Magazine article American Cinematographer

My Year in the Tadpole Trenches

Magazine article American Cinematographer

My Year in the Tadpole Trenches

Article excerpt

At first, I thought of 2012 as "The Year of My Alexa Hat Trick." By early August, I had photographed three movies back-toback, all with the Arri Alexa and all at ProRes, a decision necessitated by the limited production budgets. However, just as I was settling in for a quiet late-summer han/est of my wife's home garden, I got a phone call from a friend, directorAwriter Phil Alden Robinson. He was prepping a film starring Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, Melissa Leo and Hamish Linklater titled The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, and the cinematographer with whom he often worked had fallen out. Would I be interested? Shooting began in a month.

I've photographed about 20 films in New York City, and Carol and I have had an apartment near Lincoln Center for 30 years. I had hardly shot anything in the borough of Brooklyn since Brighton Beach Memoirs (1985), and certainly not in the newly über-hip enclaves of DUMBO and Williamsburg. When we wrapped The Angriest Man in Brooklyn with a mid-October, nighttime epilogue scene on a cruise boat in the East River, with the skyscraper lights of Lower Manhattan as background, I had completed my fourth film for the year. A celebration was in order. It was a personal best, but it didn't compare to the six or seven pictures per year of John Alton, ASC or Gabriel Figueroa in their heyday of the 1940s.

From the 1970s until about a decade ago, many studio features had shooting schedules of 40-50 days. Typical budgets for these rom-coms, dramas and non-VFX action movies came in at $20-30 million; it was the routine fare released on thousands of screens every Friday. The budget for the occasional star-studded event film topped $60 million, but it was still a few decades before behemoth franchises, reboots, zombieA/ampire, graphic novei/superhero, bloated leviathans swept credible, character-driven movies off the summertime screens. The industry trades proudly proclaim these beasts "tentpoles." The movies I photographed last year are what producer Lynda Obst calls "tadpoles" in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood.

So, last year I photographed four tadpoles. The union contracts designate them Tier 1,2 or 3 pictures, with slightly escalating budgets - a fraction of that of studio features in decades past. I read recently that the reshoot for the new ending of World War Z cost $20 million. The combined budget of all four of my tadpoles fell short of that amount.

The guidelines behind much of today's filmmaking revolve around the roulette wheel of what I call "Casino Cinema. " Tentpoles are not made with the expectation of a low house return like, say, Craps or 21. They're high-risk gambles, a movie embodiment of the shell game that brought down the investment banks of Wall Street. Even with the mixed box-office grosses from these summer tentpoles, it's likely that studio-marketing divisions will continue to place their bets on the $ 100-million-plus line, a venture that would be arguable if these films were part of a varied release package. But there is little appetite for a balanced cinematic diet. The films I photographed last year were all independently financed; none had a pre-shoot distribution deal. Two of them, The Way Way Back and A.C.O.D., were accepted to Sundance; since then, both attained distribution by the "art-house" divisions of major studios. Of the other two films, the drag-racing feature Snake and Mongoose had indie distribution in September, and The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is slated for a spring 2014 release. A decade ago, all four of these features likely would have appeared on a major studio's release schedule.

According to Obst, the ground began shifting beneath filmmakers' feet even before the millennium arrived. Since my days as a camera assistant in 1970,1 have watched a slow erosion of the fertile topsoil. That was the beginning of an anomalous decade of renegade movies reacting to Vietnam and to the cynicism and malaise of the Nixon era, and there was an eager audience for those offbeat, outsider films. …

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