Phedon Papamichael has been in Europe for the first six months of 2013, mostly working in Berlin on The Monuments Men with director/star George Clooney. The cast also includes Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman and Bill Murray. Phedon reportedly used 35mm film as well as Alexa on the shoot, with Master Primes and Hawk lenses. While in Europe, he made a quick visit to Cannes for the premiere of his previous film, Nebraska. Bruce Dern took home the best actor award for his role as a grumpy old man who insists on believing one of those “You are a winner!” scams. Will Forte stars as his son. That project reunited him with Alexander Payne, with whom he made Sideways and The Descendants.
Nebraska is also photographically interesting, one of the first features to shoot anamorphic black and white on Alexa. Payne, who has a home in Omaha, brought the production to tiny, picturesquely decrepit towns on the plains, including Plainview, Nebraska.
In drought-parched Nebraska late last year, Phedon shot with Panavision anamorphic lenses and Arri Alexa, using the full 4X3 sensor. In his testing, he shot the same scenes with anamorphic lenses on Kodak 5222 black & white stock, Vision3 5219, Red Epic, Alexa to Arriraw and Alexa to ProRes. Colorist Skip Kimball at Technicolor scanned the 5222 and matched the other footage in terms of contrast and grain to that. “The digital cameras come up looking clean, but with the right colorist and the right tools – we are using 5248 grain – it looks fantastic, exactly like the 5222,” says Phedon. “I went with Alexa because I wanted the extra sensitivity. I can push it to 1600 without picking up too much digital noise. Much of that is covered by the grain anyway. Since we are monochromatic, I almost don’t need more latitude.
“I really enjoyed painting the frames with black and white,” says Phedon. “Alexander emphasizes the human side of the creative process, and that really makes it a great experience. The Cannes premiere was fun and I was happy with how it looked.”
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Wally Pfister is deep into production on Transcendence, his feature directorial debut. The cinematographer is Jess Hall, BSC. Wally’s longtime accomplices Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas are executive producing, and the cast includes Johnny Depp as well as more Batman regulars like Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy. Anyone who follows Wally’s exploits will not be surprised to learn that Transcendence is being shot on 35 mm film. The plot concerns a computer scientist whose brain is uploaded to a computer after his is killed. Locations include the deserts east of Los Angeles, as well as locales in Albuquerque and Belen, New Mexico. The film is slated for an April 2014 release.
“Working as a cinematographer, I always had an eye on what I was doing visually to tell the story of the characters,” Wally says. “You have to be alive to ways to augment the narrative, and the goals of the director. So now, as a director, it really feels like I am taking that to the next level, and not thinking about it just in terms of visuals. Everything is about what’s right for the story. Everything has to come from a credible place. It’s all about believability, and getting the audience to be there with you, and to trust you. Once you do that, you can begin to sell some higher concepts.”
After more than three decades of shooting, Wally says he can’t completely escape his cinematographer’s instincts. “It’s an enormous advantage in decision-making, and that is especially true when we’re scouting,” he says. “I can walk into a room, and really know right away whether it’s going to photograph well. I try to look at the location first in terms of whether it makes sense for the story, for the characters and their personalities, their socio-economic status, and then whether the location will be expensive and time-consuming to light and photograph, and how it will look on film. That is hard to get out of your mind. But I think having that toolset is wonderful, as long as I can compartmentalize it.”
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Roberto Schaefer recently rejuvenated his long collaboration with director Christopher Guest. Their work together includes Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, and For Your Consideration. This time the project consisted of the first eight episodes of a television series titled Family Tree. Chris O’Dowd stars as Tom Chadwick, a man who just lost his job and his girlfriend. He becomes curious about his heritage, and his distant relations turn out to be entertainingly whacky.
The shoot was split between four five-day weeks in London and a similar period in Los Angeles. Unlike his previous films with Guest, which were shot on Super-16 film, Family Tree was done with Red cameras. The shows were shot in continuity, and used Guest’s improvisatory approach, which kept Schaefer and B camera operator Chunky Richmond on their toes.
“You’re always listening to everything they’re saying and knowing that somebody’s going to react to that,” says Roberto. “You have to be able to go with them and follow their look. And you can’t laugh — you have to turn off the humor side of yourself and just listen to words. It’s a challenge to get the look that you want, with the right framing, that allows you to get all the nuances of their looks, stay out of the other guy’s shot and have the lighting and background work properly for both cameras, continually, as they’re dancing around. It’s a process of discovery.”