A Conversation with James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC

Pictured: James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC behind the camera on Oprah Winfrey’s Greenleaf. Camera: Red Weapon Helium 8K, Cooke i5 lenses.


James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC shares his insights and talks about filmmaking in Thailand, evolving technologies and new distribution channels.

Interview conducted by Jody Michelle Solis

James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC, is a filmmaker who has earned a diverse range of over fifty credits since the early 1990s, including studio motion pictures, independent features, television movies episodic drama series and documentaries. His cinematography has been nominated for an Emmy® twice: “Four Minutes”, Roger Bannister’s quest to break the four-minute mile barrier and the acclaimed mini-series, “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows”. He also shot critical additional 1st Unit photography on the Oscar®-winning, “Chicago”. He directed the feature documentary “No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos which premiered at Cannes and earned him a third Emmy nomination. Other notable credits include thriller “Urban Legend”, the controversial mini-series, “The Reagans”, “3: The Dale Earnhardt Story”, “The Music Man”, “Eloise at the Plaza” and “Eloise at Christmastime” with Julie Andrews, “Judas Kiss” and “Brian’s Song”. Recent credits include Oprah Winfrey’s “Greenleaf”, “GONE” with Chris Noth and “The Family” with Joan Allen. He is currently preparing a Chinese language thriller set in Thailand, “The Fourth Lane.”

We catch up with James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC for an exclusive Q&A as he’s working on a new feature project in Thailand. Chressanthis shares with us his insights and talks about filmmaking in Thailand. He also shares his thoughts on evolving technologies and new distribution channels.

Can you tell us about your current project that you’re working on right now?

James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC: It’s interesting, it’s a Chinese language feature set in Thailand which has become a major production center in Asia because the country possesses such high-quality filmmakers. I’ve worked here before on a miniseries of Jules Verne’s “Mysterious Island” with Patrick Stewart and Kyle MacLachlan. I actually recommended the production company, Living Films (“The Hangover”), and I love working with the crews here.

What are some of your insights and advice for new filmmakers navigating things like shooting in a foreign country, for example?

James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC: I think they will find that filmmakers are very similar everywhere. We speak a common language, it’s called cinema. So, everyone has the same basic visual grammar. It’s very interesting, even though you’re talking to people who speak a different language and come from a different culture, we have the movies in common. And so, you can communicate in terms of images and shots and other movies, of course.

I think you have to be more patient. Since you are communicating to people whose first language is not English, you’re actually more thoughtful about your words. And movies are made with words. If you’re doing a film by yourself, a documentary, you’re communicating internally. But as a cinematographer on a dramatic movie set, you have to communicate to ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty different people, so words in any language are very important.

Economy and accuracy of expression is very critical. Most film crews around the world, speak a little bit of English, movie English. So, when I work in Thailand, I will be able to speak a simple hybrid of Thai and English when I’m directing camera or lighting on the set. It’s fun because my verbal mistakes are memorable for everyone and the crew corrects my grammar!

They say, “Action,” and, “Cut”. When I was in Thailand twelve years ago, I heard the A.D. talking over the radio in Thai, and at the end of his communication to all of his people, he said, “Abby Singer up.” The Abby Singer was up, the next to last shot, and I told him that I had known Abby Singer and talked with him in Hollywood, and he jumped back on the radio and told the whole crew, who were all astonished and delighted to know this was a real person who had invented the term.

Pictured: James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC behind the camera on Oprah Winfrey’s Greenleaf. Camera: Red Weapon Helium 8K, Cooke i5 lenses.

In relation to the importance of communication and working on sets where people might speak different languages or multiple languages, how important is previsualization and the use of storyboards?

James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC: Well, previsualization and storyboards are not the same thing. You can previsualize by doing shot lists and sketching, and you can go all the way to doing detailed hand-made storyboards or use Previz programs. It’s whatever’s appropriate for that particular story, that particular movie, the particular scene, and the particular people involved. Some directors love working with storyboards, others like to work with shot lists. Personally, I’m agnostic, I do whatever the director would like. I do recommend storyboards in complicated action or stunt scenes, and in difficult visual effects sequences. Other kinds of storyboards are more conceptual, more about the look of the movie rather than specific shot sequences; think H.R. Giger’s original concept art for Ridley Scott’s “Alien.”

We tend not to storyboard a simple dramatic scene between two actors. But what I will suggest, while we’re prepping, is that we previsualize it. I ask the director, “What are you thinking about in this scene? ”What’s your staging?” She says, “Well, we’ll stage it on this part of the room here.” “Great, but can we not walk all the way into that corner because there’s nothing very visual back there, or here is a better angle by the window”, etc., There could be a hundred reasons for modifying the shot. It’s a lengthy, detailed collaboration in prep continuing into the shooting.

Now the actors come on set, and of course they have ideas, and they may do something that is completely different than what the director or cinematographer envisioned. And you adjust to it. You watch the rehearsal. So, everything you’re doing in prep is just a blueprint. When you’re actually building the scene with the actors, you think, “That doesn’t work, we’re going to change what camera is doing.” You may see a completely new composition, camera movement or change your lighting, inspired by the actors. You live in the moment and adjust your plan, but you still have benefited from all the preparation, thoughts about the look of the film, composition/frames, lighting focal length, camera movement, etc.

Some people think storyboards are just making pictures of what you’re going to photograph. That is a simplistic idea. It’s a broader idea of creating what’s in your mind’s eye, what the sequence is going to be, emotionally, and you have many ways of accomplishing that, not just strictly storyboards. In a movie you’re not just making pictures of actors and things. You are photographing the subtext of the story. What is the story about? What is the point of the scene? What is the emotional balance of the scene? What’s the goal of the characters in the scene? Whose scene is it? Or within the scene, does the power and the dynamics of who’s controlling the scene or pushing the scene or driving the scene – does that change? These are all questions that affect choices for use of the camera which you and the director should discuss and previsualize.

As I said earlier storyboards and Previz programs can be a useful starting point for developing the style of the film or individual sequences. When I did the film, “Four Minutes,” which was about Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, we had seven races that spanned his running career and a big training sequence. So, eight different running sequences. We did storyboard all those sequences in detail. As we worked with the storyboard artist, I would do some crude sketching, and Charles Beeson, the director, would do some sketches. The storyboard artist had much better skills than us, and we’d refine the style of each running sequence. The first one was rough and tumble, because Roger was a freshman, he was being bumped around by other runners and pushed around. It was not an elegant race and he didn’t do well. Then, as he progressed, the style and movement of the camera changed and became more sophisticated and added more nuances. And then, after all his effort and work for years, when he came to the final race, where he breaks the four-minute mile record. We storyboarded every shot of that race that was in the movie. We noted all the long shots, big production shots (to see how many extras we needed), closeups of every character inside the race or watching it, details of Roger and the other runners, the pack, feet, legs, arms, faces, POV’s and slow motion shots, his foot touching the finish line.

We printed those storyboards on big sheets of paper and fixed them to 4 x 8-foot sheets of foam core, and we stood those up at the back of the stadium on C stands. The camera operators – on that big day, we had multiple cameras, seven cameras rolling on that last day. With a big, red Sharpie, we marked the storyboards for each camera operator. A, B, C, D, etc. Here are the shots you have to accomplish and why. What’s happening in that shot. And then, the camera operators had the instructions that when you don’t have that shot – he’s running around the track four times – then, here’s your plan B secondary shots. You get a shot of the official holding the stopwatch. You go over and get the family watching from the stands, other characters watching and reacting and so forth. And then, when the runners come around again, here’s your primary shot. That’s where the storyboards are really helpful. It’s an action sequence. The operators can see what they have to get. On the storyboards, it even suggested what focal length of lens to use – this is a 50mm or a 200, this is a 400mm. So that’s a very practical way to use the boards. We had to be efficient because real actors and runners can only do so many takes before exhaustion set in.

But then again, in developing the storyboards, we developed the emotional story of Roger breaking the four-minute mile. So, it’s not just a technical exercise of what the shots are in the sequences.

Pictured: James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC lines up on “Ghost Whisperer”.

What are some other differences between filming in the States versus Thailand, and the differences in film industries?

James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC: Not a lot of difference. I would take my Thai crew, the top Thai production designers, the top key grips, gaffers, camera assistants, camera operators – they could work in the United States at our level, the top ones. There are some international class filmmakers here. It’s the same in the United States, not everyone is international class, right? There’s a hierarchy. But the reason Thailand is a production center in Asia is they’ve developed a very, very, high expertise. Remember, Western companies, European and American filmmakers have been going there for a very long time. “The Deer Hunter” – Thailand, “The Killing Fields” – Thailand, “Good Morning, Vietnam” with Robin Williams – Thailand. Many Vietnam war films – Thailand. I think Sylvester Stallone and his Rambo films and many action films – Thailand. So, those films developed the infrastructure of people there.

The assistant director I work with here was Vilmos Zsigmond’s translator on “The Deer Hunter” and he became the top A. D. in Thailand. My A camera operator, he was my camera assistant years ago and now he’s a top DP-Operator – he’ll be working with me. He worked on “Good Morning, Vietnam” as a camera assistant. So, you learn a lot. We teach each other. A cinematographer goes to another country, you teach the local talent your tricks, and also, you learn from how they do things. I learned a lot from my Thai gaffer and my Thai key grip when I was here last time.

There are not really any great differences in how we do it. The Thai, in terms of camera, use more of an American style DP, and the DP is the director of photography not the English style, where it’s an operator and a lighting cameraman. In the American approach the director of photography is really in charge of all the photography, every aspect and supervises his operators and assists his crew in service of the director’s vision.

The reason the Chinese production company is producing this movie in Thailand is the lack of enough top cinema talent in China. China is over a billion people, and they have great filmmakers, but they have a very thin the level of top feature filmmakers. Obviously, they have very, top people, but they don’t have the depth of the country of Thailand which is kind of surprising. The company I’m working with here got a call today from another Chinese company looking to produce a feature film in Thailand. I asked the Chinese producers about this. They are wonderful by the way, young and energetic, I realize they are learning from myself and from the Thai crew and the Thai producers. Another thing about the Thai crews is they are bigger twice as many grips and electrics and extra camera assistants. There is a cultural difference, I would say a Buddhist influence, that puts emphasis on sharing the workload and not wearing people out because there is too much to do.

Something we take for granted here in the States is the methodology of how we run a set and how we plan a production – how we prepare, how we organize the script, how we schedule it and break it down. Those are things that have been developed over a hundred years, and those are really important skills, and it works. The reason America is still the top filmmaking country in the world is we’ve developed these methodologies of how to make a film. It’s very interesting. So, my advice to young filmmakers in the United States or anywhere is, look how professionals do it. Don’t try to completely reinvent the wheel. Keep your invention to your stories and how you visualize and tell stories. But in terms of production methods, production management, and how you organize a production, look at how it’s been done professionally for a hundred years and what works.

The technologies change, but really, the work on a film set, for me hasn’t changed in thirty years. We still do it the same way. We may do certain parts of it quicker, and other parts of it maybe even slower, because of digital. Essentially, the process of writing, preparing, and breaking down a script and doing pre-production hasn’t changed.

How do you see new and evolving technologies affecting and changing workflows?

James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC: I think we shoot even faster today. There’s a misconception that film is slower than digital. They’re very similar. Certain digital productions are slower because they shoot too much. Because you have the ability to do endless long takes. That actually slows down production, not speed it up. Shooting ‘too many’ takes too long can wear people out. So, there’s disadvantages to digital.

I find that digital productions that are successful are shot in the same way that film productions have been shot. I think what’s helpful is that it’s really nice – you shoot a 4K show and you can see a fantastic monitor with a very beautiful rendition of your work.

You know how I save time? When I shot film, we had to watch dailies. We had to check and make sure you had what you had. So, I tend not to look at dailies in such detail anymore. I look at dailies very briefly and especially I look at daily full resolution stills. Because I’ve seen it on set all day, I don’t need to sit there for hours again at night.

However, I will review dailies if I need to match something, or a sequence is incomplete, and we need to look how something was done. And that technology of having access to your dailies on a retina display iPad that I use is really a pleasure. Also looking at editorial cuts or online assemblies of the cut at very high quality to prepare for color correction is helpful.

I have a new program that I’m using for the first time called Scriptation for script supervisors, but anyone can use it. I can take a PDF of my script, and on the iPad, I can write on it, I can draw on it, import photos, location stills. I can add pages, and I can add storyboards. And it preserves and transfers my notes into the next version of the script. It’s paperless, of course. So, all the things we used to do on paper – the notebook would become very big and cumbersome with all this reference material and pictures and what not – we can now paste files into the script digitally. I’m able to use this all connected to the cloud.

I was riding in a van in Thailand, and importing from the cloud into my script pictures I had taken on my iPhone. We had a script meeting that night after the scout at dinner. We’re in a primitive place up by the Cambodian border in the middle of nowhere at the end of the earth eating wonderful food. It’s raining, and we are under a big thatched pavilion, but it has wi-fi & internet. I’m sitting there with the director and producer, the designer, and as we’re going through the script, I spun the iPad around to show the director the sequence with the storyboard photos I shot on locations that afternoon. And I imported them directly into the script from my iPhone.

Obviously, the ‘cameras’ get better and better and better. That’s important. I’ve shot two 8k cameras, the Panavision DXL and the RED HELIUM, and I’ve really fallen in love with large format shooting, and it’s very, very, exciting what we’re able to do.

 What are your thoughts on distribution channels like Netflix and Amazon?

James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC: I love the competition. I’m still really surprised that the old networks are still stodgy in their creative choices, and they seem to be ceding most of the creative, innovative material to Netflix and Amazon, etc. The only bone I have to pick with Netflix, well two bones. One, as an independent filmmaker, Netflix are kind of the anti-Christ. Because you may have an independent documentary, they put it on Netflix for a few months, and then, they take it off. They run advertising about your film without showing it. Netflix’s marketing, and especially what they’re paying indie filmmakers, is really appalling. Some things never change in Hollywood!

But the other thing with Netflix is that they have had this stupid policy that everything they acquire had to be 4K or if it was not 4K, they paid less for the movie or program. The ARRI Alexa was 3.2 and 3.4K, not quite 4K. But, the camera itself technically was better than the RED, better than the Sony, better than the so-called 4K cameras because ARRI had more latitude, better color rendition, and a more organic pleasing representation of faces. All you had to do was see it blown up on the screen, and you could see that camera is better. But, Netflix banned the Alexa. And really, it’s caused a lot of havoc because some lawyers used that number. We carry in our pockets 4K phone cameras. So according to their logic, your 4K phone is better than an ARRI Alexa. And that really caused a lot of upset. We had to jump through hoops, change formats, change to camera systems we didn’t want to shoot. That’s a kind of autocratic, corporate short-sightedness.

In spring 2016 at the ASC, we had a meeting of the International Cinematography Summit, that brought in the creative executives that run Amazon. They were very interesting. We asked that same question. Do have a format rule, that you have to shoot 4K or shoot this or shoot that? And you know what they said?

“We don’t want to decide that. The filmmakers should decide that. You can shoot on anything you want. If your film’s in Super 8 or 16mm or videotape, or you want to shoot it on phones, that’s up to you. It’s up to the creators to create, not a lawyer to tell you what to do.”

So that’s been the burn – Netflix has got to change that. The ARRI Alexa Mini camera which shoots up to 3.4K is a fantastic camera. The Oscar winning “Blade Runner 2049” was shot on that camera. But it’s not good enough for Netflix. It’s maddening.

On the other side, the money they’re injecting into content creation – Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, now Apple— Apple’s going to become a gigantic player. They’re building that big studio down there on Jefferson Blvd. There’s a new studio in LA, it’s a huge place. I imagine it’s going to be a state-of-the-art virtual studio. I think that’s very, very healthy development.

If you could give one more special piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers around the world, what would it be?

James Chressanthis, ASC, GSC: Gee, I don’t know, that’s a toughie. About a hundred different things.

I’ll pass on what Alan Pakula, the great director of “All the President’s Men” and “Sophie’s Choice” said: “Change your shoes and socks at lunch, because you’re on your feet all day and you’re going to get tired.” And he also said, “Try and take a nap.”

But all kidding aside, we are really lucky to work in film. When things are tough, I often say to the crew: “You know, they pay us to do this, don’t tell anyone.”

So, it is a real gift and as you become accomplished, keep your eye on the prize. Don’t forget why you’re making films. The films you make come out of your life, your life experiences. You shouldn’t be making films about film. You should be making films that derive from what you have lived. I think that’s an important thing and its part of the greater gift of bringing entertainment and insight to people. All people need stories, people need inspiration, people need to learn about how other people live and how other people deal with conflict and challenges. I think we’re very lucky to be doing this. So even when things are tough or you’re unemployed or something – this is really beautiful work to do.