Reviews

New Cinematographers by Alexander Ballinger

Shandy Casteel

Ballinger opens up the roles a director of photographer must assume on a movie set, letting others in on the sometimes cumbersome but richly rewarding craft of cinematography.


New Cinematographers

Publisher: Harper Design
Length: 192
Price: $35
Author: Alexander Ballinger
US publication date: 2004-10
Amazon

There is a sense of wonder which film can inspire, an insightful labor of magical realism uncoiling its precariously balanced spell of enchantment into darkened theaters at every global recess. Like others of varying forms, it is an art which is at times enduring, but increasingly disposable. This variance, the thin line between masterwork and trash, is at the heart of every film, coded into the collaborative process required of such an undertaking. And, while most may understand it does indeed take a village to raise a movie, their attention for details is consigned to box office receipts, dating rumors and wardrobe malfunctions. But, beyond those occasional pithy gossips and conversational factoids is a seldom seen underbelly, the knotted mess of inspiration, technology, politics, talent, economics and luck which is the stuff of film school lessons, DVD extras, film geeks and the occasional entertainment article or television segment. Sporadically this side of filmmaking gets its due, such as at the Academy Awards or the intermittent review that is compelled by the sheer force of a particular contribution to spend a few words mentioning the costume design, set decorations or visual style (which the director's are almost single-handedly credited for anyway).

It is the details and artistic collaborations of film that Alexander Ballinger lays bare with his lavishly illustrated volume New Cinematographers, a compendium of six visually innovative cinematographers and their work in contemporary film. Conducting over forty hours of interviews and producing thirty-four separate discussions, Ballinger lets the directors of photography (Lance Acord, Jean-Yves Escoffier, Darius Khondji, John Mathieson, Seamus McGarvey and Harris Savides) speak for themselves, giving somewhat jargon-laden first-person narration to their daily struggles bringing life to a screenwriter's words and director's vision. Using photos, charts, sketches, lighting diagrams, storyboards and most fascinating, reference images from paintings and other films, Ballinger presents each cinematographer the opportunity to discuss their craft, giving technical specifications on lighting techniques, lens selection and location difficulties.

The selection by Ballinger is suitably varied, representing each section with at least four films, offering an assortment of uniquely original cinematic experiences richly imbued with the cinematographer's own style and artistry. Beginning every chapter is a brief Curriculum Vita, also noting their essential tools, advice for aspiring cinematographers, key films and books, and their own first break into this line of work.

Ballinger unearths a treasure of details in his interviews, getting the subjects to unlock their archives and present images and items that relay the immense technical challenge that each film separately presents its creators. Lance Accord, whose first major project was shooting Peter Care's R.E.M. documentrary RoadMovie [1996] opens the book with a discussion of his work on Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66 [1998], the influence of early sixties and seventies NFL films and an Elmer Batters' foot fetish book on the final look of the film, and an the ingenious low-budget trickery required to shoot a frozen moment effect using blown glass replicas of splashing liquid commonly used in cranberry juice commercials to simulate blood. Accord's other works here are equally taxing and inspired, including the astonishing Adaptation. [2002], and a return to working with Care on his The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys [2002]. Ballinger's talks with these artists allows us a peek at their influences and inspirations, how the work of others and situations give them rise to a creative charge that leads, in the end, to a better film. Accord tells us that the first ten minutes of the 1947 noir film Dark Passages provided needed inspiration for solving the tricky POV issues on Being John Malkovich [1999], while Tokyo proved perfect for night photography on the set of Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation [2003].

Tragically, the book's second subject, Jean-Yves Escoffier, died during the latter stages of the compiling the information, but is represented in two of his last films, Possession [2002] and The Human Stain [2003], by interviews with their directors Neil LeBute and Robert Benton. Escoffier's accomplishments are numerous, enough for his own book, so more commercial ventures like The Crow: City of Angels [1996], Excess Baggage [1997] and Rounders [1998] are ignored in favor of more artistic endeavors such as Boy Meets Girl [1984], Gummo [1997] and his other collaboration with LeBute, Nurse Betty [2000]. Unfortunately, Ballinger's most notable omission from the entire book is any discussion of Escoffier's sublimely gritty photography on Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting [1997].

The others all get their due from Ballinger. Darius Khondji's work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Delicatessen [1991], The City of Lost Children [1995] and Alien Resurrection [1997] is given space to flesh out diverse influences such as Francis Bacon, Edvard Munch, older Hollywood films like 1942's Cat People and the lighting of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven [1945]. Talking about his work on David Fincher's darkly iconic Seven [1995], Khondji says he finds the relationship between cinematographer and costume designer to be extremely important, noting that the clothes not only have to look good on the actors, but must also translate well on film. This is an interesting reminder echoed in other talks throughout the book, that there is no escaping the overwhelming complexity of capturing a world that is both false and true simultaneously, and the tiniest of over-looked details, the smallest misstep or muddled-thought could disarm the spell, and if that happens, the film has failed in its only obligation, to be true to itself.

John Mathieson is left to discuss his collaboration on projects like Hannibal [2001], K-PAX [2001], Matchstick Men [2003] and the disheveled Gladiator [2000] where the completed script arrived one week before they finished shooting. The book's concluding chapters focus on Seamus McGarvey (The War Zone [1999], High Fidelity [2000], Enigma [2001], The Hours [2002]) and Harris Savides (The Game [1997], Gerry [2002], Elephant [2003]).

With his interviews and strikingly reproduced imagery, Ballinger opens up the roles a director of photographer must assume on a movie set, letting others in on the sometimes cumbersome but richly rewarding craft of cinematography. The downside of all this beauty and artistry is that reading a paragraph or two and looking at a few stills will rarely supplant walking into a theater or renting the movies and viewing the fluid results, and to his credit, Ballinger states in his preface that such a screening is needed to complete any understanding of cinematography. Perhaps the biggest thing missing here is a subscription to a movie rental service. Now that would be a perfect appendix.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image