Movie fans across the world are familiar with the marquee names of actors. Directors and producers like Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Quentin Tarantino have also achieved the king of international notoriety that places them in the celebrity category. For each of these, there are legions of publicly unknown artists whose talent creates the stories that tug at our hearts, unearth laughter, and move us to appreciate the world we live in. Though the public may be unaware of these exceptionally skilled professionals, those who truly understand the storytelling process proclaim their contributions. Three-time Academy Award winning producer and writer Jana Sue Memel has produced more than twenty-five feature films as well as countless live action shorts airing in more than thirty countries. In discussing the film Son of Wanderer (on which she served as screenwriter) Memel points out, “The Camera Man position on a film is truly underappreciated. Jun Li was the camera operator/Steadicam operator for Son of Wanderer and his insightful contributions were a direct part of the recognitions the film has already received.” These recognitions include wins for the film at the London Independent Film Awards, Los Angeles Film awards, Rome Independent Prisma Awards, and others. While the producers, directors, and others are the brain which comprehends the story, professionals like Jun Li are the eyes which allow audiences everywhere to see first-hand the events which unfold on the screen. They are the windows to the movie’s soul. As the camera operator’s motto states “We see it first.”
Son of Wanderer is a story that allows us to see that holding back from those closest to us can cause a great divide. Mingzhe Li is a successful artist in the US but originally from China. He appears to have a great life with a beautiful and loving wife but he is estranged from his mother [Li]. When Li shows up unannounced at the couple’s San Francisco home, the motivation for this visit is kept secret. Through flashbacks we learn that Mingzhe’s father was a famous and talented artist in the 1970’s before the Cultural Revolution in China and alcohol led to his downward spiral. The family eventually dissolved and when her teenage son showed an inclination for art, Li quickly snuffed this notion. This planted the seed of resentment which would separate mother and child. In present day, Li finally informs her adult son that she has come to America to inform him of his father’s death. A torrent of emotion, years in the making, erupts and Li leaves for China at once. Only Li’s secret box contains the antidote to their discourse.
Director Chi Zhou and cinematographer Nan Li wanted to express the unusual coldness between mother and son in the movie, without the need for exposition. In many of the scenes, there is literally a divide between them. Jun’s skill with the Steadicam was heavily utilized in Son of Wanderer to obtain not only the composition but the feel which was so essential to this film. His carefully calculated movements with tight lock offs and use of negative space for both characters establishes a tone that belies its difficulty to create with a Steadicam. What might appear as dolly and track moves are in reality Jun’s skills operating at an exceptional level. He communicates, “I’m very delighted this film received so many cinematography awards. There are three main points made the look of this film. Because the theme of this story is a modern family drama, we based it in a realism style, emphasizing the saturation from very beginning. Secondly, in order to make each character stand out, we used a wide open lens for the whole shoot. The very shallow depth of field creates a grand cinematic look. Finally, the slow and gentle camera movements run through the entire film and transfer this sense of timing to the audience. All of these components were carefully crafted to help the viewer feel the emotions of our characters.” Camera operator/Steadicam operator Jun Li’s contributions to this production are key in presenting the story and its success. The verification of this is found in both the awards Son of Wanderer garnered as well as the deeply moving experience of watching this acclaimed film.
Back in 2004, when Juan Matias Ramos Mora received an invitation to be the Steadicam Operator on The Sea Inside, he had no idea that he would be part of an Academy Award-Winning film (the film received the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards in 2005 and several European prizes in 2004 and 2005) as well as witness the evolution of an international star in the performance of Javier Bardem. If the truth be told, the only two factors that enticed Juan to join the film were his constant pursuit of challenging work and the opportunity to work with director Alejandro Aménabar. The tipping point in the career of artistic individuals like Juan Ramos often happen when it is the most unexpected and when accolades are not a factor in the equation. Now more than a decade later, The Sea Inside is just one of the many award-winning productions which Juan has worked on but it is possibly the one which delineates that point when many began to recognize his talent on an international scale. Recent series such as “Fear The Walking Dead” and “Mozart in the Jungle” display the eye and skillful camera work which brings a larger than life look to the small screen; one which Juan has used so many times on the big screen.
It is a common analogy but, pressure turns coal into a diamond; it can also refine professional skills. While Juan was already a respected camera operator prior to his work on the Oscar-Winning The Sea Inside, the experience of working with famed cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe was both inspiring and challenging…in other words, pressure! Aguirresarobe is internationally recognized as one of the contemporary greats in cinematography. He has worked with the best camera operators and he expects the best. More than a decade ago, Juan admits that there were lessons for him to learn and Javier was a masterful teacher. Prior to The Sea Inside, the two had worked together on El milagro de P.tinto, which was the first film by Javier Fesser, a rather famous director in Spain. The fact that Javier wanted to work with Juan again speaks to his belief in the then young camera operator. Aguirresarobe comments, “As a cinematographer, I must sometimes rely on a Steadicam and Camera Operator for the crucial element of frame composition; it builds the visual narrative of the film and I must entrust it to someone who understands my vision, the director’s vision, and can deliver exactly what my critical eye demands. It’s not easy to find someone whom I can trust with this important role but Juan is one such professional. He has a keen eye for seeing things the way that I need them, even in very complex situations. When we were working together on Alejandro Amenabar’s Academy Award-Winning Film The Sea Inside, Juan was our Steadicam Operator. The complexity of the film would be a challenge for anyone and I am demanding as well. Juan delivered to perfection every time. Neither myself nor the director could have been more pleased with his incredible work on this film. I have worked with Juan on a number of films and he continuously brings this exemplary performance on all the productions he is a part of.”
The films’ director Alejandro Aménabar and Aguirresarobe work well together in part because they are both so discerning and scrutinizing. Alejandro is a director who carefully picks out every tool he wants to use to tell the story. He’s young but he’s very classic in his language. His careful study of the greatest directors in film history has given him the perspective which created his reputation. Juan Ramos credits Aménabar with inspiring both panic and a call to greatness in his early career.
One of the unexpected pleasures and respite of his involvement in The Sea Inside was that it gave Juan the opportunity to work with Javier Bardem in one of his most important performances, and the one that would catapult him into international stardom. Juan recalls, “The extent of his preparation and dedication to the performance was pretty huge, which is why this role opened up so many opportunities for him. Watching such an actor at work was truly amazing. The only resource he had to convey in the movie was his face, and thus his performance. That means you have to be extremely precise. The camera has to be respectful of the internal process the actor goes through to get to those levels of interpretation. He was so immersed in the role that nothing really could go wrong. That made everyone in the film, who were already working at really high standards, deliver their best work. This ultimately meant that Bardem and Amenábar were the only ones in charge of bringing the character from one point in the story to another one. To see that depth of commitment was truly inspiring.”
The notoriety that the film and Juan’s work received opened numerous possibilities and productions for him both in his homeland of Spain and internationally. He was quickly invited to work on Jonathan Glazer’s first feature film, Sexy Beast, for which Ben Kingsley was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. More than a decade later as he looks back on his work on The Sea Inside and contemplates the most important lesson he learned, Juan confesses, “One of the things I realized was that this really young director was surrounding himself with the best people available, and that was a life lesson for me. There’s no better experience than working with people who know more than you and are more experienced than you.”
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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