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5 Things Cinematographers Don’t Talk About

Sean Porter on the set of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (Photo by Chris Ohlson)

I only faintly recall writing my last entry for Filmmaker Magazine. I was huddled over at some bar at a busy airport, in between jobs and cities I’ve only seen through the windows of a hotel: a cinematographer’s life. I do remember the article was a bit cheeky — I was pretty elated with the success of It Felt Like Love — so I thought this time that to commemorate Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter I’d get down to brass tacks. Here are five things cinematographers don’t talk about.

1. When to Say No

Possibly one of the hardest parts of this career is dealing with any level of success. I’m very grateful for the filmmakers I’ve had the pleasure of working with. They are all incredibly hard working and dedicated to their craft. They don’t let up until it’s right. That usually makes for interesting films — films audiences respond strongly to, good or bad. I owe much of my ability to continue working in this field to their perseverance. Other filmmakers see those movies, and I’m lucky enough to find myself being asked to work on new projects. It’s the dream, right? So what happens then?

When I moved to New York City back in 2009, only a few months married to my lovely wife, Laurie, we landed hard, put our heads down and got to work. We asked ourselves, “How could there be room for another d.p. and production designer in this city?” We didn’t wait to hear the answer. We just went for it.

Everything was going according to plan, except one little detail: Jackie. Our baby boy joined us in November of 2010, and he immediately had his own ideas about what this life was all about. All too suddenly those days tucked away in coffee shops with warm mugs and scripts became about negotiating health care, childcare, transportation, doctor visits, immunizations.

We didn’t stop working, of course, but things changed. We really couldn’t work on the same projects anymore (even though we did anyways). Laurie and I became ships passing in the night — two single parents occupying the same house, trying to keep careers moving forward while grasping at each other’s life preserver. My relationship to work started changing, too. It stopped being about projects I could do and became about projects I had to do; projects somehow worth leaving my family months at a time for. Laurie and I started trying to alternate projects, which actually was going okay until Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

I had just wrapped It Felt Like Love. It was autumn in NYC. Beautiful. I was settling back into “dad” mode, and Laurie had left to prep Cold Comes the Night in upstate New York. Then came the phone call. “We’re working on a film shooting in Japan and Minnesota.” David Zellner could have stopped there. “We wanted to know if you might be available; we start prep in Japan in three weeks.” Wait, what happened to alternating projects? I read the script and the knot in my stomach just got worse. I called Laurie. “Well, I think you have to do it!” she said. So began many more phone calls with the Zellners and a scramble of logistics. I packed Jackie and myself up, and we headed for Seattle, forgetting my passport, of course; why do I need a passport to go to Seattle? I dropped him off with the grandparents and departed for Tokyo. Jack didn’t see either of us for almost four weeks until Laurie wrapped and departed NYC for Seattle — over Thanksgiving! — to pick him up and finally head back home; Laurie and I wouldn’t see each other for 11 weeks. Yet only three short weeks after we all split ways, Hurricane Sandy hit our neighborhood. All three of us were safe, scattered about in different parts of the world.

Making the decision to take on Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, regardless of the turbulence it caused us — this was a time to say yes. There have been many more decisions like this to make for other films, and Laurie and I have had to say no a lot. And while it never feels good to say “no,” you have to ask yourself, “Even though this job may be good for my career, will my relationship with my family suffer, or maybe even fail?” Sounds dire, but if it hasn’t happened yet, it will. Part of stepping up is about finding your own balance with life and work before you get lost. Being grateful for the work without letting it hurt you or your loved ones. I’ve by no means mastered this task; I struggle with it every day. I wish more established filmmakers would talk about it.

2. Replacing Someone…0r Being Replaced

Early in my career I was working in Seattle and was getting pretty regular work on shorts and documentaries. Otherwise, I crewed as often as I could, and, like many of us starting out, was busy “prepping” my first feature. It never ended up happening, of course, but during that time I interviewed for another film with a gifted artist directing, a film I probably should have said yes to but didn’t. (Those things will happen, too.) After asking me again when the first d.p. they hired dropped out (and me saying “no” a second time), those producers started shooting, and I heard through the small Seattle gossip ring that it wasn’t going so well. The director and d.p. weren’t getting along, and there had been some breakdowns on set.

A few weeks later I got a call from one of the producers, whom I’m fond of. She asked if I’d be willing to come in and “work alongside” the other d.p., shooting some “other material” for the director. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I saw through this one. I asked her if the current d.p. knew they were planning on bringing in someone else. She said no, but they were “going to talk about it.” I told her I couldn’t be that person, not in that situation. They ended up finding a d.p. who would, and did, and there were some pretty heated reactions on set with the ousted d.p. and his crew. Once that sort of toxic energy gets onto a set, it’s hard to reset.

It was bad enough that I had also started shooting second unit (really the pick-ups unit) for some other movies in town. I’d contact d.p.s, eager for their notes, lens choices, filter packages, etc. … questions that were often met with zero response. It’s touchy business having someone else do your work. You sort of feel second-rate. Someone got that first call. They were into the material and the director. Meetings happened, ideas were shared. The look of the film took shape. They decided on their keys and hired all the crew. They negotiated with producers and fought to put their ideas onscreen. When those ideas ultimately don’t dovetail with the director’s vision, it’s devastating. And sometimes it’s not even about the pictures that are made, but simply how you, the director and the producers get those images in the can. Making a film is stressful enough when everyone is jibing. To be replaced, whether during the shoot or while still in prep, is a big hit. It sucks. And whoever replaces you sucks.

As my preliminary conversations with the Zellners deepened it became clear to me that they had been working on this film for a very, very long time — upwards of nine years. They had shot two other features and numerous shorts amidst getting Kumiko off the ground. It was clearly their baby, and she was getting bigger and more precious all the time. Along the way they had been very close to starting principal shooting, ultimately stalled by production roadblocks. So why, three weeks shy of finally starting prep in Japan and after nine years am I getting a call asking if I am available? Haven’t they been working with a d.p. for quite some time at this point? I struggled with that question and made a few timid attempts to talk to David about it. He was very open and gracious. Of course there had been other cinematographers along the way, and, for all kinds of completely valid reasons, things just hadn’t worked out.

So now the pressure was on — besides word of mouth (which of course is everything) what made me the right fit? During one of our “interview” calls with the Zellners, they asked me about format and glass. I told them I was leaning toward the Alexa with vintage Cooke S2/S3 Panchros. I think they were pretty surprised. A whole year prior they had done a series of camera tests with all kinds of formats and lens options. After all their evaluations, you can guess the pairing they had chosen.

Of course this was just one of hundreds of details on which we saw eye-to-eye. I think part of stepping up is knowing when it’s time to trust the director, trust yourself and just focus on doing your job as best you can, regardless of who comes before or after you.

3. Your Own Gear: Business or Pleasure or Neither

As a cinematographer, it’s easy to find yourself a pathological gear hoarder. You need all kinds of stuff. You need to own the latest camera, and the one coming out next month, in addition to the newest accessories, those vintage lenses you found on eBay, exotic filters and just about everything on filmtools.com. And you’ve already promised your spouse or partner you’ll recoup all that money with “just a few jobs,” so you gotta book it. Now.

There are some d.p.s who inexplicably seem to get by fine with their spot meter and maybe an iPad. I’m not one of them. In fact, for many years I was caught in that spiral where it seemed like if you didn’t have a camera, you just weren’t going to get shooting jobs. I thought maybe this was some terrible result of the digital revolution. But go back and read the biographies of Vilmos Zsigmond or Laszlo Kovacs: early on those guys showed up in Hollywood, brought all kinds of gear in their van and got jobs. This is an industry-old game. Consider the producers’ point of view: if this d.p. is going to show up with gear, for almost nothing, that we’d otherwise have to pay for, sounds like they are a great fit for the show! So what if they’ve never shot a feature before?

I used to resent it. There were new “d.p.s” who happened to have the new coolest kit, and they ended up getting jobs I was up for, in some cases replacing me in relationships with directors I’d been working with for some time. It didn’t help that in many cases they also turned out to be capable and even talented shooters. The gear buys you jobs, which buys you experience and relationships, which buys you more jobs. But wait! Shouldn’t skill alone be enough to get the call? Everyone you talk to will have a different answer. I decided I’d either continue resenting it or get on the bus. I bought the ticket, but there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. A wise aphorism from one of my mentors: “Own gear while you need to, but get out as soon as you can.”

To this day I haven’t completely pulled out, but I’ve been in it long enough to know the pitfalls. One such misstep is feeling like you have to book your investment, even if it’s not exactly the right tool for the job.

I was in the market for some anamorphics a few months before Kumiko entered my life, a set of Kowas, to be precise. The deal had been a long and arduous one. When they finally arrived, I felt pretty spent on every front and was anxious to get them working. While pitching to shoot the last half of Kumiko in anamorphic, surely getting those lenses on the show was part of my thought process. At last, having the lenses in hand, I took them to my local camera house for some testing. As I made my way through the glass, studying charts, my heart started to sink. If you aren’t familiar, Kowas are impossibly small, light and fast compared to all other anamorphics, an undiscovered gem from the ’80s — except that in order to get so small they cut a few corners. Back in the ’60s, Panavision had solved the “mumps” which plagued widescreen cinema: an optical distortion where, as the lens focused closer, it stretched the image on the horizontal axis, the real-world consequence being that centered close-ups of Hollywood stars had “fattened” faces — the mumps. Well, sure enough, the Kowas borrowed from an older design and indeed stretched subjects as they got closer to the camera. You’ve got to be kidding me.

I debated with myself about how this might affect Kumiko. It was a short conversation. There was no way I was going to entertain booking them on this film, or any film, as my principal lenses. No matter how much I had spent on them, or how much I stood to gain or lose, I wasn’t about to use them to lens up an actor my director had been courting and prepping with for years on a film that has taken them years to put together. Needless to say, I eventually sold the set, and instead we headed to Joe Dunton & Co. in Wilmington for his beautiful set of custo- made Cooke Speed Panchro Anamorphics.

This is possibly an extreme case to illustrate a more subtle point: We have to be very cognizant about the impact, however minute, we make when we mix our creative responsibilities with enterprise. Your gear is a powerful influence on your work, both good and bad. I think stepping up means knowing which is which, even if it’s not the answer you want to hear.

4. Never Face the Monitor; Our Relationship to Talent

When I was still 2nd AC’ing, I made that fatal mistake of having the monitor face the actor during a shot. The d.p. gave me a “not impressed” look and glanced at the 1st AC, who in turn gave me a, “I’ll see you outside, bring your jacket” look. Most of the time our job in the camera department is to be invisible to the actors, their process and their experience. But is that always true?

I had an actor friend who once described her experience working on a film with another d.p. The cameraman did his job well but never once introduced himself to her. Toward the end of the first day they had worked through a series of sub-masters, and he was moving onto her first close-up — and still, no acknowledgement she was another human being. Finally she stopped, crossed in front of the camera and introduced herself. That story stuck with me because I’ve always traveled in different circles than the actors I work with; we’re not friends or even friends of friends. But when we’re on set, in a lot of ways we are two halves of a whole; in order to get a scene to work, we need open, meaningful lines of communication. I don’t mean I’m telling the actors what to do without the director, but there are moments where we have to help each other get across the finish line for a particular shot. There can’t be any barrier between us whatsoever.

With that same actor, I worked on a short film many years ago in which we had a relatively ambitious close-up designed with quite a bit of blocking. The lens was a 14mm on a Super 35 camera, and on average her face was about 6 to 8 inches from the filter tray. She was basically performing inside the mattebox. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for either of us, but we talked it through and literally tackled it step by step. We kept repeating the movement until I was able to operate completely in sync, allowing her to perform rather quickly, with the camera only inches from hitting her square in the face. It would have been difficult to get an emotional shot like that without creating an environment where we all felt connected and safe with each other.

Working with Rinko Kikuchi on Kumiko was a revelation. She was so physical and so precise but was also very aware of the process — how shots would work and how she could work within them. I’d line up a shot and explain to her, “Here you’ll be in almost complete darkness; here you’ll be in this cut of light; here you’ll be in this reflection in the background.” I felt like I could talk to her about these things without distracting her. She’d internalize them, and then we’d do a take, and she’d use all those marks as she would words in the script. It was a very exciting way to work and allowed me to set up dynamic “environments” in which she could move and create different effects.

She was also very invested in every single set up. Every moment was passed through the world of Rinko’s Kumiko. We would line up shots that at first appeared to be pretty simple inserts, and quickly I’d realize they were far more meaningful. How she held a book or a cup of tea — they were building blocks to her character. We lined up one shot, which didn’t make the final cut, where the camera sat level with Rinko, facing straight down into her lap holding a tray. It was a tricky over-slung POV rig so that we wouldn’t see any of our support gear. It was also incredibly awkward for Rinko to maintain posture and make it look like the camera was her eyes. At a certain point, after a lot of small, difficult adjustments to her position, I grabbed the on-board monitor and folded it around so she could see. I told her she’d have to “operate” this one, and she was able to not only deliver the physical performance required by the scene but kept her body in just the exact position to sell the effect. I thought she nailed it.

As filmmakers we’re all in this together, and stepping up on Kumiko I needed to know when to cross company lines and turn the monitor back around.

As for #5? I don’t want to talk about it.

Sean Porter is the cinematographer of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and It Felt Like Love.

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