October 10th, 2016

Cinematography of “The Neon Demon” – interview with Natasha Braier

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my absolute delight to welcome Natasha Braier. In this interview we talk about the art and craft of cinematography, the hierarchical structure of feature film productions and how that structure still lends itself to predominantly male voices, and the pleasure and pain of working long hours over months at a time. The second half of the interview is on Natasha’s work on the meticulously crafted “The Neon Demon”, an engrossing story of a young girl taking her first steps as a fashion model in the wild urban jungle of Los Angeles.

Natasha Braier on the set of “The Neon Demon”. Courtesy of Natasha Braier.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the field.

Natasha: I was doing still photography when I was a teenager. It was mostly black-and-white, developing them in my own dark room. The first time I looked at the end credits of a movie and saw the title of director of photography was when I was nineteen. I was immediately interested in that, and some of my older friends who I studied photography with had chosen to go to film school. It was through them that I discovered that world and the role of a cinematographer. That’s when I decided to go to film school myself.

Kirill: Do you remember being surprised at anything in particular when you started there, when you saw how things worked behind the camera?

Natasha: I wouldn’t say that I had big surprises. There were a lot of things to learn that were different from the world of still photography. If there’s anything that I didn’t know at the time I made the decision to go to the school and go down this career path, I’d say that I didn’t know that it would be such an intense commitment. You barely have time to have a life, and I didn’t know that I was going to spend so much time traveling and working away from home.

Also, I didn’t know that you could make so much money as a cinematographer. That was a nice surprise. I thought that I was going to be a humble artist doing what I love, much like other artists that I saw in my life. It was a good surprise that I get to travel the world and see all the exotic places, and make money. And the other surprise was that if you want to be home for a few months, that’s difficult.

Kirill: Looking back to when you were in school, what happened to people that went to that school with you? Are most of them still in the field, or do some leave it as years pass by?

Natasha: I went to a couple of film schools because I was moving with my family. I only stayed a few months in Argentina and another few months in Spain, and then I spent three years getting a master’s degree in cinematography in England. That’s the only education that I completed end to end.

That program was very selective, accepting only six people every year for each field. The other five that started studying cinematography with me that year were older than me, in their late twenties and thirties. Some had been camera assistants before, and they were really committed to this work. It was difficult to get into that school, and once you got in, you continued afterwards in the industry. Some had more success than others, but all of them are still working in the field.

Kirill: As you said, your job is quite intense, and you spend long months away from your family and friends, and long hours on set once the shooting starts. If we’re talking about you, what makes you stay in your field?

Natasha: It’s a great job and I love doing it. It comes with a cost, and otherwise it would have been a paradise. You pay a price. You have your freedom – you don’t go to the same job every day, you don’t have a boss, you get to choose your projects, you get to travel and meet different people. And the price you’re paying for that freedom and flexibility is that you don’t always know what you’re doing next month.

I think the world is divided into people that can live with that and people who need a stable life and a stable job. If you’re not the former, you will probably not stay in film industry. If you talk about people in the industry, we are not very normal [laughs]. We need the adrenaline and the highs. It’s like being on a rollercoaster. You have your ups and downs. That’s the challenging part of the work.

Over the years I’ve learned to deal with that in better ways, to not get so anxious about what I was going to do next, and to trust that there’s always something coming. I started enjoying the moments when I’m working a lot more, and to stop worrying about what’s next. It’s also a big spiritual test where you need to learn a lot about patience and not having control over what’s next.

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August 28th, 2016

The screens of “Black Mirror” – interview with Gemma Kingsley

It’s a rare thing to see a television show that dares to challenge the status quo of how stories are told and to explore new ways to bring stories to our lives. While “Black Mirror” has only given us seven episodes in its two seasons so far, each episode was an unbelievably bright star that shone light on how the evolution of technology can change our lives as individuals and as a society, in excitingly positive and terrifyingly negative ways at once.

It brings me great pleasure to have an opportunity to speak with Gemma Kingsley who was in charge of defining and creating the screens that exposed the technology of “Black Mirror” in episodes such as “15 Million Merits”, “Be Right Back”, “The Entire History of You” and “White Christmas”. In this interview she talks about her career as a graphics designer and art director, the variety of productions she works on, and the ways to describe how technology can evolve in our lives without having that depiction overtaking the main story line. Gemma also dives deeper into the details of what went into creating the screens for each particular episode, as well as her thoughts on the pervasiveness of social media in our daily lives.

The screens of “White Christmas” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

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

Gemma: I do motion graphics, as well as art department graphics and art direction. I used to work at a TV news station doing motion graphics, and then I completed master of art in production design for film and television. After that one of my teachers offered me some work in the feature film world. I took that job, and from there continued working on various drama productions.

Kirill: What do you do as a graphic artist on a feature production?

Gemma: Sometimes I do motion graphics, especially if it’s a smaller production. On larger productions I usually do props, anything from designing tents and ship sails on a film like “Pan” to things like parchment letters for “Dracula”. On that movie they wanted the set to be a part of the story, with old wall murals from Romania. The production designer has asked me to design the wall murals into the sets of the monastery and the chapel and castle. If you look at the backgrounds of those sets, you can see the wall paintings and murals, and that’s what I did there.

The screens of “White Christmas” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

Kirill: When you talk with people and they ask you what you do for a living, are they surprised to hear that everything needs to be designed?

Gemma: I find they are surprised at how much work goes into it. A lot of the time, especially with features, they don’t realize that copyright is a major issue. You can’t just take products and use them, especially if you’re talking about famous brands. You might approach a company to use a brand of theirs, but if the storyline doesn’t reflect well on it, the brand will simply say “No” because it puts their brand in a slightly negative light. So even though they would get marketing from having been seen in a big film, they usually say “No” unless it’s being shown in a very positive light. You usually have to make up a new brand that is similar, but is not actually that brand.

Kirill: As you work on these productions, who do you work with in your immediate professional vicinity?

Gemma: If I’m working there as a graphic artist doing props, it’s with the art director or the set decorator. They contact me and ask me to come and work for them on that particular production. And if it’s something like “Black Mirror”, I work as a separate entity and not through the art department. There it’s more about post-production work, even though I start before the production starts filming. I usually work with the writer, director and production designer. You work through it into the post-production, even after the art department has wrapped.

The screens of “Be Right Back” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

Kirill: Do you do anything professionally outside the world of feature film and episodic television?

Gemma: I work at Sky Sports which is a major sports channel in the UK and Ireland. I do motion graphics for them. Working from production to production takes a lot of hours, and you have a lot of responsibility. I like to take a bit of time out, and work for Sky Sports where I don’t have to work six days a week. I’m finishing a job right now, and then going back to Sky Sports. It allows me to still earn the money while I don’t have to work very long weeks. They allow me to be flexible with my schedule.

It allows me to refresh myself until the next big job that comes along. The hours are very long, and it’s a lot of hard work. It’s very rewarding, but very tiring as well. When you finish, you kind of want to rest for a little bit.

Kirill: Where do those hours go when you’re working on one of those bigger productions?

Gemma: It depends on the job. If I work as a graphic artist in the art department, most of my time is spent in the office. I also go out to the printers to make sure that the prints are exactly the way I wanted them, on the correct paper and with the right look. Sometimes I’ll be on the set, measuring and looking with the set decorator or the production designer. We’ll talk about what it is that they want to put in certain areas, so that I can see what I’m filling. Sometimes, when you’re there, you see what they may not see immediately in my field.

On “Black Mirror” I was in my office the majority of time, and then I went on sets to show the actors what it was they were supposed to be doing. They don’t see the final graphics, so they don’t know what it is that they are supposed to be doing. If I’m not there to do that, the raw material ends up costing too much money to fix. The animations that I’m doing on those screens needs to match what the actors are doing, and it makes my job easier and more cost-effective for me to be on set rather than trying to match motions the actors are doing after the fact. We are both on the same page then and it’s choreographed correctly.

The screens of “The Entire History of You” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

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August 16th, 2016

The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with John Hill

His first production was the original “Tomb Raider”. Since then, he contributed screen graphics and fantasy UIs to productions such as “The Bourne Supremacy”, “Spy Game”, “Terminator 3”, “Thunderbirds”, “Quantum of Solace”, “Prometheus” and the last season of “24”. And for his latest project, he was the creative supervisor overseeing hundreds of screens in multiple locations on the latest installment in the Bond universe, “Spectre”. It gives me great pleasure to welcome John Hill of Vincent Studio to the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces.

Screen graphics for Q’s workshop in “Spectre”. Courtesy of John Hill and Vincent studio.

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

John: I initially studied fine art and painting, focusing more towards graphic art during my foundation art course (the course tutor highlighted the long term plights of becoming a fine artist). I did a degree in Graphic Arts and then started to freelance in central London. I then worked at a small company designing club & venue visuals, where I learnt 2D animation.

I then was asked to work at a company in Pinewood Studios designing computer graphics for film sets. My first feature was the first “Tomb Raider” film where I was asked to design the POV shots for the robot fight scenes in the opening of the film and then the title sequence, which was really exciting for me back then. I remember waiting 15 minutes for my G4 to update each frame in AE. I stayed on working full time in Pinewood for the following 2/3 years at Useful Companies working on most of the action films that came into Pinewood and Shepperton studios like “The Bourne Supremacy”, “Spy Games”, “Thunderbirds”, “Terminator 3” and others, designing UI graphics, shooting onset video and doing live playback.

I then worried about becoming too focused on UI graphics and wanted to broaden my horizons a little, so I decided to go freelance and started working at various studios around London before setting up Vincent. I continued working on films like “GeForce”, “Quantum of Solace”, “Prometheus” and “Spectre” whilst doing motion graphics and VFX projects.

Kirill: What can you tell us about Vincent studio?

John: We creatively direct, design, animate for film, gaming, commercials, broadcast and live events. We also do on-set supervision for playback and VFX post production work. We called ourselves Vincent simply because we quite liked the name and its ambiguity. I run the studio and co-direct projects with Rheea Aranha.

Kirill: What drew you into the field of designing for feature films, and how has that changed since you’ve started working professionally in it?

John: I stumbled across it to be honest… I was’t getting much out the job I was in at the time working, so a friend working on a Bond film introduced me to Useful Companies who offered me a job as their art director, so I moved. Back then UI GX and video playback for films was not particularly well respected or deemed very important in the film making process… even though we were often relied on to bridge storylines in scripts and make key story telling moments. It was still a relatively new department in film… especially UI and computer GX. Most directors and productions designers were getting their heads around using computer GX for set design and story telling as it inevitably became part of current technology and everyday life.

Kirill: Your work spans a wide diversity of projects. When you meet a new person and they ask you what you do for a living, how do you describe it?

John: This is always a bit of a weird moment for me. I never really know how to sum up what I do in a singular job role and tend to waffle on about various projects and films I’ve worked on… I usually end up saying I’m a creative director, but I’m really a visual artist looking at any form/medium to tell a story in the most clear and interesting way. I’ve found over the years I can learn most new programs or disciplines like live action shooting/directing and post production/VFX fairly quickly… although it’s not getting any easier, I must say! I’m very hands on.

Screen graphics for “Terminator 3”. Courtesy of John Hill and Vincent studio.

Kirill: If you look back at the work you did for Terminator 3, how much has your field has changed in the last decade? Do you expect the scope and intricacy of your work to continue evolving at a similar pace in the next decade?

John: I think the world of UI GX has changed considerably in the past 15 years. It is now an intricate part of many sci-fi and current day films, providing unique storytelling moments and is a great fabric to dress and light film sets, as well as a great asset to play with in post-production.

Way more time is invested by film directors and productions to create beautiful graphics and UI VFX as they not only look great but are fantastic at telling complicated stories cost effectively. It will continue to evolve at an exponential pace, I think.

Screen graphics for “24”. Courtesy of John Hill and Vincent studio.

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August 15th, 2016

Cinematography of “Gotham” – interview with Crescenzo Notarile, ASC

It’s no secret that the world of episodic television is going through a period of tremendous creativity. Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working to bring a fantastic variety of story telling to the screens in our lives, it is my delight to welcome Crescenzo Notarile, ASC. His career spans close to three decades, and in the last few years he has worked as a cinematographer on “Ghost Whisperer”, “CSI” and, most recently, the second season of “Gotham” – for which he is nominated in the category of outstanding cinematography for a single-camera series.

In this wide-ranging interview Crescenzo talks about the changing field of cinematography, the rising bar of story telling on screens big and small, the crazy pace of working on half the episodes in a 22-episode season, collaborating with different directors over the course of that season while maintaining a consistent visual language throughout the arc of the show, what happens when the show heads into the post-production and his collaboration with his colorist and the VFX department, and how easy (or hard) it is to find a simple answer when people outside of the film industry ask him what it is exactly that a cinematographer does for a living.

crescenzo1Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what drew you into the industry.

Crescenzo: My father was in the field of advertising, working as an art director, graphic designer, and illustrator… He was in very high demand at the time – a quintessential ‘Madison Avenue Mad Man’. One of his photographers at that time was Richard Avedon, and when I was a young boy, 4-9 years of age, I had the privilege and the opportunity to watch Richard work with my father, even though I was not aware of his fame at the time of course.

Both my parents were artists, (my mom was an interior designer, sculptress, and painter), and we had hundreds of art books all around the house. I too wanted to become an artist, a photographer, and it all started when I was watching my father work. I was conscious of this at that time, and knew I had wanted to be a photographer ever since I was 5 years old… Soon thereafter, my father brought home my first 2 cameras; a Brownie, and a Polaroid – all for me! They are now trophied in a glass case in my office.

Kirill: How much has your field changed since you joined it professionally?

Crescenzo: They say that it takes a lifetime to become a cinematographer – and it certainly does! Every day is a learning process, perpetually shifting. It might be a new view point of aesthetics, new stimulation, new technology, new equipment, or a new philosophy in the way I think about my work and how I should approach it at my current state of mind. It might be the barometer of our pace of our society, our culture, and how we story tell our lives at this time of life. It changes day to day to day. You never stop learning in the art of what we do – because art is life!

From the beginning to now, it’s still a growing process. In fact, the more you learn, the more you realize you have more to learn. That’s the paradox of it all. You filter all that information and knowledge inside your heart, mind and soul, and you try to collectively use that to fuel your sensibility to express your stories. When you become sharply in tune with this personal ever changing growth, you now realize, your learning starts all over again because it’s a different plateau of thinking – thus, a different aesthetic and different approach to your personal execution…

This day and age we have new technologies and new equipment. Sometimes you need to be a computer engineer to shoot something these days. It’s constant learning. To be honest, it’s not gotten any easier. That’s for sure. It just becomes more arduous and more challenging as we progress as a culture, as a society and in the field itself. There’s just so much information out there, so many choices, so many options, so many opinions, so many approaches, so many menus, and an infinite amount of stories to tell…

Kirill: Is it due to growing expectations from the production values, or perhaps the technology is getting more complicated?

Crescenzo: I think, mainly because of the so-called, “bar”… The intellectual bar, the creative bar, the bar of the audience wanting more – that’s what makes it more challenging and difficult with each passing year. The bar itself keeps rising and rising. There’s so much brilliant content out there right now. There are so many wonderful shows, and it becomes more challenging not only to surface yourself above the few that are around you to be nominated, but also to just watch the content itself.

You can only watch so much. There’s only so much time in the day, and one’s personal time in their day. That becomes challenging as to what shows you want to electively choose to watch, and why do you want to watch those shows. It is challenging for the networks, the studios and the executives. The bar keeps rising, not just at the creative level, but also at the  physical content level.

Courtesy of FOX’s “Gotham”.

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