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Fred Elmes interview

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It was one of those West L.A. mornings where the general angst of the world—the rapidly coming-to-a-head political/religious/environmental crises roiling around us—politely receded into the background for a few hours, allowing an impromptu Below the Line brunch with two “craftsmen of light”: cinematographer Fred Elmes, ASC, and gaffer Michael Katz.Elmes and Katz have been not only colleagues, but friends, for years. And during that bucolic A.M. session, as the fruit and baklava and cups of coffee unfolded, both men were able to reflect on still-busy careers that have often brought the world’s angsty-undertones to full colored brilliance, in films like David Mamet’s extrapolation of ’80s-era id Blue Velvet (shot by Elmes, gaffed by Katz), all the way through Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (’70s me-decade angst) and Hulk (angst as green superhero), both lensed by Elmes, to the years-long run of NYPD Blue—angst as public profession—lit by Katz.Elmes also finds his name bandied about during the current awards season as DP on Kinsey, which of course deals with someone who turned his own sexual anxieties into a research career.With such a body of work between them, the two confreres conversed on how the nature of said work is changing. “The whole world is working longer and harder for less money,” Katz observes. “The economy has really shrunk.”Katz points to the world of commercials to underline his point. Those 60-second spots are “not an expanding business” right now, which he laments, since they were often “the laboratory for features.”Elmes concurs, adding that “you try things on commercials, a new piece of lighting equipment.” Even “a new lens (with) a snorkel of some sort. You bring it in for the day,” get to know it, and then deploy it on your next feature.Now the two—like most of their peers—rely on higher crew turnover and cross-pollination to keep up with the ongoing changes from film to digits. “Whether it’s because crews interchange, you learn about (new technology) faster today,” Elmes observes.But learning and using are two different things: “I haven’t gotten my hands on a Viper yet,” Elmes adds. “I really want to try it.”But digits have already inserted themselves into his working methods. On Hulk, ILM was hired to do the effects, and the film had to be slotted into an available window at the effects house. Elmes, then, “met all the way through production,” with the effects crew, where the oft-asked question was “is it more cost-effective to make (the effect) work during a production day?” Or, as Below the Line has frequently noted of late, does it become cheaper to “do” certain shots in the post-production phase? “This became the discussion,” Elmes says.“In terms of lighting for visual effects,” Katz continues, “you aren’t limited to blue screen, green screen. (But) it’s still illumination, an opportunity to think about things conceptually.”Of course, with so much of what used to be production happening now in post, Elmes observes that the process “continues your relationship with the (project) much longer.” The designer, he says, by way of example, can be brought back to extend the set in the digital phase. “But,” he adds wryly, “you’re not employed anymore.”Elmes ties in the downturn in commercial work to this unspoken “off the clock” aspect of involving key department heads in post, by noting he was able to stay involved with his latest film, Kinsey, precisely because commercials kept him flying west from his East Coast digs.But however the economic metrics of the post phase are playing out, production itself still offers its rewards, and as Elmes notes, most come in the form of on-set relationships. “The way a director casts a movie, we have to cast a crew.” And while “the interaction on the set” gives a particular tone to the project and its working conditions, “it’s the attitude of a director that sets a tone completely. If a director is lackadaisical and comes without ideas, it affects everyone in the crew,” says Elmes.Elmes luckily doesn’t seem to come across lackadaisical directors too much, as he notes, by way of examples, how precisely Ang Lee set about recreating a ’70s-era feel for The Ice Storm, by creating thick books that crew heads could refer to, replete with news, fashion, pop culture looks and references—detailed compendia of an era.Besides Lee, Jim Jarmusch (who he worked with on Coffee and Cigarettes and Night on Earth) and Bill Condon are “very, very respectful of the crew, and are gracious about the hard work people are doing. It shows a level of concern on the director’s part,” says Elmes.Katz adds that Martha Coolidge, who the pair worked for on Valley Girl, in angst-y Reagan era, “had clippings, music lists,” so the whole crew could absorb the differences between Valley kids versus Hollywood kids, and let those differences percolate down into their work.And picking up on Elmes’s idea about crew chiefs “casting” their section of the production, Katz ventures that “it’s not just the director who sets the tone.” Everything, whether workers and departments cooperate or compete, is communicated in “an unconscious way,” Katz says, at least initially.“In features, it only multiplies,” Elmes agrees, citing an anecdote where a novice sound mixer got her cable re-routed in a pissing match by the lighting crew, which “doesn’t help make the movie.”And in television, the ephemeral aspects of the job might be even more important. “TV is a family,” Katz asserts, “spending nine months a year, year after year. That’s not to say it’s not a dysfunctional family. It’s (also) like a civil service job—you have to do something egregiously wrong to be sent away.”“Everybody works hard, everybody deserves respect,” Elmes says, leading Katz to opine that such respect “facilitates the making of the film.”Which is good, because, continues Katz, each production, whether a feature, or nine seasons on a show, is “a remarkable social undertaking… it’s an event.”An event at which Elmes sees his “job as asking the right questions: “How dark is it? Is the sky too blue for that?’”After all, Katz says, it’s “the director’s job to ask for the moon.” But “you can’t have the moon—you can have moonlight.”Which is exactly where the two old friends have always come in, whether honing their craft under a burning arc light, “making light” with digits, or reminiscing about light under an unusually clear L.A. sun, over the last of the morning’s coffee and juice.

Written by Mark London Williams

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