Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Tracy Dishman. In this interview she talks about the importance of script, changes in the world of feature and episodic productions in the last few years, working on contemporary stories, and the hidden complexity of everything that goes into bringing these stories to our screens. Around these topics and more, Tracy dives deep into her work on the just released “Inherit the Viper” that looks at the impact of the opioid epidemic – a story about three siblings at war with themselves and each other, whose lives are still poisoned by their long-dead father.

Behind-the-scenes on “Inherit the Viper”. From left to right – production Designer Tracy Dishman, assistant art director Maggie Kimball, art director Prissy Lee. Photo credit Dodd Vickers. Courtesy of Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: Please tell about yourself and how early did you know that you wanted to be in this industry.

Tracy: I’m Tracy Dishman and I’m a production designer. I only started designing about 4.5 years ago. I got into the industry around 2005, and I did not go to school for it. I didn’t even know that working on movies was a job that people could have, and I have a more eclectic, rambling path into the industry.

Kirill: What drew you into it?

Tracy: I moved to LA on a whim. I happen to have a lot of friends who were in the industry, and I found myself with a liberal arts degree and no job. It was a time when there were a lot of people making shorts and little indie films. It was around 2005 in Los Angeles and there was a big rush of digital. You could just go get a camera and go make something. It was a fun time to be here and my friends just threw me on a set. I went and I did that, and I’ve been parlaying ever since.

I found that I really loved the environment and the creativity, and I’m good at it. Who knew? [laughs] I’ve learned it on-the-job, sort of baptism by fire, and worked my way up.

Production design of “Gemini” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: Was there anything particularly surprising or unexpected for you when you joined your first production?

Tracy: The whole thing – it’s nuts, and I had no idea. It’s insane how many people it takes to make a movie and the efficiency of it is crazy. I come from a military family, with a conservative lifestyle.

I thought that my liberal arts degree, my art community and my more bohemian lifestyle were the furthest thing from my military upbringing, but in fact there are a lot of overlaps between military life and filmmaking. It’s scheduled and regimented. People have their designated roles, and things need to happen with efficiency and on time. When I go away for a job for three months, it’s like being deployed. Who knew that you can’t escape your destiny?

Kirill: Stretching this a bit, probably you can question orders and push back, depending on your director.

Tracy: Sometimes. It depends on the director. It depends on your relationship with people. You need to checking your motives. Why am i pushing back? Is it a creative dispute? Is it a logistics dispute? There’s so many personalities and so many things to navigate on a shoot. It’s exciting, I love it.

Kirill: How do you know that the production is right for you when you choose your next one?

Tracy: I am a sucker for the script. It’s really important for me to connect with the script. It’s also about people. Usually I do an interview with the producers and the director. I want to know who the costume designer and the DP is, and I want to know what talent is attached. Then I ask if it’s going to be out of town, what’s the budget, etc. But it really starts with the script.

It doesn’t matter how much you throw at it. If the foundation isn’t there, it shows.

Kirill: Do you feel that there’s a lot of technological changes happening around you in the last few years?

Tracy: Yes and no. As far as technology goes, the HD aspect has affected design. We have to be very careful with our patterns, wallpapers, wood grains, fabrics because of the sensitivity. Technology is almost too good. It’s hyper-real. We have to make sure that things don’t and we have to make sure that things don’t moire and that you still have a natural feel to things, despite the crispness of the image.

But I would say that the big changes right now are more in the way the industry runs. Pilot season is not what it was. Your pilot season is year-round now. You’re not doing a 3 month pilot and then getting a 22 episode order for something. You’re doing a straight-to-series 10 episode order and then you see if it works. The big change is how production companies are investing the money, the stories that they’re telling and the chances that they’re taking.

Production design of “SKAM Austin” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: Do you see a certain tension between the worlds of feature film and episodic / streaming productions as far as where the more interesting storytelling is happening?

Tracy: I think we all know TV is where it’s at right now, and that is hard for people to adapt to – at least for people who are maybe used to the Golden Age of mid-range features. Those just don’t really exist the way that they used to. I can do million-dollar movies all day long, and then maybe there’s one Marvel out there. But that sweet spot of 10 to 30 million dollar movies where people used to do the risk-taking, that field of diverse voices – it’s all on streaming and cable now. It’s on Netflix, on Hulu, on Amazon, on HBO, and probably a few more.

It’s where people are taking their chances. And you just get more eyeballs there. With the streaming anyone can watch it anywhere. You don’t have to get someone into a theater to support the work. It’s the path of least resistance.

Kirill: Do you think it’s harder to capture the audience when there’s so many more productions “fighting” for the audience?

Tracy: It’s almost like yes and no. There is a saturation of content. There’s so much out there. Have you see this, have you see that, have you seen that other thing? There’s not enough hours in the day for people to watch all of it. And at the same time people are watching things that they never would have watched before – just because it’s on the homepage of Netflix. It’s being suggested and they play next episode.

Kirill: You’ve been doing productions in both of these worlds since you’ve started. Do you have a preference either way?

Tracy: I like both. I like the stability of a TV show, and I like knowing that I’m going to be somewhere for a little bit. We’re always getting new scripts. You’re always doing research, you’re always scouting, you’re always prepping as you go along. With features you get it all up front, you nail it all up front, and then you turn it over to the shooting crew.

My heart is in indie film, but my paycheck is in television [laughs].

Production design of “Other People” by Tracy Dishman.

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Cinematography of “Manifest” – interview with Sarah Cawley

January 10th, 2020  |  Film · Interviews

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Sarah Cawley. In this interview she talks about the industry transition from film to digital, recent advances in lighting technology, the multiple hats she wears on the set as a cinematographer, and the on-set dynamics on episodic productions. Around these topics and more, Sarah dives deep into her work on the second season of “Manifest”.

Photography by Tai Lam

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Sarah: My name is Sarah Cawley and I’m a cinematographer. I started out in feature films, and I’m now working largely in television.

I went to college when I was 18, and I did not know what I wanted to study. Soon after as an undergrad I took a film class and I made a Super 8 film, and at that moment that was it. I became very interested and I knew that I wanted to work in film, just based on that one project. I transferred to Purchase which is a film school outside New York City. It’s a program where you everyone has to take acting, everyone has to take writing, everyone has to take directing, and we all took cinematography. It quickly became clear to me that I didn’t really want to be a writer or an actor, but I really loved cinematography. I wanted to shoot everyone else’s films, and so I started doing as much of that as I could.

I had a great time at Purchase and when I graduated, I moved into New York City. Independent features were still very much happening at that point, so I shot everything I could get my hands on, and started working on bigger sets that way.

Kirill: Do you remember if there was anything particularly surprising or unexpected for you when you joined your first few productions?

Sarah: The thing that surprised me was how many aspects you had to be aware of, how many questions you had to answer, and how many people are involved. There’s this group of people who come together. We look at the script. Someone wrote it, which is an accomplishment right there. And then there’s so many other questions to be answered. That was what really surprised me.

What time are we going to shoot here? Can we shoot this scene during the day, even though it’s a night scene? Which way do we want to be looking? How many people are we going to need to do this? How many people can we do it without. You’re interacting with such a large group of people. The first time I worked with a production designer was a big surprise to me. We decided that we were going to paint the walls of this set blue. It was a night scene and I lit it with blue light, and it was all too much blue [laughs], and I started to realize how important prep was.

You could make those decisions in advance, and when you show up on set you know what is happening. That was the biggest reveal to me – how many times good creative decisions are made during prep. You’re not getting your good ideas when you’re there on your shoot day. You’re really just there to execute them.

Kirill: How things have changed for you as the industry has migrated almost completely to digital?

Sarah: That’s a big change. In the beginning I was shooting film, and people made prints. So other than making some printing adjustments that could change the basic look of the film, a lot of everything was locked into that negative.

I welcome digital and I’m not opposed to it. I love film and I still sometimes shoot film. There was a period around 2006-07 when digital was used a lot, but there was no post-production control. You could shoot something and see how it looked like on your monitor on set. But you had no way to save your LUT [lookup table] or communicate a color decision list to your post colorist. People were still learning their way. Sometimes the post path would be complicated and the project would end up not looking the way that the cinematographer wanted it to.

And then everything caught up, and now DPs understand that they can build a LUT, they can save it, they can communicate to their colorist, and they don’t get as many surprises between what they see on set and what they see in post. I have to say there’s some digital things that I’m just plain thankful for, like the ability to use power windows to darken certain areas of the set. Making those secondary color corrections is such an asset and such a benefit to the cinematographer. On a television schedule you don’t have time to cut all that light on set, and color correction now is a really big asset to a cinematographer.

Even beyond the camera, all the lighting revolutions that come our way in the last 4-5 years are super beneficial. I’m talking about the LED revolution, like the Arri SkyPanel where it’s one light and no gels. It’s DMX controlled, and you can use it to make lighting effects. We use it to make our lightning for that iconic airplane scene in the promo for Season 2 of “Manifest”. You can do lightning effects, you can do color control, you can do dimming. You can do it all remotely without ever touching a gel. It just enables you to go much faster and control the light better.

Another big find is Astera lighting tubes. They are LED tube lights with color control, but the amazing thing about them is they’re self-contained. They have their own battery, so you don’t even have to connect power.

Cinematography of “Manifest” Season 2 by Sarah Cawley. Courtesy of NBC Universal.

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Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Gregory Middleton. In this interview he talks about the collaborative nature of visual storytelling, building long-term relationships in the industry, incorporating visual effects into his productions and what he thinks about the variety of screens in our daily lives. Around these topics and more, Gregory talks about his earlier work on “Game of Thrones” and “The Killing”, and dives deep into what went into the first season of highly acclaimed “Watchmen”. Fair warning – we did the interview right after Episode 8 aired, and there are plenty of spoilers throughout the interview on the storylines in this first season.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Greg: My name is Gregory Middleton, but most people call me Greg. I’m a director of photography and I’ve been working for about 25 years in various types of media. I started in short films and art house feature films, and in the last few years I’ve been working a lot in cable television.

I started out with a keen interest in movies as a kid. I was making Super 8 films with my neighbor using the family camera. We solicited donations from our parents when we were kids to make our next little production. It was always a hobby and something I really enjoyed. I didn’t come to cinematography out of a love for or a skill at photography. It was just always a love of movies and television.

I was really passionate about how these things come about, how are these illusions created a cohesive piece of work created by all these people. So that was my mission when I was in school. I started a club in high school with another friend, and decided to try and study cinema in college. I grew up in Montreal, Quebec and ended up coming to University of British Columbia in Vancouver to study film and finish my bachelor’s degree.

That really settled me on the field. I was enjoying being with a bunch of students, making films and being all together to explore various ideas of how to make a film. During the summer between semesters the master students would get the permission to use the school’s equipment to make a feature film or a larger project, and they would use students as crew. I spent the summer after my last year at school working on a student feature project as the camera operator, and that totally sold me on the entire experience of being involved in that way.

I liked the collaborative nature of it. I like being on the camera. I like being at the center of those decisions, the witnessing of performance, and helping to craft the details of that. I was still very young, but I was totally sold that I was going to try and make this my point of focus and starting a career in some way. I gave myself five years after school to try and find my way into the profession, to find whoever would hire me to shoot a short film or anything I could do. There was an early chance to get in the Union as an assistant, but I was so set on trying to create more that I thought I should probably pursue that.

I had read a lot of books with interviews with cinematographers. In the older, studio, days there was only really one way into the camera department to become a cinematographer. You would work your way up through the ranks, starting as a camera trainee and a clapper loader, then the second and the first, then the camera operator – and work your way up for over 25 years. However with the advent of smaller cameras in the ’60s / ’70s other people started making films – smaller indies and documentaries. You could work your way up through smaller productions and develop your skills that way, and that seemed to make the most sense for me.

So I gave it five years after school to try and do that. When that time was up, I got some credits. I’ve worked with Peter Wunstorf on my first feature, and I had a couple smaller credits. I was friends with Lynne Stopkewich and we did a film called “Kissed” over the summer with the school’s equipment. That was a formative experience for me. It was a crazy, innovative, small movie about obsession and death. You have a character who was a female necrophile, which is definitely the kind of thing you’d only make as an independent film. No large company is going to give you money to make a film about that topic, because it can be so divisive.

We made an interesting film that was trying to be a sensitive dissection and exploration of the relationship people have with death. We made the film the way we could, and it did really well.

It got into the Cannes film fest, Sundance and The Toronto International Film Festival, and received some good notices. That was the first career marker – that I’d now shot a feature film, a film that people could see and judge my work on. That led to another film with another filmmaker.

Cinematography of “Final Girl” by Gregory Middleton.

Jeremy Podeswa saw the film at a film festival, and he met Lynne the director. He liked Lynne and he thought that if this person worked well with Lynne, maybe he would be a good fit for him as well. He was looking for someone to shoot his second feature film, “The Five Senses”. I did that film with him in Toronto, and that went very well. It was an incredibly interesting experience, and a really sensitive and funny script. It turned out well, going to the Cannes Film Festival and Sundance. That helped to get another credit to what was the beginning of a career, and I was able to begin to put myself out there for other work.

I’ve worked with both of these directors since. I did three more projects with Jeremy in the next 10 years, a TV movie and another feature. We also did “Game of Thrones” together later on, in 2014. So that was the beginning of my career, starting with art house cinema and getting to work on larger productions. I did a large war movie called “Passchendaele” with Paul Gross about the Battle of Passchendaele in 1916. I shot “Slither” with James Gunn.

Everybody knows him now after “Guardians of the Galaxy” of course. Back then he was just as hilariously funny. He wrote a witty and fantastic script about a horror movie in a small town. It was a great homage to the ’80s horror movie tropes, but also funny and at times grotesque. It starred Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker, and I was lucky to work on that. It was a great training ground to do a lot more work with the prosthetic effects and visual effects.

Eventually my career turned into some other things. The landscape changed around that time, and television became much more for adult stories. You started seeing more mature and complicated stories being told on television. It used to be that network shows were made mostly for youth, but things have sort of swapped around in the industry. Movies became only for kids and TV became more for adults – with the advent of HBO and “Sopranos”, as one example.

I ended up working on a TV series called “The Killing” for seasons 2, 3 and 4. I took it over after Season 1. My friend Peter Wunstorf shot the first season, and he didn’t want to return. He recommended me to the creator showrunner Veena Sud. I had been a bit wary of a TV series. The pace can be fast. You shoot episodes that are between 43 and 46 minutes, each in 7.5 days. The pace is similar to small movies or short films, but you’re also dealing with smaller resources. I was worried about getting trapped into something where you couldn’t really do the kind of artistic work you would want to do.

Cinematography of “The Killing” by Gregory Middleton.

But Veena was supportive in trying to make that show to be cinematic. She empowered me a lot. She hired independent-minded directors to work on the show, to not let it become something standard. It was much more like working on a film than I ever thought it could be. I worked with amazing independent directors on it, including Brad Anderson and Nicole Kassell. It was an amazing experience, and also an incredible learning experience of doing quality, sensitive ,interesting work on a dark subject in very little amount of time. You could learn a lot of things about how to manage your preparation time, how to manage your day, how to work with a larger crew, and how to still get good quality work.

The expression I was developing at the time was that it was a bit like playing in a band. In television, everyone’s playing an instrument at the same time. It’s not linear. A lot of things have to overlap. We’d be setting up a shot while I’d be lighting another shot, and I would bounce back and forth. You’re working with your operator, your key grip and your gaffers, and sort of doing multiple things all at the same time. It’s a bit like playing in a jazz band. And as you work with the same people, you can start to do more interesting work in a shorter amount of time together – as you start to understand each other more. Those 3 years were amazing, and I’m very grateful for it.

I got to work with great directors on that show. Jonathan Demme was one of my all-time filmmaker idols, and I got to do two episodes of the show with him directing. Unfortunately, he passed away a couple years later, but it was an incredible experience with him.

That led to more cable work. I mentioned Jeremy Podeswa earlier with whom I did a couple of episodes of “Game of Thrones”. They do like to pair cinematographers and directors together on that show. Unlike most TV series where you shoot the episodes in the sequence, that show was different because the nature of that production that being staged all over the world – Northern Ireland, Spain, Croatia and various distant locations. The strategy to keep the production running was to have all their scripts in advance, and block shoot the schedule for the entire season. That allowed them to not move the production unit very often.

So let’s say you’re shooting in Castle Black which is a big exterior set built in the quarry. It’s very complicated to dress with snow and to get ready. So they would try and do all the work in Castle Black for the season all in one chunk, over the period of a few weeks. I would go and shoot my 3-4 days there with my director and my first AD for our episode. Then we would leave, and the next director and DP and first AD come in and they shoot their few days for the next part of the story. Then I would go back to prepping. So you end up with a very long shoot for what’s only going to be two episodes. That could take four months to shoot, because you’d be sprinkling your days in locations.

For that reason, they did like to pair people together, people that they think will work well together. If the DP and the director have a history together, that was a good thing for them. We’ve done several movies together, and that worked well for managing our time in the same way we were making a film. All the work we had done before was a perfect training for working on that production.

Cinematography of “Final Girl” by Gregory Middleton.

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Cinematography of “Carnival Row” – interview with Chris Seager

December 22nd, 2019  |  Film · Interviews

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Chris Seager. In this interview he talks about the changes in the world of storytelling in feature films and episodic productions, the transition of the industry from film to digital, various facets of the role of a cinematographer, and choosing his projects. Around these topics and more, Chris talks about his earlier work on “Game of Thrones” and “The Alienist”, and dives deep into what went into the first season of “Carnival Row”, for which he was recently nominated to the American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement Award.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Chris: My passion for this industry probably started when I was about 11 or 12. My parents were reluctant to have a TV at home for some years, but eventually we got our black-and-white set. It arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and it was put into the corner of the room where the famous plant stood. That night the Billy Cotton Band show was on, which was a variety program that was popular at that time, followed by the Last Night of the Proms, a BBC TV classical music show from the Royal Festival Hall in London. It was in full swing, and all of a sudden the TV just blows up. We saw a blue flash, smoke came out the back of the set- and that was the end of that TV.

I was fascinated by it. I was always interested in art, painting and drawing. My mother was quite artistic, and that November for my birthday she got me a paperback book – which I’ve still got – on how Television works. I was eleven back then, and I would do pretend TV shows using cardboard boxes for TV cameras and the inside rolls of toilet paper for lenses.

That fascination with television took me to Art School. My school Art teacher encouraged me to go into photography. My father disapproved of it, saying that it wouldn’t be a proper industry. He would have preferred me to go into Insurance or Banking. While at Art School, at the other end of the corridor from the Photography department was the Film department. There seemed to be this constant noise coming from the editing Steenbecks where film and sound rolls were being wound back and forth as they edited their shots. When I would go there, I would find students who were obviously enjoying themselves and working in groups. In the Photography Department I was surrounded by students who were mostly ‘loners’ who were locked into their moment, just doing their thing!

I started thinking that, in a way, I would prefer working in a film department where there’s collaboration and there’s people working together. I was good at photography, and my tutor was dismayed when I decided to go to film. It was, obviously, the right move for me.

After Art School at the age of 21, I joined the BBC. That was back in the days before the freelance world that we know today. The BBC employed a vast number of staff and all technical operation staff did a 3 month training scheme. After training I worked in live television for a bit, then joined the film department, and off I went.

Chris Seager (center) on the sets of “Carnival Row”. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: When you join a new production, is there anything that still surprises you?

Chris: I started at the BBC, which gets the money from TV licenses. Everybody pays money for that service, and they have done some amazing programs over the years. Their budgets were quite small and they probably still are that way.

If you look at what has happened in television over the last few years, you have these big players like Amazon, Netflix, Sky, Disney or Apple getting in, and the budgets have suddenly gone up. I’m constantly surprised how much money companies are prepared to pour in. These productions tend to get bigger each time.

If you take “Carnival Row” as an example, it was like making a quite expensive feature film. I have all the filming toys to make my job easier and to be expressive. Obviously you have to stay on budget, but if you are saying “This is what we need for this particular job”, to get what the director wants or make it interesting or explosive”, then you’re most likely be getting a positive answer. I just wonder if at some stage this streaming bubble is going to suddenly go bang.

There’s going be so much television made. Will the audience get fed up of having to look through a library of millions of programs? Will they go through them, or decide to read a book instead? Ha. I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t do that, because I’m thoroughly enjoying this revolution [laughs]. It’s fantastic.

Kirill: I look at how much technology has changed in the last 10-15 years, even as most of these changes are happening gradually. If I could somehow transport my younger self from mid-80s all the way to 2019, he would be amazed at what we have today. If you could do the same for the younger version of yourself from 30-40 years ago, what would be the reaction?

Chris: Television has changed rapidly. Funny enough, there’s a lot of people who are quite negative about technology. I was brought up in the film era, and in my early days I worked on film. I love film. But equally, I adore my Arri Alexa. It gives me a lot of artistic freedom. I can believe in it. It seems to do what I want it to do.

If I somehow had missed the last 35 years, and dropped from mid-1980s straight to 2020, I would actually be shocked. It’s just exploded. Going from film moving through a camera gate to be exposed and being chemically processed to see the image and now to a solid chip. It compares to going from steam power to nuclear power

I do a little bit of teaching every now and then. I talk with my students about me at Film School having a Bolex camera with 100 foot of film which would personally cost me money. We had to pay towards the cost of the film. You used that film like gold dust. Every shot you did had to be thought out. Sometimes that shot would work, and sometimes it didn’t. That’s the whole point of learning. But you had to be careful with how you used that film. It was yours. You held onto it. You tried your best to make every shot count.

When my students today tell me that they don’t have enough time with professional equipment, I tell them to just go off with their iPhone and make it. You have editing equipment on your laptops. Just make films. If I had that facility back in late ’60s / early ’70s when I was at film school, it would have been unbelievable. To have this free camera in your hand that you can do things with – that sounds fabulous.

Technology has its advantages. If I decided to use 35mm film rather than use digital, I believe that would really test me now. You work so much with digital, and you get so used to working with the digital tools, being able to exactly see what you photograph right there and then. For me to go back to a system where you don’t know what you’re exactly getting until the next morning – when you see your dailies? It would be for me probably a backward step. I know some people would criticize me for saying that, but I’m so long down that digital road now that I’m more used to digital now than I probably would be with film. It’s hard to say, because as a cinematographer I was brought up with the passion of film. Film was phenomenal.

But it’s where I am now. You embrace technology, you utilize it, you test it and you push it.

Chris Seager (center) on the sets of “Carnival Row”. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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