Friday, October 23, 2015

Cinematographer Carmen Cabana Interview (Part 1) "The Chemist" Exclusive! (C) 2015 Dan's Movie Report

 Above Photo: Carmen behind the camera!

Greetings my esteemed readers, Dan's Movie Report, your home for detailed exclusive interviews, takes a behind the lens approach today with a insightful and informative interview from talented director of photography Carmen Cabana. Carmen's latest project is 'The Chemist' and this is actually part one of an interview, the second will post when her latest project comes out of the shadows, trust me Carmen is one to watch, enough of my babbling on, time to get the full picture with Carmen!

How were you approached to be the DP of The Chemist?
I had worked previously with producer Al Bravo on a feature film called '2 Bedroom 1 Bath' which we shot in New Orleans. Al was now co producing the Chemist and he introduced me to director Art Camacho. When I met him we immediately clicked. Art has a tremendous presence and a very positive attitude plus he is a very respected figure in the martial arts community so I was very excited to work with him on The Chemist.

What were some of your other duties on the production?

Like in any indie film one has a tittle but we all switch hats and help in every way possible to make the best film. I provided some of the props from my own home and I purchased the specific type of flash lights that I needed to get the right exposure in the opening sequence. Ha! Now that I am thinking about it some of the wardrobe in the Blue Club sequence including the dancing girls outfits and some of the patrons dresses were mine. 
I think a film is a collective effort and if we can all contribute even with the smallest things it makes for a better film and that is a collective victory.
Now that you were able to see the finished product, curious as to your thoughts.
I was very excited to see it all put together. I love the vast amount of action sequences in the film and of course the characters and the story. I think the editor Hector did a great job and he complemented very well Art's vision. My biggest fear is always post. That is the area where a film can be made or destroyed. Fortunately in this case the film in my opinion works and flows like it should be.

Of course there were many limitations given the budget and time but I think the end result displays everyone's effort and passion for this film and that very much is attributed to the love that Art and the producers poured on the film. I enjoyed particularly the great respect that the stunt team had for Art and their willingness and eager attitude to do just about anything blew me away. What a great team of people!

One of my favorite scenes is the chase that ends up with one character dangling over the side of the building. Describe how you formulated the scene in your mind and worked it out on camera, was there a few takes, did you make it a point to show the audience the smaller nuances as well as the big picture?
During a location scout I saw the big pile of junk by the side of the building and then it occurred to me that it would be the perfect background to enhance the threatening circumstance that the junkie boy was facing and it matched his own character environment very well. Even though his role was small we wanted to tell as much about him visually as we could so we carefully crafted what his apartment would be like. The actor himself was working on the art department and he really immersed himself in the role.

I think there are many small stories within a story-line and we wanted each character's environment to tell the audience something. One of my favorite sets was Trinidad's apartment because it reflected her edginess and playful nature.

As you see I talk a lot about Production Design because for a cinematographer that is a key aspect of all the visuals and that is also what helps create the illusion of a world that is not there. Unfortunately that is also the department that suffers the most the budgetary restrictions. For instance none of the clubs or bars we shot in the film were actual clubs and that was the biggest challenge for everybody and for me particularly the blue club was the most difficult because we had to hide so much to make it look like an actual venue and we had the longest and most complex flight sequences and shootout.
That is where we decided to use color gels to give each bar a particular feel and to hide the fact that most of them where white and near empty spaces.

Working with the actors, and Art, describe some of the challenges in shooting the fight sequences and some of the action in The Chemist.

I have to be honest, both the talent and the director had plenty of passion and disposition to perform the sequences. Particularly actresses Nina and Stephanie would practice every chance they had and they both trained very hard. I rarely see actors be as passionate as those two were and it was a great joy to film them and work with them.

In the Chemist there are many action sequences and each one is very different and therefore the challenges of each were unique. I particularly enjoyed the Dojo sequence the most because I grew up watching Chinese Martial arts films and I always wanted to film an Asian style fight. Master Eric Lee was incredible, very proficient and fast in performing the sequences that Art Camacho and Stunt Coordinator Mario Rocha created. Master Samuel Kwok was also a great asset and being a fan of Ip Man I loved his fighting style.

You also have to understand the speed at which we were working. Normally an action film would have weeks or months of rehearsals, often such rehearsals would be shot and edited so when the actual shoot day would come everyone would know what they will do and where exactly they will do it. Normally the cinematographer would have the opportunity to watch the rehearsals to understand the choreography and pick the right angles and movements.
In The Chemist, often we would see the action minutes or an hour (if we were lucky) before we had to film it. And we also had to light and shoot very fast and wrap a fight sequence in a matter of hours.

In situations like this is when one has to trust the director the most and Art was of great help in guiding everybody with precision as far as where they would have to be for a hit to sell. Of course with so many moving elements, things would change on the spot but for me it became an organic game of dancing with the actors and also "feeling the action". For instance on impact shots I felt the impulse to shake/push the camera forward and bounce it back like a character's head would do. Or on power punches I would leap forward as if the camera would continue the move. When you start to feel the adrenaline you just don't want the fun to stop. Kudos to Olivier, Steve, Nina, Stephanie and the stunt team for their stamina!!

Art has a great working method as well which is to shoot sectional Masters to establish the geography of a choreography and then breakup all the important hits into separate shots that would often be closeups.

But then again we had so many fight sequences that we didn't want to repeat ourselves so we would vary our approach. On the dojo for instance most of the Samuel Kwok fight was shot on a Portajib that I operated and moved very fast to follow the action. I liked that a lot because it gave us other perspectives and the ability to go from high to low very fast and fluidly.

On the Parking Lot sequence in which Olivier beats the rapist guys we saw the opportunity to capture it all and sell all the hits in a single take and flow. We liked that a lot and I found that to be the most fun because you are right there with the fight and you are part of the choreography itself. Timing and memory is everything in those situations. Even if in the edit that sequence was fragmented to match the fast paced choppy style of the whole film I still loved shooting it in that way.
In fact one of my goals as a cinematographer is to be able to perform much longer fluid masters in action sequences. I think that is a great way to make a sequence as realistic as possible and to get the audience to feel as if they are part of the action. Of course that will require the proper pre-production than on a larger budget we will be able to have. :)

Any scene stand out as particularly challenging?

Definitely the Blue Club sequence for the reasons listed above. When you are shooting an action sequence with so many characters doing simultaneous actions but with few extras and so many limitations as far as where you can point your camera because of the set then you have a problem that goes beyond selling the action but it also becomes a matter of selling the set.
That location in particular was also a problem for lighting because the ceiling was low and it didn't have rigging points and ideally on a multi character sequence you want to have your lighting to be as much off the ground as possible or to be practical.
Problem was that we also wanted to shoot a lot of the sequence in a 90 degree shutter angle and some of it in slo mo and we would loose a lot of stops. So the practical lighting was not enough.
I would have loved an additional day on that set but quite honestly now that I see it all put together  I think we pulled it off and that is a relief. 

We chatted about this before, not many women in the DP role, I hope that it changes, what are some ways to make that happen, in your opinion?

I am very surprised at the lack of female cinematographers and quite honestly I don't understand why it is that way when this is a job that involves creativity, technical knowledge and people managing skills and both men and women can do all those things equally.
The only interpretation I can find to this problem is that it is a direct result of the cultural work discrimination that existed towards women in the time of our parents especially in the film industry and therefore even though there has been great improvements in the matter of female rights and equality there is still a lot more than needs to happen.
Chatting about the dark side of filming, do you still feel discrimination in the business? Is it getting better?

I think it is getting better but discrimination is an individual problem. There are some folks that cannot accept the fact that women can do the same job as a man can. At the same time there are many folks that are pro-women. I think it depends on the individual and I personally hate generalizations. As far as I am concerned I have had a prosperous career as a female cinematographer and I have many people to thank for that including both men and women. Yes I have encountered an idiot or two in my path but that has never affected me or made me feel that I am in a disadvantage at all.

On to the happier subjects, favorite director, actor and actress, who would you like to work with in the future.

Not to kiss ass but I would love to work with Art and the producers of The Chemist again. They made me feel like I was part of a family and not just part of a production and that counts for lots. People like that are those that one is willing to dive in head first to help them accomplish just about anything.

I have a private wish list as far as directors I would love to work with in the future including Gareth Evans who directed The Raid and I am a big fan of Korean action thrillers so I must list Jeong Beom Lee (The Man from Nowhere) and of course Chan Wook Park (Oldboy) and Jee Woo Kim (I Saw the Devil). I would also love to have Donnie Yen and Byung Hun Lee in front of my lens!

Yes you would be great in Asia! Speaking of favorites, share some additional thoughts on working with Nina and Steph in The Chemist, must have been fun to watch the ladies mix it up? Especially from behind the Camera!

Those two are warriors and very committed to their craft. I love and respect them both tremendously. It is also amazing that they are both singers. They had great chemistry and endless energy. They always wanted to do more and they loved Art very much and so do I. If it was up to us we would have loved a six month shoot as long as we could work with Art everyday. :)

Actress Nina Bergman and I have also been working on pre-production of a fascinating subject action thriller based on her personal story and her fight for Animal Rights. I think she is a multi-talented individual and a beautiful person inside and out.Both Nina and Stephanie are actresses I would recommend with my eyes closed. 

To shift gears with regards to your thoughts on your craft, if offered a DP part in a huge film for gobs of money, at the same time, offered a cool indie project with a script and director you really wanted to work for, which project would you choose, or case by case.

Definitely a cool Indie Project with a script and team I can love. When you work under those parameters everyday is rewarding and full of joy and that is what life to me is about.
I am a people person. I love people, specially good hearted people. Films that mean something to special people are special films. Fortunately for me there have been people I have worked under those parameters and they are forever part of my family.
I have also worked on bigger productions like the one I am working on right now and when a production is so big the corporate rules, politics and limitations can be somewhat draining on the spirit.
Of course there are also many advantages and some really fantastic people like our stunt coordinator Markos Rounthwaite who is amazing and a very kind local crew, but I personally rather work in smaller productions in which I can have more involvement and you don't have to run an idea past 20 heads to get anything approved.

In fact my husband Eric St John and I started our own production company this year called Foxridge Films, LLC and we have acquired 3 action screenplays that we plan to produce in the near future. My husband is a great actor, a graduate of The Academy of Dramatic Arts NY and a talented and disciplined Martial Artist.

I believe firmly that we will make some terrific films and that will be a great opportunity to collaborate with some of my favorite people from past productions. In the long term my goal is to be a Cinematographer/Producer so that I can find the script I want to shoot along with the right director and have more control over the final product. I am naturally good with numbers and logistics so I think this would be a good combination and I will be even happier choosing the material I want to shoot.

I agree with you, thus I run Dan's Movie Report myself, and I consult myself with regards on who to interview, occasionally over ruling myself, and admonishing myself. Seriously though, I try to pick the intellectual individuals in diverse areas of film who actually have something to say, and Carmen, you blew me away with your detailed answers. Any final thoughts, advice for people wanting to be a DP in the future?

Learn your craft, stay updated and most importantly understand that being a Dp represents being the right hand of a director and therefore you must be a chameleon and be able to adapt to any style, and also be receptive, and understand that when there is no budget for something that is just part of life and not something to cry over. This job is not about pleasing one's own aesthetics but it is about performing a very important service: to translate on camera what another person has in mind. Also work hard on developing people managing skills because this is a team effort and every crew member is crucial and finally Time Efficiency. In my world which is the Indie world time is what we least have and to me the biggest failure is an incomplete film.

I have done features in 7 days, 15, 18 and 28 days, and they have all been completed on time.

Of course I would have loved to have more time in all of them because time allows you to do higher quality things but ultimately the task is to tell a story in a complete form and to be able to sell it so in the larger scale individual shots are not the priority. To get a film to be out in the world and be seen by an audience, that is the goal and when the audience loves it that is the reward.

Thanks Carmen, kept it basic, we will discuss the other material when you come back to the states, for my valued readers, just wait till I unleash Carmen interview part 2 in 2016! Get ready for more on Carmen! For More info and to connect with Carmen for your film project go to her official website @
 Thank you Danny!!!!!

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