A Week in Cinematography Heaven: For more than 25 years, the Camerimage International Film Festival has drawn filmmakers to Poland in celebration of the art and craft of cinematography — and brought this cinematographer there for the first time in 2017. Here’s a view on the ins and outs of this truly unique event.
Story and photos by Danna Kinsky
Co-founded by Marek Zydowicz and Kazimierz Partuki in 1992, this annual gathering of cinematographers, students and admirers takes place in picturesque Bydgoszcz, Poland — with the 2018 edition of Camerimage taking place on November 10-17. (See our complete 25th Anniversary story from last year right here.)
Last year was my “virgin” experience at CamerImage. Doing research in preparation for attending the festival, I couldn’t find an equivalent of what I intend this article to be: A virgin’s guide to Camerimage. What to expect, who attends, where does it take place, when to party and how to make it through the week in the best possible way. Tips and tricks included.
Bydgoszcz is beautiful and quaint, featuring gorgeous architecture and history. You can walk around the old town and feel like you’re in a movie. And every venue of the festival is walking distance from another.
The city is welcoming. This is their biggest event of the year and everyone knows it. However, the prices stay decent and don’t triple just for the week as they tend to do elsewhere.(More info here.)
The most obvious travel routes are through the Gdansk Airport (with a two-hour car ride), or Warsaw (which is a four-hour train trip away). Or, what I plan to do next time: The local Bydgoszcz airport, with a modern passenger terminal, is located just 3.5 km from the city centre.
Meeting new and interesting people — along with your heroes — is a prime reason to attend Camerimage.
One of the first things I noticed was that the vibe is quite different, even opposite, to many other festivals I’ve attended. No waiting in lines forever in the cold, no pretentiousness, no movie stars, and no b.s. for the most part. Instead, you’re greeted by the warm Polish community, a level of informality and open-mindedness of your peers to exchange ideas with no social barriers. Everyone hangs out together — at breakfasts, in screenings, at the Opera Nova, or during the festival dinners. A large quantity of filmmakers and film lovers enjoying each other’s company and getting inspiration and motivation from each other. (Quotes from last year’s epic article regarding this can be found here.)
In the real world, cinematographers are notoriously not in the public eye. So unless you’re a big fan of someone in particular, or had the good fortune to meet him or her in the past, you may not have any idea who you just started a conversation with. The Camerimage atmosphere is so relaxed that you get to talk with just about everyone you would want. All the cinematographers I met and spoke with were so easy to talk to — no assholes whatsoever! (How is it possible that out of the thousands of people at CamerImage there were no assholes? They must be hiding somewhere…)
I literally got to know some of my heroes: Ed Lachman, ASC; John Bailey, ASC; John Toll, ASC and many others. The conversations we had were meaningful and inspiring. Ed was here partially to screen Wonderstuck which is my personal favorite film of 2017 — an awe-inspiring collection of beautiful and evocative images that transcend you into a different place and time.
Last year, shooting portraits for American Cinematographer, I was lucky to meet and photograph a number of attendees and honorees, including Lachman (Frog-nominated for Wonderstuck), Rachel Morrison, ASC (screening Mudbound), Dan Laustsen, ASC, DFF (screening The Shape of Water), Ben Davis, BSC (screening Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Anthony Dod Mantle, ASC, BSC, DFF (screening First They Killed My Father) and John Toll, ASC (Lifetime Achievement Award honoree).
I also had an eye-opening conversation with Toby Oliver, ACS, who was screening Get Out the following day.
We spoke in length about horror movies, socially important films, and “film philosophy” altogether. I did not see his film (due to my fear of horror movies), so hearing about it in detail from his perspective was a treat of the highest regard for me. Out of all the people with whom I had a longer conversation, this one really resonated. It was like we were the only ones in the room, even though there were hundreds of people there at a dinner sponsored by Panasonic. It was magical. (A podcast with Oliver regarding the hit film can be found here.)
THE BIG CHILL: One of my trip highlights took place on the last day, during the ride back to the Gdansk Airport. After checking out of my cozy Airbnb (which I shared with the industry’s coolest cat and my longtime friend Vika Safrigina), I ended up hitching a ride with none other than Mr. John Bailey, ASC, the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences! What a relief that was, as I was almost stranded. Little did I know that I was stepping into a time capsule with a person who in two hours would change my life forever. We shared one of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever had with another DP. I literally get verklempt every time I think of it. It had to do with life and film philosophy. I had never known anyone else who purposely shied away from shooting violent films as a conscious choice, as John has. That really rocked my world to hear the perspective of such a distinguished and accomplished gentleman.
I hope I was able to convey to John how much that moved me. He could have just gone to sleep, since he just was there for a few days, during which he was screening Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, a film he shot in 1985 for Paul Schrader, executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, participating in several panels, in addition and as a part of his daily job as the president of AMPAS and career of an ASC cinematographer. Instead, he was the most gracious gentleman that I have maybe ever met. So sensitive, so kind, so intelligent, such wisdom and life experience. Ok, I’ll stop.
In addition to cinematographers, agents definitely make a point to attend Camerimage, to support current clients and to meet new talent. Since the fest is purely dedicated to the art of cinematography, it’s where those agents discover new talent and trends, tell war stories and get to ‘talk shop’ and make new memories for seven days straight.
On the hardcore geeky side of the festival, one can also fill their technology tank with new wisdom. That is how I found myself hanging out with this gentleman, at his presentation and a lunch following it:
George’s work is devoted to the application of imaging technology to visual storytelling and expanding the palette of tools available to filmmakers. He was part of a group from AMPAS presenting “Digital Re-Release and Archiving in a Technologically Evolving World,” a case study of the application of ACES (the Academy Color Encoding System) to archiving and the restoration of films. The discussion, held at the MCK Orzeł Cinema, included John Bailey, director-producer Marcus Dillistone and cinematographer Geoff Boyle, NCS.
During the lunch afterwards, I scored a fun portrait of my favorite president of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600 IATSE — a world-renown women’s advocate, as well as an ASC member — Steven Poster. This year he was also honored to be a jury member in the coveted Student Etudes Competition. (Interview with him here.)
Lastly, the Women: One of the unexpected highlights of my Camerimage experience was the unprecedented confluence of women in the room. Clearly, times, they are a changin’... and if you’re a female cinematographer, you will be explosively happy to meet your female heroes and peers in such a high numbers. For that alone, it's worth the trip. It's a celebration of hearts and minds with your own gender, which is very emotionally empowering.
DINNERS & PARTIES
The nightly parties that take place during Camerimage are really a great way to meet up with so many other filmmakers — including ASC members, some are from other societies from around the globe (BSC, ACS, etc.) — as well as directors, jurors, agent and film lovers. The only other place I’ve experienced this dynamic is at the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood.
“How did you shoot that scene?" and “What lights did you use?" are normal conversation starters that can not only have yourself, but you can also hear well-known and award-winning DPs use with each other. It's a rare moment in time that’s hard to forget, depending on how much vodka you consumed by that time.
The partying that goes on in this festival is pretty extreme. The great thing is that there is basically one main party going on per night (not including the afterparty). This lets you “bump into” the same partygoers every night, so you really get the opportunity to talk to and get to know people on a more personal level. Its feels like a huge family reunion where you get to know that distant cousin you'd never met before, or rekindle with your brother from another mother in this uniquely sited celebration of the moving image.
Preparing to go to parties at any other large-scale festival — such as Sundance — means reviewing hundreds of emails that you wrote and received before you land there, to ask to be on the list, or to RSVP. At Camerimage, it’s a lot more manageable, as there are 10 primary events and parties to try to get into, and you’re done! Last year, I didn’t really know about the party list, but was able to get myself in every night by talking to the vendors that morning. Couldn’t be more simple.
Here is the rundown of festivities in 2017:
Saturday - Opening Night at Opera Nova
Sunday - Fuji party
Monday - Canon party
Tuesday - Panavision dinner for diversity / ARRI party & nominees
Wednesday - Panavision party
Thursday - Panasonic / Chemical Wedding parties
Friday - Hawk/Vantage Film party
Saturday - Closing night party
There was a fun photo machine at the Canon event that we all were goofing off with toward the end of the night. Here are a few favorite shots:
The ARRI 100th Anniversary Golden Frog Nominees Party on Tuesday was insane!
On day four, Illuminatrix, Cinematographers XX and International Collective of Female Cinematographers (ICFC) members attended a dinner in celebration of female cinematographers, sponsored by Panavision and Panalux.
Day five: Panavision’s party was packed as can be. If you hang around long enough, there starts to be room to breathe. At that point, I actually had a nice sit down with Kim Snyder, one of the most incredible and powerful women in the industry. We spoke about young female cinematographers, the choice to become one in this day and age and the challenges that will arise.
I also found the only director I really connected with during the festival, the talented and beautiful Adrienne Levy.
This is, of course, a vodka Ice Luge dedicated and celebrating 50 years for LEE Filters. So pretty. Makes one want to drink some more:
Friday featured the Hawk/Vantage Film party, one of the most prestigious events at Camerimage, which features a special commemorative T-shirt each year.
So let’s talk about the "Polish Disco" (a.k.a. JetLag).
The Zubrowka vodka flows all night at the Polish Disco (not that it’s missing at other venues, it just seems to keep the party going… and going… and going… ).
Be prepared for music that you’d hear at a typical wedding reception, all night and into the morning. Zubrowka-inspired dancing, carousing and conversations are what you’ll experience. Just remember, what happens at Polish Disco, stays at Polish Disco. Photos are not encouraged. I found myself later in the week saying, "Oh, I’ll just stop in for one drink and be on my way to bed so I can make that early screening tomorrow morning…" But that never ended up being the case. JetLag like the Bermuda Triangle. You disappear into this magical place and there’s a force field of people that keep you from leaving for hours on end. One real warning for the ladies, however: several friends that were daily attendees of the Polish Disco had #metoo stories about excessive and unnecessary ass grabbing after 3:00am.
During the first afterparty, I ended up on the dance floor with Julia Kole, who I later learned was an agent at Artistry, a well-regarded talent agency. We ended up having dinner a few nights later and hanging out a couple times. She answered all my agent-related questions that I don’t normally get a chance to ask.It was an eye-opening experience, unlike a meeting at a cafe in LA.
When I couldn’t handle the wedding music any longer I found myself going into the underground club called the Brain Bar, or MOZG. You think maybe that their electricity went out because you’re in a huge black room. Then you hear music, then you keep walking to the next room, where there’s a large awesome bar. It's the opposite of the overlit Polish Disco. It's seedy and dark, with GOOD music and an alternative crowd.
Nic Sadler and his company Chemical Wedding (the Emmy-winning makers of the Artemis Pro digital director’s viewfinder) had one of the best afterparies on the planet on one of those nights.
This is where there’s a lot more than you can handle. During the day, there multiple events going on at once: screenings, exhibits, master classes, manufacturer demos, and plenty of people you want to talk to. You wish you could split yourself into 10 people so you can experience everything. That was the biggest challenge of all.
I was all over the place, as you can tell by the photos, doing more than I thought one human could in just one week. But the price, other than being perpetually exhausted, was not attending almost any screenings. I hope to see more this year. I definitely heard about a lot of them, especially the controversial ones.
Another interesting note was that everyone was talking about the films that blew them away — in a good way, such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water — and, sure enough, those ended up being Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning films.
SEMINARS, PANELS, PRESENTATIONS, TRIBUTES & MASTER CLASSES
There’s so many various and different kinds of non-screening events that it’s absolutely mind-boggling. It's like you’ve gone to heaven.
Whether you want to hear a tribute to a master cinematographer, attend a panel and geek out over waveforms, or get hands-on with cutting-edge technology in a master class, there’s something for everyone.
American Cinematographer presented a seminar tribute to the late Michael Ballhaus, ASC, BVK moderated by the magazine’s senior European correspondent, Benjamin B. A select group of ASC members — including AMPAS president John Bailey, Dan Laustsen and Ballhaus’ son, Florian — joined AC editor-in-chief and publisher Stephen Pizzello for a panel discussion featuring clips from the esteemed cinematographer’s work and informed analysis of his style and techniques. (Unfortunately, Rachel Morrison was unable to make the event due to a scheduling conflict.)
John Toll, ASC was honored with the Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Award and during a Panavision workshop, he discussed excerpts from his films, taking questions and comments from the audience.
What was striking to me is that Toll was so very conscious of his early career choices, and didn’t rush to shoot his first film as a cinematographer, preferring instead to wait for the right opportunity after going through the ranks and learning so much from his mentors while assisting and operating. As AC contributor Daniel Eagan told me, “That’s what he said when I asked him about his first Oscar-winning film, Legends of the Fall. I'd heard about him going off to the location [in Alberta, Canada] a month early to prep and staying at the exact same location that the production was going to use to view the daylight and how it affected the inside of the house. The result was to essentially change the way the house was going to be finished and put the window in a different direction to the sun than what was planned. To me, that’s genius. Something I didn’t realize was even possible. It just goes to show what it takes to master your craft and think outside the box.”
Toll Tip: “Don’t be afraid to say no to a job.”
IMAGO, Camerimage and Illuminatrix coordinated a series of “Focus on Diversity" events:
“The Next Level” offered “a conversation between” Rachel Morrison, ASC (Black Panther, Mudbound, Fruitvale Station) and two emerging cinematographers: Nina Badoux (who won the Golden Frog for the documentary Radio Kobani); Maria von Hausswolff (who won Best Cinematography Debut for the feature Winter Brothers).
Moderated by Elen Lotman, ESC, the "Forum on Diversity" panel stressed the importance of diversity in cinematography, focusing on what both individuals and organizations can do to tackle underrepresentation behind the camera. The discussion featured Heather Stewart (BFI Creative Director); Birgit Gudjonsdottir, BVK; John Bailey, ASC (President of AMPAS); Petter Mattsson (Swedish Film Institute); cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen; filmmaker Warwick Thornton (Sweet Country) and Rachel Morrison, ASC.
Christensen was also the focus of a special master class session (following a screening of her film Molly's Game), in which she discussed her work in the features The Hunt, The Girl on the Train and Fences, with a Q&A and audience participation moderated by cinematographer/director Claire Pijman, NSC:
In short, attending these events was a great way to get an intro to Camerimage — a slew of celebrated cinematographers talking about their work and answering questions from the audience. The biggest shock to me was how many people were there in the audience, it was always way more than a full house, with rows of people sitting on the floor close to the panelists, and many standing in the isles. I got there early enough to grab a seat in the first row.
In short, “Like a Virgin” was a intro to Camerimage — a slew of celebrated DPs talking about their work and answering questions from the audience. I think the biggest shock to me was how many people were there, it was far more than a full house, with rows of people sitting on the floor close to the panelists, and many standing in the isles. I got there early enough to grab my favorite seat in the first row.
Major manufacturers also offered a variety of informative events.
ARRI hosted the seminar “Let’s Work Together,” explaining how the company help new filmmakers through its International Support Program, featuring Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu (Rafiki) and Toby Oliver, ACS (Get Out, Wildling):
I had no idea this program existed and was so happy to find out about it. I think that was the idea behind this panel, and I was stoked to get to see the results. I hope to one day be able to be a part of it.
ARRI also held a detailed demo on their new Trinity support rig, entitled "Creativity in Motion," with veteran operator Joerg Schenten and Product Manager Curt Schaller:
I’ve been a fan of Curt for more than a decade. I took a master class with him years ago when HD Expo (a.k.a. Createasphere) was happening in Burbank. He is a master, an engineering genius and a genuinely excellent person. I enjoyed seeing him so happy to share his new technology with all of us. (Demo here.)
From music videos to feature films and original TV series, the cinematographers shared their process for evaluating tools, and approach to choosing a camera and lenses.
Probst blew my mind on this one. I love the way he delivers and the deep technological knowledge he has — you can feel how important these details are for him, and I discovered a new reverence and understanding for waveform monitoring.
It's hard to explain, but actually I got a rerun with Rachel Morrison when he broke it down for us a second time during the ARRI party:
The photo exhibit "Framing the World" (more here) was curated and presented by IMAGO and the ASC, showcasing the still photography of participating cinematographers. The intent was to focus on the visual artistic eye of cinematographer members from around the world during the festival.
Opening night at Camerimage showcased the first presentations of the festival's annual honors, one of the most prestigious being the Director Duo Award, given in 2017 to Kenneth Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos BSC GSC, hot off their collaboration on Murder on the Orient Express (which opened the fest). The actor-director also accepted the Krzysztof Kieślowski Award, presented to versatile actors and actresses who contribute to the art of filmmaking. (You'll find complete 2017 awards details here.)
TIPS & TRICKS
To summarize, here are a few words of wisdom I’ve learned and wished I had known prior to attending the festival.
• Bring your camera, especially one with a nice lens:
I was flabbergasted by the number of people who coveted my vintage 1960s Canon 50mm f0.95 (a.k.a. The Dream Lens). For the first time in my life, I got a glimpse of what it’s like to be a celebrity. All week long, people tapped my shoulder and — with wide-open eyes — asked about my lens. And once confirmed that it’s the legendary optic they thought it was, a big smile comes on their face, and I'd ask them if they wanted to play with it for a minute. That’s how I have all the photos here that include me in them. I was flattered and grateful every time a new stranger came up to me. It was a great conversation starter.
• The pronunciation of Camerimage: It's more fun to say “camera - imaaage” — like “massage” with a faux French twist at the end. I executed a large survey and asked many what’s correct, including the festival founders. All the staff and the Polish locals agreed its not “imaaage” — it's more like “cam-ri-mage.” It is a thing, but nobody really seems to care.
• Ask questions and more questions: I heard from Chris Doyle, HKSC that the DPs get as much out of Camerimage’s students as the students get from them. While the students learn from the senior DPs, the younger DPs remind them what it’s like to be naïve and hungry, which he considers even more valuable.
• Do your research: There are a number of different kinds of experiences to be had from catching films, attending panels, partying with the best of them and networking.
• Talk to strangers: There’s a great sense of community that you don’t find at other festivals. Everyone is extremely accessible here.
• Hydrate. Eat. Support your immune system. Go to bed at a reasonable hour (4AM) so you can jump back in the game in the morning (11AM).
• Post festival, if possible, to catch up with your sleep and with yourself.
And from my friends in the secret “Camerimage 2018!” group on Facebook (which you can and should join):
“First rule of Camerimage is that no one talks about Camerimage.” — Louise Ben-Nathan
“Third rule of Camerimage: Always buy the first round!” — James Oldham
“The Manekin is the pancake restaurant opposite the Opera Nova. Great place to eat if you can get a table” — Peter Marsden
“Chew gum in screenings to stay awake. You physically can’t fall asleep with gum in your mouth. The question is what to do with the gum when it loses flavour and there's still three hours of the film to go?” — James Hills
“No plan survives the first day. Arrive rested, hydrated and well-nourished.” — Wick Hempleman
“Always take a buddy to screenings to poke you when you snore. And they're not allowed to make fun of you.also, There is only one way to definitely get in to the music videos screenings.” — Meredith Emmanuel Bates
“Start drinking now. Get that liver ready.” — Ashley Barron, ACS
“Water in Bydgoszcz = Zubrowka.” — Marko-Cile Mladenovic
“Don't despair if a screening at the Multiplex shows itself as sold-out. Go anyway as there are often a lot of no-shows. Not so much at the Opera Nova. And when in doubt, always — always — have a plan B or C.” — Wick Hempleman
“The answer to ‘Mad Dog?’ is always ‘Yes.’ Milk Thistle for the connoisseur. Never attempt cold-turkey.” — David Procter
“Don't beat yourself up if you somehow manage not to see a single film the entire festival. Means you're having a great time.” — Louise Ben-Nathan
“Ride the wave!” — Anna Gudbrandsdottir
What happens in Bydgoszcz stays in Bydgoszcz.
You'll find Danna Kinsky at Camerimage 2018 this coming week circulating in her sophomore year.