Lensers see shorts as longterm investment

Films allow more chances and experimentation

Careful. That guy or gal running B camera on the A-list studio pic you’re working on may be closer to getting your job than you think.

Which doesn’t seem to worry the members of the Intl. Cinematographers Guild. Perhaps proving that they’re not collectively insecure about their jobs, for the past five years the ICG has sponsored a short-film showcase to boost the career chances of its junior members — the film loaders, and first and second camera assistants of the world — looking for a leg up. Where shorts may no longer be the medium to get the message across for aspiring directors — especially since the Internet shorts phenom has boomed and busted — they’re still a cost-effective way for directors of photography-to-be to show their stuff.

“They’re a good showcase in general,” says Brett Albright, whose cinematography is featured in director Miles Kahn’s “Fly Trap.” Shot in 2-1/2 days, the film is one of seven in the 2001 ICG short fest (now showing at ShowBiz Expo).

“It’s a form where you can try different things and take some chances,” Albright says.

Not that there isn’t any pressure.

“You don’t have the financial pressures you have on a major movie set but the creative stakes are just as intense,” says fellow showcaser Joe Maxwell (d.p. on the 14-minute “Member”). “It’s work that’s going to be seen and when it is, people will form judgments about what you’re capable of.”

Albright is currently B-camera second assistant on “Marci X” (Lisa Kudrow, Damon Wayans). Maxwell is gearing up to direct a low-budget thriller.

As with their big-budget equivalents, short-film teams can catch some lucky breaks on their way into the can — a casting coup, snagging a primo location for free or the death of a wealthy uncle. “Member” helmer David Brookes cast Josh Hartnett (“Pearl Harbor”) as his lead just months before Hartnett’s career took him to the A list. Having him in the film is almost guaranteed to generate more interest.

Most of the film’s action takes place in a car. Constrained by a microbudget, 95% of the action was shot on a stage against a greenscreen. Brookes had access to a high-end Silicon Graphics Inferno visual-effects workstation, which he used to composite backgrounds into shots during post-production.

They may have been lensing poor-man style, but that didn’t stop Maxwell and Brookes from performing some nifty tricks. Using a stunt double for a wide shot of a person crashing through the windscreen and a fast-motion dolly shot of a close-up of Hartnett surrounded by shards of fake glass hung from the rafters with green string, the two were able to achieve a “Matrix”-like visual effect for the kind of money a studio pic spends on a day’s craft services.

“The great thing about doing these sorts of projects is that no one is telling you: ‘That’s too much’ or ‘You’re not going far enough,'” Maxwell continues. “(The work) I did on ‘Member’ is the most aggressive and ballsiest work I’ve done.”

Not that he can’t still learn from the masters, mind you. When he operated the B camera for d.p. Peter Menzies on “The General’s Daughter,” for example, Maxwell had an epiphany of sorts.

“I arrived on the set the first day thinking I knew a lot about cinematography. I learned pretty quickly that I had a lot to learn,” he recalls.

The seven ICG films premiered in late February at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. They are: “Fly Trap” (d.p. Albright), “New Suits” (David Armstrong), “The Rib” (Denise Brassard), “Day After Day” (Eric Jones), “Member” (Maxwell), “The Last Gunshot” (Michael Price) and “The Third Rail” (Richard Sobin).

“The films are a preview of what tomorrow’s top filmmakers have to offer,” says ICG prexy George Spiro Dibie. “It also demonstrates that there’s a deep reservoir of talent that bodes well for the future.”

Sort of a traveling road-show, the films are skedded for screenings in New York; Boston; Chicago; Miami; Orlando, Fla.; San Francisco and Dallas. The slate was presented at the Cannes Intl. Film Festival in May. The competition is open to all ICG members who are not yet rated as directors of photography in the ranks of the guild. The only other requirement is that films must run 30 minutes or less.

This year there were over 50 entries evaluated for artistry and execution of craft by a peer group, including some of the industry’s top cinematographers.

“Media critics and traditional film festival juries tend to focus on the talent of actors, directors and writers,” says ICG showcase chairman Rob Kositchek Jr. “If it is noticed at all, cinematography is usually mentioned in a passing reference and many times for the wrong reasons.”