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.

Ellen Kuras Checks in from London

Ellen Kuras, ASC. Photos by Douglas Kirkland courtesy of Kodak.

Ellen Kuras, ASC. Photo by Douglas Kirkland courtesy of Kodak.

I reached Ellen Kuras, ASC after she had spent a long day in the grading suite in London, where she is color correcting a Lions Gate film she shot last spring for director Alan Rickman titled A Little Chaos.

A Little Chaos is a 17th Century period film that revolves around André Le Nôtre, the landscape architect who designed the gardens at Versailles, and his relationship with a woman he hires to design an outdoor ballroom and fountain. The woman, played by Kate Winslet, embodies a more natural, wild spirit, as opposed to the orderly, geometric mindset behind most of French gardens of that era, including those at the palace.

Inspiration for the look came in for the most part from paintings, but Rickman wanted a more contemporary presence, so Ellen has been balancing those ideas in the images. She shot with an Arri lightweight camera, and although she usually uses Fuji negative, she used Kodak negative stock, and a combination of Cooke S4 primes and Angenieux zoom lenses.

“The script was very cleverly written and well conceived,” says Ellen, “and it was a script that I felt akin to. I really enjoyed working with Alan, who also starred in the film as King Louis IX. As I’ve been very busy working as a director/cinematographer on commercials during the past few years, I haven’t done a movie for a while, and he was one person I really wanted to work with. I do love his oblique and very dry sense of humor as well as his astute sense of poetry.”

I asked Ellen about shifting gears between director/cinematographer and DP for someone else in the director’s chair.

“I have to put a leash on myself, not act immediately or do things on set that I would do if I was the director,” she says. “Sometimes I see certain things happening that I might want to change. And the best I can do in my job is to speak to the director about it and have a conversation, strongly advising in a certain direction. At times, it’s frustrating, because I want the best for the project. I have to readjust my perspective. It’s not so much an ego trip — it’s just that I see what’s best and I want to encourage that. But changing gears is definitely required. I have to be very respectful of that boundary, and ultimately, I am, though sometimes this is hard to swallow! That’s part of why I’m able to continue working with directors I’ve worked with in the past. They know me, and they know that I’m not going to step in front of them and say, ‘No, you should do it this way.’ Ultimately, the decision lies with the director. Film is such a collaborative process.”

I asked Ellen if she ever thought about making the jump to feature film directing, given her success in commercial directing, as well as in documentary. The Betrayal — Nerakhoon was nominated for an Academy Award in the feature documentary category in 2009. Ellen originally began the film as a Masters thesis project in the mid-1980s, and went back to finish this deeply personal and poetic project after 23 years. The film chronicles the journey of a Laotian family forced to emigrate after the Viet Nam War.

“I do,” she says. “I would like to direct a dramatic feature. I really like working in the world of fiction and crafted story. After I finished my film and went straight into directing and shooting commercials, I realized recently that I really missed telling longer-form stories. I miss the world of storytelling and the longevity of meaning, so to speak.”

During our conversation, Ellen mentioned that she is engaged to be married. No date has been set. “Until now, I’ve been so deeply involved in my work and my career that I didn’t take the time,” she says. “You have to make real quality time to spend with someone, especially when you’re in demand. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work most of the year if I want. But it’s a real pleasure to make that quality time with someone, and absolutely worth every moment.

“Many of the DPs that I know, we are on the road a lot,” she says. “It’s really difficult territory to walk for any relationship – both for the person who’s staying home and for the person who’s out on the road. It goes both ways. In good and bad ways, that’s the nature of the business.”

A couple of days after we spoke, I received an email from Ellen in which she told me of an impromptu dinner hosted by Panavision and Hugh Whitaker. The other guests included John Mathieson, BSC; Dion Beebe, ASC; Anthony Dod Mantle, ASC, BSC, DFF; Sal Totino, ASC; Dan Mindel, BSC and Chuck Finch.

As Ellen noted, “What a night!”