Zooming in on Cinematographer Thomas Ackerman
Cinematographer Thomas Ackerman, who is well known for his work on such movies as “Beetlejuice”, “Jumanji” and “George of the Jungle”, has watched with more than a passing interest the art of photography evolve throughout the years. He believes that it’s easy now for those with his skills to be labeled technicians as opposed to being thought of as visual artists and he told the audience at the 2010 Campus Moviefest that “it isn’t target acquisition. It is painting with light, shape, color. Creating is beautiful.” Believing that capturing images can be taught, he feels responsible for doing just that when teaching his life’s work to college students in North Carolina.
Thomas said that his life choices have been impacted by his profession, which demands his physical presence and time for long periods. ‘It’s much more eclectic than you think in your first cinematography classes,” he related. It’s also not cut and dried or simple. “You can’t do what we do without being a good technician. This requires your vision as a photographer, not a technoid,” he added.
There are other qualities that Ackerman thinks a DP should have too. First of all, he explained, “You have to be an artist. You’re expected to have a vision. You have to be well informed. All people with key positions should be storytellers. Storytelling is such a mantra I tend to discount it. I’m kind of adamant that we use words very accurately.” Thomas doesn’t feel that a picture alone can convey the nuances of a story. According to him, although photography can capture point of view, it doesn’t intuit motives or tell a back story. The second key quality he said is leadership with a huge L. Calling it a left brain, right brain thing to shoot a movie he shared that it requires someone with the soul of an artist donning a field marshal helmet when it’s time to kick ass. He stressed the need for DPs to deal with issues as they arise and to develop good management skills in order to support the creative vision of the project.
Using “Beetlejuice” and “Anchorman” as examples, Thomas spoke about the differences in movie sets he’s worked on. He told us that “Beetlejuice” had 20 wks allotted for prep and was very carefully storyboarded. Referring to the film’s director Tim Burton he said “Tim’s a very visual person to put it mildly,” adding that Burton has a way of leading you to what he wants. On the other hand, “Anchorman” was filmed with a broader brush. “No way you shoot a Will Ferrell movie without improv,” he commented. The greatest hazard for Ackerman on that set was the risk of laughing during a take and ruining it. He’s hoping that the much anticipated sequel to the film will soon be greenlit.
Another concern for cinematographers during filming is the lighting, which Ackerman describes as a highly infrastructure related activity. “What is the mood of the scene? What are the natural influences?” he asked before telling us how “Beetlejuice was lit in an impressionistic way using theatrical shafts of light.
Delving deeper into the subject of directors, Thomas said the relationship between them and DPs is labor intensive and value added with the best results being produced when the two are of one mind and spirit. “No two DP-Director relationships are ever the same,” he told us. Some directors have no interest in the visual picture, while others like Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay and Ridley Scott ride with viewfinders on top of dollies and constantly watch. A DP must find a way to work comfortably with the director’s style or be at risk. He related how Caleb Deschanel, the original 1st unit Director of Photography on “Titanic” was replaced for creative differences because of the color of blue light he wanted to use. “That’s the tip of the iceberg,” he joked, then becoming serious said that these types of conflicts arise when a director and a DP don’t see eye to eye. He recommended talking about expectations and getting to know each other in meetings during the job interview process in order to prevent situations like this. The type of director Ackerman is most wary of is the one who constantly changes his or her mind. “What I look for is consistency. If you’re going to be engaged, be engaged every day,” he commented.
As for the work itself, Ackerman said that on a studio movie the DP is usually hired 2-3 months out. “It’s fairly routine,” he shared. If the film is a small narrative project there’s usually 4-5 weeks of continuous prep prior to the first day of photography. On a big movie the prep time can be as long as 20 weeks with glitches showing up during the process. This is one reason why he recommends using an agent and negotiating a Pay or Play contract, so that there’s a guaranteed start date for the film and if it’s cancelled during preproduction the DP is still paid.
Before the session ended, Thomas shared a few more observations. The bigger the project, the more need for infrastructure and storyboards. There will always be distractions including meeting and location issues. “A lot of things happen that aren’t necessarily related to cinematography. The first day you walk to the set unanswered questions are ticking time bombs,” he asserted. Then there’s always changes brought about because of rewrites. For Ackerman day one is spent going to his office making sure everything is neat. He also checks the daily schedule put together by the UPM (Unit Production Manager), line producer or production coordinator. He advises DPs to make sure that any changes they want to implement are updated as soon as possible in order to eliminate potential conflicts. “Speak up and make sure production knows what you want to do. You can get anything you want within reason, but you have to speak up.” He also recommends against making last minute changes and stressed being prepared. “You can never have too much prep. It’s impossible,” he concluded.