Holy Light Meter, Robin! Hollywood’s premier event for new cinematographic talent turns 15 with its biggest celebration yet. By David Heuring.
The ICG Emerging Cinematographers Awards are celebrating their 15th year. Dreamt up by former Guild president George Spiro Dibie, ASC, as the ICG Showcase, and nurtured by the dedication of Rob Kositchek for 13 years, the event has become a milestone on the Guild calendar, a chance to see the true depth of the talent and skill throughout the ICG roster. Films made by members who are not classified as directors of photography are eligible for submission.
Today the ECA event – and all that leads up to it – is overseen by Local 600 director of photography Jim Matlosz. The winners must display a mastery of the technical aspects of the craft. But the judges were looking for images that went beyond technical mastery and into the realm of art. They were not disappointed.
“The purpose of the Guild is to defend and advance the interests of its members,” says Matlosz. “What better way to do that than to show the world our work, created, submitted and chosen as superlative by those who know? It’s a tremendous amount of work for our jury members, who come from all over the country. I’m also grateful to the ICG staff members who contribute countless hours to this undertaking. Warm thanks are also due to our sponsors, who believe in our members, and back that up with material support.
“The payoff is to see those images unspool before audiences at the ECA Awards event [September 25 at the Directors Guild of America], and at venues around the world like the Camerimage festival in Poland,” says Matlosz. “It makes one optimistic for the future of storytelling with images.”
More than 70 films were submitted this year. Of these, eight were chosen, including Applebox, submitted by Joseph Arena; Spring of Sorrow, by Alison Kelly; Numb, by David Mahlman; Not Your Time, by Michael Nie; String Theory/A.F. Vandervorst, by Steve Romano; Absaroka, by Stefan Tarzan; Dead Grass, Dry Roots, by Yueni Zander; and Somewhere Else by Gregory Wilson. Additionally, there were two films recognized with honorable mentions: Little Candy Hearts, by Abraham Martinez; and 8 for Infinity, by Brian O’Carroll.
Congratulations to the honorees, and to all who submitted work. Your brothers and sisters are proud of your accomplishment and look forward to your future work.
Joseph Arena – Applebox
Camera operator Joseph Arena was born and raised in Rome, Italy. Starting at age 12, he made movies with his friends on the weekends with a camera that was a gift from his parents. He started cinema school at age 14 at the Istituto di Stato per la Cinematografia e la televisione “Roberto Rossellini” and graduated in 1996. After working as a PA and then as a camera assistant for several years, he moved to Los Angeles in 2003, eventually joining Local 600.
Applebox is a comedy about a movie star on top of his career whose confidence – and career – fall apart once his applebox is taken from him. This forces him to re-evaluate himself and his priorities. Filmed over the course of six days, Applebox was shot with a RED® ONE®. Some paparazzi scenes were shot using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The film was an all-Guild affair, with 1st AC Rick Page, who has worked alongside Arena on camera crews, directing.
“We used a 1.35:1 aspect ratio for scenes depicting everyday life, and a 2.40:1 frame for movie parodies that appear in the film,” says Arena. “In the beginning when his life is okay, everything was rich and colorful – we used Steadicam for fluidity and dolly moves whenever he walked to represent what he was: slick and smooth. The movie parodies really gave me a chance to be creative with dramatic lighting. Once he falls from grace, the look is rougher. In post, with the help and skill of our color timer, Paul Saunders [another Guild 1st AC], I chose a desaturated look and boosted the contrast.”
Alison Kelly – Spring of Sorrow
Alison Kelly is a camera assistant who hails from Cleveland, Ohio. She loved photography from childhood and eventually studied at America Film Institute in Los Angeles. She joined in the union in 1996 after starting off as an animation assistant, and later was mentored by Ellen Kuras, ASC, and Anthony Jannelli.
Spring of Sorrow follows two sisters who live a nomadic life, having been displaced by global warming. Trapped without water, one sister tells a whimsical fairytale that leads to a quest to find a mythical freshwater spring.
The film was made in the California desert near Palmdale, on a stage in Hollywood, and at Mono Lake. The camera was a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.
“We wanted the story to feel like a fairy tale,” Kelly describes. “Suzi Yoonessi is a very visually inspired director and she had a lot of great references when we started. She wanted a fantastical look at times and a bright color palette. We tried to keep an element of whimsy and fun. It was important to Suzi that it not feel like the stereotypical futuristic film. We wanted texture and color; and it was critical that our look felt organic to the story and setting. A slider and an Intel-A-Jib™ proved essential to giving the subtle movement we wanted to depict Lily’s [one of the sisters] journey.
“We were all blown away by the surreal beauty of Mono Lake,” she adds. “Our first shot by the lake was not long after a massive hailstorm, which made for a very dramatic sky. I was pleased that the wide shot we got of Lily’s arrival captured all of the magic that we had talked about for the springs.”
David Mahlman, SOC – Numb
Los Angeles-based camera operator David Mahlman grew up in the Chicago area. He became interested in photography and movies at a young age, and studied filmmaking at Columbia College-Chicago and at the Rockport Maine Workshops. He worked as a camera assistant for more than 10 years before making the leap to camera operator. He joined the Guild in 2000.
Numb is the story of an up-and-coming mixed martial arts fighter whose estranged father and eight-year-old son have become his greatest challenge outside the arena.
Mahlman and his collaborators screened several classic fight films from the 1970s for inspiration.
“This was the second project in which I teamed with director Erwann Marshall,” he says. “The approach to the visual style was not unlike the lead character – dynamic and rough around the edges. During pre-production we decided on handheld and a color palette of cooler tones. We shot with the RED ONE camera system and Panavision Ultra Speed lenses. All the scenes were shot on location, and particularly challenging was the lighting placement for the sparring scenes in the intimate confines of the fight arena.
“When our lead comes head to head with his ex-wife in the school parking lot, the scene plays well,” Mahlman details. “We set focus for his close-up and let him walk into his close mark to visually show his world becoming clear.
“Thankfully so many things fell right into place,” he says. “I’m pleased that our camera crew were all Local 600 members. Being a member of the SOC board, I felt strongly about working with a camera operator [Terry Schroth]. It was the right choice – it allowed me to work more closely with the director.”
Michael Nie – Not Your Time
During long winters growing up in Wisconsin, 2nd AC Michael Nie told stories with images using a Super 8 camera. After college, he came to Los Angeles with the help of gaffer Michael Bauman. Nie counts Mauro Fiore, ASC, as a mentor, friend and inspiration who has helped him value a balance between career and life outside of work.
Not Your Time is a musical comedy that features more than 40 speaking parts, with scenes shot on more than 35 locations. Jason Alexander stars as a former screenwriter who now works as a censor/film editor.
“The film is in many ways a direct reflection of writer/producer/director Jay Kamen,” Nie explains. “Inspiration also came from the works of Bob Fosse and Woody Allen. During preproduction, we looked at films like Cabaret, All that Jazz and Everyone Says I Love You.”
The short was produced on a single Sony F-900 with Digital Primo lenses provided by Panavision.
“I felt compelled to shoot 35mm film, but it wasn’t in the cards,” adds Nie. “Working with a talented crew, we pushed the limits of the HDCam format. In the end, collaborating with colorist John Dunn at Sony ColorWorks and color timer Chris Regan at Deluxe Laboratories, we were able to finish on Kodak’s Vision Premier 2393 print stock. Bringing all of these accomplished resources to bear gave us a final product that both supported and enhanced the story being told. For this, I am forever grateful.”
Steve Romano – String Theory
Camera assistant Steve Romano grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a commercial artist and a mother who painted as a hobby. He took film and television production classes at Queens College, and today he is well-versed on the Vision Research Phantom high-speed camera, which was used on String Theory.
The film takes the viewer on the journey of a young girl experiencing brief interruptions in her reality. An artistic collaboration between director Zach Gold and the cult fashion label A.F.Vandevorst, String Theory is about the continuity of presence and beauty. In the film, that continuity is broken by moments of destabilization. Haunting imagery is emphasized over narrative or plot.
“We shot String Theory entirely with Phantom cameras and Leica lenses,” says Romano. “It was produced over two days at Zach Gold’s studio in Brooklyn. We had a number of high-speed shots in the script – hence the Phantom. All camera gear was supplied by my company, Velocity Media Systems, and AbelCineTech.
“We achieved the right look through lighting, varying frame rates, and the choice of lenses,” says Romano. “Leica primes give a good roll off, which is nice on people and faces. They worked particularly well for this project. I knew we had captured something unique and special.
“Zach Gold had seen my online reel, which has some great shots of butterflies in the wild done with the Phantom,” says Romano. “That inspired him to use butterflies in the film. It’s one of my favorite scenes as it is quite a clean and stark contrast from the rest of the film.”
Stefan Tarzan – Absaroka
First assistant Stefan Tarzan grew up in Olympia, Washington, and decided to pursue a career in filmmaking after seeing Star Wars, Jaws and other classics of that era. He earned a bachelor’s degree in film production at Montana State University in Bozeman and interned at a commercial house in Seattle before moving to Los Angeles.
Absaroka is a classic story of abduction and frontier justice. Two cowboys, returning to town from working a ranch, come across the aftermath of an ambush and set off on the trail of a band of outlaws.
The filmmakers’ love of spaghetti Westerns, and the goal of highlighting the vast open spaces of their Wyoming location, led them to choose a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. They shot in HDV format with a Canon XH A1.
Patrick Mignano directed, wrote and starred in Absaroka. “Patrick had always envisioned a ‘winter Western,’ so adapting to the snow, freezing cold and changing weather was a challenge, both visually and practically,” says Tarzan. “The only scene requiring much lighting was the campfire, and we used propane firelight supplemented by China balls to maintain the natural feel.
“The format was more of a practical than aesthetic decision,” he says. “The Canon XH A1 is a tape-based camera and the tape transport shut down when temperatures dropped below 20 degrees. Also, shooting HD in snowy conditions was problematic because of the extreme contrast. Through lighting and camera setup, I strived to capture the widest range of tones capable and then set the contrast level in post-production.”
Yueni Zander – Dead Grass, Dry Roots
Yueni Zander was born and raised in Germany, and came to Los Angeles to attend American Film Institute. After graduating with a bachelor of fine arts, she interned with KC Video Productions and Leftfield Pictures and worked as a PA on a reality TV show. She joined Local 600 in 2005, and was mentored by Bobby Mancuso and Scott Tinsley. Dead Grass, Dry Roots is a period Western that examines the classic dichotomy between man’s law and natural justice, juxtaposing the clash of modern values with the violent mythology of the Old West. The main character must decide whether to allow the law to take its course or to prevent a young man from suffering an unjust death. The main character’s own son died in a similarly unjust manner.
The project came together as part of Zander’s AFI thesis requirement. She had hoped to shoot 35mm film, but in the end used a Sony F900. The schedule included three days on location in Simi Valley, and three days on a soundstage.
“Once I knew the format, I made a practical decision to embrace a ‘modern-conceptual’ look rather than spending meager resources trying to make the F900 footage look like film,” says Zander. “Even though the story is set in Utah in 1864, the complexity of the situation and the character’s resulting thought process is modern.”
Gregory Wilson – Somewhere Else
Gregory Wilson is a digital imaging technician who grew up in a tiny town in Vermont. He spent six years as a pro snowboarder. Professional snowboarders are often filmed and videotaped for sponsors, for action sports productions that air on television and on the Internet, and for the snowboarders themselves, who use the recordings to critique and improve their technique. During that time, Wilson met and spoke to many filmmakers and photographers, and became interested in their craft. Later, he took stills for rock music magazines, which led to shooting music videos with a 16mm camera.
“There is something very special about the collaborative effort in film that doesn’t exist in still photography,” he says. “I was hooked right away.”
Wilson’s film is about a soldier suffering from PTSD. He shot it as part of a two-day test of Vision Research’s Phantom Flex camera, pushing the camera in as many varied environments as he could in the time allotted.
“I wanted to make the war scenes in the film felt very up close and real while creating as much beauty as I could to juxtapose the chaos of war,” he says. “I decided to shoot most everything handheld except the 24fps footage. My goal was to level the playing field so that the battle scenes and the love scenes on the beach would feel very similar – we could create a connection to his fears of the war and his longing to be back home with his lover.
“My favorite shot is the lake jump, which was almost cut from the film,” he says. “It was getting very dark, and we had one chance to get the shot. I was able to capture this shot at 300fps in light so faded it would have been impossible without the Flex camera.”
Abe Martinez – Little Candy Hearts
Abe Martinez credits The Killing Fields with planting the seed for a future in moving images. He majored in TV/film at the University of North Texas in Denton. He worked in various camera houses, which led to mentorship with Ralf Bode, ASC, and Michael Stone.
In addition to Little Candy Hearts, he recently shot two independent films, one in India and one in Kenya. While in Kenya, Martinez also produced and shot a personal project that is aimed at drawing attention to the plight of marginalized orphan children.
Martinez had previously collaborated with director Seaton Lin on a variety of projects, on a range of formats including 35mm and Super 16 film and HD. For Little Candy Hearts, a thriller about a hit man, Martinez envisioned a modern, but stylishly neo-noir Los Angeles backdrop. He used a Canon 5D MII camera.
“In the shadowy underworld, I used hard light to create shadows and shapes that were complemented with unusual camera angles,” Martinez explains. “We wanted to pay tribute to the great noir films of the past. In the world where the lead character falls prey to his desire, we reveal his fascination with a glamorous, fashion editorial look. The project provided a great opportunity to test the camera in many different situations, including hard light and natural light in both day and night situations.”
Brian O’Carroll – 8 for Infinity
Brian O’Carroll is a native of Dublin with two decades of experience in the New York documentary, music video, and commercial production worlds. He was previously recognized with an ECA nod in 2007 for Cherry Bloom.
8 for Infinity is an experimental short film written and directed by Michael Maxxis. Shot partly in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada, the film is a metaphor for intense conversations within the mind of the main character, a musician. Bereft of inspiration, the musician interacts with a satanic character played by David Carradine, in his final role. O’Carroll photographed the film partly on 35 mm film and partly with a wind-up 16 mm Bolex, using Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 film stock.
“We improvised throughout,” says O’Carroll, who also produced. “We did many of the effects in-camera. For some shots, we moved diopter filters in front of the lens by hand during the shot. We filmed a shot of the main character as he was reflected on the surface of a glass filter, keeping him in the frame by tilting the filter down as he approached the camera from behind. Much of the film was shot with long lenses in exterior situations. The light was often low in the sky, and we used the melting snow as a bottom bounce quite a bit. We did some enhancement of color in post. In those cases, we pulled out pastel colors and saturated them, although that sounds like an oxymoron, in a way. We had an absolute blast.”