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Q&A: Nancy Schreiber


What is your personal style?
I gear myself to the subject matter of the film and try to never repeat myself. I think many of us are chameleons and I think that’s okay. I’m very drawn to the human face. I always want to see eyes. Even if it’s a moody film, I like to light peoples’ eyes because they’re so expressive. I usually light my background first, or I light the set first and then I light the people.
Has having been a gaffer impacted you as a cinematographer?
When I walk into a room, even if I’m not working, I see in light. It doesn’t matter if it’s practical or nature-made.
Talk about your process.
Because I have an art history background, I’m often referring to other visual artists, painters and photographers. I also like to refer to other films- both for what a director might be looking for and not looking for. It’s so crucial to establish that vocabulary, that language with the director, before production begins. On Your Friends & Neighbors, Neil LaBute, production designer Charles Breen and I focused on the [Edward] Hopper color palette. On Stranger Inside, director Cheryl Dunye and I watched a lot of prison movies and made a conscious effort not to emulate any of the expected visual stereotypes. Testing is really important.
Talk about about your experiences shooting digitally.
When I walk into a room, even if I’m not working, I see in light. It doesn’t matter if it’s practical or nature-made.
I shot two movies in high-def. One is Red Roses and Petrol, directed by Tamar Simon Hoffs. For that film, I did all the color-correction in camera. HD afforded me the luxury of making my own digital intermediate, basically. I could make it look like Ireland, though we shot in Santa Clarita. The other HD movie was The Failures, which Tim Hunter directed, which is not out yet.
When November came along, [director] Greg Harrison really wanted to make a very filmic, cinematic movie even though it was digital. It was a fantastic collaboration. Before the Panasonic DVX-100 came out last year, I wasn’t a huge fan of shooting movies on a MiniDV camera. I own a three-chip camera, which I used on certain scenes in Blair Witch 2. Since that time, I use it only for scouting and family events since I felt that the image quality was inferior once projected on a 30-foot screen. With this Panasonic camera, which was the only 24p MiniDV camera at the time, I knew I would be able to control the color palette and handle the imagery in a more sophisticated way, so I could really push the limits of the medium.
What type of material lends itself to being shot digitally?
It really depends on what kind of film it is- and choices of budget. Recently I was prepping a comedy for director Maria Maggenti which unfortunately fell through. We opted not to use MiniDV as it was too gritty a look for the subject matter. For a New York comedy, where you’re holding on shots for a long time and you want the actors to play within the frame, I felt there wasn’t enough resolution, especially in the wide shots. Our choice was to use the Panasonic AJ-SDX900, still digital and inexpensive, but with a much cleaner look than MiniDV and a pleasingly softer, more pastel color imagery than HD.
It’s ironic how much effort we spend trying to degrade clean film stocks and HD, but that’s what’s exciting: having so many choices in determining the look or palette of a film. MiniDV already has a degraded look built-in. The problem is an inherent lack of sharpness, or resolution. Often it’s better to start with a more expensive camera and degrade. But sometimes budgets are too limited and filmmakers want to avoid the "presence" of a large camera on the set. What’s wonderful today is the abundance of options to explore. The world is changing rapidly both in digital and film and there isn’t one "right" way to make movies.

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Categories: Creativity, Project/Case study, Shooting