Behind the Lens: Steven Fierberg, A.S.C.
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : Behind the Lens: Steven Fierberg, A.S.C.
The pilot for the new ABC hit Once Upon a Time and HBO's Entourage, and the movies Love and Other Drugs and Secretary are among Steven Fierberg's more well known credits. But the A.S.C. cinematographer was the artist behind the lens on many titles, including the pilot of How to Make it in America, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, and Rage, the groundbreaking Sally Potter-directed cell phone movie. He won a 2001 A.S.C. award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Movies of the Week/Mini-Series/Pilot for Cable or Pay TV for the miniseries Attila. Most recently, Fierberg shot two feature films with the RED MX: Oranges and Ten Year.
Julian Farino with Steve in front of the poster for the pilot Steve shot and Julian directed.
Fierberg's background is classic: he started doing still photography and segued to 8mm movies when he was still in high school. A special Stanford University/Oxford University program in British film and drama in England cemented his love of cinema. After graduation, he headed for New York City where he got his first break working as a janitor on a commercial sound stage whose owner, Nick Smith, became his first mentor, teaching him film crafts, and loaning him lights and the stage to make his own projects. In New York, he also made a pilgrimage to Andy Warhol's Factory, and ended up shooting two features for Warhol protege Paul Morrissey: Forty Deuce and Spike of Bensonhurst.
A gig as an electrician on the classic Roger Corman film Rock n' Roll High School led Fierberg to split his time between East and West where, as a Corman accolyte, he met cinematographer Dean Cundey, A.S.C., his next mentor. Cundey taught him how to light with both hard light and soft, the 'West Coast' way. The Corman connection eventually gave Fierberg the freedom to stretch his wings as a cinematographer. "As long as you had a certain amount of violence and nudity, you could do anything you wanted," recalls Fierberg about working for Corman. "As long as you delivered this movie with those elements, on time, you were free, and that was a lovely, wonderful thing."
Michael D. Schultz in the foreground.
I was lucky being in New York at the time I was there, because they were making a lot of indie films, and I developed that sensitivity. At the same time, I spent a lot of time doing electric in Los Angeles and all my income came from L.A. projects. In L.A., they really knew how to light correctly, with big lights, and how to do things efficiently. In NY, at that time there was almost an anti-light aesthetic and no money to get lights anyway. It was the opposite of L.A. and it was a big help to learn from both worlds.
The turning point came when I shot Tonight's the Night, a 1987 movie of the week for Bobby Roth in Los Angeles. Very quickly after that, I started shooting a lot in L.A. and then it became ridiculous to live in New York. At one point I'd shot five indie features in NYC for almost no money.
In Los Angeles, I was still doing films with an indie sensibility. I started working with director Alex Cox; I almost shot Repo Man and at the last minute Robby Muller was suggested. I shot second unit for him a couple of times, on Sid and Nancy [Roger Deakins, A.S.C. was cinematographer of that movie] and Walker. I also started working with director Paul Bartel. I was a gaffer on Eating Raoul and then shot Scenes from a Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.
The first mainstream movie I did shoot was Nightmare on Elm Street 4, with Renny Harlin directing. Renny was a very visual director. The movie integrated the cutting edge of visual effects at that time and I learned that anything you could draw a picture of, you could put on the screen. Now, with digital technology, everyone takes that for granted. But, even then, we were able to find some way - and sometimes a cheap way - to put things on the screen that were pretty wonderful. Except for one scene. A character was in an elevator that starts to break apart, and we could never figure out a cheap enough way to do this, so we never did. We had the elevator shake and the character died some other way. When I saw Inception, I thought...there's the scene we wanted to do 20 years ago!
Once Upon a Time was another visual effects-heavy project, which I shot with the ARRI Alexa. The show is a heavy, heavy greenscreen show. It uses the ZOIC system - also used on the TV series V for two years - which allows for real-time compositing of the characters against the greenscreen with the CGI backgrounds. The Alexa has a little camera on top of it, aiming at various targets in the ceiling of the room. That tells the computer where the camera is and what it's pointing at. It's all programmed, with information such as the lenses you're using. We can see the character placed in the CGI background, live, while we're shooting. The background has almost no texture but it does have the basic structure. Especially with large sets, it's fantastic. Detail and texture are added to the background in post, and can be flexibly adjusted to suit budget and schedule.
Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas in the pilot for Once Upon A Time on ABC, which was lensed by Steven Fierberg. Photo courtesy ABC/JACK ROWAND.
I learned a lot about doing greenscreen when it was on film and had to be perfect, and used that knowledge on Once Upon a Time. Covering up areas of green that aren't in the shot is crucial because green spill is the worst obstacle to a successful greenscreen composite. For the same reason, you want to make the greenscreen as dark as it can possibly be and still be able to pull a matte. As I'd done on other movies, for Once Upon a Time I shot extensive tests of different exposure levels and determined the lowest possible level that would still allow the VFX people to pull a clean matte. The result was that the visual effects house said the mattes were great. And Zoic then brought me onto Pan Am for half a day to consult because they were so happy with the results I had given them. It all goes back to what I learned on Nightmare on Elm Street 4. A second movie that I shot entirely greenscreen was Rage, a made-for-mobile movie directed by Sally Potter.
Mark Mylod directed the pilot for Once Upon a Time. He's a great director, the writing was fantastic, the actors, wardrobe and design were all great. It was thrilling work. The challenge for me was one aspect of adapting to the Alexa. I have my issues with the RED, but one thing that's true is once you decide what the ASA or ISO of the camera is, you can use your light meter to light the whole scene and then roll and know how it'll look. With the Alexa, I found it difficult to use a light meter especially on dark night scenes; it seemed like it mostly came out too bright. So I had to go to the monitor with the gaffer and key grip and get on the radio and correct it. As a result, camera, lighting, the director and I were all in different places. I am seeking a more elegant and efficient solution.
The two features I just shot -- Oranges and Ten Year -- were shot with the RED MX. Both movies were trying to capture a kind of gritty reality that was completely different stylistically than Once Upon a Time with its extreme wide, telephoto, and 360-degree shots. These films were both character pieces where the material demanded a transparent camera approach. On both Oranges and Ten Year, the lighting is very naturalistic, the opposite of Once Upon a Time. I also shot both shot with normal lenses, again the opposite of Once Upon a Time.
Fierberg, and behind him, Michael D. Schultz
Shooting the Red on the upcoming feature 'The Oranges', directed by Julian Farino. First Assistant Exceptionalle is Rob Koch.
Most of Oranges was shot with a 35mm lens to capture the performance of the characters in an intimate way. Visually, it's low key, and that's why you see the ensemble acting work. Ten Year is a movie about a ten-year high school reunion, and the director, Jamie Linden, wanted it to be as if we didn't do anything: no lighting, complete improvisation. We shot it in a way I don't usually shoot, with opposing angle cameras so you're cross shooting. It's very difficult to light that but my years of lighting Entourage, where we used two cameras a lot, helped and my crew was good at getting the best possible look in these challenging situations. The actors had the freedom to improvise and we got a great sense of realism.
Staining his clothes for a low angle shot on Entourage, surrounded by three Alfa Romeos.
Entourage was a landmark for me in terms of style. When I read the script, it jumped out at me the way it needed to be filmed: like an impressionist painting that someone sketched in an hour. You're there at that party and you see what you'd see if you were there. It also had to be not glamorized in any way. When I interviewed for it, I came in with books, impressionist photos and was so clear about how I thought it needed to look and feel. I walked out of the interview room and in the elevator got a call from my agent that they had canceled all the other interviews and I was hired.
Rob Koch with Steven Fierberg, Rebecca Arndt and Keith Putnam. From the set of The Oranges.
Then a great thing happened. Shortly thereafter they hired Julian Farino, a great director with documentary roots who had the very same take on it. Julian's acute vision was to plan everything but then stage and shoot it as if we never knew what was going to happen. Under Julian's expert direction, we didn't pan to the actor before they spoke, but first heard them, then panned to them and got there late, as if we didn't know they had the next line. And we avoided close eye-lines, which would have signaled that the scene was 'staged' for dramatic intent.
Entourage was shot with ARRICAM LT in 35mm. I wanted it to be grainy and Kodak had discontinued the 5298, which was the perfect stock for TV with a beautiful grain pattern you could see in HD. There were no film stocks grainy enough for me, so I pushed 5229 to try to make the grain visible.
I like to shoot things that look and seem real, and I also have a lot of experience in doing it. I take a lot of still photos to see how things look when they're not lit at all and how they're rendered by the camera. I try not to light more than I need to. Especially on Entourage, I asked the gaffer not to use any light we didn't need.
Steven Fierberg in "The Camera and Visual Storytelling" workshop. Photo taken by Cayla Nimmo.
Marshall Herskovitz, one of the writer/producers of Love and Other Drugs, called what I do heightened or poetic realism. I love doing -- not true realism, because there's no art in it -- but something that's dramatic but organic and subtle enough so nobody knows you're doing anything. Even in Once Upon a Time, the reality of the present day is lit very realistically. I believe, along with Julian, that if you have fake lighting with real performances, the lighting undermines the performance.
Anne Hathaway in Love and Other Drugs. Photo credit: ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.
I had a 'light bulb' moment about that for an episode of Entourage, during the first year, when Larry Charles, the director of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Borat, was a producer. There was a scene at the Urth Café in Beverly Hills. The outside of the cafe isn't aesthetically pleasing; its look has nothing to do with the character of Hollywood or showbiz. I pointed out that even though the written scene would take place there, that the visual look of the place didn't seem to convey that. But Larry said, viewers will feel that it's real even though there is no way they could know. There'll be a truth to that that ordinary people will get. I loved what he said, and it freed us up to go with what's true underneath. I thought that was very liberating and a big moment for me in the development of my aesthetic.
When it comes to aesthetics, I have a theory about what film offers that digital doesn't. If you look at a Van Gogh painting, you think you're looking at a village with stars in the sky. What else are you looking at? You're looking at big broad strokes of paint, gobs of paint on canvas. You're not just looking at an image, you're looking at a physical object with texture. If you took away the canvas and the brushstrokes and just had the virtual image of what he painted, the image you would see would be incredibly unsharp and blurry, without a rich tonal range. The virtual image Van Gogh painted is only a part of your experience of looking at the painting; you're just not consciously aware of looking at the physical object. The same with a Rodin sculpture: you're looking at the infinite details of bronze at the same time you're looking at the figure. That's the medium. You can't imagine an artist saying, I love painting but I hate oil or I love sculpture but I don't like touching clay.
I've had a lot of experience shooting with all kinds of digital cameras and I like to think I'm good at it. When I'm shooting with the digital camera, I do tests and try to very carefully figure out what the camera can do well and what it can't do well, and try to play to that camera's strengths. I don't try to make it do something it can't do. I teach students at the Maine Photographic Workshops and, after shooting film, some students hate digital and don't want to use it. I tell them to look at it like acrylic paint. There's less depth than oil paint, the colors are different, but you can still make a great painting. It won't look like oil, but it'll look like something else. I really like how the four features I shot in RED look: Repo Chick and Twelve with the original RED and Oranges and Ten Year with the MX chip. They don't look the same as they would on film.
In terms of features where the image is projected far larger, you have the Alexa, the RED Epic, the Sony F65, Super-16 and 35mm film. I think you can make aesthetic choices based on those cameras. They all look very different and do things very differently. The challenge is to have the freedom and wisdom to pick the camera that will suit the project the best.
Film should still be in the running. My friend Gale Ann Hurd (who really knows what she is talking about) is currently producing The Walking Dead on Super-16, and says that it is cheaper than digital. The 16mm camera, because it uses smaller lenses, is also significantly smaller and lighter than most professional digital cameras.
People often compare size and cost of digital cameras without taking into account that they all use the same 35mm lenses (which can cost FAR more than the camera itself), accessories and support, so the differences between cameras and film can be overestimated. The latest digital cameras also typically rent for more than an already-paid-off film camera. Although for extremely low budget projects digital can make a big cost saving, in medium and higher budget projects that may not be true, or the financial differences one way or the other may be an insignificant percentage of the budget.
Obviously, in comparing the cost of film to digital, the shooting ratio must also be taken into account. This should be discussed with the director, rather than plugging in a 'loaded' or arbitrary number that can tilt the results in either direction. And keep in mind that in most lower budget films, typically shot in 18 to 25 days, there is simply not the time to shoot more than two or three takes of a shot.
Every digital camera looks different, just as every film stock looks different. There are great controls in post, but they cannot fully compensate for real differences in how material is shot, what the camera, lenses, film, sensor and/or file format is used. Hopefully, the director, producer and cinematographer can have a collaborative discussion based on the aesthetics desired and the resources available to the production. The result can be a perfect marriage of content, form, and artistic vision. That's why we went into this field, isn't it? To create something beautiful, that has meaning and resonance. At least that's what I want.