Month: October, 2014

The Enchantment of Decay

From Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s brilliant photo collection, “The Ruins of Detroit.”

There is something powerfully seductive in images of environmental decay. These locations––often sites of mass abandonment––can facilitate spectacular photographs, and typically the more sudden the exodus, the more interesting the photographic potential. It’s fascinating how quickly nature reclaims the man-made world; we are drawn to these images in part because they remind us how temporary we really are.

The genre’s strongest work often converges on three subjects: modern-day Detroit (brilliantly photographed by French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre), decommissioned mental institutions (as seen in Christopher Payne’s book Asylum), and the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

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Pripyat, Ukraine. The city most known for its proximity to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. As photographed by Darren Ketchum.

The entire city of Pripyat was abandoned almost overnight, and the result in today’s photographs is hypnotic. And if that wasn’t interesting enough, this happened during the late Soviet Union, itself a subject worthy of endless curiosity. The area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear facility is ominously named “The Zone of Exclusion” (Зона Отчуждения) and is home to The Red Forrest, whose name comes from the ginger-brown color of the pine trees after they died following the absorption of high levels of radiation. Seeing photographs of Pripyat always reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979).

Finding locations like these to shoot in for motion picture work is challenging, mostly because professional cinematography requires a larger logistical footprint than still photo work (more crew, more equipment, more permits, etc.). Resourceful location scouts and talented production designers can, however, make these kinds of environments available in the right circumstances. Wunderkammer, a film I shot in 2008 for director Andrea Pallaoro, takes place entirely within a dark, decaying house that the film’s characters never leave. After reading the script I lobbied the production to build a set, thinking it would be impossible to find a suitable location in the Los Angeles area. To my delight, the producers proved me wrong and found a decrepit house hidden away on a small residential street in the middle of Hollywood.

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A frame from “Wunderkammer,” directed by Andrea Pallaoro.

The director and I were both happy with what we achieved on Wunderkammer, and I’ll be the first to admit that the movie would not have looked the same if we had shot on a constructed set. One of many important lessons in the value of finding the right location.

The view from Anchorage Street: bright sun and warm goodbyes at Hinano’s.

Next stop: Tbilisi, Georgia.

The audience is always right

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A recent commercial I shot with the agency JWT Metro in Tbilisi, Georgia. The client, one of Georgia’s largest beverage companies, is introducing a new line of mineral water.

Some recent commercial shoots have inspired me to think more intensely about the role of client-driven work in my motion picture practice. As much as I love shooting movies, I have to admit that shooting commercials presents an exceptional opportunity to hone one’s craft: the projects are short, each spot requires a specialized look, and the genre generally demands a high standard of narrative economy and visual style.

I’ve met many filmmakers who don’t like working directly with clients on commercial projects. I have a different perspective: as the cinematographer I am one of a project’s principal visual designers and I want more than anything to understand who my audience is. And nobody knows this better than the client. In many ways the client’s expertise and perspective allow them to function as a very informed extension of the audience, and the audience is always right.

Shooting for a client pushes us to work right at the edge of our abilities, often beyond what we think we are capable of. And this is precisely what encourages the kind of innovation that we all aspire to.

The view from Anchorage Street: sweet farewells. Looking forward to settling into my new home in Tbilisi, Georgia!