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Robert Primes, ASC — Madrid Imagen Festival

I arrived in Madrid on Sunday, Oct. 4 with written instructions that I would be met at the airport. Well, of course, they had simply forgotten to meet me and weren’t answering their phone–so I took a cab. Because I was working on Friday, I missed some screenings on Sunday and was unable to serve as a judge this year (last year I judged feature films and we gave the top awards to Kolya, Jude and Lorca).

After being in transit for 13 hours and encountering a 9 hour time difference, I was exhausted and went to bed. That didn’t prevent my internal clock–tuned to some western-U.S. circadian rhythm–from awakening me at 2AM. I read much of the night, being held helpless captive of my rebellious biological clock!

The next morning, I discovered my old friend Walter Lassally, BSC at breakfast (Walter has shot 69 movies including Zorba the Greek and Tom Jones–he won the Oscar for Zorba). Walter is championing a universal 1.75 aspect ratio to be a new common film and TV standard and replace everything but “scope.” (More about that later.)

I struck up a conversation with German cinematographer, Arthur Ahrweiller at the same breakfast (where the real heavy-duty networking happens) and he told me that about 40% of television in Germany is letterboxed 16×9(!!!). The German government gives a small financial supplement to anyone shooting 16×9 (1.78) to hasten public acceptance of the new format and encourage investment in the new digital television technology. The fact that the German public readily accepted letterboxing delighted me because our US networks are terrified that the public won’t accept black bands at the top and bottom of their TV screens.

I found that throughout Europe, television production is routinely framed for 16×9 and letterboxed. In England–fearful of a public reaction to letterboxing–they are adding a little more to the top and bottom of the frame to narrow the black lines and ease into showing 16×9, but the rest of Europe seems to be shooting and displaying 16×9 with no problems. The question is: “If Europeans can easily accept a wider format without the need to shoot & protect, why can’t we?”

I lunched with Walter and the distinguished British cinematographer Alex Thompson, BSC who was here to show Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet. The discussion turned to Brent’s Rule, the proposed legislation to limit the entertainment industry’s working hours. Britain has a rule that everyone gets $40/hour after 12 hours. The unions used to be able to really control the hours and limit their working day to 8-10 hours, but now producers are trying to buy out unlimited hours and work the crew as long as they wish, just like in the U.S.

I attended Alex Thompson’s talk about shooting in 65mm. He shot Hamlet with Panavision 65mm cameras and praised them for their excellent service; but also praised the newer, quieter Arri 765 camera he used on the project for four days. Because 65mm can only be processed in Hollywood, London or Munich, there was a five day delay in getting dailies, and the 35mm reductions used for editing were not sharp–it was almost impossible to tell if the extremely critical focus was on. The lightest 65mm sound camera weighs 93 lbs. so all those fast moving shots that looked like Steadicam were actually shot from an Elemack dolly on an extremely level and smooth floor.

Although most of the guests stay at the Hotel Sueza, most of the Madrid Imagen events are held at the gorgeous, rococo Circulo de Bellas Artes which is a few doors down the street and houses a center for the arts complete with theatres and cafes. This is a beautiful building with a grand, marble double staircase winding upward past six stories of stained glass windows. Some of those levels are themselves three stories high with ornately decorated, gilded internal domes.

Later in the day, as part of a demonstration, I shot a test of the new Kodak 200T stock. Using an 85mm Zeiss lens at T2.1 (wide open), I shot a charming Spanish actress moving from full wide shot to closeup and stopping at six separate marks with six different lighting effects. I then shot the same scene on 5279 (Vision 500) for comparison. I shot the Kodak Gray Card as a timing reference and expect to screen the results tomorrow. I’m also trying to find the Spanish distributor of Money Talks to try to get a print here. Playing hookey the screening of a Spanish film, I returned to my room ready to sleep–finally. Unfortunately, a fully letterboxed, Spanish-dubbed version of Shadowlands was showing on television and I spent about an hour taking in Roger Pratt’s beautiful scope compositions before I finally fell asleep.

Traveling Light — Steve Poster Journal, Part 2

Dateline — Somewhere over the Atlantic on my way to New York

We have been shooting for over seventy days now and I can start to smell the end. It’s been going very well for the last few weeks. One of the main reasons is that we are back shooting near Paris and I am seeing dailies (or rushes as they are called in France) on a regular basis and projected on film again. We were on the road for eight weeks and for four of them I could only get taped dailies.

Even though the tape was Beta, it was so different from seeing an anamorphic image on the big screen that panic set in every time I saw dailies. After about four viewings I decided to do something that I have never done before—I stopped watching the tapes.

I felt that it was better to not see images that were so unrelated to the finished product because I could have started compensating for what was on the tube. That was more dangerous than trusting my instincts and the close relationship I have with my grader (this is very common in European labs). The worst thing I could have done was to have worked from the tape: that would have been a disaster!

Let me throw in this caveat: if you are shooting for a video finish, ignore what I am saying—you have to watch the tape. (Then there’s the age old problem of getting representative transfers, isn’t there? But that is all we have for many lower budget films these days.)

The one-on-one relationship that shooters have with their graders in European labs is really a great service. I am working at Eclair Lab and my grader is Olivier d’Fountnoy. He is unusually young for a grader but his skill is beyond his years. We had talks before we started, and during tests, that led him to understand some of my artistic goals. Olivier read the script and had a real grasp of the story. When I was in the field I could say to him on the phone, “We are shooting the scene where Brasack is preparing the explosives on the bulldozer and it is still dawn [or orb as it is called here]. I exposed more for the sky and let everything fall lower in this one. And it is overcast, so the coldness that we need is built in.” He knew exactly what I was talking about.

How about this one. “Sharkov and his Henchman are sitting in his office in the Bastille. It is late day, the light is really streaming in, and the camera is facing the windows. I have a 6K par hitting Sharkov from out-of-frame right, but nothing on the Henchman. I know it will flare around the Henchman somewhat, but let me know how much. Print it cold and down to control the flare. Be careful not to loose Sharkov too much.”

There was some lost sleep over that one. But Olivier knew exactly what I was talking about and what my concerns were. He also knew that I had limited access to light some of the sets because during one of his visits to the location (something else I’ve never had from a timer in the States) he learned that the director, Patrice, likes to have real (unmovable and low) ceilings built. And he often chooses the 35mm (anamorphic) lens in these situations, and then makes moves with it to boot-doesn’t give me many places to light from.

Patrice feels that it adds a sense of reality and makes you solve problems in innovative ways…I’ll say! I’ve really wanted to take a chain saw to some of those sets to get some light in overhead. But noooooop! I went along with it and accepted it as a challenge.

But in this situation the ‘halo’ around the Henchman was just enough to make it mysterious. How many years have I been doing this and I still get anxious? Just goes to show that what we do is nowhere near an exact science. Sometimes I think it is more like magic, alchemy and mysticism all thrown in together to make our love potions.

So what was I doing on a plane to New York? Actually we are back home now (oops—back in Paris—oh, the life of the traveler). We were in the States shooting the end of the movie. The last scene takes place in Central Park. At one point in the shoot we were standing in front of the Plaza Hotel. The Paris Theater next door was showing Truffaut’s Day For Night. How ironic…here I was standing with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon in front of a marquee for Day for Night. I thought I was living Day For Night.

Traveling Light — Steve Poster Journal

I’m shooting a movie called Une Chance Sur Deux or in English Even Money for Director Patrice Leconte (Ridicule). We are shooting in France both in studio and on many locations that include Paris and the South of France. It is an action adventure comedy staring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon and Vanessa Paridis. And it seems that I am the first contemporary Director of Photography to shoot a French movie in France for a French Director. Not only is it a great honor to be in this position, but to be working with two of the great figures of the French cinema is amazing. I always remember walking out of the theater after Breathless wanting to be Jean-Paul Belmondo, smoking very smelly French cigarettes for awhile (making everybody around me sick) and trying to imitate his expressions. And Alain Delon was so beautiful in all of his younger films. I’m here to report that they both still look and are great.

And, of course, working with my good friend, dear, sweet Patrice is a dream come true. We have been working on commercials together for at least a dozen years and have always talked about the dream of doing a feature together. He tried to get me in two other times and the third was the charm because here I am.

These were some of my first lessons from working on a French movie in France—so now I know what French hours really are:

You get to work at 9 or 10 (Not Bad)…You work for an hour or two setting up (Not Bad)…You then take a full hour to sit down for a multi-course meal complete with wine (Not Bad)…And then you work straight through for at least ten hours (or maybe twelve) with only a piece of baguette and some mystery meat six hours in (starting to get Bad)…Then if there is more work you might work for a couple more hours (Bad)…Then you come back the next day inside what we know to mean ‘turnaround’ (Real Bad)…And on top of all of that there is no craft service to speak of (Lousy).

The first day that we shot on location in Paris (as opposed to the studio which is a one hour drive from Paris and used to be an apple storage warehouse– which means that it is colder than a night in the backlot at Universal in winter). I found out something startling when I asked “Ou est la toilette?” They don’t have honey wagons or any kind of portable facility when they are on location. None! They expect you to find a pissoir or a bar, order a drink and then use the john there. It’s unbelievable but true. I asked everybody (and this isn’t a shabby crew), they said never. So much for civilization…they have wine at lunch but no place to take a leak. But they really respect Directors of Photography, Chef Operateurs, and that’s not a bad trade off, now isn’t it?