In my recent wide-ranging conversation with Anastas Michos, ASC, he mentioned several fascinating projects he’s involved with, including a documentary on the Vienna Boys Choir that will take him to Kenya, Lapland, Israel and Cambodia, among other countries. That film, directed by Curt Faudon and as yet untitled, is related to an earlier project, Silk Road, which celebrates the 400-year-old choir’s universal message of peace. Another recent project for Tas was a documentary about David Leffel, an oil painter who has been called the American Rembrandt. A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake was yet another assignment; shot in South Africa, it documents a play about translators who worked to disseminate information about the crimes of apartheid. (South Africa has 11 official national languages.)
Tas also recently traveled to Las Vegas at the behest of Declan Quinn, ASC, to operate a camera on a Justin Timberlake concert documentary. And he has found time to shoot more conventional projects, such as Whitney, directed by Angela Bassett.
“I tend to try to keep my options open and go after projects that grab me one way or another,” says Tas. “I’ll jump if I like the script and the people involved. Cinematographers love to rise to a challenge, and to help out fellow cinematographers. Some situations are more about the spirit of camaraderie.”
I asked Tas if his interest in filmmaking was initially tied to an interest in music. His earliest camera gigs were on long-form music features about performers like Sun Ra and Gil Scott-Heron, and music-related films of various types are scattered throughout his credits as a cinematographer or camera operator; these include Cadillac Records, Shine a Light, The Doors, Van Morrison: The Concert, Pink Floyd: Delicate Sound of Thunder, Sparkle and, most recently, Black Nativity.
Noting that he played guitar in bands “a lifetime ago,” Tas explains, “My interest in filmmaking has always been related to storytelling — the use of the camera and light to tell a story — but music is definitely important to me and my work. It comes from being an operator and from understanding that camerawork has a language, like music. It’s narrative over time. You are describing time and space within a construct of moving forward in time, unlike a still photograph. So, I think I use the same musical language when I shoot films as I do when I shoot music performances. Having been a musician in the past, I guess it’s comfortable for me to understand and express emotion over time. When I talk about shot making, I talk about ‘staccato cuts’ and ‘legato notes.’ There are long shots and wide shots, the timing of the camera, and ways of creating tension through the camera and its moves. It’s similar to creating tension through music. You don’t have to know the language to understand cinema or music; you just have to be human, and you get it.
“In order to be an accomplished cinematographer and camera operator — and I think one has to be both — you have to be in the moment,” he continues. “That means there are questions of intent as well as questions of awareness. It’s almost a Buddhist philosophy, what it means to be aware. When musicians are creating or performing, they are not only aware of their own instruments, but also aware of others around them. To play in a band or an orchestra, you have to be so aware of others, and it’s the same thing in camerawork. Even with a prepared script, when you’re working with an actor, you have to have this outside awareness of what the world is doing, what lives within your camera and outside your camera, to actually capture it. Doing these unusual projects is a way to keep my chops up. It’s fun, and it’s expressive.”
The Leffel documentary was an opportunity to interact with a visual artist who works in a different medium. “David mostly does portraiture, and I found that he approaches his subject very much in the same way I do as a cinematographer,” says Tas. “We talked about the painting being more than representational. We talked about the illusion of the paint itself, how it has a physicality. When he is painting a portrait, he says he always strives to create the illusion of the actual skin texture."
“It was fascinating to watch an artist of his skill and caliber,” says Tas. “He starts off with a blank canvas, paint and a brush — not even a sketch — and paints a portrait. There are marked similarities to what cinematographers do. Like a cinematographer, he talked about how light has a physical presence. I talk about pushing light, bouncing it, stretching it, teasing it and cutting it down. We give emotional and active adjectives to the light, and it’s the same with framing — we describe it as tight, wide or pinched. We talk about letting the frame breathe, or making it restless, or stately and immutable. Where does the emotion lie?
“It’s pretty basic, really. Making movies is storytelling, and storytelling is communicating emotion.”