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DP Phedon Papamichael ASC Interview

Phedon Papamichael Portrait Image

Phedon Papamichael, ASC, was born in Athens, Greece and moved with his family to Germany, where in 1982 he completed his education in Fine Arts, in Munich. Working as a photojournalist brought Phedon to NYC in 1983, where he started crossing over into cinematography.

Phedon now counts 50 feature films to his credit as Director of Photography. His credits include many critically acclaimed films, such as Phenomenon (1996), Mousehunt (1997), Patch Adams (1998), The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), America's Sweethearts (2001), Moonlight Mile (2002), Identity (2003), Sideways (2004), Walk The Line (2005), The Weather Man (2005), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), 3:10 To Yuma (2007), W. (2008), Knight and Day (2010), The Ides of March (2011), The Descendants (2011), Nebraska (2013), The Monuments Men (2014) & more.

On the music video side, his work includes: U2 (Electrical Storm, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Stuck in a Moment you can't get out of), The Killers, Eric Clapton, Bryan Ferry, Pearl Jam and more.

Phedon has also shot and directed over 100 commercials for such clients as BMW, VW, Audi, Seat, Cadillac, Nissan, Hyundai, Renault, Fuji, Barilla, McDonalds, Fosters, Bud Light, Coors, Beck's, Goodyear, ESPN, Powerade and Nespresso.

Phedon's many international Awards include the Orpheus Career Achievement Award given by the LAGFF in 2010 AWARD. He has been accepted as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1997, where he served several years on the Cinematographers Branch Executive Committee. Phedon is also a member of The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) and the International Cinematographers Guild.


DIR: Alexander Payne | DP: Phedon Papamichael

I had the pleasure to have a long talk with Phedon on Skype discussing cinematography. The following lines is the transcript. There is so much fascinating stuff in this talk so make a cup of coffee, sit back and enjoy the ride with my personal favorite DP and one of the best in business.

Alex Maragos: • Ok Phedon, let's take it from the beginning. You were born in Athens Greece, you've moved in the States, then back in Europe and back in the States. When did you become interested in Cinematography?

Phedon Papamichael: When i was a high school student in Munich i first started having interest in cinematography. When i was 15 i bought a Super8 camera and i start filming, making films and edited them. Later that format became very limited for me and i actually transitioned into still photography just because i could afford a professional camera. I felt like i could deliver some higher quality work with something that was affordable, so i bought my first Nikon and then i got very seriously into still photography. Of course i was a film-lover. There was one particular film called Le Mépris, its Godard's with Michel Piccoli and it was cinemascope, it was very graphic.. the colors... I related with that movie because first of all i loved Brigitte Bardot but second of all i realized that: "oh, there's somebody doing this job!". I mean i knew some directors but that's the first movie i wrote down the name of a cameraman. I wrote down Raoul Coutard. And i got: "ok, so there's somebody that does that. He moves the camera, he designs shots, he helps to tell the story, he helps the director." So at least i knew there was such a thing. Growing up in Munich.. it wasn't like a big society of filmmakers at the time. There was Wim Wenders and Robby Müller so.. we were looking mostly at French & Italian films. Then i finished my school, i did my military service and i left for America right away because my father, Phedon Papamichael, he was working on a John Cassavetes movie, he was an art director, so i just went there to check it out, i had no plan and i couldn't really afford a film school. So i was living in New York and then i started making a short film with Liz Gazzara, Ben Gazzara's daughter. She hired me based on my still photography. From that point on i just kept shooting, i never went to film school but i shot UCLA graduate films & various short films. Cassavetes had a Eclair NPR in his closet that he shot Faces with, so i asked him if i could borrow it and then i learned how to use it. I think it helped me get work. I had access to a camera and i got actually pretty busy, pretty fast.

• So you've learned the craft of cinematography from within the job.

Yes. I mean, i made mistakes in the beginning. I knew still photography so i knew exposure, i knew depth of field, i knew composition, but in terms of how to make a movie as a cinematographer i've discovered it along the way.

• After 45 films in your career, are you still learning things?

Of course you learn things, first of all everything is constantly changing. The technologies are evolving. But besides that, that's why our profession is special. Every time you've given a new script, it's a new approach. I really make an effort not to repeat things and also my work is very diverse. I don't have one style that i imprint on everything. If you look at Mousehunt is very different than The Million Dollar Hotel and very different than Sideways. I really try to not be unidentifiable through my work.


• You mentioned technology. What's your opinion about digital cinematography? We have ARRI Alexa, we have RED Epic at 5k, now we have Canon's C300...

The C300 was the weakest camera in the whole group that tested by the ASC & the PGA which is The Producers Guild of America. They do a big Shootout every year.

• What about the Mark III?

Mark III supposedly is very good. People prefer the Mark III i think over the C300 and it cost like the 1/5th or something.

• What do you really think about the DSLR revolution?

I just directed a movie that i shot with a RED Mysterium X chip and 5D combination. I used the 5D everywhere i didn't have permits to shoot. In the subway, on the streets at night, at Santa Monica Pier, and i think it's fantastic. You know, i'm still shooting film. I've shot all my features on film except the last one, a Judd Apatow film called "This is 40" i've shot with Alexas and it was the right thing to do because he shoots an incredible amount of film. On his last movie "Funny People", that Janusz Kaminski shot, they shot 2 million feet of film. It was really convenient to use Alexas, because of the multiple cameras and to have 30-minute takes. There are stories that should be shot on video and then there's films that are gonna be shot on film for a while. I think it depends on the preference of the director.

DIR: George Clooney | DP: Phedon Papamichael

George Clooney wanted to shoot film mostly because he's more traditionalist. He's happy when he gets to direct a movie and he wants to shoot it on film, there's no other reason. I did very extensive test with Super 35, Anamorphic Alexa, Epic, all 2.40:1 aspect ratio and then i did color correction in the DI suite. First i colored the film, it was Kodak Vision 500 and then i matched all the other formats to that, i added a little bit of grain to the digital cameras and then i went to film, so i printed everything and i filmed-projected everything side by side A/B Projection and the reality is that i could have tricked most people, probably everybody, by labeling it anyway i want. No one would be able to tell the difference. Certainly an audience will have no idea what they're looking at.


So, that's when i went to Kodak and they asked me 'what kind of film stocks we should develop?'. And i said, 'if you can give me a 1000asa stock that is completely neutral and has 20 stops of latitude, it has no grain, then ok!'. I said "look, you're a moving target but there is a big Mack Truck on the road coming up behind you, you're not gonna make it. You have no chance." And i told this lady at Fuji "find another job", she's a friend of mine. The reality is, it's over, in terms of film. There is no more release prints. By the middle of next year all the movie theaters will just receive DCP (Digital Cinema Package). So, Fuji is gonna keep making film, for Kodak we're not sure. Depends if they re-invent themselves, it's going to be difficult though and you know, i might shoot film, i'm not gonna fight shooting film. If somebody wants to shoot film i'm happy to shoot film. It's still very beautiful. I don't like the workflow on the Alexa.. or any digital cameras. Because now instead of lighting to the eye with my light meter, i have to light of a monitor. There is no other way to do it. I can't trust my eye and i can't trust the meter. So that's a little bit annoying. Just because i have to have a big monitor on set.


Phedon Papamichael film stock evaluation

• Do you have any particular favorite film stock for day & night scenes?

No i think all film stocks are so similar that it doesn't really matter. I mean between Kodak & Fuji. I usually use just Vision 500 or Fuji 500 tungsten because i like a little grain, so i don't really go lower speed stocks. I like having consistent textures, i don't mix stocks.

• How do you decide if a story requires a shallow DOF or a narrow DOF? Correct me if i'm wrong but i think you've shot the entire "Weather Man" at 2.8

Yeah i usually shoot around 2.8. It depends on the lensing. Some movies are little longer lenses. I usually shoot a little wider, i also intend to shoot close-ups like a little bit wider and just get physically closer to the actors. Longer lenses work for Tony Scott i guess but, it's less intimate for the characters when the camera is physically removed. If you shoot wider lenses you have to keep a shallow depth of field in order to isolate them a little bit better and keep the background out of focus. I do ND down a lot, but there is no rule to it. With Alexa you kinda have always narrow DOF which is nice.

• Are you talking with the colorist before filming about the DI process later?

Normally no, on "The Weather Man" yes. We picked what we call our "cocktail", which was a little bit of desat, a little bit of green, so we dialed in the look and then we maintained that look and applied it in the DI afterwords.


• Are you using any filters?

No, not really any more. I try to get the sharpest image now and then i can always degrade the image or soften in specific areas if a need to. With Alexa i shot Panavision lenses - i've Panavised Alexa - they're not as sharp as with Master Primes anyway. They are older lenses, they're not really made for digital cameras so they're little softer anyway.

• Where exactly are you focusing during filming? What are you thinking?

Not to gain too much weight! [laughing]. It depends on the movie, you focus on consistency. You have to stay focused. Anyone can make a couple of scenes look good. That's why commercial DPs don't always do so well in features. It's very hard over a duration of 10 weeks, or 12 weeks, or 5 weeks depending on the movie, to have every day come together in the final product. You have to stay focused just like an actor has to stay focused on the performance. And it's mostly experience that makes you accomplice consistency. You have to be able to predict what's gonna happen, you have to know how to layout the day especially on day exteriors.

• Are you shooting any commercials or music videos now? You shot three U2 music videos in the past.

I don't really shoot music videos. That was just because we had a connection to Bono and he was asking me to do it.

• I'm a big U2 fan you know!

I met Bono because he wrote the story of The Million Dollar Hotel. He invited us to Dublin and we went out a lot. We went to his house, he cooked pasta and we did a music video for the Million Dollar Hotel, "The Ground Beneath Her Feet". Then he called me for "Electrical Storm" which Anton Corbijn directed and i went to Monte Carlo. That was very nice. We did another one that he again requested me, but it's been a while since i have seen him.


DIR: Anton Corbijn | DP: Phedon Papamichael

• Electrical Storm is a very beautiful b&w video...

...Later with Anton Corbijn i did a Killers video and then we did another one in L.A, "Stuck in a Moment". It's fun when you do U2 videos, other than that i'm not really into doing music videos. Of course i do commercials because that helps me bridge time between features.

• Are you planning to shoot any movies in Greece?

There's one script that takes place in Greece but it's not financed yet. Most of the movies that take place in Greece are not financed. But, of course i would like to work in Greece. I directed a lot of commercials in Greece.

• I think you've also directed an Ouzo commercial, Plomari?

Yes, Plomari, Volkswagen TSI..

• Are you staying in LA now?

I was 4 months in Greece, from October till mid-January. I came back to shoot "Nebraska" with Payne which is black & white. No casting yet, it's been pushed back.

• Is this your 4th collaboration with Alexander?

3rd i guess. Everybody thinks i did more. I've only done two. "Sideways" and "The Descendants". I have a house in Leonidio. So i come to Greece. I like coming to Greece. I want to come there and i want to work there more but also i don't want to come and take work away from the few people that they're working. Cause when i come down, its like 'oh do this, do this commercial, do that' and then i directed and shoot, so i don't want to take work away from DPs in Greece.

• I see. When you come here again i woud love to have an ouzo with you in Leonidio!

We'll do that!


• Ok, one last question. What's the best way to learn the craft of cinematography?

By shooting all the time!

• Simple as that!

Yes, what else is there? What are you gonna do? And watch movies! I think younger generation doesn't watch movies. Maybe in Europe its better but here they have no idea. They don't watch any of the great classics and French & German New Wave cinema. They watch contemporary films. People need to watch Bergman movies.. Kurosawa movies.. David Lean movies. I'm really worried about the classic storytelling style. Somebody asked me 'what is the most important thing for you in cinematography?'. I go 'Lighting'. They go 'Lighting?!'. Like it was some kind of surprise to them. That's how you tell a story. You create a mood. You set the light for the character.


I'm worried a little bit that the new generation is not gonna know how to tell a story like that. There's a trend now of running around handheld with available light. It's very appropriate sometimes - some of those movies are interesting - but it doesn't mean that other kind of more traditional storytelling is gonna disappear completely.. There's gonna be a demand for that. But also the way people view films is going to change, which doesn't help. It's really getting very difficult for young DPs out there. We're losing respect of the craft. You know, there used to be a mystery about us. We had a light meter and a viewing glass and we've been talk to the lab about printings. Everybody thought they can write and direct, but nobody knew exactly what we do and now everybody feels like they can just stand by the monitor and have an opinion. So, i'm just worried about we're going to lose the respect for our craft and that the DPs are going to get under-appreciated and underpaid.

• One of the things the DSLRs done was exactly that. Everybody can have a 5D or a 7D and shoot just about anything with only available light.

Yeah i know. If you think about it -maybe it's not true but- we went from 1 out of 100 people having a Nikon film camera and now everybody's having a digital still camera. I'm on Instagram and it's amazing, the amount of images & photography, it's just mind-blowing.

We're starting to do online film school. It's going to be streaming probably on Facebook. It's gonna be, myself, Wally Pfister and Janusz Kaminski. And it's gonna be not really a film school in the technical sense. Its more philosophical, its more career advice and tricks of the trade and dealing with the industry. Because when i give seminars & Masterclasses it's all these questions i've been asked that you don't learn in film school and no film teacher can ever tell you about.

• Only on Facebook?

I think that's how we're gonna launch it yeah. It's gonna have about 25 courses, you can purchase them individually or as a package. And there going to be maybe 25 to 30 minutes long each. I'm not sure the pricing yet but it's really trying to reach out to all these countries that have young cinematographers or filmmakers in general.

• When will it go online?

We have to shoot it so i'm hoping to do it next month. It will go online after the release of "The Dark Knight Rises".

• Ok Phedon, thank you very much. It was a real pleasure!

All the best, γεια χαρά!


Visit: Phedon Papamichael | Advanced Filmmaking

Interview: Alexandros Maragos