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Behind the Lens: Tom Burstyn Shoots Defiance

COW Library : Cinematography : Thomas Burstyn : Behind the Lens: Tom Burstyn Shoots Defiance
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: Tom Burstyn Shoots Defiance -- Cinematography Editorial

I got onto Defiance through line producer Clara George. She and I have done a lot of work in the past -- we did a season of Fairly Legal together and, before that, a number of TV movies. Cinematographer Attila Szalay (Reaper) did the two-part pilot, and I've shot the rest of the episodes. We have seven shooting days per episode, and being the only cinematographer on the series means a lot of lunchtime meetings.

It's good in that I get to put my signature on everything but bad because there's no time to prep a show with the director. The director shows up and we just have at it. We have a very large backlot, so that makes scouting easy. We've got both a big warehouse with all the interiors built and a huge backlot for the exterior town of Defiance. It's all in a disused factory in Toronto, with a huge vacant lot in the back.

Set build in Ontario

For cameras, we ended up choosing the RED EPIC, and I have three EPICs on the shoot. We shoot RAW at 4K HD and I've been very happy with it. I picked the EPIC because of its extreme flexibility in that we can put any lens on it that we want. The other camera I considered using, the Alexa, has a PL mount so I would have been limited to Cine lenses. We often use antique lenses from still cameras or bits and pieces from any walk of photography. The vintage lenses are a personal collection.

They're from the 1950s to 1970s, mostly from 35mm still cameras. Sometimes they're sort of cobbled together things. They're very strange looking -- they give a very romantic feel. Now we can do anything in VFX, but with the vintage glass, the look is baked into the lens itself -- it would be very difficult to duplicate. It's more organic. We also have a modern, sharp set of lenses.

The Serpent's Egg Episode 105 -- Pictured:  -- (Photo by: Russ Martin/Syfy). © 2012 Syfy Media, LLC
"The Serpent's Egg" Episode 105 (Photo by: Russ Martin/Syfy). © 2012 Syfy Media, LLC

On Season 1, I used Cooke S4s; I'm going to re-test some different lenses for Season 2 and haven't decided which yet. I tend not to pick cutting-edge modern, but definitely from the last decade. When we want to checkerboard the emotion or contrast the emotion from one scene to the next, we might change our set of lenses from the sharp to the not-so-sharp.

For Season 2, we're changing it up a lot. The story has taken a new direction and the art department and photography are going to reflect that. I'm not at liberty to tell you what's going to happen. Michel Nankin, the show runner, and I looked at some films, painters and photographers, and we put together whatever intrigued us about those. One photographer, Rene Burri, will be our touchstone this season. The look of the show is very telegraphic, the idea being that we communicate an idea in the simplest way possible.

Two films that inspired us are John Ford's The Fugitive and William Wellman's The Oxbow Incident. They're very different from a usual Western. Both are brilliant films that are very evocative with very non-standard kind of framing. We liked that very much.

We try to stay away from conventions as much as possible. A backlight isn't a standard thing in every shot and a close-up might be made in a deep shadow with a bright background, something you don't normally do. We do a lot of evocative framing with a lot of headroom or a frame where the principal character is right on the edge.

Stephanie Leonidas as Irisa

Sometimes we lock the camera off for an absolutely static scene and block the action so it goes out of frame, making the audience a little anxious. We like a lot of dynamic movement, so, for example, we'll use a handheld camera that really becomes very inquisitive in the scene. The idea is to take you into this other world. The earth has been changed to such an extent that there is nothing familiar about it any more. These are all great ways to do that, given our budgetary constraints.

There are a lot of choreographed shots executed with a Steadicam. Daniel Sauve and Jim Van Dijk were our two operators last year, and they were very, very good at their jobs. We're hoping to continue that a lot, for style and the speed. It's not a case of the camera following the actors around, but the camera snooping or prowling, stalking the cast. It becomes a character in the storyline.

We light a lot, and I'm hoping to do more again "organic" lighting in Season 2. The art department helps a lot, sometimes building lights into the sets such as a tree with a phosphorescent glow. We're changing our color palette this year; Season 1's palette had a lot of cool colors, blues and turquoises, and one of the characters in the film has recreated out of the ruins a suburban craftsman house, lit very warmly as a cozy world.

Other people lead very rough lives and the light in their environment is harsh, white and unpleasant. As we light each set on the backlot, this lighting kit stays behind so it's there when we return. That makes things faster; speed is the essence. It's a collaboration between me and the gaffer and I'm always looking forward to what they bring to the party. We had some LED lights and little tungsten panels, but nothing very sizeable. I still like good old-fashioned tungsten lights.

DEFIANCE -- Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go Episode 102 -- Pictured: -- (Photo by: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy)
"Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go" -- Episode 102. (Photo by: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy). ©2012 SyFy.

I have to say that the executives at SyFy are really completely behind any kind of radical approach. We get no notes from the studio. They have embraced all our attempts at pushing the edges of things. It's a nice way to work, when your efforts are appreciated and you don't get reined in by outdated conventions.

My career started when I was 15 and my mother clipped out an ad or a summer job with the National Film Board of Canada and she said -- you should do this. Like every good Jewish boy, my mother said I should be in the film business. Actually, my brother was the doctor so I could be something else.

So I started out when I was 15 in a summer apprenticeship with the camera department, as an apprentice to an old English cameraman, Dennis Gilson. It was a fantastic summer. I loved the group dynamic, the fact that all these people get together to do something and if it's working well, everyone is focused in the same direction. I attended Sir George Williams University but I dropped out to do experimental hippie movies in the late 1960s. We did two films in Montreal that made it to Greenwich Village, Montreal Main and The Rubber Gun Story. I was an assistant, not yet a cameraman.

I struggled along for 10 years shooting experimental movies and, lo and behold, I got a little TV series to shoot and I had a crew and a gaffer and assistant. It was very scary and exciting. Tales of the Klondike were all Jack London stories. I got the show because I had sent in my pitiful little demo reel to be considered and never heard anything. They blew me off, so I got pissed off at them, and they told me to come in and gave me the job. I still know one of the guys.

Tom Burstyn

I moved on and did some indie features and TV movies. In fact, I've done a lot of TV movies in my career and travelled a lot. But my big passion has always been the observational documentary, and my wife and I teamed up as filmmaking partners. We're now just finishing our latest observational documentary, which doesn't have a title, but is about the price of obsession.

We were short-listed for a documentary Oscar for This Way of Life (2011), which is about a wild family in New Zealand who live according to a strict code of ethics but are completely unfettered and free. They have 50 horses and manage to do it all quite well, but of course there are struggles in their lives; the man's father is malicious and trying to destroy his son's life and all that makes for great moviemaking.

Image Left, Peter Proctor (left), one of the pioneers of bio-dynamic farming, interviewed by cinematographer Tom Burstyn (right), who captures Peter's story on his Sony HDV Z1U, as they pass through the Indian countryside by train. Image Right, Tom and his wife Barbara document the lives of a family as they care for 50 horses in beautiful New Zealand. Click on images to read more about these powerful films.

We also made One Man, One Cow, One Planet, which is still very popular around the world, about an 80-year old man who travels around India and shows people how to convert their farms into organic operations. He's a very gentle man and he never wants to say anything bad about anybody -- he just continues his work.

Over my career, I had the good fortune to work with a lot of good directors. The best I've worked for are John Irvin, the British director, with whom I did four films; Nick Willing; and Gaylene Preston, a New Zealand director who thinks outside the box and pushes you to your limits of your creative potential. I just finished Gaylene's big miniseries called Hope and Wire about the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquakes. We filmed in the city among the ruins, and combined documentary with dramatic footage to talk about he impact of these earthquakes. It's a very radical piece of dramatic TV.

My philosophy of shooting is the simpler the solution, the better it is. I like to allow the story to dictate what the camera does. There's a fashion now to use so much fancy equipment and then design a shot to use it. It should be the other way around; we should try to do everything with the simplest possible method and use the equipment as required. The story should drive the show. I'm calling to go back to the days of the American New Wave: Five Easy Pieces, Scarecrow and those films. Mud is a great example of a return to that. Lovely film. There's always hope.

Tom Burstyn

Thomas Burstyn
Tom Burstyn CSC, FRSA
Premiering in April 2013, Defiance is a science-fiction TV series that airs in the U.S. on the SyFy Network and on several international markets.

Produced by Universal Cable Productions, Defiance follows Grant Bowler as Joshua Nolan, the local lawman in the ruins of St. Louis, now known as Defiance, as well as Julie Benz, who plays the newly appointed mayor of Defiance, Amanda Rosewater.

On the ruined earth, with many plant and animal forms extinct, humans and extraterrestrial races co-mingle in Defiance. Tom lensed Season One of the series and is in the midst of shooting Season Two.

Director and Cinematographer Tom Burstyn CSC, FRSA, is a multi-award winning, Emmy®-nominated DP with over 30 years experience. Tom trained at the National Film Board of Canada as a documentary maker before turning to the feature film industry.

He directed the award-winning documentaries One Man, One Cow, One Planet and the Oscar® shortlisted This Way of Life.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and has dual New Zealand/Canadian citizenship.

Among his honors are:
  • Docville 2011, Belgium

  • Oscar shortlist, Best Feature Documentary 2011 USA

  • Plus Cameraimage 2010, nomination Best Cinematography feature documentary, Poland

  • Annu-ru Aboro (Shadow of Man) Film Festival 2010, Prix du Jeune Public, New Caldeonia

  • NZ Qantas Film & TV Awards, 2010, NZ: Best Documentary Director & Best Arts/Festival/Feature Documentary

  • Berlin International Film Festival 2010, Jury Prize

  • Jackson Hole Film Festival: Best Non-broadcast Film, 2007

  • Emmy 2005: nominee Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie

  • New York Independent Film & Video Festival 2003: Best Cinematography, 2003

  • CSC, 2002: Best Cinematography, Nominee, 2002

  • ASC 1998: nominee Best Cinematography

  • Genie Award 1996, Best Cinematography

  • CSC 1995: nominee Best Cinematography

  • Genie Award 1993, nominee Best Cinematography

  • CSC 1993: nominee Best Cinematography

  • Genie Award 1988: nominee Best Cinematography

  • CSC 1987: Best Cinematography Award, 1987.

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