Russell Carpenter’s Street Photography; Harryhausen’s Wide Influence

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Russell Carpenter and I first met at a cast and crew screening of Critters 2 in 1988. When I reminded him of this, he laughed, and recalled a time when he was willing to shoot anything just to get a credit.

In 1990, I wrote up his work on Solar Crisis for a cover story in American Cinematographer. That film didn’t meet with great success, but of course Russell went on to build a very interesting and admirable body of work, winning an Oscar for Titanic along the way. These days he is alternating high end commercials, interesting feature projects like Jobs, the Steve Jobs biopic, occasionally shooting a smaller budget indie feature if the script feels right, and watching for the right big budget project.

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Russell’s friends know that his personal passions include impossibly delicate and exquisite still photographs of flowers. But over the past few years, starting with a trip to France, Russell has added more street photography to his portfolio. On trips overseas, he has been making use of free time by capturing still images of the worlds and people he encounters.

“As cinematographers, we work with a team of people to create a reality within the frame,” Russell said when I asked him about the impetus. “So there’s a lot of planning and timing and the ability to get some things wrong. If somebody’s out of place, you just back it up and start over again. What I enjoy so much about street photography is that you just try and stay alive and watch the geometry of situations that form and dissolve in front of the lens. That is what’s most exciting to me – a lot is left up to chance and intuition. It gives me a different energy.

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“But I do find that there’s a lot in these new forays in photography, whether it be portraiture or street photography or some things that I do with my flowers, that teaches me. It allows me to take a bath in a different world, a different sensibility. And I can bring some things I learned in still photography right back to the set. And that’s lovely too.”

Russell was shooting a low budget independent film in India when he travelled to a small sacred village called Vrindavan, which some believe is the birthplace of Krishna. He also had his camera out in Delhi, where he visited an ancient marketplace teeming with humanity.

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In India, he made extensive use of a Canon S95 camera with a zoom lens. He generally stays to the wider end of the zoom, and uses the zoom to make minor framing adjustments on the fly.

“You are pressed so close to many different cultures swimming past you,” he recalls. “Sometimes, the real immediacy of street photography is that you’re forced to get close to your subject. I’m basically shy about getting in people’s faces with a camera. In India, that’s not a problem. Hundreds, and eventually thousands of people are walking within inches of you. Things are coming at you from every direction. It’s chaos to the fifth power – chaos so chaotic that somehow, it makes cosmic sense. Also, the sense of color in India is amazing. It’s a wonderful place to shoot.”

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Ray Harryhausen

On Tuesday (May 7, 2013), Ray Harryhausen passed away in London at the age of 92. By all accounts he was a kind man, and his influence on several generations of filmmakers cannot be overstated. Many of today’s effects blockbusters and animated hits owe him a debt.

As a boy, Harryhausen became fascinated with The Lost World and King Kong, both of which featured state-of-the-art effects work by Willis O’Brien and crucial contributions from ASC members like Arthur Edeson, Vernon Walker, Kenneth Peach, and Linwood Dunn.

Many of today’s ASC members can recall when they first laid eyes on a Harryhausen creation. Mat Beck, whose Entity FX Company creates illusions for features films and television shows like Game of Thrones and Vampire Diaries, is one.

“I remember what was on the screen—skeletons sword fighting with humans—and I remember exactly how it felt,” says Mat. “That’s how strong the impression was. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my god—how is that possible?’”

Soon Mat was experimenting with a Bolex camera, and eventually he made his way to Hollywood, where film expertise meshed with computer skills. He did have one opportunity to shoot a stop-motion sequence. It was for James Cameron’s film The Abyss. In the scene, an underwater craft is trying to unhook a cable to avert disaster.

“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Mat. “My respect for the amount of precision and patience it takes to get a sequence like that to work is boundless. It takes a lot of love to make even one second of that kind of film. And I love that stuff still—I take my daughter to films like Coraline.

“If filmmaking is technology in the service of art, nobody used technology to elevate art better than Ray Harryhausen,” says Mat.

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For Larry Fong, the fascination with Harryhausen also began at the theater where he saw The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

“I was blown away,” Larry recalls. “That may be when I got interested in filmmaking. I started drawing and painting, and I eventually learned to do stop motion using my dad’s camera. This was before the internet, and I found a book with all of Ray’s drawings. I couldn’t afford it so I stole it—but I went back a year later and paid for it. I learned how to make ball-and-socket armatures and sculpted clay and foam rubber monsters. I even learned to do rear projection and split screen with Super 8. They were terrible, of course, but I tried.

“Later, I had Jason and the Argonauts on regular 8, and my friends and I watched it over and over until we wore it out,” Larry recalls. “Eventually I went to film school, and as time went on I didn’t have the patience. But it’s come full circle—so much of what I do now is filled with visual effects.”

According the obituary in the New York Times, Harryhausen often told interviewers that for all the advances in complexity, precision and detail that computer-generated imagery had brought to filmmaking in recent years, he thought some of the necessary magic had been lost.

“There’s a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in King Kong, that adds to the fantasy,” he is quoted as saying in 2006. “If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”

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