Inspiration from the Advertising World

The more I work in the commercial genre, the more enchanted I become: maximum story economy and maximum style in short projects with broad audience reach. I even love the accountability that working with clients brings to the process. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own ideas that we need someone who’s not in the room to tell us that it’s not working. Some recent spots I found inspiring:

Director/DoP Lance Accord delivers yet another brilliant Star Wars-themed spot, this time for BBH New York. Superb VFX by The Mill. After 37 years, the Star Wars franchise still gives me goosebumps.

Strong directing from Salomon Ligthelm and superb cinematography by the talented Khalid Mohtaseb. Agency: Publicis. The Buick brand has atrophied so dramatically in recent years—I didn’t even know these cars were made anymore. Precisely the kind of bold design necessary to revive a sinking product line.

My favorite kinds of stories are stories about misunderstood creatures. Audi continues its advertising success in this spot directed by Stephan Wever (Stink) for Razorfish. DoP Cezary Zacharewicz and the German animation studio Sehsucht delivered the impressive imagery.

Volvo’s “Vintersaga,”directed by Gustav Johansson and produced by New Land, is a mesmerizing paean to winter. Niklas Johansson‘s stunning 35mm cinematography manages to take the bleakness of Sweden’s snow and darkness and transform it into an incredibly seductive landscape.

The view from Kostava Street: hustle and hustle and the great unknown.

Quiet Revolutions in Motion Picture Lighting


Much has been written about advancements in camera technology over the past decade. What many people don’t see, however, is that a no less significant transformation has also been unfolding in the world of motion picture lighting.

I first moved to Los Angeles to train under the best DoPs in the business, and in Hollywood this means you start at the bottom of the crew and work your way up. After working for several years as a camera assistant I made the decision to move to the lighting department, eventually joining IATSE Local 728. Changing departments was a difficult move, as it meant starting over with a new skill set and a completely new contact base. But for my personality and stylistic approach to filmmaking the electric department was a much better fit. In the end it was a much better place for me to learn how to be the kind of cinematographer I wanted to be. I spent almost ten years in lighting departments on everything from no-budget music videos to studio feature films and top-rated dramatic television. I feel so fortunate that I was able to work for some of the most experienced gaffers in the business. From them I learned an incredible amount about the actual hands-on process behind creating the look you want for a project.

There have been two important changes in motion picture lighting in recent years. The first pertains mostly to work practice: about 10 years ago gaffers began using more techniques and technology from the world of concert and event lighting. It’s strange, but traditionally these worlds have been very separate in Hollywood: they had different names for equipment, different positions on set, different crews, and even separate union locals inside IATSE. Programmable moving lights, a mainstay of concert lighting, have become standard on many film sets now. My approach to lighting a scene is often to first light the space and then, if necessary, the actors. So the introduction of more spatial lighting techniques to our toolbox is very exciting for me.

For “Cowboys and Aliens” (2011), the electric department rigged programmable moving lights to cable vehicles over the set to simulate alien spacecraft. Each vehicle was rigged with its own generator. Gaffer: Mike Bauman


The second big change is largely technological: the long-awaited advent of LEDs, which are finally beginning to replace the big incandescent fixtures we’ve used on sets for 80 years. This change will have a very significant effect on how movies are shot, as tungsten lamps are notoriously inefficient from an energy standpoint. It’s not uncommon for a standing television set to use 200 kilowatts or more of lighting, which requires rivers of thick 4/0 cable to be laid out prior to photography, which in turn requires sometimes weeks of work from the lighting department rigging team. Because 80 percent of this energy is released as heat instead of light, a massive amount of cooling is needed to compensate. LEDs have the potential to change all of this.

Mole-Richardson, one of the giants of movie lighting in Los Angeles, has announced an LED version of it’s traditional 10K “Senior” fresnel lighting unit. Until now, when we wanted that much light it required using a generator and heavy cable, which made big lights impossible for many small productions on location. This 10K LED unit, by contrast, can be plugged into almost any wall socket. It’s inspiring to think about how much time and resources this will save. The move from incandescent to LED lighting sources could become the single most consequential development in the history of motion picture lighting.

New technology is exciting, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day it isn’t equipment that makes strong content. Creative, dedicated people make strong content—these are just tools to add to the tool chest.

The view from Kostava Street: hot days, and the cool sanctuary of the color suite. And a nagging voice in my head telling me to “Move!”

What’s next?



Bollywood in Tbilisi


Just finished shooting two Indian music videos for a group of filmmakers from Mumbai, led by the talented directors Ajay and Sanjukta Jain and T-Series executive producer Sumeet Mithra. This was my first experience working with Bollywood and it was very rewarding. An entirely creative and very professional group.

We shot for five days in locations around Tbilisi. Some days were smoother than others, of course, but that’s the nature of the job. The directors seem pleased with what we shot, and that always helps take the sting out of my own mistakes. There was only a minimal amount of music performance in these videos, so the shoots themselves were much more akin to stylized short films. On our first day we shot in the entry halls of the Tbilisi Opera, which we transformed to look like a night club. A fantastic location that would cost five times more to rent in any other country. Will post stills when I’m able.

The biggest challenge for me as the DoP was one I encounter on so many short-form shoots I work on: I haven’t yet learned how to convey to production managers the value of having an experienced 1st AD on set. Often this job is given to a PA or a producer to save money, though in the end not having an experienced 1st AD always ends up costing far, far more. This is the single most costly mistake I see in production. Despite all my warnings, explanations, and downright pleading during pre-production, I’m still not communicating very well about the importance of this issue.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this shoot for me was my exposure to an entirely new film industry. After so many years in Hollywood, it’s easy to forget that there is an even bigger industry in Mumbai. Work practices on set are more or less the same, though I learned about a few things I think Hollywood would really benefit from. On many projects in India, for example, there are “Associate Directors” on set who are basically apprentice directors. Unlike “assistant directors” in the US who handle scheduling and run the set, “associate director” is a creative position for those on a directing career track. The joke in Hollywood is that there are only two entry-level positions on a movie set: PA and director. There’s a lot of truth to this. It’s sometimes shocking how much authority new directors are given despite having no professional directing experience. Hollywood could learn a lot from Mumbai in this regard; the DGA should consider implementing a more institutionalized apprentice path for directors.

Shoots like this one remind me why I moved to Tbilisi: I wanted more contact with filmmakers and artists on a global level. It’s inspiring to work with people who are intensely creative but also have a completely different visual framework and cinema history. Projects like this one dramatically broaden my artistic practice, and I find this immensely rewarding. Looking forward working with more Indians!

The view from Kostava Street: Bright sun. Slow days of recovery. The mountains call with a siren song.

What’s next?

The golden age of content is Now

What it means to be a Director of Photography is changing. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I no longer see myself as a DoP in the traditional sense, but rather as the principle visual designer of the projects I work on. I’ve noticed that as makers continue to push the boundaries of our work, the roles of visual designer and creative producer have begun to coalesce. This is a very exciting evolution in the creative industries.

15 years ago I remember seeing new visual work that inspired me about once a week, perhaps a bit more often when I was in film school. 200 years ago it might have been once a year for someone like me, or once every five years. But today, when the barriers to production and distribution are falling away so rapidly, I see new and powerful content every day. I wish I could track the rate which I have added visual material to my reference archive over the years—today I add four or five samples of imagery or motion content every 24 hours. The best aspect of this phenomenon is that the more work we see that inspires us, the more work we will produce that has the potential to inspire others. This cycle has a name: innovation.

We have entered an age where the technological and social barriers of content creation are falling away at a remarkable rate. I’ve read some opinions recently suggesting that the real battle now isn’t in creating strong content, but rather in marketing: getting as many eyeballs as possible in front of what you produce. There is some truth here, but I don’t agree with this entirely. Marketing is important, of course, and I’ll even concede that in some limited circumstances savvy promotion can compensate for weak content. But at the end of the day it is the cocktail of fearless innovation and judicious promotion that separates great work from the ocean of mediocrity. Though the amount of work we produce is increasing, the standards will always rise proportionally: no matter how much material we create, only the top percentage will be work that people can’t wait to watch. Put differently, it will always be only the best work that gives our audiences goosebumps. And this is what we aspire to deliver.

The view from Kostava Street: new friends, new ideas, and the low rumble of coming change.

What’s next?

Oscars 2016

I generally feel that the Academy Awards are an overrated event, but I would be professionally remiss not to share my thoughts on this year’s nominees:

The Revenant, shot by Chivo Lubezki, was the Oscar darling of the year (12 nominations), and much has been said about its photography. I found two things interesting about this project: the first is that no electric lighting instruments were used to make this film, except during one firelight scene. This approach appeals to my documentary roots and reminds me very much of my favorite cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, particularly his work on Days of Heaven. I trained under DoPs for ten years in Hollywood on productions large and small, and I felt the great majority of the shows I worked on were horrifically overlit, often by design. This is less of a problem in independent cinema. To be fair, Lubezki had the advantage of shooting on an Alexa 65—perhaps the best digital camera ever made for natural light work—and of working with some of the industry’s most talented colorists at Technicolor. But these things alone don’t make great cinematography, and I can’t dispute his talent for and contributions to the craft.

Another interesting element of The Revenant was that it was filmed exclusively on wide-angle lenses (12 – 21mm), which positions the cameraman much closer to the action. This combined with a handheld style shifts many decisions about coverage from the Director to the Director of Photography, which requires a close creative relationship to make work. But when it works, the results are phenomenal. As a side note, I enjoyed the film’s accompanying documentary, A World Unseen, directed by Eliot Rausch, perhaps more than I did the film itself. Worth a viewing.

In all truthfulness, I felt that Roger Deakins’ work on Sicario (also nominated for Best Cinematography) was perhaps stronger than The Revenant, but its photographic style draws less attention to the project’s camerawork. I just happen to appreciate patient, understated cinematography, so I’m drawn to films like this.

I also loved Mátyás Erdély’s photography in Son of Saul, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film but was somehow overlooked for the Best Cinematography category.

Despite all the pomp and pageantry of the Academy Awards, I must admit that the cinematography of almost all the Oscar-nominated films inspired me in some way, even when it wasn’t a style I am drawn to. I looking forward to seeing a very different batch of work at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The view from Kostava Street: cloudy days, warmer winds, and the unstoppable progression of time. How does one not think about this?

“9+1” Production Journal: Days 4 & 5


Rigging master Chuto prepares a lift to provide our main lighting source for the scenes on location in the exercise club. 18K fresnel and 6K fresnel with warm sun color. Couldn’t have shot the scenes without this rig.

I keep reminding myself that shooting dramatic television is a marathon, not a sprint: it’s important to maintain perspective and understand that not every shot is going to be a masterpiece. On some days, delivering solid content to the editors and keeping the show on schedule are enough to qualify as success. But in the interest of growing from one’s mistakes, I’ll talk a bit about the difficulties we encountered today.

We shot multiple day interior scenes at an athletic club, both in the main training hall and in the dressing room. Generally speaking, gyms are difficult to make look good on camera, and gym dressing rooms are particularly challenging: they are usually small, windowless spaces with monotone palettes and low ceilings. It can be difficult to find interesting angles, the small space constrains camera movement, and lighting options are limited.

We ended day two with an unplanned night shoot: a dialog inside a car parked outside the gym. The potential was there for a great-looking scene, but miscommunication between myself and the director (and our general fatigue after two brutal days) led us to shoot dialog coverage that was less than it could have been. We were in our 15th hour, and this is a good example of how long days can corrode the creative process. The viewer doesn’t know or care what circumstances you shot it in—only the result is judged.

One thing I (re)learned today: if you want a dialog scene in a gym dressing room to look good, it’s best to build a set. If you absolutely must shoot on location, I would look for a large, old locker room, perhaps at an old university or military base, that has windows or high ceilings. The bigger and older the locker room, the better. You can always make a big room look smaller on camera, but it’s very difficult to shoot in small spaces. Windows would allow you to use haze (for a steam effect), and that could add a lot of texture to the imagery.

One thing I’m grateful for today: the director is finally starting to allow blocking rehearsals in our on-set practice. Doing a blocking rehearsal prior to lighting has been standard protocol on every professional shoot I’ve ever worked on, but on this shoot it’s been a challenge to get everyone on the same page. Blocking a scene allows you to do a quick run-through with actors so that everyone can see the movement and anticipate challenges. The actors then go through hair and makeup while we light the set. When you don’t block the scene first, chaos ensues because changing actor positions often requires new camera and lighting solutions. Block, light, rehearse, shoot: deviate from this protocol at your own peril.

In collaborative creative work there will always be some difficult days. But at the end of the week, the most important question is always the same: how can next week be better?

The view from Kostava Street: long hot showers after exhausting days at work, Abby’s loving smile. Onward.

“9+1” Production Journal: Day 3

Myself (left) and our two camera operators on location near the Tbilisi Sea. Photo courtesy of Nino Jorjadze, one of Georgia’s most talented assistant directors.

Day Three was ultimately a successful day in terms of page count, but it got off to a bit of a slow start. I thought our first scene was going to be a simple high angle wide shot of a car pulling into a parking lot, but it became a bit more involved. I had tried to keep it simple because there was a crane involved and lots of reflections in the shot. Sometimes having great equipment can be a challenge in itself, because it creates the temptation to use it in ways that are more complex than the shot needs. The important thing is that we got what the director wanted and managed to make up for lost time later in the day. Our last shot during dusk will require some color work to make it match our day look (and perhaps a reshoot), but the core of the scene is in the can.

The lighting department showed some good hustle at the end of the day when we were frantically chasing the last of our light, but there could have been more preparation earlier in the day as far as power distribution. Typical protocol in Hollywood is that we lay power ahead of time to prepare for almost any lighting possibility at that location. Laying that much cable is time-consuming and thankless work (I did it for years), but it’s often what makes the difference between good lighting and great lighting. Something we’ll work on for future shoots.

One thing I’m grateful for today: our camera operators, Goglik and Merab. These guys are talented and totally reliable. I trust them completely, and this makes my job so much easier. I would have no reservations about sending either of them to work 2nd Unit, something that we’ll be talking more about in the coming weeks.

The view from Kostava Street: lazy Sunday and a loving dog. So great to spend time with Abby on my day off.

“9+1” Production Journal: Day 2


Most of Day Two involved shooting a lengthy dialog scene in a restaurant. Nothing too crazy: two people chatting at a table. We all wanted to shoot in the restaurant’s glass-enclosed veranda, and I embraced the sun through the window as part of our lighting (using our own lighting as well, of course). This strategy mostly worked, but no one anticipated that we would spend eight hours on that scene (I thought it would take us four hours). It was an important scene, so it’s good we took the time to get it right, but there wasn’t much I could do about the fact that the sun changed dramatically over the course of the day. One must work with the cards one is dealt. All in all I think we pulled it off, and the director is happy with the cinematography. Ended the day with a two-shot exterior scene where we managed to wrap just minutes before we lost our light. Everyone cheered. Crew morale is high, and that is really the most important thing on a shoot this size.

Tomorrow will be day exteriors all day, with lots of crane work. It’s an ambitious schedule, but as a group we are learning quickly how to work best together. All the departments are really a pleasure to work with, especially the guys and gals in camera, grip, and lighting. Kudos to our dolly grip Yura for his quick build today.

One thing I (re)learned today: never use new equipment on set before testing, even if you think you know it well.

One thing I am grateful for today: in the end the director agreed to my request that we shoot close-ups during the dialog scene.

The view from Kostava Street: homemade borsch and cloudy skies. Autumn is upon us.

“9+1” Production Journal: Day 1


I’ve been hired as the Director of Photography on a episodic detective thriller shooting in Tbilisi, Georgia. After two months of prep, today was the first day of principal photography. I hope to make periodic journal entries to track our progress.

Day One was pretty good, all things considered. There were the usual small bumps and moments of miscommunication, but we’ve got a great team. Since we’ve already been scouting and shooting camera tests together for a few months, our group already feels like a family. On set we speak two languages: Russian and Georgian. My hope is that by the end of the shoot we’ll be operating almost entirely in Georgian.

I’m going to try to include one thing I learned and one thing I’m grateful for in each journal entry. A lot of the lessons I learn are mistakes I’ve already made many times. Today I was reminded of the value of a smoothly functioning video village (the area with the monitors that show what we’re shooting). There are a lot of people who are invested in how things look on screen—the production designer, make-up artists, costumers, set decorators, and of course the director. There’s usually a lot happening around the camera during a set-up, and a well-functioning video village allows us to move a lot of creative and logistical conversations away from the camera and into a less chaotic space, which allows the team on set to work faster and more comfortably. It also allows me to present the director with what I think are the best visual options for the shot. I welcome feedback of course, and together the director and I often come up with a better plan, but video village allows us to start with what I think is the best option.

What I’m grateful for today: it may sound trivial, but actors who are both professional and want to be part of the production family are really a pleasure to work with. Actors have a completely different perspective on the production process than I do, as we work on different sides of the lens, and sometimes these two worlds don’t always mix easily. On this show the interaction between crew and cast has been very warm. I look forward to great collaboration, and great friendship.

The view from Kostava Street: autumn rain and broad horizons. The future is bright.

Picture wrap: “Germanuli Beer”


One of the things I love about shooting commercials is how much visual diversity there is between projects. I recently shot a series of beer commercials for the Windfor’s agency in Tbilisi, Georgia. We shot three different spots in two days, and each one has a unique style. Whereas long-form projects such as feature films allow the cinematographer to drill down and master a specific look, commercial work encourages versatility, something so important to one’s growth as an artist.

My experience shooting in Georgia has always been very positive: many of the directors and agency creatives I’ve worked with have been very talented, the professionalism of local crew rises every year, and the market is still small enough where there is a great family feel on set. I see exciting things to come in the future of the film industry in Georgia—frankly, I don’t understand why more foreign films don’t shoot here.

All three of these commercials were directed by Nino Gordeladze, who is a long-time copywriter at Windfor’s and one of the creative engines behind this campaign. Looking forward to more projects with these guys!

The view from Kostava street: cool mornings and the promise of spring. Next stop, Kiev!