“American Cinematographer”

Hello everyone,
here with another quick update 😉 – things are progressing well with the film. We currently have several clips left to translate and then full fledged completion of the film will commence. Danny Bresnik, Editor extraordinaire is completing an exciting new trailer that we should have posted in a couple of weeks. In the coming months, we need very much to push and work hard to complete the film by the Cannes film festival deadline – and this involves finding others interested in the subject matter of the film, and who can directly, or indirectly, help share the message of this important documentary with the world. So we ask that you keep us in your minds when speaking to friends and family, and share with us any thoughts or suggestions as we approach the March, 2008 deadline.

Richard Fitoussi and Brooks Bergreen are currently finalizing a new press packet, complete with beautiful stills and new print media. We are looking forward to sharing it with anyone interested.

Ray Simonaitis, Executive Producer, is also helping to find translators and to share the documentary with fellow filmmakers, and as a member of several non-profit humanitarian groups, he is also helping us find ways to give more to the community and to Cambodians outside of the “Year Zero” narrative.

And finally, as the subject line “American Cinematographer” suggests, Jose Luis Rios our Director of Photography, recently completed a brief article on his experiences filming “Year Zero.” It is very informative to anyone interested in the technical sides of camera work and in the color themes prominent in our film. Jose worked extremely hard in Cambodia, and his technical knowledge along with his emotional openness to and understanding of the subjects he films made him a powerful resource to “Year Zero.” Without his work ethic and overall passion, I’m afraid this film would not be as stunningly beautiful and poetically captivating. And I must say, as I see pieces of our footage edited, watch the teaser, and see works-in-progress of the trailer, I am constantly reminded that Jose is a true visual artist – one with vision and with heart. Please enjoy his article and pass it along to anyone you think could benefit from its filmmaking tidbits and revealing aspects to how we made “Year Zero.”:

Year Zero Cinematography
by Jose Luis Rios

My challenge as a Cinematographer in “Year Zero” was to convey the psychological feeling of balance (or unbalance) within the film’s characters through color and camera movement.

Warmth, the mixture of orange and red is the color of balance in Cambodia. Red – the color of oxidized blood, intense, sometimes aggressive depending on the nature of an individual’s psychological makeup. Orange – a color of calmness, sunset, the sense of retirement, the closing of a day. Mixing these two colors created the warmth that I relate to Cambodia today.

These warm tones appeared during the villages, Aki Ra’s old land mine museum, and parts of Stung Meanchay Garbage Dump in the capitol, Phnom Penh. All of Aki Ra’s interviews, along with his environment are warmer tones to feel subconsciously more connected to Aki Ra’s redemption and balance. The cooler tones came out when we were interviewing political figures in the courthouse or in their offices in the city of Phnom Penh, and the landmine fields where Aki Ra himself was deactivating mines.
picking for garbage1
Landfill, Phnom Penh. Photo By Jose Rios
woman at floating village
River Village, Cambodia. Photo By Jose Rios
boy picking at garbage dump
Landfill, Phnom Penh. Photo By Jose Rios

For the shoot we decided to use the Panasonic HVX 200, while shoting straight to P2 cards. We had a very efficient work flow on location because we used Panasonic’s P2 Store which acts as a portable hard drive and holds up to 15 P2 cards at a time. John Severson, the Director and Jonathan A. Q. Lacocque, the Producer captured and backed up the the footage every night, which was an essential process for work flow. We also watched footage throughout the week to maintain visual consistency and accuracy.
Jose and Jonathan
Jose Rios D.P & Jonathan A. Q. Lacocque Producer
Photo by Hak

We used the HVX’s internal camera menu to tweak contrast by adjusting the master pedestal and the color temperature option for matching different scenes shot in different days, along with reverse white balancing. During the first and only day of preproduction in Cambodia I saved several “scene files” in the camera to easily access the settings whenever needed. For example, as the weather varied from sunny to overcast it would affect color temperature consistency, so throughout production I was constantly adjusting scene files to compensate for these weather changes. The decision to be hand-held or stationary, what frame rate we should shoot at or what lens to choose, were all decisions that were felt at the moment of shooting. Sometimes I would shoot a stationary shot on sticks and seconds later I would be off the tripod changing to a slower frame rate or swapping out for another lens. For the majority of the shoot a 35mm adapter called the Brevis with a Nikon mount created by Cinevate was used, along with a 35mm, 55mm, and a 70-300mm zoom lens. Setting up the Brevis eventually became second nature to me and never slowed us down. The only times we decided not to use the Brevis was during the shooting of the land mine fields. This was because we had to be very cautious and aware of where we were walking. We were hand-held and had to strip the camera down as much as possible to make movement and operating more flexible. When attaching a lens to the Brevis, there was a texture that I very much liked, and I felt it contributed to the style and feeling of this film – and shooting at different f-stops gave us different visual results. If we wanted a crisper look we would shoot between f4-f5.6. During the moments we wanted a more organic, grainer feel we would shoot at f2 or sometimes all the way open. Another great stylistic effect that I very much fell in love with was the option of vignetting the image during the shoot by using the Brevis with longer lenses. I used this especially during slowed down visual portraits of people that we interviewed. Capturing them looking right at the camera lens with a bit of slow motion sometimes speaks more than hearing their actual speech.
little girl at garbage dump
Landfill, Phnom Penh. Photo By Jose Rios

Every location we shot at in Cambodia had a unique character surrounding it. Sometimes the energy would be peaceful, sad, happy, artificial, industrial, and sometimes a bit dangerous, forming the overall character and style for the documentary. The overall experience in Cambodia as a Cinematographer will be one that I will never forget. Improvisation and instinctive decision making was a skill I was able to refine as second nature during the shooting of this film. As I keep on documenting and exploring cultures outside of my own I will continue to learn and understand more about the world’s past and where we are heading as a human race.


8 responses to ““American Cinematographer”

  1. brandon jameson

    What a wonderful project!

    BRAVO to you all.

    We would very much like to contact Mr. Rios.

    Please send his contact info. to us at:


    thank you!

    brandon jameson
    link technologies llc

  2. Congratulations on what is not only an important project but also on taking documentary cinematography to another level.

  3. Hello Brandon and Richard,
    It’s great to have you visiting, what brings you both to yearzerodoc.com? Jose is by far one of the strongest cinematographers I’ve ever worked with and this Doc is visual testimony to his talents. We were fortunate to have his artistry and cinematic expertise during the two months in Cambodia.

  4. Jose,

    Nice work. Did you not use swing/tilt lenses at all? It sure looks like it in certain shots but you make no mention of it. Was ti just the vignetting of the longer lenses you wrote about that I saw? And, to be clear – you used Nikon still lenses? Which – Nikkor AI or the newer series for digital SLRs? Thanks.

    Peter Olsen

  5. Hey Peter,
    thanks for visiting. I can tell you that we never specifically used any swing/tilt lenses. Jose came up with a similar form of technique by detaching the brevis from the camera, and holding it in front of the HVX lens, than tilting/shifting what the camera could see. It was a very cool effect, HIGHLY stylized… It gives you a slightly more extreme look to what a swing/tilt lens might do for you. None of that footage, however, is in the teaser, so everything you see here is the brevis with Nikon lenses. So yes, it’s likely that you are referring to the vignetting we get from using the Nikon AI zoom lens. We did not get vignetting with our 35mm or 55mm lenses. The Brevis has the ability to use both digital SLR lenses AND Nikkor AI, the only issue is that you cannot use the automatic focus option, and they tend to breathe a little more than I like – so I would suggest the Nikkor’s over the digital SLRs if you are contemplating using one over the other.

  6. Beautiful images, congratulations to all of you involved, I hope you can finish the film in time for Cannes. =)

    Best wishes from a fellow filmmaker in Brazil.

  7. Michael bates

    Ray Simonaitis!

    this is Bot! Email me, brother!

  8. Rim! Write Bot.

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