Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Jeriana San Juan. In this interview she talks about working at the intersection of Hollywood and fashion, differences and similarities between fashion design and costume design, doing research in the digital world, and keeping up with the ever-increasing demands of productions and viewers’ expectations. Around these topics and more, Jeriana dives into her work on the recently released “Halston”.

Jeriana San Juan

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

Jeriana: My name is Jeriana San Juan, and my entry into this business began when I was very young. I was dazzled by movies that I would watch as a child. I watched a lot of older movies and Hollywood classics. It was the likes of “American in Paris” and “The Red Shoes”, and other musicals from 1940s and 50s. That was the beginning into feeling immersed and absorbed into fantasy, and I wanted to be a part of that.

I loved in particular the costumes, and how they helped tell the story, or how they helped the women look more glamorous, or created a whole story within the story. Those were the things I was attracted to.

From a young age I was raised by my grandmother, and she was a seamstress and a dressmaker. She saw that I loved the magic of what I was watching on screen, and also that I loved clothes myself. I loved fashion, magazines and stores, and she helped initiate that education for me. She would show me how to create clothes from fabric and how to start manifesting things that were in my imagination. So I credit her with that.

But I didn’t know it could be a career [laughs], to specifically costume design. I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer, because I knew that could be a real job that I could have when I grew up. And as I grew up, I learned that my impulses were more of a costume designer than a fashion designer, and so I moved into that arena later on in my career.

Kirill: Where do you draw the line between the two? Is there such a line between being a costume designer and a fashion designer?

Jeriana: There are two different motivations with costume design and fashion design. Fashion design, to me, can be complete storytelling, but you make up the story as you design it. Costume design is storytelling with the motivation of a specific character, a specific point of view, and a specific story to tell.

My impulses in clothing are through more character-driven costume design and story-driven costume design. That’s my inclination. I feel that there are some bones in me that very much still are the bones of a fashion designer, and to me it’s not completely mutually exclusive. Those two mindsets can exist in one person.

I look back at those old 1950s movies that were designed by William Travilla and Edith Head and so many other great names, and those Hollywood costume designers also had fashion lines. Adrian had a boutique in Los Angeles and people would go there to look like movie stars, and he also designed movies. So in my brain, I’ve always felt like there’s a duality in my creativity that can lend itself to both angles.

Kirill: You are at an intersection of two rather glamorous fields, Hollywood and fashion, and yet probably there’s a lot of “unglamorous” parts of your work day. Was it any surprise to you when you started working in the field and saw how much sweat and tears goes into it?

Jeriana: Never. I come from a family of immigrants, and I’ve seen every person in my family work very hard. I never assumed anything in this life would be given to me free of charge. That’s the work ethic that I was raised with, so to me the hard work was never an issue because I’m always prepared to work hard.

Yes, it’s a very unglamorous life and career. Day to day is not glamorous at all. It’s running around, it’s 24/7 emails and phone calls, it’s rolling your sleeves up and figuring out the underside of a dress. It’s very tactile. I don’t sit in a chair and point to people what to do. It’s very much hands-on, and that never scared me at all. It excites me.

Costume design of “Halston” by Jeriana San Juan. Courtesy Netflix.

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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 Maria Rusche. In this interview she talks about teaching cinematography to the next generation of storytellers (spoiler alert, they love film), keeping up with the technical advances, affecting social change through her stories, and the future of storytelling in post-Corona world. Around these topics and more, Maria dives into her work on the upcoming “Dating and New York”.

Maria Rusche behind the scenes.

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

Maria: When I went to film school, I thought that maybe I wanted to be an editor. I have a cousin who worked as an editor on big comedies, and I thought that that was the part of the storytelling that I wanted to be a part of – crafting of the arc. But then I got into film school and started to learn more about how movies are actually made. I figured out what the job of the cinematographer is, which is to work with the director and the production designer to create a visual language to tell the story, and create this visual world – but also work with a team of people to actualize that vision.

That role really made sense to me, as someone who grew up playing a lot of team sports. It’s a leadership position, but really it’s about working with and delegating to a team, and collaborating with the team. That was an area of the storytelling that I fit into really well. So I got into cinematography when I was in school, and I never looked back.

Kirill: Do you think this field does not work well for people who don’t collaborate well with others? Perhaps people that have strong ideas that they are not willing to compromise on?

Maria: There can be a bit of a stereotype of this auteur who rules with an iron fist, and has their vision and they won’t compromise. But I’m not sure how true that actually is.

The best directors and cinematographers can understand what the vision is that they’re trying to achieve, and they’re able to encourage the people around them to contribute their own ideas. And then they’re able to filter what works well for the project and what might not work well so that there’s a cohesiveness across the project. There’s absolutely no way that one person can execute everything, and I mean that literally. They’re not moving the lights around, they’re not moving the camera themselves. They need people to work with them, and if you can’t work with the team, I’m not sure how great of a product you can ultimately make.

Cinematography of “Milkwater” by Maria Rusche.

Kirill: There’s so much great storytelling that has been happening in the last few years, especially on streaming services. Do you feel that there’s more space for storytellers of different backgrounds to have their voices heard?

Maria: I’m definitely excited by the democratization of voices getting opportunities. There’s a lot of streaming services that are starting to produce content, or at least give a platform for a wider variety of content to be seen. Some people worry that it’s too much content, but I think it’s still true that the good stuff floats to the top. We are seeing a wider variety of storytelling opportunities for people who didn’t traditionally get opportunities, and by opportunities I mean financing, compared to a few years ago.

I feel that there’s still a gatekeeping aspect of it. It’s still these streaming services or production companies that are choosing who gets to tell those stories, and what stories they deem are authentic enough or palatable enough. The “diverse” stories that we’re getting are still the ones that streaming services deem palatable or appealing to an audience. I would say I’m excited, but with that caveat.

Kirill: Is there a space for crowd-funded initiatives that are so popular in the gaming world, or in the world of gadgets – on platform like Kickstarter, or are these productions a little bit too expensive for that?

Maria: It’s a little bit expensive. You are seeing some crowd-funded independent movies. You can make a movie on a smaller budget compared to 20 years ago, and maybe those movies are serving as a way for a new director to get their foot in the door and get a little bit of attention. But most of those independent movies still end up being made by people with some connections to financiers in some way, or at least an ability to call a few people and scrape together a couple hundred thousand dollars to make their movie. That model doesn’t really help those who don’t have any access to wealthy donors.

I have not seen a true crowd-funded movie from someone who has gotten a hundred thousand people to give two dollars each. There’s still some issues there.

Cinematography of “Might” by Maria Rusche.

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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 Frank Barrera. In this interview he talks about the magic of moviegoing experience, the intersection of art, technology and business in bringing stories to our screens, the transition of the industry from film to digital, and the impact felt all across the industry since Covid started. Around these topics and more, Frank dives into his work on the upcoming “Together Together”.

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

Frank: I grew up in a suburb of New York City in the late 1970s, and I’ve spent most of my adolescent years in the ’80s in a movie theater. A ticket was about $2, and I’d go to see movies with my friends. There was and still is nothing like being in the theater, watching a film with a group of people. There’s nothing like that communal experience, and I grew up with that magic.

Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that this was the beginning of my film education. I didn’t know anybody in the film business. I don’t even think I knew anyone who knew anyone in the film business. It never even occurred to me that it was a job. Every once in a while I’d hear about a director, or maybe read something. This is before the Internet, and it was hard to come by information unless you happened to read a story in the newspaper about a particular popular filmmaker.

One day I had this experience that demonstrated to me the magic of this filmmaking process, and how powerful it can be. It was happenstance when I was a senior in high school. A teacher had given me a book that they thought I’d be interested in. It was called “Swimming to Cambodia” written by the actor Spalding Gray. He’s a comedic actor, and he wrote about his experiences acting in a movie called “The Killing Fields” by Roland Joffé which came out in 1984. Spalding Gray had a small part, playing the assistant to the ambassador to the United States.

The movie takes place in Cambodia in the early 1970s when the Khmer Rouge was coming to take over and all the Western diplomats were getting evacuated. There’s this particular scene, and Spalding Gray spends not even two pages on it. The scene has this limousine with a broken air conditioner, and the actor who’s playing the ambassador to the United States is a method actor. Spalding Gray sort of makes fun of him, and he winds up getting a conversation with the driver because they have to sit in the limo for hours before they actually film. He describes the evacuation scene, and it gives a lot of details about the artifice of it all, and all the smoke and mirrors.

I had read the book a couple of times before I finally saw the movie. That happened about a year out of high school when I finally saw it. So that scene comes up in the film, and I was blown away by how powerful it was – even though I read about all those behind-the-scenes details about it and how it was made. But to see that scene, a combination of the cinematography, the music, the editing, the special effects… The Khmer Rouge are attacking this area, so there’s smoke and sound effects of bombs in the background and far distance. Even though I knew how artificial it was, I still was moved by this scene – and all of a sudden it was like a switch went off in my head. It was at that moment that I decided that this is something I want to do.

I had no idea what I was thinking [laughs]. I had no idea what the next step would be. But that’s what started me on my path to getting to film school, and continuing my amateur film education with a professional film education. And I’ve never looked back. There’s nothing else I know how to do. This is it. This is my whole life. It happened in a moment.

Kirill: Jumping to the present day, now that you know about all the details behind that smoke and mirrors, does it diminish in any way your enjoyment from watching a movie?

Frank: If the film is successfully telling a compelling story, then the answer is no. Going back to my childhood, going to the movies is sort of a practice. You go in there, you sit down and the lights go down, and it’s almost like a social experiment. You keep on doing it and you become “addicted” to this activity. Our brains get accustomed to all types of activities, be it exercise, studying, reading about politics, gardening, beekeeping, etc. Whatever people decide to do with their lives, if there’s a positive feedback to it, you get accustomed to it.

If a film is working, it’s easy for me to slip into that viewer mode and not think about how the film was made. If it’s a really wonderful film, I will always try to see it again, and that second viewing is when I will allow myself to look at it more critically from a technical perspective, to wonder how they did a particular scene, how they did the lighting, or how they moved the camera.

If the film is not successful in a viewing, that’s when I start to think about why it’s not successful. It may well be a combination of things. A great film is a collaborative effort, but so is a bad film. There’s a lot of reasons why a film doesn’t work, and if it’s not working, that’s when I’ll get pulled out of it.

Kirill: How was your transition from the world of working with film as a medium to working with predominantly digital in the last 10 years or so?

Frank: I did study cinematography in film school, and I graduated in 1995. Back then in New York City there was quite a bit of independent film going on, and most of it was shot on a Super 16 and Super 35 mm film. I started out as a grip and an electrician, and slowly started getting work as a gaffer working on some of these films. I was trained to light film and that’s how I came up.

Once I started transitioning to operating camera and then becoming a DP [director of photography] myself, that’s when that quick transition to video happened. As I started becoming a DP, and I think we all did it at that time in the early 2000s, we held on to the protocols of shooting on film. That old lights-camera-action had a reason to exist. Back in the old days the lights had to be turned on, and then the camera had to start rolling, so you always said “Lights, camera, action” – but obviously not today. The camera never stops rolling and these LED lights are on all the time.

It was a nice transition for me. I hadn’t established myself as a cinematographer on film, but I had learned the fundamentals of lighting with film – and I’ve always kept that. To this day we still talk about the various aspects of how you light film and try to apply that to digital.

I feel like I had a natural progression from one to the other, and I’m happy I had that. I feel fortunate in the timing of it for me.

On the set of season 7 of “Reno 911!”. Courtesy of Frank Barrera.

Kirill: When somebody asks you what you do for a living, is it difficult to talk about what goes into being a cinematographer?

Frank: It is difficult to truly convey what the cinematographer’s role is. I can say that I work with the director and the producer to realize their vision of the film. But I don’t know if somebody who’s never been on a set can really understand that. And I say that because I didn’t understand any of this until I started working and understanding what a grip does, what an electrician does, how sound is recorded, what a production designer, etc. I’ve been in this business for 25 years, and it’s only been in the last couple of years where I feel like I’ve started to truly understand what an editor does. That sounds crazy [laughs] but I’ve never spent any time in post-production.

It’s difficult to truly express to somebody what all the parts are. I think that it’s almost impossible to explain to somebody what a producer is, for example. It all seems so mysterious…

Kirill: And they usually dominate the opening titles.

Frank: Well, it’s their film. I come from the school of thought that sees feature films as a producer’s medium. I’ve had debates with colleagues over this. Some people say it’s a director’s medium, and I say it’s a director’s medium when you see that the director is also a producer. But if the director is only a director and they have other people producing, it is the producer’s film. It’s their responsibility to make sure this whole thing is going to happen. That’s why they’re up there in the credits. When they give out the award for best film, it really should be – and often is – the producers who are accepting the award. It is a producer’s medium.

Kirill: How has this year treated you in your professional field with so many domino effect changes due to the global pandemic?

Frank: The pandemic has affected the film business like it’s affected many other industries. It put brakes to everything. It’s been pretty disastrous and terrible. There was no work for many months.

Obviously, you don’t want to have actors wearing masks, although some movies and TV shows are embracing the pandemic and are photographing actors with masks. But by and large, one of the great things about film is that you want to be taken away. You want to be transported to another place. Very few people right now want to explore the pandemic in terms of storytelling. I remember reading about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917, and very little art came out of that period – very little literature, very little film, very little painting. It seems that for with such a horrible pandemic, everyone just wants to forget about it. It will be interesting to see in the next year or two if there will in fact be a surge of films and/or TV shows that explore the pandemic.

We weren’t working for a long time, and then we started finally slowly getting back to work. It feels a little bit like a hospital clinic, with all the PPE, the protocols and testing. So much testing. It’s been incredibly disruptive.

But as a side note, I will say that when things like this happen, if you’re able to, hopefully there’s some positive aspect to it. On a personal level, I’ve been able to go back and review the old films that I loved so much when I was growing up. There are also films that you talk about over the years of your career, films that people consider influential. But another year goes by, those films get older and older, and they get further and further away. So I did take some of the last year to go back and look at some of those films. It was interesting. Some of the films held up, and some of them did not. It’s been an interesting educational and creative process to use this time to go back and revisit these films that, in my memory, were so important to me. And as we all know, memories are terrible. So it’s been an interesting experience to check in on some of my memories of these films that I grew up with.

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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 Andy Strahorn. In this interview he talks about his work in film and episodic television, the transition of the industry from film to digital, the rising expectations in the world of episodic productions, and the impact felt all across the industry since Covid started. Around these topics and more, Andy dives deep into his work on the first two seasons of “9-1-1: Lone Star”.

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

Andy: My name is Andy Strahorn, and I’m the director of photography on “9-1-1: Lone Star”. I grew up in a small town in Australia. Out local movie theater had a single screen, and it showed movies three times a week. I remember seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” when I was eight years old, and that’s how it started for me. After I saw it, I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t know exactly how to articulate that, but I knew that I wanted to do something with images.

Fast forward to high school, my first job in the film industry was as a cleaner to that cinema that I saw “Empire” 12 years earlier. In some weird way, in that small universe back in the country town in Australia, I’d come full circle to taking my first step into the film industry – even though I started as a cleaner, and then worked my way up to projectionist and what not. Then I moved town to Brisbane, worked my way from production assistant into the studio system at Warner Bros into camera. It took close to a decade to do that.

Every weekend, any chance I got, I would be shooting film. Those were short films and some ideas. The culture of where I come from, growing up in the country, has that element of learning on the job. That’s how I learned to do what I do. It was learning on the job through repetition. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to shoot short films, and then independent features. A movie I did back in 2001 called “Undead” got a release in the United States, and several years afterwards I moved over here [US] and started this part of my journey.

One thing I find interesting about any technician, any head of department, or any creative is that there’s literally not one linear way of getting into the film industry. Every single person has an interesting story of how they found themselves in the film industry and where they are today. You can have passion, and drive, and all the rest of it, but you’re really talking about a career that is so fluid. It’s not like you do this 4-year degree, and then get the job, and that’s the way it happens. It’s too fluid. It vacillates too much.

My scenario is probably more common than not, but maybe not so much. It’s whatever you can do to get where you want to go. I think the backbone of that is keeping at it. It’s perseverance and working hard. I’m very grateful that my home country taught me that. The industry in Australia is a lot smaller, so your diligence and your commitment – as well as your talent – are constantly under the microscope, so to speak. There just wasn’t enough jobs, so if you weren’t efficient or skilled, you just wouldn’t get the call. I was fortunate to learn under those circumstances and to have that at the beginning stages of my career. There’s a lot of opportunity in the United States, and that puts you in a good position to seize that opportunity and to make steps forward.

Cinematography of “9-1-1: Lone Star” by Andy Strahorn. Courtesy of Fox Media.

Kirill: How has the transition of the industry from film to digital been for you?

Andy: It’s been an interesting time. I love film and I’m a total traditionalist in that sense. But what I’ve come to enjoy about digital in the last 10 years is the ability and the immediacy to creatively make lighting and color choices right there and then. When we did film, you would shoot, then you’d wait for the lab to process overnight, and then you might see something the following afternoon if you were lucky. What this does is it takes a lot of the guessing game out. You now have the immediacy of doing whatever you want right there and then with DIT.

I relish that. I can be in the moment creatively. I can make those choices in color, contrast or texture right there and then as I’m seeing it. You go down the pipeline with the studio, the producers, and the production company, and they can see the intention – rather than an interpretation – of the image right there and then. We work in so many situations and scenarios in present day. Cinematographers might be shooting in a different city with a different crew or a different post production facility. You might not have that shorthand that you ordinarily have in your hometown, as you’re trying to find that visual language in that new relationship.

The great thing about digital is the immediacy. I’m standing right there and then, I can put a bit more of this or take out a bit more of that. There is a control factor that we all want as cinematographers as it goes through the pipeline. We want the control the intent of the image. That’s the power of digital for me.

Film is obviously beautiful, but you need to see where we are and where the industry is heading. Digital is here to stay. It is a backbone now for most studios. We are playing by different rules, but it’s good to know that we can still shape the way we see the world. We want to protect the integrity of the vision as it goes through the system. That is what is important, be it film or digital. It’s all about that vision getting to the end result that you want, and trying to protect it as much so there’s less need for interpretation of the intention. It allows you to be true to yourself and have it the way you want to, rather than there being manipulation along the way.

Kirill: Is it difficult for you to talk about what you do for a living with people outside of your industry?

Andy: It’s just hard to quantify what is a director of photography or a cinematographer. It’s that person that helps a director, a writer, and a producer, that brings whatever the subject and the script is to life with regard to the power of a camera, and what does a camera say and do.

Sometimes I put it as simply as using blue to feel the sensation of a winter cold, and using yellow, orange or red to feel the sensation of a summer warmth. Then I talk about capturing that, putting the camera and the color and the contrast, manipulating all that and trying to get everyone’s vision through the tip of the spear which is the frame that I see. It doesn’t matter what happens around that frame. No matter what happens on the set around that frame, everyone only cares about what you see in the end product.

The cinematographer is the person that makes you feel, that invokes that emotion that you feel even when you turn off the sound. You turn off the sound, you look at the image and you feel sad for that person. Why is that? It’s the lens choice, the lighting, the texture, the way the camera moves that makes people feel a certain way. That’s what I tell people when they ask me this question. I choose lenses, lighting and contrast to invoke an emotion, to make people feel a certain way when they see an image in a scene in a movie. If you do your job right, people will feel it on a subliminal level.v

It’s not always the easiest question to answer. It’s complex. Cinematography is a weird combination of art and science, and you’re also dealing with money. Art in itself is the antithesis of money. Art is raw. It’s primal and instinctual. You can’t put a dollar price on that, but that’s the game we play.

You have 45 minutes for this lighting setup, and it’s in a room that had a certain scene in it that we shot last night. The scene needs to be moody, and the room has a certain physical size to it. How do you create the illusion of mood, drama and tension in a room of that size, with characters moving all over it? How do you shoot them in a truthful photographic way, but also flattering at the same time? That in itself becomes a logistical, technical scenario.

Shoots in the film industry are getting faster and faster than they were 10 years ago. You’re moving at such a speed, and you ask yourself how do you artistically get to put your stamp on that with all the other noise around you? We need to hit certain times, we need to keep moving, we need coverage. Look at films from 20-30 years ago, be it series of features, and you compare them to what we’re seeing today, we have more shots and setups. The expectation of the images is increasingly higher. We need more today than what we did back when I started in ’95.

You have these expectations and the needs from the production company and the studio, and you have to balance it with the artistic expression. How do I say something here with the image, knowing that I have to appease and do what I need to do over here for this production company, the studio, the director, the producers and the actors? It’s a juggling act between being truthful as an artist and working within the studio system.

Cinematography of “9-1-1: Lone Star” by Andy Strahorn. Courtesy of Fox Media.

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