December 10th, 2014

Cinematography of “Spring Breakers” – interview with Benoît Debie

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, today I’m honored to welcome the cinematographer Benoît Debie. In this interview Benoît talks about the evolving craft of cinematography as the technology is shifting the productions towards the purely digital end of the spectrum, what happens on a movie during pre-production, shooting and post-production phases, his work on the recently released “Spring Breakers” and how he approached the explosive neon colors that permeate the story, and the experience of shooting in 3D for his upcoming “Every Thing Will Be Fine”.

Benoît Debie.
Photography by Kris Dewitte.

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

Benoît: I started when I was quite young, around 23 years old. I went to a film school in Belgium, and after graduating I did two movies as AC (assistant camera), but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I wanted to be a DP (director of photography) for feature film, but it’s quite difficult to get there when you’re just starting. I went to the TV world for around eight years, learning a lot about TV shows, and then little by little I went back to the film industry. I did a few short movies and commercials, and my first feature was “Irreversible” from Gaspar Noé. From that moment I’ve been doing only feature films.

Kirill: How do you get approached to work on a production? Is it through the connections on your previous films, or a more formal auditioning process?

Benoît: It depends. Some directors would ask me to join them for my style or my approach. In that case they would come to me for something very specific. And sometimes I have auditions, but they are not as frequent these days. More often than not I would get called to discuss a project, or I’d get a script and then we’d discuss how to start approaching it.

Kirill: What happens during the pre-production?

Benoît: It depends on the movie and the director. I did two movies with Gaspar Noé, and with him I only join the production the day before we start shooting. That’s the way he likes it – for me to be a little bit unprepared. With other directors it may take 6-8 weeks to prep the movie, to see the locations, to do the storyboards and the shooting lists. It also depends on the complexity of the movie.

Top left – Passage, top right – The Runaways, bottom left – Enter The Void, bottom right – Lost River. Courtesy of Benoît Debie.

Kirill: As the shooting starts, do you also operate the camera? Is there a distinction between you as the director of photography and another person as the camera operator?

Benoît: You can certainly be a DP and not operate the camera. I always do both because I like to operate. It’s really important to me, especially when we shoot on film. I can see the exact frame through the eyepiece – the reflection, the darkness, the contrast. It’s important for me to see that, and I also like to operate the camera. It’s part of the look of the movie. I was the camera operator on all my movies, except for some union restrictions on movies that we shoot in the United States and some cases where we need a second camera.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the transition from shooting film to shooting digital? It used to be that only you would see the image through the camera, and it would take a few hours or maybe even a couple of days to process the dailies. And now if you connect a monitor to your digital camera, everybody who wants to see the take can see it immediately. Do you feel that you’re losing some of the magic of capturing the scene on film?

Benoît: This is a big change and a big difference between film and digital. As much as I can I keep on shooting film. It’s not only the quality that is much better. It’s also the difference between the way you shoot in film and the way you shoot in digital. For me, when we shoot in film, everybody’s focused on the action, on what have we to do – the actors, the director, the DP and everybody else. When we shoot in digital, it’s completely different. Everybody’s shooting for what seems like forever, with no cuts.

I think we’re losing things not only in terms of image, but also in terms of intensity on the set. And it’s a shame, because that’s a completely different approach to filming.

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November 26th, 2014

Cinematography of “Penny Dreadful” – interview with Owen McPolin

“Penny Dreadful” is one of the darker dramas that have graced our TV screens this year. Bringing together fictional characters from the Victorian and Edwardian literature, it weaves their origin stories set back in the haunting atmosphere of late 1800’s London. Owen McPolin is the cinematographer who shot four of the eight episodes in the first season of the show. In this interview he talks about the overall structure of shooting episodic television, creating a unified visual experience throughout the show’s arc while still allowing for individual artistic freedom of expression, the ambitious scope of quality of modern episodic TV productions, advances in digital equipment and how he sees the craft of cinematography evolving in the world of computer-generated media such as video games and animated movies and the increasing collaboration of cinematographers and visual effects supervisors. The second half of the interview delves deep into the details of “Penny Dreadful”, talking about researching the era and picking correct lighting, choosing techniques to convey suspense and fear and various aspects of this globe-spanning collaboration that encompasses facilities in Canada, US and Ireland.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into the business.

Owen: My name is Owen McPolin. I’m from the West of Ireland, and I’ve been working professionally in the industry since 1996. I was educated in Ireland, but I did most of my third-level education in film in the UK after which I returned to Ireland where I’ve been working mostly in TV Drama, shorts and smaller budget pictures.

Kirill: How does it usually work for you on episodic TV since you don’t get to shoot all the episodes for the whole season?

Owen: The structure of the industry here tends to dictate that. You would have a lot of dramas where certain DOPs [directors of photography] would shoot certain blocks. Sometimes you have leapfrogging DOPs who shoot the first pair of episodes, then the third one and then the final pair. Or you may have a situation where you do the second and the fourth blocks. Or there have been occasions where you do only two episodes of a 10-episode season. It depends on your availability and on what you’ve committed to before.

People tend to like to pair a DOP and a director in the UK, particularly on block structured series. So if the director leapfrogs, so does the director of photography. That way they can prep alongside, and then shoot together, and then go together into another prep or editing, as the other pair come into their block. That way there’s no discontinuity in production.

Kirill: How does this approach work on productions that tell a longer story throughout the whole season, or even across multiple seasons? You can’t really watch each episode as its own thing on such shows.

Owen: That comes down to the tone of the piece as it’s set at the beginning of the production. There would be a basis by which you approach the piece. If there’s a certain location set up, or a certain story arc or a certain character, you would tend to follow the grammar that you would’ve applied at the beginning for that location, the character or any given scene.

It’s episodic in nature, and you normally return to certain hero locations, hero situations, hero characters. Even though you have individual creativity as the DOP which would change and inform your approach, the overall feel of the project is already set up and you would tend to follow that, to use that as the jumping point for your own approach. There’s always going to be nuances and changes to the approach, but nothing ever too radical that would get you out of the world.

Kirill: And besides the first pair of director / DOP, there’s a lot of decisions done by the show creators.

Owen: Indeed. The creators and the producers, along with the production designer and the costume designer would start to create the idea of the world that you’re trying to capture. All the base elements are there – the sets, the colours, the tones, the costumes, the approach about how to move the camera or not. Those decisions are made earlier on.

When that structure exists, you enter that world and you capture it by your interpretation. The variables are set to a certain degree, but how you interpret a certain screenplay photographically with the same set of ingredients is up to you.

Producers and creators generally engender encouragement to the DOP to find a different way. They might say that they like what came before, but they want you to prove it, to change it a bit, to say something else, to offer them something in that scenario.

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August 7th, 2014

The craft of screen graphics and movie user interfaces – interview with David Sheldon-Hicks of Territory Studio

Continuing the series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to the big screens, it’s an honor to welcome David Sheldon-Hicks of Territory Studio. Prior to founding the studio in 2010 David has worked on “Casino Royale” and “Dark Knight”. Since then, Territory’s work can be seen in movies as diverse as “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”, “Prometheus”, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the upcoming “Jupiter Ascending”. In this interview he talks about collaborating with the director, the art department and the VFX department throughout the different stages of a production, staying true to the look of the specific production such as aerial tracking in Zero Dark Thirty or high-tech science of Prometheus, the approach he’s taking to design futuristic interfaces, the physicality of technology around us and how it projects into his latest work on Guardians of the Galaxy, and the diverse gamut of projects Territory is working on and how they feed into each other.

From left to right: Peter Eszenyi, Nick Hill, Marti Romances and Ryan Rafferty-Phelan of Territory Studio at work on Guardians of the Galaxy.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what you do.

David: I set up Territory in 2010 together with Lee Fasciani and Nick Glover. Having met while on a project, we wanted to work together and Territory seemed like a good name to describe our ambitions to carve our own path in the competitive creative sector here in London.

I’m Creative Director of Motion, with a background in graphic design, moving image and motion graphics – cutting my teeth in music videos before moving onto films, computer games and TV commercials.

The studio combines a number of disciplines under one roof – motion graphics, animation and live action production, branding and UI across print and digital (web, mobile, tablet) and with the recent addition of Luke Miles as Director of Brand Experience, we are able to help brands engage audiences more affectively through physical and non-physical (service) design.

While that sounds like a strange mix, what ties it all together is our shared creative focus on human interaction, and future and near future challenges.

Film and gaming is really my heartland. Our first computer game project was for EA on “Medal of Honor”, which was one of the newer titles in 2010. They were going for a more “Modern Warfare” type of a game, and wanted an opening cinematic to tell the background story of why you [the player] were going to war.

Our first feature film project was “Prometheus” – a historic moment for Territory. Out of the blue we got a phone call from someone who wouldn’t tell us what the project was but it sounded interesting enough so we signed a couple of NDA’s. Then we were told that we’d be working on computer screen graphics for a new Ridley Scott film that was going to be a prequel to the Alien universe – at which point we freaked out. I’m a personal fan of Ridley Scott, and Ron Cobb’s universal language and iconography for the original Alien movie is held in very high regard in the design community. So to have the opportunity to explore that at an early stage was really exciting. The project itself has defined Territory’s approach to on-set screen graphics.

Kirill: And before Prometheus you worked on a couple more movie productions.

David: Yes, as a freelancer I worked on “Casino Royale” and “Dark Knight”. Both those projects were amazing and I loved the challenge and excitement of communicating complex concepts in a brief moment of pure user interface design that is also an intrinsic part of a sound stage environment that the actors engage with!

As Territory has grown, our user interface work for films has grown and developed as well, and we approach it as a discipline in its own right. We get different unique briefs and each one is a creative challenge. The beauty is in the idea of considering user experiences and interactions without the constraints of how you might build it. Sometimes it’s high tech, sci-fi future-thinking user interface, narrative thinking in computer games, or exploring future applications for tech giants such as Sony, Samsung or Microsoft.

We now find that the conceptual approach that we bring to film work appeals to other clients.

Tracking overlays for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Courtesy of Territory Studio.

Tracking overlays for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Courtesy of Territory Studio.

Kirill: What about Zero Dark Thirty and Jack Ryan? Was it just you, or was it done by the Studio?

David: That was completed by Territory, rather than by me as an individual. We did “Zero Dark Thirty” after Prometheus, and it was at the opposite extreme in terms of sci-fi versus real-world narrative. It had to be very real and very authentic. There were a couple of visual effect shots but most of the computer screen graphics were on-set playbacks. The large screens where they’re looking at the Predator drone footage and reviewing aerial photography were all CGI plates that we had built and rendered in Cinema 4D, referencing data from Google Maps and then projecting on-set live for the actors to perform against.

We worked on two aspects of “Jack Ryan”; we created a lot of on-set graphics, and we also created what is called an ‘original content’ trailer. We took footage from the theatrical release trailer and did something unique with it – using hard overlays and surveillance technologies to suggest a narrative and suggesting background for some of the characters. In effect, we were using our UI graphical language both to set-dress the film and to advertise it.

Kirill: And for this type of movie your main constraint is that it’s very much rooted in the current technological world.

David: Definitely. Case in point, on Zero Dark Thirty I believe we had CIA signing-off on how realistic our work was, and what we could say to be true. For instance, we looked on Google Maps to see what the compound where Osama Bin Laden was hiding in looked like, and they asked us to change it to a degree so that it wasn’t exactly the same. There was online photography of the helicopter that crashed, and we approximated it as a 3D model and, again, changed it a bit for fictional purposes. It was an interesting, if delicate, balance to strike. And of course we had a typical sign-off from the art department – normal sources other than the CIA!

Control center from Zero Dark Thirty. Courtesy of Territory Studio.

Aerial footage from Zero Dark Thirty. Courtesy of Territory Studio.
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July 22nd, 2014

Shifting gears – interview with Jonathan Freeman ASC

When I first spoke with the cinematographer Jonathan Freeman ASC in late 2011, it was primarily about his work on feature films. Since then he has worked on a number of HBO television productions, including “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire”. In this interview Jonathan talks about the disappearing world of mid-budget adult feature drama and the migration of creative talent into the television world, defining and evolving the visual look of a series in collaboration with multiple director / cinematographer crews, an almost-continuous seasonal cycle of high-quality adult drama series, his close collaboration as a director of photography with VFX department on the effects-heavy “Game of Thrones” and working on tighter-scripted story arcs that span entire seasons.


Kirill: As a viewer I’m seeing a lot of quality adult drama productions writing, as well as high-profile cast & crew, moving from the feature world into the TV world in the last few years – including “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire” that you’ve been working on. Is that what you are seeing as well from within the industry?

Jonathan: Generally speaking I prefer the shorter format of movies. Telling a concise story, within a couple of hours, more or less, is something that I always aspire to. However I’m always drawn firstly to the content of the script. The difference of quality between features and television scripts that I’ve been exposed to lately, is quite surprising. There’s been such a great improvement in television writing to the point where one could argue that the best writing is currently in TV. You’re starting to see now how the success and popularity of TV shows overshadow some of the major film releases. If the old water cooler is any gage, people seem to talk about popular TV shows on Monday mornings more often than the latest blockbusters.

You’re also seeing a migration of highly sought-after filmmakers desiring to make a leap into television. Part of that is probably financial, but I think there are two aspects on the creative side. The first is the opportunity to tell a longer story, which is something unique. And the other is that the material presented to them is quite exceptional. As for myself, I continue to choose my projects based on the quality of material rather than the medium itself.

Kirill: And there’s not much mid-budget drama being done in feature world.

Jonathan: That’s very true. There seems to be a void between ultra low budget films and tentpoles. The middle-sized budgets – from $15M to $40M – are rarely being made currently. You’ll occasionally come across a couple here and there that were built up through some unique financing. But it seems like mid-range films, for the moment at least, are not profitable investments for the studios.

Hopefully these are cycles that may come back. There was a period a few years back where films recognized by the Academy awards were independent ones in that $15M-$40 range, gaining interest from the Oscars as well as at the box office. That seemed to go away when tentpoles and the ultra-low budget horror movies became very financially successful.
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