Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Denis Delestrac interview

Please read Denis' bio and see his images.

What advice do you have for PJs who want to become IMAX cinematographers?
I would advise them to be very curious. Have their eyes open and have a sensibility toward what's important in life, how they can contribute through their pictures or films to build awareness about any kind of subject that needs to be known. Just contribute to the future around their community, nationally or even internationally.

To be more practical, learn how to express your inner self on film - I don't trust academism as much as I believe in the power of someone's will and passion: if you want to move to film-making, go ahead, grab a camera, get some film and shoot. Then learn how to use Final Cut or any other editing software and start building your own creative and informative language.
Could someone start with video format?
Yes. Of course.

The great advantage we all have now is that with a couple of thousand dollars, you can become a production company. You can get a small DV cam. You can get a laptop, install Final Cut on it and you are a production company. You can shoot. You can edit. You can work the sound. You don't need much more to get started. If you have creativity and sensibility and if you know a few basics – but again, technique is the least important - it's going to work. You're going to get somewhere, but never forget who you are working for and connect with your audience.
What do you think about current PJ video trend?
I didn't know about this trend. As far as I'm concerned, I believe that photography, film, the Internet or any other media all have the same potential for impacting, informing and building awareness, they are just different ways of communicating with an audience. Moving from still photography to motion can be considered as an evolution. There are emotions that can be expressed differently through an audio-visual medium. It's another language with a different alphabet. But the impact of photography is also very important.
What equipment used on IMAX films?
Large format filmmakers use very big cameras, which weigh about 80 pounds and make moving around on location very slow and difficult. The magazines of film weigh very, very much also. You only have three minutes of film in each can. For its technical and creative requirements, I consider it one of the most complicated filming process.

Because it is going to be projected on a big screen, you have to frame it in a way that's not going to have people want to vomit when they see the film (laughs).

You can put all the regular motion camera lenses that you want. They are regular film lenses. Our experience is shooting in 2D, but the 3D cameras work with two magazines and are bi-focal, which means two lenses are used in parallel to reproduce the human eye's vision.
What makes IMAX different then?
During the shooting, you have to set up - very well - all the shots. There is so much information on the frame. It's a 70mm frame, the largest film used in motion pictures. You've got so much information on each frame that you've got to be really careful with how you point your camera.

For example, if you are in the desert, and you have this beautiful, virgin view and you have your character walk through your frame. [However], you have a step on the sand that you don't want or a discarded cigarette butt. You're not going to see it when you shoot the film, but it's going to be huge on the giant screen where it's projected.
It's four times larger. It's like shooting medium format instead of 35mm.
Exactly, it contains more visual information

And when it's projected, it makes the audience read - literally - the screen. In an IMAX theater, you see the people looking around and moving their eyes around the screen because there's so much to see. That makes the editing much slower than in TV film. This allows the audience to absorb all this information.

It's like in reality. You're not still. Your eyes move. When you're in an IMAX theater, it's thethee same. You look to the right, to the left, upward and downward. You observe your environment.
Since it's a wrap-around screen, do you use a fisheye lens?
It depends on the shot. You use wide angles all the time because most theaters have the dome - it's not a flat screen, it's a round screen. You want to cover all of the dome and have the same curve that is going to be on the projection surface so you can see the film correctly.

If you shoot flat, when you project on the dome screen, it'll be deformed.
Special training?

There is no training. It's all based on empiricalism. There are film schools, but large format filmmaking is not taught there. There is no book. You don't learn to shoot IMAX except by doing IMAX. It's all based on the experience of the people who do it. You are lucky if you hang with the few guys in the world who have experience doing IMAX.

In our case, since "Mystery of the Nile" was our first film in IMAX, we co-produced it with MacGillivray Freeman Films, who are based in California. They are the real big, No. 1 IMAX in the world.

You learn by being around people who know this.

To work on a production, I think most of the people who now work on the films, they have experience in 35mm. They have worked around different shootings. You can contact production companies. You have to be ready to work - at the beginning - for little money and to invest a lot of passion if you want to stay in this world. There are many, many people who want to be there.
How does the market look for IMAX and cinematographers?

There are actually quite a few new IMAX theaters in the world that are going to open. The general trend now is these theaters are programming more 3D films because they slowly get equipped with 3D projectors. So, what I would suggest to the young generations is to get very strong in digital - both in shooting and in projecting.

There is a lot of work for projectors - for the projection in the theaters. You don't shoot, you project the film, but it's interesting also. There are many parts of the chain. You are the last guy in the chain, but you are very important in how the people are going to see the movie. You're also going to work with the focus, with the lenses, with lights - it's the same.

It's like when you work with your camera and then you work with the enlarger - same kind of thing. The enlarger is very important. You work with the lens, you work with the lights, you work with everything. Part of the final result is in your hands.

It's the same when you shoot the film and then you project the film I would say. There is a lot of interest to work in the theatres and – from what some theater directors tell me – it is hard to find and hire a good projection person.

I would get into digital, both shooting and projecting, and I would be very interested in all 3D technologies. This is what it's going to be and very, very, very big. Maybe I'm too radical here, but I think 2D is a species that could be extinct very soon for IMAX. We could go farther in time, but it's going to happen in your home also.
What's your lifestyle like?
When you are in a production company, you spend a lot of time developing projects and searching for funding (laughs). It's a pain in the ass because what we want is to get out to Africa and shoot a film, and travel, and be in the editing room and create. Unfortunately, you have to go through this funding part, which, personally, is not my favorite.

But it's a pretty normal life. Sometimes you go to festivals, but most of the time you have regular office work, make your phone calls, have meetings and try to raise money for the film. When you have gone through all the barriers, all the process of getting the money, creating a script, then you pack your stuff and get out of there and you go shoot. [It's] the most stressful, exciting, amazing thing in the world.
How does funding work?
It's a custom thing. Each project is funded in a different way. There's no rule for that.

You can work in co-production, which means two or more production companies are going to put all their assets together to make a film become a reality. It can be financial resources or what we call "talent," or "in kind." It could be cameras. It could be an editing facility, the stock or a director of photography - it could be anything. Whatever you have, you put it in to make a co-production.

Then, you have all the credits that some banks [and] savings companies are willing to give you to participate in the film.

Especially in the states, you have these foundations. The National Science Foundation just gave $2.2 million for an IMAX film, which is incredible. We don't have that in Europe. You don't get 2 million bucks like that, it's not in the culture. That's really only here in the states, and I believe European corporations and foundations should get more daring and give larger support to the independent filmmakers.
Are IMAX documentaries more like PJ work or like movies when it comes to ethics?
In the first place, it's hard to make a direct link between photojournalism and filming IMAX or anything else. You don't work exactly the same way.

IMAX is a strange genre. It's in-between. You have documentaries that always have a part of fiction. Those cameras are so big. Each shot takes so much time to set up that you can't improvise. You can't run behind your character with an IMAX camera on your shoulder. If something happens suddenly, typically you're not ready to shoot.

It's not like video. When you shoot video, you just press record, and you get your images. When you shoot IMAX, you have to spend two hours to set up the shot (laughs) and your crocodile attack has been finished a long time when you are ready to shoot (laughs). You can't improvise.

This means it always has to be - even if it's not storyboarded - it has to be prepared. You have to know what you're going to do.
Then how do you do a crocodile attack?
You don't do it.

On "The Mystery of the Nile" we also had video cameras. The members of the expedition had video cameras with them. Whenever something happened - or, once in a while, they would take the video camera out and shoot and do interviews between them and shoot whatever was going to happen.

For example, they got attacked several times by crocodiles. They even got shot by what we call "the shifters" in Ethiopia. They are the bandits in Ethiopia. So, what we do in this case is we want to portray the reality in the IMAX film. So we recreate the situation and we shoot it. Which means what you see on the screen is not the real guy that shot at the expedition. But, since it's impossible to see it how it really happened, we shoot it again. It's in between reality and fiction because it really happened and we put it in the film, but what you see is not exactly what happened at the moment it happened because you're unable to shoot it.
How many languages do you speak?
French, English, Spanish, Catalan - I would say four-and-a-half because I speak a little Arabic.
How important has been multi-linguistic been in your career?
Crucial. You're in the states. You're in the country where the language is the most used in the world. But for me, being French, if I didn't speak English, I wouldn't go anywhere. Really. All your work language - most of the time - is English.

You shoot in English because most of the technical crew, they are from here. Even if you are with an Italian, a Spaniard and a German, you're going to speak English because you don't speak all these languages.

It's all a reflection of the economy. Most of the theaters are here in the United States. Eighty percent of the IMAX market is here. If China were the number one film market, we would all speak Mandarin (laughs).
What's your biggest visual pet peeve?
Lack of content. There are images that are totally empty. I want to see both the atmosphere of the situation that is captured and I want also to see the sensibility of the photographer - in the same image.
How do photographers do that?
Have a different eye. Work with their feelings. I don't know how to explain that, but when you get in the situation, there are these few shots that you are going to shoot in the beginning. You know you're not inside. You're not in the action. You're not there. And you shoot and you shoot and then you start entering - getting inside your character, his soul reveals to your lens - the essence of the situation is within your reach. You start to control the environment. You are there. That's the moment when you can capture the essence of the moment or the person.

That's all created by you. It's inside of you. It's another feeling of sensibility of yourself because if you give two people the same camera and you put them in the same situation, they're not going to have the same images.

One is going to maybe make a shot that is going to make you want to cry. The other is going to make a shot that's just going to inform you. That's the difference. But the difference is sensibility. It's not technique. It's not a matter of diplomas or schools or whatever. It's just you. If you are a good photographer, that's how I believe you have to work with your heart and with the extension of it, which is the camera.
Anything else?

In my experience when you want to do something, you put all your passion and you positivism and you do it. If you are really passionate about it, you will make it. I'm sure about that.

The money is not really important. I don't earn a lot of money, but it's really exciting. It's about the life that you're going to get. Having a bigger car or bigger apartment - I don't care. I'm fine. I have food every day. I have a beautiful wife. I'm healthy. That's it.

If I could get a Porsche, (laughs) that would be cool. It would be fun the first week, but afterward, I'd have a Porsche and that's it. Material stuff doesn't make you happier. The key is inside you, not in your garage or bank account.
Some readers are concerned about just getting a burger.
They can get a burger. They can make a living. Getting rich, that's another thing. I'm not there either. That's not my goal. My goal is just to have a fun and an enriching life. That's all. I believe this goal is underway (laughs).

Denis is in Spain now, but has graciously agreed to answer any follow-up questions. Either post questions in the comment section or e-mail them to me (let me know your name, city and blog address for a link). I'll add any questions and answers to this post until Nov. 1, 2006.

Marie asks, "I am curious to know a bit about the technological timeline advances in IMAX history and what Denis forsees as future major innovations in the field. Thanx."

Cameras and Film:
IMAX cameras are specifically designed by the IMAX corporation to shoot 15 perforation, 70 mm film (15/70) - the world's largest film format. Their weight is between 42 and 100 pounds. We use Kodak film that the firm manufactures especially, upon demand. The large format projectors are the most powerful in the world. The key lies in the Rolling Loop technology which advances the film in a wave-like motion at 24 frames per second. During projection, each frame is positioned on fixed registration pins and a vacuum holds the film flat against the rear lens element. When combined with IMAX 15/70 film they project images of immense size, sharpness and clarity.

A bit of History is located on Wikipedia.

The industry is heading towards MORE DIGITAL (production, triggered by an increasing number of digitally equiped theaters) and MORE 3D.

Enough for now,

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