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Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer has worked on big blockbusters (“Quantum of Solace”), critically acclaimed dramas (“Finding Neverland” and “The Kite Runner”), Christopher Guest mock-documentaries (“Best in Show”) and TV comedies (HBO’s “Family Tree”).
With “Miles Ahead,” Schaefer takes on an indie about Miles Davis, which was a long time in the making passion project for Don Cheadle, who makes his directorial debut and stars as the jazz legend in the free-wheeling portrait on Davis’ remarkable life.
What camera and lens did you use?
Our main camera was an Alexa XT recording to ArriRaw. We also shot about one-third of the film on Super 16mm film with two Arri 416 cameras with Zeiss Super Speeds, Canon
8-64mm and 11.5-138mm zooms. And of course the Canon C500 recording to an Odyssey 7Q in 10 bit logC. I chose 10 bit over 12 bit to save on data and because what we shot with it didn’t require as much color depth.
Why was this the right camera kit for the job? The Canon C500 with the Odyssey recorders were used primarily for cross shooting from the back seat of a moving Jaguar XJ at night by available city light. The back seat was tight and it was the perfect camera size for that as well as the optimized low noise/high ASA combination. When I saw the clean image at the high sensitivity, I used them for some handheld fight action in a dark alleyway.
What was the biggest challenge in shooting this movie? How did you pull it off? As with so many movies on location these days, they can be budgetary challenging, which means mostly local crews and too-tight schedules. But the script and Don Cheadle were so inspiring that we all pulled together and made it happen. Everyone pitched in 150% to pull it off.
Of all your training and schooling, what one experience made you the cinematographer you are today? Luck and perseverance. The luck meaning being in the right place at the right time, meeting good talented people who believed in me, from Milano to Los Angeles, it all just worked out.
What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer? Is film school a good place to start? I would say to do more than the best you can, don’t play it safe, observe the world around, study composition and light and scene structure. Make friends with as many people as you can at work. Be humble and hire people who know more than you do, who are willing to be collaborative and always be early to the set. Film school has become a big industry and there are good ones and bad ones. One of the most important things that you can gain from time at film school is forging relationships with talented and driven students and teachers. Of course, I went to art school, not film school, so this comes from observation and speaking with others.
Who is your favorite cinematographer, and why? I don’t have one in particular, but I’d have to say that Gordon Willis is probably nearest to the top. But it’s so difficult to choose when you remember names like Sven Nyqvist, Nestor Almendros, Raoul Coutard, Tonnino della Colli and so many others. And that is not to mention any of the outstanding ones who are still alive and working.
What new piece of equipment are you most excited about using in 2016?
I don’t know about film equipment, BUT the most exciting thing I’ve heard in a long time is a device that can draw 300 liters of water from the air per day and is the size of an office 20 gallon water cooler! It can run on electricity, can be solar powered and the water it produces should be 100% safe and potable. That is exciting! I’m trying to get on the list to buy one of those. Aside from that, maybe the new Scorpio Anamorphics, but I haven’t tested them yet.
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[Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated cinematography and photographed Sundance talent at the Canon Creative Studio on Main Street.]