Paul Cameron, ASC, was born in Montreal, Canada, and attended high school in New York City, where his brother lived. While attending school, he worked on stage lighting for plays and helped with lighting for bands. After determining that he wanted to attend film school, he enrolled at the State University of New York. He shot other students’ projects and bartended at a club in Manhattan.
A little-known band at the time was scheduled to play at the club: the B-52s. Paul and his friend Charlie Libin borrowed equipment from the college and filmed their performance. When the university found out, they asked both of them to leave school. Six months later, Paul headed to Los Angeles to shop around the 16mm film of the B-52s, and showed it to Warner Bros. music department. Since MTV didn’t exist at the time, there was no outlet to air the film, and Paul returned to New York City to finish school. He worked on music videos and 16mm documentaries, which got him into NABET (National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians). After various assignments, he received a call from a former classmate, Ron Fortunato, ASC, who asked him to work as his AC for a year, shooting music videos and television. Two years later, Paul began working as a DP again, and racked up numerous credits on commercials and music videos. His work paired him with directors Sam Mendes, Kathryn Bigelow and Tony Scott on commercials for “Bacardi,” “AT&T,” “BMW,” “Seiko,” “Coca-Cola” and “Revlon.” His work in music videos included Janet Jackson, Prince, Alicia Keys and David Bowie, among others. His collaboration with director Dominic Sena included “Gone in Sixty Seconds” and “Swordfish,” and he teamed up with Tony Scott for a short called “Beat the Devil,” (garnering him a Clio Award for Best Cinematography), “Man on Fire,” and “Déjà vu.” His work with director Michael Mann on “Collateral” earned him a LAFCA Award, a BAFTA Film Award and an ASC Film award nomination (shared with Dion Beebe, ASC). The most recent film he shot, “Total Recall,” an August 2012 release, is the first 2D feature shot with Panavision anamorphic lenses on Epic cameras. Panavision spoke with Paul about his work on “Total Recall” and “Man on a Ledge,” opening today.
Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?
PC: The first time I was introduced to Panavision was on the streets of New York watching Gordon Willis, ASC shooting Woody Allen. During my third year in film school, when I tried to get into the union (NABET), I developed a relationship with two gentlemen at General Camera, Scott Fleischer and Sal Giarratano, who were kind enough to introduce me to Panavision cameras. I didn’t get into NABET at the time -- I failed the assistant camera test – but three weeks later I screened as a director of photography and got in.
Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
PC: I was exposed to a lot of international films when I attended junior high school with my brother in New York City. We watched a lot of early black and white, new wave films and I gravitated toward the imagery. Then, in high school, when they asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to go to film school. That was when I really focused in on cinematography. Fortunately, it was still a very new world for commercials and music videos which allowed for a lot of opportunities as a cinematographer. The birth of MTV created a need for music video content, and the advent of cable television led to more opportunities. It was also a good time for independent filmmaking.
Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, AC, key grip, operator?
PC: The core of my crew I have had for over 15 years, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have them on some films; but the last 3-4 years it’s been impossible to travel around the world with key crew people. There was a time when we could do that, and now it’s almost non-existent because of the local unions and the tax credit. I gathered my crew when I was working on commercials and they are all very balanced in experience whether its features or commercials.
Q: What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic?
PC: Deciding on the format you are shooting the film with is foremost, whether spherical or anamorphic, and by far one of the most creative decisions you make. There is a whole psychology to watching an anamorphic film as opposed to spherical. Each format offers a unique opportunity to tell a story. Anamorphic lenses have an incredible history and lineage in motion picture photography. Each set of lenses throughout history have rendered different emotional results on the screen. Recently, I was about to shoot “Total Recall” 35mm film 2:40 anamorphic, and eight days before shooting production decided to shoot Epic. The challenge was to keep the C&E Series anamorphic lenses as they are unique and have very particular characteristics. No Epic-based feature had shot with these lenses before. It came down to deciding whether we stay with the optics and trade off on the image being magnified. We decided the inherent aberrations and flares from the lenses were worth it. For wide focal lengths I supplemented G Series lenses, which are intrinsically clean anamorphic lenses. Optics have been an obsession with me: the characteristic of the original lenses -- specifically the C&E Series anamorphic – and the way they render images from contrast to their slight aberration with flares; they have a certain personality that has never been recreated in optics. Then, with the advent of the Primo anamorphic and the G series, there was a movement to try and make everything sharper. It was better for visual effects, but in my opinion, they lost a lot in the Primo Series trying to clean them up, although they did regain some personality in the G Series. Unfortunately, in the last two decades, DPs have used C&Es in crash boxes -- they have become the default lenses -- so a number of them have been destroyed. It reminds me of “Ten Little Indians,” how many are actually left? “Total Recall” embraces all the character and personality of C, E and G optics. I also had Dan Sasaki at Panavision alter some of the C Series lenses; he put little ventricular mirrors in and designed the lenses to increase flaring. Those really became the default lenses on “Total Recall,” creating such defined images.
Q: How much of that decision is related to your artistic take on the script vs. that of the director?
PC: I think as a cinematographer your duty is to see the movie as clearly as you can. Once you read the script and have envisioned the story, you need to present a format that you think is right for the project, whether it’s spherical or anamorphic. For directors who haven’t shot in anamorphic, it can be a bit daunting with the limitations of focal length and the nature of what’s involved in post and visual effects. You really need directors engaged in big screen reality, who go see their tests in a movie theatre so they can visualize their work on a large screen. There is a certain intimacy to filming with anamorphic and by nature, the lenses bring you closer to the characters
Q: The film “Man on a Ledge” was shot spherical. Do you find that with the increasing use of digital, it is easier, or harder, to originate on film?
PC: I’d say it’s getting very difficult for cinematographers on major motion pictures to argue on an artistic level the necessity of shooting on film. The majority of films are originated on digital camera systems, and as precedence gets set, it’s harder and harder to argue creative reasons to shoot film, especially with the current advent of 4K digital camera systems.
Q: When shooting “Man on a Ledge,” the main character is literally on a ledge in New York City. Talk about the logistics of shooting those scenes.
PC: We started shooting the exterior ledge sequences and related photography on the streets below in early November and had to complete those shots over the course of three weekends. We had a set that was constructed and lifted on top of the Roosevelt Hotel onto the 21st floor. It was placed on railroad ties that would push out over Madison Avenue and 45th Street. The ledge is basically 8 inches wide, and we shot with [actor] Sam Worthington out on the ledge for a total of 5-1/2 days, to tie in as much of the city streets below as we could. Sam spent the better part of the shoot days out there. I spent a great deal of time with him hand-held, chasing him up and down the ledge. We had a Technocrane that cantilevered out over Madison Avenue, and a 72-foot Strada crane that could swing a camera out above our set. We had eight cameras a day constantly going for all the tie-in footage and all the ground footage.
Q: How did you orchestrate this with the weather?
PC: Fortunately, we had consistent weather every day -- it was sunny. I would have preferred cloudy, because with such conditions we had light bouncing off everything. You have to play it the best you can and try to avoid the harshest light and shoot down below when you can. We then transmitted all the cameras to one room in the hotel. I spent the better part of those five days doing hand-held out on the ledge with Sam. We were tied in with a harness, with a single line attached to it. The line is so thin it looks like a boot shoelace! I also shot a lot of footage while wearing the same wardrobe as Sam so you see my feet doing stand-in work for his feet. But the challenge was that we had to figure out where Sam is out on the ledge at various times: when other actors stick their heads out the window to talk to him, or when he is being seen from below, all those scenarios had to be thought out.
Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
PC: My preferences for features are C & E anamorphics. In the spherical world, I have a great set of MK II primes that are Panavision Prime lenses; they are on hold for me at Panavision Hollywood. These lenses have a very unique character to them. It’s a set of lenses that I have been putting together over the years and I had them shipped to New York for “Man on a Ledge.” Lisa Harp helped provide them for me. In fact, Lisa and Cathy Peirce at Panavision Hollywood, and Scotty and Sal at Panavision New York have taken great care of me over the years, so I just want to say thank you. But I want to make a point about lenses: what makes each cinematographer unique is how we use lenses. We all share them, but it’s how we use them that separates us from each other. From the MK IIs to the C&E Series, if you grab lenses and check the serial lenses, we are all using the same ones. Some people hate the C&Es, they love the G Series, or they don’t like the MK IIs because they flare too much. It’s how you use lenses and why you use them.
Q: Out of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite? And why?
PC: My favorite project was “Man on Fire.” It was just a great film where Tony Scott and I artistically collided and he wanted me to explore things photographically. I had hand-cranked cameras made at Panavision Hollywood and I shot cross-process reversal film, and we pushed the envelope on lighting. It was a good alignment between director and DP.