Monday, June 18, 2018
  • Monday, Apr. 4, 2016
Cinematographers & Cameras: Focused Perspectives
Robert Richardson, ASC
DPs provide insights into Tarantino’s "The Hateful Eight," Netflix’s "Marco Polo," ABC’s "Madoff"

One cinematographer recently earned his ninth career Oscar nomination.

This past February another DP won his first ASC Award on the strength of his second career nod.

And our third cinematographer has three career Film Independent Spirit Award noms for Best Cinematography over the years. His recent credits include yet another feature, a broadcast network miniseries, and a TV pilot.

Here are insights from cinematographers Robert Richardson, ASC, Vanja Cernjul, ASC, HFS, and Frankie DeMarco.

Robert Richardson, ASC
For The Hateful Eight, Robert Richardson, ASC, garnered his ninth career Best Achievement In Cinematography Oscar nomination, and the third for a film directed by Quentin Tarantino, the previous two being for Inglourious Basterds in 2010 and Django Unchained in 2013. Richardson has thus far won three Oscars—in 1992 for Oliver Stone’s JFK, in 2005 for Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, and in 2012 for Scorsese’s Hugo. Richardson’s first Academy Award nomination dates back to 1987 for director Stone’s Platoon.

In some respects, The Hateful Eight is reminiscent of some of Richardson’s earliest industry recognized cinematic endeavors. “The Hateful Eight took me back because it was a photochemical film, no digital intermediate,” said Richardson. “It’s been quite some time since I’ve done a film straight chemically with full release. I had to get my rhythm and balance back. What a rare opportunity to be given as a DP, to go back to the chemical process—the folks at Fotokem were so happy to help make this happen.”

Richardson has been Tarantino’s cinematographer of choice ever since Kill Bill: Vol. 1 in 2003. Their collaboration evolved for The Hateful Eight to Richardson shooting 65mm for 70mm release with images captured through wide-angle Ultra Panavision 70 lenses going back some 50 years to movies like Khartoum (1966). Richardson added that there were some lenses deployed which were used on the classic Ben Hur in 1959.

Richardson quite by happenstance stumbled onto a few near antique Ultra Panavision Lenses at Panavision’s facility in Woodland Hills, Calif. He was intrigued by the lenses and what they could deliver, setting into motion an exploration of glass from yesteryear in terms of what it could bring to The Hateful Eight. “The lenses yielded quite beautiful imagery but they hadn’t been used for so long that it took some time and effort to get them up to date,” related Richardson. “That was the main challenge posed by the lenses. We had some older ones that needed to be modified and some new lenses that had to be manufactured.”

Richardson noted that it was “in Tarantino’s mind from the beginning that The Hateful Eight would be a 65 millimeter film. And it’s that vision which we followed.” That path included a limited roadshow engagement/presentation akin to the historic movie palace era, replete with an overture and an intermission for the film.

Richardson noted that 70mm film stock provided great clarity—not HD clarity but rather a film clarity that has a softer quality. “The imagery is quite rich but still has a velvety feel. It is stunning,” said Richardson who described it as “an actor’s format” in that you can see facial gestures, small movements and nuances that bring another dimension to performance. The platform also adds to The Hateful Eight story which is primarily set in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a large room in which the different characters interact. With a 2.76 to 1 aspect ratio (as compared to the 1.85 to 1 or 2.35 to 1 aspect ratios conventionally seen), much of the room appears on screen in one fell swoop, meaning that viewers’ eyes can be on all or most of the characters at once.

The ultra wide angle catches so much of the set that Tarantino could position actors all over the frame in various ways to help propel the visual storytelling. Actors interacting in the background can hold viewer interest simultaneously with foreground action and interaction, with one able to add meaning and perspective to the other. Richardson said that Tarantino was the personification of creativity unbridled, exploring assorted options 360 throughout the haberdashery.

“Quentin and I have grown closer and closer in terms of collaboration,” observed Richardson. “There’s a degree of shorthand but Quentin is always extraordinarily specific about what he wants. He specifies exactly what he envisions for each shot. So the shorthand is more about friendship and trust. If I say I can get something, he trusts me to know I will get it. If I say something will take about 25 minutes, he knows that’s how long I will need.”

As SHOOT went to press, Richardson had wrapped shooting on Live By Night, directed by and starring Ben Affleck. In sharp contrast to Richardson’s extensive filmography with Tarantino, Live By Night marked the DP’s first collaboration with Affleck—as a director and/or actor. Yet in a relatively short time, Richardson struck up a rapport with Affleck. “Ben was fantastic to work with,” said Richardson. “It was almost as if he’s a brother. It was a great joy.”

Live By Night is a Prohibition Era drama. Richardson deployed an ARRI ALEXA 65 with vintage Panavision lenses. “The combination of the two was very successful in my opinion,” assessed Richardson. “The lenses softened the digital element, making it ideal for the story.”

Richardson said that among the challenges of Live By Night was “to not treat the period film with kid gloves. You need to treat it in a more contemporary manner. You try to come up with a look that will support the material yet keep it present and not past. You need to allow the past to still be felt. But it still has to feel relevant to our time.”

Richardson’s artistry has long lasting relevance as evidenced by not only his aforementioned Oscar chronology but also his ASC Award showing over the years. While he has yet to win an ASC Award, he has been nominated 10 times for the honor, starting in 1990 for the Stone-directed Born on the Fourth of July. This was followed by ASC noms in 1992 for JFK, Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men in ‘93 Stone’s Heaven and Earth in ‘94, Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer in ‘99, Scott Hicks’ Snow Falling on Cedars in 2000, The Aviator in ‘05, Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd in ‘07, Inglourious Basterds in 2010, and Hugo in 2012.

While Richardson said his focus remains shooting creatively ambitious and challenging projects, he continues to take on occasional select directing gigs via Tool of North America, the production house which represents him as a helmer for commercials and branded content.

Vanja Cernjul
Not quite two months ago, Vanja Cernjul, ASC, HFS, won his first ASC Award on the strength of his second career nomination, which was for “The Fourth Step” episode of Marco Polo (Netflix). Cernjul topped the Episode of a Regular Series ASC Award category and it’s an honor that’s close to his heart. “Many of the cinematographers I studied and admired since I was a film student, as well as some that are making the most visually exciting films today, are voting for the ASC Award,” said Cernjul. “This is why the award has such a special meaning.”

In terms of the creative challenges posed to him by “The Fourth Step” episode, Cernjul related, “We had two full units with two different DPs and directors shooting season one simultaneously. The first episode was still being shot while we started filming 'The Fourth Step' and the challenge was to create a visual identity of the show without having a pilot to refer to. I worked closely with the other DP Romain Lecourbass and we came up with an initial approach and we were looking at each other’s dailies to get inspired by each other. The first step was to agree on the color of different light sources. It was a drama that takes place in the 13th century so we only had three different light sources to play with: daylight, moonlight and fire. Once we agreed on how much green or blue we will use for moonlight and how much red or yellow for the fire, we were closer to our own unique look for the show.”

As for camera choice on Marco Polo, Cernjul explained, “It was required that the show gets delivered to Netflix in 4K. We also knew that we will need to shoot a lot of slow motion sequences for the martial arts scenes so Sony F55 became a logical choice. I normally use the Alexa and I couldn’t use any of the LUTs I have previously created with my DITs and it was a challenge to come up with a LUT that is right for the show. Eventually we used everything we learned and created a unique show LUT which was applied to all our dailies.”

The adventure series about famed 13th explorer Polo is from directors and executive producers Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg (who received a 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination for Kon-Tiki), executive producer/creator John Fusco and EP Minahan. Roenning and Sandberg are known in ad industry circles as the directorial duo Roenberg (handled by production company Sandwick Media).

Regarding how he got the Marco Polo gig, Cernjul conjectured, “I have worked with Netflix previously on season one of Orange is the New Black, which probably helped. I also knew the showrunner Dan Minahan. We worked together a few years before in New York. I was very excited to have had the opportunity to shoot a big period costume drama with lots of action, it was very different from everything I have done previously.”

Cernjul’s first ASC Award nomination came in 2012 in the Half-Hour Episodic/Pilot Television category for the “Forget the Herring” episode of Bored To Death (HBO). Cernjul additionally has two primetime Outstanding Cinematography Emmy nominations to his credit—in 2008 for the “Rosemary’s Baby” episode of 30 Rock, and two years later for the “Apple Bong” episode of Nurse Jackie.

Cernjul first established himself in indie features, the nature of which didn’t seem conducive to his making the transition to comedy on television. “I remember telling my agent years ago that maybe I should try something different like comedy. My agent couldn’t believe it, saying my look was ‘so dark and depressing. No one would ever hire you for comedy.’”

But lo and behold he got a call in 2006 from director Richard Shepard (Dom Hemingway, HBO’s Girls) who was working on the pilot for Ugly Betty. Shepard had remembered Cernjul from the two films the cinematographer had in competition earlier that year at the Sundance Film Festival: Forgiven and Wristcutters: A Love Story.

“Richard fought for me and I got to shoot the Ugly Betty pilot,” said Cernjul. “When the show became a success, it opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”

One such opportunity was Cernjul shooting 25 episodes of 30 Rock.

Later helping to open the door for Cernjul on Orange is the New Black was Michael Trim, a cinematographer turned director who ended up directing the pilot for the show as well as a number of episodes. Trim and Cernjul have a shared history. During season one of 30 Rock, cinematographer Trim had to leave the series for a stretch during which Cernjul filled the void. “Michael brought me up to speed on 30 Rock, his approach and so on, so that I could transition more easily into the show,” recalled Cernjul. “We later met at the Emmy Awards—he was nominated for shooting Weeds and I was nominated for Nurse Jackie. We spent some time together, got to know one another. I joked that he took the Emmy Award from me that year. He then went on to direct during the final season of Weeds.

Trim introduced Cernjul to Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan. “It was very early on. Jenji didn’t have a script yet—just the book,” recollected Cernjul. “Jenji already had a vision of how she wanted to tell the story. She gave me the book to read and said she was interested in three distinct looks for the show. I read the book and liked it a lot. It was interesting and well written. The three looks were for the three storylines—prison life, life in New York City outside of prison, and flashbacks to Piper’s life before prison as part of New York’s middle class. I was fortunate enough to get the job and had conversations with Michael and Jenji about the three distinct looks. We decided to shoot the prison life hand held and as close to natural, existing lighting as possible. We built sets to accommodate this approach, with natural sources of light. Life outside prison was a more traditional studio approach with a more controlled look, more lit and designed. And for the flashbacks to Piper’s previous life, we were also in a studio mode but the lighting was more romantic and colorful, a sharp contrast to her current existence.”

Frankie DeMarco
With a filmography spanning features, TV, commercials and music videos, cinematographer Frankie DeMarco is perhaps best known for work which has earned him three Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Cinematography: director Larry Fesenden’s Habit in 1998; John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig & The Angry Inch in 2002; and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost starring Robert Redford in 2014. DeMarco also lensed Chandor’s feature filmmaking debut Margin Call.

The DP’s track record with director Mitchell is extensive with Shortbus (2006), Rabbit Hole (2010) and the upcoming How to Talk to Girls at Parties, which stars Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning and Ruth Wilson. DeMarco shot the latter with the ARRI ALEXA, sprinkling in some 16mm film lensing for portions of the story set in the 1970s.

DeMarco’s working relationship with director Mitchell also extends to shorter form fare, including commercials for Revlon (with Emma Stone, Halle Berry, Olivia Wilde), Lady Dior (featuring Marion Cotillard) and Rimmel Cosmetics (with Kate Moss).

DeMarco has found additional value in his commercialmaking exploits, sharing for example that his spot experience was helpful on All Is Lost centered on Redford in a tour de force performance as a man at sea. “You’re shooting a guy on a boat alone with absolute minimal, if no dialogue,” related DeMarco. “He reads a letter over a title sequence and cusses once, I think. For me, it was like shooting a silent film, getting to use the camera and this excellent actor to convey what’s in his mind so that the audience can think what he’s thinking. I’ve watched silent films my whole life. I’m a big fan of Chaplin, Arbuckle, Lloyd. I’m pretty familiar with this mode of silent filmmaking.”

DeMarco further observed, “Some of the best commercials are actions, looks, thoughts—not necessarily words. There’s an economy of words in 30 seconds so it’s a great discipline for conveying a lot that’s unspoken. It was great schooling for working with J.C. on All Is Lost.”

DeMarco’s penchant for the ad biz also encompasses his television exploits which include a pair of episodes for the first season of Mad Men—one of which was directed by Lesli Linka Glatter. DeMarco recalled that his Mad Men gig was a great experience, particularly getting to work with such stellar actors as Jon Hamm, John Slattery and Elizabeth Moss.

Generally on the TV front, DeMarco tends not to take on series, gravitating more to pilots, telefilms and miniseries. Among DeMarco’s most recent endeavors is the recently aired ABC-TV miniseries Madoff chronicling the rise and fall of Bernie Madoff whose Ponzi scheme bilked some $65 million from unsuspecting investors. Starring Richard Dreyfuss as Madoff, the project marked DeMarco’s first collaboration with director Raymond De Felitta. “He’s an actors’ director,” assessed DeMarco of De Felitta. “He has a good idea of how things should be shot but as usual I always try to challenge the director to go further. I found him very open to different ideas. We wound up shooting this very much like a theatrical feature.”

Madoff is driven by extensive narration from Dreyfuss in character as the sophisticated con artist. “It’s kind of like Scorsese’s Good Fellas where character narration is explaining what’s happening, meaning that the camera has to show you what they’re talking about. In this situation, the camera becomes more of an active player or character in what’s happening,” observed DeMarco who opted for the ARRI ALEXA to shoot Madoff. The DP deployed older Cooke lenses for the portion of the miniseries focused on Madoff’s career beginnings in the 1980s.

Also in the recent mix for DeMarco is an ABC pilot, The Jury. “It was a pilot more like a movie,” said DeMarco of the project which centers on a murder trial as seen through the eyes of individual jurors. Directed by Neil Burger, The Jury was written by Mark Bianculli and VJ Boyd, and sports a cast which includes Archie Panjabi, Jeremy Sisto and Eve Harlow.