Magazine article American Cinematographer

Grim Prairie Tales: Civilized vs. Barbaric

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Grim Prairie Tales: Civilized vs. Barbaric

Article excerpt

While interning for John Alonzo, ASC on Nothing In Common, Janusz Kaminski had little reason to suspect that within two years he would be shooting his first Hollywood feature. Janusz hasn't taken his opportunity lightly.

"I feel fortunate to have been involved in this project, which has unquestionably been a labor of love," he says. "It seems common for cinematographers to begin their careers shooting low budget exploitation films where there's little concern for the look of the picture and where surviving the project actually becomes the main goal. I was happy when I realized how much writer/director Wayne Coe and producer Richard Hahn were open to creative discussions. It was clear that I wasn't working with just some hacks churning out films to make a quick buck."

Born in Wroclaw, Poland, Kaminski came to America less than seven years ago when he barely spoke English. Apparently, that didn't stop him, for six years later he received his B.A. from Columbia College in Chicago and then went on to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He has since returned to Chicago on several occasions to photograph independent features.

Grim Prairie Tales is about the struggle between the civilized and the barbaric. It utilizes the traditional campfire setting for two strangers to weave their tales of sexual repression, bigotry, spiritual beliefs and grisly gunfights. The script attracted actors such as James Earl Jones, Brad Dourif, William Atherton, Scott Paulin, and Lisa Eichorn. In the end, the film is not only one story but five - an anthology of moral tales told in folktale form. Naturally, this gave Kaminski the opportunity to embody many different styles, for each story had a different meaning and therefore, a different look.

"Throughout the film I used Arriflex cameras with Zeiss lenses. I used the BL4 B on the cold night shoots because the Arri-glow in the eyepiece really helped me to see the frame. It also had a defogger which came in handy. I didn't use the BL 4 all the time because of budget limitations. Still, Clairmont Camera takes tremendous care in the maintenance of their cameras, so really, one was as good as the other."

The story opens with desert travelers, played by James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif. One is a gruff mountain man and the other is a reserved, city writer. By necessity, the strangers resolve to set up camp together. They pass the time by exchanging stories-f our to be exact.

"I tried to make the opening inviting and beautiful. We ujed a 600mm lens to introduce Dourif as he stops to make camp. Working with this shallow focus gives you a beautiful look but can be very difficult when the actor is riding a horse and the movements are always inconsistent. On top of that, we were shooting this scene at magic hour, so there's not a lot of time for rehearsals or mistakes. Luckily, first assistant Jeff Porter was always patient and accurate. When night falls, Jones arrives at the campfire. First, you hear that famous voice (Darth Vader), then you see a large silhouette against a steel blue sky. Brad reacts suspiciously as the stranger intrudes upon his warm, safe campfire. I had all sorts of ideas on how to light this campfire scene but basically, as we went through rehearsals, I realized that because the acting was so strong, the lighting would be secondary.

"I tried to play off the development of their relationship. In the beginning, when they are suspicious of one another, the lighting is harsh white and cold blue. The background would be as dark and unfriendly as their relationship," Kaminski recalls.

"I used long lenses at the beginning for a shallow depth of focus. However, as the night progressed, I introduced warmer elements. The campfire became softer by adding an extra 250 zip with 3/ 4 CTO to fill in the rigid shadows. I opened up the background by lighting the field with HMIs, using 1/2 CTO and switching to the 50mm and 35mm lenses. Now, we could see more things - the cacti, the horses, the field. …

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