Wally Pfister on ‘Transcendence’

Director Wally Pfister, ASC (center), and cinematographer Jess Hall, BSC (right), discuss their collaboration with moderator David Geffner.

Director Wally Pfister, ASC (center), and cinematographer Jess Hall, BSC (right), discuss their collaboration with moderator David Geffner.

Two weeks ago in Las Vegas, Wally Pfister, ASC, and Jess Hall, BSC, discussed their collaboration on Transcendence, which Pfister directed and Hall shot, as part of NAB’s Creative Masters Series. A standing-room-only crowd gathered in the ballroom at the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center to listen and to see some imagery from Wally’s feature-directing debut, which is covered in detail in the May issue of American Cinematographer.

Moderator David Geffner asked the duo how they found each other, whether they agreed on the project’s format from the outset, and how they designed and executed the visuals. Here are a few excerpts from Wally’s responses.

On shooting film:

“I think probably everybody around this movie … knows how I feel about film vs. digital technology. And I think, clearly, [production company] Alcon knew that. It was really up to Alcon, not Warner Bros. I don’t think there was any question about the film capture because, strangely enough, to quote Mark Twain, ‘Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.’ I think that’s the case with motion-picture film. Everybody says that nobody’s shooting it anymore … [yet] you not only have J.J. Abrams doing Star Wars on it, but Steven Spielberg is still shooting it, [and] Paul Thomas Anderson is shooting 65mm. You also have independent filmmakers, like Jeff Nichols, who shot Mud on film. And so, it’s still out there and it’s still being done.

“But the difficult part now is, we’re generally not doing film release prints anymore. The laboratories are closing their doors. FotoKem is the last major Hollywood lab still in business right now. So, the photochemical finish is probably over with now, which I think is a shame. But film capture is still greatly important to a lot of us, and we hope to keep it alive. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to do it. Hopefully, we can keep it for those of us who want to continue doing it. There are even television shows — Breaking Bad was shot on film as well.

“I don’t think the budgetary issues are that large. What I was able to prove to [Alcon] in my calculations was that we could save $300,000 by doing a film finish on this movie. That was sort of the irony of the question of whether it’s cheaper to shoot on digital than film. If you’re doing a digital finish and you’re doing a DI rather than a film finish, it’s a lot more expensive than doing a photochemical finish.

As I said, we don’t have that choice anymore. But that’s an enormous savings.

“And you end up having to do a DCP version, anyway. We did a 4K scan and 4K color session on Transcendence. But the real relevance of 35mm anamorphic is [image quality]. We’re surrounded by cameras here [in this room] that are 4K cameras that look spectacular, but as the screen size increases, the demand on the resolution of those cameras increases.”

The event attracted a capacity crowd at NAB.

The event attracted a capacity crowd at NAB.

On bringing his own camera crew onto Transcendence to work with Hall:

“It was very important. That’s one of the negotiations I had with Jess early on. And, luckily, Jess had done limited work in the States, so I could push my guys kind of hard. Charlie Erlanger … designed all the material that was projected in the walls, in addition to the camera material that’s on there. He did all the research early on and got all the scientific material to put in there. He was part of a kind of crew family for a long time … and I just thought he had terrific eye and was perfect to move into that area.

“But what I pitched to Jess early on was that I, as a director, really wanted to have the comfort factor of having the guys around me. I didn’t want Jess to feel isolated by not having his say, and my guys are pretty easygoing. Jess had worked with a lot of [them] before, and he has worked with them since.”

Regarding the key to success (in response to a question from the audience):

“Perseverance. I cannot even begin to tell you how difficult this movie was to get off the ground. It’s a slow, painful process, and it never would have happened had I ever given up for one minute. I could have moved onto something else very easily. Everybody [would have been] happy to walk away from this. But I had to make this particular movie at this time.”

Peter Wunstorf Rolls Cameras Near the Arctic Circle

Roger, Damien, Casey, Keith Key Grip's Camera Sled-Gyros on Stedicam-a very bumpy ride.

Roger Spottiswoode, Damien Giles, Casey Harrison, Keith Murphy on key grip’s camera sled-gyros on Steadicam, a very bumpy ride.

Peter Wunstorf, ASC just arrived back in his native Alberta, Canada for a break after two very unusual projects. One was a feature film directed by Roger Spottiswoode and shot in the Canadian Arctic, titled Midnight Sun. The other was a quick short film with SCTV alum Joe Flaherty that will also serve as a music video for the band The Wet Secrets.

Midnight Sun is the story of a boy and a baby polar bear. “Roger’s worked with everyone from Roger Deakins to John Alcott to Robert Elswit,” says Peter. “So it was great to get that call, and to be able to do a feature with him. A lot of what I’ve shot has been pretty dark, visually and psychologically, so it was nice to do a film without a villain — aside from the weather. Let’s face it, if you have kids now, aside from animated films, what can you take the whole family to?”

Much of the shoot took place on the ice near Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay. Peter says it was the first time he worked with polar bear spotters and experts monitoring the ice for dangerous developments.

Roger Spottiswoode , Peter Wunstorf, Gerry Gavigan -1st AD

Director Roger Spottiswoode , Peter Wunstorf and 1st AD Gerry Gavigan.

As the year wore on, the crew had to move further north, to Rankin Inlet. “It was pretty stunning up there, and working on the floe edge was quite an experience. We were in Rankin Inlet for the longest day of the year, where it never really got dark. There was usually an hour-long Ski-doo ride with all the gear in wooden sleds. By the time we were shooting, we were a good two hours into the day. Our lead actor was a minor, and with our little bear, when it was time to quit, we had to quit. So we were working six-day weeks, but not long days.”

With a cast of essentially two actors plus the bear, days could be flipped at the last minute, allowing Peter to match to stormy or sunny weather with more flexibility. Some scenes take place in tent interiors, the boy’s home, and for those the crew relocated for ten days to a country house and a hockey arena in Sault Sainte Marie in North Ontario. There was a tax credit involved in this decision.

Peter shot most of the time with two Alexas, and second unit director of photography Brian Murphy shot with a third. Spottiswoode’s Nikon D800 often grabbed longer lens shots of the bear. A mother polar bear was shot against blue screen in Vancouver after the Arctic shoot wrapped.

“The baby bear was very well trained and a pleasure to shoot,” says Peter. “The boy and the bear really bonded — he could get the bear to do things that even surprised the trainer. That shows up in the film.”

Sun Control

Sun control.

The beauty of the Arctic offered Peter great backdrops. “There were all these incredible shades of blue, whether it was the sky or the water,” he says. “As the snow starts to melt, you get these beautiful pools of turquoise water. It was just there to capture – aside from using an occasional grad filter to shape the top or bottom of the frame. Roger is very good about shooting backlit and shooting at the right time of day.

“By the time we finished shooting, there was no snow left anywhere, but there was still ice on the Hudson Bay, and that’s what you really see in the film,” says Peter. ”It’s three feet thick, and it’s quite fascinating. It changes every day. A half-a-mile-long piece can just break off and float away, and that starts to happen in the spring. If you were to go off the edge into the bay, and the current was going the wrong way, you’re gone forever.”

The music video/short film project was shot 2.35 and black and white on a Red camera. The wide frame was extracted from the center of the Red’s sensor. Flaherty revived Count Floyd, a character from his SCTV days. The short takes a good-natured poke at the Twilight phenomenon and the ubiquity of vampires in today’s youth culture.

It was shot over four short days with a crew of just 20. The director was Trevor Anderson, whose shorts have screened at Berlin and AFI, and Anderson is also in the band. The track in the music video version is appropriately titled “Night Life.” Anderson also plans to create a separate soundtrack and submit the piece to festivals as a short film.

For now, Peter is enjoying some down time in Canada. “Right now, it’s just life,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of friends up here. I was born here and raised here. So I divide my time between here and Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I never work there!”

Peter and Brian Murphy- 2nd unit DP

Peter with 2nd unit dp Brian Murphy.

Uta Briesewitz, ASC Eyes the Director’s Chair

A glance at Uta Briesewitz’s IMDB page shows that she has been very busy shooting. In addition to her on-set duties, Uta and her husband have been raising two young children — a five-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son.

I caught up with Uta as she was between two pilots. The first was Far East Orlando, a pilot for ABC directed by Lynn Shelton. And the second, which she is prepping, is called Weird Loners, with director Jake Kasdan, with whom she often works. Both projects are Los Angeles-based, but Weird Loners is set in Queens, New York. Complications, a pilot Uta did with Matt Nix, the creator of Burn Notice, was picked up. And Kitchen Sink, a studio feature she shot for Sony and Robbie Pickering, offered a chance to work for the big screen on a project with extensive visual effects.

Uta Briesewitz, ASC by Lynn Shelton.

Uta Briesewitz, ASC by Lynn Shelton.

Other recent work includes episodes of True Blood and Hung, the latter of which Uta worked on for most of three seasons. Uta says that on Hung, she benefitted from a great working relationship with the creators, including executive producer Alexander Payne, and eventually the opportunity to direct. Since then, she has directed episodes of House of Lies, Weeds, and Orange is the New Black.

“I am slowly moving in that direction,” she says. “I still love to shoot, and I will continue to shoot. But I also hope that I can build my directing resume.”

Asked if she will ever completely make the shift to the director’s chair, she says, “I think it depends on which offers I get, both as a director and as a DP. I was always interested in directing, and I like the new challenge. On the other hand, I’m being considered for bigger studio features now, features that I am interested in shooting. Obviously, it takes a while to get there. But it depends on which career will offer me the more interesting choices.”

In addition to directing, Uta has shot for a fellow DP, Romeo Tirone, ASC, when he directed an episode of True Blood, a show on which he was alternating with David Klein, ASC.

“When I walk on the set as a director, I always worry that the DP will think I’m going to micromanage,” she says. “That’s not going to happen. I know how to switch hats. As a DP, I do everything to support the director the best way possible. And as a director, I have to focus on other things, far more than just my image. My attention really goes to the actors, and to getting great performances, and then telling the story the right way.

“The great thing, though, about moving from DP to director is that the whole technical aspect is easy for you,” she says. “It’s easy for me to block a scene with actors and know what my camera angles are and what my shots are going to be. That frees me up, and it allows me to let the actors fill out the set and tell me what they want to do, instead of me always telling them precisely what I want them to do. I believe an actor needs to feel comfortable within a scene. I don’t like to be controlling. When it comes to blocking actors, I work around what they want to do. I enjoy that very much.”

When I asked if there were other important differences between shooting and directing, Uta gave a response that will no doubt resonate with cinematographers.

“Actually, I’ve noticed that as a director, I get a break more often,” she says with a laugh. “As a DP, you never really get a break. And because I’m an operating DP, I’m blocking, then lighting, then shooting. As a director, you get a chance to go away and grab a coffee, and maybe chat with the producers or the actors while the DP is lighting.”

Knowing that Uta’s interest in the visual arts began with painting, I asked her if she ever had time in her busy schedule to pick up a brush.

“It’s really interesting that you would bring that up, because lately, it’s been on my mind very, very vividly,” she replies. “I feel like I want to start painting again. And I have this ongoing dream — if I can say it out loud — that if I ever should make enough money, I’d build a little studio on our property here in Glendale. In the meantime, what happens is that whenever I have time off, I clean out the garage, which is already a pretty good space, with fantastic light. But before I know it, it’s filled with kids’ toys and boxes again. But I’m very committed to making it happen, because I would really love to have a studio and to start painting again.”

John Schwartzman Recalls His Student Days at USC

John Schwartzman, ASC,  in Poland at Camerimage 2013.

John Schwartzman, ASC, in Poland at Camerimage 2013.

I asked John Schwartzman, ASC recently about his “origin story” — how he came to be a cinematographer. While the basic outline may be familiar to the cinematography world, the details of what he told me were eye-opening.

While John was growing up in southern California, his father was an entertainment lawyer. “It was not uncommon on a Saturday to have William Friedkin, Arthur Penn or Nick Roeg over to the house, where we had a tennis court,” John recalls. “I remember Nick showing me pictures from Walkabout, after he had just come back from making it. I was about eight years old. My curiosity was piqued. Who are these very artistic people who seem to travel so much and lead very exotic lives?”

As a boy, John attended summer camp at Talking Tree Camp in Malibu Canyon, when that area was off the beaten path. At age 6, he had a Kodak camera that took film cartridges, and he recalls the magic of going into a darkroom, cracking open the cartridges and making prints.

But filmmaking was not considered a proper profession in John’s family. Coming from a family of doctors and lawyers meant that undergrad was considered merely an extension of high school, and a chance to figure out what to study in graduate school.

“From my parent’s standpoint, they wanted me to be a lawyer or something like that so I’d always be sure to have a career,” John recalls. “It was a bit of a struggle. My family had seen the ups and downs that people go through in this business. The era of John Ford and William Wyler — guys who would direct 75 movies — was over. It wasn’t until I was actually making a living that my father finally realized that maybe I was pretty good at this, and that I had a chance. I did okay at USC Film School. I ultimately got tossed out, but it didn’t hurt my career. No one has asked to see my MFA degree.”

 John in his younger days. The ARRI camera is loaded with Agfa XT 320.

John in his younger days. The ARRI camera is loaded with Agfa XT 320.

Kicked out of USC film school? I hadn’t heard that one before. “I did a film with Phil Joanou, and we broke a lot of rules,” John explains. “They basically told me that as a result, I’d never get the credits I needed to graduate. Since then, the administration has changed, and they’ve been very generous to me.”

The film was called The Last Chance Dance, shot on 16mm color film in 1985. I asked John which rules he had broken. “In those days, you weren’t allowed to use any outside financing,” John says. “The movie had to be made within the parameters of USC. Phil and I knew that that would limit us. You got your equipment from the stockroom. But they didn’t say we couldn’t ask for favors. We went to Burns & Sawyer and Matthews every Friday afternoon, and if there was equipment — a head, or a small crane, or a certain lens – that wasn’t being used, we asked to borrow it for our film. I borrowed some 1200-watt HMIs from Tom Stern. USC took exception to the fact that our picture looked slicker — not so slick that it transcended a student film, but still, for 1985, it looks pretty good.”

John also got around the 20-minute time limit by cutting and mixing the movie outside of school, again for free. When it screened at the Academy, it ran 32 minutes. That did not go over well at USC, either.

“I thought that this was what they were trying to teach us – to be clever,” he says. “Be inventive, and use your schmoozing skills, because it’s only going to get harder in Hollywood. Boy, was I naïve.”

John adds that recently, while packing to head off to Hawaii to shoot Jurassic World, he came across the 16 mm answer print of The Last Chance Dance.

“There it was,” he says. “I was looking at my graduate school thesis film sitting in a can on a shelf. I didn’t have to migrate it to another format. All you have to do it shine a light through that thing and run it at 24 frames per second. 200 years from now, that will still be true. To me, that’s the beauty of film.”

John is planning to shoot Jurassic World on 35 and 65mm Kodak negative. His most recent projects, Saving Mr. Banks and Dracula Untold, were also film shoots.