Magazine article American Cinematographer

Sharpen the Saw: Ingenuity and Experience Fuel First Feature

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Sharpen the Saw: Ingenuity and Experience Fuel First Feature

Article excerpt

After learning from the masters, Philip D. Schwartz gets the chance to demonstrate his skills as a director of photography.

SHARPEN THE SAW IS THE AUDACIOUS first feature of co-producers, co-directors and co-writers Scott and David Hillenbrand. The brothers took many risks to get the film made - maxing out an alarming number of credit cards and calling in every favor possible-but when it came to choosing a director of photography, they weren't taking any chances. After looking at over 100 reels and interviewing at least 50 prospective cinematographers, they called Philip D. Schwartz, who was in Salt Lake City operating on the CBS miniseries Nothing Lasts Forever.

Schwartz agreed to take the job on the spot. The Hillenbrands had seen the cameraman's work on shorts, second-unit jobs and commercials, and the subsequent interview had gone well. Schwartz was full of ideas on how to execute the film while saving money, and had brought detailed script notes to their meeting. However, he had never before served as director of photography on a feature film.

As it turned out, having Schwartz on the set was like marshalling the combined wisdom of 15 or 20 seasoned directors of photography, as well as an experienced operator. He had spent the previous 20 years serving on the crews of some of cinematography's brightest lights, and he had obviously paid attention. Throughout the production of Sharpen the Saw, the cameraman applied the experience and ingenuity he'd absorbed, and the result is a limited-budget film that looks like a commercial studio feature.

Prior to his career in film, Schwartz had been earning Ds at Cornell University's school of engineering school. After transferring to Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences, a "History of Cinema" course captured his attention.

It was the late Sixties, and after graduation Schwartz headed west to San Francisco "with a suitcase and a record player," where he landed a job working for the legendary (in some circles) Greg Snazelle. Schwartz picked up practical knowledge in the basic skills of filmmaking, beginning with making coffee. He learned every facet of the process, and he also learned that his true affinity was for the camera.

Schwartz eventually moved to Los Angeles, where his first job was as second assistant to Gerald Hirschfeld, ASC on Young Frankenstein. The move up to first assistant came four years later, on Black Sheep Squadron under John Elsenbach, ASC. By 1988 Schwartz was operating A-camera on Hollywood features, network MOWs and miniseries. Along the way, he assisted or operated for ASC members John Bailey, Adam Greenberg, Jack Green, Andrew Laszlo, Fred Schuler, Jordan Cronenweth, James Bagdonas and Tom Del Ruth, to name just a few.

"Tom was the first guy I ever saw who combined hard light and soft light out of the same instrument on an actor in one shot," recalls Schwartz. "The first time I saw him do it I thought that the grips had made a mistake. He had the diffusion paper come halfway down the 5K Fresnel for the soft light on the face, while the paper didn't cover the light hitting the wardrobe. I saw that, and very quietly asked Tom if it was what he wanted, and he said, 'Yeah, absolutely, look what it's doing.' And sure enough, I saw this wonderfully soft wrap-around light on the actor's face and this rake of hard light across his wardrobe to accent the texture in the clothing. That's a lesson I applied often on Sharpen the Saw."

With a 124-page script, very little time and less money, Schwartz and the Hillenbrands knew that the key to success would be meticulous planning. The entire script was carefully scheduled and storyboarded, and every location was scouted months in advance, taking into consideration blocking, lens choice, movement and time of day. The production couldn't afford a generator, so power sources had to be arranged at each location.

Along with Schwartz, gaffer Ron Sill and key grip Scott Reiniger made a secondary "tech scout" a couple of weeks prior to shooting. …

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