EOSHD interviews filmmaker Nino Leitner (Philip Bloom’s intern on Red Tails)

Philip Bloom and Rick McCallum have been instrumental in using HDSLRs on the set of Lucasfilm movie Red Tails. For the recent green-screen shoot at a Prague sound-stage Philip invited two up-and-coming young filmmakers, Nino Leitner and Sebastian Wiegärtner to shoot with him.

EOSHD caught up with Nino a few days after the shoot to ask him about all things DSLR video related and to find out what he gets up to as a filmmaker.

EOSHD: Technology has been steadily evolving. In 1999 one could not have turned up to do green-screen work on the set of Lucasfilm movie with a Mini DV camcorder. HDSLRs are a step-change for amateur filmmakers. How do you see this all panning out in the near future?

Nino: Technology has evolved so far that the results you can achieve with so-called “professional” video and film gear are increasingly indistinguishable from what you can produce with cheaper and more accessible gear – indistinguishable for the average member of an audience. The rise of HDSLRs puts tools for the often-wanted “film look” into the hand of everybody who is willing to learn about how to use them. Budgetary considerations become secondary as the gear becomes really affordable for a lot of people in many countries.

We can already see a huge volume of films shot with HDSLRs on video portals like Vimeo and YouTube, but now and in the near future the skill of the filmmaker becomes more of a differentiating factor. Now that virtually anyone with a serious interest in filmmaking can have access to these tools, talents will be discovered that would otherwise never have been able to shoot a film. It already democratizes the filmmaking process and we have just experienced the beginning of that. Those who just talk about their great filmmaking but lack the skill to pull it off will likewise be more easily exposed as the talented neighbour child with his dad’s DSLR camera can possible achieve more convincing results than somebody who can afford a RED and therefore thinks that alone makes him a great DP.

In the near future we will certainly see traditional production techniques struggle in certain areas. Some of the corporate giants in the camera industry will have to adapt to the increasing number of small companies who are currently turning the market upside down while offering way better customer service. We see this with RED and also many of the accessory manufacturers for DSLRs, while some of the old corporate giants still have a division between film, broadcast and still shooting in their mind. This division is increasingly becoming obsolete and we will see more convergence as technology and production techniques evolve.
The rise of new technology providers also leads to a democratizing process in the whole industry because the choices are constantly increasing. In the near future, there will be no virtually no discernible between the camera technology used on many Hollywood sets and the gear all of us use day in and day out.

EOSHD: I have heard some people say this kind of stuff is too optimistic. But I agree wholeheartedly with it. Technology tends to reach a plateau where it becomes so advanced compared to the practical use, that any further advances are very small. I believe that for classic 2D cinema, we are nearly at that point now with DSLRs. For your commercial work, do you feel that the quality of HDSLR footage is helping you win clients?

Nino: It’s definitely something that people are excited about, even more so after they hear that it was shot with what is essentially a stills camera. It is helping to win clients insofar that HDSLRs allow for a new way of shooting with their interchangeable lenses and shallow depth of field, which result in previously unseen images that just weren’t available for smaller production budgets before. So yes, I feel an increased interest in my work since I started shooting on DSLRs in a serious way only a few months back.

EOSHD: That’s encouraging, and it is a great thing to now be able to say to people “look, it may be a small and cheap camera – but I used it on the set of Red Tails!”. I guess certain clients must have noticed the HDSLR buzz by now and what a step up the footage is, from such inexpensive camera. What’s the mix like, do you find certain clients are quite clued up but others still think that the bigger the camera body and the more buttons, the more professional it must be?

Nino: Absolutely. Average people just haven’t heard of the unbelievable capabilities of these new cameras yet. If you shoot on the street, most people still think you are taking stills (which is great for documentary filmmaking as you are disguised as a tourist while probably shooting in locations where you wouldn’t get permission otherwise).

I have come across the problem of clients being really confused when turning up with such a small camera, but they generally understand what it is all about once they see the results. I believe it’s much more difficult for people who are starting out as filmmakers using these DSLRs as they don’t have experience shooting with professional camcorders and might have to be a little more convincing in the beginning. I often turn up with my professional camera and bring the DSLR along as a B-cam – but in the end, I have frequently found me using this prettier B-cam footage more in the edit suite.

EOSHD: I once did a fashion shoot / web-advert for a UK clothing label with the GH1 + 5D at same time, and people still thought I was there to shoot stills even after I had told them I was doing a video. The girl coordinating the catwalk told her models to ‘wait for the flash’ at the end where I was stood with my DSLR doing a video!! I’ve noticed that your 2007 documentary Every Step You Take is about surveillance, security and the ‘big brother’ society in Britain. I’m from Manchester and it’s like living in a George Orwell book. Places like Berlin and Taipei feel safer and more relaxed. I’m fascinated by Bladerunner style dystopia and the future. How did you come to make this documentary?

Nino: It has all started during my exchange semester as a film student in Southampton in 2004, when I was taken aback by the omnipresence of video surveillance cameras on every corner of the UK. No country in the world has more surveillance cameras than the United Kingdom. I was very curious about the reasons for that development – how could one of the world’s oldest democracies end up the Big Brother state its very own George Orwell envisioned 60 years back?

As a film student I teamed up with some other people from Spain and another colleague from Austria and we started researching extensively and then shooting a documentary about it as part of our course. We ended up with really great material and very interesting insights after months of work – but it was only a 15 minute documentary and I felt there was more to it.

So I went back to England after a year and made it my diploma project. In the meantime, times were changing in the UK and the state was expanding surveillance more than ever before as the London Underground bombings happened shortly before. We managed to get some great new interviews with the deputy chief of British Transport Police and several other experts that allowed me to finish a quite evenly balanced documentary about the subject that really digs deep into the reasons behind that Orwellian state it has become.

People can find out more about “Every Step You Take” on www.EveryStepYouTake.org. There’s a trailer and tons of background information, the DVD can also be ordered via Amazon and others.

EOSHD: The CCTV revolution is useful for one thing – I can use the c-mount lenses on my Panasonic GH1!! In your career so far as a filmmaker, have you felt the need to watch what you say on places like Facebook or Twitter. Does one need to be politically correct and does this industry reward those who are just ‘social climbers’ (for example there are a lot in LA!) or does it award outspokenness and creativity?

Nino: I do think especially as a freelance filmmaker, it is essential to be using social media like Facebook and especially Twitter to let people know about your work and be responsive to any questions people might have. Just putting your stuff on the internet won’t do it alone – in this day and age, media consumption has become a two-way communication and you have to engage with your audience in order to stick out of the crowd. Being authentic is key, and as a filmmaker, Philip Bloom has shown the world like no other what you can achieve just by being open and responsive about what you are doing in your professional life.

But back to your question: I have thought about this required “political correctness” in social media recently quite a bit. Essentially, if you want to use Twitter and Facebook as a professional, they are great marketing tools for yourself and your work. As such, the things you spread over these channels generally work best if they are positive and yes, politically correct. I have found it much easier engaging people in a positive way than organize them to rally with you against injustice. Say, if I am posting a shiny new video to my blog versus blogging about the fact that Sony Professional Support is essentially a pile of crap that denies to cover for the most obvious warranty reasons, people will generally much rather comment on the video.

I think both is true: social climbers are rewarded just as outspokenness (with positive connotations) and creativity is. Some very talented people have been discovered just because of the fact that people spread the word about their stuff virally in these social networks. The ‘social climbers’ are sometimes really great aggregators for new work and relevant information that is discovered around the web. So I guess the best recipe is to be both: a creative and outspoken person as well as a prolific self-marketer.

EOSHD: I remember in the UK, way back in the 90’s, Gerald Ratner famously said his affordable jewellery was ‘total crap’ or something to that affect, and it was the end for him. So I think people do have to be careful but also let their humour and true personality off the leash at times. One of the good things about Philip Bloom is that he comes across very genuinely on his blog, and if he lets off steam against a troll for example, it’s always justified.

I had a visit from a troll when I said that DXOMark felt the GH1’s sensor outperformed the 7D’s. He put a one line sentence in his email saying I was a ‘fuck head’. Terrible!! I can never get into the minds of such people, who sit behind a computer thinking that their direct actions don’t have any bearing on real people.

(Photo taken by Sebastian Wiegärtner – check out his blog on the Red Tails work here)

Changing the subject. What I admire about Rick McCallum is that he’s an outsider, and he’s trying to dismantle the jaded Hollywood establishment / money men, and get new people involved. He’s also good at recognising future trends and technologies before anyone else. A true visionary. What was it like meeting him on the set of Red Tails?

Nino: It was incredible! Absolutely unbelievable meeting someone who has shaped the way movies are made in such a fundamental way. But the best thing about it all is that he is really an extremely nice guy! I chatted with him occasionally on set about DSLR rigs and lenses, and I still find it great that someone as powerful as Rick is still one of the most down-to-earth and humble guys you might ever come across. He is part of the revolution that is taking place, and as you said, the jaded establishment seems something that has bothered Lucasfilm for a while.

I’ve been to other big sets before (not Hollywood feature films though), and I honestly have never felt such a friendly atmosphere when everybody is under pressure to ‘deliver’. The boss spread good vibrations, and so the rest obviously followed along.

EOSHD: Philip Bloom is another true HDSLR pioneer but did a lot of hard toil as a TV cameraman before getting his breaks in film. He must be a bit bitter and twisted by now surely! What’s he like to work with?

Nino: Bitter and twisted? Not at all! I have been following Philip for almost two years now on his blog, even before he started out with HDSLRs. It was a great pleasure finally meeting “the man” in person. I can tell you he’s really one of the most generous, diligent and hard-working filmmakers I have ever come across. Apart from his apparent talent and prolific online life, I attribute much of his success to his personality and nature. It’s hard not having fun and learning at the same time when Philip Bloom is around! He also gave us full access to all of his gear, so I was free to use whatever I wanted for my behind-the-screens shoot of “Red Tails”. I look forward to meeting him again.

EOSHD: That’s great. I think on a pressured movie set, the people who the crew look up to have to lead by example. Not only does a crew look up to Rick as an example, I think the entire film industry does. This is why Bloom inspires more followers than a technical guy like Barry Green, because he is inspirational and has a can-do attitude, whilst some others have more of a “you have to do it like this otherwise you will mess up” attitude, or “got to do it the right way – our way” view, which is heavy on film set dogma. Also there is no point being negative about DSLR shortcomings like moire or aliasing. Point out that the problem exists, sure, but then, shoot around it. Philip Bloom’s 5D / 7D rig on Red Tails looked pretty big – what was on it and how were you monitoring footage, also was the Z-finder used at all?

Nino: Philip used two cameras for the shoot: a modified 7D with a PL mount from Band Pro and his personal 5Dmk2, supported by the new Zacuto Z-Cage, his Petroff mattebox and a series of lenses of course. On the 5D he was monitoring footage with his Marshall and Ikan monitors, while the PL 7D that was mainly used had some other monitor on it, but I’m not quite sure about the brand.

I got a bunch of viewfinders – including the Zacuto Z-Finder Jr. – to review from B&H Photo to review just before the shoot and of course took them along and tried them all out. I ended up mainly using Philip’s new Z-Finder Pro 3x. A great piece of equipment. All of Philip’s shots for “Red Tails” were done using tripods, so they only used monitors.

EOSHD: What cameras (HDSLRs or otherwise) do you currently use for your own work?

Nino: I personally own a Sony EX3 which is my main camera (once it finally returns from repair, where it has stayed for the past 12 weeks due to their f-ed up firmware update), and just a Canon EOS 550D. I frequently use other DSLRs but have so far rented them. I rather like the 550D for what it is and invest in good glass for now, but plan on getting a bigger body (like a 5Dmk3?) in the future. I have worked with many of the big shoulder cameras and also the RED ONE, but in terms of affordability, flexibility and high-quality results the new crop of HDSLRs are really my favourite package right now, despite all their drawbacks.

EOSHD: Cheers for the interview Nino. Great to see a filmmaker with a good ‘can-do’ attitude as well talent behind the camera. And as for equipment, though it makes a lot possible, it is definitely in 3rd place in order of importance.

Check out Nino’s blog, footage and website here