Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Neil Patel. In this interview he talks about his work in theater, film and episodic television, evolution of tools at his disposal, changes in the world of episodic productions in the recent years with the rise of streaming services, and the impact felt all across the industry since Covid started. Around these topics and more, Neil dives deep into his work on the second season of “Dickinson”.

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

Neil: My name is Neil Patel, and I’m a production designer. I’m currently working on season 3 of “Dickinson”, and I also did season 2 which has just been released.

My path to this job started when I was in school. I was interested in art and architecture, and I loved film – but I never thought of working in film. I pursued a degree in architecture, and at college I connected socially with people who were doing films and theater. I was a visual artist and an architect, and they asked me to design sets which was my introduction to the whole idea of being the visual person that tells stories and makes plays.

I began doing that and I found that I really liked everything about it. I liked the process. I loved collaborating with people. I loved taking my skill and my interest in the visual world, architecture and art, and translating it into helping to tell story. It was also much more immediate. Architecture is a process. You work for years before you see the thing that you’ve been working on. But in theater and film, depending on the size of the project, you might see the result of your work quite soon. And I also loved collaborating with directors, actors and other designers.

My studies were around Italian architecture and art, and I lived in Italy for two years, working on operas and theater plays in Italy and Austria. That laid the foundation for me to pursue it professionally. Afterwards I came back to US and did MFA [Master of Fine Arts] in scenic design at UCSD. My first professional job was at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, which led me to other regional theater and opera productions, and that led me to film.

I worked with several playwrights in the theater who helped me in my transition to production design in film and television and I still find that so many writers I work with started in the theater like Alena Smith who is the creator of “Dickinson” – she went to Yale School of Drama as a playwright and then she became a television show creator. Early in my career I worked with a writer named Warren Leight. I designed his play Side Man on Broadway that starred Edie Falco just as she was starting on “Sopranos”. Warren became the show runner for “In Treatment” for HBO. He decided he wanted me to design it because we had a good collaboration, and that was my first big built set and a bigger job in TV.

It was a great show to do. The writing was fantastic, we had incredible actors, and it was contained. I was making the connection between what it means to make a set for play on Broadway and making a set on a soundstage. A lot of the skills are the same, and yet it is a completely different art form. That was how I started to learn how to do what I do now. And then, as I started to do more projects, it expanded into all the other aspects of production design – graphics, location scouting, building on locations, visual effects, etc. I learned all of that through work, and that led me to where I am now.

I still do features occasionally, but I’ve mostly been focused on streaming series. I did “The Path” before this, and now “Dickinson” which, as a period piece, is my connection to what I’d done in theater. It’s always fun and it’s always interesting to try and apply my skills from architecture and theater to film making.

Production design of “Dickinson” by Neil Patel. Courtesy of Apple.

Kirill: If you look back at the time that has passed since you’ve started in this field, do you see many technological changes that have made your job easier? Maybe 3D printing materials, or maybe computer-aided design tools? How much the world of art direction and production design has changed around you?

Neil: I’ve been doing this for quite a while. Between my theater career and my film television career it’s been almost 25 years. I learned to draft and draw by hand, and now I spend most of my time on this computer [laughs]. What I normally would have done with sketching, I now do with 3D modeling and with computer drafting. Some of my research is online, but I’m old enough to have collected a library of art books. I love my books [laughs].

It creeps up on you slowly and you start to accept it. I accept that when I go on a scout, I’m taking pictures on my iPhone or my iPad, and i’m drawing on it. I’m creating documents in the scout bus, and by the time I get up to the office, I have almost a storyboard of what I just scouted. You couldn’t do that before. We were taking notes on notepads and it would take a long time to do storyboards. The thing that I find the most useful is that the technology allows me to communicate to my team and my collaborators so much more easily. Also right now we’re dealing with Covid, communicating over great distance and being separated, not being able to physically be in the same space with people. It’s incredible what you’re able to do.

But I was using these tools even before Covid, and it’s continuing now. 3D printing is a marvelous tool. It lets me build for example a half-inch scale replica of a Chippendale dresser in very little time, and it’s extraordinary how easy it is do it today compared to doing it by hand in the past. Software pre-viz tools are incredible. I can take a director through the set, and make changes on the fly.

Having said that, as much as these tools give you during prep, you can’t ignore the ability to respond to a location in a comfortable, conversational and collaborative way that is not technology based. I hope that does not get lost. When you focus too much on technology, you sometimes lose the life of the thing you’re trying to tell. Some things are accidental, and everybody knows that when they’re making things. As an artist and a collaborator, you always have to be open to things. But the tools nowadays are staggering.

Production design of “Dickinson” by Neil Patel. Courtesy of Apple.

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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 Oren Soffer. In this interview he talks about the art and craft of cinematography, finding creative solutions within budgetary limitations, keeping track of technological changes in his field, the current production landscape as the Corona-related restrictions are being slowly lifted, and his life-long love of movies. Around these topics and more, Oren dives deep into his work on the just released “A Nightmare Wakes”.

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

Oren: I grew up on all the classic ’80s and ’90s blockbusters. “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, “Back to the Future”… “Jurassic Park” is the first film I remember seeing in theaters; I was five at the time, and I loved dinosaurs as a kid, so that movie was a big deal for me. I just loved movies since I was a little kid.

As I got a little bit older, I started getting interested in how films were made. Up until a certain age there was a magic to the whole process, and then it started to get demystified when DVDs started coming out with special features and behind the scenes featurettes. At the time they were quite elaborate and detailed, and the big one for me was the “Lord of the Rings” extended edition DVDs, each one with 10 hours of behind the scenes bonus material. They were so detailed, and got into all of the different processes of filmmaking, including cinematography, which I had never really thought about at that time or realized was this separate thing.

As a kid I was also very much into drawing, painting and working in visual arts – starting to get into photography as well. That combination of learning about how films were made, realizing that I wanted to make films and then learning about the role of the cinematographer as the person in charge of crafting and designing the visuals of the film – that was the perfect meeting place of my interests, which were visual art and filmmaking. I was in middle school at the time, and that’s how my interest in cinematography started.

My friends and I started shooting silly little films with home video cameras. We’d be recreating music videos or shooting parodies of movies we loved in our homes and around the neighborhood. It was sort of like that film “Be Kind Rewind” that Michel Gondry directed, where they’re making cheap versions of films.

Skipping ahead, I ended up going to film school at NYU. While there, I focused on cinematography and shot a lot of student films, and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve been a working cinematographer ever since and it’s been great.

Kirill: Did you get to experience the “end tail” of film as the medium?

Oren: Funny enough, we were the last class at NYU that shot on 16mm black-and-white reversal film in our introduction class, as the year after us switched to digital for the first time. We still shot on film and learned on film in the cinematography classes. I got to shoot on 35mm and on Super 16mm.

These days film has made a sort of comeback in the commercial world. There are a lot of commercials and music videos being shot in film now. People are going back to that medium because it has a very specific texture to it that people really like. And obviously a lot of features are still shot on film to this day.

I was quite fortunate to be able to learn on film. We also learned editing on flatbeds. We would shoot 16mm film, get it developed and then physically cut and splice the film like they used to do before computers were around. That was a great way to learn, and I wish more people could learn that way when they study filmmaking, and not just cinematography. It was just such a great way to understand editing and film language, and how to work with limitations. It was a great experience.

Cinematography of “A Nightmare Wakes” by Oren Soffer, courtesy of Shudder.

Kirill: Cinematographers love to talk about film as the medium, of course. Do you think the viewers at home care as much about it?

Oren: To be honest, most average viewers won’t tell the difference, and that’s something important to keep in mind. Personally, I don’t have a horse in the race in terms of this debate. I don’t think one medium is better than the other.

I personally enjoy shooting on digital. I like having the immediate feedback of being able to see what image you’re composing in real time. With film you have an approximation of it, and then you only really know what you’ve shot when you watch your dailies. I like the immediacy and the responsiveness of digital. It makes me feel like I can be more bold in my lighting and in my cinematography choices. I can go darker and moodier. I can push the image a little bit more.

I think a lot of DPs could use a reminder sometimes that at the end of the day we’re making films for audiences, and what really matters is the storytelling; using film language to tell your story and create a subjective experience with your characters. We get interested in the medium and the technical sides of it. They’re fun for us as cinematographers and as nerds of film and filmmaking, but most audiences don’t notice it [laughs]. I tend to not get bogged down in that.

I like to create an environment that’s simplified and not overly complicated, so that I can focus on film language, shot design, and lighting.

Kirill: If you asked me 20 years ago what the job of a cinematographer is, I’d imagine somebody grabbing a camera, putting it on their shoulder, pointing at the actors and pushing some sort of a button to get it rolling. When people ask you what do you do for a living, how do you convey the actual complexity of it?

Oren: On a basic level, that’s pretty much accurate: a big part of it is deciding where the camera goes. If it’s a low budget project, the cinematographer also ends up operating the camera, and on bigger budget projects or projects with multiple cameras you tend to have other operators come in.

The one aspect that most people aren’t necessarily aware of initially is that the cinematographer also designs, shapes and controls the lighting.

It depends on the circumstance. On “A Nightmare Wakes”, because of our budgetary limitations, the director and I embraced a minimalistic approach from the get-go. From the planning and conception stage we designed this film to lean into limitations, because we knew we didn’t have the budget to pull off any big elaborate things.

Cinematography of “A Nightmare Wakes” by Oren Soffer, courtesy of Shudder.

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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 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”.

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In this second installment (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”.

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