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A Conversation with Daniel Pearl, ASC: Award-winning, Legendary DP Talks Lights, Guts, and Glory

By Staff
posted Mar 21, 2008, 18:07

Check out this article in the print edition of StudentFilmmakers Magazine, December 2007. Click here to get a copy and to subscribe >>

Back Edition Spotlight: December 2007, StudentFilmmakers MagazineAward-winning, Legendary DP Talks
Lights, Guts, and Glory

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StudentFilmmakers magazine was very fortunate to have a personal, candid interview with legendary cinematographer, Daniel Pearl, ASC. Best known for lensing feature films, and music videos winning best cinematography (Guns N’ Roses “November Rain”; The Police “Every Breath You Take”), Mr. Pearl’s filmography consists of over 60 credits, including the American classic, Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the 2003 remake, and currently, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, Captivity, and Pathfinder. From young DIY upstart to respected professional, the award-winning DP talks lights, guts, and glory.

You were very young when you lensed the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a classic which scared the entire world. How did you get started in filmmaking?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: I first started a little bit with photography. I have an aunt who is a photographer. I had a Twin Lens Rolleiflex. Somewhere I ended up with a box camera. When I was a kid, I used to set up my soldiers and my trucks, and jam this box camera down in the dirt and take pictures. Nothing too serious.

My father’s a mechanical engineer, so I was sort of around cranes, wedges, and incline planes, and big, mechanical machinery my whole lifetime, and my mother was a painter. I describe cinematography as one of the most technical of all arts. And so I really feel like my parents gave me a really good background. A lot of people are mathematically and technically and scientifically inclined, and a lot of people are artistically inclined, but not a lot of people are both. And it’s sort of what makes cinematographers unique, is that we’re artists, but we also understand what makes things tick, what makes things work.

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On the set of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Jessica Biel and Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) between takes. Photo by Van Redin, Courtesy of New Line Productions.Do you remember your first camera?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: [I was] 13 years old, and the skateboard is invented. I was living in a town called Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, which had an extremely, sort of new, executive community. We had super smooth streets; and my friends and I basically lived on our skateboards. I saw an ad in the New York Daily News on the back page that I could get an 8mm camera for about $60. I spent the next couple of months shooting my friends on their skateboards.

Film crew behind the scenes of Captivity.When did you decide to go to film school?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: We jump to another five years, I’m 18 years old. It’s 1968. The whole hippie thing is going completely wild and crazy. I was a freshman at the University of Texas; and my brother was in his last year of law school at the University of Texas.

Two things happen there that are pivotal. One is that everybody was protesting the war at Vietnam at the time. There were all sorts of associations and societies to try and stop the war. And what they did to raise money – they all brought in films, and they were from classic cinema like Fellini and Bergman and Kurosawa and Carl Dreyer... It was just incredible what we could see. They’d get 16mm prints, and they would charge either a dollar or two dollars to watch these movies. Well, it just became my passion.

[As a child] I was sort of a regular attendee of the cinema – you know, go once a week, and see what was new. I saw more of the Hollywood kind of films that were aimed at people my age, rather than classic cinema.

So I get exposed to [classic cinema], and then, became passionate about this. This was all I really cared about, and all I did. I didn’t really do much in my classes. But I was going to see sometimes two, sometimes three films a day. It was a fantastic opportunity.

Then you combine that with, on the weekends, I would for recreation go to a place called the Vulcan Gas Company. Big, hippie establishment. Played a lot of blues musicians, some rock ‘n’ roll people would come through there. I became very interested in the visual light show that they would put on. And people would project slides and things as well, as part of this light show.

So I went home for Christmas, grabbed my 8mm camera, and brought it back. I began to shoot very abstract images, things like… I would go into a hotel and borrow a crystal off a chandelier, and take it outside and put it right in front of my lens; and point the camera at the sun and turn the crystal around. I would take the camera to a headlight of a car and fill the frame with the headlight, and take my hand and put it in front of the headlight, wiggle it around, and just make abstract shapes.

Most of the time you couldn’t work out what it was that was being photographed. But it was about light, shadow, color, and movement. That’s what these were about. These were things that I shot. And they became part of the light show.

And so, I was even less interested in my class work. My brother was in his last year of law school. My parents figured, we have a lawyer, we should have a doctor. I don’t know how many people know at that time what they want to study. I guess filmmakers do.

Anyhow, I was sitting there at the end of my first year, and one friend of mine was in a similar program as myself, and we were in a lot of classes together. He was a more disciplined student than I was; did the class work as well. Well, me, at the end of my first year, I’m sitting there looking at C’s and D’s. And I managed to fall back on a D in a chemistry class, and that’s the end of my pursuit of being a doctor. You couldn’t really carry on with a D in a chemistry class like that. So I was sitting there going, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’

A couple of days after – before I went back to New Jersey where my folks lived – I took a day or two to get ready for next year, find an apartment, etc. And I’m sitting in my friend’s apartment going through the course book, which is sort of like a small phone book in those days, and the very last thing I come upon is Department of Radio, Television, and Film. And I remember saying to my friend, Ted, ‘There’s a Department of Radio, Television, and Film here.’ And I remember he goes, ‘Well, what in the world, what do they teach in there?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know, but I’m going.’ And so, I made my decision to go the Department of Radio, Television, and Film.

Do you remember one of your first film classes?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: On Day 1, there were 20 of us my sophomore year, and the teacher comes in and announces that the film business is absolutely a closed industry. The teacher said if you really love this and you gotta pursue this, maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get grants, and you’ll make films on the weekends or in the summer. But that’s certainly no way of getting into the film business. So you go on, and go to graduate school, get a masters degree, ultimately a Ph.D. and be a professor.

Well, about half the class got up and left, and left 10 of us in there. And once they left, the teacher goes, we got rid of those guys, and now we’ll make our first film. And he gets around, and goes, anybody work a camera before? I go, well, you know, I have an 8mm camera. [He says,] okay, you be the cinematographer.

What happened after you finished college?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: I finish [college], get my master’s degree, and make an announcement to my friends. I’m 23 at this point – we’re all filmmakers, all I knew were filmmakers at this point. And I’m going, ‘You know, they told us that it’s a closed industry, we could never get into it, but I think I’m good enough at this that one day I’ll get to shoot a movie. I’ll stick with this, and I think by the time I’m 35, I’ll shoot a movie. I’ll probably be one of the youngest people ever to shoot a movie.’

Well, about three weeks later, the phone rings, it’s Tobe Hooper. He calls and he goes, ‘I’m Tobe Hooper, and we never really met... I’m doing this film here, and I want Texans to shoot it. I reckon you’re the best cinematographer in the state of Texas, so I want to offer you this movie [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre], will you shoot this film for me?’ And then, I was in the film business.

I go, ‘Yeah, sure, let me read the screenplay,’ and I hung up the phone. I had some friends over, and I was like electrified at this point. I go, ‘I’m 12 years ahead of schedule. I was offered a movie.’ They go, ‘Oh my God.’

What happened next?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: Somebody delivers the screenplay to me, I read it, and it’s all there on paper, and you know, the hair’s standing up on the back of my neck, and I’m like completely mind blown, so much that I’m going like, ‘I’m not even worthy of this job.’

So I called Tobe back, and I go, ‘When could we start?’ And he goes, ‘Well, we’re making the film for $80,000. I only have $70,000 right now. What can I do for $70,000?’

I had a friend who was a rather well to do, and he was a big cinema buff, and every few months we would go to films together. So I rang him up and said we’re looking for investors. I brought the screenplay to him. He rang me back a few hours later, going, ‘Fantastic, I want in, how much could I put in?’ And so I managed to get the last eighth of the investing of this film, and away we went.

Leatherface takes position in the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Photo by Van Redin, Courtesy of New Line Productions.While you were shooting the original Chainsaw, did you know that you were shooting a future classic?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: We thought it was something very strong. At this point, you gotta keep in mind that we’re basically self taught… and figuring things out for ourselves. I think we all had a lot of good, strong intuitions.

Now that it’s 34 years later, I’ll talk about the look of that film, the moves that I designed, the operating of the camera, that’s all valid. The lighting of that film – I knew nothing about lighting at the time. I thought I did, but there’s so much to learn about lighting. I’m still learning today. I’ve been a DP for 34 years, and I’m still learning about lighting.

I was teaching a lighting masters seminar. I was doing part of it, and Rodrigo Prieto, ASC was doing part of it. I learned something watching him work. I was watching him, and a certain quality of a shadow developed, and I said, ‘Look at this.’ And he said, ‘Oh my God’. Lighting is a tricky thing. No one ever thinks they know everything there is to know about it. And I could tell you this much, when I was 23, I didn’t know very much about it at all – I thought I did.

Could you tell us about the look of the original Chainsaw?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: A lot of the look of that film comes from two things. One, it was 16mm blow up, and one of us was shooting a hand-held style of cinematography. Very cinéma vérité style of shooting for some of it. To shoot in the summer of ’73, meant either an Arri BL or the very new recently developed Panaflex camera. There were limited supplies of both those cameras. The Arri BL was only a couple years old, and the Panaflex was brand new. We didn’t have the clout or the money. We had to shoot 16mm – 16mm film at the time, the color negative at the time was 54. In 16mm, it’s called 7254. And it was declared too grainy of a product for us to shoot the film on for blow up to 35mm. I was basically told by Tobe that anybody involved with the backend of making distribution deals – of course, it was a money-making venture – that it would never work for us to be shot on that thing.

ECO was a color reversal film. That film was an ASA 25. Film’s speed, ISO or ASA, is a term that let’s you know how sensitive to light a film is, and is a direct correlation to lower sensitivity to light. What we call a slower film, the finer the grain. So because they’re worried about this grain structure, I had to shoot on the finest grain of film I could for the 16mm blow up to 35, which was the Eastman ECO and ASA 25.

Well, we didn’t have very big lights. They didn’t even have HMI’s that exist today. We had only tungsten lights. They didn’t even have a very big supply of them. When we went to do nights, they brought in from Dallas two 5k’s – 5000 watt fresnels – and one 10,000 watt fresnel for me. And I thought I had been given the sun. I thought, ‘This is incredible. Oh my God, these lights.’ I had never even seen anything that big before. They’re small by comparison to what we use today. But it is what I shot the night sequence of this film, with those lights. And because we didn’t have HMI’s, when I had to put blue gel on, to get it to go against the daylight, that I was sometimes lighting against the daytime, or to simulating nighttime, a convention for moonlight is it would be a bit blue. I had to put this gel called CTB color correction to daylight, which is about a stop and a half or almost two stops of the light is lost. Which basically means you’re putting out about one-third to one-quarter of the amount of light comes out of it.

The lighting look of that film has a lot to do with lighting experience and the technical situation that I was in at the time with the film stock, with the lights. I couldn’t be inefficient with the light. I had to be efficient, and point the light directly at the subject, and spot it up. I couldn’t be bouncing; I couldn’t throw through lots of silks and things like that. That gives the film a bit of documentary look; it was not beautifully lit. That went a long way toward that realistic feeling of the film. It was not very polished. … A similar sequence from the remake are two totally different worlds.

Erin (Jessica Biel) in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Photo by Van Redin, Courtesy of New Line Productions.What are your thoughts on the horror genre, and how did you see it change throughout the years?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: Well, oddly enough, I’m not even that big of a fan of the genre. Which is kind of strange, right? Because I shot The Texas Chainsaw Massacre successfully twice. It’s a rather weird situation. And people raise an eyebrow when I say that because I have a shaved head, so I look like I could be a horror freak, but it really is not my thing. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, when we did it, we thought the whole thing was good fun. A sort of political allegory for life, the time we were in.

Now, Tobe – master of suspense, master of horror – absolutely. But for me, I wanted to make it as scary as I could, but fortunately the shooting of these kinds of films lends itself to my sensibility, my style. They want to be lit in a sketchy kind of way. They want to have interesting photography. Of course, mostly everything does, but for example, a comedy doesn’t.

My third film was a comedy. I almost got fired on Day 1 because, you know, “Light the f—ckin’ jokes.” So my sensibility is to play with light and shadow, and to become more and more so. And, the better and better I got at it, the more I was into having more contrast and not lighting everything. In the beginning, you’re sort of worried that things aren’t gonna come out, so you sort of light everything. In the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, part of it all were lit, but it would have been impossible because of the equipment I had and the film stock I had and the knowledge I had to do it. Later on, a few years later, it’s bigger budgets and more equipment, and you know, I started rolling in too much. Nowadays, I’m actually using less and less equipment again.

Actress Elisha Cuthbert during the filming of Captivity. Photo courtesy of After Dark Films.So you don’t watch a lot of horror films?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: I haven’t seen Saw; I haven’t seen Hostile. I haven’t seen all these films. I do get hired to shoot these films. And I purposely don’t go see them, because I want whatever I do to come from my head and my heart and not from my ass. I don’t ever want to be copying things.

In fact, there were a lot of times, meeting with the director of a project – if all the conversation is about, ‘This should be like this scene from that movie; this should be like that movie… This should be like that, this should be like that…’ If that goes on too long, eventually, I can tell it’s not going to work out between this guy and myself. Partially because I don’t study film that way, and I can’t really converse about it that way.

I’ve committed every single shot that I liked to memory. Images come to my mind, and for me, the shooting is about, things that just come to me. At the same time – I want to tell the story, I want to set the mood with my photography. But at the same time, I also want to make the schedule.

Every film is in some ways a race, it’s like a marathon. Every film has got, you know – ‘You get this many days to do this film, if you don’t do it, somebody’s gonna come down here and kill us if we don’t get it done.’ It’s sort of like holding a hatchet over our heads all the time – an axe over our heads. It’s like, ‘You gotta make this day, you gotta get this done. You gotta get this to that, we gotta get to the stage. We gotta get to this place, we gotta do this, we gotta do this….’ [When people ask] what’s your inspiration for this film? I’ll sit there, and I go, ‘To get finished on time is my inspiration.’ It’s a weird sort of thing; I don’t sit there, I don’t study other films.

I finished Alien vs. Predator 2, odd for a film, but I decided to do it. The Brothers Strause, great guys, that’s part of what attracted me to the film. The directors are two brothers, and they’re really good guys, and I like them. Like I said, I didn’t see the original Alien, obviously. I hadn’t seen any of the rest of what we call the franchise. And, I said I should see Alien vs. Predator, and they said, no, don’t, don’t, don’t, it’s a piece of garbage, don’t watch it, please. And then, we were together gathering locations up in Vancouver. They had to leave, and I was going to stay. And this was after the first week. And I said, look guys, we got you going away, and I have a chance to watch the films, and I could talk about what we’re doing here, what should I watch while you’re gone? They looked at me, and they said, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They said, ‘That’s what we want.’ And oddly enough at that point they said, well, Ridley Scott, when he made Alien, said that this film really should be Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space. And so, they said, ‘That’s what we’re after.’

To get back to your question…

…The evolution of the horror genre.

Daniel Pearl, ASC: I don’t really know. Interesting question, because I also have this film, Captivity, that I photographed for Roland Joffé.

I’m quite proud of the work on the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre that I shot in ’02. I think that that film works really well. I think that the film stands alone. I think you could watch either one of the two Texas Chainsaw Massacres and not feel as though, ‘I don’t need to watch this again, I saw the other one.’ They’re both interesting films in their own way.

Where is it [the horror genre] going? I don’t know. There was a snuff film phase years ago, and I hope we’re not going there.

I would tell people I don’t think I would take that film [Texas Chainsaw Massacre] if it was offered to me again today. I’m not really into that kind of thing. It’s really not me, that compares things that I want for the world, and I probably wouldn’t take that movie. Well, we jump over to ’02, and Marcus Nispel, who I’m shooting with – everything he’s doing is commercials and music videos, he becomes a good friend of mine, and I’m very happy working with this individual. We have a similar sensibility about how we like things to look, and it’s just really a good marriage, and it’s working out really well. Over the years, he’s heard me tell stories about shooting the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and he gets hired to shoot the remake. Calls me up, I’m in Montreal shooting a music video, and my cell phone rings. It was Marcus, and he goes, ‘Hey, I just signed on to shoot the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Why don’t you shoot it for me?’

I said, ‘Of course I will – look, I gotta get back to work, I’ll talk to you later.’ I hang up the phone and realize, oh my God, for years I’ve been saying I wouldn’t do it, but I just said ‘yes’ to doing it.

It’s funny because between doing Texas Chainsaw Massacre twice and shooting Captivity, and Alien vs. Predator, I got people offering me that they want to be my agent to represent me to go to these horror and sci-fi conventions. That’s not my thing. Grant it, I loved to watch Frankenstein and Dracula and The Mummy when I was a kid, but today I just don’t look at those kinds of films.

Actor Daniel Gillies during the filming of Captivity. Photo courtesy of After Dark Films.That is so interesting. I do have a question about shooting gore FX. Do things need to be lit or shot differently, in terms of angles, close-ups, working with make-up FX and prosthetics?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: Well, absolutely, because first of all, we’re not making snuff films. We don’t really cut people’s legs off, we’re not really putting chainsaws to people, we’re not slamming meat hooks into their backs. So you gotta hide the trick. There’s always a trick to do.

That may becoming a little bit less important as we go into the digital age, and all you have to do is have the money to pay for it. And the idea is, think it up, and they can do anything on film today. This is more of a problem, more of a situation if you don’t have money, or in the old days.

Because basically, if you have the resources – well, look at Transformers. I haven’t seen the film. I did see some rough footage of it. I was in Michael Bay’s office, and I saw some it then. But I mean, it’s got nothing to do with reality in its glorious moments, I don’t think. It’s just like, CGI robots.

But anyhow, you do want to be careful and shoot at the angles so you don’t shoot the tricks. Light it in such a way that you never show the trick. Lighting in movies, in some ways, is the magician’s misdirection. The magician will do a flourish with his left hand; meanwhile, his right hand is preparing the trick. In a way, it’s about controlling where somebody’s looking. We have to control where you look on the screen as well. And we can do that sort of with light, with lensing. We can do that with focus, and we control where you look on the screen. Absolutely, you wanna shoot at special angles, you wanna light things in certain ways, you want to use all the tools that you have as a cinematographer to control that vision, where the people look in the frame. You gotta deal with it for the entire audience. People read images at different rates, and if you leave an image on the screen too clear, will people see the trick?

Relating to the original Chainsaw…

Daniel Pearl, ASC: Tobe has talked about this a lot – that Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original, is not that gory of a film. There’s not all that much blood and guts in it. But if you ask somebody who’s actually watched that film to describe it to you, their description would make it sound as if there’s more blood and guts in the film than there really is. Marcus talked about that a lot too, that frequently what you imagine is scarier than what you see.

For example, with Leatherface, and especially in the second one, because now I know more about lighting, and I know how sketchy and edgy I can get with light – how little light I can use and still show the subject: don’t show the monster. Let the people have their own imagination of the monster. Don’t show the monster too perfectly. Because some people will be scared; and some people will start showing the mask, this and this and whatever. So the idea is you want to lead the audience to the place where they fill in some of the blanks themselves. You don’t want to be too graphic and go, ‘Here’s a good look at our monster.’ Because you get a good look at the monster, and the monster’s not scary. It’s like, I’m not quite sure if the monster has missing teeth, are those filed teeth? Has the monster got pointed teeth? It’s gonna show up to be a bit sketchy, and you really don’t want to lay it out, especially not in the beginning, or not early in the film. Maybe at the end, you wanna show people more about what they were looking at. There’s this thing that has been repeated throughout in those kinds of films – what you fill in with your imagination is scarier than what you see.

I’m not that familiar with the [horror] genre, I haven’t seen so many films. If you got experts together on the genre, they’d probably throw me out of the room. But I guess if anything, I guess I’d have to say because of CGI and everything, perhaps they were showing too much. Maybe we’re giving up on, ‘what you imagine is scarier than what you see.’ Maybe that’s getting lost today.

In 1973, we couldn’t show a chainsaw cutting into somebody. We do one shot like that, all we could pull off – we had a piece of sheet metal wrapped around Leatherface’s leg; we had to stab a brisket of beef on top of the metal between the metal and the pants; and a zip-lock baggy with a little bit of blood in it on top of the meat. From what the camera saw was the pants, underneath that was the baggy of blood, underneath that was the brisket of beef, underneath that was a sheet of metal to protect his leg. And the one cut that you actually see the chainsaw make in the film in the end is when he falls down and cuts himself on the leg. That’s the only time you see a chainsaw go into flesh. Now, in the remake, you see him quite clearly cut a guy’s leg off.

Speaking of technology, could you talk about an interesting technology that you used recently?

Daniel Pearl, ASC: My good friend, Frieder Hochiem, at Kinoflo is good enough to keep me informed of developing products, and sometimes gives me prototypes to use in the field to get feedback regarding the quality of the light and the usability of the instrument. He has designed a light, called the Barfly, since that is the name of the movie he was on when he invented the Kinoflo concept. The Barflies, which are presently available in three sizes, are the most incredible compact soft source of light available. The single unit, which is only slightly larger than a bible, perhaps even thinner, puts out about the same amount of light of the much larger two foot four bank Kinoflo. I love the quality of these lights, and their size makes them perfect for hiding behind books, etc. on set, which allows me to get light into places previously inaccessable. I was fortunate to get to use the prototypes on Frankenstein and Captivity, and had the production models on Alien v. Predator 2.

Daniel Gillies and crew on the set of Captivity. Photo courtesy of After Dark Films.And with the advancement of camera technologies, and the issue of film vs. digital...

Daniel Pearl, ASC: I just watched this Russian film from 1929 called Man with a Camera. Like someone once said, a camera is really nothing more than a sewing machine that’s just got a black housing, and it advances film one frame at a time, and stops it long enough to expose the picture, and moves it on. So in a way, I’m not the kind of guy who’s too excited about cameras. Because they are the similar works of a sewing machine. It’s not really the cameras that have done it for me. Basically, it’s like a given; it’s just a machine.

Different cameras have different capabilities, but within the normal realm of cinematography, no one camera is going to be any more than another. Lenses, yes. Lights, yes. Film stocks, yes.

They [Kodak] keep advancing film stocks in order to stay ahead of the digital technology, while so many other companies say, we can’t keep up, we’re done, we gotta stop. They continue to improve their products, continue to stay a player in this market. They could very easily go, look it’s all going to be digital, we’re gonna start losing money eventually, so we’re just gonna stop making film – you guys, figure it out. They could have easily done that, but they haven’t. They kept making their film better and better and better. Part of the film being ‘better and better,’ meaning that they see more and more and more exposure latitude, more latitude to reading into the shadows and to other exposure, more ability to hold highlights, to hold overexposure.

Well, once that’s done, the human eye is the ultimate device that can read from light to dark. The human eye can see outrageous contrast ratio. Things almost never become a silhouette to us. Everything in reality, we almost never see silhouettes. It’s quite a contrast ratio. So, they keep perfecting film and expanding its contrast ratio that it can capture between light and dark before a film goes to light and goes to black. They keep expanding this and getting it closer and closer to our vision. But in a way, they’re taking away from some of the things we like about film, what’s so interesting about film.

To get back to the ‘look’ that made us all fall in love with film – at whatever point in our lives it was that it happened to us – for me, it’s the look of film back in the ‘70s that I loved, and ‘60s and ‘70s films. In order for anything to have the same contrast ratio, to get that kind of look, we absolutely need the digital intermediate. And if you left the film and made the film without manipulating it, either photochemically or digitally, it would look like video tape.

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Check out this article in the December 2007 print edition of StudentFilmmakers magazine, page 46 .

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