters have been marginalized in movies. Since they are never the lead character, they are disposable. One of the exceptions, Night of The Living Dead, was ahead of its time, because it had a Black character in the lead. This made it an outlier in the history of black characters dying.

Other cliches and stereotypes Mark sees that marginalize African Americans in horror are: The Best Friend, The Voice of Reason, The Authority Figure (such as a Black cop), The Sacrificial Negro (the character who somehow decides not to save themselves, even if they could), and The Magical Negro (who is just there to help the white main character, such as in The Shining.) Mark does see the horror genre finally changing for the better- Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a runaway smash, which has allowed for more Black leads in horror movies and across all film genres. And he was genuinely surprised that Peele’s NOPE got any kind of Oscar buzz in 2023 (though it did not receive any nominations.) Other recent films such as His House, Master, and Nanny actively explore the social issues and history of Black trauma.

Mark agrees that the best way to increase diversity in front of the camera is to increase diversity behind the camera. When people of color are writing and directing, it empowers the development of strong characters and provides opportunities for diverse points of view. In Hollywood, there has always been the excuse that too many Black leads in a movie would make it a “Black movie” and therefore not appeal to all audiences or do well internationally. But now, a lot of blockbusters have people of color as the lead, which seems to prove that this attitude is changing. At the same time, it’s important for filmmakers to not necessarily try to make the next Get Out- often, social commentary can feel wedged into the storytelling, when it didn’t need to be. Mark feels that the key to Black horror is to show range in the storytelling, but it doesn’t always have to be so serious. As a genre, horror is the most self-aware of its tropes and tendencies, so it is constantly challenging itself to change things up and find better ways to scare you.

Find Mark Harris: https://www.blackhorrormovies.com/
Twitter @blacula

The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar is available on Amazon, Audible and in bookstores everywhere.

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