Monday, November 11, 2013

Creating A World With Cinematography

My oldest daughter has a good friend named Julia Swain; and I am privileged to call Miss Julia my friend, too.  She and my daughter met while in college, studying all things media.  Julia has worked in media for a long time -- on projects ranging from shorts to television to feature films.  She is now enrolled in UCLA's MFA program, with an emphasis in cinematography.  And do you know how hard it is to get into that program?  It's only the best of the best, baby.

Now, Julia is not only amazing with the camera, but she is a cancer survivor and an all-around kick-ass young woman.  A really good woman.  A woman of excellent character and a work ethic second-to-none.  She is also a lot of fun.

I have had the wondrous good fortune of having Julia shoot projects in my home.  Such an amazing time it is when Julia shows up at your door with bags full of camera equipment and her infectious enthusiasm and beautiful smile.  She doesn't even complain when I fed her hot dogs for dinner.  Craft services -- Marla style.  I also had the honor of being an associate producer on one of her films.  And I hope to collaborate with Julia on many other future projects. 

Julia has even been on the "SouthLAnd" set.  I pretty much had to be peeled off the ceiling when I found that out.  (And if you have read my blog at all, this does not surprise you in the least.)  I don't know if she met any of the show's cast or crew, but I bet if Julia sort of accidentally wandered into the trailer of Mr. Ben McKenzie himself, she would not get in trouble.  Not at all.  In fact, she would most certainly walk out of that trailer with a deal to work as DP on his next indie film.  Such is the impressive nature of Julia.  And she would make him look awesome in that indie film.  Tall even.

Julia has caused me to think a great deal about the role of the cinematographer in a TV or movie project.  I never really thought about this before.  In the past, when I thought about cinematography, I thought of the camera operator aiming the camera at the actors and turning it on when the director yells, "Action!" (I wonder if directors actually yell, "Action!" or if that's just a stereotype intended to mislead us naive fans.  And after we are misled, the directors probably sit around laughing about how we civilians think they yell, "Action!"  Perhaps, instead of yelling out this important directive, they just pronounce the word with great authority.)  Anyway, back to cinematography.  Nothing to it, I thought.  Just know the right button to push and what hole to look through.  Boy, was I ignorant and bone-headed.  My apologies to you, Julia, and to all of your camera-wielding friends, too.  Because what I have discovered, as I have paid more attention to Julia and her work and the work of other cinematographers, is that they know how to use their cameras in such a way as to actually create a world in which the actors bring their characters to life and enact their story.  The creation of this world is, of course, a collaborative effort on the part of the many individuals involved in a project.  But, the cinematographer has a unique and vital role to play.  Her abilities are crucial if the world inhabited by a particular story is to have an authentic, believable feeling.

For instance, a little over a month ago, my daughter Bridget and I were traveling from San Diego to Ojai.  En route, we passed the Redondo Beach Pier, where much of the television series "The O.C." was filmed.  I know a couple of lovely ladies who are huge fans of that show, but who live much too far away from SoCal to ever have an opportunity to visit the locations.  So, Bridget and I decided to stop and take some pictures to send their way.  I had never been to the Redondo Beach Pier before, so after I parked the car, Bridget and I began to wander around, looking for sights that seemed familiar from the show.  And we discovered much more than we had anticipated.  We found the diner -- which we had expected to find.  We saw the building that was used as The Bait Shop.  We discovered the route in which Ryan famously rides Marissa on the back of his bike, accompanied by Seth on his skate board.  We also happened upon, which was a huge surprise, buildings which had served as Sandy Cohen's office and the family planning clinic.  We also felt that we recognized other spots on the pier as being used in the show.  In short, we found the pier to be a resource of many of the show's locations, but locations which were not necessarily supposed to be near each other in the world of "The O.C." 

First off, hat tip to the location scouts in finding this goldmine of a place.  We realized that many scenes in various episodes of the show were filmed at the Redondo Beach Pier, which must have simplified the logistics involved in shooting.  I suppose several scenes could have been filmed at once at different points on the pier, being that it is an absolutely huge place, assuming the scenes involved different characters.  Or, prep for one scene could be done at one part of the pier, while shooting was happening in a different spot.  I am just guessing here, though, as my grasp of television production is essentially null.  But, what I was struck by was the creative vision of those who were entrusted with finding the locations for "The O.C."

What especially struck me, though, as my daughter and I meandered around the pier, was the talent of the cinematographers who worked on this hit show.  I really know nothing about photography, but some things stood out to me.  For example, I thought about Ryan, with Marissa on the back of his bike, Seth zooming along beside them on his skateboard.  As I looked at the pier, I realized the scene had to be shot in such a way that certain things surrounding the pier wouldn't be visible.  The show also had to be shot so that it wouldn't be obvious that the various locations were basically in the same place.  The diner, The Bait Shop, Sandy's office, etc., had to seem like part of the same community, but they had to look like they were at least somewhat geographically unique from one another.  This would involve careful camera set-up and conscientious attention to what was in each shot, so as not to include background scenery or other visual cues that would give away the fact that these places were physically so close together.  Additionally, "The O.C." stands for "Orange County."  And the show was supposed to take place in a very affluent area of Orange County known as Newport.  But, the Redondo Beach Pier is not anywhere near Newport.  In fact, the pier does not exude any sort of air of wealth or privilege.  Yet, the cinematography for the show was accomplished in such a way that the relatively lowly locations on the pier were transformed into an upscale and glamorous fictional world -- a very believable upscale and glamorous fictional world.

So, I salute you, Julia.  And I salute all of your talented colleagues.  Thank-you for applying your talent, your abilities, your time, and your energy in order to perfect your craft -- a craft that enables us viewers to enter into and believe in these amazing worlds you create.  These worlds are valuable places -- they educate, inform, entertain, and edify.  We would be poorer without them.

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