May 25, 2022

Filmmakers James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte on their new documentary series, The Big Conn

James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte are Emmy-nominated documentary directors and producers for the HBO documentary series, McMillion$. Brian and James return to Cinepod to talk about their latest documentary, The Big Conn, now airing on Apple TV+.

The Big Conn is a four-part documentary series that tells the unbelievable true story of larger-than-life attorney, Eric C. Conn. Conn stole over half a billion dollars from the government and taxpayers in the largest Social Security fraud case in United States history. Conn got away with it for more than 10 years before two whistleblowers told the FBI what he was doing and Conn went on the run.

Documentary filmmaking has grown and elevated as an art over the years, and James and Brian take a cinematic approach to the form. Their previous documentary series, McMillion$ had a thread of comedy throughout, with such interesting characters that it reminded them of a Coen brothers movie. For The Big Conn, Brian and James took a similar approach. They dive deep into Eric Conn’s life, using comedy to hold the audience’s interest, but underneath it’s a very serious exposé about the broken American Social Security system.

To put together such sprawling stories, James and Brian create a story outline, determine who the interviewees should be, interview the characters, write a script and then decide where they need to put in animated graphics, archival footage and recreations during the editing process. Talented cinematographer Jeff Dolan has worked with the team for years, shooting both interviews and recreations on The Big Conn and McMillion$. Brian and James planned out and put together a guide for lighting and shot composition for the look of the interviews, based on shots from scripted movies they love.

The Big Conn is a 4-part documentary series currently airing on Apple TV+.

James and Brian have a podcast to accompany The Big Conn, diving deeper into the story and subject matter. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-big-conn-the-official-podcast/id1621583098

Fun Meter, James and Brian’s production company: https://www.funmetermedia.com/
Instagram: @funmeterofficial

James Lee Hernandez: @iamthejlh
Brian Lazarte: @bdlazarte

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com//ep169/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com
Sponsored by Aputure: https://www.aputure.com/

The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/TheCinematographyPodcast
Facebook: @cinepod
Instagram: @thecinepod
Twitter: @ShortEndz

February 2, 2022

Cinematographers Daniel Grant, CSC and Steve Cosens, CSC on shooting the series Station Eleven on HBOMax

Station Eleven is an HBOMax series based on the book by Emily St. John Mandel. The story focuses on several characters who are survivors of a devastating flu pandemic that wipes out most of the human population, completely collapsing modern civilization. The series mixes together the storylines of characters whose past and present timelines interconnect, weaving together the time during the pandemic, the days and months afterward, and then how the characters have adapted twenty years into the future. Art, music and theater have thrived in a small band of actors and musicians known as the Traveling Symphony. Kirsten, played by Mackenzie Davis, is the main character and a lead actor in the Traveling Symphony, going from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare. Each community still remains under threat of hostile invaders, and a dangerous cult whose beliefs are based on a story from a graphic novel written before the pandemic appears to be on the rise.

Daniel Grant, CSC and Steve Cosens, CSC, both Canadian cinematographers, were hired as DPs for four episodes apiece for Station Eleven. They were happy to know that they’d be working closely together because they were familiar with each other’s work and comfortable with each other’s aesthetic. Executive producer Hiro Murai directed the first block of episodes- Episodes 1 and 3- with Christian Sprenger as the director of photography, and they established the initial look of the show. Murai and Sprenger shot two episodes in Chicago as COVID hit, and then production shut down for several months. Daniel and Steve were brought on to shoot the next blocks in Toronto, Canada, which felt weird and surreal as they developed the look and feel of a fictional post-pandemic world, while living through a real global pandemic.

As Daniel and Steve began prep, they were able to contribute their own ideas for the look and feel of Year 20 in Station Eleven’s post-pandemic world. Steve noted that the pacing of the show was very deliberate, and they would purposefully let shots hold for several beats. Each shot was nicely framed and the lighting was very naturalistic and organic- it was not a slick show with fast edits. With less humans around, they wanted to depict the earth returning to the natural world in the future, instead of the typical post-apocalyptic barren scorched landscape look. They wanted Station Eleven to feel positive and life-affirming, although still fraught with potential dangers.

Since the main storyline follows a roving band of theatrical performers, the show was always on the move with many different locations, and Daniel and Steve had to fuse the challenges of the logistics with the creative. Many episodes required different seasons or the same location dressed for different years. The hardest episodes and locations to shoot took place at the airport, set during Station Eleven’s pre-pandemic and then twenty years after the pandemic. The two cinematographers stayed in close contact and were true collaborators, sharing information and communicating to make it easier for each other as they switched off shooting in the airport location. Steve and Daniel would often have early morning phone calls to constantly feed each other information about the shoot day, and would watch each other’s dailies to match each other’s shots.

Find Daniel Grant: https://www.danielgrantdp.com/
Instagram: @danielgrant_dp

Find Steve Cosens: https://www.stevecosens.com/
Instagram: @cosenssteve

You can see all episodes of Station Eleven on HBOMax

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com//ep157/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com

Sponsored by Assemble: Assemble has amazing production management software. Use the code cinepod to try a month for free! https://www.assemble.tv/
Be sure to watch our YouTube video of Nate Watkin showing how Assemble works! https://youtu.be/IlpismVjab8

The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/TheCinematographyPodcast
Facebook: @cinepod
Instagram: @thecinepod
Twitter: @ShortEndz

January 13, 2022

Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS on Dune, using digital technology, working with director Denis Villeneuve and director Kathryn Bigelow

Director of photography Greig Fraser says that cinematographers always strive to create images with dimension, so that audiences are able to experience almost feeling and touching what they are seeing. Film has always had the dimensional and realistic feel that filmmakers appreciate, such as grain and color. But with today’s advances in digital filmmaking technology, Greig understands and embraces using the tools that are appropriate to the project he’s working on, and the technology just keeps improving. For Greig, no matter what he’s shooting or how technical it can be, what draws him to every film project is the characters in the movie.

On Dune, Greig and director Denis Villeneuve tested on film and also on digital, but they didn’t like either look that much. They decided to take a hybrid approach: the film was shot on digital, then output to film, and then back out to digital, which gave it the look they wanted. Villeneuve was a huge fan of Dune the novel, and had a clear vision of what his version of the Dune story should be. He extensively storyboarded the film in pre-production, and they did not reference the previous Dune movie at all. During the shoot, Greig and the VFX supervisor Paul Lambert championed getting the lighting exactly correct with the blue or green screen background so that the shots and perspective would look the most realistic and there would be very little adjustments needed in post production.

Greig also talks about using the iPhone 13 ProMax to shoot a demo film with director Kathryn Bigelow. The phone has several camera options that make it cinematic, and he finds that phones are getting better and better to shoot with.

Greig’s next film is The Batman which will be released in March.

Find Greig Fraser: Instagram @greigfraser_dp
Twitter: @GreigFraser_dp

You can see Dune in theaters now, on Blu-ray, or soon returning to HBOMax.

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com//ep154/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com

Sponsored by Assemble: Assemble has amazing production management software. Use the code cinepod to try a month for free! https://www.assemble.tv/
Be sure to watch our YouTube video of Nate Watkin showing how Assemble works! https://youtu.be/IlpismVjab8

Sponsored by Arri: https://www.arri.com/en

The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/TheCinematographyPodcast
Facebook: @cinepod
Instagram: @thecinepod
Twitter: @ShortEndz

December 15, 2021

Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC on King Richard, Nightcrawler, Boogie Nights and Magnolia

Legendary cinematographer Robert Elswit has shot a wide range of movies, including Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood- which won him the Academy Award for Best Cinematography- Magnolia, Good Night and Good Luck, Tomorrow Never Dies, The Bourne Legacy, two Mission Impossible movies, and of course Return of the Living Dead Part 2.

Robert’s latest film is King Richard, a biopic that tells the story of how Richard Williams, the father of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, was determined to shape his daughters into champions. From the beginning, Robert and director Reinaldo Marcus Green wanted the tennis to be realistic. They watched many other tennis movies and didn’t find the speed and athleticism of the actors to be believable. They knew it was going to be tricky dealing with actors pretending to be tennis players. Fortunately, the story was about Venus and Serena developing and honing their tennis skills, so the playing didn’t have to look perfect. The matches were carefully designed around scripted beats that moved the story forward. Robert and Green decided to show only specific moments of the matches, including how Venus and Serena interacted with other players, how the parents interacted with their kids, and how Richard interacted with the coaches and his kids. They were careful in thinking about how to shoot the match, keeping it as interesting and as believable as it could be in terms of speed and athleticism but also making sure that the audience understands what is happening emotionally with the characters. For the look of King Richard, Robert chose several different types of filters and diffusion to represent the light in Compton, but didn’t use as many for Florida, so that the sun could feel more bright and harsh.

Robert’s throughline for Los Angeles for the film Nightcrawler was shooting the ribbons of freeways that run through the Valley, as the main character Louis Bloom drives around LA looking for crime as a news stringer. It was impossible to fake it with a green screen. Robert, the cast and crew had to literally drive around and shoot Los Angeles at night. They had no time or budget to light things, so they scouted locations that were already lit. He took advantage of the street lights and the ambient light from billboards and stores. This approach gave the movie its distinctly seedy look, and Robert felt it was clearly the only approach that fit the script.

You can see King Richard on HBO Max.

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com//ep151/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com

Sponsored by Assemble: Assemble has amazing production management software. Use the code cinepod to try a month for free! https://www.assemble.tv/
Be sure to watch our YouTube video of Nate Watkin showing how Assemble works! https://youtu.be/IlpismVjab8

Sponsored by Aputure: https://www.aputure.com/

The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/TheCinematographyPodcast
Facebook: @cinepod
Instagram: @thecinepod
Twitter: @ShortEndz

July 28, 2021

Cinematographer Adam Bricker on shooting the Emmy-nominated series Hacks, Chef’s Table and more

One of Adam Bricker’s favorite things about being a cinematographer is the opportunity to collaborate with different filmmakers, try something new and make each project the best it can be. His most recent project is the HBO Max comedy series Hacks, which just earned him an Emmy nomination for best cinematography. Adam was given the scripts for the first two episodes, and loved the pilot script, which opens with a long Steadicam single shot following behind the main character, Deborah Vance, played by Jean Smart, for two minutes, until her character is finally revealed in the dressing room vanity mirror. Adam knew it’s a rare thing to find a half-hour comedy with that level of cinema, and he was excited to shoot the show. Hacks takes place in Las Vegas, about a legendary comedian who is losing relevance and fading from the spotlight. Adam and show creator Lucia Aniello used vintage Las Vegas movies and photos as a reference point, as well as films such as Soderberg’s Behind The Candelabra and Judy with Renée Zellweger. Adam likes to set the look based on how the viewer is supposed to feel, and he makes notes in his scripts about what emotions should be felt in each scene. Most of Hacks is filmed on tripods and dollies, but for the verbal duels between characters Deborah Vance and Ava, her young comedy writer/protégé, Adam chose to shoot handheld, which gives those scenes more energy and naturalism. Lighting on the show goes from naturalistic, when Deborah is at home or when Ava is in Los Angeles, contrasted with vintage glamorous stage lighting when Deborah performs her comedy act.

Adam grew up in Chicago and attended film school there before attending the USC summer cinema program, which inspired him to transfer to USC and continue studying cinematography. After college, Adam began taking as many jobs as he could, and planned to work his way up through the camera department, before a DP mentor suggested he buy a camera and take as many cinematography jobs as possible. He and a group of friends invested in a Red One digital camera, and Adam shot dozens of music videos and low-budget films.

The Netflix series Chef’s Table has taken Adam all over the world. As one of the primary DPs of Chef’s Table, Adam and show creator David Gelb have established the artistic look of the modern cuisine documentary, which has since been imitated by countless other food shows. When the show began, Adam had never shot a documentary before, so he had a more cinematic approach to the show, only using prime lenses and no zoom lenses. For him, it’s been a dream job to explore new places, eat amazing food at excellent restaurants and work with good friends on the crew.

Find Adam Bricker: https://adambricker.com
Instagram: @realadambricker

You can see Hacks on HBO Max.

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com/ep133/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com
Sponsored by Aputure: https://www.aputure.com/

The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/TheCinematographyPodcast
Facebook: @cinepod
Instagram: @thecinepod
Twitter: @ShortEndz

June 30, 2021

Cinematographer Alice Brooks on shooting In The Heights, Home Before Dark, working with director Jon M. Chu

Alice Brooks grew up on Broadway musical theater and movies as a kid, and loves shooting music and dance oriented films and TV shows. Alice has always been in awe of dancers, and though she isn’t a dancer herself, she is inspired by their work ethic and loves that she can capture dance with her camera.

Working on In The Heights has fulfilled a lifelong dream for Alice. She and director Jon M. Chu have known each other since college at USC. The two bonded over musicals- she shot his she shot his student short, a musical called When The Kids Are Away in 2002 and worked together again on the film Jem and the Holograms. Alice and Jon were shooting the Apple TV+ series Home Before Dark when he asked her to shoot In The Heights. Jon, choreographer Christopher Scott and Alice had also worked together on a Hulu series called The LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers for three seasons, and they got used to working together and working quickly, figuring out how tell a story and develop characters through dance. Jon, Alice and Chris Scott felt their whole careers came together to make a musical like In The Heights. The characters’ hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties can be played out not only through song and dance but in the environment around them, which sometimes shifts to where they are emotionally.

With just 49 shoot days, preproduction for In The Heights was essential. Alice and Jon Chu would location scout in the mornings and then spend afternoons in the dance rehearsal space with Chris Scott. They would share their input and make suggestions from each location scout on how to face and orient the dance. Alice and Jon thought at first many more locations would be done on a soundstage, but they found that shooting in real places on the streets looked and felt so true- even the theater and the subway station were real locations. During shooting, every Sunday they would meet and go through the coming week because the schedule was so tight and the camerawork so complex, looking at videos from dance rehearsal to discuss the shots and angles to use, deciding if a crane shot was needed, and how many cameras to use for each scene. Jon made animatics detailing each scene from storyboards and dance rehearsal footage. With 17 song and dance scenes in In The Heights, Jon had huge goals for the musical numbers, and Alice, the dancers and the entire film crew were able to pull it off.

Alice grew up in New York and got into acting at a young age. She and her family then moved to Los Angles, and she realized as a teen that she did not want to be an actor. Being on set around the camera crew made her realize that she wanted to shoot movies, and that being a DP was her true dream. After graduating from USC Film School, Alice asked many of the graduate students if she could shoot their projects, knowing that the key to honing her craft was practice, practice, practice. She shot about 20 shorts, including Jon M. Chu’s musical short, When The Kids Are Away. Alice thinks it’s important to find the right people to work with, since you’re spending so much time together, and forming that bond helps everyone. She wants to make movies that inspire her daughter. For anyone with a family, it’s important to pick the projects that are worth it, since filming can take so much time away from loved ones.

Find Alice Brooks: https://www.alicebrooks.com/
Instagram: @_alicebrooks_

You can see In The Heights in theaters, the best place to experience the film’s immersive sound design and visuals. You can also find it streaming on HBO Max.

Alice’s new musical film directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda is tick, tick…Boom! releasing in the fall.

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com/ep130/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com
Sponsored by Aputure: https://www.aputure.com/

The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNQIhe3yjQJG72EjZJBRI1w
Facebook: @cinepod
Instagram: @thecinepod
Twitter: @ShortEndz

August 18, 2020

Director and DP Brandon Trost: directing An American Pickle, shooting Crank: High Voltage, Halloween II, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, HBO pilot for Barry, comedy films MacGruber, The Interview and The Disaster Artist

Cinematographer and director Brandon Trost enjoys exploring different genres and styles of filmmaking, trying different things that push him outside of his comfort zone. Brandon grew up around film- he is the fourth generation of his family working in the movie industry. He attended LA Film School and soon began working as a cinematographer. One of Brandon’s early films, the action movie Crank: High Voltage, was shot much like a skateboarding video, with several small cameras strategically placed to capture the frenetic pace so that it would feel electric. Brandon loved working with director Rob Zombie on Halloween II, which was shot on 16 mm film for a very grainy and gritty look. Shooting the comedy film MacGruber was Brandon’s first experience working in the humor genre. He and director Jorma Taccone wanted it to look like Die Hard, taking all the action movie tropes to an extreme, which is what made it funny rather than choosing to shoot it like a conventional comedy movie. MacGruber helped launch Brandon’s career into shooting comedy movies This is the End, The Interview, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Neighbors and The Disaster Artist with Seth Rogan, Andy Sandberg, and James Franco. When shooting with comedians, Brandon found it’s important to be prepared for improvisation and to light the space so there’s flexibility for the actors to move within it, keeping shots fairly wide. For the films Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? Brandon had the opportunity to switch gears again, working with director Marielle Heller. They chose a camera and lenses for Can You Ever Forgive Me? that gave the film a real, naturalistic, even unflattering look to Melissa McCarthy’s character. Brandon got to explore dark comedy again in the pilot for the HBO series, Barry. Creators Bill Hader and Alec Berg wanted the violence to feel very real, dark and yet funny, so Brandon chose to treat the pilot like a Coen brothers movie, using moody lighting and shooting with a single camera. An American Pickle is Brandon’s first time directing a large feature film. Frequent collaborators Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg asked Brandon to take a look at the script with an eye to directing, and the story appealed to him. Directing An American Pickle was challenging since Seth Rogan plays both main characters. Much of the film had to be shot twice- once with Seth Rogan as the character Herschel and then as the character Ben. Brandon found that choosing a director of photography when you’re also a cinematographer can be difficult, and he chose DP John Guleserian (Like Crazy, About Time, Love, Simon, the upcoming Candyman) to shoot the movie because he has a great sense of humor and is very collaborative.

Find Brandon Trost: https://www.brandontrost.com/
Twitter: @b_tro

See An American Pickle on HBO Max
Our interview with DP John Guleserian will be coming in October.

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com/ep87/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com
Website: www.camnoir.com
Facebook: @cinepod
Instagram: @thecinepod
Twitter: @ShortEndz