Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mistaken for Strangers

Mistaken for Strangers is a new documentary from Tom Berninger that chronicles the budding filmmaker's months on tour with his brother's band, The National. The film is making headlines this month – and rightfully so. (See the trailer below.)

The premise: Feeling bad that his younger brother is just wandering aimlessly through life, Matt Berninger – the singer for the indie rock band The National – invites Tom to join the group's tour as a roadie. Tom agrees, but has an ulterior motive; the young filmmaker (whose work up to that point consisted of a couple of low-budget horror flicks) wants to document the tour and make a movie. Whether or not this was all contrived is unclear, but in the end, it doesn't matter. The result is a beautiful piece of work. Tom Berninger: You have arrived.

Initially, I was drawn to the documentary because of the band. Only recently have I started appreciating The National, which has built a reputation as one of alternative rock's most innovative and intelligent groups for more than a decade. I've never seen them perform live, so I thought Mistaken for Strangers would be a great way to see them in action. But when I learned how the documentary came to be – and who was making it – I was even more intrigued. On the day of its release (March 28, 2014), I downloaded the film from iTunes to see how a relatively inexperienced filmmaker would document something as potentially harried and unpredictable as a rock band's eight-month tour.

As one might expect, the filmmaking itself is rudimentary. For example, Tom seemed to shoot most of the documentary with a stabilizer-free handheld camera. He clearly didn't have a storyboard or solid idea of what he wanted to film before he began. And there are many instances where seasoned professionals would cringe at the editing – or lack thereof. Additionally, one realizes quickly that the documentary Tom is perhaps unknowingly making is about himself learning to deal first-hand with the success and celebrity of his older brother. At one point, Tom complains: "I feel like I'm on the outside of this world [of the band], looking in." By the end of the documentary, however, I was sure Tom began to accept his place in that world and found a sense of purpose for himself.

As Mistaken for Strangers progressed, I became less concerned with Tom's techniques and more enthralled with watching the interaction between Tom and Matt. Ultimately, what this film is about is an exploration of brotherly love, family dynamics, and the emergence of one artist out from behind the shadow of his famous brother. Watching the relationship evolve between these two men is both fascinating and heart-warming. This dynamic completely outweighs the clumsiness of the actual camera work. As the end credits rolled, I found myself smiling ear to ear. Then I called my brother.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Toying Around At The Box Office

(Clockwise l-r) LEGO® characters Unikitty (Alison Brie), Benny (Charlie Day), Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Batman (Will Arnett), Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Emmet (Chris Pratt) and President Business (Will Ferrell) from “The LEGO® Movie,” from Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and Lego System A/S. A Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Now that The LEGO Movie is a certified hit ($183.1 million domestic and counting after three weeks in theaters), and a sequel already has been announced for May 2017, I've started to wonder what other toy-based screenplays might be coming our way. Many past adaptations haven't been very good – Battleship, G.I. Joe, or The Smurfs anyone? – and though I am not a fan of the Transformers movies, they have made a great deal of noise at the box office (pun intended).

What's surprising about The LEGO Movie is that it is quite entertaining for kids and their parents. Friends are telling me they have taken their children to the theater for repeat viewings. This is perhaps more than any studio expects from a kids' movie released in February. “The LEGO Movie is everything we hoped it would be, and then some," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. Pictures in a news release."...We are thrilled by the overwhelming response and early word-of-mouth that has made this movie a must-see, and we have every expectation that this is just the beginning of a long and successful run.”

What's different about The LEGO Movie is the fact that it is animated. (Much of that workload was handled by Australia's Animal Logic.) To me, that seems a more natural fit for turning playground or playroom nostalgia into box office gold. Perhaps my reasoning for this is because when I was child, some of my favorite toys also were developed into animated series such as The Smurfs and Transformers shows. Today's live-action adaptations just don't have the same attraction for me. Then again, I'm not necessarily the intended audience, but people my age do decide whether or not to take our children to these movies – hence the incredible success of The LEGO Movie – and people my age are the ones writing the reviews for newspapers and the web.

So with that in mind, here are some of the toy-based movies we can expect to see soon, as well some I would like to see:

There are several movies based on board games in various stages of production, including Ouija board, Candyland and Monopoly. Ouija (2014) will be a small-budget horror movie. I'm not a fan of the horror genre in general, so I don't expect much from this movie and I don't expect to see it. The two other board game adaptations mentioned here are still in early development. It's a safe bet I won't see them either.

In other toy-related movie news: Expect to see film versions of the Hot Wheels and Tonka toy lines as well. Think Disney/Pixar's Cars without the cache that Disney/Pixar brings to animated features. Like me, I think most ticket buyers will see them as a Cars facsimile.

As far as what I would like to see get made: I would not be opposed to a modern Peanuts feature that ties in the old Snoopy Sno-Cone machines. Snoopy could open his own snow cone food truck. Crazier things have happened. Or how about a sci-fi take on the View-Master? And I can't be the only one who thinks Chris Hemsworth would make a good He-Man, but this would have to be live-action, and I doubt the actor would tie himself to another super-hero type of film series. And finally, LEGO has an extensive collection of space-themed collections that could be put to good use. The ball is in your court on that one, Warner Bros.

Courtesy of

UPDATE: Turns out a Peanuts movie IS in the works! The first teaser was released on 3/18/14. See it here:

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Making Commercials: Luxury Made From The Land

By Michael Fickes

In a spot called “Details,” Lucky Post animates the details behind the western spirit of RAM’s Laramie Longhorn Truck. 

A recent spot for RAM’s Laramie Longhorn Truck pretends not to tell a story. It is a series of animated iconic images from 19th century Texas juxtaposed with the RAM truck. No voice over tells you what is going on. Instead, a surprisingly (because it could be found at all) fitting needle drop track of music combined with subtly presented sound design creates a Western aura. Four wrought iron signs tell you what you need to know. Everything – all the images and sounds – emerge from a sepia-toned map of Texas.

The assignment
“Everyone knows that RAM trucks are rough and tough,” says Sai Selvarajan, editor/designer with Dallas-based Lucky Post, the post house that produced the commercial. “This commercial is about the brand’s high-end, luxury model with interior finishes done in wood grain, chrome accents and leather stitching.”

In short, the assignment was to make a point about Western-style RAM luxury by associating it with iconic, historical Western tools and a historical map.

Lucky Post got the nod from The Richards Group, RAM’s advertising agency, which provided references from an earlier print campaign that embodied the desired aesthetic. Lucky Post Animator Seth Olson and Selvarajan then collaborated with the agency creatives to develop the concept.

“The previous campaign developed a visual style related to the historic West,” Olson said. “The agency wanted to continue that theme, and we liked a sepia map from that work.”

The spot
The commercial begins as a virtual camera pans west across the map from the Gulf of Mexico into Texas. The camera pulls back and dotted lines denoting original cattle trails shoot north on the map.

“Those are the actual cattle trails,” said Selvarajan. “All the details we used are accurate.”

The RAM truck drives into the scene from the direction of the Gulf. It appears as a sepia sketch. Almost instantly, it develops layer upon layer of crosshatched lines. Eventually, the crosshatching fills in and turns the image into a photo of the truck. The effect looks like ink or paint washing across the sketch, creating a photograph.

“Old maps were drawn with ink and painted with watercolors,” Selvarajan continued. “That led to the idea for ink and watercolor reveals. Maps from this era also have crosshatched detailing done in ink. We used layers of crosshatching to turn the sketch into a photo.”

“We made the cut-outs of the truck and other photographic images in Photoshop,” Olson added, “then we animated with After Effects.”

Back to the spot: The Laramie Longhorn logo materializes above the truck using the layered crosshatching paint. A pickaxe and sledgehammer modeled after 19th century versions of the tools appear.

The music and sound design effects begin with the first scene. You can hear the Gulf lapping the Texas shoreline and the sound of the truck’s tires on gravel. Selvarajan roughed in the sound design using Final Cut, and Scottie Richardson, Lucky Post’s sound designer/mixer, handled the final track and finish.

Another pan to the southeast draws the scene across typed paragraphs – if you pause and read, you’ll see advertising copy about the truck. On the bottom right of this scene is a historical fencepost with barbed wire set before an heirloom platter.

The point
Copy points come up as signs: “WOOD: That’s felt the bite of barbed wire.” The words are arranged on an ornamental iron sign.

A photo of the interior with its wood accents paints itself into the northeastern part of the frame.

The camera pans north, following a cattle trail past an image of an old lantern, and arrives at another sign: “CHROME: Etched with the pride of an heirloom.”

A chrome-plated revolver materializes.

The camera keeps moving, and a stitched leather belt with a buckle materializes followed by a third sign: “LEATHER: Sewn with the soul of the West.”

Then comes the fourth sign and the whole point: “Luxury born from the land.” From the land represented by this Texas map. That’s a clever story.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Shooting TV Scenes That Stand Up To The Movies

Copyright NBC – Grimm 2012

By Mike Fickes

Can you believe the way that television drama has taken on – and in many cases whipped – feature films? 

Television cinematographers look to feature films for inspiration – not today’s feature films so much as yesterday’s. “Our basic style is modified 1940’s movies,” said Fred Murphy, ASC, cinematographer on the CBS hit The Good Wife. “The camera is not a character. The characters are the characters. My job is all about making the people look dramatic and beautiful and glamorous.”

Oliver Bokelberg, ASC, and the cinematographer on ABC’s Scandal, likes to dress Olivia Pope, the lead character, in completely white outfits. “Television usually doesn’t use the kind of harsh contrast that white creates,” he said. “But in one of my favorite movies, A Woman Is a Woman, a lot happens with white. It was directed by Jean-Luc Godard and was his first color movie. The design is beautiful. Ever since seeing it, I’ve stopped arguing against white.”

Peter Levy, ASC, ACS, on Showtime’s House of Lies, harks back to Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film The Conformist for inspiration. “That movie left in the reflections and glares that came with the camera shots,” he said. “I think it looks more real that way. If a scene looks too clean, it seems fake to me.”
Cinematographers that shoot today’s television dramas freely acknowledge a debt to classic film cinematography – and then they use what they’ve learned to shoot riveting television dramas with stories that go on year after year.

House of Lies. Photo: Randy Tepper/Showtime.
With this column this year [Making TV], Markee covered five of these long-lasting shows: The Good Wife, Scandal, House of Lies, and NBC’s Chicago Fire and Grimm. The cinematographers on each of these shows have taken what they’ve learned from classic films and tailored shooting philosophies that bring their shows to life.

“A rule that we have is that the camera is always with the firefighters, so the audience always discovers the issues with the firefighters,” said Lisa Wiegand, the director of photography on Chicago Fire.

Wiegand likes to keep it real, too. All the fires on that series are real. Wiegand and the special effects coordinator carefully plan the fires. Then the crew designs and installs a pipe network that juts out of the floor and ceiling. The crew pumps fuel into the pipes and lights them up.

Grimm is about a descendant of the Grimm family, which has for centuries hunted beings that look like people but shape-shift into fairy tale monsters. Marshall Adams, ASC, the cinematographer on Grimm, wanted to develop a look for the show that could bring out its dark and horrific moments. “Many network shows compress the depth of field and only show the foreground in focus,” he said. “This show is different. We use very wide angles with a wider depth of field and everything in focus. And we don’t do a lot of close-ups. The show plays wider all around.”

Once considered a wasteland, television today is offering better stories and production equal to or better than feature films.

Don’t take my word for it. Media journalists and film and television reviewers are saying the same thing – have been for years now. Here are two examples:

  • Back in 2010, long-time New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote: “The traditional relationship between film and television has reversed, as American movies have become conservative and cautious, while scripted series, on both broadcast networks and cable, are often more daring, topical and willing to risk giving offense.”
  • In October of this year, Stuart Heritage, who writes about film and television for The Guardian, blogged: “If I had to pick sides, I’d go with television every single time. Television, especially the television that’s being produced now, is wiping the floor with film. It’s kicking film’s arse.”

You can Google dozens more examples if you want. The point is, television seems to have entered a new Golden Age. In it’s first Golden Age in the 50’s and 60’s, television discovered itself. In today’s Golden Age, we’re discovering television.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Best in Black and White

Inspired by a recent post on, I have been thinking about contemporary filmmakers’ use of black and white – both the good and the bad. But for the purposed of this post, I am focusing on the good. As an amateur photographer, I’m a fan of black-and-white images, so I’m not averse to watching movies in monochrome, whether they’re old or new, classic or modern. Of course, they can’t all be great – or at least great to me – but here’s a list of five of my favorites. Do you have a favorite black-and-white film? Are you more of a color-saturated movie fan? Sound off in the comments.

Good Night And Good Luck
Probably my favorite black-and-white movie. Set in the 1950s and focusing Edward R. Murrow’s stance against McCarthyism, Good Night And Good Luck was considered a bold and risky move for director George Clooney, since this was just his second job as director (the first being Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, 2002). But this 2005 gem is enthralling and plays almost like a documentary. Viewers feel like a fly on the wall, watching Murrow fight for his cause.

Schindler’s List 
If you were making this list, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic likely would be on your list as well. It’s the first major black-and-white film in my lifetime that I can recall. (I was in college when it was released.) Certainly, the look of the film was befitting of the subject matter and tone. And the black-and-white also lends an even deeper realism to the amazing story of Oskar Schindler.

Sin City
This 2005 adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel ushered in a mini-genre of movies that look like ink on paper. That particular trend may not have lasted, but this movie still stands as a modern crime drama with a somewhat unique look. Moreover, the violence isn’t hard to stomach since the blood and gore are animated.

I really enjoyed the use of black and white in this 1998 movie. As part of the storyline, the main characters are transported into the monochromatic world of a 1950s television sitcom, but what happens then isn’t all laughter and comedy. And color doesn't just denote the setting in Pleasantville; it is used a metaphor. As the innocence fades from the residents of the fictitious Pleasantville, they are enveloped in color. This is a beautiful film to watch.

I still don’t fully understand this 2001 Chris Nolan film and I doubt most of you do either. The movie isn’t entirely in black and white, but Nolan uses the contrast to keep viewers aware of the two timelines in the story as the amnesiac protagonist tries to figure out who he is and why he is out for revenge. If you haven’t seen this one yet, be prepared to watch it several times.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Making TV: Shooting Lawyers

By Michael Fickes

Fred Murphy, ASC, director of photography on The Good Wife.
Some television shows want you to forget about the camera and focus on the emotional contact among the characters. The Good Wife is a show like that. The quiet camera of the CBS drama, managed by Director of Photography Fred Murphy, ASC, has helped the show garner 30 Emmy nominations over five seasons – including one in 2011 for Outstanding Cinematography For A Single-camera Series.

Shooting style
The Good Wife is a series about characters, with a politician’s wife at the center. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) stands by her politician husband even when he is disgraced by an affair, accused of a crime, and sent to jail. After his fall, Alicia returns to work as an attorney to take care of her two children, while trying, and mostly succeeding, to remain loyal to her husband – as the good wife of the title.

The cinematography features lawyers “lawyering” by talking. “Lawyers play a mental game, not a physical one,” says Murphy. “For the first five seasons, we have shot their conversations simply, without too much camera movement, often without the people moving. That is the nature of the lawyer business. It is all about the mental game.”

In a change for the current sixth season, the camera will be on the move a bit more. The moves, however, remain simple and quiet. Murphy shoots with an ARRI Alexa with Panavision zoom lenses and Primo prime lenses. He selects something between 60mm and 100mm for close up scenes. While he does use zooms, he doesn’t zoom across the set. “For close-ups, we move the camera physically closer,” he said.

He doesn’t shoot much with wide-angle lenses. “For a wide shot of a small location, you need a wide-angle lens, but we try to use longer lenses – 25mm is wide-angle for us,” he said.

“We want the lighting to provide soft, polished realism,” Murphy said. “Then we place large sources, such as 12x12s or 8x8s – rarely anything smaller than 6x6 – close to people and bounce the light. Except for effects like the sun coming through the window, we always bounce large light sources to diffuse and soften the light. Most of the scenes are shot on stages set up to do this.”

Murphy refines the big source lights with a little back lighting and a little edge lighting. He has balanced the lighting for all of the sets for a 2.8 F-Stop camera setting. “So you shoot at the same stop – 2.8 at 800 ASA – all the time. “It can be awkward to set up large sources like this, but once you start shooting, you don’t need to re-light for close-ups,” he said. “The large source crosses the set and bathes everyone in beautiful light. When you go close, you simply adjust the fill ratio.”

“The basic shooting style is modified 1940s movies, which focused on making people look dramatic and beautiful,” Murphy said. “We decided early on to make the show elegant. We want Julianna Margulies [Alicia Florrick] to look elegant. We stay away from wide lenses, and rarely use anything under 50mm if she is close to the camera. And we position the large light sources as close to her as physically possible. We also use a small Schneider filter – very weak, but it helps smooth out the shots.

“She is a wonderful actress,” Murphy continued. “She can invest small gestures with a lot of meaning.”

That is the key to the drama of The Good Wife. Most of the cast has the same kind of talent, the ability to communicate in subtle, understated ways – a phrase, a raised eyebrow, a cold stare – perfectly timed to build the tension and drama. Murphy’s lighting and camera work delivers all of that – the mental game that lawyers play – to the audience. And it is riveting.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Behind The Scenes of My Favorite Movies

Recently, while watching the bonus material on my Blu-ray copy of Star Trek Into Darkness, it struck me how lucky we are to have the opportunity to see how our favorite movies are made. It wasn’t so long ago that the general public had little to no knowledge of how movies were created; of how certain scenes or visual effects were accomplished; of how much planning, manpower and ingenuity went into producing just a few minutes of entertainment.

But the storage capacity allowed by the DVD format – and now Blu-ray discs and digital downloads – changed all of this. Movie fans are given the chance to see how their favorite films were created and many of the hard-working men and women behind the camera are given the opportunity to shine. The cinematographers, visual effects artists, stunt people, makeup artists, Foley artists, sound mixers and others can showcase their craft. Thus, the general public is made aware of just how large and collaborative an undertaking it is to make a movie.

Sure, these DVD extras are used as a marketing opportunity to entice us to buy the movies, but for me they are much more. Watching these behind-the-scenes vignettes makes me appreciate my favorite films even more. I want to know how the films were made, how certain effects were created, and I want to “meet” the people who did the work. This is why I buy DVDs; I want a greater understanding of the how the world’s best entertainment is made. I was amazed to learn that the red planet used in the opening scene of Star Trek Into Darkness was built from scratch and the plants and trees were hand-painted! And seeing how the final climactic scene came together for Skyfall, the latest film in the James Bond saga with Daniel Craig, was impressive to say the least.

With such knowledge, I enjoy my favorite movies even more, and I actively seek out the films of cinematographers, VFX artists and other professionals whose work I have appreciated. It’s nice to see these people – you people, our readers – get some well-deserved attention and respect. No longer are you just names scrolling through the end credits. You are the stars of making-of documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage of America’s vast DVD collection. Keep up the great work. We’ll see you at home.