I caught up with Paul Ryan, who has been engaged on a series of unusual projects for charitable organizations including the Open Society Foundation and Bono’s ONE project, which is devoted to alleviating extreme poverty. Ryan has shot more than 50 pieces for the TED conferences as well. These assignments have taken him around the globe, from Haiti, South Africa, and Honduras to the offices of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. Jesse Dylan’s Wondros Global is the company behind the films.
“In many cases, we’re conveying what a given organization does to help the world, to change things,” he told me.
Dylan often interviews subjects from off-camera. This interview is intercut with other visuals that illustrate – or more often, create a mood. “I’m very much in favor of the idea of voice and image combined, but not necessarily in sync, without a literal connection,” says Paul. “It forces the viewer to create his or her own synthesis of the two, which I find interesting and challenging.”
About three years ago, Ryan went to the Panasonic AF100 as his standard camera for these projects. “In addition to the interviews, we often have to run out and grab stuff very quickly,” he says. “The AF100 will shoot 60 frames, which we do a lot. I’d love to see more flexibility in terms of lenses. It’s usually two of us shooting, each with an AF100, and a sound person. The LUMIX 14-140 mm lens has pretty good range, and it sends the metadata into the viewfinder. It has image stabilization, and you can call up a waveform monitor. I sometimes use my Nikon lenses, but you don’t have the metadata, and that’s important for a one-man camera crew!”
Paul recently filmed an art show at the Getty and elsewhere celebrating Southern California art in the 1950s and ‘60s, titled “Pacific Standard Time.” The artist Ed Ruscha and the musician Anthony Kiedis were presenting. “It’s incredibly satisfying and interesting, because you are opening the door to these cultural labyrinths,” says Ryan. “You only wish you could be there longer, and digging deeper. Perhaps it will evolve into something like that.”
* * *
Paul Goldsmith has always done interesting documentary work along with features and television commercials. But lately he has been in a retrospective mood, focusing on two documentaries about personal subjects. The first concerns a video collective Goldsmith was part of forty years ago called TVTV, or Top Value Television. The members of TVTV were among the first – if not the first – filmmakers to use the Sony Portapack, a mobile videotape camera system. Of course at this time, around 1972, television news and documentaries were generally done with 16 mm film. The Portapak was light enough for women to use, a radical notion at the time.
“Professionals weren’t interested because it wasn’t as good as film, and amateurs couldn’t afford it,” he recalls with a smile. “We got a lot of publicity because television was so phenomenally dull in those days.”
TVTV made a series of shows, including one with a former PA named Bill Murray, who along with some other members of the group went on the have some success. The footage lives in the Pacific Film Archives at Berkeley. In some cases, the videotape must be baked before transfer to retrieve an image. Some of the later productions were done with higher quality equipment, including a show around the Oscars, including segments with Steven Spielberg and Goldie Hawn. The first cut of the 90-minute documentary, titled TVTV: Video Revolutionaries, was recently screened at the Museum of Film and Television in New York. Paul is producing, directing, shooting and supervising the editing.
I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of filmmakers and their equipment, so Paul’s other recent endeavor is right up my alley. “Haskell Wexler was the person who got me going in Hollywood,” he told me. “Cinematographers often lived and worked with the same lens, the same cameras for years and years. You had a real, physical attachment to it. That has changed in our digital world.
“So Haskell and I went up to Denny Clairmont’s, and I had Denny lay out some old Arris, and we got Haskell talking about it. He said, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember that camera. I was in the Merchant Marine. We were sunk by a German submarine. We were in lifeboats when the submarine surfaced next to us and a guy came out of the hatch and started taking pictures of us with a camera just like that one.’ I thought pulling out some old lenses and talking about them would be more interesting than sitting down for a formal interview.”
* * *
I tracked down Jacek Laskus after seeing some striking photographs on his website. Over the past several years, among other projects, he has been filming documentaries in third world countries for a variety of outfits including Hewlett-Packard, the Tanzanian Health Ministry, and the Heifer Foundation, which donates dairy cows and other animals to needy beneficiaries.
Along the way, starting with a 2009 shoot in Nepal for a film titled 12 Stones, Jacek began shooting still portraits of people he met. For him, as for many cinematographers, still photography is a lifelong pursuit and was the first step to a career in moving images. His stills have been exhibited at galleries in Los Angeles and in Amsterdam. But these photos rekindled his passion for still portraiture.
“Besides just documenting the trip, I was interested in doing portraits because I found that faces were filled with the history of life in those places,” he says. “Faces seem older, and the light somehow reflects on these faces much better and much stronger. I got really interested in this portraiture and it became something I enjoy doing on the side. It speaks to me and gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Trips to India, Georgia, Rwanda and Uganda followed. “Rwanda was very appealing because the faces are so gentle, in contradiction to the genocide that happened there 16 years ago,” he says.
Jacek generally uses two cameras: a Canon 5D and a Fuji S5, one with a wide angle lens and another with a 70-200 mm zoom. All his photos start out digital and in color. Later he chooses which to render in black and white. He sometimes does some subtle manipulation to the color and contrast, and sometimes takes out his own reflection.
“I treat these projects as learning experiences, and a way to learn about other cultures,” he says. “They open your eyes to how 70% of the Earth’s population lives – without drinking water or electricity, but with dreams and ambitions. So it’s very rewarding. It changes your perspective.”