Janusz Kaminski, Phedon Papamichael, ASC and Wally Pfister, ASC are a group of cinematographers that need no introduction. Their personal histories stretch back over 25 years in the entertainment industry, and they’ve come together to create Advanced Filmmaking in order to address questions that aren’t answered in film school. It’s designed to give viewers an in-depth look at how these pros think about their work, their careers, their tools and their collaborators in the real world of filmmaking.
We wanted to explore what people will find at Advanced Filmmaking, and Phedon took the time to chat with us about the venture. But we couldn’t resist asking him some other questions about what inspires him, what it means to work with the biggest names in the industry and what technological advancements have meant to the way he works. His insights around these items and more are both informative and illuminating for professionals at every level in the industry.
ProVideo Coalition: What medium outside of motion pictures gives you the greatest inspiration when it comes to your work as a cinematographer?
Phedon Papamichael: Initially it was painting as my father was a painter, in addition to being an art director for John Cassavetes. Even as a child I always taken to a lot of museums and I was really into the great masters. I grew up in Munich so we had access to a lot of wonderful art. Later I was into Expressionism, German Expressionism and really studied art and wanted to be a painter. But I quickly saw it was an internal and lonely profession. I was very passionate about painting, but I realized how isolated I felt doing that and really wanted to be able to collaborate with other people, and film obviously offers that.
Did you pick up on film immediately?
After painting, I transitioned into still photography and was very influenced by still photographers such as Bresson, Man Ray and many others. Again though, I realized that it was just me and a camera, so I had that same feeling of isolation. I did make my connection to story during this time when I saw this film called Contempt, directed by Jean-Luc Godard and shot by Raoul Coutard. It was widescreen, a CinemaScope film and was very graphic. I was 18 at the time, and it reminded me of what I was doing with my still photography, which was also very graphic with primary colors and dark skies. It just made me realize that I could apply all of that to a story and also move the camera, which opened up a whole new dimension. And of course, I also saw that I could collaborate with the actors and directors when I was moving the camera, so it was really a natural progression from painting and still photography to film.
The other thing I realized is that it’s nice to get assigned a story, so I don’t have to constantly torture myself trying to take a picture and inadvertently ruin moments of my life, either by getting angry that I missed a certain picture or interrupting everything to get that shot. Now they give me a story and I can pick a visual language for it and then when we’re done and wrapped I can relax and just take some candid pictures of my kids without having that constant urge to make art out of everything.
The collaboration part of filmmaking is one that’s especially enjoyable personally and professionally. You work with all sorts of people on different jobs, and the ones you like you can work with again and the ones you didn’t like so much you can avoid. Obviously we have the uncertainties of the job and you’re not always in a position to turn down work, but that’s all part of choosing this career.
In your keynote interview last year, you mentioned how important authenticity is to director Alexander Payne. Is that authenticity something you look to preserve or highlight as a cinematographer on his and other films?
Not always. There are many different ways to tell a story and it depends on what seems appropriate for the director you’re working with and what their sensibilities and aesthetics are. Alexander certainly does have those authentic sensibilities, but now we’re staring pre-production on a more fantastic, visual effects heavy film and that will probably take on a different language.
So that focus on realism doesn’t always apply, but I do base most of my lighting on natural light and I do like the lighting to be “real” so that it makes sense. I don’t put everybody in the backlight, even though it might look good. I do try to stick to certain rules, and that comes from still photography where you’re working mostly with natural light. I was never really a studio photographer, so you learn make use of the natural light or be inspired by it while knowing you need to then maintain it over the shooting hours that you have.
A person's inner struggles have often been a central theme in the movies you’ve shot. Does this kind of storytelling affect the way you capture the characters in camera?
I do like intimate character pieces. I think it’s more challenging and inspiring to capture emotions that reflect the characters. It’s always great to be inspired by an actor or their performance as well. I’ve been lucky, obviously, with Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, Will Smith in Pursuit of Happiness and Bruce Dern in Nebraska, and I’m certainly more interested in that than I am in something that overly replies on visual effects. Because then it’s this big puzzle where you’re trying fit all these pieces from all these different units and spending on your time trying to make it work.
Of course, I’ve done those big action movies as well. Ones where we have a huge second unit that’s working ten weeks parallel to the first unit and you shoot one half of a scene on location and then months later you shoot the other half on a sound stage. It’s a different challenge, but it takes different skills. So much of those efforts are more about keeping things together so that everything will eventually make sense once it’s all assembled. It’s certainly a different creative process.
I like it when the story and the actors can guide us in a natural way. Actors will talk to us about what’s going to work best in photographs and what’s the most effective way to capture their expressions. And that happens on smaller and more personal movies. Alexander in particular runs a smaller and more intimate set, and we don’t let the technical aspects off filmmaking get in the way. We try to eliminate that so no one feels overwhelmed.
During pre-production do you like to storyboard as much of the movie as possible or do you typically frame everything on site?
It really depends on the director. I personally don’t like to preconceive too much. I like to see what’s happening on set, what a location actually looks like, see what the elements are, see what the mood is, see what the light is doing, see how the actors are moving and reacting to the environment. Alexander is that way too. We bring the actors in and watch a scene, and then we talk about the shots and we haven’t storyboarded at all.
It doesn’t always work out that way though. The film we’re working on now is much more complicated so we have to storyboard. I’m actually working with a storyboard artist, Anthony Leonardi III, who is also a filmmaker in his own right and quite brilliant. Even if we’re working with a storyboard artist we don’t just sit there and tell them what to do. They analyze the script and create the boards very much in the spirit of how we’ve worked in the past and what our other movies are like. We haven’t gotten to this point yet, but I’m sure we’ll use those as a reference and then probably work the way we normally do and maintain that flexibility. But there will probably also be instances where we shoot the boards.
I certainly prefer to have the flexibility, but it’s about the director. Gore Verbinski storyboards everything, so it’s a very different process. Most prefer to be open to what’s happening on-set though.
Do you have any “go to” lenses that you primarily use?
I do like and have recently used a set of C Series anamorphic lenses from Panavision. They were used on Lone Ranger, and Dan Sasaki optimized them for use on the ALEXA, and that’s what Nebraska was shot with. The older glass. I definitely think they help the digital camera.
I have been very much into anamorphics recently and hope to continue to use them. I have looked at the new master anamorphics which are extremely sharp all the way to the edges, don’t really distort so much, have different flair characteristics and are more like master primes. And at that point, some people might argue what’s the point of using anamorphic? Of course you still have the depth of field characteristics, so there are different theories on it. Technology is moving rapidly, lenses are getting sharper but I think some of us want to pull back and focus more on the craft.
That was something else I wanted to touch on, as many cinematographers have voiced their opinions about the perceptive need of 4K content and equipment in the cinema world today. Do you think too many filmmakers are focused on these technical details?
We’ve always had this to some degree. Better stocks would come out and we embraced them, because we always wanted faster stocks and less grain. But I do think it gets to a point where we’re focused on the wrong thing.
Maybe it’s more of a generational thing though. I always say that my kids are used to watching everything in HD and have never seen a film print or seen grain. And if they did, they’d probably think something was broken.
So I think there certainly can be an obsession with things like 4K and 6K. That said, I’m committed to shooting digitally and like the ALEXA. I tested it for Ides of March and I felt like I was able to achieve the results with my colorist and would have a very tough time telling them apart, especially with some of the techniques that I used. On Monuments Men I mixed ALEXA and film we just got nominated for best DI. I do feel that unless I told people, you’d never know we were mixing film and digital on that movie.
I think that’s a good way to go, but not a lot of people are going to be able to do that. It’s really expensive and you’re carrying a whole bunch of different cameras and other equiptment so it can all get really complicated.
Are these technical details one of the topics you touch on in Advanced Filmmaking, the curriculum you’ve put together with Janusz Kaminski and Wally Pfister?
The series really isn’t supposed to be technical. We don’t want to be just another film school or site that lets you do comparison tests and breakdown shots. None of us are really of that mindset, and we all come from a different generation. We like the tools we have and there’s no way any of us could keep up with the pace of technology. Things change all the time, so I’d be completely overwhelmed if I tried to keep up with all of it. It’s such a rapid pace.
When I have a project I try to define how I want it to look and then I figure out what tools are available to me in that moment, because something I read about six months ago might not even be relevant anymore.
What else can you tell us about Advanced Filmmaking? What can people expect from the series?
It came from this idea that we all started together, and we’ve known each other twenty-five years now, and we were all working together on these very low budget movies. I was shooting for Roger Corman and Wally and Janusz were at AFI at the time, and then they were part of my crew. We all had different paths but all found our way in the industry and might be of the last generation of the old-school cameraman. We went through a lot of changes in the industry as the market changed, distribution changed, and we’re still seeing that.
We get calls all the time from young cinematographers about how they can navigate their own careers, and we give seminars but it’s always questions that are less technical that get us. They’re the ones people don’t ask during the seminar but will ask when you’re standing around afterward. So many people have serious questions about their career and how they can get themselves on the right path and they want to know things about how to deal with travel, or the politics of an edit room, or how to make time for family.
So a lot of it is about giving people insights into what we've experienced, and have questions answered that you really can’t or don’t ask at a film school. The idea is that this is stuff you would only pick up if you happened to be invited to dinner and Janusz, Wally and myself were there. It’s a lot of things we’ve observed and experienced. It’s not about what technically happens in a DI suite, but about who’s in charge there and how you can maneuver through those situations.
What sort of insights can people expect from Advanced Filmmaking? Is it geared more toward beginners or experts?
I think you certainly will take something from it if you’re just starting out, but it’s really more for someone who’s just graduated from film school and is wondering what they should do next. For people who are asking what their next step might be. It’s really about giving people who have this classical film education the practical advice that they might be looking for from people who have worked at all levels, and on budgets of all sizes for the past few decades.
We’re also trying to add more content and interview some of the people who work with us, and it’s not just the key positions that people immediately think of. We have interviews with our gaffers. My gaffer, Rafael Sánchez, has done almost thirty features with us and I hired him when he was twenty-two years old as a grip and he’s worked on all levels. I even have an interview with my camera PA from Nebraska and talk through his impressions and experiences after being exposed to a production like this. I’ve had a lot of interns over the years and so many of them have found their places in the film industry. So we want to let people see and hear how these things come together and develop in the short term and long term.
What one piece of advice do you typically give to the folks who are asking you about getting their career on the right path?
It’s really about finding people who want to make the same kind of movies that you do. Wally was doing years and even decades of movies that didn't gain much traction and then Memento came along and everything changed. Some of it is timing and luck, but if you find that person you collaborate well with and is pursuing the same goals you can gradually or suddenly become a relevant filmmaker.
People also really need to realize that there are no rules and there is no one formula or way to make it in this industry. I try to encourage people and let them know it can take time just as easily as it can go fast. You really need to have a passion and believe in what you’re doing. I do think that someone who’s talented is eventually going to succeed and find a way to survive as a professional in this business.
For me, it comes back to the collaborative nature of film, because you’re going to find people you want to work with every time you take a job. You want to develop a film family, and that can mean finding a director who shares your vision just as easily as finding a gaffer who you like working with. There’s no one way for that to develop though, so the most important thing I always tell people is to keep working.