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DP Sean Price Williams on Cinematography and Film History

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Sean Price Williams is one of the most inventive and original cinematographers working today.

As Jon Hogan writes, at the start of an interview with Williams in the web journal Hyperallergic, “cinematographer Sean Price Williams has been revered by critics and indie film fans for the better part of the last decade. While drawing particular influence from master filmmakers like Robert Altman and Roman Polanski, his visual thinking stays fresh by constantly seeking fellow image makers — whether cinematographers, photographers, or others — who make the vulgar and common beautiful.

Williams’s singular eye has kept him in-demand; you’ll see his name in the credits of four movies in 2017 alone. Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime is a tale of technology simulating humanity and Good Time — the latest from Queens natives Josh and Ben Safdie — is a sprint through the New York City underworld. Golden Exits (which has yet to receive a theatrical release following its Sundance premiere) marks Williams’s reunion with Brooklyn-based director Alex Ross Perry, who has worked with the cinematographer on his four prior features.

However, Thirst Street, directed by Nathan Silver, is the truest visual smorgasbord of the batch. To tell the story of flight attendant Gina (Lindsay Burdge) as she fixates on a one-night stand in Paris, Williams draws inspiration from 1970s European art films and cinéma du look to weave tapestries of color that both beckon and repel viewers in following Gina’s descent. Ahead of Thirst Street’s screening at New York City’s Quad Cinema starting September 20, Williams discussed his unique gift for imbuing stories of misanthropes and criminals with raw emotion and neon glamor.

Jon Hogan: Your first film experiences in New York City grew from your time working at now-closed East Village fixture Kim’s Video and Music. There, you met future collaborators like directors Alex Ross Perry and Robert Greene and actress Kate Lyn Sheil as coworkers. Why was Kim’s such fertile ground for cinematic creativity?

Sean Price Williams: Because it’s a library, and that’s what libraries should be. We could immediately be learning and catching up on the history of cinema with what was available to us, which was a lot compared to now. You have to illegally download, otherwise you don’t have a choice, because the streaming options aren’t very good as far as the history of cinema. I’m shocked by how little FilmStruck actually has. People are like ‘there’s so much.’ No. There’s so little.

JH: In terms of streaming libraries, what elements of the canon are missing or not readily available?

SPW: The first 100 years of cinema are barely represented at all in a legal way online. I encourage everyone to download … I think we have to encourage that if there’s going to be any kind of education for cinema at all. Otherwise it’s just directed to us by Netflix and Amazon, whatever their licensing agreement is. That’s not a way to be guided.

JH: You worked with the late documentarian Albert Maysles. What lessons did you learn from him? How does your vision change when filming documentaries like Maysles’s Iris or Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine?

SPW: When I first came to New York, I was shooting stuff for this website that had no means at all. We were shooting mostly documentary stuff (parades, events, concerts, things like that), but I’m not an avid documentary watcher. The documentary and the feature stuff were always criss-crossing, and I didn’t really think of it as two totally different things. I was always trying to make documentaries seem more cinematic with some sort of language that might seem more interesting on a big screen.

When I worked with Al, I knew his movies. I loved his movies. They had an elegance that was cinematic and totally unique to them. When I would go through his dailies as his archivist I would see things in the dailies that were confirmation about the unique kind of eye he had. It’s not something you can really pick up and learn. You can learn some things, but you can’t imitate him. He was impulsive and instinctual.”

You can read the rest of this instructive and inspirational interview by clicking here, or on the image above.

Reset! More Than 990 Posts On This Blog! Back To The Top!

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

There are more than 990 entries on this blog. Click on the button above to go back to the top.

Frame by Frame began in 2011 with a post on Nicholas Ray – now, with more than 990 posts & much more to come, we’re listed on Amazon, in the New York Times blogroll, and elsewhere on the net, as well as being referenced in Wikipedia and numerous other online journals and reference websites. And this is just the beginning.

With thousands of hits every day, we hope to keep posting new material on films and people in films that matter, as well as on related issues, commercial free, with truly open access, for the entire film community. So look back and see what we’ve been up to, and page through the past to the present.

USE THE SEARCH BOX IN THE UPPER RIGHT HAND CORNER TO CHECK FOR YOUR FAVORITE TOPICS.

There are also more than 70 videos on film history, theory and criticism to check out on the Frame by Frame video blog, arranged in carousel fashion to automatically play one after the other, on everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to film aspect ratios, to discussions of pan and scan, Criterion video discs, deep focus, and a whole lot more.

So go back and see what you’ve been missing – you can always use the search box in the upper right hand corner to see if your favorite film or director is listed, but if not, drop me a line and we’ll see if we can’t do something about it. We’ve just updated our storage space on the blog, so there will be plenty more to come, so check it out – see you at the movies!

Click on the image above & see what else you can find!

More Movies in 2016 To Be Shot On Film

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

More and more, filmmakers – both mainstream and indie – are returning to actual film for production.

As Ashley Lee wrote in The Hollywood Reporter on January 28, 2016 – just two days ago – “Star Wars: Episode IX will be shot on film, not digital, said [director] Colin Trevorrow . . . The director of the upcoming installment stated his case on Thursday during a Sundance Film Festival panel called ‘Power of Story: The Art of Film‘ alongside Christopher Nolan and Rachel Morrison, and moderated by Alex Ross Perry.

‘The only place where I tend to not be able to attach myself entirely to something shot digitally is when it’s a period film. There’s something in my brain that goes, “Well, they didn’t have video cameras then,” he said. “[Film] tends to remind us of our memories, of our childhoods, the way we used to see films.” Trevorrow — who shot Jurassic World on film because ‘this can’t look like two computers fighting, that’s what we kept repeating to ourselves’ — humorously noted that signing on to helm Star Wars: Episode IX ‘gets back to my issue of shooting digital for period films. I could never shoot Star Wars on anything but [film] because it’s a period film: It happened a long time ago!’ . . .

[Director Christopher] Nolan, a major advocate of the preservation of film, called to dissolve ‘this artificial industrial distinction that’s been made that shooting on video is of the future and practical and is the way forward; shooting on film is impractical and of the past. It’s simply not the case. … You just have to say they’re different.’ Trevorrow then stressed the importance of accessibility for young directors to film — ‘It gives you a respect for the shot and for the edit’ — and called on film schools to take responsibility to do so.

‘They’ve all dropped the ball on us,’ agreed Nolan. ‘They have to be shamed back into it. The idea that you charge what you charge in tuition, … A camera you could buy for half of a semester’s tuition. You’re not teaching that this is one of the choices, and you’re not teaching the discipline that the entire film industry is based on, because we still mix in reels, we still count in frames, even if we’re shooting digital. You have to understand how an Avid works. [But] to understand how all the latest technology applied to film works, you’re much better off as part of your education if you understand how film works, because that’s where it comes from. The film schools really need to gear up with that.’

Nolan recalled how he had to argue for the use of film since his Memento days, when he was told there would be no printing of dailies, until a line producer rearranged the numbers. He called studios’ application of consumer economics to large-scale productions ‘facile,’ ‘absurd’ and ‘completely untrue;’ though using a Super 8 camera is more expensive than doing so with a digital camera, film’s use in a theatrical release can be done in an economically efficient way” . . .

The Interstellar filmmaker also again applauded Quentin Tarantino’s ask to screen The Hateful Eight in 70mm, and defended him on its early tech glitches. ‘I spoke to a couple people at the screening who said, “Yeah, the DCP didn’t even look as good as the slightly wrong projection, the 70mm print beforehand.” . . . This is a filmmaker who has struggled very hard, worked very hard to really push something out there in the world to entertain people, to give them the best possible experience, and should be celebrated for that. But as soon as there’s some technical hitch, it’s as if it’s his fault, like he built the projector.’

‘I had the same experience myself on one of the IMAX films I’ve made: there had been a press screening and the digital sound had gone out of sync with the picture. Then people asked me about it. I’m like, “I’m the director, I’m on the projectionist. These things happen,” he continued. There’s a culture around wanting to kill film where by any little hitch like that — which happens all the time in the digital world — is pointed to as some kind of proof of something.” But it’s not.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire panel discussion, uncut.

Interview with Sean Price Williams

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

Here’s a great interview with Sean Price Williams by Matt Mulcahey from Filmmaker Magazine.

In the 1960s, it was cinematographer Raoul Coutard who revolutionized the cinema; in 2015, Sean Price Williams is also pushing the limits of the known into new and interesting places. As Williams’ Wikipedia entry notes, “the New Yorker film critic Richard Brody described Williams (in a memorial appraisal of documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, for whom Williams served extensively as cameraman), as ‘the cinematographer for many of the best and most significant independent films of the past decade, fiction and documentary — including Frownland, Yeast, Fake It So Real, The Color Wheel, Young Bodies Heal Quickly, Listen Up Philip, the Safdie brothers’ Heaven Knows What, and Alex Ross Perry‘s new feature Queen of Earth.’

In a 2013 article for Film.com, critic Calum Marsh deemed Williams ‘micro-budget filmmaking’s most exciting cinematographer.’ Marsh would go on to write in a 2014 article in Toronto’s National Post that ‘Williams, in particular, has proven indispensable to the [2010s American independent film] movement, and over the past several years has distinguished dozens of the films with his all but peerless talent for photography, from experimental nonfiction work like Maiko Endo’s Kuichisan to more conventional comedies like Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me.” Williams has also worked several times with the director Abel Ferrara, whom he greatly admires.” And refreshingly, he prefers to shoot film, and not digital, and loves it.

Here’s part of Mulcahey’s interview:

Filmmaker: We’re roughly the same age and my love of movies really developed at the video store. Did you have a similar experience?

Williams: Oh yeah. Where I grew up there wasn’t much, but I got a VideoHound and just started calling and writing to all the distributors in the back to get catalogues because I wanted to see all these foreign films and I didn’t know how else to see them. And I would get these catalogues and everything was like $90. (laughs) I was just so anxious to see these movies. Then I discovered this video store in Delaware and it was one of those amazing moments in my life that I can’t believe is real. I walked into this place and there was an entire shelf of Fassbinder tapes. It was this totally curated art film store in Delaware. It enabled me to basically get an education in movies, which is what I devoted my entire high school experience to. I didn’t go to parties. Didn’t do any sports really. I just watched movies.

Filmmaker: I remember as a teenager, before the days of IMDB, if I saw a movie by a director I liked, I would search either the Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert review books to find other films by that person.

Williams: Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia was the big resource for me. They had it in my library and I had it checked out pretty much four straight years.

Filmmaker: How’d you end up heading to New York?

Williams: I went to college in Baltimore and then I dropped out because all of the film equipment there started breaking and they started changing over to video, which I wasn’t interested in. I had an opportunity to move in with a girl in New York, so I did. I just sort of made the leap. I started working for this internet company doing video content. I had no intentions of being a cinematographer or anything.

Filmmaker: And you met Alex Ross Perry while working at Kim’s Video in New York?

Williams: I started working at Kim’s in 2000 and then in 2005 Alex started coming in and begging for a job. No one else would talk to him, but I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll see what I can do.’ And then every day he’d come in and I’d be like, ‘Look, I’ll try.’ Every day. Finally I got him a job on the second floor — I was on the third floor. Then I got fired really soon after I got him the job — not because of him though. (laughs)

Filmmaker: Was there a specific director you bonded over?

Williams: There was a big moment where we all went and saw Out 1, the 13-hour Jacques Rivette film, at the Museum of the Moving Image. It showed over two days during the weekend and that’s when we were all like, “You know what, Alex is pretty cool.” We became buddies then. I think it was around that time, too, that he did his thesis film and I thought it was terrible and I told him so. I said, “You’ve got good taste in movies, but this is really bad.” And he said, “Well, the next one we’ll make together.” And then we made Impolex maybe a year after that.”

Read the entire interview by clicking here; who knows what he’ll do next?

Alex Ross Perry on Film vs. Digital

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

L to R; Alex Ross Perry and DP Sean Price Williams on the set of Queen of Earth – shooting film.

In the continuing debate between film vs. digital, director Alex Ross Perry, and his superbly gifted DP Sean Price Williams weigh in on why shooting on film gives you an undefinable edge over the rest of the field – provided, of course, that your film has some actual content. As Perry notes in an op-ed piece in Indiewire, in part:

“It is quite simple and affordable to shoot a movie of almost any budget on actual, honest to god celluloid. Perhaps I’m not the best authority on the subject; I have never actually shot a film on a digital format. Queen of Earth is my fourth film; the first, Impolex, was made in 2008 with a $15,000 budget and shot on Fuji 16mm film. So ever since then I’ve been getting asked, and really earnestly explaining in the hopes that my words mean something: how?

Impolex was shot in seven days. I think we bought 40 rolls of film. However many it was, the total was something like $2,500 and processing was another $3,000 or so. We got the Aaton camera for free because my cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, worked for the late great Albert Maysles and the company had all this older equipment just sitting around that nobody used or cared about. This is an important thing to remember when planning to shoot on film: practically nobody else wants that equipment so if you can’t get it for free, you should be able to get it for basically nothing.

The same cannot be said for whatever new Red camera is in high demand – if you won’t pay $500 a day for it, somebody else will. For a 16mm camera, I’d be surprised if anybody paid $500 for a whole week. So if you are making a small independent film with a shoot of about two weeks, the film stock, camera package and processing could be as low as five to six thousand dollars . . .

The numbers we landed on for shooting film on Queen of Earth were partially borrowed from producer Joe Swanberg‘s identical production budget and model for his own Super 16mm film Happy Christmas . . . we bought $11,000 worth of Kodak Super 16mm and then paid close to $15,000 to develop and scan it.

Our camera and lighting package was about $10,000 but you’d absolutely be paying the same if renting a fancy pants HD camera and also you have to buy a bunch of hard drives and have some person on set whose sole job is to move stuff off of memory cards or whatever and deal with the footage all day.

That’s a whole extra mouth to feed, bed to rent, seat in the van, and so on. It adds up and the ultimate difference between film and digital on a production of this size isn’t 5:1. It’s probably more like 4:3 when you factor in all the nonsense you are paying for regardless.

Color correction will cost the same. Once the footage is scanned and edited, it doesn’t matter what the origin was, except now you aren’t paying some tech nerd in a post house several thousand dollars to press buttons and adjust knobs in order to retroactively add an visual aesthetic to your movie that realistically, you could have just spent the same amount of money on set and had that texture and experience be genuine instead of inauthentic.

Generally people really don’t seem to connect with that process, and it doesn’t matter if you shot on old converted 35mm lenses either.

The eye won’t connect with digital trickery the same way it will with tried and true imperfect film grain. It may look great and interesting in its own way, as many filmmakers have proven starting, for me, with Zodiac, but at these budget levels, you essentially are saving a little money on the format and then spending it later on somebody who works on your movie for like three days and probably gets paid more than most of the crew who woke up at seven am and worked for twelve hours.

My point is that shooting on film is like anything: if it is of importance you will find a way to make it happen. Nobody will know that you were able to buy an extra two days of filming by shooting on an Alexa but they will know if you are the rare independent film that was shot on actual film. You definitely will have to make a compromise or two but what you get in return is an instant and overwhelmingly present aesthetic that will do more in carrying the audience to whatever place you want them to be than just about anything else money can buy.”

An interesting take; you can read the entire piece by clicking here.

Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015)

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is a superb new film – click here to see an interview with the director.

Shot in just two weeks on 16mm film from his own script – Perry calls shooting on film as opposed to digital imaging “the uncompromiseable element in making a movie” – in a house in upstate New York, Queen of Earth charts the emotional breakdown of Catherine (a riveting, mesmeric Elisabeth Moss, doing what she considers the finest work of her career), as she spends a harrowing week in the country at the house of her “friend” Ginny (Katherine Waterston). It’s a brilliant tour de force in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Persona (1966), but it cuts even deeper than that – it’s a dazzling film from beginning to end. [Note: Avoid the trailer for the film; it’s really a disaster, and doesn’t accurately reflect what’s going on in the film at all.]

As Scott Tobias of NPR observes, “without a second’s hesitation, Alex Ross Perry‘s Queen of Earth dives right into its heroine’s lowest moment, in medias res. The camera stays close to Catherine’s face, as smears of mascara frame eyes alight with pain, anger and exhaustion; this has been going on a while and we’re just seeing the end of it.

Her boyfriend is breaking up with her, which is awful enough, but the timing makes it worse: She’s still reeling from the death of her father, an artist who mentored her, and now the two central figures in her life are gone. This double whammy leads to a psychological breakdown that Perry chronicles with unsettling acuity, but the breakup and the death are merely the catalysts. The cause cuts much deeper.

Set over a week in a secluded vacation home in the Hudson River Valley, Queen of Earth is a typically dyspeptic film by Perry, whose four features as writer-director all pluck at raw nerves. Perry’s last effort, Listen Up Philip, significantly darkened the high-toned literary comedies of directors like Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen, offering two authors whose combined egomania sweeps through their lives like a brush fire.

Though the characters in Queen of Earth speak their minds as freely and caustically as those in Perry’s other films, it deals with a different form of self-destruction, more internal than external. It’s not about Catherine having too much grief and loss to bear, but about the way they expose her inability to process it all. Hardship runs through her psyche like alcohol filtered through a diseased liver.

Evoking a long list of cinematic antecedents — Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Woody Allen’s Interiors chiefly, but the suffocating dramas of John Cassavetes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder are on the table, too — Queen of Earth settles on the thorny relationship between Catherine, played by Elisabeth Moss, and her best friend, Virginia, played by Katherine Waterston.

‘Best friend’ should probably be in scare quotes, because they have reached a point where their closeness mostly applies to each of them knowing how to hurt the other the most. Virginia has invited Catherine out to her family retreat to help her find some peace and tranquility, but the hostility kicks in before they even get down the two-mile drive to the place.

For one, the house is haunted by memories of the previous summer, when Catherine and her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), were locked in happy/sad co-dependency. Catherine was happier then, but the signs of long-term trouble were there, and returning to the scene a year later brings it all flooding back to her.

Now she and Virginia have switched places: Catherine doesn’t have a man in her life, but Virginia is flirting with Rich (Patrick Fugit), the boy next door, whose habit of casually breezing into the house seemed tolerable last year, but this time has Catherine raging over his flippancy and arrogance. It would be wrong, however, to hold Rich responsible for driving a wedge between the two old friends. They do that well enough on their own.”

For her part, Elizabeth Moss told Clark Collis in Entertainment Weekly that despite the film’s unrelenting nihilism, “it was super fun [to play Catherine]. It was very very cool. You don’t often get to do that — I hate to say ‘as a female’ because I don’t feel you get to do that as a male either. To me, playing happy characters is very boring. I don’t want to play the high points! It would be annoying. To see people succeeding all the time? Who wants that?

[Generally,] I don’t like watching myself [on screen]. What was interesting about this was, because I had a little bit of a producer capacity, I was able to watch this from a different place. I was able to appreciate it as a film. Which weirdly made me a lot less critical, because I could see things that made sense for the movie.

So, I actually really enjoyed watching this way more than I’ve ever enjoyed watching anything else. I’ve told Alex this in private, but I think it’s the thing I’m most proud of, as far as films go. I’m very excited and proud of this movie. So, weirdly, I didn’t have a huge problem watching it.”

Nor do I – see this film now on demand or in a theater, if you’re lucky enough to have that choice.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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