In his own words : A Conversation with Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC

By Madelyn Most

La Lettre AFC n°243

[English] [français]

After Cannes in May and Camerimage in November, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, photographed by Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC, was honored at the American Society of Cinematographers Awards in February where many attending delighted in the rumor that Nebraska would upset Gravity and steal the top prize. Afterall, cinematographers were voting for what they recognize to be the year’s greatest achievement in lighting and photography, not visual effects. The rich black and white imagery has a raw and simple beauty that is unique today ; it defiantly counterpoints the glossy, artificial, commercial-advertising look found in most other Hollywood Studio movies.

But it was not to be : Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, Director of Photography on Gravity was the winner. After Avatar, Life of Pi, and now Gravity, shouldn’t there be two separate Cinematography Award categories for Motion Pictures : one for traditional, (actual, real) cinematography and another for moving images generated by a computer ?
“I think, if you can’t go to the place where the film was photographed and see the location or landscape, then it should be a different category. This might not apply so much to Chivo because he was very involved in creating all the images on Gravity and is responsible for the look”, says Phedon Papamichael, but on the other films, the DPs were not very involved with the Visual Effects or had control over the final image, and in certain cases never even met the VFX Supervisor. Papamichael then flew off to attend the Berlinale Premiere of Monuments Men, the British Academy Awards in London where Nebraska was competing for Best Cinematography, and back to Los Angeles for the Oscars. In between films he can be found on his boat off an island in Greece.

Part of the beauty of Nebraska is that it doesn’t look lit-even the interiors look natural.

“In general, I am inspired by natural light situations first. I try to find a different look for each picture and be subtle with my lighting, and not let the photography be too imposing. In this case, it was playing with the black and white and being more aggressive with the contrast ratio. If it’s not a long scene where we’ll be shooting for a long time, I will only use natural light, like in the old farmhouse where I could move around and plan what time of day to shoot it.
I have that flexibility because generally, with Alexander, we are not in a rush. We take our time and do about ten set ups a day. We usually have 50 shooting days on Alexander’s films, we had 35 on this one. I didn’t really approach the black and white so much differently than I would color, but I did increase the contrast because while I was shooting, I was looking at B&W films like Schindler’s List which is much more stylized, and I noticed you really can get away with more aggressive key sources, so I punched it up a little bit and that was our approach. I did shoot on the Alexa, rated at 800 or 1200 ISO at T4 because of the Anamorphics lenses.

Nebraska, and all of Alexander’s films, are shot on real locations that are actual, authentic restaurants, bars, or houses that exist the way you see them - generally we don’t touch the furnishings or the décor. All the driving scenes are real. The actors are free-driving and I am in the back on a sliding plate with a fluid head, or else the camera was mounted on the car door with a hostage-tray.
Most of the scenes in the car have no artificial lights. For the interiors, the big scene where they are eating the turkey, it’s very much inspired by natural light, but in fact, I have several Arri Max 18K’s bouncing into an Ultra-Bounce. It’s a lot of lighting trying to look unlit but it was necessary simply because you have to maintain that light and look over an extended period of time” Papamichael says.

Nebraska is Papamichael’s third consecutive collaboration with Alexander Constantine Papadopoulos - aka Alexander Payne -, after Sideways and The Descendants, and all three have been critical and financial successes. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, from Greek and German ancestry (as is Papamichael), Payne is known for his personal, thoughtful, intelligently observant, low budget stories that explore the inner lives of ordinary people, which he writes and directs : Citizen Ruth, Sideways, About Schmidt, Election, the 14th arrondissement section of Paris, je t’aime.
“Alexander mentioned Nebraska to me over ten years ago when we were shooting Sideways and it was always going to be in black and white. We don’t really reference films but we got together to cook pasta and watched a lot of B&W Japanese films from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, (and of course Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show) to compare the grain and contrast of the B&W films” says Papamichael.
Growing up in Munich, Phedon says he was influenced by the German new wave, particularly by Robbie Muller’s natural approach to photography in Alice In The Cities and Kings Of The Road. Payne says his three favorite cinemas are Japanese (especially Kurosawa), Italian, and American-from the classical period.

Payne is known for his particular way of working ; he retains as much control as possible and is famous for casting actors, not bankable ‘stars’. He is one of the few directors in Hollywood to have ‘final cut’ on his films, but in order to keep this independence, keeps his budgets fairly low by American standards. The budget for Nebraska was around $13 million dollars.”
“This is the first picture that Alexander did not write”, says Papamichael. Bob Nelson’s script, was owned by Paramount Studios, but they were uncomfortable with the decision on black and white photography and insisted Payne also deliver a color print, “so we could not shoot on black and white film stock and this changed the way we would work” continues Papamichael. “I tested the different formats and shot tests on (black and white Kodak stock) 5222 to have as a reference, then also tested Kodak’s color stock 5219 and my colorist Skip Kymball at Technicolor was able to set up the contrast and match the results of the film material with the digital footage.”

“The results were pretty close and we decided we would add a layer of film-grain in post to bring more texture to the look. The Alexa records in color and dailies were transferred to black and white. Then I added the layer of grain by capturing film grain (5248 film stock) off of a grey surface. You capture the film grain movement and put a layer over the digital image which is very clean and has no movement.
Today we are in a world of about 98% delivery on DCP, but have made ten show-prints on black and white print-stock of Nebraska and Alexander personally owns 2, but we haven’t found a place to project them yet. Paramount is very supportive of the film and now loves the choice of black and white photography” adds Papamichael.

Panavision C series Anamorphic lenses designed in the 70’s helped achieve a more textured, almost flawed look while the widescreen format accentuated the vast, empty, desolate landscapes and the feeling of isolation of the two small lonely figures within the large frame. On Bruce Dern’s close ups, the lenses pronounced the deep lines and ageing of his ghostly pale face and created a kind of glow around his whispy white hair which helped convey a feeling of sadness as we watch the character become more absent, confused, and disoriented in his own life.
Papamichael added color to the flat grey skies, buildings, walls, and the wardrobe, but couldn’t use red or other colored filters because he had to protect for the color version. His colorist in Los Angeles, Skip Kymball, showed him how to grab on to certain colors and told him : “The more color you give me, the more I can put into the key”. “What he was doing was incredible, I learned how to isolate the primary colors. I asked Production Designer Denis Washington to paint the barn red, the walls blue, and asked the costume designer to put the actors in red and green checkered shirts so we could grab onto that chroma and those colors”, he adds.
“That gave me the flexibility to dial in tones and made things easier and quicker later on because we only had 8 days to work on the DI”, says Papamichael.

What’s it like being shared by Alexander Payne and George Clooney ?

“I am a classical filmmaker and so are both George and Alexander, that is the way we know how to tell a story. The movies we are influenced by are not about stylization. George likes to shoot on film because he prefers a film look so we photographed the day exteriors for Monuments Men on celluloid, but he also understands the advantages shooting digital in low light situations, and that perhaps it gives him an accelerated shoot, so he agreed to use the Alexa and allowed me to mix both formats***.
Alexander and George are similar in their approaches to work and how they like to run their sets. Alexander creates his film family by working with the same people over and over again ; after three pictures, I now have a much better understanding of his aesthetics. He gave me more freedom on this picture and I was asked to operate the camera.”

“The editorial pacing is different on Nebraska. The shots are held on screen for a really long time so there is a lot of emphasis on the compositions. Often there is a reaction or a laugh from the audience even before the dialogue starts. Technically speaking, we don’t make shot-lists or storyboards. Typically we bring the actors in and let them explore the space. The writing is very precise however, so their lines of dialogue do not change, but we give them freedom to do what they want within the edges of frame which I have given them.
I get involved in the blocking early on so I might shift things a little bit to simplify either the set up or the lighting. Then we release the actors and in just a few minutes can decide what the coverage should be. It’s a very intuitive and instinctive process and both George and Alexander work this way - they don’t like to have the DP or the camera or technical aspects of filmmaking dominate the set and I am very respectful of that”, says Papamichael.

“With George we decide on a few shots and probably average about 10 set ups a day, but it’s very specific. We don’t run masters the length of the scene, or do close-ups on every one. We shoot single camera most of the time as George doesn’t want to be overwhelmed with too much material in the editing room. He just shoots what he needs and most of the time he’ll just do one or two takes. I would have to make an argument for a second take, pointing out a bit of action that didn’t happen in the background, and often he’ll say : ‘Oh, that’s OK. I got what I need’.
Alexander does a few more takes, but it’s not excessive. It’s very intimate on set and the filmmakers are right there with the actors. We don’t operate from a black tent or a video village. George, of course is acting, so he is right there, and typically, Alexander stands right next to the camera or sits on an apple box under the lens with a little hand held monitor or just peeks onto the monitor I am working off of.

With the Alexa, I never operate through the eyepiece anymore. I don’t use a light-meter anymore. I use a 19” OLED monitor to operate off of and I actually have to light off the monitor. I don’t actually mind, because I can involve the director and it can be helpful.
I don’t have to describe the lighting or explain : ‘This bit will it be in silhouette, he is 4 stops under so the background will be blown out’. Instead I can say : ‘Do you like this on the monitor ? Are you cool with this ?’, so I find I can be more bold, go darker, take greater risks” asserts Papamichael.

*** In the same week, Phedon was at the Lab checking both the DI for Nebraska and the print of Monuments Men, “which was strange to do because they are so different, so opposite” says Phedon Papamichael. Monuments is a period piece in color, dealing with much bigger set pieces and on a much larger scale.
Day exteriors were shot with Arricams using Kodak Vision3 5219 for better rendering on the skies, smoke, the snow. The rest, about 60% of the movie, was all the day interiors, night exteriors, and night interiors recorded on Alexa Arriraw with a 4:3 senor and anamorphic format. “I added film grain to the digital material to match the film footage. We mixed the Hawk Plus, the V-Plus, and V-Lite anamorphic lenses with spherical Arri/Zeiss Master Primes for the night exteriors as we needed speed and could shoot wide open at T1.3.

On set, we had a loader and a DIT as we were shooting film and digital in the same day. The DIT brought the Alexa on location and used the still capture function on the camera to take still images of each set up to provide references for dailies timing. During preproduction, the VFX supervisor Angus Bickerton shot the optical characteristics of Hawk lenses and could apply that quality to the sharp Master Prime shots in post so it was unnoticeable. Cutting between the anamorphic and spherical footage was seamless.
I am tending to pull back from more and more resolution and sharpness which can be more of a hindrance than a help on actor’s faces. I did the DI in London with Skip Kimball and it is was difficult to distinguish the digital material from the film, or recognize a difference between the Master Primes and the Hawk lenses”, adds Papamichael.

What is challenging to you now ?

“I do things the way I always did them. I still light even though it looks like I have no lights. I think what might be getting lost are certain lighting techniques that are not required anymore. These days anyone can shoot anything without light. If John Cassavetes were working today, he might be using a Canon 5D and if David Lean were working today, he would probably be using a 70mm camera.
It depends on the story, the format. I don’t have a problem with these new tools, but I don’t try to keep up with every bit of technological advance. When I do have a project, only at that given moment will I explore the tools available to me, and I will select whichever tool is best for that particular project”.

“Nothing has changed. We still have to tell stories and it is still hard to get these magical moments with actors. When you shoot a close up on Bruce Dern and he makes a tiny facial movement or there is a sudden flicker in his eyes that reflects his confusion or his fear or his anger - those are still the classic moments captured in cinema, the ultimate satisfying moments. But you still have to find them and you never know when or if it will happen”.
“It is the same fear you go into every time you start a movie. The night before you can’t sleep, but once the camera is rolling, you get the first shot in the can, or in the Codex, you start getting in a groove and start discovering things. Like on a basketball team, you warm up and you end up in a zone if you’re lucky, and you capture these little magic capsules of something.
I choose different projects and different directors so it never becomes a routine, but you always go in with this mystery : ‘Is it going to work ? Is it going to be good ? Is this the right look ? Am I doing the right thing ?’ You still have to find all that - so there’s no difference between now and the past…”, he adds.

You seem so relaxed, without that intensity or technical anxiety that others have.

“I can get intense, but I’m NOT technical. I don’t know anything ! I learn just what I need for what I am trying to accomplish at that moment. And if I don’t really need to know it, if my assistant understands it and I’m busy with what I am trying to do, I’m fine with that. It’s impossible to keep up with everything that’s changing all the time.

What do you think about the findings that it’s not just the camera responsible for image quality, but more importantly, the way the data is ‘handled, treated, debayered, demosaiqued’, in other words, the workflow ?

“I don’t care about any of that at all. I get feedback from the DIT guy who says : ‘You’re not legal here’, and I say : ‘That’s the way I like it so buzz off’. I actually WANT certain things to be blown out. I tried to blow out film until film became better and better and it would hold all the highlights. I come from a generation where if you were 3 stops over, everything outside the window would be gone. All I care about is the image. If I had a problem with the image, then I would ask or DIT why it appears like that. What I am very particular about, is having the right reference monitor. I am careful calibrating it and then setting a look, setting the LUT that I want, but from that point on, I paint off the monitor and trust it. The same is true for the DI process, where we start from scratch or only use our LUT as a reference, - whatever data we have is just meta-data anyway”.

You work as a cinematographer but also as a director - which is more fulfilling ?

“I’m not a frustrated cinematographer, I love what I do. I like to mix it up. It’s a lot of fun to go to the set and be responsible for everything, but it’s also a drag dealing with a lot of things that are not so creative. A cinematographer has to answer about 500 questions a day, a director has to answer about 5.000.
Sometimes when I shoot a movie, it’s not always the greatest experience and I get a little frustrated with the director because I feel maybe we as DPs are doing more of what they should be doing, what is ‘their’ job - of course, not with Alexander.”

“Then you go direct and you think : “OK, now I have more respect for these guys (directors) - this is a whole other ball game, there are so many things to consider”.
Directing is a great experience : I really enjoy the editing, working with the composer, I love the sound mix. I think it makes you into a better cinematographer, because when you sit through the editorial process, you understand how the different shots should be used. And you have to kill your babies - you can’t fall in love with these incredibly beautiful shots when they don’t move the scene forward. I’ll continue to direct, but I’ll try to be more selective with my material.
Ultimately, we all want to tell good stories and make movies that stand the test of time and that mean something to future generations”, concludes Mr. Papamichael.

Bio : Born in Athens, Greece to a German mother and Phedon Papamichael Senior, Phedon Papamichael Junior grew up in Munich where he studied Fine Arts before moving to New York in 1983 to work as a photojournalist. Following a call from his cousin and later collaborator, John Cassavetes, he relocated to Los Angeles where he worked for Roger Corman as Director of Photography on low budget movies.
Papamichael gained recognition for his photography on Wim Wender’s Million Dollar Hotel, James Mangold’s Walk The Line and 3:10 To Yuma, Oliver Stone’s W, George Clooney’s Ides of March, and Judd Apatow’s This is 40.
Today, with his close friends Janusz Kaminkski and Wally Pfister, Phedon Papamichael is creating an online filmschool called “Advanced Filmaking”.
Phedon Papamichael is member of the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) and GSC (Greek Society of Cinematographers).

(Written by Madelyn Most for the AFC, April 25 - 2014)