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Cinematographer Igor Martinovic


By Mary Ann Skweres
New York-based cinematographer Igor Martinovic has been very busy. Since 1993, the Croatian-born cinematographer has been splitting his working time between the United States and Europe. Although his background is mostly in documentaries, “Fiction is my focus right now,” says Martinovic. Still, working in documentaries “helped me to simplify my approach in lighting. In documentaries, you have to make decisions on the spot.”
Although he generally works in either 16mm or 35mm film, Martinovic has also shot in HD and believes in its future. “Eventually HD will be the way to go because of the enhanced ability to control the image in post.” He sees cinematography getting much more post heavy and that film will move into being a specialty format like Imax. Still, he prefers to work photochemically because skin tone is more “pasty and a bit unnatural” when working digitally. Also, because the image in DI is processed digitally it has a different feeling, but the decision on shooting format really depends on the project.
Asked how he comes up with a visual style for each film, Martinovic explains: “When I shoot, I do not have a preconceived idea of what the movie should look like. I first try to understand the story’s underlying atmosphere. I try to get into the character’s head and find a visual language that is the best representation of his or her state of mind. So, the main task is to paint the inner landscape, portray characters psyche not just their actions – I think of it as subjective photography. Because of this, each film ends up having its own, distinct look.”
Martinovic’s year began with two narrative films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. Padre Nuestro is the first feature by writer and director Christopher Zalla. The thriller centers around two young Mexicans who sneak across the border — one a young hustler fleeing criminal henchmen, the other a naive county-boy headed to New York to find the rich father he has never met. Fraulein is Andrea Staka’s artfully crafted story of the subtle friendship that develops between two women from Yugoslavia who emigrated to Zurich decades ago, and the impulsive young Sarajevo refugee who arrives on the scene and upsets their painstakingly organized world.
Martinovic met Staka eight years ago in New York and has worked with her on several occasions. The Swiss director is the daughter of an immigrant, an experience that informed the screenplay for Fraulein. “Immigration is a hot topic in Europe,” says Martinovic. “It is here, too. Padre Nuestro is about immigration. It’s interesting that both films are about immigration. They have a lot of things in common, but they look completely different.”
The color palette on Fraulein predominately used three colors – cyan, magenta and yellow/green – colors that Martinovic felt were urban colors. Throughout the film, these colors appear in specific spots. There was close coordination with the production design and costume departments.
The look of the film came from intense preproduction planning with the director in New York before going on location. They shot listed for five weeks. They also looked at the work of other photographers and took photographs of each other. “Every single shot was designed in advance without knowing the location,” says Martinovic. “In the end, the shots are very close to what we filmed in our apartment.”
There are a lot of fairly tight shots. “The film actually starts a little wider and stiffer. The camera does not move that much. It is very controlled,” says Martinovic. “When Ana comes into the story, the camera becomes free. Ana brings this freedom to the story, so we open it up and let the camera go with her. We let her go out of the frame and then catch her. Sometimes Andrea would purposely not tell me what the actors were going to do so that I would have to react like it was a documentary and just follow them.”
The scene that Martinovic is especially proud of is the fight in the parking lot because the camera really captures the turmoil of that moment. “Subjectivity was our main guideline,” says Martinovic. “Where we positioned the camera depended on how the characters felt. Conveying the emotion was the biggest idea that we were after. For me, shooting beautiful images is not the ultimate goal. Connecting with the emotion of the character is much more important.”
Martinovic loved working with Staka because she is a very visual director and they complimented each other. They worked very closely choosing the camera placement and lenses, which continually played a role in reinforcing the visual metaphor, “Our approach was that we would shoot from behind. Showing their necks, showing their backs. Not putting the camera right in front of their face. It’s funny because sometimes the actors were not so happy about it, but after they saw the film they were really happy because the body language in this film is extremely important.” This conscious framing decision created a strong emotion impact.
Martinovic also played a lot with the depth of field in the film, “We worked with a very narrow depth of field. We wanted to isolate parts of the frame, to point the audience towards the parts of the frame that we wanted them to see.” This backed up the story, which is about people that are hiding things.
The film was shot in super 16mm, using Kodak 7217 and prime lenses. The negative was processed photochemically, cut and then blown-up to 35mm for screening. Martinovic graded the Super 16 then did another round of color correction on the 35mm.
Fraulein has been screening in international film festivals and was released in parts of Europe earlier this year. It is scheduled for a limited release in the United States in November.
Padre Nuestro, like Fraulein, also deals with characters that are closed off and struggling with their roots, but as a complement to Padre Nuestro’s dark story of betrayal and stolen identity, Martinovic’s cinematography is shadowy and moody. “The approach was more about conveying the energy. Every shot had to have tension, because every character is troubled,” says Martinovic. “We really wanted the audience to feel like they were being taken for a ride. The idea was once you sit down in the theater you don’t have a break. You go nonstop. That was the way the camera was going. The hardest part of the film was all that it was all handheld.”
The film had an extremely tight budget, so the approach was to use as much available lighting as possible. The company scouted for 25 days looking for locations that would not have to be lighted, then took photos at different angles of those locations so that they could figure out which could be used for the film. “That was a tremendous help because our lighting package was minuscule,” says Martinovic. “We went with what was there, anything that would work for the story. The look is more desaturated and going towards the blue spectrum … the predominant color is cyan. Sodium vapor lights were used during the pick-up and rape scene. It stands out in the film as the only scene that is really colorful and saturated. We wanted it to stand out.” The shooting schedule was 30 days. The minimal lighting made that timetable possible.
“Chris is a very good storyteller,” shares Martinovic. “He always knows what the point of the scene is. That helped me tremendously. I needed to know those things in order to light and position the camera. The camera position had to come from the story itself. It had to be motivated. Chris is very good with that. He would single out the emotion of the scene or the intention of the character.”
The film was shot in Super 35mm. The DI process gave Martinovic the ability to adjust the color in pos
t since he did not have control on set. “Without the DI we would not have been able to do the film,” says Martinovic. “Kodak really helped us out. They gave us an incredible deal. We used the old 7279 vision stock.” The DI was done at Postworks. Dailies were transferred to HD SR with flex files. The negative was never used after that. The edit was uprezed and was color-corrected on HD SR. “It was really good experimenting with this new process,” says Martinovic. “I really enjoyed working this way.”
With its well-known Mexican cast, the film is scheduled for a release this month on 270 Mexican screens. In also plays the San Sebastian Festival in Spain. IFC will be distributing the film in the United States next spring, releasing simultaneously in theaters and on-demand.
Martinovic has shot two other films this year that are in post-production. Pretty Bird, actor Paul Schneider’s directing debut, stars Paul Giamatti in a comedy about a sweet-natured guy who enlists the help of his pals in creating a rocket-powered belt. He also lensed Buick Riviera for award-winning Croatian director Goran Rusinovic and is scheduled to shoot the new Todd Solondz film, Life During Wartime, starring Demi Moore, Hope Davis and Faye Dunaway.

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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