Exclusive interview conducted by Kelcie Des Jardins.
Conversation with Ron Garcia, ASC
HD 2k/4k Cameras, Insights and Experiences on Set
Ron Garcia, ASC began his cinematography lessons as a child, unintentionally studying light and color while looking at wild animal dioramas in the natural history museum. His first opportunity in film came working in the aerospace industry, attending los Angeles’ Art Center College of Design at night and raising a family. To this day Garcia has over 68 titles to his name, including David lynch’s feature film, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (1992), and television programs like “Hawaii Five-0” (2010-2011). In this exclusive interview, Garcia offers some of his insights to the world of cinematography, sharing his favorite cameras, tips, and experiences on set.
How did you get started in the film industry? And why cinematography?
Ron Garcia, ASC: As a fluke, while working at McDonald Aircraft, I met a guy who wanted me to help him make a film because I was attending Art Center at the time (1966). We made the film by trial and error. I had only owned a Kodak brownie camera my parents bought me for my 12th birthday and shot very few pictures because I could not afford the film and processing. We went to Birns and Sawyers camera rental house in Hollywood, and they told us how to load the mags, read the meter and put the lens on. We shot for two days at an inboard motorboat race at Lake Havasue, came back to LA and figured out how to edit, attach the sound, and make a final print. We shot with a 16mm Bolex wind and an Arri S hand held camera. We did rent a 1,000mm lens because it looked cool on the camera. Needless to say that I truly fell in love with the camera. I knew nothing about it and knew I needed to learn all about photography. The only way was to become a filmmaker and teach myself cinematography, which is not the fastest way to learn camera or necessarily a good way to go. It took a lot of hard work and time to become a producer, editor, art director, writer, and then raising money to get to be able to hire myself out as a cinematographer and still feed my family.
Trying to stay in the business and follow my dream, I took any job in the industry that paid enough to keep up the rent and feed the family. I cleaned out flop houses downtown, built sets, works as a background extra, set construction, editing, key griping, prop master, special effects, set dresser, art director, writer, producer, an actor (once), sound effects editor, music editor, any thing that kept me in the game.
What are your favorite cameras?
Ron Garcia, ASC: I have used the Sony F35 shooting “Numbers” (20082009), “Hawaii Five-0” (2010-2011) and the Arri Alexa shooting “Rizzoli and Isles” (2012-2013). I was involved with the Arri Alexa, RED Epic, Canon C300, SonyF7 and F65 during the Producers Guild’s “ICAS” (image control assessment series) with my colleagues at the ASC technical committee who photographed the series and controlled the color correction in final.
I think all the HD 2k/4k cameras have their idiosyncrasies and that they are tools with strengths and weaknesses to be considered in the demands of the production budget. As it stands right now the camera of choice for high-end motion pictures is the Sony F65. I think the Sony F55 is going to give the Alexa a run for their money in network broadcasts.
My favorite DSLR is the Canon 5D Mark II. It has a touch of all the good things that the HD 2K/4K systems have. A few years ago the 5D performed very well in both broadcast and low budget films. Now, by the time you rent or buy all the attachments for the 5D to make a film, you might as well rent a Canon C100, C300, a F5 or F55 for that end of the production scale.
In 2010, I did use (2) 5D’s exclusively shooting scenes in an episode of “Hawaii Five-0” for two days out of a five day shoot on the battleship USS Missouri. It cut right in with the Sony F35. I used it because it was small lightweight to hand hold for the low angle shots walking thru the ship and going up and down the ships ladders (not steps). The crew was whittled down to the camera crew and one grip and one electric because there just was not any room for more. I used the ships lighting and augmented it with one 2’x2 bank kino flo and a single 4′ kino flo tube. That episode was “Ho’apono” (season one).
What do you look for when reading a script?
Ron Garcia, ASC: When I read the script, it is always read more than once and in different stages of production.
STAGE ONE: As a cinematographer, I usually get a script when my agent sets up a meeting with the producer, director and writer. I research the production team (writer, producer, director and production manager/ line producer) in the IMDB to see if they know anyone I have worked with. If they have, I call those contacts and ask what kind of person they are. And then I look at the movies they have worked on so I can compliment them about their shows before they get to ask about my shows.
STAGE TWO (before the interview with the production team): I look for the “tone”, meaning, what the script is trying to convey in “feeling”. Is it melancholy, scary, a quest, a day in the life, etc… how does it affect me? I think about camera movement, shot angles, types of lenses and implementing those shots.
STAGE THREE: Before the production meeting, I go over the script in detail. each scene is broken down by the 1st AD in shooting order (not script order). I look at the schedule of the day’s work.
Exterior location: Will a particular scene be best shot in the morning or afternoon? What kind of weather is it going to be and will I have sun or overcast or both? What direction do I want to shoot for a scene first? Where will the sun be at the time of shooting? Do I use a soft diffusion over the actors if I’m going to be in direct sunlight, or start with having back light from the sun? What colors are the actors going to wear?
Stage Interiors: What size is the set? How much height do I have to work with? How much room do I have to put lights outside the windows of the sets? Will there be enough of a difference in color to separate the skin tones and clothes of the actors?
Location Interiors: Same as above in many ways, but in addition: How much room do I have to mount light stands to put thru the windows, how many stories is the location? Can I get light through the windows?
STAGE FOUR: I go back through the script and make my equipment lists after listening to the producer, director and production designer during the production meeting. I draw out the sets and make a lighting and grip diagram as to what and where and when I want my lights to be. In this way the Gaffer and Key Grip get an idea of the amount of equipment that has to be set up and transported to and from all sets and locations.
I also break down the camera equipment list on what, where and when I need certain cameras and lens choices. This list gives the production manager a good start to what is going to be rented and used per shooting schedule. If you show the production you are prepared and have a plan to start with they don’t argue much as to why you need this equipment and pretty much get what you want because you have done your homework.
How do you choose your projects?
Ron Garcia, ASC: As a cinematographer I have to get the job first. It’s very competitive out there. They choose me first and if I get the job, I choose if I want it or not. Because I’ve directed three features and 17 television network shows, produced five feature films, edited for 8 years and art directed five films, I automatically think of the project as a “story teller” first. I get a sense of production value, budget and length, location or locally shot.
After the interview and if I get the job I then decide if it will be a hard grind and too much political work that takes away my focus on cinematography or hard work but enjoyment in working with the personalities of the production team, producer, director and production designer).
Sometimes it’s both and you have to remember that you are the only one, as an individual artist working on a collaborated art form, that can make that decision.
With a film like “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” quite a few scenes were shot outdoors or in very dark areas. What was it like trying to light those shots and how did you achieve desired effects?
Ron Garcia, ASC: During the shooting of FWWM, there was a night that David wanted the two actors who played Laura and Bobby meeting up for a drug deal in the black forest to be naturally dark. David really likes dark scenes. He wanted the actors to use flashlights and nothing else [no motion picture lights to light up the forest]. I knew he wanted me to be able to shoot the scene using only those two flashlights. Knowing that the film stock would not be able to lift the values on the unlit side of their faces if the actors did not shine the lights directly onto each other’s face all the time, I thought as the cinematographer the scene would become a radio show and now a motion picture not being able to see anything. But this was a David Lynch movie and David being David wanted what he envisioned.
I started to take away some of the bright HMI 1,200 pars I had placed before it became night to get a jump on the night’s work. Each time I said I was ready, David said it was still too bright. I explained to David that the film would start to get grainy if I did not at least have some ambient light in the background and foreground. He still insisted I take away the background lights that fell on the trees. This went on until I was left with one 1,200 HMI par that I was bouncing into a pine tree branch that gave off some foreground fill light and David was still wanting it pitch black and asked me, as an artist, “Where is that light coming from?” I paused for a frustrated minute and responded, “the same place your music comes from!” He paused for a minute and then let me have the light that bounced off the tree. So a funny compromise between David and I was reached. I still talk about that night to all my young camera assistants.
You are also credited for the pilot of “Twin Peaks”. Do you work differently on television programs than feature films?
Ron Garcia, ASC: Yes, and this goes back to the example about the light in the dark forest. Using film, I had to fight for the ambient light because of the projection in a dark theater. If that scene was for television broadcast I would have let it go or use very little light that didn’t bother David Lynch. In today’s world the best thing about shooting digital is the strength of the wide dynamic range of the high end cameras in the shadow areas.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for the Cinematographer/DP?
Ron Garcia, ASC: The hardest thing for me as an artist is to remember the motion picture business is a business of collaborated effort from all departments in the production of film making. The DP is not the soul creator of photography any longer. Digital has opened up the jar of “secret sauce” we used to have because of lab work in color and density control through various processes. No one knew what that process was so they relied on the DP to what they were doing on the shooting set. Now everyone sees the picture in real time on the set and it’s open to the public for evaluation right there and then before we DP’s get to manipulate it.
The good news now is with the emergence of the on-set LUT (Look Up Table) you can apply to the director’s monitor and the dailies to the studio. Soon with the completion of the Academies “ACES” (Academy Color Encoding Specification) and the ASC/CDL (American Society of Cinematographers Color Decision List) the DP will have a lot more influence than we have had in the last 10 years of analog/film (telecine) and digital photography.
What are three pieces of advice you would offer cinematographers or filmmakers just starting out?
Ron Garcia, ASC: Firstly, the very first impression of a job interview they remember is when you walk in the door and how you’re dressed, so always dress accordingly. I have a few casual, fashionable shirts which makes the production team feel comfortable with me (hopefully). Most producers usually counterdress. They wear nice tee shirts with a lightweight jacket or over shirt and jeans with fashionable tennis shoes or interesting leather shoes, it’s like a standard uniform. That’s because most producers now days are writers or actors to begin with. In the last 44 years, I have never had an interview with a production team that interviewed me that wore a suit! And I have never worn a suit at an interview except when I was interviewed to be accepted into the ASC at the Club House in Hollywood. I take that back– once I did wear a nice suit coat, white shirt (no tie) and dress slacks to an interview with Diane Keaton when she was the director looking for a cinematographer.
Secondly, the thing you must convey in your work is the love you have for cinematography or whatever position you have chosen for yourself. When people look at your work it must have a quality that stands out from the competition and it’s the love you have for film making that will shine through.
Thirdly, take any job in the industry that you can that keeps you in the game so people know you are around and available and that you are a hard worker and love what you’re doing. Work in various jobs if you can or keep your eyes open to everyone’s job. You might change your mind and change direction in what you want to accomplish. It’s just like going to college. Students change their major before they graduate, or change in grad school.
And as Alfred Hitchcock once said to young filmmakers: “Stay out of Jail!”