Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Hillary Spera. In this interview she talks about the hidden complexity of what goes on behind the scenes to bring these stories to our screens, digital vs film, the current production landscape as the Corona-related restrictions are being slowly lifted, and her life-long passion of capturing images. Around these topics and more, Hillary dives deep into her work on the recently released “The Craft: Legacy”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what drew you into this field.

Hillary: I didn’t know early that I wanted to be a cinematographer, but I was always inspired by and interested in still photography. As a kid, I always picking up a camera and took photos whenever I could. It was my favorite way to get out into the world and experience it, through a lens. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was really compelled by it.

When I went to college, still photography continued to be my passion. I did it on my own as a hobby, as I was never formally trained other than a class in high school. There was a lot of trial and error. That college didn’t have a photography program that I was interested in, so I stumbled into cinematography as a way to make images, to tell stories visually. That’s when I found my love for it. It was really fun, I also loved the aspect of collaboration, being part of a team. I ended up shooting everything I could get my hands on, always being present for that, taking every opportunity and never saying no. That’s what took me down the road to being a cinematographer. I never went to grad school for cinematography. I learned from just doing it, from being on set and shooting everything that I could. Making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. And continuing to shoot still photography as well.

Kirill: If you look at the evolution of technology, do you feel that it would be easier for you to get into the field today, as cameras become more affordable and some people are even shooting on their iPhones?

Hillary: I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t know if I’d be as motivated to get into it now. I love making images. I’ve always made images and I always will. Even on my days off I’m shooting. But I came from film and I love the physical celluloid aspect of it, the tangibility of that. I’m not sure I would have gotten into it if the door had been through an iPhone instead of through film. That said, I do want to think that a love of making images would have prevailed, somehow.

I love that it’s easier now than ever, that it is accessible to pretty much everyone who has an interest. You see so many talented people shooting all kinds of stories, so many viewpoints. It’s also easier (somewhat) to make films now, and there’s more avenues to show them. You have a million streaming platforms, so many film festivals, all these places to put things out into the world. But if I’m talking about myself, I fell in love with this analog way, and I don’t know if I would have the same relationship to it without starting that way. I learned by splicing 16mm movies together [laughs], and I feel that is what taught me so much about the craftsmanship of it, about understanding light and exposure and just the respect for the process.

(Left to right) Lourdes (Zoey Luna) Frankie (Gideon Adlon) Tabby (Lovie Simone) and Lily (Cailee Spaeny) perform rituals and talk about being cautious with their gifts in Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy.

Kirill: Would you say that the field of cinematography is losing something significant as the medium film is fading away?

Hillary: It’s our challenge and responsibility to bring that to the digital world. At least from my perspective, the challenge is to always make it feel like it has the same weight to it as the films we leaned from, those often shot on film. We work hard to take the digital edge off and make it, at the very least, feel like a hybrid between the two worlds. The tangibility. Often the reference is the look of 35mm, what we did for “The Craft: Legacy”. We wanted to feel like it had the tangibility and texture of being shot on film, to feel that grain, to feel those values.

I don’t know if it’s losing something. I’d like to think that the spirit stays alive in the process and the collective references we all seek and possess. I think it’s our responsibility to continue the traditions. Visual storytelling is visual storytelling, and the medium almost doesn’t matter. It might be shot on iPhone, or on the biggest large format digital sensor, or on 35mm film. Our responsibility as cinematographers is to tell the story through images.

Kirill: How do you talk with people about what you do for a living?

Hillary: I have a lot of people in my life who are do not come from a film background. It’s a good question.

On the base level, cinematographer is involved with everything visual about the project, and that part is one of my favorite things about the craft. The collaboration with directors, production designers, costume designers, gaffers, key grips, camera team, sound effects, visual effects, stunts, etc – that is all involved and part of my responsibility as a cinematographer. Anything that relates to the image.

Getting deeper into it, my responsibility is also to watch, to listen and to interpret vision. That’s the fundamental part. There is this collective vision for the project, and my job is to interpret that and bring that visually to the project. And so much of it is managing, getting everyone on the same page to be working towards the same goal, and that collaboration. It always vacillates between the technical/managerial and the creative.

(Left to right) Lourdes (Zoey Luna) Frankie (Gideon Adlon) and Tabby (Lovie Simone) need a fourth to complete their coven in Columbia Pictures’ “The Craft: Legacy”.

Continue reading »

In this second of the three parts (part I here), it is my pleasure to talk with John Renzulli and Arissa Blasingame of Chicken Bone VFX about their work on the first three seasons of “Westworld”.

Kirill: A few years ago, “The Hobbit” trilogy tried to push HFR [high frame rate] with its hyper-realistic feel, and a lot of film critics where pushing back against that, arguing that film needs that “artistic” layer where the viewers don’t “need” to be right there in the middle of it. What’s your point of view on it? Is it fine that that pinky finger might be missing from one of those dead bodies way out in the background?

John: It needs to be layered, absolutely. It really depends on what we’re trying to do. For certain parts of entertainment world, that hyper-photo realism is essential. There you need that hyper frame rate with 8K level of detail and the focus on creating a feeling that it’s real.

I think that in most of the entertainment platforms, and types of episodics and cinematics that we work on, you see that artistic layer that needs to limit some of that. Some of that comes from an old school love for film, and my personal favorite format is definitely 35mm. Because the celluloid itself is so responsible for helping create feeling and mood in the way that it was historically in the industry, to some degree that filmic quality needs to stay. It doesn’t mean that the resolution doesn’t get higher, and it doesn’t necessarily even mean that the image doesn’t get sharper.

But if you work with color, through careful analysis at the beginning of a project, talking about what resolution is required, and even working at the very end of the pipe to slightly degrade things to some degree – all of that can introduce that “filmic” quality that allow the viewer to have a specific response to the medium. Everybody sits in a slightly different place. Each creative we work with certainly sits in a different place there. But in most of the material that we work on, we find that there’s that artistic layer that somewhat limits the overproduction of something.

Sometimes it can be as simple as a creative choice, or it could be budget. Budget can also inform some of those decisions. More frames per second means more frames to render and more frames to fuss over. So, processes take longer and they inevitably get more expensive, so budget could inform some of that as well.

Arissa: When you’re trying to create something new with a director that has a vision that’s never been done before, you want to get it as close to real as possible. But sometimes there’s no bar to gauge that against. It depends on the task that you have been given, what that collaboration looks like, and where you get to with the final product.

That’s always a little bit of a risk and a gamble. You don’t know how audiences are going to react to something that may be grounded in reality, but definitely has a fantastical side. It’s the risk and the reward of our industry. You can nail it or it might miss the mark, but it’s always a fun collaboration along the way to get to be that creative and work up something that the audience hasn’t seen before.

I’m sure that on “The Hobbit” they were trying something new and breaking the mold. And something like that is received differently across different audiences. And that then informs something in the future that can only get better with time. It’s an exciting spot to be in.

Chicken Bone VFX work on “Westworld”.

Continue reading »

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome John Renzulli and Arissa Blasingame of Chicken Bone VFX. In this first of the three parts, they talk about where visual effects fit in the ever-evolving world of art and technology of feature films and episodic TV productions, the increasing expectations from and sophistication of modern visual effects, and finding the balance between the technical and artistic sides of what they do.

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

John: I came into this field at a very young age. I’ve always wanted to be behind the camera, and to be an actor that did his own stunts, like Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future”. After I did my first commercial, I realized that I loved green and blue screens and all the things that are meant to look realistic, but aren’t.

When I was in college, that led me into post-production and editorial, and towards the end of my degree, I was deeply into VFX. That’s how I trended into the VFX community. Visual arts have always been interesting to me. I was always curious about how to get everything to be cohesive on the screen with the unified creative vision. I’ve always been interested in that process, and I’m always learning more about it. It continues to be very interesting to me to this day.

Arissa: I am quite the opposite. I didn’t know much about the industry at all when I was growing up in Florida. It was not really on my radar. After college, I moved out to Los Angeles and took an entry level job at the post facility, Nomad Editing. A few years in they started developing a VFX branch and I became intrigued by the creative process. Around the same time Johnny was looking for a producer at Chicken Bone, we connected, and the rest is history.

Kirill: How do you talk about what you do for a living? Perhaps some people consider VFX to be futuristic spaceships and robots shooting lasers, but on “Westworld” it’s about augmenting what was done in camera – for practical or budgetary considerations, and not necessarily something that is “out of this world”. Do people ask you why things at this level need to be done digitally in VFX?

John: Some people do, and sometimes it’s a function of collaborating with the creators. Budget included; you want to get a sense of what’s the right solution for this. We solve not only how it ultimately looks like in the end, but also how do we do the effects creatively. We talk about the evolution of that creative process. Before we talk about the creative visuals, we start with the creative strategy. This deep collaboration with the people that are offering the show is the heart and the soul of this company. It might be a big show or a small show, an indie project or a studio project.

Our heart and soul is geared toward high-level collaboration. That is what we do when we’re trying to figure out how we put the pixels on the screen. Every situation calls for something a little bit different, whether it’s a 2D or a 3D thing. We try to find out the straightest or the most obvious path, and if there isn’t an obvious path, we talk about how we can bite it off in chunks to make it a little bit easier in our own workflow.

Chicken Bone VFX work, progression from building models to the final layered frame.

Kirill: Do you feel that as the time passes, the evolution of technology at your disposal allows you to do more? Is there a limit to what needs to be done? Is there going to be a point in the near future where you will have exhausted the realms of what productions need, and there’s nothing to explore beyond that?

John: The technology is always pushing us and driving us forward. It allows things to be simple; it allows us to explore avenues or thought processes that we never would have explored before because the traditional tools would not allow our brains to think that way. If you take artificial intelligence or machine learning and you apply them to VFX, it’s a different mental path than something more traditional like getting rid of the green and replacing it with something that looks photorealistic.

In a way, the technology is always making things easier. But in no way I’m going to say that we’re going to hit our ceiling anytime soon. If anything, it will allow us to be creative more dynamically. It will allow us to get closer to the ultimate creator’s vision of a project, because we can get there much quicker, iterate more often, and create in a way that is a bit more dynamic in almost real-time. That is a level of integration that we haven’t really seen in the industry until very recently.

Continue reading »

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Carly Reddin. In this interview, she talks about working with multiple directors and cinematographers on episodic productions, what is involved in being a production designer, the current production landscape as the Corona-related restrictions are being slowly lifted, and what keeps her going. Around these topics and more, Carly goes back to her connection to the original movie on which she did set design, and dives deep into her work on creating the worlds of the second season of “Hanna”.

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

Carly: I was always artistic as a child, and I got interested in the theatre. I belonged to a couple of theatre groups, but I was always more drawn to the backstage aspect, as I wasn’t comfortable performing on stage. I just loved the magic of backstage, of creating worlds through set design, and the imagination that went into that.

After school, I was all set to go to Central Saint Martins to do the “Design for Performance” theatre course, but then I came across a course at Nottingham Trent University called “Design for Screen”. That summer I watched “Space Odyssey”, “June”, “Brazil”, and it opened up my eyes. I realised I could design worlds for film and TV for a job, and I was hooked.

So, I went to Nottingham Trent and did the degree there. The course leader from the National Film and Television School came to give a talk about their MA in Production Design, and I applied. When I was at that school, I was hoping the experience I was getting would lead to a job, and luckily one day I was invited to join “The Young Victoria” as their Art Department assistant. After that introduction to the big studio system I transitioned towards independent film, hoping it was a better route to becoming a Production Designer.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: Going back to that beginning of your professional career, would you say that it was right at the time where the industry started shifting almost completely to fully digital pipelines, including the various jobs in the Art Department?

Carly: When I started in the art department, the use of CAD programs for drawing up sets and 3D modelling was on the increase. We were taught these computer skills at the National Film and Television School, but we also learned the basics by hand, which is really important, as using a CAD program doesn’t just make you a draughtsperson.

Hand drafting is still a great communication tool, although you can’t beat CAD for making quick amendments. When I was on “Hansel and Gretel”, we were designing a Tudor town where everything is built of timber and wattle and daub. As these are organic materials, we found that drawing by hand was quicker and ‘freer’ than drawing in CAD. The hand drawing communicated the materials better.

Kirill: Do you miss the physicality of the pre-digital design process, unrolling that roll of paper, walking around that sketch, taking a step back to look at it from a different angle?

Carly: Not really… I’m more excited about the future than nostalgic about the past. These days, I don’t draft up sets myself, but oversee the drawings of one of my team members. I’m totally inspired by the technology that is available to us these days. StageCraft, the technology that was created by the crew of ‘The Mandalorian’ is a total game-changer, immersing cast and crew inside a CG environment in real time. You can even do scouting in VR like they did for “Lion King”.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: When you join a new production, when you get to those meetings and get on the set, is there anything that still manages to surprise you?

Carly: Yes, all the time. If you’re working on a new project, with a new director and team, the process and experience will be different from the time before. Every director has a different approach, for example; Some directors talk with you about the characters, and they’re open to your input. And other directors talk more about mood and tone, and they don’t talk about the characters’ back-stories. Each project is so unique, and there are always surprises. Because of all the wonderfully different people that work on films/TV, there is a different chemistry each time. It’s unpredictable, and I love that about my job. No two days are ever the same.

Kirill: Do you see people walking away, maybe because what they expected from it didn’t quite match that daily routine of this field?

Carly: Some people do find it difficult, because it can be very ‘full-on’. It’s not for everyone. You do have to find the balance between your personal life and your work. In a way, you’ve got to be built for it. The hours can be relentless, but it’s also really fulfilling. I certainly haven’t found another profession that can give me what this job does – in terms of fulfilment and allowing me to be so creative. I get to use both sides of my brain in this job. I have to balance budgets, track spreadsheets, build schedules, etc., and then on the other hand I get to consider colours, textures, mood. It’s a really great mix.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Continue reading »