Category Archives: camera crew

Cinematographer Alberto Bañares’ Creative Serendipity

ALBERTO-1Spanish cinematographer Alberto Bañares’ unerring eye and passionate involvement with all things visual have won him a reputation as one of the top hands in his field. Bañares’ style—driven by a singular flair for creating evocatively composed shots that deliver a communicative impact—enhances any film, video or television assignment, and is distinguished by a consistency of tone and rich atmosphere that is irresistible to any viewer.

His immediately recognizable, arresting technique seems like the work of a dedicated craftsman with generations of deep experience, but the astute, ambitious Bañares achieved this striking of level of quality while barely out of his teens. At age 18, the Barcelona native was studying Economics when a sudden realization took hold.

“At university, I realized quite early that my future wasn’t behind a desk,” Bañares said. “So I started writing and taking photographs on my own while studying International Business. I did a small 5 day course on script writing, and was completely astonished by what I saw and learned. That gave me the courage to move straight to film academy in 2003.”

“I studied at one of the best film schools in Spain, ESCAC [Cinema and Audiovisual School of Catalonia],” Bañares said. .”It was a very intense experience.  After two years, you had to choose your specialization, and I quickly understood that between script writing, directing and cinematography, I would naturally pick the last one.”

“Suddenly, everything made sense to me,” he said. “I was always very attracted to the camera and highly intrigued by light. Cinematography teachers seemed to me more like wizards than anything else!”

After obtaining his degree, Bañares wasted little time. Working as on-set electrician and in camera and light crews at first, gaining experience and making connections, by 2012, he decided to accept cinematographer jobs exclusively, and in 2013 prestigious talent brokers L’Agence were representing him throughout Europe.

His recent job as director of photography for a commercial from a high-end German auto maker, the striking, effects-laden Audi: The Invisible Man. The spot, promoting Audi’s pilotless vehicles using the famed horror character as protagonist, mixes wry humor with impressive visual effects and epitomizes Bañares’ signature combination of creativity, problem-solving and technical prowess.

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This was no simple task. “As a DP my role started some weeks before the shoot,” Bañares said. “This was a highly technical project for all of us, so starting the preproduction earlier than normal helped us to arrange meetings with Metropolitana, the post-production house, in order to understand their needs and the way we were going to shoot it.”

“It was a highly technical job, for sure,” director David Verges said. “To create an Invisible Man we had to shoot different layers of each shot in order to remove the actor who was ‘performing’ his moves. We used a Motion Memorizer which required us to be very accurate during the shoot as well as having to mentally “compose” the shot in our mind from the different layers we were shooting. Alberto was very helpful in this regard, as his comprehension of the technique was complete. He also has this natural quality that puts everyone at ease and is greatly appreciated by his crew and the rest of us. “

Bañares’ holistic grasp on the assignment’s complex challenges proved invaluable. “We had to be very adaptable during the shoot as we had to bear with constantly changing weather,” he said. “We had determined to shoot the main table scene during the morning but we had extremely grey skies so we had to go inside the house meanwhile the weather improved.”

“After several hours we realized that the motion memorizer shots took more time than initially thought, so we had to be very quick with any shot that didn’t use this tool,” Bañares said. “Being fast on set is something that no one teaches you when you are in film school, but after all these years as a DP I’m very used to have a high-speed on set plus gently pushing everyone in order to keep a good pace.”

The results, thanks to Bañares’ formidable skills, were nothing short of spectacular, and the spot generated significant buzz in professional circles

“Due to the unique creativity of the Audi commercial, it gained a big reputation amongst the family of filmmakers,” Bañares said. “I consider myself to be a useful asset no matter what. I like to help my directors get what they want, but I also want them to know what I like and dislike, which elements could be improved and which ones must be improved.”

His flexibility and instinctual grasp on how best to complete a shoot have allowed Bañares to rack up a spectacular roster of achievements and placed him at the forefront of the contemporary DP community.

“DPs must dissolve their egos within the director’s ideas,” Bañares said. “Sometimes a DP must be like a medium or psychologist, in order to be able to understand the director’s vision and their original vision of the project. When it’s fiction, I like to talk to the director as much as I need so I can see where everything comes from. Once I get their original idea, I subtly transform it into a light and camera concept. I love to communicate and express ideas using my tools, it’s such a rewarding process.

“Lately I’ve been quite attracted towards creative serendipity and subconscious intuition,” he said. “In order to operate the camera in a genuine way, I’m constantly exploring different, new ways to reach that state. I love that too.”

His rare mixture of technique and aesthetic sense qualify Bañares as a force to be reckoned with. “I’ve known Alberto for years but we hadn’t been able to work together until this one,” Verges said. “I was very happy to have his good taste and discerning eyes in this project. He was very focused and he always brought a creative input to each shot, to each take, in order to improve it. I’m looking forward to collaborate with Alberto on future projects.”

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PROTECTOR OF THE FILM & MUCH MORE: XIN GONG

When director Yiqiong Li was preparing to make his film “A Gift” he did what most filmmakers do, he referred to the list he keeps of professionals that are both talented and enjoyable to work with. Li had recently served as Assistant Director on the film “Promise Land” and he immediately thought of the Xin Gong the DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) on that film and contacted her for this upcoming project. A DIT is one of those professions that many people do not fully understand but is integral to the camera crew operating efficiently and at full power. It’s a “boots on the ground” role in filmmaking and one which the director and cinematographer rely upon heavily. “A Gift” received numerous accolades including: Award of Recognition – Hollywood International Moving Picture Film Festival, a nomination at the International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema London, and was an official selection at film festivals in the US, Berlin, Rome, and others. The dream of a filmmaker cannot be realized without the daily utilized talent of professionals like Xin Gong; skilled artists who will never see their name on the marquee but will always be the support of those who do.

“A Gift” is a film which concerns itself with the choices and potential found in all people. Kindness and redemption are something which can only be offered up, never can they be forcefully taken. The film tells the story of Jack, a young thief who breaks into the home of Margaret. Margaret is a blind elderly woman who mistakes Jack for her son. Margaret comes to realize that Jack is not her son but she still covers for him, protecting him from being discovered when police and neighbors come looking for a dangerous young man in the neighborhoods. The thief comes to realize the error of his ways and is moved by Margaret’s gift of understanding, forgiveness, and non-judgement.

Gong served as a Digital Imaging Technician or (DIT) for “A Gift.” As the guardian in change of protecting the footage for a film, the DIT not only serves as the gatekeeper but also assists many different parts of the film crew and the filming process insuring that instrumentation is working properly and capturing the action properly. Xin’s naturally detailed personality and discernment make her an easy fit for this role in any production. Also known as a talented editor, the duality of her skill set has made her more proficient of both sides of the production process (filming and post). The two complement each other well. Xin describes, “When I work as an editor, I organize the footage, putting different labels on for different footages. In editing software, I’ll put the dialogue into the first track, sound effects are on the second track, and music is on third track. When you know the process intimately after filming, it heightens your awareness for potential problems or mistakes as they occur during the filming process. This is initially what interested me in pursuing work as a DIT. The first time I took on this role [DIT] I began catching things immediately which I understood would be problematic during the post process. I alerted the DP and director about this and corrections were made instantly. Everyone was very appreciative that we had just saved a lot of time and effort, which was a great feeling for me.”

A skill which is paramount for both a DIT and an editor is color correction. This happens to be something which Gong is highly adept at and quite known for. This skill was vital to her work on “A Gift” as she explains, “One of the most problematic scenes for the film was the opening scene. As this is the first impression the audience will have of the film, everyone was aware of its importance. The scene starts at night as the main character breaks into the house. Unfortunately, the production couldn’t shoot at night and were forced to film this scene in the daytime. This was a big part of the reason I was chosen to work for this production. It was a challenge for me. Before they shot, the director and director of photography asked if I could do some color correction to make the “Day to night” when I was on set. Using DaVinci Resolve to change the gamma and highlight, I then did some color correction of the sky. The final result relieved everyone involved and once again, I felt appreciated…that never gets old.” Director of photography for the film, Chuan Li, reiterates, “DIT is a very complicated job. I think it too often goes underappreciated and doesn’t receive the respect it deserves. As someone who is on the camera the entire time, I relax when I have Xin Gong on a film set because I know she has thought for and prepared for more obstacles and how to avoid them than I ever would. I also know that when there is a problem, she is the first on jumping in to fix it. She sets a tone and example that others would do well to follow.”

 

Camera operator Mike Heathcote “moves with grace and precision of a dolly” on upcoming series The Handmaid’s Tale

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Michael Heathcote is from Toronto, Ontario

Michael Heathcote is a storyteller. He does not write them, nor does he read them aloud, but his work allows film to come alive. Perhaps this is not as obvious as an actor, but Heathcote’s work as a camera/Steadicam operator allows the stories we watch on the big and small screen to come alive. It is that we don’t know he is there until his name passes by our eyes in the credits that makes him so outstanding.

In his words, Heathcote describes the camera operator as the one who is responsible for physically operating and composing the camera to best tell the story. The camera operator can operate a camera on a dolly, sticks, remotely on a crane, handheld on the shoulder or with a special camera stabilization device called a “Steadicam”. A Steadicam is a specialized tool that takes years to master. The camera operator wears a vest and connects a spring arm that distributes and supports the weight of the camera counterbalanced on a post. With years of experience the camera operator can move the camera smoothly over uneven terrain, up and down stairs or in locations where a dolly track cannot be laid. The camera operator works with the director and cinematographer to help them execute their vision.

“There was just something about looking through the lens of a camera, seeing the action and performance live and being responsible for composing the frame to tell the story that excited me,” said Heathcote.

Heathcote has already had a career many dream of. The Torontonian worked on award-winning films and television series with Hollywood’s biggest stars. This past year alone, he worked on the critically-acclaimed Canadian television show Cardinal, filmed the pilot for the new show Issues, and worked alongside Academy Award winning director Alexander Payne on the upcoming film Downsizing, starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz and Bruce Willis. He also filmed the Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the Margaret Atwood classic, that comes out this Spring.

“I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate to have worked on such an amazing TV series as The Handmaid’s Tale. There were so many talented people involved who worked very hard during pre-production, production and post-production as they prepare for the April release. It was an absolute pleasure to work with them. Every day I came to set I was excited and inspired to do my best work,” said Heathcote.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a near-future dystopian England, where a woman named Offred is forced to live as a concubine under a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship. The director, Reed Morano, wanted the audience to experience the story through the lead character of Offred as though they were right there with her, experiencing and seeing things as she did. To achieve this look and feel, Heathcote would use either handheld or Steadicam very close to the actors.

“As a Director of Photography that has always acted as my own camera operator and someone who has a very particular taste when it comes to composition and framing to capture emotion and light, I had never been impressed with anyone operating for me, much less satisfied. That was until I worked with Mike Heathcote on the series I directed, The Handmaid’s Tale. Not only was I pleased with Mike’s interpretation of the visual language I had set up in the show, but his talent blew me away.  Mike, as a Steadicam operator, moves with the grace and precision of a dolly,” said Morano. “You never feel that the shot is a Steadicam shot.  You’re never aware of the camera- which to me is the sign of an amazing Steadicam move.  It’s the mark of an incredible operator.  Not only that, Mike’s skills as a handheld operator went far beyond my expectations. Operating handheld takes a certain level of intuition that cannot be taught.  You either have ‘it’ or you don’t. Mike has it. The camera was always where I wanted it to be, always elegantly framed.  And there is no greater compliment I can give. I feel so lucky to have found him.”

In addition to working with Morano, Heathcote worked closely with the cinematographer, Colin Watkinson. Morano and Watkinson recognized Heathcote’s talents early on, and encouraged him to express any ideas he had, and gave him the freedom to explore a shot.

The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the most creatively rewarding projects I have had the pleasure to work on,” described Heathcote. “We went against conventional TV framing and were trying to do something different with this project. I really enjoyed trying to find new and interesting compositions that helped tell the story. Every day I was excited to get up for work.”

Watkinson truly believes that choosing Heathcote as a Steadicam operator was one of the best decisions that they made, and his work contributed to the overall success of the series.

“Not only has he maintained a truly professional attitude throughout production, but Mike also delivered Steadicam shots of the highest quality. He has executed perfectly each director’s needs, maintained our style for the show and continues to add his own flair to raise each shot to a beautiful level. It has been an absolute honor and a pleasure to work next to someone who cares so much about his craft and at the same time showing an interest in the project, which makes him a complete team player. High praise indeed yet entirely out of merit,” said Watkinson.

It is without a doubt that with Heathcote’s talent and determination, his work will continue to impress both those who he works with, and audiences that see what he is capable of.

The Handmaid’s Tale premieres Wednesday April 26th, on Hulu. Check out the trailer here.

Camera Specialist Michaela Angelique discusses new film Rated

During her childhood years in Jakarta, Indonesia, Michaela Angelique always was taking pictures. She was known amongst her friends as the one with the camera. As a teenager, she knew the camera inside out. She adjusted to the conversion of film to digital. And now she is still the one with the camera, but there is a new meaning to it.

Angelique is a camera department specialist, working for various films and television shows and with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. In 2015, she worked on the film Rated, which has lighting up various film festivals since its world premiere and won a Best Comedy Short at the Sonoma Film Festival in April this year.

“Working on Rated was really fun. The producers were really awesome and director knows what he was doing,” said Angelique. “And the kids are super cute and adorable.”

Rated follows Maggie, played by Christie Lynn Smith. Maggie must find the courage to own up to her behavior when she wakes to find every adult has received a YELP-like star rating floating over their head. While most every adult has a shining 4 and 5 stars, Maggie’s got just 2.5. The director of the film, John Forston, plays Maggie’s husband.

“It is just such a cute story,” said Angelique. “And John was such an awesome person to work with. He is very talented and knows what he is doing. He is a very humble person and treats everybody respectfully.”

Fortson was the director, lead actor, and executive producer for Rated. He was so impressed with Angelique’s professionalism and adaptability on set that he says he wants her to work on his next project.

“It was a pleasure to work with Michaela because not only is she a consummate professional about her camera work but she is a kind and lovely person to be around. Working on a film set can be stressful, but Michaela brought her smile and professional work ethic,” he said. “Our film Rated has gone on to much success, winning many awards and being accepted to many of the top festivals in the United States and this is in part because of having Michaela there working with us. She worked amazingly well with the other crew, always courteous and with an attitude of teamwork. Her qualities are invaluable.”

“Michaela’s attention to detail was invaluable,” he continued. “She constantly made sure that our camera lenses were properly handled and protected, as well that every shot was perfectly in focus. Time was of the essence on our shoot and Michaela pulled through with excellence every day.”

Angelique had to overcome many challenges on set and as a camera assistant. It isn’t always easy being in charge of carrying a forty-sixty-pound piece of equipment all day.

“It was not always easy when shooting on location and trying to locate where to stage the camera gears. We also had a handheld shot which went from the bedroom through the house hallway and then to the living room which has a mirror, and the shot was looking everywhere. We had to hide our gears and I had to pull focus manually from the camera. It was close to impossible pulling focus on that specific shot,” she described.

The important thing for Angelique, however, is what the film represents and what she took away from working on such a dynamic project.

“After working on this movie, I have more belief in humanity, I know it’s a movie, but movies help people to realize there are good things in the world, and to not judge people too harshly and quickly. Everybody has their own struggle that we don’t always know, and we would never to come through it like they do if we were in their shoes,” she concluded.

Setting the Visual Tone with Electrician and Camera Operator Ekaterina Doldjeva!

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Camera operator and electrician Ekaterina Doldjeva

 

At the core of any good film or series is a good story, and just as with any story, the tone and mood are key. In a book, an author can simply tell the reader that the night is dark and stormy. In film, setting that tone takes a lot more nuance. Rather than relying on written words, filmmakers must use dialogue, ambient sound, curated scores and above all, meticulously orchestrated lighting. That’s where Ekaterina Doldjeva’s expertise becomes invaluable. As both a camera operator and an electrician, Doldjeva knows better than anyone just how important a role lighting plays in the storytelling process.

Born and raised in Bulgaria, Doldjeva found a passion early in her life for the film industry. Fascinated by the craft of cinematography, her seemingly limitless skillset covers the spectrum from the creative to the technical. As a lighting technician and electrician she is responsible for overseeing the proper and safe setup of lighting, and for ensuring that when the cameras roll and the cue is given, those lights work flawlessly. As a camera operator, she works closely with the cinematographer to ensure each scene captures the full essence of the director’s vision for the production.

“For me, every time I am lighting a set, it feels like I am painting with light,” she said, describing how her work lies at the confluence of science and artistry. “However, being a camera operator is a true passion of mine. In order to be a cinematographer you have to be able to translate words from the script into visuals.”

Doldjeva’s first big step into the field came when she began work on the critically acclaimed NBC series “Chicago Fire.” Centered around a tight knit band of firefighters in Chicago, the series honors the brave men and women who risk their lives everyday to protect their city and its people. Starring Jesse Spencer (“House”) and Taylor Kinney (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Shameless”), the brilliantly written series features themes of fraternity, courage, sacrifice — and a whole lot of fire.

“It is breathtaking to see how a certain scene is done, especially on a show like ‘Chicago Fire,’” Doldjeva said. “Most scenes include lighting buildings on fire and heavy stunt work, but helping and contributing to create those scenes, and afterwards seeing it on TV when the episode comes out, it repays for all the hard work I have done. I feel grateful that I am able to be apart of the crew at such a high level.”

In the few short years since her work on “Chicago Fire,” Doldjeva has gone on to work on an array of star-studded productions, such as the upcoming film “Office Christmas Party.” Doldjeva worked as the electrician on the film, which is directed by Josh Gordon (“Blades of Glory,” “The Switch”) and scheduled for release just in time for the holiday season this December. Starring Jennifer Aniston (“Friends,” “Cake”), Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development,” “Horrible Bosses”) and Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom,” “X-Men: Apocalypse”), the riotously hilarious film is guaranteed to be a box office smash.

Filming on “Office Christmas Party” provided a laundry list of challenges and obstacles, which Doldjeva was uniquely qualified to overcome. While shooting on the streets of Chicago she found herself in a battle against the elements. Despite a nonstop barrage of complications, Doldjeva kept her cool and saved the day from what could very well have been a disaster.

“Throughout the day, we experienced short blizzards, rain and clear skies — all within 30 minutes. A rapid weather change like this is never good for a lighting setup. At times I had to separate from the crew and follow the weather every 10 minutes, so I could tell the gaffer if there would be a lighting change,” Doldjeva said, recalling just how many fires she had to put out. “We had lights on every intersection… we were shooting at, and inside buildings and along trees. I had to stay close by to… decrease or increase the lights every time the sun changed, and to let everyone know so they could tell production. This was crucial for the lighting continuity within every shot and scene.”

Doldjeva has earned a reputation as one of the most sought after professionals in her field, a fact proven time and again by the illustrious list of projects she is credited on. In 2015 she served as the electrician for the hit Fox series “Empire,” starring Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard (“Hustle & Flow”) as a hip-hop artist and recording mogul whose legacy is placed in jeopardy after being diagnosed with ALS.

A much different project than any other she had previously worked on, the logistics of shooting a series as thoroughly original and unprecedented as “Empire” proved to be an exciting challenge for Doldjeva. In particular, the show’s frequent use of musical performances kept Doldjeva on her toes.

“I often had to navigate a spotlight and follow the singer across the stage,” she said, explaining the high expectations and higher stakes involved. “Sometimes there would be a long shot where the performance might get interrupted when the singer would go off stage or dance. A small mistake on a giant production like this could be inexcusable.”

Doldjeva’s myriad projects have also seen her working alongside Academy Award nominee William H. Macy (“Fargo”) on the Showtime series “Shameless,” directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski (“The Matrix Trilogy,” “V For Vendetta”) on the Netflix Original Series “Sense8,” and Academy Award Winner Charlize Theron (“Monster,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) on the upcoming film “American Express,” scheduled for release next year.

It isn’t luck or coincidence that has made Doldjeva such an omnipresent figure in some of the biggest productions over the last few years. Countless productions have relied not only on her expertise behind the camera, but on her unrivaled ability to turn lighting into an artform in its own right. With her years of experience, vast understanding of her craft, and a knack for quick action and quicker thinking, it’s no surprise that experts throughout the film industry have come to think of Ekaterina Doldjeva as the beacon that guides them when the waters get choppy.