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D.P. Amir Mokri Fills in the Blanks With Imagination

For someone who has made his career working on big blockbuster films like “Transformers,” “Man of Steel” and “Fast & Furious,” cinematographer Amir Mokri prefers watching slightly less-explosive pics.

“I like to watch dramas,” he says. “It’s funny because I work on these big movies, but they’re not things that I go and watch. I like dramas that are about humor and interaction.”

Mokri’s latest project, “Pixels,” stars Adam Sandler, Kevin James and Josh Gad and provides a fair dose of funny. A live-action crossover with CGI videogame characters, it relies on visual effects, which are in Mokri’s wheelhouse. But filming without all the elements that ultimately appear on screen comes with its own challenges.

“You have to use your imagination to fill in the blanks,” says Mokri, Variety’s Creative Impact in Cinematography honoree who will participate in a Master Class panel at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 25. In “Pixels,” for example, when the audience sees a giant Pac-Man chomping on the scenery, on set Mokri has to pretend it’s there.

He has also noticed that movies that rely on visual effects don’t always have an exact plan, so he has to be flexible. “In an ideal world, it would be great to know what everything is going to look like, but that doesn’t always happen.”

Growing up in Iran, Mokri didn’t romanticize film or the industry. He wanted to be a biologist or an architect, but neither of those paths panned out. He got interested in film in college in the U.S., but since the technology was too expensive for him to make his own movies, he filmed for other students.

Since he started working on feature films in the mid-’80s, Mokri has seen the technology explode. And while he doesn’t seem to have a hard time keeping up with change, he thinks the industry tends to overuse new gadgets and toys. Mokri’s weapons of choice are an Arri Alexa or a Sony F65, but he’s comfortable adapting to other cameras depending on the look.

Now Mokri is in the mood for something different — an indie or a character-based drama. Before “Pixels,” Mokri worked on Ethan Hawke starrer “Good Kill.” The crew shot the film in 23 days with only the actors and the set and very few effects. He says it was “a whole different world” and it helped balance out some of the larger films he’s used to working on. Nonetheless, the movie, which involves drones, called for Mokri to use his imagination. “It’s hard to find a movie that has no effects whatsoever,” Mokri says, “just different levels.”

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