An interview with filmmaker Karen Abad

And so it begins

Karen Abad (Website | Blog) is a talented filmmaker who has worked with Vimeo and lately Zacuto. Karen works with a huge variety of formats including 35mm and 16mm film, as well as DSLRs. Here Karen shares her thoughts on the creative process, cameras and her filmmaking experience so far.

EOSHD: Are you most creative alone or with friends?

KA: Around the time when I crossed over from psychology to pursue film studies, and when I was enrolled in my first undergraduate 16mm film course in January 2007, I was forced into a collaborative filmmaking environment. I had to learn not only how to work with others, but also how to trust them. Throughout the duration of the course I found that I was more creative working with others, but only in a situation in which I trusted my collaborators. We were able to feed off of each other and enhance each others ideas, but mainly out of necessity.

Once I graduated from undergrad in Michigan, I moved back to California, where I started graduate school. For a while, I felt like I was most creative alone, in an auteur-like style of filmmaking because I had lost that core group of trusted collaborators I had gained from college. I felt that it was easier to explore and film on my own, and I felt the most creative when I editing in the solitude and comfort of my own room. My little plastic dinosaur friends also proved to be a great source of inspiration. I had complete control over every aspect of my craft.

However, once I started making those connections again in grad school, I felt that my work benefited more from collaborating with others. Since grad school forced a focused emphasis within film, I was able to collaborate with others who excelled in their craft (i.e directing, editing, etc.). I think as a whole, I’m more creative with, not necessarily friends, but people who I trust in whatever specialized part of the filmmaking process they are a part of. I can focus on one thing (cinematography) and then we can use our applied specialties to constructively enhance our film. As a self-motivator, I tend to be able to force myself to be creative, but it’s not as good without the good help of others.

EOSHD: Ever shot anamorphic?

KA: I bought the Panasonic AG-LA7200 and used it for about a year (’07-’08) on my DVX100a, but once I started grad school, I predominately shot S16mm and 35mm, so it has been sitting on my shelf at home in California, collecting dust for about two years. When I got my Canon 7D last year, I remember holding the LA7200 up to the lens and loving the flares, but not being able to figure out how to mount it onto the lens properly (I can’t believe I didn’t think to just use a couple of step down and step up rings). I just recently called to have my AG-LA7200 shipped to me in Chicago so that I can use it on my 7D more.

(Read more about the LA7200 adapter at EOSHD here)

Nothing to see here, move along

EOSHD: Do you prefer 35mm film, 16mm, or digital – or do they all have an equal billing in your work, like a family or a bunch of best friends?

KA: I think that each medium brings something different and special to a film, and that one is not better than the other. My MFA thesis for Cinematography was to shoot five different films in 16mm, S16mm, 35mm, and HD. I decided to shoot a series of short films that were held together cohesively, but were able to stand alone on their own. In doing so, I had to pick the right medium for each film, I didn’t want to arbitrarily pick a format for the sake of shooting it. In doing so, I learned about the value of each format and why each one should be used for each film. For example, it would probably be smarter (on an academic level) to shoot a 15-minute-long film with a 5-year-old main character on HD rather than 35mm because of the time for prepping each take vs the attention span of the child, and also the cost. But other than logistics, I learned how to pick the medium based on its aesthetic quality (grain structure, dynamic range and latitude of the film, etc.). So when it comes to my work, or client work, the medium all depends on what the content and aesthetic vision of the film call for. But out of every medium that I’ve shot, I must say, I love the feel of S16mm. As of recently, choosing of medium has crossed over to digital as well. What do you want to shoot your film on? HDSLR? RED? HPX? Pocket Cam? Go Pro? It all depends on what the story/content call for.

EOSHD: You work with Vimeo, Zacuto, and more. Any good stories to tell?

KA: Too many to recount. I worked for Vimeo last summer and got the opportunity go on the World Tour with Blake and visit Berlin, Paris, and London to curate offline events and meet and connect with other Vimeo users. It felt so surreal to meet so many people in real life that have had such a huge impact on the last three years of my life, especially since the beginning of my film endeavors. Working in New York with the Vimeo was really great. It was like coming into work and hanging out with your friends all day long…well and doing a lot of hard work as well. All the people who work for Vimeo are incredible and are some of the most hard-working and lovable people I’ve ever met. Currently, I live in Chicago and I have been doing work, shooting and editing for Zacuto. It’s been a lot of fun and I enjoy my coworkers a lot. It’s fascinating being around the ever-changing advancing technology of HDSLR rigging, and most recently, the development of their Z-Finder EVF. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to work with great companies relating to my field, and I am extremely grateful for them.

EOSHD: My friend is hoping to make a living selling robots. As an artist it is difficult to stand out and to make art pay it’s way. Do you see a point where so many people are shooting with DSLRs that the market gets saturated and the rate card plummets?

KA: HDSLRs have been a blessing and a curse. The accessibility of this technology to create more aesthetically pleasing work has been incredible. The sheer affordability of tools to create professional-grade work is amazing. At the same time, it also makes it harder to get work because everyone owns these tools and think they can do it all themselves. In some cases, it becomes difficult to weed out the really great work because of the sheer volume of videos that are being produced. But when you do find them…they are mind blowing.

The Last Home Recording Upon Eager Eyes

EOSHD: I like your stuff, lots of real life footage yet it has an other worldly feel to it. Is your personal work all a spontaneous stream of consciousness? Does it just come to you like *that* or is it more planned than *that*?

KA: The videos that I have on Vimeo that are spontaneous streams of consciousness are videos I make for fun. Usually what ends up happening is that I’ll usually be awake at an ungodly hour because I have insomnia, and I’ll be bored, so I try to find something to do. I always have a ton of random video and extra BTS footage from shoots that I do so I end up just editing for fun. However, while shooting, I never think that I’d eventually be using the footage, I just try to record random moments in my life. Not all videos on my Vimeo account are like this, there is a mixture of random personal and more professionally planned out films. The more personal videos I have tend to be the ones I make for fun.

EOSHD: What do you feel like when you send footage out into ‘the world’? For me all the feeling drains out of it then I come back to it in a few months and think, actually that isn’t bad. Same for you?

KA: Actually, up until recently, I could never bring myself to watch any of my videos. After editing, I would only watch it once to make sure that everything got rendered and exported properly and then I would never watch that video again. For some reason, watching it makes me really uneasy and I just notice all the flaws. When I send my footage out into “the world”, I think more than anything, I just feel a sense of completion for whatever it is. I don’t really pay much mind to how people will react to it because there’s always going to be people that love it and that hate it, that’s perfectly fine. But recently, I’ve been trying to watch my videos again, especially when people bring it up and make very specific refences to them. And like what you said, I feel that they aren’t actually THAT bad. Haha.

EOSHD: You stuck a Kodak Zi6 through a Nikon D50 viewfinder, was the audio actually from the camera’s AF? Love that video.

KA: The natural sound from that audio was in fact from the camera’s AF and shutter. That video was also a product of boredom. My Nikon D50 had been broken for over a year and I was getting really antsy to take photographs with it. The shutter wasn’t working properly and would occasionally get stuck while the mirror flipped up. I had just gotten the Zi6 and was trying to figure out how to make something somewhat compelling to compensate for its mediocre video quality. Without too much planning, I just spent the day wandering around town to test out my idea.

EOSHD: Social networking – do you think that it’s genuinely moving people closer together or only superficially?

KA: I feel that social networking is genuinely moving people closer together. Some of the closest people I have in my life are people that I first met through Vimeo, Tumblr, or Twitter. I think at first, it seems like people are moving together superficially, because of the volume of contact you get with random people, but after you weed through it, you find the ones that become lifelong friends. When you use those different platforms, you put so much of yourself out that make it really easy for people with similar interests to relate to. Besides, social networking is a great way to connect with other filmmaking, dinosaur-lovers from around the world!

EOSHD: I reckon filmmaking is where science meets art, and you can’t have one without the other. What ratio of importance would you give content to gear… I’d say 50:50 but I’ve heard people go on about it being ‘content is king, camera doesn’t matter blah’… but clearly the camera does matter, it’s a creative tool, there are many many choices of camera which allow different ideas to express themselves in different ways. Also I believe a film can be completely silent and lacking in traditional narrative ‘content’ but be completely moving in terms of the way it’s shot and the sound track. What are your feelings on this?

KA: In some ways I do agree that content is king. People are so hung up on the latest and greatest in technology that in many cases content suffers. I’ve seen so many aesthetically intriguing videos with shallow depth of field, that I am not emotionally engaged in. You can only watch so many things that have half an inch of a depth of field that go in and out of focus before they are extremely boring. I’ve seen beautifully shot films with SD cameras or point and shoot cameras that I have been more drawn to as a whole. However, that’s not to say that the choice of camera doesn’t help. I agree with you in that the camera does matter as a creative tool. I think that the better the equipment, the more control you have over your aesthetic vision, to compliment your story.

The same goes for camera movement in cinematography. Just because you have a dozen dolly shots or several crane shots, if they aren’t being used to advance the story, they are pretty, yet pointless. Also, not all films need a story, but the ones that I can most relate to are ones that do, regardless of how minute. I used to (and still do) shoot a lot of voodles (video doodles, that serve no narrative purpose other than to showcase their aesthetics), but I am finding that I am more intrigued and drawn to a compelling narrative. I agree in that a film can be completely silent and still be effective, but I also feel that careful sound design is extremely crucial. Sound design makes up for 50% or more of a film and can really carry a piece along, regardless of whether or not it has dialogue. When it comes down to it, film is extremely subjective, albeit based on the amalgamation of technical and creative factors. Even if everyone in the world hates what you make, there will always be some one (or people) that will enjoy it, and vice versa. It’s important to not get so hung up on what you think people will like (unless that’s your main purpose), but to make something that you will enjoy and be proud of.

EOSHD: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me Karen! Keep up the great work.

Cinematography Reel 2010