Month: December, 2012

Portrait as Cinema


Elegant portrait work from director Matthew Donaldson, with sound design by Mutant Jukebox. I came across this clip as part of my ongoing research on portraiture in the motion picture genre. These are exciting times for cinematography: as cameras become more powerful, high-speed shooting more affordable, and distribution less exclusive, we have begun to see more and more film work emerging from artists outside the mainstream industry, and I find this tremendously refreshing.

It is the great democratization of cinema.

The view from Anchorage Street: cold wind and phenomenal surf.

Lessons from Africa

Mugendi frame grab

Liani frame grab

I’m just back from a shoot in Cape Town, South Africa: a short documentary I’m directing about a design workshop hosted by the social-innovation group Design Can Do. The workshop brought together a diverse group of professionals—mostly designers, but also anthropologists, writers, entrepreneurs, and host of practitioners from other fields—to meet in one room and brainstorm design solutions focused on improving a specific area of Cape Town called “The Fringe.” The group stayed awake for 36 hours straight to develop their ideas and then presented them at a public forum the following day. I was commissioned to make a film about the project.

Because the Design Can Do organizers are designers themselves they have very developed visual sensibilities, and I was drawn to the project in part because I knew they would appreciate a more artful approach to the film. I also had a hunch that such an intense creative experience, with such an engaging, civic-minded cadre of participants, would lend itself to a more impressionistic format. I have a deep personal commitment to the field of social innovation and very much identify as a visual designer in this vein. My only regret is that as the filmmaker I couldn’t also take part in the workshop itself, which by all counts seemed like an incredibly successful and inspiring event.

I am particularly drawn to the formal potential of the project, which I hope will succeed in creating an experience for the viewer that is more visceral than journalistic. Despite my feelings about the overuse of on-camera interviews in documentaries, I have to admit that it can be a very useful convention, particularly when the piece requires large amounts of exposition. There are, however, more artful approaches to interviews than what we normally see, and I saw this project as an opportunity to try out some ideas I’ve been exploring for years on other shoots. Intending to use the interviews in black-and-white, I positioned the subjects in front of a seamless backdrop and structured our interaction so that they speak directly into the lens. This style is a direct extension of my portraiture work in the South Caucasus, and I feel that I owe much to photographers Richard Avedon and Rineke Dijkstra, both of whom have been important influences on my work.

This style was an important evolution in my efforts to explore portraiture within the motion picture genre, and I relied heavily on my commercial and feature film lighting experience to pull it off. Much like my efforts to bring commercial production values to the non-fiction genre, this exploration of portraiture on a motion picture canvas is a career-long work in progress. All in all, I’m pleased with how it turned out on this shoot.

I spent three weeks in Los Angeles preparing for the shoot (research, conceptualization, and logistics) and was in Cape Town for a total of seven days, four of which were dedicated to principle photography. The older I get, the more convinced I am that strong films are made during pre-production rather than during production itself. Yes, of course a lot of magic happens when the cameras roll, and one has to be flexible in order to seize these opportunities, but my experience has been that the tone and success of a project are defined by one’s work in the weeks previous. I often had to remind myself during prep that logistics are, comparatively, the easy part—even for a shoot in Africa—and that the important work is the hard thinking and visual research that goes into developing the conceptual architecture of the project. Logistical successes have little value without a robust creative blueprint to guide them.

I’m honored to be part of this group’s work, and I can’t wait to see a rough cut.

The view from Anchorage Street: a sandy berm, and dreams of the southern hemisphere.