Moving With the Times: Canadian DP Colin Akoon

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Cinematographer Colin Akoon (center) tests the lighting on set

 

Following the progression of cinematography from 16mm to digital over dozens of years, the devoted award-winning cinematographer Colin Akoon not only keeps up with the art, he evolves with it. Originally from the suburbs of Toronto, Canada, Akoon’s love for movie making began at an early age, and the footage he has captured throughout his career has graced our screens with unforgettable, moving, and compelling images alike.

With a resume that is as diverse as it is extensive, Akoon has lent his talents to feature films, commercials, music videos and documentaries. His body of work includes the more poetic and eerie film “Incident(s) at Paradise Bay,” the hilarious Power Rangers’ spin-off “Space Riders: Division Earth,” the ever powerful and gripping “Together Alone.” He is even the eye behind international rap star Booba’s music video “Validee” featuring Benash, which takes viewers through Barrio Pablo Escobar, home of Colombia’s most violent and notorious drug lord, and much, much more.

Thinking back to the beginning of his career, Akoon recalls, “When I started in the camera department, there was no digital… Film cameras are simple; they’re just motors. They are highly precise motors, but they are motors nonetheless. There was only one factor that dictated the look of your image – what film stock you chose.”

In a world gone digital, Akoon realizes that the image is not dictated simply by lens and film selection, but frankly “a million electronic factors.” But this does not stop him; rather, it inspires him to use groundbreaking, top-of-the-line cameras to the absolute best of their abilities.

“I use the RED Epic [camera] often,” Akoon explains. “Not primarily for its inherent image quality, but more for its form factor and work flow design. It’s small and contained-no tethering to another recording device is necessary-  yet I can build it to suit on-the-shoulder hand held work. It easily rigs to any movement device…and it shoots RAW, digital cinematography’s answer to a ‘film negative’ like work flow.”

Akoon also brings up a fascinating point about on-set viewing of the images he captures: “When shooting film, no one on set has any idea what the image will look like but the cinematographer. The cinematographer had a lot of control in making sure the lab and daily colorist followed their instruction to achieve the desired look. But with digital, everyone from the producer to hair and makeup can see what the image actually looks like on set, so it’s important that the quality of the image they see is what you intended.”

Akoon understands the weighted value of live viewing image quality, and uses the technology built into the RED Epic to show the director and others on set what, in the past, would have just been up to him to process later on with negatives. Where he used to instruct very specific manipulations of negatives like underexposure with the intention to print up, pushing to create contrast and pulling to lower it, he now can use his artistically trained eye at point of impact and create a look similar to what he envisions in post production, while not affecting the RAW file itself. This often overlooked touch, while small, is critical to the success of the film, and because of Akoon’s understanding of cinema from the film days, he possesses a deeply rare and invaluable talent.

It is because of his on-set grace and this ability to translate images instantly that directors work with Akoon time after time again. In fact, after working with director Mateo Guez on on a music video entitled “Smokin’ Lounge” for acclaimed jazz performer Molly Johnson (which you can check out below), Guez approached Akoon again to work on another project- this time, a feature film called “Together Alone.”

 

 

This film, inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets, did not strictly adhere to any one script or blueprint, but rather it evolved through improvisation and experimentation, and, as a result, the filmmaking process was an intimately creative experience. With a limited crew and no camera assistant, Akoon valiantly undertook the project.

He recalls, “The process of making this film was very organic. Almost nothing was preconceived. Not a frame of this film was storyboarded. Every creative decision was made on set, in the moment.” A cinematographer without Akoon’s highly refined skill set would never have been able to capture the essence of this film.

Aside from being able to think quickly and creatively on his feet,  it is also where he places the camera itself that separates Akoon from the pack. He even admits, “As much as I enjoy lighting, and sculpting the image in shadow, camera placement is the most important aspect of my cinematography. Where you place the camera is literally where you put the audience for that moment in the story.”

He demonstrates his uniquely stylistic camera placement beautifully in the thriller “The Body Tree”, which has also been among his most challenging projects. The film follows a group of American youths to an isolated estate in Siberia, where they plan to honor their recently murdered friend, until they discover that the murderer may, in fact, be one of them.  While the story is not overly original, Akoon tells the story cinematically in such a way where viewers have truly witnessed the revolution of the cabin in the woods horror cliche into a tactfully maneuvered character piece.

Good work, of course, doesn’t come without its own set of challenges, but Akoon excels in problem solving, and often his solution to problems that arise with a shot leave audiences with images more stunning than if everything had gone as planned.

Thinking back upon the challenged faced while filming “The Body Tree,” Akoon recalls, “We lost quite a few key locations, both during pre-production and throughout production. The schedule was very tight and more than half of our script was night exteriors. On top of that, we had a cast of almost a dozen actors, that’s a lot of coverage to accomplish in a short number of days.”

Akoon met this challenge with great victory, leaning into the character development aspect of the film, giving the director a final project sure to impress and captivate audiences for years.

To this end, the relationship that Akoon builds with each director is individualized and tailored in a way not all cinematographers in the industry can offer. Truly staying in the mindset that nurturing the relationship with the director is where a cinematographer should spend most of their time has paid off for Akoon, as he typically works multiple times for directors who are impressed with his modesty.  

FDirector Chris Macari, for example, has worked with Akoon on three music videos for international rap star Booba; “Validee,” the first video shot of the three, has over 11 million hits on YouTube.  While on location in Columbia, Akoon noticed many locals hanging around the location and watching the shoot.  A good cinematographer will find a way to use use what the location gives naturally to boost and enhance the credibility of the project, and that is just what Colin Akoon did. “Chris ended up using a lot of that footage in the cut,” he recalls, “and it gives the sequence this authenticity, realism and danger that sets the stage for the rest of the video.” Any other cinematographer may have simply overlooked the value of these potential shots, and the outcome of the final product would have been left craving something more.

Akoon believes that a cinematographer must learn how they fit into a director’s process and adaptation and that over time, the synergy makes him a better cinematographer. “As a result,” he admits, “the cinematographer is only as good as the directors they are working with.” Likening the director’s job to weaving a complex and detailed quilt, Akoon explains that “ I believe that nurturing the relationship with the director is where a cinematographer should spend most of their time. It’s important as a cinematographer to be aware of where you best fit into that fabric.”

Perhaps these views have helped to opened creative doors for Akoon, as he has been able to work with friends professionally on many projects. One particular project, “The Incident(s) at Paradise Bay,” grips audiences with linguistic and visual storytelling alike. Captivating from the very first moment, the film, which is loosely based on the controversy surrounding disciplinary academies like Tranquility Bay in Jamaica, explores the ethics of their practices and intrinsically begs the moral question: were the procedures adopted by these type of institutions successful, or were they simply just abusive?

While the story itself is an interesting one, it truly is the remarkable camerawork that makes this piece so memorable. Raw and yet elegantly framed, Akoon puts viewers barefoot in a cage on a shore with the captives; with beautifully balanced handheld shots, he makes us forget we are watching a film, and with sparingly used zoom techniques, he bookends the film in an unpredictably foreshadowing twist of cinematic genius.

All in all, Akoon’s collaborative mindset and his seemingly limitless technical and creative skill combined with his understanding of the industry has made him the highly sought after cinematographer he is today.

“I love the energy you receive working with other people,” says Akoon. “You feed off of the other’s creative energies. I love that our creativity is about building upon other’s creations. A film is a living animal, listen to it. It will tell you what it really wants when you least expect it.”

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