- Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
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One cinematographer has earned his first Oscar and ASC Award nominations.
Another is nominated for both awards for the second consecutive year--for films from the same director.
And a third lensed a short film which is in the Oscar hunt and just came off of a high-profile Sundance Film Festival win.
Here are close-up looks at Guillaume Schiffman, AFC, who shot The Artist, Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, who lensed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Aaron Phillips, DP on the short titled The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.
Guillaume Schiffman, AFC "I love American movies, American cinematographers, members of the ASC. To be nominated for an ASC Award is a dream come true that I cannot still believe has happened. I want to be there at the awards ceremony to be sure that it's not a joke, that I have actually been nominated. Personally the recognition from cinematographers means a lot to me. As for the Oscar nomination, I don't even want to think about it until after the ASC Awards. It's all too much to take in at once."
Expressing this deep appreciation mixed in with a smattering of lingering disbelief is Guillaume Schiffman, AFC, who received Best Cinematography Oscar, ASC Award and BAFTA nominations for his lensing of The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius. (This past Sunday, Schiffman won the BAFTA Award while the top ASC honor went to Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, for The Tree of Life.) Overall Schiffman is reveling in the accolades bestowed on The Artist and his colleagues, citing most recently the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award for Hazanavicius and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award for Male Lead Actor Jean Dujardin.
Yet the road for The Artist to ASC, Oscar, DGA, SAG, BAFTA and assorted other varieties of industry awards show recognition had its bumps along the way. "For us the first challenge was to get the chance to do the movie to begin with. I remember hanging out with Michel, trying to prep this movie but not knowing if we were going to do it. The next challenge is that in order to get the go-ahead to do the film, we had to agree to shoot it in 36 days. We accepted because we wanted the movie to get made. But 36 days is awfully tight, particularly with a period piece, with lots of sets to light, and some not easy to light for the desired effect. You had scenes like the sound test screening which was like the beginning of Citizen Kane with a 'News on the March' [newsreel]. We had to play a lot with light, shadows and black. Doing something like that under a time crunch is a major challenge."
Key, though, in realizing the film within challenging time constraints was the working rapport he and Hazanavicius have developed over the years, first working on commercials and then on two French spy spoof comedy features, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and the sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio.
"Michel is a great collaborator and friend," related Schiffman. "We have done two movies before and we help each other every day. We first met years back on a movie that didn't get made. A little later, though, he asked me to shoot a commercial for him. We spent two years working in commercials before he got the first OSS movie. He was doing comedy commercials. I learned how he likes to treat comedy, how he likes to work with actors. Yet with all this comedy, it was important to Michel how the movie looked, the framing. For the first comedy movie he wanted a 1950s look, then a 1970s style for the sequel. We recreated the lighting and the climate of the movies of those eras but obviously The Artist was even more challenging.
"The challenge stems from the difference between comedies and something like The Artist. Comedies can be much more forgiving if the lighting is a bit off--as long as there are laughs. The Artist, though, is a silent drama/comedy where the lighting tells a lot--it can't be off for even the slightest moment. You tell the story with your light, shadows, use of black. Without sound, the visual takes on an even greater importance."
Schiffman made numerous tests of black-and-white film, and he and Hazanavicius ultimately decided to shoot on 35mm Kodak color stock.
"The black-and-white stock," explained Schiffman, "is too sharp so we shot color and made it black and white in postproduction digital timing. For us, that was the best way to go."
The DP also credited Panavision for providing old lenses with a special treatment that helped get "the desired look and softness we needed."
Schiffman additionally cited the significant contributions made by gaffer Jim Plannette.
"I met a lot of gaffers and was being encouraged to go with one of these young guys," Schiffman recalled. "Jim was the oldest of the bunch. He started as a gaffer on Young Frankenstein. His father was a gaffer during the silent movie era. He knows a lot, did a great deal of research and helped me and the crew tremendously."
Schiffman said it was a great thrill to shoot The Artist on 35mm film, to work on the end scene since he's a self-avowed "fan of musicals--Busby Berkeley, my dad was in love with Ginger Rogers," and to shoot entirely in Los Angeles.
"Michel and I love so much the American movies. We were raised on American directors and cinematographers. We are big fans of American filmmaking. To shoot here and to have a movie that people are seeing in America is exciting."
While an unabashed lover of shooting film, Schiffman is a realist. "I've done movies in digital. I have to--it's the future. You cannot turn your back on that. I hope I get the opportunity to do more movies in 35mm film. But in the past I've used RED and Genesis. And I've just shot a feature with ARRI's ALEXA."
That ALEXA-lensed movie is Infidels (Les Infideles), which features the work of seven directors, each addressing male infidelity in an individual sketch or story.
Included in that directorial mix is Hazanavicius. At first, Schiffman was approached to shoot just the Hazanavicius-directed segment of the feature but the DP countered that he wanted to shoot the entire project. He got his wish, and Infidels is slated for release in France later this month. It will also gain exposure internationally, including in the U.S. as The Weinstein Company (which distributed The Artist) has purchased the film.
Schiffman was favorably impressed with the ALEXA and wouldn't hesitate to work on it again.
"In terms of skin tones and so many aspects, the ALEXA is the best digital experience I've had."
He noted, though, that the RED EPIC could also be a game changer. Yet for the moment he's still drawn to the ALEXA in that it looks and feels more like a camera.
Schiffman, who has dual citizenship status in the U.S. and in France, also hopes to have more occasions to be drawn into the American filmmaking market.
Just prior to embarking on The Artist, Schiffman became a member of the International Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600. And Schiffman recently signed with the William Morris Endeavor (WME) talent agency for exclusive representation in theatrical motion pictures as well as commercials.
Jeff Cronenweth, ASC For two straight years, Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, has earned ASC Award and Best Cinematography Oscar nominations on the strength of a David Fincher-directed film.
Last year, it was The Social Network; this year, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Cronenweth said he finds it "enormously honoring, flattering and humbling to be nominated by your peers. But it's bittersweet in that any Fincher movie is the ultimate collaboration. He puts so much into every aspect of a movie and for him to not be appreciated the same way [with an Oscar nomination for Best Director] is kind of unfortunate.
Having said that, I feel that I share my ASC and Oscar nominations with him," affirmed Cronenweth. "He's such an incredible collaborator."
Landing the ASC and Academy Award nominations this year was perhaps more gratifying than in 2011, conjectured Cronenweth.
"There was such momentum behind The Social Network, it had so many things going for it while this [The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo] was much different. It was a longer production on a grander scale, a much more complicated movie. It was a tougher road to hoe in many respects, and to get recognition at the end of that long journey was even more satisfying and meaningful than it was the previous year."
Cronenweth noted that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo presented "daunting lighting challenges, particularly for the final night sequence of the film in Stockholm. And just getting in tune with the sunrises and sunsets and that country's light patterns was a challenge."
Cronenweth has enjoyed a long track record of collaboration with Fincher which encompasses commercials and serving as DP on Fight Club (a dozen years prior to The Social Network), and shooting second unit for The Game and Se7en. Cronenweth first shot some insert work for Fincher on a Madonna music video, "Oh Father," back in the late 1980s. Cronenweth's father, the late, legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, ASC, served as DP on that Madonna clip.
"Somehow, probably just through pure plain genetics, I was able to match the footage shot by my father for that music video."
Speaking of his father, Jeff Cronenweth noted that the aforementioned ASC Award nominations carry a special meaning. "My journey has been a little different than most," said Jeff Cronenweth. "I have been going to the ASC Awards since I was a young adult. My dad won the very first ASC Award for Peggy Sue Got Married . To have grown up with the ASC and to now have those talented artists give you a nod is monumental. It fulfills a dream for me."
Hearkening back to that Madonna clip and proceeding throughout his career, Jeff Cronenweth noted that Fincher "has always been very generous, giving me opportunities that allowed me to stretch myself creatively and technically as an artist. I remember when he called me in for Fight Club, I thought it was for second unit. Instead David gave me the chance to serve as that film's cinematographer. It was a tremendously gratifying experience.
"Really," continued Cronenweth, "if David calls you, do you even need to read the script? Of course not--you know that the project will be worthwhile, ambitious, creative and challenging."
Pushing the envelope with cameras is something that The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have in common. For the former, Cronenweth shot with a then state-of-the-art RED camera, which filmmaker Steven Soderbergh provided for Fincher. Cronenweth had used RED in the past but found this new iteration with the Mysterium-X chip to be advantageous.
"I believe," related theDP, "that this was the first major movie to use this new chip, which offered increased dynamic range in latitude and color, the ability to hold highlights better than its predecessor, and the capability to deal well with warm light."
Cronenweth started out lensing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with the RED ONE and then shifted to the RED EPIC as it became more practical to deploy through the availability of special software.
He estimated that 75 to 80 percent of the movie was shot on the RED ONE, with the balance on EPIC. "It was a great, challenging experience to see what the cameras could do, migrating from one to the other," said Cronenweth who noted that Fincher has been proactive in digital cinematography, citing his choice of Viper for Zodiac (with Harris Savides, ASC, as cinematographer) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (shot by Claudio Miranda, ASC).
Cronenweth even recalled deploying the Sony F35 on a Fincher-directed iPhone spot produced by Anonymous Content a few years ago.
As for his digital experience with Fincher and others, Cronenweth observed, "It's ironic because I have always been a huge film proponent. Film cameras are still prevalent but I don't know when that might start changing as workflows, speed and ability to immediately start interacting with your footage push us more into the digital world.
"On one hand," he quipped, "I love not having to call the film lab at 5 a.m. wondering if I will have a job that day. The other side, though, is that because film is a photochemical process and not an exact science, there's a magic that can happen, good and bad. If you're brave enough to embrace the mystery and surprises you can get on film, that pushes you. Organically magic things can happen that you can't put your finger on. I miss that part of it."
Cronenweth also continues to be active in commercials on a couple of fronts--shooting for other helmers, and co-directing ad fare.
At press time, for example, he was lensing an undisclosed spot project for director Mark Romanek of Anonymous Content. Cronenweth continues to be handled as a DP by agent Dattner Dispoto and Associates. (Cronenweth and Romanek have a history together spanning commercials and long-form fare; the DP shot Romanek's theatrical feature debut, One Hour Photo, which was released back in 2002.)
Cronenweth has also been directing commercials as part of a helming duo, The Cronenweths, with brother Tim Cronenweth via Los Angeles production house Untitled Inc.
The Cronenweths most recently directed pop singer/performer JoJo in a Clearasil spot. Additionally, Jeff Cronenweth shot the still photo/print portion of that campaign.
"That's the first time I've handled both the commercials and the still components of a campaign. I'd like to do more of that."
Aaron Phillips It was in 1995 that Aaron Phillips first met director Lucy Walker in New York. Since then, they have collaborated on varied projects over the years with Phillips lensing her package of promos for the She TV Network in Japan and a series of spots for American Express, providing additional lensing for the documentary features Waste Land (an Oscar-nominated film) and Countdown to Zero, and most recently serving as DP on the short The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (SHOOT, 1/20), which documents the resurrection of life in Japan following the triple disaster of a devastating earthquake on March 11, 2011, which triggered a tsunami as well as a nuclear radiation crisis. As part of the healing process, the blooming of the cherry blossoms inspire the Japanese people to persevere and start anew.
This short, which plays like a visual haiku relating a story of survival and triumph of the human spirit, recently won the Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize in Short Film, Non-Fiction, and is an Academy Award nominee in the Documentary Short Subject category.
Phillips recalled the genesis of The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. "Lucy was meant to be promoting her film Countdown to Zero in Japan and while there she was planning to make a short film about cherry blossoms which have always fascinated her and once again she invited me along as her DP. Then the tsunami struck. At first we abandoned the project but then quickly realized that this was an incredibly poignant time in Japanese culture, the extremes of nature, the rich history of the beauty and the celebration of the cherry blossom juxtaposed with the fury and destruction of the tsunami. Along with Lucy's production company S&D [Walker is represented for spots and branded content by Supply&Demand Integrated], we quickly took action and flew to Japan a few days later."
Phillips deployed his Canon 7D HDSLR Camera and L Series zoom lenses based on his positive working experience with both in tandem.
"I had used this camera on various projects before and was quite impressed by its image quality and low light sensitivity, its 35mm motion picture sized sensor and its small size. Because the Canon 7D is actually a stills photography camera, most people recognize it as such and don't realize that we are actually shooting in lovely HD. This is a huge boon for filmmakers and the HDSLR format has been heartily embraced."
Since the Canon 7D package wasn't obtrusive, it had, observed Phillips, "a huge influence on the Japanese people's willingness to speak with us. As we approached them, they weren't overwhelmed by large cameras and boom poles and banks of lights. It was much more personal and sensitive."
The shoot was originally planned in two phases, the first being capturing the cherry blossoms starting down south in Kyoto and then on to Hiroshima and finally Tokyo.
"Unfortunately," noted Phillips, "they were blooming very late this year and we were scrambling to find our shots with few options. All the while Lucy and James [MacWhyte, an adept translator/driver/sound assistant/jack of all trades] were arranging our next phase, which would take us up north to the areas hardest hit by the tsunami.
"There were numerous logistical questions and complications," contiued Phillips. "Could we access these areas by road? Would we find accommodations? How dangerous would this actually be? Would the Japanese authorities allow us into these areas? Once again, our small crew size and our small equipment package proved to be invaluable."
The skeleton crew found itself sleeping in various hotels and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) along with the numerous rescue and relief workers dispatched to these areas.
"There was many a night that we were awakened by aftershocks and tremors and at one ryokan we would wake in the morning and find new cracks in the walls," shared Phillips. "Having never experienced an earthquake before, it was an incredible experience and I will never forget lying on my stomach framing up a low-angle shot of a row of blooming lilies with a long row of beautifully blossoming cherry tress in the background when a 7.0 magnitude tremor struck. I looked up and saw the buildings of the city of Iwaki swaying and felt as if I were on a boat rocking in the waves. I was awestruck.
"The destruction suffered by the city of Iwaki was exceptionally graphic because it was first subjected to an earthquake, which burst gas storage tanks causing massive fires and then was inundated by the powerful tsunami. There were block after block of charred buildings, whole neighborhoods frozen in time and the sound of loose corrugated metal swaying and banging from the wind.
"And then," recollected Phillips, "we would find a blossoming cherry tree, once again presenting this powerful, poetic juxtaposition of beauty and destruction."
For Phillips, the experience was most profound and made a lasting, heartfelt impression..
"Under normal circumstances many of the people whom we interviewed would have been celebrating the cherry blossom season but instead were dealing with the enormous challenges at hand. Many people said that the blossoms this year gave them the strength and the fortitude to press on and to not crumble under such challenges. The Japanese culture has an enormous respect for and connection with nature, which became more and more apparent in our interviews."
Phillips, who is represented by The Skouras Agency, has credits that include digital shorts for Saturday Night Live, pilot episodes of Schooled and The Game Killers, title sequences for such shows as Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Damages, and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, commercials for Toyota, NFL, Nike, Samsung, Sephora, Victoria's Secret and Google, and assorted music videos.
Phillips began his career as a DP shooting film, then started exploring HD and now has diversified into digital formats such as RED, Alexa, Phantom and HDSLR. "I have an understanding of and a fondness for shooting on film stock but I have embraced the new digital formats and have grown accustomed to and recognize the industry shift towards these formats," he related.
Still, Phillips recalls his days experimenting with film. While a film student at Bard College in the early 1990s, he explored "the myriad options which were available to us at the time shooting with virtually all film emulsions and experimenting with their various characteristics through pushing and pulling processing, cross-processing, optical printing, filtering black-and-white film to achieve various unique looks and playing with grain structure. I really miss the Ektachrome VNF stocks which have been discontinued by Kodak. They were so unique and painterly."