The human experience is diverse and complicated. There are layers upon layers of emotions that make up the life of every individual on the planet regardless of their experiences and their point of origin. This complexity can sometimes go unnoticed in the din of so many people. The beauty that makes up each person’s life is a story in itself. This concept goes overlooked by many but is always present in the mind of Jifu Li. As a Sound Editor, Jifu spends his time ensuring that the voices and sounds present in a film weave in and out of presence in the story as the filmmakers see fit. One might not think of sound in terms of color but it is precisely this perspective that allows a contouring of the experience by the audience. Jifu uses his talents in a wide variety of films ranging from Oscar nominated to independent productions, proving that those of great talent seeks to collaborate with great storytellers regardless of the price tag…because that’s what they must do as committed artists.
Creating any film is a massive endeavor. The Oscar-nominated feature film The Grandmaster was almost hyperbolically so. The footage was extensive, twelve reels by the time that Jifu began his work. The production’s shooting cycle had lasted four years. Li’s previous work on five films had convinced Wu Ling (general manager of the China film post Company) that Jifu’s talent and propensity to work long hours without complaint made him ideal for the position. The Grandmaster is the story of the martial-arts master Ip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee. While it’s a gripping drama, the film is an obvious action story as well. The picture editing and audio editing of the film were done synchronously, which meant that getting the final frame version in perfect sync was an intimidating proposition. Altogether there were fifteen versions of the film. If an action scene changed, all of the effects and Group ADR required recutting by hand, sometimes even redesigning or rerecording. Describing what he does in a very literal sense, Jifu states, “If you cut from a punch to a slow motion reaction, the sound pacing should be fast to slow. I might add in some ‘Bass Drops.’ The hit should appear to the audience as it ‘feels’ to the characters, like you can hear the fist beat from the skin to the bones, all the texture and details. What happened a lot in The Grandmaster is that they would then change it on the other side; cut to the fighter’s slow-motion movement first, and suddenly speed up, hitting the others person’s face. The sound design will then change a lot. Sometimes there were voices and sometimes just music and sound effects. There are so many of these sonic aspects in modern films and in particular action films. My job is to make sure these subtleties are executed perfectly and to the desire of the director. It can be arduous but it’s always gratifying.”
A consummate professional like Jifu was necessary for The Grandmaster due to one technique which was employed during filming for the benefit of the action sequences. In this film (as in many action films) the director used music to aid in the fight sequences. This type of choreography is always about timing and music greatly aids in this. Quite often, the music used during filming is not the same that is used in the final edit (sometimes the music is altogether discarded). This results in extensive ADR (automated dialogue replacement). Even beyond the main characters, Li worked extensively on Walla Editing (the background character voices), Wild Tracks (sound effects which are recorded on location by the production sound mixer and then later edited for use), and Foley.
The Grandmaster is a beautiful film, visually and audibly. In addition to its 2014 Academy Award-nomination, it also received the Best film at the (2014) Asian Film Awards, Best Film at the (2014) Hong Kong Film Awards, as well as a Golden Horse Film Festival Audience Choice Award & Best Feature Film nomination. Most meaningful to Jifu was the Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing in Foreign Feature Film that acknowledged his skill on The Grandmaster and which he credits for inspiring him to continue to excel in the profession.
Though he enjoys the challenge of a huge budget feature film, Li also welcomes the opportunity of smaller films and the methodology they require. His work in Editing for the film “Love is Color Blind” helped to create the mood for a very different type of adversity and combat between the film’s main characters. The film, which won a host of awards at the London IFF 2017 and the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood, is the story of an American woman who adopts an orphan from China and has brought it back to the United States. With adolescent rebellion, the child begins to gradually question the authority of her mother. Teen angst ensues and a rift is created between child and parent. As life educates the daughter, she prepares to sincerely apologize to her mother at her 18-year-old birthday party but the mother faints from weakness due to late stages of cancer. At the last moment of life, the mother and daughter finally understand each other.
Jifu had extensive conversation with director Liu Jiaqi about the emotional shading of the tone she wanted in the film. In creating the sound design for “Love is Color Blind” he used Avid Media Composer and Protools HD. The program creates sound Design effects and allows them to be categorized and moved around as per the director’s desire for subtle differences. These type of modern tools are equally applicable in major studio films or smaller indie productions. It’s a fact of the modern filmmaking era that both the tools and the skilled professional like Jifu who use them often work in both situations. The key factors in either are talent and hard work, something which Li is always mindful of. He reveals, “I remember when I worked for Kar Wai Wong the director and he told me an idiom which inspires me to this day. Everyone knows that the most valuable part of a toad is the toad oil but do you know how the toad oil is produced? The toad is placed under a light and is scorched by the light. It produces this oil, a process which takes about twenty hours. When I heard this, I thought ‘sometimes inspiration comes from dogged pursuit.’ The best thing/essence occurs at the moment when you feel you reach your limit and want to give up. If you persist, you might be surprised by your achievement. This is what keeps me working as hard as I possibly can.”
A good artist is someone who invests a great deal of their life into mastering the skills needed to communicate their vision. The recipe doesn’t end there. They are driven and inspired by the work of others, sometimes through the previous work of others and sometimes due to the collaborative effort in which they take part. This “inspiring and receiving” cycle is the creative representation of Ourboros. Without it, the Arts would become stale. It contains all the essential elements of a good artist. Greatness is similar to this but contains one extra and paramount facet; the willingness to try things that are uncomfortable, the desire to take chances by traversing into unknown areas with the understanding that failure is a distinct possibility. Only by testing our limitations can we expand beyond them. If one’s desire is to recreate perfect art, being good is more than substantial, but if one desires greatness…well, it is a good idea to get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. This idea could be considered artistic CrossFit. Binbin Ma understands this concept. As a story board artist and graphic designer on many successful and lauded films, Ma has used her artistic abilities to enable directors and cinematographers to conceptualize, materialize on paper, and communicate their collective vison to the cast and film crew. She has become a sought-after artist due to her abilities on paper as well as her insight into tailoring her images to the specific filmmakers she works with. Binbin has brought her skills to award winning films such as; Robots& Cowboys, Stand Up, & the heart-wrenching and inspiring Happy Tree. In striving for greatness, Ma has tested herself in both new avenues as well as thought provoking subject matter. The challenges which she takes on in an attempt to grow as a consummate storyboard artist and graphic designer testify that Ma is a professional who wants to break new ground in her own field by understanding the inner workings of her peers and coworkers.
For the film Nothing But Her, Ma took on the Herculean task of not only Storyboard Artist and Graphic Designer but also Writer, Director, and Editor. The film was her attempt to step into the shoes of those she so often works with while also expressing a creative vision of her own. Nothing But Her is the story of a man (Jim) who observes his father’s Alzheimer condition worsen, a condition which puts Jim’s wife in danger at one point. This places Jim in a very uncomfortable and difficult situation. Binbin took on this film and its heavy subject matter as a way to see the different sides of telling such an emotionally demanding story. The idea came from her personal/cultural inspirations. Ma reveals, “It was my second year after leaving my home. I was homesick. In China, we have an old saying “child doesn’t travel if parents are still alive”. In our culture, Chinese think filial piety is the highest priority of all. Family vs. self-development has inspired me to ask ‘What if a young man had to choose between his Alzheimer’s family member and a pregnant wife.’ Making this film was a great experience for me. My skills as a storyboard artist and graphic designer saw immediate improvement after this experience. It was such a great way to learn and improve.” Because of her perspective as an artist over the course of her career, Nothing But Her displayed Binbin’s signature framing and composition. The film was received quite well with appearances in 2016 at Cannes, the Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival, and the Los Angles Independent Film Festival Awards.
Cinematographer Xuexue Pan (credits includes the critically acclaimed family drama The Key, the widely celebrated film Dancer from Picture, and the fan-favorite horror film Depth, to name only a few) states, “Ms. Ma is a storyboard artist of the highest caliber. She performed several leading roles for the critically acclaimed film Nothing But Her, but in addition, she has established herself as an enormously accomplished storyboard artist of the highest regard within her field. Her prowess is unparalleled in the industry. Her achievements in the industry have cemented her as a creative force to be reckoned with. Binbin’s achievements not only establish her as one of the most outstanding and accomplished storyboard artists in her field, they also qualify her as a genuinely one of a kind storyboard artist and graphic designer.”
There is a good reason that the Boston LGBT Film Festival nominated the film The Ex Factor for the Audience Choice award in 2016. While this community has gained many legal rights in modern US society, they are still challenged with being viewed with the same level of emotional validation and “normalcy” of other couples and relationships. One of the reasons (and intent) of the filmmakers to hire Binbin as the Storyboard Artist for The Ex Factor was a desire to portray the characters and action of the film in a romantic tone with use of images and lighting; Ma was the first step in creating this. Using headshots of the actors and meeting with director Chantal Le Hunte to discuss the mood served to inform Binbin of the “vibe” which was paramount to placing the audience in the desired emotional environment. Le Hunte declares, “Ms. Ma’s unparalleled talent for our film was such an integral element to the overall production of the film that I have no reservations in attributing her with our enormous critical acclaim. The Ex Factor was nominated for the Audience Choice Award for Best Short Film from the critically acclaimed Boston LGBT Film Festival, and received Official Selections from the Los Angeles CineFest, the Indie Night Film Festival, and the California Women’s Film Festival, to name a short few. After only one meeting about the images we needed for our film, she completed the storyboards in a way that allowed me to perfectly communicate my ideas to the cast and crew, thereby making our filming process successful and enjoyable. The accolades we received are directly attributable to the work that Binbin did on The Ex Effect.”
These two films are proof of a professional who, while still at a young age, has amassed an impressive list of credentials and yet always strives to learn and grow as an artist. Binbin Ma is a team player who is also a gifted artist, always ready to lend her talents to the ideas of others in order to create the films which allow us all to view the joys and hardships of others…while hopefully being inspired by their journey.
Masters of any field are not born, they are made. However, some individuals possess attributes which cause them to be ahead of the crowd. Those who are leaders in their field have become so because they recognize there is always another way to hone and define their abilities. Mari Lappalainen is this type of professional. Although she has many films and television productions to her credit, Gehenna: Where Death Lives was her first horror film as Production Designer. Director Hiroshi Katagiri recognized her talent as well as the opportunity for her to experience a new genre of film, partly due to his own experience. The film is also Katagiri’s directorial debut, which meant he took care to insulate himself with a crew he completely trusted. Lappalainen is known for her work as an Art Director on films such as: Danny Boy, Share, Awaken, and others but has been working increasingly as a Production Designer crafting the look of a film early on. Katagiri is lauded for his special effects makeup career (working with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park, A.I., and War of the Worlds as well as films with Rob Marshal, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, and others). There was a kinship shared between Lappalainen and Katagiri as talent recognized talent. With Gehenna, the results were entertaining, chilling, and culture blending. A great deal of this is a result of the look of the aesthetics of the film which Mari and Hiroshi worked so hard to create.
Gehenna is the story of a group of American real estate developers who travel to Saipan to scout land on which to build their next hotel resort. Unknown to the group, the area is sacred land that had been cursed centuries ago. They cross paths with an old Japanese WW2 bunker and enter to see if this will be an issue for their development. Soon, the door gets shut and the team is at the mercy of the curse; a curse which states that the last one alive loses and must face eternity alone in the dark. Although the film’s setting is on this Pacific island, the actual filming took place in Los Angeles. Director Hiroshi Katagiri is a stickler for authenticity. This meant that he took Lappalainen, as well as the Cinematographer, and Line Producer on a trip to Saipan to get a feel for how the set should be. Mari recalls, “The story was set in Saipan, on a small island across the world with significant WW2 memories. To get the feel of Saipan, their history of the war, and get accurate references for our Japanese bunker set to be built in Los Angeles, we flew to Saipan in early September. We scouted our filming locations there and photographed old war time bunkers and materials/finishes for reference. As almost everything in prop and set dressing wise was Japanese, I spent a few days in Tokyo to look for our hero props and set dressing references from museums and archives of the war period.”
As Production Designer, Lappalainen used some modern tools to give Hiroshi and the crew the most realistic sense of what the set should look like. Mari comments, “For Gehenna, I did the 3D modeling myself, adding textures to the model to show the director what we would be expecting and helped him to develop ideas for the storyboards and imagine the blocking for the action. It took a lot of research, especially for the small details as it was a Japanese WW2 bunker. There were no standing sets in Los Angeles like this so we had to create if from scratch. We looked at Japanese war movies and went to museums to learn about Japan at this time.”
Mari took great care to study the script for Gehenna, breaking down the script to understand the needs of the film in terms of visual language and character. Her trip to Japanese museums gave her a complete understanding of how the troops quarters were organized as well as the psychological and emotional “vibe” of the space; an element key to the actors and the audience getting a sense of the surroundings.
Gehenna: Where Death Lives was an obvious success as its inclusion in so many well-known festivals attests. Gehenna was selected to The New York City International Film Festival (NYCIFF), the Bram Stoker International Film Festival 2016 (UK Premiere), A Night of Horror film festival in Australia, and LA’s Shriekfest. Katagiri states, “Gehenna is a biblical term for a horribly evil place, and Saipan was the site of the heaviest fighting of WWII. To keep my vision, the look of the film needed to communicate this with the surroundings in an unspoken way; Mari Lappalainen made this happen flawlessly. She perfectly achieved creating the setting I imagined.” Lappalainen’s foray into horror films proves that her consummate abilities as a Production Designer translate from genre to genre. Being vetted by a recognized leader in the horror, fantasy, and sci-fi genres like Hiroshi Katagari is certain to bring Mari continued work. Whether in a romance, drama, comedy, or horror film, Mari will be bringing her self-demanding work ethic to the positive reviews of filmmakers and audiences alike.
For a director to let go of the reigns and trust a set designer without the nagging impulse to micromanage is a sign of true excellence on the part of the decorator. That’s at least the sentiment expressed by most every director who has worked with seasoned set decorator, Nancy Niksic.
Niksic, owner of a most impressive roster of achievements, just wrapped working alongside acclaimed film director and screenwriter, Azazel Jacobs (“Terri,” “Momma’s Man,” and “The Good Times Kid”) who raved about her invaluable work. “Nancy Niksic worked as my set decorator, and possess an exceptional ability to find unique and fitting set pieces, then decorates the set with a realism that adds to the character development. Nancy has true artistic talent and is an asset to work with. She understands my vision, which is incredibly beneficial to me as a director and to the success of my shoot.”
With 24 years of experience under her tool belt, Nancy has seen a variety of TV, film and commercial sets to visual perfection as set designer and decorator. Niksic’s versatility and adaptability are part and parcel of what has earned her keep amongst the greatest in the entertainment industry — including the Canadian “Amazing Race.” Niksic worked as the art director on the 1st season of the “Amazing Race,” and as production designer on the 2nd and 3rd seasons.
Niksic is the ultimate multitasker on set, with a strong comedy leaning as her niche. “ I look at it as an opportunity to have fun and really expand my creativity” says Niksic about her comedic set decorating sensibilities. “I’ve alway been super passionate about this niche market, especially the quirkiness and how odd some pieces have to be. Being a set decorator is all about contributing, and that takes understanding the joke and the tone and the subtleties of comedy. To make comedy work, there’s a tricky balance, knowing when to be understated and when to go big and in your face.”
Niksic nails the unassuming, keeping the audience unaware of the set decor, but at the same time having the pieces contribute to the comedic tone. “The audience won’t be able to put their finger on why it’s working, but it does. Directors like that I understand this. I love to scour the city for the perfect pieces,” adds Niksic.
Her comedic touch garnered her work on two seasons of “The Jon Dore Television Show” on The Comedy Network, as well as the short film “The Truth About Head” directed by Dale Heslip, which won several awards at Cannes.
Niksic recently worked on content for the comedy webseries by Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, Tim & Eric, and Reggie Watts called “JASH.” The content produced by cofounder Daniel Kellison (original executive producer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live”), was about three CIA agents living in horrible quarters in Aleppo, Syria, so the set had to look believable. “I had to make it look real, while also finding space to add comedic elements,” said Niksic. “I collaborated with the directors on the nuances of the set, trying to play it so the audience gets a real feel for the environment, while also putting in elements to accent the comedy.”
What sets Niksic apart from her competitors is that she is not limited to the entertainment realm alone. Niksic handled the decor and design as well as the styling of a renowned rock & roll inspired hair salon in Toronto called “Grateful Head” [pictured below]. She truly does it all. Whereas most designers who work in film wouldn’t normally venture in this space, Niksic will not turn down creative work, making her one of the most multifaceted designers in the game.
Nancy Niksic is a set designer extraordinaire, willing to work in any creative environment necessary. She knows what she, the audience and director/client want, and she stops at nothing to get it.
For Niksic, it’s about quickly understanding the director and the direction, and about establishing immediate trust while shouldering some of the weight the director carries. Her evolved sense of humor certainly comes in handy on any kind of set, keeping the list of opportunities running endlessly.
When we are moved by a film, or encounter a new television series that sparks our attention and earns our love, few of us consider the long list of people behind the scenes that are responsible for making the project great; and why would we, after all the point of both mediums is to help us get lost in the story.
Regardless of whether we recognize the jaw-dropping level of collaboration that goes into a production or not, it still remains that hundreds of crew members band together to work long hours to bring our favorite projects to the screen, and film electrician and camera operator Ekaterina Doldjeva is one of them.
As the on set electrician, Doldjeva’s work requires her to take on a multitude of responsibilities from communicating with the cinematographer to determine what lighting they want in to order achieve the desired mood in a scene, to setting up the lights and deciding on their placement, as well as cuing the lights at the right time. Each and every one of her decisions has a pivotal effect on the final outcome of a production.
Doldjeva explains, “For me, every time I am lighting a set, it feels like I am painting with light… I have always believed that people tend to remember how a movie made them feel more than anything else. So, understanding and being able to control light is crucial in order to tell any story.”
One thing that makes Doldjeva a special force in the industry is the fact that she is also a skilled camera operator. When it comes to working as a camerawoman on set, Doldjeva’s work entails much more than simply pointing a camera. She has to maintain the composition of the shot and know what camera angles to shoot and when to move, all the while being conscious of the actors and set to ensure that everything that needs to be in the shot is– and that nothing that isn’t supposed to be in the shot accidentally makes it in.
While Doldjeva works grueling hours behind the scenes to bring magical stories to life for the audience to enjoy and rarely gets the recognition she deserves from the public, she doesn’t work in film for the fame, she works in the industry because she loves contributing her creative efforts to visual storytelling; and to her team behind the scenes, she is worth her weight in gold.
Finding a quick, resourceful and energetic electrician that the cinematographer can trust is rare, and that is one of the reasons why Doldjeva is such a sought after gem in the industry.
Serving as the electrician on the Primetime Emmy Award winning and Golden Globe nominated series “Shameless,” the Netflix original series “Sense8,” NBC’s “Chicago Med,” and “Chicago P.D.” starring Sophia Bush (“One Tree Hill,” “Partners”) has kept Ekaterina Doldjeva busy working nonstop for the majority of 2016 so far; and she shows no signs of slowing down.
She is currently working as the electrician on the comedy feature film “Office Christmas Party” starring Golden Globe Award winner Jennifer Aniston (“Friends,” “Horrible Bosses”) and Olivia Munn (“X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Zoolander 2”), the drama film “American Express” starring Oscar Award winner Charlize Theron (“Monster,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) and the upcoming dramatic series “A.P.B.” starring Ralph Abbas (“Chicago Fire”) and Olivia Bird (“Empire”).
One of the qualities Doldjeva has to her advantage that few others do is the fact that she can easily transition across various roles in the field. While she works most consistently as an electrician on set, she has paid her dues and honed her skills as a grip and cinematographer as well. She was the grip on the romantic biographical feature film “Southside with You,” which earned a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, as well as the cinematographer and editor on the film “Heirloom.”
To find out what it takes to work as an on set electrician and camera operator in the highly competitive film world, make sure to check out our interview with Ekaterina Doldjeva below!
Hey Ekaterina, thanks for joining us! Can you start of by telling us where you are from?
ED: Absolutely! I am from a small town called Panagyurishte in Bulgaria. It is a patriotic town with a significant historical value. I lived there as a kid, then, I transferred for high school to the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia. Being thirteen years old, I had to learn to live by myself, which helped me grow and form as a person at an early age.
What was it like growing up their?
ED: Growing up in Bulgaria was a happy adventure. Many kids would gather daily and play soccer, tennis, basketball, volleyball, etc, until the sun goes down. We would go on trips and walk or bike around historical monuments in the woods. The nature is gorgeous everywhere in Bulgaria. There are various forests, lakes, rivers, caves and national parks all around the country. Hiking was another common thing to do either with groups of people or with family. We studied Bulgarian history along with international history and geography. This made me decide to study abroad, and travel as much as I can, so I can see different parts of the world and learn their culture and history.
When did you first realize you wanted to work in the film industry?
ED: I would say when I was in high school. My major had a main focus on computer science, math, and physics with an emphasis on English language. But I was interested in visual effects and animation and graphic design primarily at the time. I would look at the lighting style of a certain painting and try to create an image thinking about how to light it on the computer and make it seem real and alive for whatever project I was working on. Right after high school, I enrolled in a college in Los Angeles and started taking editing, camera operating, lighting and film history classes. My interests in visual storytelling became clearer, pointing me to the career path I chose to do today.
What was the first job you landed in the industry?
ED: One of my first jobs on a professional level was “Chicago Fire” TV series, but I did numerous short films, independent features and events before that as well. I started working on big productions my last year of college which was a huge accomplishment for me.
What was it like working on that production?
ED: “Chicago Fire” and other projects like “Betrayal,” “Chicago PD,” “The Other One,” “Empire,” “Shameless” and “Sense8,” were productions where I used all the knowledge I learned in college. At the same time, there was etiquette, which is crucially important behind the scenes. It is breathtaking to see how a certain scene is done especially on a show like “Chicago Fire.” Most scenes include lighting buildings on fire and heavy stunt work, but helping and contributing to create those scenes and afterwards see it on TV when the episode comes out, it repays for all the hard work I have done. I feel grateful that I am able to be apart of the crew at such a high level. Another interesting factor on working on this production as well every other one is that some of my bosses are Academy Award winners. They have done so many great movies and TV shows and working with them, seeing the decisions they make for a certain scene or a shot is always the most amazing part of my job.
What came first for you, working as a camera operator or electrician?
ED: I think that both jobs are equally important, but the reason I thrive to be a better and better electrician is to eventually become a cinematographer. Lighting is a crucial part of telling a visual story. For me, every time I am lighting a set, it feels like I am painting with light. However, being a camera operator is a true passion of mine. In order to be a cinematographer you have to be able to translate words from the script into visuals. There is way more into it, but I would say that one couldn’t work without the other.
How did one lead to the other?
ED: I realized that you couldn’t just point a camera and shoot something and expect it to look on a professional level. I started to research different lighting styles and how to create a certain look, mood and the atmosphere in a scene. I have always believed that people tend to remember how a movie made them feel more than anything else. So, understanding and being able to control light is crucial in order to tell any story.
Can you break down an average day for you when you’re working on set as a camera operator?
ED: Working as a camera operator involves constant communication with the cinematographer and the actors. The camera operator has to be cautious of the actors’ rehearsals, camera movements, lights and flares and anything else that may help or ruin the shot. Often, I have to fix problems and find solutions on the go. For example, it’s my responsibility to see if the shot comes out sharp. Also, I have to look for any unwanted equipment or props in the shot. Another important factor is talking to the actors either about their position in front of the camera or even anyone looking straight into the lens. This may seem insignificant, but scenes with more actors and extras requires that extra attention of detail. In other words, I am the eyes and ears of the cinematographer. I would say that communication and teamwork is essential throughout the day.
How about as an electrician?
ED: When I work as an electrician I see the shots and the scenes in a different way. Once the camera is set, then lighting begins. I often think ahead what the next set up will be in terms of lights, power and equipment. It’s very important to be quick, safe and efficient when you are lighting a scene. Every time we use big sources of light, you don’t want to blind anyone or set a light in an unsafe position. Weather condition is a key when we are shooting on location, so it would be my responsibility to make everything work in any circumstances. Teamwork is essential for an electrician. We often have to separate what we do, so we stay more efficient and productive.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your position during a production? How did you overcome them?
ED: I think the most common challenge I face with most days is doing lighting cues. It could be as simple as a character entering a room and flipping a switch to turn on or off the light to flickering lights and thunderstorm effects, flashlights, TV screen effect, fire etc. It’s not uncommon to do a movement or an effect in a shot that is not in the script, so when this happens, I have to improvise and come up with a quick solution and see how as a team we can make it work, so we don’t slow down the production. This makes our crew look good in front of our bosses and especially the producers. I would say that I learned to overcome those challenges easily within every production that I have worked on since I meet different crews and bosses that have different ways of doing their job. This absolutely helps expand my knowledge and builds up my skill set.
Can you tell us about some of the productions you’ve worked on and what job you were doing?
ED: The past year I did a few very interesting projects such as the films “Office Christmas Party” and “American Express,” as well as the television series “The Exorcist,” “Shameless” and “Empire.”
“Office Christmas Party” is a comedy starring Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman and Kate McKinnon. The story is about a branch manager who throws an epic Christmas party in order to land a big client, so his branch doesn’t get shut down. Some of the scenes were shot in downtown Chicago and we had a pretty big crew, more than usual. Throughout the day, we experiences short blizzards, rain and clear skies, all within 30 mins. A rapid weather change like this is never good for a lighting set up. So, at times, I had to separate from the crew and follow the weather every 10 mins, so I can tell the gaffer if there will be a lighting change. We had lights on every intersection around the square we were shooting at, inside buildings, along trees etc. so I had to be close to a certain section and decrease or increase the amount of light on all lights every time the sun changes and let everyone know, so they can tell production. This was crucial for lighting continuity within every shot and scene.
Another project I did was called “American Express” starring Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried and Joel Edgerton. On this project, I had the chance to work with a female cinematographer for the first time. She was specific in her choices of light and camera composition. Every time I had to set up a light whether on a ceiling or hidden around wall, most of the time it was my choice of placement. Because of my choices with the amount of light and shaping the light every time we set up, I got to be the photo stills gaffer for the feature film. In other words, we had photo sessions where I was in charge of the lighting set ups. A similar thing happened on the Fox pilot “The Exorcist” starring Academy Award winner Geena Davis. Since this series is a thriller, we had various lighting effects every day. I did all of the lighting cues at almost every location we shot at. For example, I had to simulate power going down on construction workers inside a church at a specific moment when the actors were passing by. Every time, timing was crucial especially when I had to repeat the same effect a couple of times in a row.
But, the Golden Globe nominated series “Shameless” and “Empire” were absolutely different from the three projects I just mentioned. “Shameless” has minimal lighting when the production comes to shoot in Chicago. I usually have to set up one or two lights but I have to avoid making them look artificial. “Empire” is absolutely the opposite of “Shameless” and maybe everything else I have ever done, because this is a drama TV series that has musical performances. So, I often had to navigate a spotlight and follow the singer across the stage. We had to set up lights for the shot but also, for the stage. Sometimes there will be a long shot where the performance might get interrupted; the singer would go off stage, or dance etc. A small mistake on a giant production like this could be inexcusable. I was electrician on all of these projects and it was important for me to be focused and quick in every decision I made.
What has been your favorite project so far?
ED: This is a hard question to answer because I’ve enjoyed all of the projects I have done. However, if I had to pick one to be my favorite it would be “Sense8.” It is a Netflix original made by Lilly and Lana Wachowski. Some of their work include “Matrix trilogy,” “V for Vendetta,” “Speed Racer,” “Cloud Atlas” and “Jupiter Ascending.”
On “Sense8,” I had the chance to work with Academy Award winner cinematographer John Toll, whose credits include “Braveheart,” “The Last Samurai,” “Iron Man 3,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Almost Famous,” “Vanilla Sky” and “Legends of the Fall.” He is one of my favorite cinematographers, I even studied his work while I was in college. I see him as a mentor and someone to look up to in terms of telling a visual story and becoming a better cinematographer. Having the chance to be apart of his crew and work directly for him is something I never thought would happen. Some of the techniques he used on set, whether setting up a shot or solving a lighting problem, even the way he communicated with the crew, was something I hadn’t encountered on set before. I think what I loved most about this project was the pace and the way the directors and the cinematographer perceived each scene and communicated to the actors.
What would you say your strongest qualities are in your field?
ED: Some of the strongest qualities I have are problem solving, I am quick and efficient, but safe, creative and absolutely reliable, and I am a team player. Working in the lighting department requires me to not only be knowledgeable of the equipment we use along with all the new updates and what new technology has to offer, but also, being able to use it properly. I think that those qualities helped me understand the professionalism behind the scenes and quickly establish my career path.
Can you tell us about the different types of lighting that you use for a scene to create a certain mood or atmosphere?
ED: Well, this really depends on the story, the director and the cinematographer. Some cinematographers prefer big sources of light that can be cut, diffused and shaped once set and others the smallest possible use of light possible. In the same way, I have worked with cinematographers who love the use of LEDs. An important factor of creating a certain mood or atmosphere in a scene is what the project is about. The contrast ratio defines the feel or the mood of the scene. For example, comedies tend to use a 2:1 ratio where if we look at the shadows in a certain shot they are almost non-existent. However, in thrillers there is lots of harsh lighting with deep, dark shadows that create a spooky feeling to enhance the surprise moment. On the other hand, in the case of a low light, high contrast ratio scenario or the other way around, the choice of the certain lights comes with the preferences of the cinematographer and the gaffer.
Earlier this year you were invited to judge the 2016 Fandependent Film Festival in Chicago, what was it like judging the festival?
ED: It was an interesting experience to judge versus having my movie being the one judged. Also, my comments had to be on point since this would help decide the winner of the festival. I can say that this was an overwhelming experience since I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders but at the same time, I enjoyed giving an in-depth evaluation about each project.
What were some of the things you looked for when judging the films that screened at the festival?
ED: I would always start from the overall story whether or not it works or the plot makes sense. Next, I would focus on the acting and how each character carries the dialog or the story itself. Of course, I would focus on my field looking at the cinematography and lighting of the film and how everything relates to the story.
Can you tell us about some of the projects you are currently working on and what you are doing?
ED: Currently, I am working on “Sense8.” We have been shooting in various location houses where one of my main responsibility is to link all the LED panels we set to a dimmer board, so the gaffer would be able to quickly control the levels on each light throughout the shots. There are many issues that can come up doing this; so troubleshooting has been a major responsibility during this show.
At the end of the day, what is it that you love about your job?
ED: It encompasses creativity, technical knowledge and etiquette. Collaborating with so many people and various departments in order to create the final product repays at the end of the day especially when you see your name in the credits in the theatre or on TV later on. I wouldn’t change what I do for any other job.
What do you hope to achieve in your career?
ED: I would say my long-term goal is to work as a cinematographer and shoot feature films at an Academy level. For now, I am glad that I am able to work on such high profile productions and expand my knowledge with each project that I do.
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