“If I couldn’t join the Rebel Alliance, the next best thing was to make films”
After creating a huge buzz on the festival circuit, sci-fi road movie Monsters, Director Gareth Edwards recounts his journey from learning computer graphics in his bedroom to creating the low-budget phenomenon.
Text: Chris Patmore for Moviescope 18, published in 2010.
Gareth Edwards first came onto the movieScope radar back in 2008, when he won the inaugural Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge. It was hard to believe that his winning film, Factory Farmed, was made in just two days; not least because of its great cinematography and high-quality special effects. Indeed, it was good enough to give Edwards, who had spent the previous few years working in visual effects at the BBC, the resources to make his debut feature Monsters, a road movie set in Mexico after an alien life form has turned it into a quarantine zone.
Written and directed by Edwards, the film also showcases some terrific effects; something Edwards has been always fascinated by. “When I was young, all I really wanted to do was join the Rebel Alliance and blow up the Death Star,” he laughs. “As I got older, I learned that there’s no such thing as the Death Star or the Rebel Alliance, and Star Wars was a film. So I thought that if I couldn’t join the Rebel Alliance, the next best thing was to make films. My dad bought a video camera and I made loads of silly little short films with my friends.”
Having decided on his future, Edwards embarked on the tried and-tested route. “I thought, ‘I’ll make a short at film school and that’ll get picked up by someone, and I’ll get to make a feature film!’ I made my graduation film with my flatmate, who was doing this new thing at the time called computer graphics. Going to film school was a real shock. You get this benefit of it looking more professional, but if I wanted to do an establishing shot of a shop in a street, what would have been me just picking up a camera and filming becomes an all-day event that costs you £1,000. My friend was doing pure animation and everything he was doing seemed to [be] solving all the issues I was having on the film course. He was able to paint things out, or create dolly moves on things that weren’t there.
Monsters (Dir, Gareth Edwards)
“Obviously, the studios didn’t ring after my graduation film was released, so I lived with my parents and packed shelves in a supermarket,” Edwards continues. “What I did do was buy a computer and started learning all the software. I was going for jobs in London, and in my spare time I was learning computer graphics and did all these silly things like robots running down my parents’ street. They looked terrible, but I put them on the end of my showreel, just in case the interview went so badly I could talk about them! They would see these robots running through the street [and] they would be really excited and ask how it was done. I’d say, ‘On my home computer!’
“This was 1997,” Edwards recalls. “It was obviously nothing like you see in films or TV, but the fact I was doing it on my own, for no money, in my bedroom, got them really excited. I ended up getting loads more job offers doing visual effects or computer graphics work. In the end I just went for it and started doing title sequences for in-house production companies, and little visual effects things. Each year I kept saying to myself, the only reason I’m doing this is to help me make better films. I had this reputation at the BBC as ‘that kid who does graphics from his bedroom.’”
Edwards’ reputation at the BBC clearly went beyond that tag, however; in 2006 he won a BAFTA for visual effects on the documentary drama Hiroshima, and was also nominated for an Emmy in the same year for his effects on Perfect Disasters.
In 2008 he directed ‘Attila the Hun’, an episode of the Heroes and Villains series, and also created the effects. “I had a good time on that show, but I got so frustrated with the limitations of what is essentially a factory process. Ironically, you are spending so much money [that] it should be 10 times easier, but I think it becomes 10 times harder. Everything becomes diluted through this massive group of people, and I got really frustrated with that.”
Unable to find any more directing work, Edwards decided to test his own mettle. “I feel there’s this graph where there’s the high end, which is Hollywood movies, and there’s the low end,” he says of the film landscape, “and for many years most of the low end looked cheap and nasty, and the high end looked brilliant. When things went digital, the high end and the low end had to meet at some point. You look at some of the shorts on the Internet that people have done from their bedrooms and they look stunning. I can’t figure out if Hollywood is really behind, because we’re all there thinking, ‘Of course you can do that from your bedroom. We’ve been able to do that for the last five years!’ You wonder if they’re going to get a shock when it all starts coming through, because there are going to be all these filmmakers bubbling to the surface that have all of these skills at visual effects; not computer graphics for the sake of it but as a tool to make best use of the resources. I think there are a lot of people who understand that balance the right way.
“My fear is the industry is going to be against Monsters because it was done so cheaply and normally they get millions of pounds for doing this stuff,” continues Edwards. “I’ve met a few of the people that run these VFX companies and there isn’t much love for what we’re doing. They do resent it a bit.” Judging by the reactions of audiences and distributors, however, Edwards has nothing to worry about except what he is going to do for his next film.
Rogue One Star Wars spin-off directed by Gareth Edwards
If you mention the name Vilmos Zsigmnond to most people they will look at you blankly. If you mention some of the films he has shot as cinematographer, then they will invariably nod sagely. Thus is the lot of the cinematographer in the world of movie stars and directors, a world that is recognised as a visual medium and yet the people who make the images get the least credit.
Vilmos trained at the State Academy of Theatre and Film Art, Budapest in his native Hungary, with his lifelong friend Laszlo Kovacs. During the popular uprising in 1956 the pair filmed the battle between the Russians and the people of Budapest, before fleeing the country, smuggling the film with them, at great risk to their lives. They arrived in the US, with the film, as political refugees in 1957, eventually ending up in Hollywood where they worked on low budget movies for the likes of Roger Corman, before meeting up with Peter Fonda and the rest of the new wave directors. Vilmos went on shoot classic films of the era such as: McCabe and Mrs Miller, Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (for which he won an Oscar), Deer Hunter and the infamous Heaven’s Gate, as well as many more since. movieScope caught up the Vilmos at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival where the film No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos (Dir: James Chressanthis), about the lives and work of these two great cinematographers, was showing. This is an extract of a long conversation.
How is it that you and your close friend Laszlo Kovacs made so many great films and yet today we don’t seem to have this ability, as a culture, to make as many good films as often.
When you think about it, it is actually 50 years of work. I came from Hungary in 1957 and I ended up in Hollywood, and it took me ten years until did my first big movie with Peter Fonda. Those days were terrific, the American new wave started, which was basically American independent movies made by a younger generation of directors, hat represented more the European style, Italian neorealismo and the French new wave. We basically started to emulate that style, with Laszlo and myself, Haskell Wexler, Conrad Hall, Johnny Alonzo, Gordon Willis, we were the new generation of cinematographers. We just happened to be there at the right time. Those were the days when a young director with a good story could make a movie without any interference from the studios. The director was really the king on the set, and as the cinematographer I could do everything I wanted without any interference from studio people. All I had to do was listen to my director, and do my job the best I could.
After such a long career, do you think you have created your own style of cinematography?
Style is an interesting thing for cinematographers. I think the best thing is when a cinematographer doesn’t have a style, because I think each movie has to have its own style. If you look at the films I’ve done, every one has its own style. Deer Hunter looks different to Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Scarecrow. I think if someone has a style that is not a good thing. If I have a style, my style is probably lighting, because I love lighting, and I think the most important thing for a cinematographer to do is to create the mood with the lights. That means sometimes you have to use movie lights, or sometimes you have to select the time of the day to shoot, like the early morning light is so beautiful you don’t have to add any lights at all, and it has an incredible effect on you. But, if you look at images of the scenes of my movies you would see that the most important thing is the mood created by light. I have worked closely with the production designer and the assistant director, to schedule scenes to be shot at the right time. I convince them that if we do that we will save a lot of time because I don’t have to use any lights at all.
If great cinematography is all about capturing light, does the medium on which you capture it, whether it is film or digital, really matter, or is their something in the organic nature of film that sets it apart?
In reality, it shouldn’t be any different, in the lighting, whether it is film or digital, the only difference I can see today is that digital cinematography is done on low-budget movies, with the RED camera, for example. People use the RED camera because it is inexpensive, but the cinematographers don’t have the experience that we old-time cinematographers have. I think they should concentrate on good lighting. Just because the digital camera gives you an image immediately when you turn it on, that doesn’t mean that is good lighting for that scene. You still have to figure out that each scene has to have a different mood, and it has to be lit. I hope the art of lighting, the art of cinematography is not going to die because we have digital photography. It’s actually nothing to do with the camera: there’s good lighting and bad lighting, there’s good photography and bad photography. I think you can make brilliant movies with digital cameras. Look at Slumdog Millionaire. It had the right lighting for that. It was not pretty lighting, but it was the right lighting for the story. The composition was very important, the camera moves – running with the camera, it was exceptionally beautiful photography. No one would ever say Slumdog Millionaire had bad photography – it got the Academy Award didn’t it?
With all this digital technology in cinema these days, how much of the work is art and how much is now technology?
It’s totally combined and you can’t really say a percentage because the technology comes first, that’s the base of everything. You have to learn the technique of cinematography, you have to learn how to light, how to compose the picture, how to move the camera. That’s a given. Everyone has to learn all that before you can use it for the sake of art. Now, I consider a good cinematographer is a sort of an artist, a sort of a painter, but not using brushes and paint but using the technology that consists of camera, lenses, lighting, camera moves and all those things. We have to use the techniques to create something that can be considered as an art. Film is an art form – it exists – not often – about ten per cent of the movies are shot artistically. Most of them are basically exposing the film and telling the story, which works because the majority don’t really care about cinematography. They care about what the actors are saying, the performance of the actors, and the story. That is what most of the people want to see in the movie theatre. We have a certain percentage, the people who go to film festivals, that are filmmakers and film lovers, and they are a different kind of people who still believe that film is an art form, and we still have people who are doing this in a way that it can be enjoyed. I would like to see more people watching artistic movies, and more art house cinemas. In Los Angeles we have probably only a dozen. We have to educate the audiences to consider film as an art form.
Is there a particular process or routine you follow when you are working on a film?
The first thing I do is drink a lot of coffee. The most important thing is to wake up and start the day in good spirits. What is interesting is that in my career I have had to work with so many different directors who are improvisers – I did three pictures with Robert Altman – who just like to go on the set and find out what you are going to do that day. It is very hard to cope with that kind of a system because I like to be prepared. When I work with the director I like to know the night before what we are shooting the next day. When we did McCabe and Mrs Miller, for example, we never knew what we were going to do the next day. In fact, we didn’t even have a script for the next day. We had a script that was printed but we never shot that script. Every night, Altman and Warren Beatty would sit down together for hours and write the script for the next day. When you look at that movie it’s very fresh, like you are shooting real life. Like a documentary in a sense, it’s real and not rehearsed so much. I really had to be behind the camera with my hand on the zoom – we didn’t have any electric zooms in those days – and adjust my shot with what the actors were doing. That was a really interesting way to make movies.
So what are your basic techniques?
That’s very difficult to answer because everyone’s technique is basically the same. My approach is I don’t try to light something until I see what is happening in front of the camera, so I need a rehearsal from the director. If there’s no rehearsal I want to at least find out from the director what they think will happen in the morning when they get to the set. Once I know where the actors are going to move I have a pretty good idea of how to pre-light the set. Then the first thing the next morning I will tell the director to have a rehearsal with the actors before they go to make up, because it sometimes takes two hours to make up some women so we can shoot them, then we have the stand-ins to duplicate the movements of the actors then I can really perfect the lighting, and that’s the most important thing for me is to get to that stage.
When film students come to you looking for advice about being a cinematographer, what do you usually tell them?
You can actually learn so many things from books and magazines. There are so many film magazines now. I think that the technique can be learnt from everywhere, but mostly you can learn it just by watching movies and analysing them. I don’t think I can teach that much about lighting except that I usually say, lighting is something that comes when you do it. A lot of times you have to educate yourself about that because you see the world in a different way – all of us see the world in a different way. I try to tell young people to always carry a camera. I think that it is a good experience to see the world through your eyes and capture it with a still camera. If you see a good lighting set up somewhere, a nice backlighting, or something unusual, take a picture of it. That becomes your memory, and that becomes a vocabulary for you, then when you have a situation that you have to light you can go back in your mind and use it. Before you can light something you have to have it in your head what it should look like. All the rules that they try to teach about key light, fill light, cross light, all that, it’s basic. Of course you have to start learning something so you know what it is called, but you have to invent things your self.
Are there any particular techniques you used to enhance the look of the films you shot?
In the old days we didn’t have much choice in the ways we could alter the look of the film because it was all standard developing. We were searching for things with which we could make something look different and one of the techniques was the flashing technique, where we would pre-expose the film before developing, in order to make it look different. It was a little bit grainy, especially if you pushed the film and overdeveloped it to make it grainier, which is what we did on McCabe and Mrs Miller. You have that old look, like antique images, that Altman wanted to create, and I kept doing that for many of the movies in those days. Sometimes we also flashed the prints. On Heaven’s Gate we flashed the negative, and the prints also, and not so much of overdeveloping. On Deer Hunter we pushed the film two stops in Thailand to make it look like war footage, and to make it blend in with some 16 mm newsreel footage that we had to use in the movie because we could not recreate that because it cost too much money. So this was basically the only thing that we could do. Later on came the bleach bypass, which a lot of people used until digital came in, which also gave an interesting look. Se7en was actually shot that way, which was beautiful in a way. It’s very difficult to do it right but Khondji did a hell of a job to get that definite look. But today when we have digital technology, and the digital post production, when you go to an intermediate. Now we really have a chance to do all kinds of things that we couldn’t do in the past, and we can do it much better because we can shoot the film straight and get all kinds of effects in post. If I take the colours out of a colour film it makes it a better black and white looking film, strangely enough. I made tests and it looks better than shooting on black and white.
What is your process for doing this?
The nice thing with the digital intermediate process is I can decide on that day, on the set, what I would like to see later on in that digital intermediate. In order to do that I take some still photographs of each scene, then I go home, when everyone else has gone to sleep, I work on the computer for a couple of hours with a stills photographer and we change the look of that still, then I can determine how much of the black and white look I want in it and how much contrast I want in it – more contrast, less contrast, more colour, less colour – so we can do that in Photoshop. Once we have that, we can e-mail it to the laboratory, by which time the hard drive has been flown over from Los Angeles and the lab was waiting for the stills from me, then they make the dailies on a hard drive and send it back to me. We see the dailies basically in the form that it will probably look like when we do the answer print. It’s very good because the director, and everyone who wants to see, can see what we are aiming for. The wardrobe people can see what happens to the colours. It has a lot of advantages that we never had before. At the moment it is the best of the two worlds – the film world and the digital world – shoot on film and end up on digital, and once you have finished on digital, go back to film projection or to electronic projection, which is very, very good these days. I didn’t believe it ten years ago that the electronic projection could be as good as the film projection, but it is that good and it can’t be destroyed with scratches and all sorts of problems like in film projection. These are good things to tell, but where we are going I don’t know. Ten years from now there probably won’t be any more film around to shoot on, or it will be very costly because the fewer people who shoot on film, the more expensive it will be, and we will only have digital front projection, front work and digital post production. I still think the problem is how to store the film, because digital “film” doesn’t last long, and they predict that every five years they will have to represerve it, which will be very costly. When you think about how costly it is going to be to preserve digital they will be wishing to go back to the old days of film, where you didn’t have to go through any conservation, because you put it in a good place and it was safe forever, or a hundred years anyway. In the long run it is going to cost more to shoot on digital than on film.
John Seale, cinematographer Mad Max: Fury Road (c) Dymitr Kutz
It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine that filming schedules around the globe come to a standstill during the third week of November as all the world’s greatest cinematographers descend on Bydgoszcz in Poland for the annual Camerimage Film Festival.Continue reading →
If you are looking for a summer of culture, then Montreal during July and August is definitely the place to be. There fantastic hot, sunny weather – tempered and enlivened by the occasional torrential thunderstorm – that makes it ideal for enjoying the endless stream of festivals that cater for all tastes, and the French-influenced cafe lifestyle, which is enhanced by superb international cuisine, to while away the hours between the cultural banquets. Whether it is comedy (Zoofest), film (Fantasia) or music (Osheaga), to name but a few that are on offer, there is no shortage of events packed with international stars. Montreal’s universities add a further youthful vibrancy into mix.
Seemingly buried amongst this cavalcade of contemporary culture from around the world is a niche festival that has been running for a quarter of a century, highlighting the mostly overlooked indigenous population. This year, Présence Autochtone (Montreal First Peoples Festival) celebrated its 25th edition of bringing the culture of the aboriginal people of Canada and the rest of the Americas, through film, music, dance and art, to local audiences. The festival serves to not only celebrate the depth of these ancient cultures, but also highlight many of the issues facing the native people in today’s society.
As a foreigner, there is the impression that Canada is a very liberal, socially conscious country that serves as a shining example in comparison to its gun-toting neighbours to the south, whose police kill even more native people than they do African-Americans, without it rarely making the news. The reality is, while the Canadian police may not be as heavy-handed with their guns, the situation for the First Nation people in Canada is anything but ideal. Politics, corruption and exploitation by the petrochemical industry leaves them as oppressed as any post-colonial indigenous people anywhere else in the world. This was highlighted in several of the films shown in the festival this year, with some possibly the most controversial of any others shown in the festival’s history.
The two films in question were Treading Water by Janelle Wookey, and Antigone Documentary by Matt Keay, which both showed on the Saturday. Treading Water highlighted the situation of communities in the Winnipeg area that were flooded out of their homes when water was diverted away from the big city to avert a potential crisis, but created a new one instead. With their homes destroyed and their land turned to swamp, the evacuees were placed in hotels in the city, completely dismantling the community. Three years, and millions of dollars on hotel expenses, later, nothing has been resolved for the people, who became political pawns as stories and accusations of bribery, corruption and misappropriation of funds (much within the aboriginal organisations) are revealed, while the victims are portrayed as scroungers.
On the surface, Antigone Documentary, which had its world premiere at the festival, is about a Cree adaptation of Sophocles’ classic Greek tragedy, and how a theatre group wants to film a performance of the play to show to the wider aboriginal communities. In this new version, Creon, the king of Thebes, is transmuted into a corrupt tribal chief. However, when the actual Council Chief catches wind of the play, he believes it is specifically directed at him and bans the performance, and the project’s funding is also pulled. Eventually the play does get filmed, under less than ideal conditions. It was some time later that filmmaker Matt Keay comes to hear about this and speaks with the writer, director and the cast, and further revelations about corruption surface, but it doesn’t end there. The day after the screening an informal Q&A was held with the filmmakers, and the producer announces that there is even more intrigue behind the story involving energy companies, threats of violence and more deep-rooted corruption. He announces that after seeing how well the film was received he is going add to the film to tell the whole story. While these revelations are disappointing, they are hardly surprising, and given how corruption at all levels is being exposed at the moment, whether it is the church, government or sporting bodies, the fact that tribal chiefs are just as fallible shows they are equally human. The positive note that came from the film is how astute and wise the young people are, with clear visions of how these problems can be resolved. To a certain extent, the aboriginal people are at an advantage because they can have a level of self determination, in terms of societal laws, that most of us can’t get through our so-called democracy.
Thankfully, not all the films on show dwelt on the negative aspects of aboriginal life in the Americas, although it is vitally important that they are given a forum at the festival, especially as the majority of audiences were made up of non-indigenous people. The opening night film, Circus Without Borders, was a very positive and uplifting film about two completely diverse communities, an Inuit town in the Canadian Arctic beset by an epidemic of youth suicide, and a poverty-stricken village in Guinea in equatorial Africa. Both form acrobatic circus troupes to help resolve their problems, and end up collaborating and sharing experiences.
Short films were a major part of the festivals and covered all genres including animation and fantasy, as well as drama. Being a film festival, the quality of the films covered the full gamut, ranging from neophyte and film-school standards up to works with stunning cinematography, such as the Mexican film Café, which one the Best Film Award.
To increase the public presence of Présence Autochtone, the festival takes over La Place des Festivals, in the heart of the entertainment district, for four days with a huge suspended teepee as the centrepiece. Displays of crafts and other free cultural events happen here, including a continuous open-fire barbecue. The main attraction is the free concerts in the evenings. Thursday was a night of EDM, held in conjunction with MEG (Montreal Electronique Groove Festival), featuring DJ Psychorigid and DJ Madeskimo. Friday night saw the square packed for the Blues Blanc Rouge Remix with performances from Florent Vollant and singer/songwriter/poet Richard Desjardins, both of whom performed at the initial festival 25 years ago. Desjardins, who is renowned in the region, was also one of the initial supporters of the festival, making it all the more fitting for him be performing on the silver anniversary.
Saturday afternoon is given over to a massive parade led by first nation people and including representatives of indigenous groups from all over the Americas, and beyond, that make up the diaspora of Montreal and the Quebec region. After the procession, each of the regional groups put on displays of dancing and song. Before the entertainment a representative of the Mohawk nation spoke about how the first nation people are matriarchal societies and the destructive colonialism of Western society is patriarchal, and for the world to return to balance we need to give more respect and power back to the feminine. This speech was all the more profound as the full moon, which represents the feminine aspect, was rising above the city’s skyline, and a blue moon as well.
The highlight of the festival, musical or otherwise, came on Sunday evening. Following a showcase of up-and-coming talent from artists of the Musique Nomade, which spread across genres ranging from the country/bluegrass (there was a banjo) of Esther Pennell to the blues rock of Matthew Vachon, from the pop/soul of Eadsé to profound electronica of DJXS7, came Transcestral from Montreal artist Moe Clark. This two-hour spectacular was a fusion of tribal drums, Inuit throat singing, Middle Eastern music, jazz and a string section all accompanied by native dance, belly dance and a whirling Dervish. The whole performance transcended the label of world music to become something even more universal.
As already mentioned, Présence Autochtone is up against some pretty stiff competition in the local festival market, but should you find yourself in Montreal at the end of July then add it to your list of things to see, for something out of the ordinary that will also open your eyes and your mind to an often misunderstood and misrepresented culture.
Camerimage Film Festival, in Bydgoszcz, Poland, is somewhat unique in the saturated film festival world. It is almost exclusively industry-centric and yet its programme is filled with popular films that are, for the most part, open to the public. Continue reading →