All images courtesy of Michelle Pizanis, from the sets of Furious 7 and Mad Max: Fury Road
Furious Seven and Mad Max: Fury Road were both huge blockbusters in 2015, and a quick glance at the trailers for each tells you exactly why that’s the case. Whether it was the unbelievable car stunts from Furious 7 or drama behind surviving a post-apocalyptic nightmare in Mad Max, audiences from across the world responded to the action and adventure that were showcased in both films.
Capturing all of that action is no easy task, and establishing the look and feel of these movies is a completely separate endeavor from the actual filming, where cameras and production logistics are daily realities. One of the people who was dealing with those logistics is Camera Assistant and Camera Coordinator Michelle Pizanis, whose work on both movies was essential to the productions.
We talked with Michelle about being on location, what cameras were used, how the crew responded to particular challenges and plenty more.
ProVideo Coalition: Tell us a little bit about your career. What inspired you to get behind the camera?
Michelle Pizanis: I started as a still photographer and established a business in Sydney, Australia for 10 years before making the move into cinematography. I’ve always had a passion for photography and with composition of lighting and images.
I studied photography in college and eventually went to work at a camera house. I moved to LA over 10 years ago and am now a Camera Assistant and Camera Coordinator. I’ve been fortunate to work on many films in different countries with a variety of cinematographers on great projects.
How does your career as a still photographer influence your work as a Camera Assistant?
The principles are the same – it’s just harder or takes longer to light a moving image than a still image. Also, it’s more about coverage and giving editorial ample images they can edit. As an AC there’s a lot more happening behind the scenes in coordinating equipment and crew for specific shots so that on the day of the shoot everything looks effortless.
What’s been the most creatively satisfying film project you’ve ever worked on?
Cold Mountain, Mad Max and Casanova stand out for me, mostly because of the people I was working with on those projects. In this industry, you tend to work with the same crew so you get to really know everyone and establish a film family. You’re often away from your own family when you’re working, so these friendships are really important and can last forever. You discover beautiful places and people in locations you might not have ever heard of before.
How do you work to avoid or limit the amount of technical challenges that are bound to encounter during production?
During pre-production we spend a lot of time testing gear for specific shots, so by the time we shoot we totally understand the technical elements of the equipment and hope it meets our directors’ / DPs’ specific challenges. I mainly try and keep up with all the new technology so when we are in discussions of how to capture a particular scene or stunt I can offer up some alternatives &/or solutions.
You just finished up your work on Mad Max: Fury Road. What was it like working with that team and on location?
It was a totally amazing experience.
Ricky Schamburg (1st AC) and I spent a lot of time interviewing crew as we knew we were going to be shooting for a minimum of 6 months on location. We wanted people who were willing to commit for the whole time and that we would get on with. Luckily, this happened as we had an amazing crew made up of different nationalities from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA. We prepped each camera package as a complete unit so that when we sent a team to do a shot they had everything they needed in their vehicle. That meant they had the steadicam, handheld cameras and an array of zoom lenses complete with their own support gear. This was the only way we could have done it in these remote locations while also switching gear and crew with 2nd Unit DP David Burr when he need us. Both our DP John Seale and director George Miller made sure to put an emphasis around our safety, so they always allowed us the time we needed for set up to capture the practical stunts.
We also had a separate pod vehicle and crew for crash cameras consisting of Canon 5D’s and Olympus OM5D’s. We also had a Nikon D800, and later in Australia we had the Blackmagic 2K, as they weren’t readily available when we first started shooting in 2012. This allowed us to rig cameras in the line of fire and they captured some great images that made it into the film.
What were some of the more challenging shots that you worked on?
Australian DP John Seale has often had me out in the desert where I would be wondering why the hell we were out in a sandstorm when everyone else has taken cover. But it’s been a privilege to work with him for many years now, and you stop having those thoughts after seeing the images he’s able to capture in those kinds of environments.
There were were two images I distinctly remember this happening on during Mad Max, and to me they’re the best two images of the movie. One is when Charlize Theron falls to the ground on her knees and the sandstorm comes. It was only set to be filmed with the Edge Vehicle, so we started wrapping the other cameras as our day was almost over, and then John asks for his camera with the 11:1 zoom to be set up to the side. We worked frantically to rebuild and put it in position before the sunset and his shot from that angle was amazing.
The other was when we were shooting at Blankey’s near Walvis Bay in Namibia which was our hardest location to work in. The last shot, again, was to be the Edge vehicle and it was capturing the war rig with Nux (Nicholas Hoult character) chasing behind it. After consulting with John, I instructed all the non-working cameras to head back to the camera truck to start wrapping out, as again the sun was setting and cars were getting bogged in the terrain. After doing that I stood to one side and looked at John who was watching from afar, and I knew the next sentence to come out of his mouth was going to be, “MP …How soon can you get my camera back”? So I radioed to get the cameras back and we rebuilt it and set that up as fast as we could. We captured a spectacular image and silhouette of the war rig being chased by Nux.
You also worked on Furious 7, and the Fast series has always pushed the boundaries in terms of audience expectations…is that something the crew looks to similarly push from behind the camera?
All of a sudden I started doing more films with cars and stunts and Fast 7 was a completely different kettle of fish to Mad Max. Our DP on Fast was another fellow Aussie, Steve Windon, and he had an amazing crew already established from doing most of the previous Fast films. We filmed Mad Max about a year before Fast, and in that short amount of time the technology surpassed some of the rigs we had on Mad Max. We used that technology to really push things on Fast, and all during that production I was taking pictures to document what we were doing and how we were doing it. It was certainly a different approach, and after both productions were over I was showing Max Max DP John Seale the high tech ways they were doing it on Fast 7 in a studio, which was in comparison to the some of the practical ways we were doing it in the desert on Mad Max.
What about the hardware? How many different cameras did you use?
We used the exact same ARRI ALEXA Plus cameras on Fast 7 but the only difference was that we didn’t have to record raw to the Codex onboard recorders. By then, the ARRI ALEXA XT was available which allowed us to record raw straight to the Codex internal card.
On Mad Max we had 6 ARRI Plus and 4 ARRI M and on Fast we had from 7 to 9 ARRI ALEXA XTs. Plus, on any given day on Main Unit they also had a texture unit to shoot specific shots when Paul Walker’s character was required since his passing. Between the 2nd unit, Aerial Unit, VFX unit and the Main unit I was told there were times when we had up to 24 cameras working in one week.
How did you utilize the Blackmagic Cinema Cameras and Pocket Cinema Cameras on these films?
Our VFX crew on Mad Max first brought Blackmagic to my attention in pre-production. We were discussing cameras with global shutters and recording raw and/or 2K, which surpassed any other brand we were testing. This was in early 2012 when we were heading to Africa but we couldn’t get our hands on them, so we headed out with Canon 5D and applied the Cinestyle look to desaturize the image. We also used the Nikon D800 and Olympus OM5D.
When we returned to Sydney for the additional photography the Blackmagic Cinema Cameras were available and knowing the limitations our VFX team had expressed about the footage from the 5D, we decided to go with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera and Nikon D800 recording ProRes to the Atomos Ninja 2.
What was the response from the seasoned camera crew to the Blackmagic cameras on set?
Whenever a camera from a company other than industry stalwarts like ARRI, Sony, Panavision, etc. comes onto the set for the first time, there are always some skeptics. In fact, in the beginning I was one of them, but I’m a big believer of horses for courses…each scene has a specific requirement and there’s a tool for each one, as opposed to one that can do it all. Our job is to explore, test and offer all of those options up for our DP and director to decide.
What advantages do you think they offered?
It allowed us to put a camera on an actor without it being poor quality or giving us the fish eye effect of a GoPro. They gave us the ability to use film lenses, the ability to hook up remote focus devices and to put the camera on a Movi rig all while capturing usable footage that Editorial and VFX were extremely happy to receive.
What does one need to watch out for when using these cameras?
Having a camera that you can only recharge by plugging it into AC power wasn’t practical for our working environment. We needed to be able to change batteries rather than work with internal battery and also need to be able to format the SSD Cards in camera, rather than externally. Luckily, Panavision came up with solutions for us at the time and nowadays there are lots of companies making support gear for these types of cameras.
On Mad Max we had problems with the Nikons rendering to the Atomos on impact so eventually we took them out of the equation. The Blackmagic cameras always render on impact so we kept using those and the array and quality of lenses we could use on these cameras were great. Rather than Zeiss Primes we went with the less expensive option of the Tokina EFT lenses. They’re cheaper to replace which allowed us to intentionally put them in areas that we knew were in harms way, but were also going to capture amazing footage.
On Fast 7 we used the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K for shots when we couldn’t get an ARRI M camera into a tight spot. We also used it for the inserts of the odometer and foot pedal, and for some stunts in the Parkour scenes.
Were special rigs needed to make the Blackmagic Cameras easier to use?
We purchased the Shape cages for the Blackmagic cameras to allow our grip crew endless positions of securing the camera to different rigs and set ups. Most of the time the cameras were rigged in position for hours so we couldn’t get to them physically but were able to change the batteries and hook up external monitors at a workable hidden level.
You’ve also been working on the HBO hit, Silicon Valley. That’s a bit of a different environment, isn’t it?
I joined the second season of the TV show Silicon Valley as I wanted to stay in LA at the time and it was a seven minute commute each day to Sony Studios. It also allowed me to be part of a crew that I had worked with before, and being onset was a ton of fun. Our actors improvise so much that the hardest thing to do was not laugh out loud on a rolling take. Not bad for a days work.
Do you try to find a balance in terms of the tone or logistics regarding the types of projects that you take on?
I’m always ready for another big feature film that travels, as I love to explore other countries on production budgets. Of course, my forte is around the logistics of organizing gear, crew and carnet for these types of films.
I’m currently doing a horror film in LA with the crew from Fast 7. It’s being produced by James Wan and fellow Australia DP Marc Spicer who took over from Steve Windon on Fast 7. Funnily enough, our first time director David Sandberg shot all of his 3 x 2 mins shorts on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera and showed them to James and now it’s being made into a feature.
We’re also using Blackmagic cameras on this film when we can’t get a production camera into some tight spots. The other day it was put inside the fridge and reveals our lead actress’ face when she opens the door.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received around living and working as a cinematographer?
It was to do a short course in editorial so that you know what they need and how to cut. Plus, being able to understand eye-lines and coverage and know the gear you’re working with was essential. Most camera rental houses are great in letting you come in and familiarize yourself with their gear.
Oh – and spend your per diem…it’s free money.