Category Archives: Cinematographer

AWARD-WINNING CINEMATOGRAPHER DEPICTS A WAR TORN FAMILY IN “LAST CALL”

Cinematographer Ruixi Gao can’t help herself sometimes, she is overwhelmed with ideas. This is the blessing and the curse of possessing a creative personality. It’s incredibly difficult to make a film so when you do, you want someone talented and driven like Ruixi to be among those enabling you to manifest your vision. This was the mindset of Zhipeng Xing, director of “Last Call” when he approached Gao to be the DP for this film. After receiving the script from Xing, Ruixi recalls, “I sat down and read it immediately. I think it is instinctual for many cinematographers, it most certainly is for me. I could see the scenes inside my mind as I read. The whole picture played out for me. I understood the lighting & the perspective of the camera in relation to the action. It’s exciting when you read a script for the first time and the film is playing in your head; I wish the audience could see it so quickly. That’s part of what motivates me as a DP; I see this wonderful movie and the desire is to bring that to life for others to witness.” Besides her obvious passion, Ruixi brings years of experience and talent to every production she is on. An emotional film like “Last Call” requires every bit of her sensitivity and expertise.

The relationship between Director and DP is commonly accepted as one of the closest working relationships in film. Each director has their own process and the cinematographer must be flexible to this to help said director achieve their vision for the story being told. “Last Call” director Zhipeng Xing prefers to focus on the actors instead of fixating on the framing of the scene in the lens. Rather than a shirking of responsibility, this was a result of Xing’s trust in Gao’s abilities and talent. This allowed Ruixi to communicate extensively with her team. Working with her Gaffer and Key Grip to establish the lighting plan, and framing with the PD, the effort was highly collaborative. Her plan used soft filters for imaging effects and a low-key style with warm and cool tones to control different emotions between war and home.

This story depicts war and its effect on family. The father and son are separated from the mother (& wife) who is still in war torn Iraq. They communicate via letters and a weekly Facetime. After one of the weekly family Facetime talks, the father is speaking with the mother after their son has gone to bed. Disturbing noises are heard and the signal is lost. A week goes by with no word from the family’s beloved wife/mother and they fear the worst. Unable to sleep from worry, on the morning of the son’s birthday, the husband hears a knock at the door. It could be the mother or a government official to announce her unfortunate death. The filmmakers do not reveal the answer, leaving it up to the viewer to decide what they think happened. The purpose of telling this tale is not to resolve it either way but rather for the viewer to contemplate the effect of war on real people with families. In the last scene, prior to the knock, the father receives a letter from his wife in which she states that she won’t make it to see them for their son’s birthday.  When the father reads this letter it’s impossible to not feel the pain of being separated by these circumstances. War is cruel, it makes people ache; it’s also what makes this film work and have such impact.

Ruixi was awarded two best cinematography award for this film: Best Cinematography Platinum Award WINNER at the LA Shorts Awards & Best Cinematography Gold Award WINNER at the NYC Indie Film Awards (the film also received multiple other awards at these festivals). Gao’s passionate disdain for war and its malevolent effect on people in many parts of the world moved her to dig deep in her abilities for “Last Call.” Edwin Beckenbach worked with Ruixi on the film and professes, “Ruixi brings with her the experience of an international woman to a domestic industry that has traditionally been dominated by men and is not known for inclusivity or diversity. Film as art is a powerful generator and amplifier of cultural values and perspectives and as such the addition of underrepresented voices, especially those as promising as Ruixi’s, can entertain as well contribute to the benefit of society overall. In an industry where many people place their image before their abilities and ‘fake it until they make it’, Ruixi is authentic to a fault and is singularly focused on the artistic and technical challenges of the job at hand. Her dedication to her craft and clarity of vision is a unifying motivator for the camera and lighting crew to perform to the best of its ability.”

For many viewers of the film the most heart-wrenching aspect of the story is the young boy’s difficulty in being separated from his mother. With the understanding that this character would have be both a catalyst and proxy for the audience, Gao took extra preparations including reading psychology books on working with young professionals and preparing props with stickers and colored tape to make them more enjoyable. Far from being the task of a normal DP, this type of approach in working with a young actor is indicative of Ruixi’s overall pattern of professionalism. By creating a positive and friendly atmosphere in a variety of ways she is able to get the best performance from everyone and thereby get the best shots with the camera, to say nothing of coming in ahead of schedule. While some prefer to stay in their “own world” Ruixi Gao feels that the images she wants to create allow us to see through the eyes and emotions of others, which is what “Last Call” is all about.

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Cinematographer Andre Chesini talks viral music video ‘Oração’

Andre Chesini behind the scenes of Oracao 2
Andre Chesini behind the scenes of the “Oração” music video.

Anyone can move around with a camera to their eye, in fact, many people try. However, Andre Chesini understands what it is to be extraordinary at what he does. Chesini’s unwavering passion for filmmaking extends back as early as his childhood and his perspective derives from years of immersing himself in the arts. He understands that the artistry of cinematography comes from controlling what the audience sees and doesn’t see. As a cinematographer, he doesn’t just strive to make a frame beautiful, he tries to create images that evoke emotions and enhance the storytelling. That is what makes him such a rare talent.

Chesini has adopted a style of cinematography that many of the world’s most recognized strive and fail to achieve. For him, lights are motivated by nature, not only by the actors. He searches for a naturalistic cinematic sense of reality. He worked on several documentaries in the beginning of his career, and is an experienced Steadicam operator. This experience translates into his cinematography.

“Documentaries are based on working with the environment and searching for the natural and available light. That shaped me a strong bond for an alive camera and strong naturalistic sense of reality. Thus, I’m looking for a life-like images. A design that is closer to reality, yet enhancing the cinematic look making the ordinary into extraordinary. Every cinematographer is unique; it is about the inner voice that each of us have. How it echoes with the director and all the people involved in a film,” said Chesini. “Steadicam operation is an amazing skill that makes my senses for motion and blocking of the actors very sensitive. I can feel the energy that the scene requires, capture the emotion of the actors and translate it through the movement of the camera.”

Having worked on several award-winning films, such as Chocolate, Tereza, and A Fabrica, as well as the television show Life on a Leash, Chesini put his work on the world stage, showing audiences everywhere what he is capable of. However, this versatile cinematographer has had limitless success, and his work on three music videos for Banda Mais Bonita da Cidade displays that perfectly.

“Music allows you to have more freedom in style as a cinematographer. It is a great territory to experiment and push your visual limits as a creator. “Oração” was actually the first music video that I shot. I mostly work in narrative. I believe that this narrative background weighs on the decisions and how I could contribute for the impact of the music video,” said Chesini.

Three days after its release, “Oração” already had over three million views on YouTube. It now has over 27 million. Chesini went on to be interviewed by Fantastico, a popular Brazilian Sunday evening program, to comment on the video. Later that year, “Oração” won the Best Web Video for the MTV Video Music Brazil Awards.

“It was an insane reaction, from no recognition to international recognition, being published in Rolling Stone and Washington Post, among others. The Banda Mais Bonita da Cidade became recognized artists and in that year, and have recently released their third album,” said Chesini.

Vinicius Nisi, the creator of the band and the keyboard player, called Chesini to be part of the video. The proposal was to record three music videos in one weekend, the main video being “Oração,” a one-shot video while recording the live audio at the same time. Such a task was enormous, and Chesini was the only one for the job. Chesini’s Steadicam experience once again was vital for the music video, as his knowledge of where to place the camera and follow the talent to have the six-minute film be one shot was fundamental. The two other videos shot were “Boa Pessoa” and “Canção para não voltar.”

“Given the success of “Oração”, our band became full time job, becoming our main source of income. We owe this to the talent and love that Andre has,” said Nisi. “Andre is an easy-going person and very easy to work with. He is always with good-humored and is very communicative. He likes to know all details in order to do a good job. His technical and artistic capabilities are undeniable.”

“What I most like working with him, is that he is secure, calm and aware. He is also really humble, and would listen all my directions and when was necessary he was pro-active in resolving issues that would appear. Andre focuses on making his work pristine. He studies the video, techniques, equipment and always makes his best. Andre knows his immense responsibility as the first viewer of the everybody work. At the same time, he does that gently and with kindness,” Nisi continued.

It took 8 shots for Chesini to get the one-shot film that was needed. This technique was a fundamental factor for the success of the video. It required skills and a sensibility as cinematographer and camera operator that Chesini always displays.

“I’m really proud of that video and its success also gave me strength to continue to pursue my dream of film,” said Chesini. “The challenge of a one-shot film is quite exciting, and being a steadicam operator, I felt compelled to immerse myself in this challenge. The long shot also requires working together with all the musicians, extras and everybody involved and seeing the involvement of everybody was really rewarding to see.”

You can watch Chesini’s work in the “Oração” music video here.

WHY NICKY MARTIN LOOKS SO FUNNY

Comedy feels a certain way and it looks a certain way. There are not specific parameters which define this but it easily recognized. When you feel something is funny or see something that is funny, you know it. It’s a characteristic older than cinema itself. Before there was sound in films, comedy was more accurately conveyed than any other sentiment. Xing-Mai Deng displays this concept exceedingly well in Andrew Elliott’s “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar.” As a cinematographer with a highly diverse list of award-winning film credits (including this one which received an LAIFF award for Best Comedy/Dramedy and a Jury Award at the Melbourne Indie Film Festival), “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” is yet another example of Deng’s ability to visually achieve the intent of the writers and directors he works with in an exception manner. With the ubiquity of the pursuit of fame, often via social media these days, the film’s story reveals the all too common hopes of someone who wants to be famous almost solely because they desire fame.

In an ironic turn, this written story necessitated studying reality TV productions in order to accurately be presented with authenticity. The look of the film needed to bring out the absurdity of the story while spoofing the standard reality TV show. The film’s director and Xing-Mai researched several American reality TV shows to study their lighting, framing, and documentary-like camera movement. The blocking and camera angles were all decided before the filming to achieve a deliberate chaotic appearance for the shots.

Much of the look of “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” required Xing-Mai to use his extensive knowledge and talent to appear as if he did not possess these attributes. It’s an aspect that took him some time with which to relax. Constant second guessing and reassessment of going too far was required. He explains, “I purposely moved the camera in an amateur way in order to make the film look absurd. High-key lighting and amateurish camera movements brought the feel of a valid reality show to our film. There wasn’t any dramatic lighting. The camera movements followed the actors in a passive way rather than anticipating the characters’ actions as compared to a scripted production. We wanted to have the reality TV feeling but we also wanted some cinematic moments in the film. Some of the reality productions I researched were not lit at all. I added contrast for most of the scenes to give a cinematic touch to it but used it sparingly. Most of the reality TV shows I studied were not comedic so the usual reality TV look would not serve ‘Nicky Martin’ as it still desired to look funny. We did not want it to look like normal mockumentary as that look has become fairly common and we wanted something that stood out.”

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The improv nature of the film and the actor’s performances kept Deng on his toes and required a fair amount of improvisation on his own part. As different cast members spontaneously changed and evolved their parts during the actual filming, Xing-Mai was required to essentially collaborate with them in terms of lighting and framing the scene, accepting what he could get away with in terms of these parameters. With knowledge of this potentiality in advance, he created general lighting schemes based on the blocking and devised a plan that would give the widest coverage possible while achieving the largest part of his goal. Because the film is a comedy, Deng used a wide warm color palate.

“Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” is a spoof comedy about a man who wants to be a country music star but doesn’t know how to sing or play guitar. He wants to be a cowboy but he’s afraid of all four-legged animals…so he rides on stools. Upon hearing about a singing contest at the County Fair, Nicky gathers his cohorts and prepares for what he believes is the chance of a lifetime. Numerous efforts towards achieving his goal of becoming a legitimate cowboy fall short. In a scene which drives this failure home and yet endears the audience to his tenacious drive, Nicky and his close friend Mickey reconcile by riding their stools together into the sunset as they have learned that being a cowboy is not about being famous but rather about possessing the cowboy spirit.

Andrew Elliott, the mastermind behind “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” communicates, “I honestly had always planned to convince Xing-Mai to be the DOP for this film, since it’s very inception. Xing-Mai’s insight was invaluable to the success of the shoot. He was able to quickly and efficiently form a great crew and was always present with ideas and suggestions on how to make thing flow more smoothly. His work ethic was unquestionable on the shoot. Nicky Martin went on to success in the festival scene the following year, winning awards at several of these. Xing-Mai’s understanding of the story and unique ability to shoot the film played an integral part in winning these awards and in the success of the film as a whole.”

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Immersing one’s self in an industry that contains some of the most skilled and creative minds and then attempting to shed the abilities you have come to rely upon as second nature in order to move you forward in said industry is disconcerting at best. Shakespeare often depicted the person who appears as the fool to often be the cleverest of all; communicating the idea that the misdirection of the depth of one’s knowledge and abilities is often the most difficult task of all. In “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar”, Xing-Mai Deng proves that he’s no fool but he knows how to convincingly present the appearance of one to the laughter and enjoyment of his audience…and does so as a master.

Cinematographer Yan Rymsha’s Creative Vision Flows Strong

Yan Rymsha
Yan Rymsha on set of “Zaar” shot by Ibrahim Nada

Yan Rymsha was born into a family of artists in St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia and the historic home and muse to Vladimir Nabokov and Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others. A love of the arts is ingrained in the very fabric of his city and flows through his family’s veins, so it’s little wonder that Rymsha’s creative drive comes so naturally. Since childhood he has been drawn almost magnetically to the camera, a trait which was encouraged and fostered by his father.

“I [have dreamed of becoming] a director since I was 10. Of course, I had very little knowledge about directing craft,” Rymsha said, recalling how his love affair with cinematography began. “I remember my father brought me a video camera and taught me how to make very simple stop-motion films using old school techniques. He had experience with 8mm film cameras when he was my age, so he showed me dozens of awesome tricks with film.”

Rymsha swiftly mastered those first tricks, and in the years since he has mastered the craft and even invented a few tricks of his own. That mastery is evidenced in one of his most minimalistic, yet absolutely striking works, “Emerald Dream” directed by Leonid Andronov, who won the Festival Award at the International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema in London for the film “The Admired.” The film’s dystopian story is told by an unseen narrator entirely through photographs, which required Rymsha to boil down the visual impact of an entire film and concentrate that into a series of still frames. Rymsha carefully calculated his style of photography for the film to convey as eerie and foreboding a tone as one could imagine.

Set in a dark, distant future, “Emerald Dream” tells the tale of Gary Jibbons, a man whose unusual job it is to extract dreams from donors in much the same way people donate blood. As the narrator’s story goes on, the photographs become more and more mysterious; it soon becomes clear that Jibbons has fallen hopelessly in love with a young woman with the most vivid dreams he’s ever encountered.

It speaks volumes about Rymsha’s skill as a cinematographer that using so little, he was able to create an entire world inhabited by characters whose highs and lows are so familiar they could easily be real. But it takes more than skill alone to create works of the magnitude he has; it demands a level of passion and devotion that Rymsha has in spades.

“You always want to make your current film better than anything you’ve done before. Otherwise you’ll never grow,” Rymsha beamed. “I put part of my soul into my work. It’s more than just time and energy.”

"The Rat"
Film poster for “The Rat”

That philosophy is a defining quality of Rymsha’s work, an excellent example being the 2015 film “The Rat.” Once again he was tasked with making a film that would test the extent of his talents. Rather than a series of photographs however, “The Rat” required Rymsha to shoot the entire film from inside a single car. As events spiral out of control, audiences share the tense, caged-up sensation with the characters onscreen.

“The challenging part of it was that the whole story took place in the car, so the main goal was to make the audience attracted to the visuals. I spent a huge amount of time picking locations,” Rymsha said. “A location must be interesting with some action going around. My favorite was the airport, with planes taking off and landing.”

It was up to Rymsha to leap into action and scout all possible filming locations. A whirlwind tour of the city later, and he had his list.

“When I got a script I was quite surprised because the whole story was happening in the car. It was challenging to figure out how to make the move visually attractive, and the same time follow rhythm and beat of the storyline,” he explained of the process. “The story was gradually intensifying, so the visuals also had to follow.”

The crime thriller starred Jonte LeGras (“Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy”), was nominated at the Burbank International Film Festival, and its director Vasily Chuprina has been recognized for his Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking by the Newport Beach Film Festival for “The Boy By The Sea,” among a dozen other awards.

“When I got the synopsis of the movie, the first associations that popped into my head were of postmodernism with a huge element of restrained film noir style,” Rymsha said. “I thought that this combination will perfectly fit to the story of such genre.”

Rymsha also served as director of photography for director Ibrahim Nada’s 2016 “Zaar,” the dramatic story of a would-be suicide bomber who has second thoughts. A philosophical head turner fraught with suspense, the film has the distinction of being one of Rymsha’s favorite projects. The film itself has won prizes at more than half a dozen festivals, including a Best Cinematography win for Rymsha from the renowned Santa Monica Film Festival.

Constantly driven to take on the most challenging projects he can, Yan Rymsha has proven time and again what he can do with a camera and a little imagination. He has dedicated his entire life to the pursuit of cinematic greatness, and it would seem now that there is nothing left standing between him and that dream.

Cinematographer Ernesto Pletsch is True Storyteller for Award-Winning Film “Akirah”

AKIRAH, 2015. Dhruv Lapsia (1stAC), Derrick Cruz (director), me and Andrés Hernandez (gaffer)
Ernesto Pletsch with Dhruv Lapsia, Derrick Cruz, and Andres Hernandez

Despite always having a deep passion for art, photography, and film, Ernesto Pletsch was hesitant to follow his dream. Growing up in Porto Alegre, Brazil, there is no film industry, and not many people believe filmmaking is a sustainable career choice. However, Pletsch was determined, and refused to give up on what would make him truly happy. Audiences are thankful for this perseverance, as now he is an internationally successful cinematographer.

Pletsch sees cinematography for what it is, a true and important form of art. He is a visual storyteller, giving a voice to people that may not have had one without him. While working on the film Akirah, the voice was more metaphoric, as there was no dialogue or speaking parts. The storytelling was completely dependent on the lens of Pletsch’s camera, and he was completely up for the task.

“I liked shooting this project because I put all I had into it. Derrick, the director, trusted me and gave me freedom to try something unusual. As the film is purely visual, we had a lot to experiment with. There was lots of camera movements and dramatic lighting. I think Akirah is a cinematography guided film, so that’s why I was intrigued to work on it,” said Pletsch.

Pletsch was extremely vital to the success of the film as the director of photography, and after premiering at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank in September of 2015, it went on to have success at international film festivals. It was an Official Selection for the Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival in February 2016, where it won Best Student Short Drama, as well as the Gold Award Student Film at the International Independent Film Festival.

“It feels gratifying to have the film be so successful and recognized at these festivals. When directors, producers, actors or any other people who watched Akirah come up to me to congratulate, you feel gratified because you played an important piece in the success of it. And it’s only when each piece gets together that we can make something great,” said Pletsch.

Akirah shows the struggle of young gangs in a disturbed environment. It is a film about violence, an exploration of the psychological motivations of violence and the consequences that come with growing up in a culture of it. The film deals with our society structure and the people without a chance.

“Whoever is grown in this scenario is faded to the consequences of this culture. The culture of violence. My work was to take in consideration of this environment and try to translate this idea to spread this subject to a broader public,” said Pletsch.

To try to tell this story, Pletsch chose a specific style of cinematography, similar to that of David Fincher and Fight Club for look, colors and framing, and Akira Kurosawa in terms of the blocking of the actors and movement of camera. This approach was appreciated by director Derrick Cruz.

“Working with Ernesto has been one of the most seamless and easygoing partnerships of my career. His outstanding work lighting and composing shots speaks for itself. And I contribute his excellent craftsmanship and skill as the key factor in creating the quality and professional aesthetics of my films and TV show. But above all, what has kept me going back to Ernesto with my projects and films is his excellent on set demeanor, fearlessness and professionalism,” said Cruz. “Ernesto is great at what he does because of his passion and commitment to it. Watching him grow throughout our time together at school and now in our professional careers has been terrific. He is great at what he does because it is clear to me that every day he strives to get better and be better. And because of his dedication and love for photography and film he has continued to do so. I look forward to our continued partnership.”

It was Cruz who initially invited Pletsch to work on his film. He saw a bit of Pletsch’s work and knew he had the talent and skill to take the project to the level it needed to be. After discussing the project in detail, Pletsch was won over, and was eager to start working. Arriving to set, he knew no one, and now, two years later, the crew have made many films together with no plans of stopping.

“At first, filming Akirah was challenging. Being a film without any words, it was a big step to me in the pursuit of being a cinematographer. I was anxious. At the end of the shoot I was very pleased with the results. My crew was great, composed by talented people. Overall, it was a good stress. I was a little nervous by the responsibility put upon me, but it’s a natural process. We all have to pass through that at some point, and I did it,” Pletsch concluded.

Cinematographer Jon Keng captures beautiful moments in award-winning film “The Stairs”

Growing up in Singapore, Jon Keng was always interested in photography. This love for still images eventually grew into something more. This lifelong passion of looking through a lens transformed from still images to filmmaking, and now he is an internationally successful cinematographer.

Working all over the world, Keng has shown his extraordinary capability as a cinematographer on a variety of films. His work on the award-winning film Fata Morgana was screened at some of some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals, and this trend continued when he worked on Cocoon, Home, and Tadpoles. Last year, his film The Stairs premiered at Ashland International Film Festival 2016, where it won the grand prize of Best Short Film. It also was screened at the Festival 2016, the USA Palm Beach International Film Festival 2016, and the USA River’s Edge International Film Festival where it went on to win the Special Jury Prize for Best Film.

“It feels great to be validated by the success the film has been receiving,” said Keng.

The Stairs was initially conceptualized as a television series, based around a gay, high end male escort and the lonely men he meets each week. The film follows an older man who hires a male escort for company on Christmas Eve, finding an unexpected kinship with the young man in this late-night exploration of solitude, intimacy and the basic human need for connection.

“I was attracted to the script of The Stairs initially. On the surface, it seemed very ‘undramatic’, with the entire story centered around a long conversation scene, but digging deeper, I began to uncover many subtly hidden emotional beats and arcs that each character goes through. I thought this was very tasteful and I made it my challenge to make the piece visually arresting to keep the audience engaged through the long dialogues,” said Keng.

Keng describes the style he filmed in as very calculated, as he tried to focus on emphasizing each specific beat during the long dialogues in the scenes, in order to make sure that the audience fully understood what was occurring, which largely contributed to the success of the film.

“I also played around with themes of escalating visual connection between the two actors in the film, building up to a final point of disconnection,” he said.

Keng worked alongside an all-star cast and crew on The Stairs. The film stars Tony award nominated actor Anthony Heald (Silence of the Lambs, Boston Public, Red Dragon). It also starred Kelly Blatz (NCIS, Fear the Walking Dead, Aaron Stone) who co-directed the film with the writer Zach Bandler (Switched at Birth).

As a director who has worked and will continue to work with Jon at every opportunity, I can say without hesitation that he has the rarest of talent in cinema: instinct. Cinematography isn’t just a technical job where someone points a camera for you at the actors or figures out where the lights should be. A great cinematographer is as much a storyteller as the director or screenwriter. Watching Jon work, he is truly “one” with the camera. It’s an organic part of them. He makes it move like a human being in a way that draws the audience into film. He has a sense for the lighting that evokes the perfect emotional response for that moment in the story on screen. He possesses nuance, sensitivity, he is a leader in their own right, without whom a director would be lost. That type of talent cannot be learned or taught, because it’s God-given. Jon has it. He is an artist in the most profound sense of the word,” said Bandler.

All who worked with Keng on the film were impressed with his cinematographic instincts. Meg Steedle, an actress known for her work in Boardwalk Empire, Grey’s Anatomy, and American Horror Story, was a producer on the film. She describes Zeng’s work as masterful.

“Jon’s was a dream to have on set. He ran the camera, grip and electrical department with an efficiency and effectiveness that kept the film running on time while still capturing beautiful moments on screen. For a producer, someone like Jon is the ideal,” said Steedle. “He’s got a ridiculously bright future ahead of him in this industry and I intend to hire him every chance I get.”

The opportunity for Keng to work with such a distinguished cast and crew was a vital aspect to his experience working on The Stairs. Blatz and Bandler knew what he was capable of, and were very open to collaboration. This gave Keng the freedom he needed me to push himself visually and experiment, and watching the actors provided inspiration.

“It was a privilege to be able to work with Anthony Heald, a veteran actor with such a strong theatrical pedigree. I was really just transfixed watching him go through his long monologues, conveying a deep sense of emotion,” said Keng. “Kelly was amazing to watch on set, as he was both acting and directing the film. He would be acting in one moment, then switch to director’s mode and talk about shots. This takes a great amount of multitasking. Despite doing multiple overnight shoots in a row, he was still filled with energy and concentration, which he was able to bring across to the entire crew.”

Keng was also a multi-tasker on set, working all the way from pre-production to post-production, ensuring everything was executed to perfection. With commitment like that, there is no doubt as to why he is considered such an exemplary cinematographer.

COELHO CREATES MAGIC BEHIND THE LENS

The film You Cast a Spell On Me is about relationships and magic. Movie magic gives us the escapism and captivating storytelling that we all desire. This magic doesn’t happen without the relationships and communication amongst the creative professionals who produce them for our enjoyment. Director of Photography Johanna Coelho’s job title may imply that she is solely focused on imagery but one of the keys to her success is the emphasis she places on communication in filmmaking. No matter what vocation you are involved in, communication may be the most important factor to success. Johanna’s shrewd understanding of this fact and the benevolent manner in which she utilizes it has made her a much sought after DP in the film industry. As a fluent English speaker who was raised on the outskirts of Paris, Coelho has a heightened awareness of the subtleties of communication and how different individuals receive and interpret information. Of course, being from France makes her very aware of romance; which made her the ideal DP for this production. Talent, communication, and a connection with the story being told were the components of the magic that she created for You Cast a Spell On Me.

It’s an obvious statement but, anyone who speaks more than one language has spent a greater amount of time dissecting and contemplating communication. It creates a deeper understanding of your own intentions as well as those of others. Life can be easier or more difficult based on the level of communication. The success of many films are based on the abilities of its creators to establish a rapport with the audience as well as to accurately depict the vision of the film. Fantasy films like You Cast a Spell On Me require someone like Johanna and Tosca Musk (director/producer) who can manifest visuals that don’t exist in our actual world. Speaking about Coelho’s work on the film, Musk declares, “Johanna’s cinematography work on this film was extremely impressive. She lead a full crew in an enjoyable environment and created visuals that were really uplifting to the story. There were also a lot of magic tricks happening in the story, and in collaboration with the art department, she brought these magic effects to life. Almost everything was done practically and it looks amazing; like real magic! She is a pleasure to work with. She was fully committed to the project and the vision I had as a Director. Johanna also was very mindful of the work of other departments, giving them their space when needed but also collaborating with everyone to have a smooth and organized shoot.”

You Cast a Spell On Me is a romance/fantasy film about a young and handsome warlock named Matt. His power is that he can charm women into finding him irresistible, literally. As one can expect, a young man with this power is apprehensive to settle down with one woman. This journey Matt takes towards finding his soulmate and depicts him losing his powers, others gaining powers, and the conflict and happy endings that one finds in romance films. Due to the nature of Matt’s character, many production departments were required to understand and work together to help create the visual “trickery” to produce the action in this film. The responsibilities of the Director of Photography can vary depending on the personality of a director. Some directors like to have a full control of the creative visuals. They have a very specific idea in mind and have a precise shot list with lighting references they want reproduced for the film. Other directors do not really want to (or know how to) deal with the visual part. They just want to focus on the actors. When similar minds meet…Coelho explains, “Sometimes you have a director in the middle of the two previous options, one that will want to share the creative approach with you. It’s a really fun process when this happens because the two of you have imaginative brains talking together about shots and exchanging visual references to find what would be the best for the story. Tosca Musk is that Director, and it was amazing to prep this film with her because we would really support each other in the process. One idea would lead to another idea and so on, giving life to ideas that might have never existed with only one person brainstorming. We were also both very open minded about each other’s input and this really helped the process.”

This template trickled down through Johanna’s ten-person camera crew. This DP makes sure to involve them in the pre-production process (especially the Gaffer and Key Grip) to keep everyone aware of the plan and prepare for lighting, etc. Johanna understands that a happy and respected crew of professionals are more motivated to work and share in a vison than those who are merely “punching the clock”, a mindset we can all relate to and understand. Perhaps one of the most overlooked parts of communicating on set is with one’s self. Coelho reveals, “It is hard to stop for a second, and really look at the frame and lighting and be sure it’s the right setup. Focusing on one thing at a time is very important. If you do everything in order, your job will go much faster. You can switch back and forth between things quickly but each thing needs to be given its own respectful moment. It is also really important to know the blocking of the scene, because you don’t want to start lighting and discover in the middle of a take that your light is in the wrong place for your actor. So following the steps is key. It’s true that with everything going on at the same time, you can get lost in your own thoughts. It happened on one of my early student movies in 2011 at AFI and I was really angry at myself for having lost my point of view on the film. A teacher who watched it pointed this out to me and told me that when he would get confused on set, he would step out into the bathroom, turn the lights off so his eyes wouldn’t get distracted, take a deep breath, and remember what the movie should be for two minutes. Then he would come back on set fresh and clear minded. This is probably one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. I don’t go hide in the restrooms, but I do step outside into an empty corner where no one is talking to me and take a deep breath and think for two minutes. When I come back on set everything is fine and back in place in my mind.”

While those of us in the audience are blissfully unaware of all the moving parts behind the scenes of the shows and films which entertain us, the talented professionals creating them are always thinking of us and our subconscious desire to not be taken out of the film. None of that would be possible with the oversight of someone like Johanna Coelho. You Cast a Spell On Me was filmed in a staggering fourteen days; an incredible achievement for such a high quality production. This is only possible with someone such as Coelho who is planning out and paying attention to every possible time saving opportunity. Whether communicating with the AD to prep things while waiting for the actors, or planning the lighting so that the post production process runs more smoothly (Johanna states, “Colorist are key and they should have much more recognition as they’re always saving your back and make your work look better. I was happy I could assist in ways that helped the colorist. We would discuss it together for each shot.”).

It’s an obvious statement that every DP needs talent and the eye to find the images which the director needs. There are so many professionals in the world, it is those like Johanna Coelho whose ability to create a positive and efficient environment for filmmakers the set her above the rest.

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MAYER BRINGS A BEAUTIFUL SIDE TO “SHUN”

So much of life is about perspective. The way which we view the situation we find ourselves in, the circumstances that surround us, even the interpretation of this by others…all of these things factor into how happy or fulfilled we are at any point in our lives. The 2015 film Shun depicts these factors in the story of two chefs who happen to be father and son. As cinematographer for Shun, Avner Mayer is in charge of so many points of perspective that it’s practically dizzying. Mayer helps the audience (that’s perspective #1) to see things the way that the son (perspective #2) and father (that’s #3) do, by using his (#4) exemplary skills to communicate director/writer Shiyun (Lavi) Hu’s (#5) story. While many might see the cinematographer’s role as sitting at the camera and making sure the action is in focus, they fail to understand the depth of planning and all-seeing overlook of professionals like Mayer. Great cinematographers not only capture the action during filming but they become the eyes of both the production and the audience, coloring the emotional content to heighten what every other aspect of film creation has done, breathing life into the corporal vessel that is film. If that sounds hyperbolic to you, you don’t have experience in the film industry. A smart director understands that a cinematographer will lift a film to new heights or send it all crashing down in spite of its other redeeming qualities. Shun’s director has worked with Avner successfully on two films (the films Beyond and On The River) and it was due to his ability to cultivate depth in a film that she contacted him to be the DP for this production.

Shun is a very emotional movie for a number of reasons. It deals with a conflict between family, work, and self. Kazuki is a fifty-year-old Sushi sous chef and the right hand of his father (Yoshi) in the high-end grip sushi restaurant “Hasimoto”. Kazuki has worked under his father for the past 30 years but they have very different ideologies regarding food and life. Yoshi runs his restaurant with a strict, traditional, and almost sterile approach. He treats his food like a piece of art and believes others should do the same. For Kazuki food is a way to a man’s heart and soul, a tool to connect to people’s emotions. When Yoshi falls ill, he decides to pass the control of the restaurant to his son. Kazuki finds himself trapped between the need to continue his father’s heritage and in his own wishes. The deceptively simple storyline introduces many difficult emotional ideas. Dealing with the ailments and aging of one’s parents, the desire to find your own path in life and career while also desiring the approval of your parents; these are difficulties that many of us can relate to regardless of our country of origin or vocation. The universality of the theme allows everyone to access the filmmaker’s frame of reference but it was Mayer’s role to make it interesting for the audience. It’s obvious that this goal was well attained with Shun as it was an official film selection for such festivals as: Salento international Film festival (2016, Italy), Montreal World Film Festival (2016, Canada), the Toronto Reel Asian international film festival (2016, Canada), and as a finalist in the “Vizio” and “Dolby Vision” Filmmakers Challenge – Cinematography awards – 2016.

The differences between father and son in Shun establish the conflict that Kazuki (and we suspect Yoshi as well) must deal with throughout the film. Kazuki and Yoshi have drastically different approaches and opinions towards food and the process of creating it. Yoshi has an almost surgical, scientific approach to food making. He runs his kitchen like a Swiss clock factory. The work must be done in a precise predetermined order. Improvisation is not allowed. Yoshi’s connection to food is different. Preparing food is instinctual to him, full of flavor and improvisation. For Yoshi, food is a process of connecting with other human beings rather than a planned and organized ritual. To highlight this, Avner explains, “In order to show the differences between the father and son, we used our lights to create different energy. The lighting is clear, blue and bright when Yoshi runs the kitchen. It has an almost ambient/office feeling.  When Kazuki is in charge, the lighting changes to a dimmed yellow-red environment. This creates a much more comfortable and inviting atmosphere; like being at home.”

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Mayer also customized the lighting for the lighting for the restaurant location in Shun. The choice to create the restaurant on set rather than a preexisting location gave the production the availability to take the time and movement needed for their shots. Avner chose to use ambient studio lighting from above to again capitalize on the freedom of movement during filming. He notes, “The general approach to the lighting was high key and natural. We didn’t want the movie to feel lit but we still wanted to establish a high key ambience. In order to create this effect, we rigged big top light sources to create a soft, natural light. We aimed for a natural Japanese look and I feel we were very successful in achieving the proper look and feel. Camera wise, we wanted to be patient and static. We decided to tell the story mostly using the blocking and editing (different camera positions) and to keep it as simple as possible. This is the way the characters in Shun see the world so we adopted this approach in telling their story.”

While you can see a great deal of Mayer’s talent and skill as a cinematographer when viewing Shun, you won’t see the largest part of it. Director Shiyun (Lavi) Hu declares, “Avner is very precise in his planning. This was a great benefit to Shun since we shot almost everything in a studio, which limited our shots selection.  Avner’s preparation work with our Production Designer allowed us to maximize the space to our need’s, using lighting built into the design and creating moveable set walls for extra flexibility. I had the pleasure to collaborate with Avner as my cinematographer on previous projects. At this point we have a blind understanding of each other, which makes the filmmaking process fast and efficient.” Shun’s producer, Cedric Gamelin, states, “Usually when you shoot a movie, you have surprises in every step. In this project the process was the smoothest I have ever encountered, I must say that Avner and the team’s preparation work made it seem easy. Avner did all of that without jeopardizing the images, which were magnificent! I’m very proud to be a part of the team who created Shun.” Avner Mayer is happy to be a cinematographer that is appreciated and respected among his peers in the film industry, whether it be for his work on set or the planning of it. He relates, “Since I discovered in my early twenties that I wanted to be a part of filmmaking, to arouse that same excitement that I felt sitting in a theater…I’ve always been excited about all the parts of the process. I feel that the key for a successful project usually lays in the preparation work. It requires a lot of communication between all the key groups involved in order to be synched on one vision. When everybody is synched like that, the set can be a big celebration…and who doesn’t want to be a part of a big celebration!”

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Director of Photography Sergey Savchenko “not working for industry, but making it”

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Sergey Savchenko was born in Siberia.

“I meet people, I listen to their stories and watch their lives. I see and try to understand the visual styles and colors of different countries and places. Every day I try to develop myself, to apply my experience in creating my own style, and hone my skills.”

Those are the words of Siberian born Sergey Savchenko, when describing what he does as a director of photography. Those are the words of someone who does what they do because they love it. Every project Savchenko works on is a learning opportunity. He constantly aims to be better, and he is already respected in the industry for what he does.

“Once, when I was experimenting with video, I noticed something. It was a feeling that I was not previously familiar with. It was seeing how my thoughts and ideas became a reality through film. I understood that I can capture a mood, an attitude, a feeling. It was the spark of creation. I can’t compare this feeling with anything else. I can not only consume, but create. From that moment, this feeling for me becomes one of the most strong and pleasant. I feel that I’m alive when filming and create a certain style or idea,” he said.

Savchenko’s work is recognized across the globe, and has been nominated for several awards. He worked with REN-TV on That’s My House, which was a finalist when it was nominated for “Best Leisure and Lifestyle program spot” at the Promax BDA Europe in 2015. This year, his work on the promo Americans won Bronze in the “Best Drama Promo” category of the Promax BDA UK awards. Savchenko considers these true victories, but they still came as a big surprise.

The feeling is hard to describe. In our work, we constantly ‘run’, focusing on the ‘road’, not looking around. When your job gets to the finals of the international competition, you start to ‘look around’, trying to figure out where you are and realize that you are ‘running’ in the company of giants like the BBC and Discovery. It’s an interesting feeling,” he said.

While at REN-TV, Savchenko worked closely with Roman Toloknov, the chief Director of the Promo Department and the two became close. Tolokonov says Savchenko has a loud voice, joking that he can’t decide if it is a good thing or not, as he Savchenko is never afraid to tell even his boss when something “sucks.”

“Sergey came to our department in late summer of 2013. I immediately saw in him a man who can give good advice and bring our ideas to life. We worked for three years and got a huge number of promotional projects. Sergey is like an engine. You start the engine and it works,” he said. “Sergey has this massive energy, he loves what he does – that’s what really got to me when he came for an interview. He is not working for the industry, he is making the industry.” 

Savchenko describes Toloknov as having an excellent sense of style and humor, producing more great ideas than he team can manage to film. For Savchenko, despite the awards and recognition, it’s the people he has worked with that have made his career into something he loves.

“You know, it is always a surprise to receive awards, it’s very nice, but this joy fades away. It’s always a pleasure to share this joy with someone, but a reward by itself does not bring happiness. The award is a measure of official recognition, it affects to your confidence, but the support of a family and friends, and their faith in you, is much stronger than any award,” he said.

Having this attitude keeps Savchenko humble. Despite his many accolades, he does what he loves for himself and the people he loves. He is motivated by the challenges of the profession, which one can only do when they are truly passionate about something. He knows that every take can have a different approach, and every other director of photography will do it differently, but he takes his time and finds the best approach.

“It’s similar to how you tune a musical instrument, feeling only the vibration from it in your body. You don’t hear the sound, you only see the faces of those who listen to your music. The best gift is to see smiles on faces, this means that your music is resonance in the hearts of the audience. Your instrument is tuned. Constant practice and selfless love helps along the way. Any task has 100 ways to solve and we are always looking for the best choice. The storytelling language, the style and the color is very similar to our speech, if we start talking randomly – we might upset or offend someone, nobody likes scrappy speech. Video products directly affect the consciousness and sub consciousness of an audience, therefore it is necessary to control the quality and check 10 times to make sure, that what you’re doing is right and carries a beautiful thought,” he advised.

Savchenko is not simply a director of a photography. He is an artist. He is a creator. He knows this, but uses his gift to positively affect not only the people directly around him, but those that see his work. There is no doubt that his name will continue to roll through the credits in film and television for years to come.

“I want to grow as a director of photography and work in the film industry. I truly love what I do the more than anything in the world,” he concluded.

SIMU FENG CREATES A DARK AND MYSTERIOUS CHINA IN “SHOP OF ETERNAL LIFE”

Shop of Eternal Life is the passion project of director/writer/producer Yizhou Xu. In the film, he uses an almost literal metaphor to show the dangers we humans can make in times of desperation. It’s an evergreen tale that applies to all peoples of this planet. It just so happens that Xu’s film takes place in two by gone eras of his homeland, 1920’s and 1950’s China. Not only is there an other-worldly occult thread in the film but the obstacle of transforming downtown Los Angeles into an almost hundred-year-old China. While giving great credit to his crew and cast, Xu admits that his secret weapon for this transformation appearing so convincingly on screen was Shop of Eternal Life’s cinematographer Simu Feng. The award-winning Yizhou Xu declares, ““Simu is the most professional cinematographer I have ever worked with. Simu is such a vital part of this project because he is the metronome of the production. The most time consuming part of any film production is the lighting and camera positioning. We had a lot of shots in the film and it was paramount to have a cinematographer with the confidence to finish those shots with the highest quality and to do so very quickly. Simu finished the task without wasting a single second; and his efficiency didn’t harm the result of the image at all. Simu knows how to take limitations and challenges and transfer them into creativity.” The filmmaker’s peers and public definitely agreed with the finished product as it was an official selection at: the 36th Hawaii International Film Festival, the 20th Los Angeles International Short Film Festival, the 10th Bali International Film Festival, and the 8th San Jose International Short Film Festival. The look which Feng bestowed upon Shop of Eternal Life belies the budgetary confines which Xu relates. A story which spans the struggles of its main character, his transformation, and the cautionary tale it communicates deserves a beautiful and elegant aesthetic; one which it richly possesses thanks to Simu Feng.

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Shop of Eternal Life is a film full of fantasy and terror, relating the choices we sometimes make and the unexpected results they have on us as well as others. Even the best of intentions can result in malevolent outcomes for all involved parties. The film is the story of a poor man in 1920’s China who ventures to a pawnshop, hoping to sell his wedding ring to save his sick wife. The shop owner offers only a pittance…or a deal. Rather than money, the pawn shop owner suggests that the husband sell his heart for a great deal of money to him. The man feels he has no choice but to take the offer in hopes of saving his spouse’s life. Many years later, the husband returns to the shop to redeem his heart, but his time without a heart has transformed him into a monster. He discovers that his heart is no longer at the shop. Doomed to a heartless life (literally), he kills the pawnshop owner and assumes duties as its proprietor.

The storyline itself immediately conjures mental images of fright and fantasy infused characters and their surroundings. It was Simu’s task to make the images visible on screen to match the reality of China in the 20’ and 50’s as well as the mystic ideas presented by the subject matter. Feng relates, “The film’s visual dark tone is the key element for the story. We did this through lighting and camera work. I did thorough tech scouting with my long time gaffer Toshi Kizu and planned out the whole low key lighting scheme. I wanted the pawnshop owner character to be part of this darkness; I wanted him to feel inseparable from the shop itself. We hid several single tube kinoflos to give some small pools of light in the room and to add to the depth of the set. Camera movement was also very carefully planned out so the move was always motivated. We didn’t want the audience to feel the existence of the camera. Combined with the blocking of actors, we were able to create tension and a sense of the mystery at the same time. I’ve always felt that, by planning things out appropriately, you can help the audience forget about the technical aspects of a film and thereby lose themselves in the story…which is what we want as filmmakers and what the audience wants as well.” Yizhou Xu confirms, “Simu achieved a very strong visual style in Shop of Eternal Life; a mystery and a sense of darkness. I think this stylish look is the most important part of the film and it’s the first thing people talk about concerning this film. Because of the fascinating visual style, people have the patience to dig deeper on the subject and theme of the film. As a filmmaker, that helps me to tell the story.” Feng continues to explain the look of the film in commenting, “Because the film consists of two different time periods (the 1920’s and the 1950’s.), we wanted them to be really different, making sure the audience gets the idea that the poor man has changed into a monster. The production designer (Dara Zhao) did a great job building the set to be authentic to the time periods yet retaining our own dark and mysterious style. When we discussed the practical lights in the shop, we decided that for the 1920’s we would dress the shop with candle lanterns, and for the 1950s we went with tungsten bulbs. The practical lights are always important for me because all my lighting is motivated from these practical lights. The warm color given off by the lanterns, combined with the black pro-mist filter I put in front of the lenses, gave the 1920’s a softer and warmer tone. I shot the 1950’s with no filter and the tungsten bulbs flaring directly into the lens, making the look harsher and brighter. With more desaturation in color correction, the 1950’s looked pale and cold, fitting the change of the character.”

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Both the look of Shop of Eternal Life and the lesson of the film itself are entertaining and gripping. Yizhou Xu uses his film to communicate the idea that in our sacrificial attempts to help those we love; we risk the danger of turning into monsters. Making a deal with the devil may be very literal in this film but it has great relevance to many everyday choices. The film production itself conceals the challenges that the cast and crew overcame to create such a polished film. Simu Feng is thankful for the creative and unique approaches the production was forced to invent as he states, “Working on a small budget film is always difficult but it can be a truly fun experience if the filmmakers try to make a difference. Every filmmaker will face the situation in which they don’t have enough resources to achieve what they imagined and planned. I always believe certain limitations help yield better result by forcing creative people to come up with ‘poor man’ solutions. The luxury of a big budget does make a lot of things easier, but working on small-scale project helps me to keep the spirit of being flexible and the ability to adapt myself to changing circumstances.”

 

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