In the past 16 months, James Chressanthis has handled cinematography on four movies, two seasons of a dramatic television series, and a documentary. I tracked him down in his studio, where he’s taking a welcome respite. Previous to this, his dance card was full from 2008 to 2010 with shooting and directing the series Ghost Whisperer, and with extensive travels with Vilmos Zsigmond to speak at screenings of the documentary film No Subtitles Necessary: László and Vilmos, which Jim directed. Often these screenings were accompanied by lighting seminars and master classes. Destinations included Santa Fe, Poland, Greece, Chicago, Buenos Aires, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Among the many great stories Jim brought back from these travels is a memory of boarding a plane. Jim was keeping an eye on Vilmos to make sure the travel wasn’t too much of a strain. “Vilmos drags this very heavy American Cinematographer carry-on bag into the plane,” Jim recalls. “It must have been filled with bricks, it was so heavy. I turned around to see him lifting this thing with two hands over his head, but he can’t quite reach the bin. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no, he’s going to bust a gasket and it will be on me!’ But before I can help him, he heads it, soccer-player style – a perfect shot, a goal. ‘Oh Jimmy,’ he says to me, ‘I was a good soccer player when I was young.’ And I remembered that his father was a world-class soccer player and coach!
“It was so much fun travelling with him,” says Jim. “You learn to appreciate even more the human being and great person he is. He’s a great artist with tremendous modesty and humility. Many people might get bothered with constantly being sought after and asked questions — sometimes inane questions. But I noticed that even if he had been asked the same question six times that day, his temperament and patience and kindness never flagged. I learned a lot from being with him. I treasure it.”
Jim’s most recent cinematographic undertaking was The Watsons Go to Birmingham, a movie for the Hallmark Channel that depicts a family traveling from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama in the summer of 1963. They encounter a different world, and are bonded more strongly together by the infamous bombings at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The story is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy.
Jim used a wide range of cameras and formats including ARRI ALEXA, the Canon C300, and the new Super 8 Rhonda CAM. The Rhonda CAM features a bored-out gate that delivers a 1.58:1 image. The Alexa was the main narrative camera, but the Canon C300 was used for certain sequences because of its small size, and the fact that it intercut well with ALEXA footage. The Canon XF100 was also used at times to recreate 16 mm news footage. A grain filter was applied to those images and combined with an Ektachrome or black and white look. The Super 8 was used as the boy’s “well of memory,” and also for newsreel footage at times.
Jim has used Super 8 many times for expressive effect, or to recreate a period movie look – for example, he used it for interstitial material and expressive texture in No Subtitles Necessary: László and Vilmos, and for striking images in music videos for NWA, Bobby McFerrin, Too Short, John Wesley Harding, as well as in dramatic work like American Family, Brian’s Song, and Ghost Whisperer. He says that Pro 8mm in Burbank, formerly Super 8 Sound and the brainchild of Phil and Rhonda Vigeant, has been his creative partner in using the format.
For The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Jim used a newer adaptation from the Vigeants, who call the new format Max 8.
“The 1.58:1 gate makes it very easy to frame for 1.78, which is a very slight crop,” says Jim. “I put a big label on the side of the camera saying ‘ADJUST HEADROOM,’ to remind me to frame for 1.78, allowing for the slight clip and blowup. The same frame also adapts well to 4X3, as a piece of newsreel.”
The Canon’s size worked well for imitating a Bolex. “You want to have a small camera because with the way it jiggles, it’s going to be more realistic, more ‘period,’” he says. “I’ve had producers say, ‘Let’s just use the Panavision,’ but there are umpteen reasons not to do that – too sharp, too much resolution, too much latitude. You want the physical ergonomics and optical flaws of a small camera.”
Jim also used a Minolta Super 8 camera he found in an Atlanta shop. It was in good condition, but delivered images with some softness on the left side of the frame. “But it was soft in a swing-and-tilt kind of way,” he says. “Those flaws add authenticity.”
Jim mostly loaded Kodak 250D 5205 stock into the Super 8 cameras, but for one sequence that depicts the bombing aftermath, he used the 500T for a grainier, cooler effect under warm HMI and cool daylight. In the DI, some slight warmth was dialed back in, for cool highlights and warm skin tones. Vigeant described it as “slightly desaturated, cooler and creamier, but not cold.”
A September premier at the White House is being arranged for The Watsons Go to Birmingham. On May 24, 2013, the four children who lost their lives in the church bombing were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Obama.
“I’m happy that we used all those cameras,” Jim says. “They really added a great deal of texture to it. My director, Kenny Leon, and the editor, Margaret Goodspeed, really used the footage. Having the blessing of the producers, who embraced it, was also very important to making this a very lush, rich portrait.”