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Tom Schnaidt of the Wire

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Baltimore, favored location for Barry Levinson, among many other filmmakers, was once marketed as “The City That Reads.” But after mockery by the locals, the city has been rebranded and nicknamed “Charm City” and, mysteriously, the one-word slogan of “Believe” decorates the town on billboards, taxis and bumper stickers. Baltimore’s restored Inner Harbor and surrounding Fells Point, Canton and Little Italy are replete with rich architecture, restaurants, bakeries and row homes. It is the backdrop for the 2004 Peabody-winning series, HBO’s The Wire and home to the show’s production offices. Camera operator for The Wire, Thomas Schnaidt, has been busy straddling the line between operator and cinematographer. He was in Los Angeles at the American Film Market showcasing his cinematography for The Fall Before Paradise, a psychological thriller written and directed by Steven Gillilan.Below the Line: The Fall Before Paradise is your fifth project as cinematographer. You went from loading film, to assistant camera to camera operator. Will you show your DP talents on The Wire in the fourth season?Thomas Schnaidt: I have always been very clear about what I got into the business to do: shoot movies. I have always worked a parallel line assisting and shooting. Being an AC on bigger movies and TV shows has provided me with a working foundation that I would put to use whenever an opportunity to DP something would arise. Being an assistant allowed me the privilege of learning from some really great DPs like Conrad Hall, Jean Yves Escoffier, Robert Primes, Phillipe Rousselot, and Nancy Schreiber. I value everything I have learned from them and their amazing crews.More recent opportunities to work as an operator for Uta Brieswitz, Eagle Egilsson (The Wire) and Steve Gainer (John Waters’ Dirty Shame) have taken all that to the next level.Will I get to DP on The Wire? Wow, that would be great! I have managed to pick up a day here and a day there on inserts and 2nd Unit. It’s the best thing in the world to get to work on a show that matches your sensibilities. The Wire is truly some of the best storytelling on television. The late Bob Colesberry really cultivated a lot of young talent on the Wire and I think that his spirit has carried on in spite of his passing. [Producer] Nina Noble, [production director] Joe Chappelle and Eagle Egilsson have all been so supportive of me and many others.BTL: In The Fall Before Paradise Baltimore is the location. Did you include your favorite spots? Can you talk about places you love there?Schnaidt: Not all of my favorite locations are in the movie. There are way too many. I like the old industrial sites. We got to shoot in the old mental wards at Pine Grove Hospital. We staged some of our institutional exteriors at the mill buildings along the Jones Falls. Amazingly, those inner city spots, double wonderfully for more rural spots. One of the key features of Baltimore city is its versatility. Within a five-mile radius you can be shooting in the bombed-out drug hoods, the rich mansioned neighborhoods of Roland Park, the still-ethnic working-class row-house neighborhoods, the wooded and mountainous parks. BTL: You began as an assistant camera. How did you learn your craft?Schnaidt: I am always learning! I hope it never ends. Just when you think you’ve figured out something definitively, you realize that you are only scratching the surface. Early on I was incredibly enamored with the hardware, the machines of the trade. Lights, cranes, Steadicams, and of course the true love, cameras. As an assistant you really get the chance to see what is possible with all the various tools, [to learn] the best ways to move the camera in various situations. I have always been in love with what’s possible through lighting. My earliest work as a cinematographer was really focused on developing my feel for light and mood. I still feel that every day I add something to my technical skills. Mostly though, what keeps it all fresh and open for exploration is the relationship I have with the director. I really learn the most in the collaborative moments where we figure out the big picture and how we will approach it.BTL: In November you visited Below the Line at the first annual U.K. Showcase organized by Mike Fraser in Los Angeles, with cinematographer Robert Primes. Have you professionally collaborated with Primes in the past?Schnaidt: I worked as a 2nd AC for Bob on a TV show that he did for Warner Bros. called Young Americans. Bob is a wonderfully generous spirit and always makes you feel like you are an integral contributing part of the creative team. I have called on Bob many times to help me solve problems in my work as a DP. He has a strong interest in the developing technologies of HD and digital. He keeps an open mind about what the best medium is for the job at hand, be it film or digital. He has helped me to keep an open mind and always consider the strengths the different formats have to offer different projects. It’s so easy to be distracted by all the choices.BTL: Tell us about your personal favorites. Whose work and career do you admire, and why?Schnaidt: Early on you cobble together your own identity as a cinematographer based on your favorite elements of the people you most admire. I am less interested in the specifics of what a DP does in a particular scene and more in why he did it that way. I remember once I was loading for Conrad Hall who was shooting his own 2nd Unit for a movie in Boston. We spent a morning shooting patterns in the water flow of a creek. It was so Zen, and was very in line with the sort of meditative visuals I had played with in a lot of in my studies. It was so visually pure, almost abstract, and getting to see him there so engrossed in the minute details was like permission to explore.Later on I had a feature, Invisible Mountains, about an artist who was fascinated with textures and the tactility of things. While doing a lot of the macro shots in that film I remembered that day with Conrad Hall and really felt like I too was in a moment of Zen. It was a very heady experience. But beyond a few other examples like this, I am really much more interested in the collaborations like the work Dante Spinotti did with Michael Mann in The Insider, like Bob Richardson and Oliver Stone in JFK, Roger Deakins with the Coen Brothers. The most exciting movies seem to come from that electrifying energy between the director and the cinematographer.BTL: Can you talk about the last season of The Wire? Was there a notable episode you were especially proud of? Tell us about your camera crew.Schnaidt: This season was really exciting because at many turns, the story line seemed to be predicting future events in Baltimore politics. For viewers, it would probably end up seeming as though the show was commenting on events after they transpired, and there was certainly some of that, but at times we would have completed an episode and a few weeks later very similar events would be reported in city government. I remember working on my first episode with the new DP Eagle Egilsson, and we were filming these huge scenes with hundreds of extras in an open-air drug market. I was on the B camera picking out these great details that had been set up by the ADs. And I realized at that moment that I was getting really great stuff, abstracted images… all the elements were really coming together. It was a really great feeling to be contributing images the way I was seeing them and getting so much encouragement to keep getting them. I haven’t yet seen the episode; I hope that it was half as good as it felt that night.

Written by April MacIntyre

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