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Interview with Richard Vialet

Richard Vialet, an emerging cinematographer in the indie film scene, gave Reel Artsy an in-depth interview about his process, influences and his road to SXSW. His latest film, The Last Fall, makes its world premiere at the SXSW Film Fest tonight. The Last Fall offers a subtle and honest look at an "athlete who struggles to deal with life's complexities after his professional NFL career is over."

1. What's your approach to cinematography? What are some essential elements that have to be in place before you start a job?

Before the production begins, I think it's important that every department head is on the same page and united under the director. I think anyone who works on a film should approach their craft in a way where serving the story is paramount. So I feel that my job is to serve the story as well as the director. And because movies are so expensive, it's also important to finish on time. So, if I have to sacrifice a few things on my end to insure that happens, I will.

2. What qualities attract you to a project?

The most important thing I look for is a good story that keeps me engaged. The director is another major factor if they're already attached. So sometimes, I get excited about a project because I really want to work with that particular person. I'm also very big on versatility, so I'm always looking for a project that is different from the last one. For example, the two features I've shot for director Corey Grant have been polar opposites, and I find that exciting. I just try to avoid getting bored.

3. When you get a script and decide to sign-on, what are some of the first things you make note of?

When I first read the script, I read it strictly for the story. But after I'm brought on board, I read it a second and third time and jot down initial visual ideas that come to my head. I also make note of anything I have to research, whether it's special equipment or any unfamiliar story elements. I also look for logistical issues that could affect the shoot, like schedule concerns, special effects, light gags, amount of day scenes vs. night scenes, moving car scenes, long montages, etc.

A True Story

4. Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. How do you go about forming a relationship with the directors you've worked with?

Every director works differently. I've worked with some directors who don't make detailed shotlists, so they can base their decisions off of rehearsals on set. But I also worked with one director who went as far as to make an animated video storyboard of the short we were shooting (complete with score and dialogue), and we used that as our guide. So some directors are more hands-on when it comes to the camera and some are not.

The goal is to get on the same page with the director and gain their trust. Once we're on the same page, everything can move smoothly. A great example is my working relationship with director Malcolm Goodwin. On our comedy feature based on a play, A True Story, we spent time blocking the scenes out in the locations with the actors during prep. This informed our shotlisting and we didn't really need to talk much during production. And because we were well prepared, we were also open to happy accidents. We ended up shooting the 112 page script in 12 days! During prep, I try to meet with the director to gauge their sensibilities and quirks, their weaknesses and strengths. I feel that it's my responsibility as a DP to magnify the strengths.

The Last Fall

5. What traits do you appreciate the most in a director?

I love working with directors who have confidence, know exactly what they want, and communicate it well. I worked with one director, Andre LeBlanc, on a short film that took place in an Army research facility in the Arctic circle. In prep he gave me a CD with lots of reference photos and info, from the kinds of industrial lights they would use around the facility to concept drawings of the way the control panels would look in the different rooms. There was no better way to communicate his vision than that and the shoot ran smoothly. But he was still very collaborative. A great filmmaker with confidence in his vision is always open and comfortable taking input from others because he knows what suggestions will work for him and what won't.

I like to work with directors who know what shots will fit into their language for the picture and don't overshoot. I'm not a fan of what I like to call "bulldozer coverage," where you shoot a ton of shots for one scene with the intention of working it out in editing. Sometimes a scene does need to be "covered", but I believe that each frame should serve the story implicitly. If a shot doesn't do that then why shoot it?


The Last Fall

6. Your film The Last Fall is playing at the upcoming SXSW film fest. Could you talk about the experience working with Matthew A. Cherry?

Matthew has huge ambition, a passion for what he wants to do, and tons of hustle. This caused us to disagree a few times but it was constructive; he keeps me on my toes and ultimately it helped to produce some of my best work in The Last Fall. For example he came up with a shot idea for a scene in the film that would require motion control, which I would never have expected was possible considering our budget. But because he has that infectious ambition, I figured out how to get that shot for him, we pulled it off, and it's right up there on screen.


7. How would you describe the vibe on set?

Of course being on a tight budget for the scope of the project, it was stressful at times behind the scenes. But we had a great crew that truly held it together and that stress was never apparent to the actors and never affected our work. I had a great time working with that team.

8. Let's switch gears to your early influences. Was there a specific shot that fueled your passion for the art? Perhaps a particular scene or director's touch that you would push the pause button, freeze the frame and admire?

I vividly remember the moment when I wanted to be a DP. I was originally studying to be a director at Howard University. Then I went to see the movie Road To Perdition on the big screen and was floored by the climactic scene in the rain where Michael Sullivan takes revenge on the man who murdered his family. The lighting is immaculate and a perfect marriage of emotion, photography, music, sound design, and editing. It blew me away and really showed me the effect that good filmmaking (especially cinematography) can have on an audience. By the end, I was floored and I took the train back to my dorm room in a daze. I wanted to be a DP ever since.

9. At what age did you start noticing the craft of cinematography?
Around 9 or 10 I remember watching The Secret Garden on TV, directed by Agnieszka Holland. It was the first time I can remember thinking that a movie was "beautiful." It wasn't until college that I realized that it was shot by one of the most popular DP's working right now, Roger Deakins.

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10. Let's go back to the genesis of your cinematography career. How did you get your start in the business?

While studying cinematography at the American Film Institute Conservatory, the great DP Matthew Libatique gave me sound advice: "If you want to be seen as a cinematographer, then you have to shoot. So shoot whatever you can and be consistent." I took that advice to heart and started shooting anything that came my way. Pretty soon after graduating, I landed my first feature film job, as co-DP on a horror picture called Growth, which we shot for a month in Martha's Vineyard, MA. Since then, I've been trying to stay as busy I can.

11. What's your favorite format to shoot on?

Each format has its strengths and weaknesses. It really depends on the story and the needs for each project. I'm not tied to any one format, although 35mm anamorphic is magical and has a special place in my heart.

Growth

12. Could you talk about shooting on the RED camera? What are some of the benefits? Disadvantages?

The RED One is one of the best in terms of bang for your buck, but it does have a lot of disadvantages, mostly in the way it renders skin tones and certain colors. Ergonomically, it has problems as well. It's terribly designed for shooting handheld and the buttons are in strange places. But it's fairly intuitive to use, and makes great images. I mean, look at what David Fincher has done with the it. Also, the new cameras from RED have solved many of those previous issues.

13. How would you describe the camaraderie among other cinematographers in the business?

It's a great community. Of course there's friendly competition, but everyone is gracious with sharing information and helping each other out. The DPs that I went to school with at AFI still hang out together and visit each other's sets. There are also great online resources where cinematographers can come together and share info, like the message boards at cinematography.com and the Cinematographer Mailing List.

Dysfunctional Friends

14. Looking to the future, what kind of projects would you like to work on?

Specifically, I love westerns and I would be very excited to shoot a good one, with classic themes and a great villain. But I mostly just want to tell great stories and work with talented directors. I want to make movies that I could love, not because I shot them, but because they're simply great.


15. Some people are unclear on what DP/cinematographers actually do. In your own words how would you describe your role as a DP/cinematographer?

A cinematographer is in charge of all the photographic elements of a movie, like the framing, camera movement, and lighting. My responsibility is to interpret the director's vision of the story into strong images that support it.

The Lost Coast Tapes

16. Do you have a favorite shot/sequence from your current body of work?

The shot that stays with me the most is from A True Story, and the moment was completely unplanned (the shot is at the end of my current reel). We were shooting a close-up of an actor, over the shoulder of actress Katrina Bowden. It was an intense argument scene where the actor storms off camera. Katrina turns unexpectedly to watch him go, and with much credit due to my wonderful operator and focus puller, we panned to her face and the focus landed on her just in time to catch a single tear falling from her eye. The entire crew held their breath until cut, then broke out into applause. The crazy thing is that the director, Malcolm, decided to try for two more takes, and Katrina dropped a tear out of the same eye both times. But that initial moment was incredible and it still gives me goosebumps thinking about it.

17. What's the most rewarding thing about your craft? Most challenging?

It's wonderful when an image or sequence turns out exactly the way you imagined it. You live with these ideas in your head all through pre-production, and so much work goes into making these images. So when it actually works and affects an audience the way you planned, it's a pretty amazing feeling.

I think one of the biggest challenges for all DPs is to execute those ideas while constantly battling with outside elements like a short shooting schedule, not having enough money, or even the weather. The trick is to face all these problems head on and make quick decisions. With every project the challenge is to make effective decisions as quickly as possible.

18. Anything else you'd like to add?

You have a great website here and I'm so happy you chose to include me.


For more info on Vialet and The Last Fall visit http://www.richardvialet.com/


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