Roberto Schaefer, ASC, AIC, checked in from New Orleans, where he is finishing up a project with the working title of Geostorm. He has three more weeks in New Orleans, then a week in Hong Kong, and then he will head to New York to digitally time the independent film Miles Ahead, a crowd-funded Miles Davis project directed and co-written by Don Cheadle, who also plays the famous performer. After that, he plans to return to Los Angeles.
Roberto says Miles Ahead, which was shot in Cincinnati, Ohio, was a tough but terrific experience. About two-thirds of the picture was shot with Arri Alexas. A few scenes in tight spaces, like car interiors, were done with a Canon C500. “We also had a chance to shoot some Super 16 for the scenes that take place in the Fifties and Sixties,” he says. “It was very low budget and very ambitious. We were trying to do some really cool things, and I hope we succeeded. Don and [co-star] Ewan McGregor and all the people there were great to work with. It was good to do some stretching.
“FotoKem did a good job,” he adds. “We shot the Super 16 scenes at the end, and when the dailies came back, everyone thought they looked great. It had a whole different texture, and I wish I could have shot the whole movie that way. But it was a good experience.”
Miles Ahead is not a standard biopic, but it incorporates some strange episodes drawn from real life. “It’s kind of like a fever dream,” says Roberto. “We weren’t going for a classic jazz-photography look. We just went for whatever we thought would look cool. It’s kind of a period feel, but not painfully so. It was a fun experiment.”
The project has rights to Davis’ extensive Columbia Records music library, and there is an estimated 40 minutes of his music in the film. The music supervisor is Herbie Hancock. The film includes some performances, including the re-creation of a 1970s concert in Osaka. Anastas Michos, ASC, will shoot some additional material with contemporary hip-hop and jazz musicians.
On Geostorm, Roberto is using the Red Dragon 6K with Cooke 5i lenses and the occasional Angenieux zoom. He also had a chance to use the Arri Ultra Prime 8R, an extremely wide-angle lens that is rectilinear, with no barrel distortion. “We got some great effects with that,” he says.
I asked Roberto about shifting from features to commercials to television. In 2013, he shot eight episodes of Family Tree for longtime collaborator Christopher Guest.
“It happens to me every year, probably,” he says. “I’ll be doing commercial after commercial, wishing I could find a feature so I could get really deep into something. I just shot three features in a row, starting in December 2013, and now I’m looking forward to getting back to Los Angeles, having some relaxation time and shooting some commercials.
“Doing three features in a row has been exhausting, but television is even more exhausting,” Roberto continues. “With Chris, it was exhausting but in a limited way; we did four on, four off, prepping and then shooting. And I always have a great time with Chris, even though the budgets keep getting smaller, which is frustrating. But I have friends who are working on NCIS: New Orleans, and since day one they have been doing 16-, 17- and 18-hour days. There comes a point where you need your sleep, not to mention the question of enjoying your life. I don’t know how people last doing that. After so many hours, there are diminishing returns on every level: creativity, quality and enjoyment.
“What it comes down to for me is really the people — and, of course, the story,” he says. “I’ve made enough mistakes to know that you have to base your decisions on the people involved, the people with whom you’ll be working.”
There’s preliminary talk of a feature in Scotland to be directed by “a dear old friend,” Roberto says. It may come together in the spring, in which case he will be back on the road, getting himself “really deep into something.”