A Film’s Beauty is in the Eye of the Cinematographer

All photos courtesy of Michael Garcia

“Stories need to be told,” emphasizes cinematographer Michael Garcia. And he’s just the man to wield the camera.

The Debt Collector

Dusty gunslinger Hoovy Nash confronts Deuce the banker in his office. Sunlight filters through a window, rendering the scene in dappled shadows. Although it’s the depth of the Depression, this Oklahoma town looks much as it did in the late 1800s, and the stagnant air, like the burden of this economic wasteland, heavily weighs on the two men.

They argue, the camera following Deuce as he steps in front of his debt collector and tries to convince him not to confront the brothers gunning for him. The camera cuts to an extreme close-up of Hoovy’s pistol as he checks the ammunition, a dramatic high point in the scene. Another close-up frames the gunman’s weathered face, but the camera pulls back when Hoovy determinedly heads for the door. A longer shot lets the audience, like Deuce, watch Hoovy’s retreating back as he strides away.

Cinematographer Michael Garcia particularly likes this scene in award-winning short film The Debt Collector. He praises the “good rise in intensity in the scene” and the fact that “the emotion exudes from the production design to the actors to the lighting and camera movement. I think they all work together in concert to create a compelling scene.”

Garcia should know. On The Debt Collector’s Facebook page he’s identified as The Eye for the production, and he does indeed have a good eye for what makes a successful shot or scene. A close-up can emphasize detail, but camera movement can follow a character and pull the audience into the action. Garcia's evocative camera work helped tell The Debt Collector's eerie tale of life after death. This short won the Best Action Adventure Film in July at San Diego Comic-Con’s Independent Film Festival and, a few days later, the Best Western award at the Action on Film Festival in Pasadena, one of MovieMaker’s top-rated film festivals. Perhaps it’s not the Oscars (yet), but Garcia is benefiting from the film’s positive buzz.

Like the majority of independent films, however, the biggest challenge facing this production was “Money. You never have enough money,” Garcia jokes, because that’s the expected response when asked about making an indie. “Jokes aside, the biggest technical challenge was trying to execute, light and capture a gigantic dust storm on a small soundstage.” According to critics and fans who have watched the festival favorite, the production team met that challenge, creating a grittily realistic setting.

The Cinematographer’s Role

Although the role of cinematographer is crucial to filmmaking, it’s also one that receives far less attention in the media. The person behind the camera seldom gets to step out to take a bow. Garcia explains that his role “is to translate what the director has in his or her head in terms of style, texture, color, scope, all things visual, to the big screen. The director has this vision of the story and needs me to visually transcribe that to film, or video or whatever the media may be.

“All of my experiences with directors have been very different, and therefore my role, and the scope of it, will vary greatly from project to project. I enjoy working with a director heavily in preproduction so that we can get our communication down, so we know exactly the language we will be using to visually tell the story. That way, when we are on set, we already know what will be happening and, more importantly, why it is happening.

"Knowing why we are making a camera move or motivating a certain lighting source allows us to quickly manage problems as they arise on set and move through them quickly. If we don't have the preproduction time we would like, then this learning process and communication must happen more quickly on set, but either way we will find a way to get it done!”

Although different directors have their own quirks and preferences about filmmaking, Garcia ensures that “they get everything that they need from me before, during and after production to ensure a successful production.”

Garcia’s passion for cinematography is hard to miss. “What I love about cinematography is the craft. I love that you build something. You create it, sometimes from scratch, using the tools of our trade in a way that beautifully illustrates and punctuates good stories.”

What makes these stories important not only to us personally, but to the very fabric of society? Garcia’s ready answer could sway even the most cynical moviegoer who thinks of film merely as an evening’s entertainment. Although favorite movies can indeed be comforting, they serve many other purposes: “They help us escape, bring us home, scare and reassure us. They allow us to see worlds that could never exist, or history the way we wish it could have happened. Movies are beautiful; they can be art [or] education... Stories need to be told. Whether to inspire or to alert, films are as important to us individually as they are to our society as a whole.” The visuals, as determined by the director and translated onto film by the cinematographer, are key to telling these stories.

When pressed to name his favorite films, Garcia has trouble narrowing the list but finally decides on classics like Blade Runner, American Beauty, Fight Club, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, On the Waterfront, Se7en, Braveheart, Unforgiven, Silence of the Lambs, and Snatch. Those selections, he notes, may change.

So what helps him decide which films currently make the cut for his personal Top 10? “Like a good book, you can watch a good film over and over again. I feel that way about all of these films. Not only are they entertaining but stylized and fantastical at times.” Garcia prefers to develop his own style, “but I am definitely influenced by the body of work of several amazing cinematographers: Conrad Hall (American Beauty), Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World), Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, Se7en), Harris Savides (Restless, Milk), and Matthew Libatique (Cowboys & Aliens, Black Swan).”

Clearly a man on a mission to tell a wide variety of stories, Garcia continues to educate himself about the way the camera can and should move, as well as the day-to-day practicalities of working on a set. He has worked as everything from a grip to camera operator to cinematographer. His employers are as varied as the BBC and Animal Planet. On recent projects he operated the camera for Pitbulls and Parolees, When the Women Went, The Chicas Project (for which he also was director of photography on several episodes), Split Ends, and After Hours with Daniel. Always eager to learn more, Garcia found that “the documentary style of these shows helped groom me to work efficiently and to think quickly on my feet while utilizing my surroundings and existing circumstances to create quality images.”

Real to Reel Experience

Garcia has illustrated this knowledge and experience with an impressive clip reel to show potential employers. It illustrates just how important camera movement and perspective can be. The clips, although short and taken from many projects, immediately bring the audience into a scene, whether the camera captures an emotional hug or swirls around conflicted characters itching for a shootout. (You can take a look at Michael Garcia’s reel to see these clips, as well as the reel’s introductory shot from The Debt Collector.) Such a reel is important for young cinematographers to show what they have done and can do, and Garcia takes this visual resume very seriously.

A successful reel illustrates “diversity, technique, craftsmanship and attention to detail, as well as my passion as a cinematographer.” It also has to have “a bit of character.” Garcia works hard to make the reel the best first impression possible. In real or reel life, timing is everything, and the total running time must be kept short. He has only a few minutes to impress industry professionals and make his work memorable.

The contents therefore have “to showcase a variety of genres, formats, and styles,” as well as “camera movement, different lighting conditions, and a variety of frame sizes.” Garcia's reel, for example, includes modern settings as well as the period Western look from The Debt Collector. The edits sometimes provide a few surprises with quick cuts from one clip to another, but gentler transitions, such as fades or wipes, help vary the pace and keep the viewer's eyes riveted to the screen to see what comes next.

In the ongoing career story of Michael Garcia, what’s coming into frame? On the day of our interview, his next short film wrapped, and he’s awaiting word on a feature that could begin filming this fall. In five years he envisions “continued success in independent feature films, shooting larger-budget studio features and/or long-form cable television (for HBO or Showtime, for example), and maybe getting into some commercial work as well.”

Garcia’s work ethic and sheer enthusiasm for his profession make it difficult to discern any down sides to being a cinematographer. Would he change anything about his profession? The time factor again comes into play, as well as that distinction between real and reel life. “I love every facet of filmmaking besides working an industry standard 12-hour day. I have a three-month-old son, and I greatly value the time I have with him and my wonderful wife Andréa.” Combining family time with hours behind the camera may be Garcia’s biggest challenge yet, but one he no doubt can meet. After all, this is the man who found a way to film an in-studio dust storm.

The next time you enjoy a movie—not just the plot or performance but the camera’s movement and perspective or the sheer beauty of a shot—stick around for the credits and applaud the cinematographer. The name you read might very well be Michael Garcia.

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