Freeman Returns to BOARDWALK EMPIRE for Final Season

Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) of BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) of BOARDWALK EMPIRE. (HBO)

Jonathan Freeman, ASC, recently spoke to me from his home in New York City. It’s been an eventful time for him. In February, his work on HBO’s Game of Thrones brought him his fourth ASC Award. And shortly before that, in September 2013, he became a father.

Jonathan emphasizes that the cinematography on Game of Thrones is a team effort. “There are quite a few cinematographers whose work has defined the evolving look of the show, and everyone’s contribution is important and influential,” he says. “It’s a constant and unusual experiment. Normally, you’re telling a story with your own interpretation of a vision. But here, we have the chance to see and be inspired by other cinematographers’ work, sometimes on the same sets and locations. I think the consistency comes from our brilliant producers, who select cinematographers with similar sensibilities and approaches, and from our post process, where the levels of color and contrast are held together beautifully by Joe Finley, a superb colorist at Modern VideoFilm. The tonality is established, and we work within that framework, with some latitude for interpretation.”

Before his daughter was born, Jonathan decided to look for work closer to home. (Game of Thrones is shot overseas.) Fortunately, he found a couple of projects in the New York area. One was a feature with director Richard Loncraine titled Life Itself. After that, Freeman returned to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire to shoot three episodes for the fifth and final season. His previous work on Boardwalk Empire brought him two ASC Awards and two Emmy Awards.

Here’s a teaser for the new season, which begins airing Sept. 7:

The season consists of eight episodes. Jonathan shot episodes 1, 3 and 5, and Bill Coleman shot 2, 4 and 6 and 8. For episode 7, Jonathan promoted camera operator and 2nd-unit cinematographer Eric Moynier. “[Executive producer/director] Tim Van Patten and I agreed that I would shoot a few episodes, but we also wanted Eric to shoot one,” Jonathan explains. “We did something similar in season 2, when Bill Coleman moved up and replaced me. Bill has since done wonderful work.

”If you’ve been fortunate to get a few breaks, it’s important to give back and provide opportunities whenever you can to people you think deserve it,” he continues. “That’s the way Tim Van Patten works as well. We both wanted to give Bill, and now Eric, a chance to do something special. And I know Eric will do an amazing job.”

Life Itself is not to be confused with the documentary about the late Roger Ebert that’s currently in theaters. Loncraine’s feature stars Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton as a couple considering selling their longtime home. Jonathan shot with an Arri Alexa XT, capturing at roughly 2K resolution to a built-in Codex Recorder.

“Richard was very kind to even consider me for Life Itself, because we were expecting near the beginning of principal photography,” says Jonathan. “Provisions were made so that when I left to attend the birth of my daughter, my operator and gaffer stepped up. Richard had not worked with any of us before, so to agree to a situation where he would lose his director of photography in the first few days was very generous of him. It’s a movie I’ll never forget — for several reasons!”

Regarding Boardwalk Empire, he says, “I felt very lucky to be able to work on such a wonderful production with many of my friends, and to also come home and see my family before they went to bed, and then see them again in the morning before I headed off to work. It’s a rare blessing. We cinematographers all know that no matter where you live, the work is often somewhere else, and you find yourself traveling a lot. Of course, you have some great experiences while traveling, but there’s a cost to it as well. I think we all learn that balance whether we have a family or not. It’s one of the bigger challenges we face outside of the technological aspects of our job.”

Jonathan Freeman, ASC

Jonathan Freeman, ASC



Pope Re-enters Matrix

Bill Pope, ASC

Bill Pope, ASC

I connected with Bill Pope, ASC, as he was eating lunch near the set of his current project, The Jungle Book. He was shooting on a motion-capture stage on the former site of Digital Domain in Venice, Calif., where he will be working until Christmas. He accepted the assignment after another, the Marvel feature Ant-Man, came apart. (That film was originally to be directed by Edgar Wright, with whom Bill worked on The World’s End and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but is now being revived with a different director.)

Bill’s work can also be seen in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13-part science documentary that has aired on more than a hundred TV stations around the world and was recently released on DVD. Bill photographed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the narrator, at a variety of locations and on a greenscreen stage featuring a set called the Ship of the Imagination. CG-animation projections depicting deep space and subatomic settings were often composited into the background. Bill shot the 13 episodes over the course of four months last year.

“The material basically divides into three spaces,” Bill says of Cosmos. “There’s the world as you and I know it — the Earth and things we can understand with our senses. For that we went all over the planet, shooting different places. We also faked some of them, like locations in Iraq and Egypt, in environments near Santa Fe. Then, there’s the world in space. We had to work closely with the visual-effects people regarding what goes on outside the window. Finally, there’s the microscopic world.”

The main task was integrating the live action with the CGI while covering 800 pages in four months using a fraction of the budget-per-minute of the average feature film. “The same level of quality was expected,” says Bill. “It was a real test, and we cheated in every way possible. The way to do it is through planning. Doing things off the cuff is expensive. We had to pre-think everything and consider all the options; that’s how you save money.”

Bill’s work on The Jungle Book is taking to him to even more virtual worlds. Based on the Rudyard Kipling stories, the feature is being directed by Jon Favreau, with whom Bill had previously worked on commercials. Another crew traveled to India to collect data that is being used by production designer Christopher Glass to create a fictional jungle. On the set, Bill uses those environments as he captures the motions of actual humans. “When I’m onstage and see it with my own eyes, I see a man covered with white dots in a white room,” he says. “When I look at my screen, I see the character in a jungle in India. I’m lighting entirely in the computer. You’ve entered ‘the matrix,’ and because you can change reality all you want, you have to bring the logic of the real world to it. We have to come up with a verisimilitude so that the audience relaxes into it and perceives it as reality.”

Bill feels strongly that cinematographers who help to create CG worlds should be accepted as full members of the cinematography community. “I’ve heard some discussion saying that they are not really cinematographers, and that sort of narrow-minded thinking annoys me. These are people making the same decisions that every other cinematographer makes. Just because they’re not sitting on a dolly and being pushed by a grip doesn’t mean they’re not cinematographers. They should have all the rights of a director of photography, they should be called cinematographers, and they should get all the awards cinematographers get.

“We should definitely be inclusive, not exclusive. I’ve got a crew of 75. There are jobs here. If virtual cinema is a way to keep jobs in Los Angeles, then we should damn well support it.”


ASC Reaches Out in Mexico

Dean Cundey, ASC, conducts a workshop.

Dean Cundey, ASC, conducts a workshop.

Early this summer, Mexico’s Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica hosted an ASC delegation that included cinematographers Dean Cundey and Richard Crudo and associate members Mark Bender of Tiffen and Gary Paz of Cinelease. The group also visited Churubusco Studios and Telemundo Expo at the World Trade Center in Mexico City, where they conducted seminars and workshops sponsored in part by Canon. The trip exemplified the ASC’s commitment to educational outreach and highlighted the importance the Society places on inspiring the next generation of filmmakers.

Cundey and ASC President Richard Crudo autograph copies of AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER.

Cundey and ASC President Richard Crudo autograph copies of AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER.

The guests of honor pose for some fans.

The duo poses for a few fans.

Henner Hofmann, ASC, AMC, is the director of the CCC. “The opportunity to meet with ASC filmmakers, whose images are seen all over the planet, is so important for our kids,” says Henner. “The message that they bring — that cinematography is at its heart about storytelling, whether you have a big Hollywood budget or not — is so important and motivating. Dramatic, successful, beautiful and well-made movies can be done simply, and sometimes they will be stronger because they come straight from the heart. Richard was very clear on that point.”

Henner continues, “The ASC recognizes the work of great cinematographers, but in order to be accepted as a member, you are evaluated as a human being as well. As a result, the ASC includes many generous, wonderful people. That’s the spirit that is demonstrated during these visits, and it makes me very proud to be an ASC member.”

Henner has long been a key link between the ASC and the AMC, and he is a former president of the latter. The ASC and the CCC have also had a long relationship, also thanks in great part to Henner. Guillermo Navarro, Robert Yeoman, Gabriel Beristain and Xavier Grobet are among the many ASC members who have visited the school in the past.

ASC Circulation Director Saul Molina played a key role in organizing this summer’s visit, says Richard. “Saul has a longstanding relationship with our friends in Mexico,” he notes, “and at his urging, I finally had an opportunity to travel down there to see what’s happening in terms of our outreach. I found an incredible desire for contact with Hollywood, for an exchange with the ASC, and for ways to broaden knowledge and experience directly. The students were very well informed and very capable, but I think we were able to begin to help them fill a gap [and] step up to the next level.”

Richard’s workshop presentation was about testing the dynamic range of electronic sensors. At the expo, he accepted an award from Telemundo recognizing his work and the ASC’s role in encouraging unity among cinematographers around the world. “I love Mexico,” Richard said at the presentation. “It’s been a wonderful experience reaching out to our brothers and sisters around the world … [and] we look forward to growing and enriching that relationship. There is a great potential for us all to learn and grow as artists, and that is our aim. It’s not about the technology, it’s about what’s in our hearts.”

Dean Cundey also received an award at the expo. In his remarks, he said, “It’s a great privilege to work in an art form that touches so many people around the world … to work in so many film cultures … and to see so much that we share in common.”

Looking back on the experience, Richard echoes those sentiments. “Last summer, we traveled to China and had a similar experience,” he says. “The world is a messy place right now, and the news is always sketchy, it seems. That leads to certain perceptions, but when you throw that aside and actually meet and greet individuals, suddenly it’s all about what we have in common.”



Beebe on ‘Digital Aesthetic’ 10 Years after COLLATERAL

A scene from COLLATERAL. (Frank Connor/DreamWorks Pictures)

A scene from COLLATERAL. (Frank Connor/DreamWorks Pictures)

It has been a decade since Paul Cameron, ASC and Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS shot Michael Mann’s digital/film hybrid Collateral using Sony F900 and Thomson Viper HD cameras. The decision to shoot digitally was made by Cameron, who developed the look for the film, solving problems and fighting noise and other inconveniences at every step. The result was a landmark movie that foreshadowed today’s ubiquitous digital filmmaking, earning an ASC Award nomination in the process.

In a recent interview, committed film advocate Wally Pfister, ASC, BSC, noted, “With Collateral, we suddenly saw on the screen the night sky that we could see with our eyes, and that was revolutionary. Nobody had captured that in that way before.”

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dion about Collateral, asking him to reflect on its challenges with the benefit of hindsight. Ironically, perhaps, Dion’s most recent assignment, Edge of Tomorrow, another film starring Tom Cruise, was shot on 35mm in the anamorphic format.

Collateral was very much experimental,” says Dion. “We were trying many different techniques, really just feeling our way through it while pushing the technology as far as we could to get those results. Since then, digital really has come of age, and it’s an amazing format. On the other hand, it’s great that I can still choose film 10 years later. But at the end of the Edge of Tomorrow shoot, Technicolor London shut down.

“I, as well as many other cinematographers, really do want to continue to have the choice of film,” he says. “I think it’s such an important tool. It’s such an important reference in how we view films. Almost every film reference we have is exactly that: film.

A scene from COLLATERAL. (Frank Connor/DreamWorks Pictures.)

A scene from COLLATERAL. (Frank Connor/DreamWorks Pictures)

“We have seen an emergence of what I think is a digital aesthetic,” Dion continues. “It’s a beautiful aesthetic, and it plays to the strength of that medium, which is the very open bottom of the curve. It can look into shadows; it’s got an amazing range. Digital gives us the ability to work from a base of ambient light, essentially. Because of that, you tend to light in a very different way. And I do think Collateral helped launch that because it played to the strengths of the format. We never set out to replicate a film look, but rather to discover a digital one.

“So, digital and film have very different aesthetics, at least in my mind. Yes, you can push digital and make it look like film, and you can punch the contrast, manipulate the blacks and even add grain. But if you approach digital cinematography for its strengths right now, it’s something like what you see in Her — a very open, soft palette, extending the bottom range. I think Hoyte van Hoytema [FSF, NSC] has a real grasp of the digital aesthetic.”

Not all projects would benefit from that aesthetic, however. “I think there are always going to be those projects that require a slightly different approach, a different use of contrast and lighting,” says Dion. “Film has a unique texture and tone, and digital has its own unique texture and tone. It would be a sad day if we lost the ability to choose between them.

“But the impact of digital on photography is unprecedented,” says Dion. “You can go out into a street and shoot under streetlights, whereas before, you had to light whole city blocks. Consider what Wally Pfister did on The Dark Knight and what Newton Thomas Sigel [ASC] did on Drive. Both movies work to the strengths of their media and achieve amazing results. I’m not saying you don’t need to light in digital — that’s a huge fallacy — but you can work toward these ambient levels. You’re still using lighting, but you’re using it in a different way, with a softer touch.”