Inspiration from the Commercial World

I’ve come to believe that it’s often commercials and short films that are pushing the boundaries of cinema today. The best commercials are unparalleled in their ability to deliver narrative economy, emotional connection, and style. As a follow-up to a previous post, a few spots that I find inspiring:

More than three years after its Super Bowl debut, Volkswagen’s “The Force” continues to charm. A brilliantly simple concept, and flawlessly produced. Developed by Deutsch and directed by Lance Acord (Acord was the director of photography for Lost in Translation, Where the Wild Things Are, and most recently God’s Pocket).

Apple’s “Misunderstood,” created by TBWA/Media Arts Lab and also directed by Lance Acord. This spot won the 2014 Emmy for Outstanding Commercial. Strong work.

One of my all-time favorites: American Express, directed by Martin Scorsese. The agency was Ogilvy & Mather New York. Production by Tool of North America. Shot by long-time Scorsese collaborator Robert Richardson (Shutter Island, Hugo, Kill Bill). Soundtrack by Phillip Glass.

I’m in love with ad agencies that swing for the fences. Looking forward to shooting more commercial work in 2015!

The view from Kostava Street: dinners with friends and snow in the mountains.

Note to Self: Fail Harder


Love this artwork made by students at WK12, the experimental ad school at Wieden + Kennedy Portland. The message is one I need to remind myself of every day.

The view from Kostava Street: rain, and too much analysis. The continuing mission: Fail. More. Now.

The Art of Layering

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A frame from Bruno Aveillan’s commission for Swarovski. A superb example of bold and complex layering in the image.

The visual complexity of successful motion picture work––particularly high-concept imagery––can be challenging to deconstruct, even for those of us who do it for a living. As the audience we know viscerally when a piece works, but it’s often difficult to understand what elements came together to create this effect, or even how the artists conceived such complexity to start with. We can feel that it works, but we don’t know why.

I find it useful when designing a project to think in terms of layers. I’m not talking about the spatial layering of the image (foreground, subject, background), though that is of course also important. I’m talking about the layers of visual technique that are used to deepen the viewer’s experience. The music video for Timbaland’s The Way I Are, shot by Swedish cinematographer Eric Maddison, provides a good example:

Music videos are fertile ground for visual layering because they are designed explicitly to project style. The base canvas in this video is fairly simple: night exterior shots of two artists performing, intercut with football players doing some fancy footwork in a tunnel. But it is the layers added to this canvas that make the video so engaging. For me the first layer is the addition of a high-contrast look, with strong cyan highlights in the background. The next layer is the selective focus (achieved in this case via swing and shift lenses). Additional layers include the frenetic camera movement, the flashing lights with lens flares, off-camera lights moving across the actors, double exposures (achieved in post-production), and the hi-speed work. Though individually none of these techniques is anything to write home about, their combined effect leads to spectacular results, and this is due entirely to careful planning on the part of the cinematographer.

Post-production and VFX have begun to play an increasingly important role in this process of layering. In Damascus, a seductive city portrait produced by Waref Abu Quba, is a non-fiction project with magnificent VFX layering over surprisingly simple cinematography:

As Waref shows us in his making-of video, he uses a wide array of VFX tools to deliver an intricately layered image: composite elements, film looks, camera movement, sky replacement, textures, and considerable manipulation of focus, to name just a few. Strong work.

Great cinematographers are great in part because of their ability to visualize complex layering––the potential depth of an image––during the project’s development. I can see farther now than I used to, but for me developing this kind of foresight is still very much a work in progress, and I expect it will stay that way throughout my career. Whenever I hit a wall when researching the look of an upcoming project––when I know there are more layers, but I just can’t see them yet––I often call upon visual artists I’m close with to help brainstorm. I consider myself very fortunate to have friends and colleagues far more talented than myself, and I hope this will always be the case.

The view from Kostava Street: rain and rain. Happy to be back in Tbilisi!

A case study: color grading


One-pass color grade via Photoshop. Shot on Arri Alexa in Log C mode.


The camera original. The red key light allowed us to easily transform the location’s background from white to cyan in post-production. Other changes include increased contrast, skin-tone adjustments, and the application of a subtle vignette.

There was a time early in my career when post-production work was less about color grading and more about basic color correction: making global color adjustments to rough in a general look (and fix photographic mistakes I made during the shoot). It was more broad strokes than anything else. These days the look I want is almost always more complex than what can be achieved in-camera, and both color theory and color grading have come to play central roles in my cinematography practice.

Recent advancements in color grading technology have dramatically raised the ceiling on what is possible for cinematographers to achieve. The speed of these changes is shocking: every time I grade a new project I’m surprised how much more control we have in the color suite. But taking advantage of this potential, especially now shooting digitally, requires that we shoot with increasing awareness of how our footage prepares us for the color grade. This strategy requires forethought; waiting until post to see what’s possible invites far too much risk in a professional motion picture environment.

The above scene from a recent commercial is an example of what it means to shoot for the color grade. To make this location more interesting, I wanted the subway’s native lights to be cyan instead of dull white in the background. But because we were shooting on a working subway car with limited resources, it was not feasible to alter their color during production. I chose instead to rely on the color grade to achieve this effect, but doing so required lighting the talent in a way that would isolate their color from the background (lest they also turn cyan). So I lit my subjects with a red key light (magenta + orange), knowing that when we dialed out the red during the grade, the talent would return to normal and the background would skew cyan (the opposite of red). Getting the skin tones right required a little bit of attention, but in general the strategy was a quick solution to make an otherwise uninspired background more pleasing.

There are some shoots—documentaries, for example—where there is no time to think about color at this level. These shoots ask the cinematographer to focus primarily on content, composition, and diplomacy. As camera and post-production technologies continue to evolve, however, color options will only increase in number, and this is great news for the non-fiction genre. When I look at how quickly our aesthetic sensibilities are evolving today, it’s very exciting to think about what comes next.

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.


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


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!

Picture Wrap: “Kiss A Robber”


I just wrapped production on a short narrative film with directors Magdalena Zyzak and Zachary Cotler. The story’s main scene takes place in a bedroom in which the lead character, played by the talented Goran Kostic, has barricaded himself. He is joined by his wife (Lili Bordan) and mistress (Sophie Ellsberg), and their discourse in this environment offers a poetic and refreshing gaze onto the clichés of sex and death.

The visual elements of the film were designed to reflect a delicate balance of hyper-realism and the fantastical, and this balance shifts as the viewer advances through the narrative. The look of the piece was inspired principally by the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and Kubrick’s painterly Barry Lyndon. The primary reference for the main bedroom scene was J.F. Sebastian’s apartment in Blade Runner.

This was a rewarding project for me artistically: the aesthetic architecture of the film was complex, the directors were inspiring to work with, and the mood on set was positive and at times wonderfully intense. All of us—crew, actors, and management—pushed this project beyond many of the conventions that have come to dominate American narrative filmmaking, and we held each other accountable to this goal. Though there were only four days of principal photography (bracketed by several shorter days of insert shots and pick-ups), the show had the family feel of an independent feature.

Special thanks go to gaffer Chris Galdes, key grip David Lanes, and first AC Ian Degner. It was also such a pleasure to work with the film’s production designer, Jona Tochet. Without her art direction the film’s cinematography never could have achieved its full potential.

Next stop: Tbilisi, Georgia.



The Art of the Title Sequence


Beautiful still photo work from Bulgarian photographer Aneta Ivanova.



Over the past year I’ve been following the work of a few photographers, most notably Aneta Ivanova, who have created striking visual work by superimposing images of environments—natural and constructed—onto human portraits. I’ve found myself asking how one could use this technique in a motion picture context. A flashback? A dream sequence? A music video?

HBO’s new series True Detective, which premiered last week, employs this technique with spectacular success in the show’s title sequence. Kudos go to visual design house Antibody and the filmmakers at Elastic (Elastic also brought us the brilliant title sequences for Carnivale and, more recently, Game of Thrones). This is strong work and a wonderful example of how inspiration from outside cinema can translate into motion picture practice. I look forward to seeing more of this applied to the non-fiction genre.

More background about the process behind the creation of this sequence here.

The view from Mt. Washington: Restlessness.

Picture wrap: “Crossing the Space Frontier”

Ad Astra's VASIMR plasma engine being tested in a vacuum chamber. It's amazing to think that this technology is real.

Ad Astra’s VASIMR plasma engine being tested in a vacuum chamber. It’s amazing to think that this technology is real.

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From our interview with Mark Carter, one of Ad Astra’s plasma physicists. Charlene and I wanted bright spots near the heads of our subjects to symbolize ideas. We achieved this through a combination of careful background choices, lighting, and set design. Shot on location at Ad Astra’s lab facility in Houston, Texas.


Eileen Collins, the first female Space Shuttle commander. We shot this in a hotel suite in San Antonio, embracing the window and adding our own shaft of sunlight. Loved hearing Eileen talk about being photographed by Annie Leibovitz in 1999. An inspiring moment for me: one of the greatest astronauts telling me about her experience working with one of the greatest photographers shooting one of my most favorite portraits. Not a bad day.

Just wrapped principal photography on a documentary about a new engine technology being developed by the Ad Astra Rocket Company. It was such a rewarding shoot: a subject I find fascinating (space exploration), interviews with astronauts and plasma physicists, and a great creative relationship with the director, Charlene Music. Looking forward to seeing the final piece!

The view from Anchorage St (for the holidays): crisp surf and familiar faces.

Onward into 2014!

On location at the Ad Astra Rocket Company

Franklin Matt + Franklin 2 (small)

I’m just back from the first of several shoots with producer/director Charlene Music for a documentary about the Ad Astra Rocket Company. Ad Astra is developing plasma engine technology that will revolutionize space travel by providing an alternative to traditional solid fuel propulsion. Everything we send into orbit today requires rocket fuel that is heavy and expensive, and its extreme inefficiency is limiting mankind’s ability to travel beyond Earth. Plasma-based propulsion offers a solution. By superheating gas to very high temperatures (approximately one million degrees) these engines use magnetic fields to propel this plasma to create thrust.

One of our principle goals as filmmakers on this shoot has been to capture how exciting Ad Astra’s work really is. Many of the physicists and designers who are developing this engine speak about the value of the technology in terms of where mankind will be hundreds of years from now. It’s difficult not to be inspired by that kind of rhetoric, especially when this propulsion system is so close to being flight tested. As fantastical as it sounds, this technology is real: Ad Astra has built a plasma rocket engine that it has test fired in vacuum over 10,000 times.

From a strictly photographic standpoint the biggest challenge was transforming a grey industrial space (Ad Astra’s laboratory) into an environment that conveys vision and excitement on screen. Charlene and I invested heavily in the interview set-ups, often introducing a deep cyan tone to symbolize the plasma technology itself. We also chose to shoot the interviews using a direct address style where the subjects speak directly into the lens, which I think succeeded in drawing out the big-picture descriptions of what they are doing, descriptions that can often get lost beneath so many technical details. It was a very inspiring week.

Many thanks to Wilhelm Steinvorth for helping push this documentary into existence and to Craig Benjamin, whose great photographic eye and on-set support made him a welcomed member of our crew. And the shoot continues! Next week: Huntsville, San Antonio, and Costa Rica.

The view from Pasadena: boxes and boxes, with another move on the horizon.