November 16th, 2017

Cinematography of “Frank and Lola” – interview with Eric Koretz

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Eric Koretz. In this interview he talks about the evolution of digital hardware and software tools at his disposal, the changing landscape of the art of storytelling, working on commercials, minimizing disruptions on set, and how film compares to other art forms. The second half of the interview is about Eric’s work on the recently released “Frank and Lola”, a noir romance of desire, infidelity and jealousy starring Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots.

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

Eric: My name is Eric Koretz and I’m a cinematographer.

I graduated from the communications design program at Syracuse University. I had a design company in school doing graphic design and motion graphics. I moved to Los Angeles after graduating and continued doing the design work. After a year of doing that I realized that I hated it, and that I wanted to do film. So I shut everything down and started PA’ing on music videos and commercials. That was back around 2001.

I also did a lot of still photography, but at that time I didn’t know that I wanted to be a cinematographer. I didn’t even know what it really was. I was more interested in directing and writing, and that’s how I started. I applied to the American Film Institute for cinematography, because I naively thought that I would just learn the camera work, while keeping to do directing and writing. My portfolio was pretty strange – photography and those hybrid projects.

When I got in, everybody else had so many years of experience and it was a steep learning curve for me. But as it went along, I realized that cinematography was all I wanted to do. AFI was a great experience. I learned a lot there from the classes but also from the guest DP’s that would come in to teach, and also from the other students.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: Would you say that the industry’s transition to digital opened up the field and democratized it in a sense? It takes not that much money to get a reasonably good equipment these days.

Eric: When I was in college, those 3-chip CCD digital cameras started coming out, and they changed everything. I started using those for my hybrid projects, and they were great. But I still learned film, and I was shooting video and editing on A/B rollers. AfterEffects and Final Cut were just coming out, but that’s what you had before for editing. You would take two video-tape decks, and cut between them by rolling back and forth. That’s what I learned in college before those software packages came out.

I shot film in under-grad, and I also shot film in grad school. That’s when the first big digital cameras started appearing, with the first “Star Wars” prequel using Sony 900. And after graduating AFI that’s when 5D came out. I bought it mostly for stills, and then fell in love with the video aspect of it. And it changed everything, because you could just go out and have this beautiful quality without paying that much money for the more expensive gear. That opened up a whole new world.

I did a lot of 5D cinematography right when it first started off. I was sort of on the forefront of shooting with 5D, and I think it really helped. The normal process when you get out of school is to crew and work your way up, but I was shooting all the time. I did a lot of documentaries and smaller commercial projects, and started to build from there.

Kirill: Do you miss those days, or the physicality of film as medium?

Eric: I was always trying the next new thing in terms of digital. I love the immediacy of digital. I love to be able to manipulate the image and see what you’re doing live on set. I have absolutely no nostalgia for film, and that’s different from a lot of other DPs [directors of photography]. I love what you get with the new digital cameras. I don’t miss film at all.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: If you look at how the technology is changing in your field, do you think there’s a lot of revolutionary steps ahead of us, or is it more about incremental evolution? Is it close to reach the maximum potential of technology at this particular phase?

Eric: The steps are definitely incrementally smaller. The main camera people are using now is Alexa Mini, which is mostly because of its size and the media that it uses. However it’s an “under-spec’d” camera. The max resolution is 3.4K, but you have to shoot open gate raw to achieve that. People have been using this camera for the last two years, while there are other cameras from RED, Sony and Panasonic that have 4K+ resolution.

It’s really about the color science, and how accurate and natural you get the colors. That’s what I’m mostly interested in seeing improved. Alexa does it beautifully, and all the other companies are improving. That’s why I still use the Alexa. I love the color science.

The push for resolution only matters in terms of how you’re viewing it. Most consumer TVs that are coming out now with decent to best specs are 4K, so it’s only natural for the cameras to progress to be 4K to match that. And the projectors that come out to be used in movie theaters are all 4K. It only makes sense to have the resolution of what your final output is going to be.

Kirill: What about the artistic side of it? Does it mean anything to jump from 4K to 6K, for example?

Eric: Artistically, I don’t think it matters. It’s more about the colors and the color science, to me anyway. I’m not against more resolution. Most DPs don’t like it when you re-frame after the fact, but it gives you the ability to sometimes shoot one size and then crop in or move it around. But it doesn’t really matter to me.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

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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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