Mihai Mălaimare Jr. & The Art of Cinematography
Which title do you prefer: Cinematographer or Director of Photography?
I never used Director of Photography, maybe because it sounds strange in Romanian (laughs). I prefer cinematographer. We get lost too much in words when we try to differentiate them. I like what Vitorrio Storaro said: “There is only one director on set”.
Can you talk a little about your path to becoming a cinematographer?
It was fairly easy because my father was in entertainment as an actor. He’s mainly a theater actor, but he had TV shows as well. So I grew up on film and TV sets and close to the theater. My dad had a theater company and he did everything there: directed, acted, chose the music, changed the lights, he did it all. When I was fifteen, he had a show that had something like 180 light changes, and that really impressed me. Here’s this tiny surface, and he could modify it so much just by changing the light. From that moment, I knew I wanted to do something related to images, but not necessarily theater.
Like any good parent in the arts, my father tried to dissuade me from this direction but eventually, he realized it was my passion and supported me by talking about directing, about visuals, giving me guidebooks on lighting, etc.
He enrolled me in a still photo after school program and at that point I was hooked on anything related to images.
Are you a still photographer?
Yes, and I guess that’s how I really got started. Keep in mind Romanian film school used to be very much based on still photography, because it was the cheapest way to learn composition, framing and photochemistry. We had a really intense still photography education for four years, so we were also really well prepared to be still photographers.
And I think that helps a lot. It taught me the frame is the core, the starting point, the cell of filmmaking.
In 2008 you shot Youth Without Youth and were nominated for a Best Cinematography Independent Spirit Award. The style seems very polished and mature I would describe it as very transportive, almost dreamlike. How did you develop your style, or how do you think about style?
That was such a strange and interesting moment for me. Before meeting Francis [Ford Coppola] I was mainly shooting Romanian productions. We were all about handheld and moving the camera as much as possible, and finding ways to move the camera with almost nothing. Trying replicating complicated techno crane shots we had seen in other movies but with cables and skateboards.
Francis wanted to try something in the Ozu style, where the camera doesn’t move at all unless it’s for a really good purpose. That intrigued me, and it landed in my comfortable area because it related so much to my still photography background: how do you tell a story within a static frame?
When the camera is not moving at all, it’s closer to a still photograph, where the viewer has time to study the frame and absorb what’s in the shot, so composition is that much more important. But it was Francis’ idea and it carried through in the second film (Tetro 2009) and the third film (Twixt 2011) we shot together. That’s what it’s like working with Francis: he comes up with some really crazy idea that usually intrigues everybody. Even if it seems hard or impossible at the beginning it evolves in such an amazing thing by the end.
That’s a good segue for talking about collaborating with your director; there’s always a give and take and ultimately the director is in charge. What do you do to best collaborate?
The director is the only one who has all the tools at their disposal. They have sound, music, editing, art direction and of course the cinematography. As a cinematographer, even if I wanted to do more, I could not. The director is the only one with all the tools.
When I read a script for the first time, I have a movie inside my head. The challenge in pre-production is to find out what is the ‘real movie’—the movie inside the director’s head. And then figure out how to get there, to become the right tool for them.
I heard this phrase “good cinematography is the cinematography you don’t see” and I don’t think that’s entirely true. It’s such an important tool in storytelling. At the beginning, I really try to understand how the director sees the movie. A good cinematographer is a good listener first.
You have said the director’s viewfinder is an important tool to help collaborate with your director, although many people may not be familiar with it. Can you explain what it is and how you use it?
Traditional film cameras are typically big and heavy and awkward to use when you’re only searching for a shot. The way it first came out, it was a small viewfinder that gave you guidelines for what a lens would see, and that’s how you search for a shot before you put the lens on the big camera and start moving that camera around.
There are a bunch of options for a director’s finder, good and bad. The first ones that came out didn’t use the lens; they were small and you could see just the framing. But for me they aren’t great. They don’t show what an image would look like with the characteristics of the lens, the depth of field, the various aberrations, etc. so it gives you only a rough idea. A full-sized director’s viewfinder like the Kish Optics from Panavision allows me to use the actual lenses with all those characteristics, but it’s is still pretty big. It can be somewhat unwieldy to use.
I have used these a lot, but then I realized when I’m searching for a shot and I need to communicate the shot to the director, it’s not that easy. You can’t just hand it to the director. You kind of have to hold it for them, and it may not be entirely accurate, and it’s definitely a slow process. So it makes that important collaboration more difficult and time-consuming.
I can see how on one hand that collaboration is so important, and on the other hand the traditional tools can make it difficult
Yes, so it got me thinking: there should be a way for the director to see what I’m seeing at the same time. Originally I was thinking still cameras, and maybe to mount something on a still camera (I have so many still cameras!). The main issue with DSLRs was the mirror was in the way for the wide cinema lenses. Every lens wider than 35mm will hit the mirror. You’d have to modify the camera so much to use wide cinema lenses, it’s not really worth it.
When the Sony A7 camera came out, I realized it solved that issue by just not having a mirror. I slowly started to use this with a Panavision or PL lens adapter and, all of a sudden, it was so much better. For example, if you have long dolly or Steadicam shots, I used to walk with the director’s finder to see how the shot would be, then pass the finder to the Steadicam operator and walk with them again. Now I can record a small clip and give it to them for reference. It’s so much easier and faster. Or even better, with the Sony a7’s built-in wifi, the Steadicam operator can watch on an iPhone or iPad while I’m searching for the shot.
Is the director’s finder more of a pre-production tool or during principal?
Both. In pre-production, you never really carry the whole lens set, but you can find some lightweight zooms. Then on set, it’s the perfect tool for searching for shots. Even when you do your homework really well and plan ahead each shot, it’s one thing to look at an empty room during scouting and prep and totally different when you are on a dressed set.
And even when you storyboard the whole film, things still change. It’s a constant search and development of the visual style. It’s like solving a puzzle. I’m working with a director’s finder a lot.
You are describing an evolution of the director’s finder into a digital finder. Can you elaborate on that?
I started using the Sony A7 and it was a great tool. They have a movie mode where you have access to all the guidelines. You can see the guidelines in the camera itself, which helps a lot. There aren’t a lot of movies that are 16:9, so having the guidelines for 1.85 and 2.39 is really great.
Cinema lenses are like two or three times the weight of still cameras, so it was very front-heavy and kind of awkward to use. It worked, but it didn’t feel like a director’s finder at all. Everyone was like “oh great you have your lenses on this tiny little camera so you can see your shots.”
But also, when you use a tool that’s so valuable, you get ingrained in how you use it. There’s a certain amount of “when it works, stick with it”. The director wanted to grab the handle and look into the viewfinder. The Sony A7 by itself didn’t really have that. It worked, but it was really awkward and difficult to use with heavy lenses.
And that is what lead you to finding a rig for your Sony A7 camera?
Yes, I saw the Redrock retroFlex rig and thought yes! That’s exactly what I need to make this a better director’s finder. It was amazing. The first director I worked with when I had this said it’s amazing how great it feels. It has this analog feel like holding a Bolex or a real director’s finder. Not only can I hold it like a regular Kish finder, but you don’t have to shade the (rear LCD) to see or show it to someone. From so many perspectives, it just makes a better tool.
If I remember correctly, in film schools all over Europe, the go-to camera in year one was the Arri 2-C and the retroFlex reminds me of that. You grab the lens with your left hand and the camera in your right and just go. That camera was so well designed, I still think it’s the best (ergonomics) for handheld work even today. And when was it designed? Like, the 1930s.
You seem a bit nostalgic for simpler times?
We get inspired from still photography, and while the camera systems evolved because we needed more and more stuff on the camera, I just have those memories of using a simpler camera and just remembering how much I loved that style of shooting. It felt so much better.
But you know how memories are. It’s weird, sometimes you think ‘ahh, I remember that camera,it was so much better than what we use today” in terms of how you hold it and use it. It might just be a weird perception but I don’t think so. As soon as I hold my “digital director’s finder” – the Sony and retroFlex – and when I’m searching for a shot, it feels great and brings back memories. Recently I used a Sony a7SII with the retroFlex and shot some video footage with some of my specialty still photography lenses. The whole system felt like an Arri 2-C or a Canon Scoopic, it was great.