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by Paula Bernstein
February 18, 2014 3:32 PM
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Veteran DP Phedon Papamichael on the Future of Cinematography and Finally Netting an Oscar Nomination

"Monuments Men"

What are your thoughts on shooting on film vs. digital?

There are a lot of people who would like to continue to shoot on film. It's not a problem of someone manufacturing it. There's lack of demand and there are just two labs left in L.A. It becomes very expensive to ship and process. I think we're seeing the end of it. With digital projection dominating, it's beautiful seeing a black and white print. We made some release prints for Nebraska on B&W print stock, there's a lot of texture that people won't be accustomed to anymore.

Who knows what the future generations will be viewing these things on --  whether it's iPads or iPhones or High Definition 3D televisions. Cameras are getting sharper and it's almost like the technology is moving one direction and we as storytellers are trying to hold it back because we don't want it to go to 4K and 8K and dealing with actors that we have to show in a nice light. You can always degrade an image by adding film grain and stopping this trend, but I think we'll find a way to balance all these things. People are testing different looks and different technologies and eventually, we'll find something that people are comfortable with.

Do you have a favorite camera?

It depends on the project and I can't even try to keep up with all the new developments. I usually wait until I have a project and determine what the project requires and what the best tools are at that moment. I shot with ARRI Alexa on "Nebraska." If Cassavetes was working today, he would shoot with a small digital camera and the movie would be just as good. If David Lean was working, he'd be trying to find a 70mm film. It's nice that there are so many options available to us. It also allows up and coming filmmakers and lower budget filmmakers to make films that before wouldn't have been possible. Anyone with equipment at home can create quality film that can be released in theater.

"Nebraska" is your third collaboration with Alexander Payne. Can you communicate in shorthand? 

We have similar cultural backgrounds. He had a lot of exposure to Europe. In terms of humor, we've always had a similar language. Our aesthetics and our visuals are very different. He's a writer and takes things in a different way. I like to get a little less objective with the camera, a little more subjective. It's a process -- we started on "Sideways" and it took certainly the first two to three weeks on "Sideways" before we were really in sync. Of course, it's developed much further through "The Descendants" and on "Nebraska," we've found a way to complement each other's cinematic tastes to a much more effective way. We watch a lot of movies together, not specifically related to the movies we're doing -- Italian neo-realism and Japanese films like [Akira] Kurosawa.

You've worked with Oliver Stone, James Mangold, Wim Wenders and other acclaimed directors. What sort of directors do you like to work with the most?

I like them to be complete filmmakers. There are directors that focus on the actors and the characters. It might seem very different. With James Mangold and George Clooney, we worked pretty similar than when I worked with Alexander. We don't preconceive that much. It's not that rigid a design that we plan. We like to bring the actors to set and come up with the shots after that. It's a more organic process, which I enjoy. With Gore Verbinski, who comes from commercials, everything is storyboarded. It's also creative, but it happens at a different time. My preferred way is to be open to have happy accidents and to find them and let the actors roam freely and not restrict them too much technically. George [Clooney] likes to do very few takes -- just one or two. 

Speaking of working with Clooney, how did you prepare to shoot "Monuments Men?"

We prepared by watching a lot of documentaries from that period and WWII documentaries, a lot of those classic American Hollywood films that deal with WWII that George really likes and that this is a tribute to -- "The Great Escape," "A Bridge Too Far," "The Dirty Dozen." When you see the film, it very much feels like an old school Hollywood film in tone as well. Don't expect a high action WWII film. It focuses in on the characterization. It's not a modern treatment in terms of frantic camera moves. It's very classically crafted. It's different from "Nebraska" in terms of scale and scope. We had big sets and lots of extras. In a way, the heart of the story is told in a similar way as "Nebraska," it's pretty simple.

Finally, which cinematographers do you admire?

The great American cinematographers: Bob Richardson, Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis, Caleb Deschanel, Raoul Coutard, Nestor Almendros and Robbie Mueller.

1 Comment

  • Tianyang Li | February 18, 2014 10:21 PMReply

    Isn't Raoul Coutard a french cinematographer? and yet again, no mention of, James Wong Howe, the master of light, at least in Hollywood - upsetting.