Reflections of a Cinematographer: Ben Seresin

{mosimage}Cinematographers are also important to film making and Ben Seresin, just finished wrapping up astf for Michael Bay, has talks a bit about the film, courtesy of ShootOnline. Here's a snippet of what he has to say:

"[Transformers] represented a change for me. My movie background wasn't too much involved in the high impact action style of work that Michael does. I had, however, done some second unit DP work on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. As a DP, though, my features background was more from the art house, independent side of the business, which made it even more gratifying that Michael took a leap of faith with me. And to get a chance to work on a [Steven] Spielberg-produced movie was a treat. He has been a huge icon for me, especially through the early years of my filmmaking career."

Read the original article at ShootOnline!

Cinematographers reflect on their short and long-form work, and how one impacts the other.

May 22, 2009, Robert Goldrich — While the features are distinctly different—a fast paced action adventure film on a larger than life scale, and a quirky comedy/drama—they have drawn SHOOT to a couple of notable cinematographers whose work spans multiple disciplines, primarily commercials and theatrical movies, as well as great creative range within those disciplines.

    Ben Seresin recently wrapped shooting Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for director Michael Bay while Peter Donahue lensed the dramedy Gigantic helmed by Matt Aselton.

    Both Bay (who directs spot via The Institute for the Development of Enhanced Perceptual Awareness , Venice, Calif.) and Aselton (of bicoastal/international Epoch Films) bring commercialmaking experience to the director's chair. Donahue and Aselton in fact have collaborated in the past on spots whereas this marks the first time that Seresin has had occasion to work with Bay.

    Here are some reflections from Seresin and Donahue on their diverse filmmaking careers, their latest projects and digital cinematography:

Ben Seresin

    For cinematographer Ben Seresin, while working in commercials, feature films and music videos is the kind of diversity which he embraces, he is even more enamored in some respects with the diversity he's experienced within each of those disciplines as he aspires for more such variety—from small simple spots to more visually driven epic campaigns, from the creative freedom afforded him in music clips the past few years, to theatrical features ranging from a modestly budgeted personal psychological thriller (Done directed by spotmaker Ringan Ledwidge) to an ambitiously budgeted, grand in scope Transformers sequel produced by Steven Spielberg.

    In searching for a DP on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Bay was reportedly interested in an artisan with experience in commercials and music videos. "Michael's movies have a fairly fast paced visual dynamic that fits in with the commercials vibe," said Seresin. "The way I understand it is that he looked at 25 or so different reels and mine somehow got through the short list. I flew out to Los Angeles for a meeting with Michael, we hit it off and I got the film right off the bat."

    Seresin observed that the Transformers film "represented a change for me. My movie background wasn't too much involved in the high impact action style of work that Michael does. I had, however, done some second unit DP work on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. As a DP, though, my features background was more from the art house, independent side of the business, which made it even more gratifying that Michael took a leap of faith with me. And to get a chance to work on a Spielberg-produced movie was a treat. He has been a huge icon for me, especially through the early years of my filmmaking career."

    The alluded to "leap of faith" was paralleled by a quick leap into shooting Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. "One of the biggest sequences in the movie we shot during the first three days of filming," related Seresin. "Some directors might prefer to ease into a project, take the first few days to let you find your feet so to speak. But Michael's thinking is just the opposite. He throws everyone, including himself, into the biggest challenges in the first few days. This gets everybody up to speed and working in a way you need to carry on for the rest of the shoot. It sets the tone. As terrifying as it was at first, it served us well. The scale of the project was massive and for five months of shooting we maintained that momentum and high energy pace of shooting. On Michael's sets, you never see anyone standing around waiting for something to do. In some ways, you shoot with the speed, pressure and pace of a low budget music video that you have a limited amount of time to pull off properly."

    Seresin found himself able to adapt to this fast paced, high energy, challenging style in large part because he has such extensive spot shooting experience. "It's a dynamic brand of storytelling that my background in commercials made it easier for me to accommodate," noted Seresin. "It's a fantastically energizing process working with a director like Michael Bay. He likes to tell the stories in each scene quickly and directly. That and the pace at which the films are edited very much remind me of a commercials approach."

     While his spot background informed his work on the Bay feature, the Transformers experience conversely gave Seresin something that he can bring to his future commercialmaking endeavors. "Michael has an incredibly astute instinct for maintaining tension for his audience. His instinct for understanding what will work on the screen, what will maintain the engagement of the audience—particuarly for his target demographic—is phenomenal. From that point of view, I learned a great deal from him."

    Though the Transformers film kept Seresin busy for most of the past year, he still managed to shoe-horn in some spot duty, most notably a Nike campaign directed by Frank Budgen of Gorgeous, London (repped stateside by bicoastal Anonymous Content). Seresin has worked regularly with Gorgeous U.K. directors Budgen, Chris Palmer and Tom McCarty. The DP's recent collaborations, mostly prior to his embarking on Transformers, have been with the likes of Jake Scott of RSA Films, Malcolm Venville of Anonymous Content, Brian Beletic of Smuggler, and Dougal Wilson of Blink. Wilson and Seresin teamed on a British Telecom job just prior to the cinematographer starting on Transformers.

    Represented by The Skouras Agency in Santa Monica, Seresin is also active in digital cinematography although he remains devoted to film. His HD spot shoot experience includes deployment of the Sony CineAlta F23 and F35 as well as Arriflex's D-20 and D-21 cameras. Seresin shot a Gatorade spot directed by Fredrik Bond of MJZ using the D-21. That camera was selected because it lent itself to the nature of the project and Seresin found the results most satisfactory.

    As part of a test, Seresin also shot the Gatorade project using an Arri 235 film camera with Arri Master Prime lenses. "It was an in-the-field comparison and the results were a real eye opener. There's a misconception that you can go only with HD in any light situation. But with Kodak high speed film and the right prime lenses, you can do things in low light levels that haven't been fully explored creatively. On one hand HD has given people the confidence to shoot available light and see the results immediately. Yet film can deliver great quality under the same conditions. For some there's hesitation because they cannot see the results until the next day. But despite being without the immediacy, film can still deliver a magic that no other medium can at this point."

    Seresin added, "The technical possibilities of HD excite me and I can see the huge potential there creatively. The HD systems are getting better and better and at some point they might rival film. When that happens, I'll be right there as a regular user. But today film is still a fantastically versatile medium and its range and dynamic quality are unequaled. For example, there's no way we could have shot Transformers on HD. There are self-contained small film cameras that you can get terrific results from in any physical environment. You have immediate access. You can still get good results with HD but there are more restrictions, and the physical environment and conditions have to be better controlled for HD than for film."

Peter Donahue

    The selection of Peter Donahue to shoot Gigantic was a natural one for the film's director and co-writer Matt Aselton. The two have worked regularly on primarily comedic commercials over the past five or so years and become friends in the process.

    "We kind of see things the same way," said Donahue of his being on the same wavelength with Aselton. "We don't need to discuss things ad nauseam. We instinctively react very much the same way to things. We believe in doing things simply and creating an atmosphere where actors can work, and reacting from there."

    Aselton observed of Donahue, "What's truly helpful about working with Peter is his understanding of the story and the characters. His involvement goes beyond lights and cameras. It's wonderful to work with someone who thinks beyond their department."

    The Gigantic story centers on a couple (played by Paul Dano and Zooey Deschanel) who come from dysfunctional family situations yet find a way to form a relationship. "It's a very intelligent, very funny script and when Matty showed it to me, I immediately wanted to shoot it," said Donahue who's building a reputation in the quirky comedy arena. He also shot Five Dollars A Day for director Nigel Cole (starring Christopher Walken, Amanda Peet, Sharon Stone and Alessandro Nivola) for which a release date is pending. And earlier Donahue shot Junebug, directed by another Epoch director, Phil Morrison, which was nominated for a 2005 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic category and earned a Sundance Special Jury Prize as well as an Academy Award nomination for Amy Adams' performance.

    Donahue also has a more serious documentary pedigree, having shot for director Errol Morris Mr. Death as well as the '04 Oscar-winning documentary feature The Fog of War.

    The cinematographer, who is represented by Dattner Dispoto and Associates, Los Angeles, also enjoyed the benefit of working with directors Morris and Morrison—as with Aselton—on spots. The ad collaborations with Morris, for example, included PBS' "Photo Booth" which won the primetime commercial Emmy Award in '01. At the time Morris was with @radical.media. (He is now with Moxie Pictures.)

    Among the other notable spots lensed by Donahue over the years include the classic Miller High Life campaign work helmed by Morris, International Paper directed by Albert Watson of cYclops productions, New York, and Volkswagen directed by Aselton.

    Donahue's most recent commercial credits include Apple (directed by Morrison), Anthem, Boost Mobile and T-Mobile (helmed by Aselton), True North (directed by Helen Hunt via Chelsea Pictures; Donahue also earlier shot Hunt's feature directorial debut, Then She Found Me), and Heineken and State Farm (directed by Stacy Wall who recently moved from Epoch Films to a house in which he is partnered, Imperial Woodpecker).

    "One definitely informs the other," related Donahue of his experiences in features and commercials. "Anytime you work, you learn something about storytelling and how to do your job, from lighting a room to finding a way to let a camera tell a story a different way. You are better off for being involved in both disciplines. Commercials have been very beneficial in terms of my being fast and efficient in theatrical feature films. And movies have given me insights into, and the opportunity to get deeply involved in, character development."

    Donahue studied photography in art school and landed a job working in film. He then started shooting music videos and commercials, diversifying into documentaries with Morris. "I've been steadily shooting short-form and long-form projects, taking on commercials in-between features and being heavily steeped in commercials for long stretches of time. It's been an ideal mix creatively."

    Donahue remains firmly a film proponent, having had spotmaking forays into HD lensing with RED camera and the Sony 35. While those digital experiences didn't directly whet his appetite for more, he noted that he nonetheless is eager to become increasingly active in the HD shooting realm because "that's the direction in which things are headed. You have to be prepared for the future. Film, though, is still the most relevant and versatile medium for me."

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