In February 2017 cinematographer Sean Ryan (right), who recently won Gold at the ACS Awards, met industry veteran Tristan Milani (left), who as well as working on countless TV and cinema ads, was DOP on many Australian films such as The Boys, Balibo and Paper Planes.
Crossing The Line was there to witness a conversation between two skilled craftsmen at opposite ends of the career spectrum, and in this fascinating chat, Tristan and Sean manage to give us some fabulous insight into the art of cinematography.
In this first installment, you can read how these two practitioners approach the art of film.
You can listen to the full Conversation at our podcast link below!
Part 1 – Cinematography – A Story Teller’s art
Sean: Thanks for coming around today, hopefully we can gain some insight into your world and the art of cinematography…”
Tristan: What’s left of it, I say…what’s left of it!
Sean: Why say that?
Tristan: Well, I’ve had the privilege of shooting a lot of stuff, from film to advertising, IMAX film, and a lot of other stuff, and I’m starting to do a little bit of teaching too. What I’m finding is…nobody goes the movies anymore. I was always taught that 50% or more of what you are going to learn as a cinematographer is from watching movies. I’m hard up to see anyone young going to the movies. I don’t know if it’s an attention span thing or a cost thing, but I find it really alarming, and I think because of this lack of going to see movies and having that amazing experience of seeing things on the big screen, the standard of cinematography may drop. That’s a real problem.
Sean: Do you think there’s people out there that are aspiring cinematographers, but they don’t understand the importance of observing other people’s work, maybe they think they can jump in and do it straight away?
Tristan: I think so. I was taught by a Romanian guy named Josef Damian, and he said the only way you will separate your work is not with a light meter, but a philosophy. You’ve got to have a philosophy behind your work. He asked me ‘what do you think cinematography actually is?’ I said I think it’s about composition and contrast, at least that’s what it is to me. More specifically I think cinematography is ideas and composition. So, it’s the ideas I bring to the production and the way that I frame the pictures. To me, that’s the philosophy behind the way I work. For all my 20 odd years, that’s been how I approach it. To me, all the of the young men and women coming up, while being super talented and awesome, they are just so wound up in the technology that they are losing the idea of the experience.
Storytelling cinematographers in their 70s, Australian guys – Don McAlpine, John Seale, Dean Semler, Russel Boyd – are all pushing their 70s and are all still making Hollywood movies, and the reason for that is because they are storytelling camera men, and producers and directors look for that. I’m finding with the younger generation coming through that there isn’t that.
Sean: Do you think people are getting into cinematography for the wrong reasons? Maybe they are very interested in tech but less so the storytelling? In my experience, at the introductory level, you don’t have the technicians to rely on, so you end up doing a lot of things yourself, so I guess to a certain degree you are forced to become technically involved. Whereas on a bigger production, you can leave those responsibilities to the camera assistants or the DITs, but what you are saying at an early point, people aren’t able to see the bigger picture and realise that the technology isn’t the craft.
Tristan: Yeah, I’m not sure why, it’s a good question…why do people want to become camera men and women. I guess with the technology being so easy now it’s easy to get pictures that make you think ‘wow, look at that.’ I don’t want to harp on about the past, but when I came up, especially working with film, we came up with a thing called ‘one light work print’ where our printers were set to certain levels and we had to shoot to those printer lights, otherwise our prints were under or over exposed. So, we really had to work hard, and there were a lot of sleepless nights thinking ‘God, am I going to get the call…’. The call that everything was off.
Sean: I suppose there are a few more safety nets now with digital acquisition. The cameras can capture more range so if you get something a bit wrong you can always fix it. I guess I’m wondering if it’s because it is easier, people aren’t forcing themselves to learn as much, so you’re sort of never quite grasping the true techniques, with the knowledge that you can always fix it.
Tristan: Yeah, as you know we used to spend hours using cutters and setting nets and lights so that we could get it right in camera, because we had to. Now of course we push it towards the post production end. When I go on set now I don’t even get a tent or anything, all I get now is a little on board monitor. Then I go to these big post houses and you can see where the money is going! We don’t get anything on the set anymore, and that’s why! But you know, I’m constantly fascinated by the skill of the colourists and the skill of young people coming through, but I think that maybe something about cinematography is being lost. Going back to your question, I think we’ve lost the art of going to the movies. We’re not seeing the big picture.
Sean: It’s interesting, as many people say we’re in a golden age of television at the moment, and a lot of people are growing up with access to this extremely high quality content at the flick of a button. So, I guess it’s interesting, perhaps they’re not spending the money and time to go to the movies.
Tristan: I agree with you that TV is in a golden age, sure. But when I was growing up I wanted my work on the big screen, because I wanted the audience to have that experience. Director Peter Weir said to me once’ I don’t make films for the multiplexes, I make them for those little Italian villages that set up a screen in the town square in summer, and I just thought that was a beautiful idea, really appropriate and interesting for me.
The big screen is a real test of your ability as a camera person and story teller. I watch the TV with my family, and I can look around and talk to them, and while it’s great, it’s not the same as in a movie theatre.
Sean: I guess it’s a different level of immersion for audiences.
Tristan: It is, completely different. You have this beautiful film called Moonlight, and it just wouldn’t be the same on a TV. There’s a beautiful scene where he takes the boy down into the water, and that’s an intelligent director and cinematographer at work, where they placed their camera and the edge to edge framing. It’s a real big screen moment. I just wish more people would say ‘I say it at the movies’ – because you will learn a lot more.
Sean: With your work in feature films, what sort of scripts interests you, what sort of scripts are you seeing in Australia?
Tristan: Good question. There was a script that came in last year and I just didn’t like it, it wasn’t for me. I’m really into sub cultures, and making movies about that. I’m interested in the idea of going into some of these communities and finding the stories there. We went into a sub culture for Paper Planes, but I would like to go into some more suburban films. We enjoyed the suburban nature of the story in The Boys, for example. I think we’ve lost that in Australia. I looked at that film Down Under, and thought they’d nearly got there. But I’m looking at scripts and thinking, what is the audience? And if I find it interesting, then I want to do it. But I’m definitely interested in the suburbs and the way these communities are changing constantly, that really interests me.
On the difference in working in the US and working in Australia: “In Australia you’re like “I need a crane for a day” and the shows say “really? What about a ladder?”
Sean: Going back to your time in the US…how do you find your time working there, and how do you think they respond to Australian professionals there?
Tristan: They really do it well. They throw money at it, that’s for sure! We did a pilot over there and I had 12 electrics going for nearly a month before we even started! And they were like…what else do you need? I couldn’t believe it! In Australia you’re like “I need a crane for a day” and the shows say “really? What about a ladder?” I was just impressed by the industry in the US. What is important to understand there for anyone going over is that in US, television is a business, not a club. Any company you walk into can have 8-10 shows on the go. Television exists to sell advertising, so you’re a cog in this massive wheel. The reason many of the people who are successful there are they are brilliant at the politics. The politics are endless!
Sean: From the people that I’ve spoken to, that Australian, relaxed kind of ‘no worries’ attitude can sometimes be welcomed on an American set, almost a calming voice in the chaos if you like. Do you think that as well as having the skills, your ability to work the room and talk to the producers is part of the success there?
Tristan: Oh absolutely. It’s about knowing what to say and when. But another thing to remember is that the legacy being left behind by all of the great camera people is wonderful. I went into HBO for an interview and they said that they knew Peter James really well and that he was great to work with. I think another difference is that they have a good union for production crew over there, and we don’t. I think that’s also important.
Sean: Looking at other technologies out there – Virtual reality for instance, do you have any experience of that?
Tristan: Virtual pain in the arse! I don’t understand any of it. It’s changing so fast all the time, I get too scared and don’t know where to start. Do I want to understand it? Yes. Maybe. But every time I read something, a day later there’s something new to jump onto too. I’m fascinated by it, but I’m scared of it.
Sean: Without jumping into the tech too much, do you think it has something different to offer audiences, perhaps to tell better stories than traditional cinema?
Tristan: Well, it’s an experience, sure. But then I look back at the 3D televisions that came out, and now that’s dead. So, I’m still unsure where it will go. I guess it’s the cynic in me that is skeptical. I think when people start putting things on their heads it’s venturing into a whole new type of thing, so I just don’t know. I’m sure it definitely will find its place though.