From Big-Budget Studio Films vs. Indie to Internet-Based Filmmaking
by Leonard Guercio
Flexibility is the key to surviving the rapid changes in the film industry.
Director of photography Anastas Michos, ASC has followed a convoluted path toward his profession. He started out in theater, played in a rock-and-roll band, worked as a roadie, and began his apprenticeship in the art of cinematography as a television cameraman/editor for WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. As a news cameraman, he learned to make instantaneous decisions as a shooter that helped him hone the art of visual storytelling. Michos also worked as an assistant to Steadicam inventor, Garrett Brown, and learned that skill as well. He had his first job as a DP in 1986 on The Hooters’ video documentary, Nervous Night. Like many cinematographers, Michos shot music videos for popular recording artists such as Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, and Tina Turner. His first job as a feature cinematographer came in 1997 on an independent feature-length film called The Education of Little Tree.
How did you get started as a cinematographer on studio-produced feature films?
Anastas Michos, ASC: I started out as a Steadicam operator on features, soon I was operating “B” camera as well. I was lucky enough to move up to operate “A” camera for cinematographers Haskell Wexler, Sven Nykvist, John Seale, and Philippe Rousselot, among others. Philippe and I worked on seven films together, so when he was unavailable to shoot Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon, I volunteered to shoot it, and he was kind enough to recommend me. Two weeks later, I got a phone call from Milos. However, before I could be hired, I had to interview with the film’s producer, Danny DeVito, who gave me his blessing, and the studio approved.
When beginning a film, how do you go about selecting your crew?
Anastas Michos, ASC: The relationships we make when we’re young are often the relationships we keep throughout our careers. It’s true also with actors, directors, producers, and others. It’s hard to recognize that when you’re young, but after doing it for fifty movies or so as I have, I’ve realized that there is the same cadre of people that I work with time and again.
Does that have to do with comfort level, knowing each others’ work habits and styles?
Anastas Michos, ASC: I think so. There aren’t many people in this industry. It’s actually smaller than one thinks – in terms of the studio feature film market. I tend to work with the same people because I rely on their strengths, and I don’t have to retrain anybody to recognize my weaknesses. Also, I have to like the people I work with, which is possibly of paramount importance, considering the amount of time we spend together on set.
So when a project comes to you, is it because of your past films? How’s that work for you?
Anastas Michos, ASC: As a cinematographer, you have an agent who is your advocate and representative in all things financial and creative. The agencies themselves, whether big or small, are tapped into producers and studios. With thousands of scripts out there, our agents contact the heads of physical production at the various studios to learn which scripts will be made and which need DP’s. If you have a prior relationship with them and, if you’re lucky, a pile of scripts will be sent to you. Your agent contacts the various producers and sets up a series of meetings. It’s a winnowing process that strives to match up the selections of directors and cinematographers. Then, basically you have a meeting with the director to discuss the movie. That’s the first time I get to meet with the director. Essentially, it’s a job interview with each party trying to figure out what the other can bring to the process. For me it’s a very crucial time, when I attempt to understand who this person is, what his or her vision for the film is and whether I want to spend the next 15 to 17 weeks of my life working with that person.
Is that the process for every film you’ve worked on?
Anastas Michos, ASC: That’s how it happens on about 50% of the films. The other half comes from the relationships with directors with whom I’ve already worked. For example, Danny [DeVito], or someone else, calls and is doing another movie.
How do you go about presenting your ideas for a visual style to a director?
Anastas Michos, ASC: The first time I meet with a director is usually about ten days after I’ve read the script. I really try to feel out what he or she has in mind. The director has been living with the script for about a year or longer – which often means that he or she is very passionate and has definite ideas about the film. On the other hand, many directors are very open and are clearly looking for ideas. What is critical for me is getting a clear idea of the sense of place, understanding the locations. Once I have that in my head, then I can discuss what the lighting and the shots might be. It’s very difficult to read a screenplay and place the characters in a space that is not yet concrete.
What quality do you feel a cinematographer must have to be successful in the industry?
Anastas Michos, ASC: You need flexibility as an artist to rethink and adapt your ideas to the project at hand. For example, I worked on a film with Halle Berry and Bruce Willis that was supposed to take place in New Orleans in late summer and fall. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and we had to pull out. They [the producers] were about to shut the picture down then decided not to. Instead, they postponed it by 40 to 60 days and took it to Manhattan. So the script I signed on to do in New Orleans – after talking with the director about locations and the heat, about what the color of the magnolias would be at that time – now all of a sudden we’re shooting the film in New York in the dead of winter! We had to change our entire color palette, color scheme, everything. So flexibility, the ability to adapt quickly, is very important. Cinema is a collaborative art. One not only has to have artistry, talent and control of over the medium but also control over one’s ego as well.
You’ve worked on big-budget studio films and low-budget independent films. What factors affect your lighting decisions for each?
Anastas Michos, ASC: One of the concerns a cinematographer always has is control over the environment. The more difficult the location, the more money it takes to control the lighting. For example, if you’re shooting a scene, six stories up, and there are windows everywhere, that means that in the course of the day the sun will change positions or it may be cloudy or raining. We need to make the scene look consistent so we might gel the windows, use large condors as lighting platforms for lots of large lights. On a low-budget film, that’s impossible because you don’t have those kinds of tools. So the trick is to recognize that and try not putting yourself in a situation that you cannot control. It may mean that everything becomes a little bit more of a compromise and more of an effort is needed find a perfect location. It also helps to be lucky.
Apart from financial considerations, what do you find to be the major difference between shooting a high-budget and low-budget film?
Anastas Michos, ASC: The main difference I find between high and low budget films is the kind of people you work with. For the most part, larger budgeted films have more experienced people on board. Because the budget is bigger, they [the studios] don’t want to entrust the money to neophytes, if you will. On a smaller budgeted film, you find yourself with less experienced people. As we grow older, we realize what a useful thing experience is. Because, ultimately, you encounter situations that you’ve dealt with before and that you’ve discovered answers for, rather than having to re-invent the wheel.
What factors do you consider when you decide to sign on to a low-budget indie film?
Anastas Michos, ASC: Usually, it’s either passion about the project or really wanting to work with someone who is doing it. We all need to be on the same page and to clearly communicate with each other because it’s a full-time commitment to get the film done. For example, working with a first-time director – which I’ve done several times – is a lot more work for a cinematographer. Not only are you in the role of lighting cameraman, but you are also in the role of teacher for someone who’s never been on set before. Taking a first-time director through the myriad of options is a much longer process than the short-hand you have with an experienced director.
You worked on Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the Rolling Stones. What was that like?
Anastas Michos, ASC: That was fantastic! The DP Bob Richardson invited me – along with Ellen Kuras, Bob Elswit, John Toll, Andrew Lesnie, Chivo Lubezki, Stuart Dryburgh and several others – to be guest DP/camera operators on the documentary. Bob brought us all together, we discussed our camera positions and Marty’s needs, and he basically turned us loose. We used every camera from a [Dalsa] Genesis to MiniDV to Super 8. Any camera I wanted was at my disposal. It was a great experience to be included on such an All-Star team, for Marty, on a subject as exciting as the Rolling Stones.
Have you worked on any Internet-based projects?
Anastas Michos, ASC: I recently finished a series of shorts out in L.A. for an internet project I’m doing with Danny DeVito. One of the things we’ve talked about was how the delivery of films is changing. The advent of the Internet as a media delivery system is as big an influence on our culture as the advent of television. I have a 14-year-old son, and I recognize how much video he watches on his computer and how much he downloads to his iPod.
What intrigued you about working in this visual format?
Anastas Michos, ASC: I liken this Internet project to the serialized film and TV programs of a few generations ago. So Danny came up with a series of scripts that we shot in 720p video for possible future release on DVD. One of the fun things about this project, from a cinematographer’s point-of-view, is designing and shooting something for a small screen like that of a cell phone or an iPod. The visual grammar changes completely the way you structure the film: the conventional medium shot becomes a wide shot and the ECU a close-up. The limitations of the screen render conventional wide shots poorly. There just isn’t the amount of information there for good storytelling.
You also just finished a remake of George Cukor’s 1939 film, The Women?
Anastas Michos, ASC: Yes, like the original, there are no men in the film, not even in the background. It’s updated to the present day with a great cast, including Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Jada Pinkett Smith, Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Bette Midler and many others. Diane English did a great job adapting Clare Boothe Luce’s play and directing the film.
A final question: Have there been any films that you’ve passed on that you wished you had accepted?
Anastas Michos, ASC: Not really…Well, there is one that I passed on that went on to become a seminal film – and that was David Fincher’s Se7en. I was a camera operator and David and [DP] Darius Khondji called to offer me the movie, but I had just finished two very dark films: Stephen Frears’ Mary Reilly and Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire. I’d spent 27 weeks on those films, back to back, and even though you know they are theatrical pieces and don’t exist in any reality beside the screen, working on that kind of film for so long with all the blood, skeletons, murders, and dark subject matter had a definite effect on me. My spiritual health at the time was more important. Besides, to work on a film where they chop off poor Gwynnie’s [Gwyneth Paltrow’s] head – that was the clincher for me. I said I can’t do that!
Leonard Guercio is an independent filmmaker and an adjunct film professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Featured in StudentFilmmakers Magazine, February 2008 Edition.