November 7th, 2017

Cinematography of “Below Her Mouth” – interview with Maya Bankovic

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Maya Bankovic. In this interview she talks about the world of cinematography and the evolution of digital tools at her disposal, how she chooses her projects and collaborators, and the balance between being emotionally involved with the story and staying aware of her job on the set. The second half of the interview is about Maya’s work on the recently released “Below Her Mouth”, a tale of desire, passion, and sexuality made by an-all female crew of storytellers.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Maya: I took up 35mm photography as a hobby when I was a teenager, and I loved using my Minolta and spending time in the darkroom. But I didn’t want to pursue still photography because it seemed like kind of a lonely life. What I did realize was that I loved working as part of a team, bouncing ideas around and making something as a group, in theatre class for example. Having people around me was very satisfying, and I was thinking about how I could do that as a job [laughs].

I went to a film school and met a lot of new people, and it worked out pretty well, because twelve years later I still work with a lot of them. At that age I was chasing a certain type of life that would give me interesting experiences and access to other realities, while satisfying the technical part I loved about doing photography.

Kirill: As you started to work in the industry, was there anything particularly surprising for you?

Maya: It is such a demanding industry to be working in and the hours are really long, so it’s always surprising to me when people don’t love doing it yet stay. I didn’t want to risk becoming too jaded with all of that so I worked my way up as a cinematographer from tiny projects to bigger ones. I think doing independent films with people I care about has enabled me to maintain the love that I have for filmmaking, because the demands of the industry itself can make for a difficult lifestyle. Now that I’m working on larger projects with people I’m meeting outside of any kind of shared history together, I still go into a new film with that same spirit of community – it helps me ignore the stress of the business apparatus that’s always functioning in the background and concentrate instead on the creativity.

Kirill: What are your thoughts about the evolution of digital cameras in the last decade or so?

Maya: I talk about this all the time – this technological shift is the reason why I have this career. It started around 2005 when I took out a small bank loan to buy a DVX100a, which was the only camcorder at the time that could do 24p at an affordable price. Shooting in 24p was what was creating a distinction in the look and quality level among documentary filmmakers and indie filmmakers at that time, the same way cameras later on offered large sensors and we all made the leap towards that, collectively.

So that camera was the reason I was able to put myself out there as a cinematographer after I left school and lost access to the equipment there. People cared a lot about whether or not you’d shot film, which I had done a lot of at school. But you had to basically be able to afford to shoot a project on film in order to keep doing things at the industry-standard level. And the minimum price for a film project was around $20,000. But people were coming around to the idea of using my little DVX100a so that we could keep busy between those more expensive film projects.

Then the RED camera came out, and everything changed. Access to the RED and others that came out shortly thereafter levelled the field. It was no longer about the film standard, but rather about your eye. It allowed me to experiment. When you’re using digital equipment, it frees you up to play with composition or exposure or white balance without worrying about wasting film. The price of one foot of film comes to around one dollar, once it’s all purchased, processed and transferred. That’s about one dollar per second, which is a lot if you’re experimenting. I think a lot of DPs [directors of photography] felt liberated to play around more with cinematography and open up their imaginations thanks to digital cameras.

Kirill: Is there anything still missing in digital cameras from the artistic perspective?

Maya: I love the texture of film, and there’s a certain discipline that comes with shooting film. It is part of the process that is maybe gone now. It was the texture and certain imperfections that you could get that made me love shooting film. Those imperfections were not always appropriate for every project, but when they were, it was magical.

For me, now, it’s more about the quality of the story that I’m capturing. It doesn’t matter to me that digital has taken over. I love shooting film with its gorgeous texture, and I do adore the process. But in terms of the artistic or the creative approach, that should all be motivated by the story. That’s what dictates the creative direction you follow, not necessarily the thing you use to capture it.

The most important thing to me is the quality of the story that we are putting into the world, and I think that a lot of these projects wouldn’t get made if we were still counting on film, with its prohibitive costs. There would be very little money invested in stories that are more niche or fringe, because no one would want to sink a huge investment into a TV show or a film that is not guaranteed to show a return on investment by appealing to mainstream audiences. Projects that reach beyond mainstream culture’s usual narratives can get made now, and look good, and to me that is an important artistic development, because it’s a cultural one.

Kirill: To me as a viewer that means that I have more productions to choose from. These days I find myself having to decide what not to watch, because there’s only so many free hours in the day.

Maya: It’s definitely true. I think the main problem with that are the really low-budget productions which neither take any creative or conceptual risks nor provide good jobs for people. There’s an oversaturation of those types of productions in every major city in the world. When you only have a shoestring budget, it’s sort of a false dream to think that you’re going to make your mark as a filmmaker when you’re trying to make something with mainstream appeal but you’re up against thousands of similar projects of a similar scope. It’s not sustainable, but ultimately it’s the choice of the people that pursue it. Again, that’s why seeking out stories that exist outside of those story conventions are where I find most of my own feelings of personal urgency and devotion as a cinematographer. Same goes for when I’m choosing which films to watch. Because yes, there are so, so many of them.

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September 27th, 2017

Art direction of “Miss Sloane” – interview with Mark Steel

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Mark Steel. In this interview he talks about his path into the art department, the ever-changing landscape of episodic television that balances the cinematic scale with shrinking timelines, the day-to-day responsibilities of an art director on set, the present and potential future of combining visual effects with physical world building, and the place of virtual reality tools in simulated set environments. The second half of the interview is about Mark’s work on recently released “Miss Sloane”, a story that follows a formidable D.C. power-broker played by Jessica Chastain and her fight against the powerful gun lobby.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself, and your path into the art department.

Mark: I was born in Vancouver and grew up in Ottawa. I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid. I was into animation and horror which lead to a fascination with make up and special effects. I began reading Fangora magazine and other such publications, which really introduced me to the whole behind-the-scenes world of film. In my last year of high school I was offered a co-op program at a local community cable TV station. There I got to direct all sorts of studio shows, local remote and mobile shoots.

I then went to post secondary school at Ryerson in Toronto for Radio and Television Arts. I actually wanted to be a TV director when I graduated. I found myself at the CBC as a stagehand, and began working in set decoration and props. The CBC at the time was in decline, but a lot of the old system of designers, art directors, builders, costumes, FX and all the other trades were still under one roof. It was really a wonderful and sadly broken creative place. I learned a tremendous amount about all the crafts and talents that went into production.

I worked on the last two seasons of a popular comedy series called “Kids in the Hall”. It was a highly creative show. We did hundreds of sets a season to be shot as 16mm short films, three camera studio bits, with live audience segments. It was really a master class in pushing the boundaries in television at the time.

When I left the CBC, I found that my experience as a set decorator was most in demand. Toronto production was growing, and we had three unions in the city. I did a lot of Canadian TV series and movies of the week for US networks. I found myself working with local and US production designers, and eventually I was asked by a local PD to step in as an art director on a TV series for a Disney cable channel sci-fi series. I have been working primarily as an Art Director for US projects in Toronto although I have been all over Canada and some of the Caribbean.

Kirill: What drew you into the film / TV industry, and how has that changed after a few productions?

Mark: It’s the best part-time job anyone ever has to start. While I was still in school, I had a friend who was working on film sets as a production assistant. I had an occasion to visit and found that environment to be very appealing. My early years at the CBC was a sort of institutionalized experience that was in the process of dying, as government funding was being stripped away and I really had no future there. I knew there was this “outside” industry in Toronto, and with a few connections I realized that I could make a living in the art department as a Set Decorator.

As a young person, I was very into the circus of it all. Rolling onto locations, completely taking over a space, transforming it and disappearing again without a trace. What I also began to realize very early was that I really didn’t have the patience to work on set with the shooting crew. I found the pace and the hierarchal nature of a film set to be tedious. I much preferred to take part in the research, sourcing, prep and installation of sets. I excelled as a Leadman and Set Decorator and began to build my brand off-set in the Art Department.

Kirill: As you have done a variety of both feature and episodic productions, how would you compare the pace of the two worlds?

Mark: They are really not that fundamentally different, especially these days. I developed my skills primarily in TV series where mastering scheduling was key. My training and the goals of my early mentors was to create “feature” quality look in spite of budget and schedule constraints. Progressively, the quality and demand of television series increased through the late 2000’s. At the same time many productions also demanded more for less.

I can’t say when it was exactly over that period of time that I honed the ability to deliver on shorter and shorter timelines. 8 weeks of prep became 6 weeks that became 4 and so on, but the principal tool constantly employed is communication. It is all about prioritizing the creative needs and getting to consensus as efficiently and respectfully as possible. In TV that is almost always the Producer’s call. In features it is the Director’s.

On a TV series most of the time the Director is a guest. Usually he or she has the experience with the format and understands how to efficiently get what is needed out of a shooting day. My contact with the Director is typically about problem solving around scheduling constraints and to guide them through the possibilities on standing sets. Although schedule remains a reality in the feature world as well, the priorities are driven by the Director’s vision. Depending on his / her status and the budget, greater degrees of deference must be payed. Expectations are infinitely scalable, but in the end every project has many of the same steps.

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September 20th, 2017

Graphic design of “The Circle” – interview with Karen Sori

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Karen Sori. As the graphic designer on the recently released “The Circle”, her work brought together the physical and the digital worlds of the story. In this interview we talk what graphic design for film is, how it can be both pervasive and invisible, working on productions of different scopes and being constantly challenged to find solutions to new problems.

As we transition to talk about “The Circle”, we start with designing the physical spaces of that world, and creating a design system that defines the company’s identity. Diving deeper into the digital part of it, and screen graphics in particular, Karen talks about choosing the red color for the logo and the main interfaces to convey the sinister undercurrents of that company’s technology both internally and externally, the visual aesthetics of the interfaces and the decisions made to reduce the traditionally negative connotations associated with the red color, and taking interface elements out of the rectangular confines of the screen and into the physical space around the main character.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Karen: My name is Karen Sori, and I’m a graphic designer for film and TV.

I grew up with the love of movies very much present in my household. My father enjoyed them immensely and always made it a point to share everything he had watched growing up. So many of his memories of watching movies are tied to when he and my mother were traveling in South America as immigrants. It is a remarkable thing that movies can inspire joy and transcend any age, gender, culture, and circumstance of their audience.

After moving to the States from Sao Paulo in grade school, I remember one of my first outings with my newly acquainted cousins was a trip to Disneyland. I didn’t yet understand or speak English at the time so observing the visual feast before me was incredibly surreal. I was old enough to know that it wasn’t real but observing the buildings, the playfulness of scale, the whimsy of the characters– the delight of fantasy really stuck with me.

All through school, I was fortunate that my parents put great value in pursuing a career and life in something one loved. Never was there a moment when they made me feel I had to compromise the pursuit and expression of creativity for something traditional for the sake of convention. So I set my sights on becoming an Imagineer for Disney and the vehicle in which to get there would be an education in architecture.

Through my time in school, I made it a point to experience working at various architecture firms to help inform and better shape an understanding of what professionally practicing meant. And as much as I loved my education and found so much appreciation for a whole new aspect of the world around me, by my thesis year I knew I wanted to shift gears upon graduation and find a career that captured the spirit of world-building like Imagineering and the technicality of spatial design.

I’ve always been a planner so breaking from my own set road seemed terrifying. Ironically enough my father was the one to encourage me to not be bound by expectations (even my own) and to pursue something meaningful and lasting. So I took a chance and made a deal with my parents. For one year I would try and get my foot in the door in the film industry. And if it didn’t pan out into anything real, I would happily return to architecture knowing I had at least tried.

But where to begin? I didn’t know anyone or anything about the industry. I needed to research and get educated on what this world was really like. What is it that art departments do exactly? So I sat down and made a list of every movie I ever enjoyed and thought was visually compelling. I signed up for a month free trial of IMDb Pro (college graduates, especially middle of a recession, aren’t rolling in money unfortunately) and started digging. I looked for production designers, art directors, set designers – anybody that I could contact and would be willing to have an open dialogue with. I had an Excel sheet with all the names, when I’d emailed them, when they called back, so on and so forth. I did my best to not be a huge bother, but persistent enough to express my commitment and curiosity. It was surprising that a number of people actually responded with such sincerity and earnestness.

It was around eight months in when Beth Mickle who designed “Drive” was prepping to do Ryan Gosling’s first directorial movie “Lost River” that my first opportunity to be on a real art department came. I jumped at the chance. I packed my bags and bought a one-way ticket to Detroit.

Looking back, it was the perfect project to get me acquainted with film-making. It felt like summer camp. It was a small crew with a really small budget but wonderfully kind people that wanted to make Ryan’s vision happen. I started out as an art PA (production assistant) like anyone else and worked my way from project to project. Through the ups and downs of the business, I learned and absorbed as much as possible from every job and every person I met.

If there’s one thing I realized in all of this is that opportunities come from anywhere, and from people you may have met for the briefest of moments. There is no reason or rhyme as to when and how things unfold in this industry. So be kind, commit hard work and dedication to your craft, and be grateful you get to do what you love everyday. I am only here because of all those who came before me, opened doors and gave me a chance.

Kirill: When you said that your first experience with doing movies was magical, what about the daily pressure and grind on the set?

Karen: The crazy long hours and the all-nighters didn’t really bother me to be honest because I came from architecture where the hours and expectations were even more insane. I guess my view on “normal working hours” was already distorted to begin with.

Graphic design for going “transparent” segment. Courtesy of Karen Sori and STX Entertainment.

Kirill: What is graphic design for film? What do you say when people ask what you do for living?

Karen: I get asked that all the time. First thing people think of is that I design movie posters.

I usually preface everything by saying that any time you watch a movie, never does a crew just roll into a space, be it a mansion, a park or a museum, and shoot what is there as is. Everything that you see is considered, curated, designed, created, and carefully placed with reason and intent. Graphic design is in support of that very process.

I can design something as small as a book cover or as large as a 300-foot long mural on a municipal wall along the train tracks in Chicago. It’s making something real out of nothing. That’s the best way I explain it to people. I don’t know if it necessarily sticks [laughs], but that’s how I see it.

Kirill: If we’re talking about productions that take place in the modern time, we all are used to seeing so many different spaces in our everyday lives. Do you think people underestimate how much thinking goes into creating those spaces for film?

Karen: Absolutely. Let’s say you’re watching a drama, and you’re in a cafe. People don’t ever think about the fact that all the menus, the signs on the menus, the logo on the barista’s shirt, are all things that are created specifically for that show.

There’s also this entirely unseen side to all of this – legal clearances. Anything I make has to go through a legal department to clear names, phrases, designs etc. It’s a whole process that is not ever evident when you’re watching a movie. People are always shocked when I tell them that that rather small, almost insignificant logo in the background took a great deal of time to create and be approved for legal use.

Design process for the graphics of Dream Fridays. Courtesy of Karen Sori and STX Entertainment.

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September 7th, 2017

The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Carly Cerquone

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Carly Cerquone. In this interview we talk about how much (or little) time screen graphics get in feature films, designing elements to be seen by camera, fantasy user interfaces as a storytelling device, and how she approaches the task of creating interfaces that target specific characters. As we discuss all this and more, we dive deeper into Carly’s work on the recently released “The Fate of the Furious” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Carly: Growing up, I don’t think I could have ever considered myself “bored”. I spent most of my free time playing sports, watching movies, drawing, painting, and participating in a variety of extracurricular activities. While I enjoyed the fine-arts very much, I was also attracted to science, math, and technology. In middle and high school I enrolled in as many art and AP classes as my schedule would allow, and by my junior year I made the decision to pursue a career as an artist in the film industry.

After a lengthy search and application process, I was accepted into the Motion Picture Science program at the Rochester Institute of Technology. In addition to my coursework, I held jobs as a motion graphics designer, and a live graphics operator for Sportszone Live, our broadcast channel.

The summer of my sophomore year I was offered an internship at Cantina Creative. That year, I spent the two months in Los Angeles and earned my first feature film credit on Need for Speed. I returned the following summer for a second internship, and accepted a full-time position with Cantina immediately after graduation.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit my parents. I’m not sure where I’d be if it weren’t for their unwavering guidance and support. They’ve encouraged me in every aspect of my life and I consider myself extremely lucky to have them in my corner.

Screen graphics for “The Fate of the Furious”. Courtesy of Carly Cerquone.

Kirill: You’ve graduated the Motion Picture Science program at RIT. What is special about that program, and what are the challenges that the education system needs to meet in the world that is undergoing such dramatic changes in consumer technology?

Carly: Motion Picture Science (MPS) is a truly unique program. It provides a science and engineering based education in the fundamental imaging technologies used for the motion picture industry. It straddles two colleges – the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, and the College of Science, and joins a core curriculum in practical filmmaking and imaging science. When I enrolled, MPS had just entered its 5th year of existence, and is still the only program of its kind in the country.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the education system to keep up with technology by way of lesson plans or curriculum updates. It’s definitely important for students to be knowledgeable of current industry standards and practices, but that alone won’t be enough to carry them through their careers. I’ve met artists that have graduated from rigorous design programs, others that are completely self-taught, and others still that are educated in an entirely different field! The one thing that each of these individuals have had in common is a drive to learn and continue learning at every opportunity. If an institution can provide their students with the tools and motivation to learn outside of the classroom, they will have created an education to last a lifetime. Students who are fortunate enough to graduate with their appetite for knowledge intact, and the ability to gain it on their own will be able to adapt no matter how frequently the technology changes.

Kirill: There are so many screens in our lives, and so much software that we interact with every day. When you talk with people about what you do for a living, do you think they are surprised to hear that everything has to be explicitly designed?

Carly: Absolutely! Most people know that holograms and other obviously-futuristic elements are created in a studio. They’re often surprised to find out that even the most basic phone screen and computer monitors have been designed, animated, and replaced by an artist.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the amount of time screen graphics get in feature films? How does it feel to see your work appear and then be gone in almost the blink of an eye?

Carly: Hahaha, well when it’s worded like that it doesn’t feel great! But in all honesty, I don’t mind. Screen graphics exist to support the story. Sometimes their only function is to add to the tone of the film. Other times, they are needed to deliver important information to the audience. As long as my work is visible long enough to perform its intended function, I am happy. I can indulge in the intricacies of the design and animation in the showreels.

Screen graphics for “The Fate of the Furious”. Courtesy of Carly Cerquone.

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