Prinzi Assesses Cinematography Today

Frank Prinzi, ASC, just returned from a month in China, where he was shooting inside three different electronics factories. When I asked him for his impressions of the country, he mentioned that while he was in Shanghai, the air-quality index broke records for pollution. “It’s hard to look past the fact that the air we breathe, the number-one need of the world’s inhabitants, is very quickly being destroyed,” says Frank. “It was shocking! It’s easy to overlook all the beautiful things a country has when you’re faced with such a potential catastrophe.”

Another shocking moment came during a shoot indoors. “Factories always blow my mind — the people, the process and the repetition,” he says. “There was one scene that very much impressed me. I was looking up the flights of a large staircase, and there were big nets all the way up on every floor. I was told the nets are there so the young workers ‘don’t fall or jump.’ As a friend said, ‘That’s one of the unseen costs of consumer culture.’”

Recently, Frank finished a pilot for CBS called The Red Zone, written and produced by Nikki Toscano and directed by James Foley. “It was a fantastic experience,” he says of the shoot in Wilmington, N.C. “The crew was as good as it gets — lovely people, incredibly efficient and enthusiastic. We had three weeks of prep, which was great for a pilot, and then shot for 15 days on location and in the studio. It almost seemed easy because of all the talented and sweet people involved.”

Between these gigs, Frank has been pulling together It’s a Mess, a short narrative project he is writing and prepping with his son, whose company makes commercials and music videos. Frank’s short is about two young, homeless sisters — vampires — trying to survive on the streets of New York. He is planning to shoot this fall, when the leaves have fallen and the sky is gray. “Years ago, I did a lot of directing on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and now I would like to do some of my own little projects,” says Frank. “My first love is cinematography, but every once in a while, it’s good to do something that’s all yours. It stretches you, sort of like cross training. With the new digital technologies, making a short has become a whole lot easier, but distribution is still a challenge.”

I asked Frank to assess how TV production has changed over the past decade. “The digital age of cinema has been wonderful in so many ways. With the highly sensitive cameras, new lighting technologies, and advances in editing and exhibition, everything about the way we make images has changed so much, and most of the changes have been incredibly positive. I love having the ability to create and work with an image on set, the way I get to collaborate with a DIT, among others. I love having extra sets of eyes available. I am confident, and I welcome collaboration from every department. I don’t feel uneasy about other artists’ input when it works for the director and me.

“But I’m starting to see a confusing trend with postproduction. Everyone should have a voice in the process, but the potential for severe manipulation in post is a problem that cinematographers confront quite often. I’ve been in situations where I’ve heard, ‘We have your dailies as a guide, and we’ll keep as close to them as possible.’ What about the fact that we are rushed for time on the set and often leave minor adjustments for our color correction? I’ve heard, ‘We only have 12 hours to color correct the whole thing, and you will slow us down.’ What about the fact that we cinematographers live and breathe light, color, composition and process? Most of us have studied film and art passionately for many years. We know much about the scene to be color timed. We were there when it was captured. We know its innate technical strengths and weaknesses and most likely will know how to expedite the necessary changes.”

Frank relates a story from a few years back, when he was asked to give notes on a Blu-ray of a remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990). “I gave them some notes over the phone,” he recalls. “You can say ‘dark’ or ‘blue,’ but the range of what that might mean is infinite. I understood that they were going to make a DVD and let me critique it more specifically before they completed the work. They took my notes, but they never showed me what they did. Then, when it was released, people were flipping out about how the look of the movie had been changed and how bad it was. I never had the chance to color correct it, but it was advertised that it had been timed under my supervision!

“My point is that the reason a cinematographer gets hired is being diluted. The potential to destroy the image at any point along the path is great now, and that’s a scary situation.” He adds that at times, he has been told that “all the other cinematographers” were all right with ceding control of the process. He finds that hard to believe. “Cinematographers have to stand strong for our position because it’s important to preserve the high standards of our work, which has an effect on the entire project. Our constant quest for quality is why people hire us.”

Frank says that during a production, he continually reminds himself of the following points:

  • We always need advocates in positions of power to support us, people who know the worth of our work. They are people like producers, directors, actors and post artists.
  • We need to keep tight with post during the whole shoot, no matter how busy we are. They need to know that we’re not just strangers sending data. We must inform all concerned of the value of our presence in post, and how we are trusted and respected by our advocates. We must use the political strength we have nurtured during prep and shooting, and if there is a problem, we must reach out to our advocates before it’s too late.
  • We must stand together as cinematographers and defend gracefully the vision of the director and, therefore, our own integrity. In doing so, we protect the rights of the cinematographer on the producer’s next job.

“We all know that cheapening anybody’s contribution has never been good for the collaborative process, but sometimes, there are people who need to be reminded of this,” says Frank. “Part of the reason it is a huge honor to be in the ASC is the emphasis on ‘Loyalty, Progress and Artistry.’ These are traits that will help maintain the art of cinema as our most powerful art form.”






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