As the Emmy-winning d.p. of “Alias,” and with 24 episodes of “Lost” and 47 episodes of “Felicity” under his belt, Michael Bonvillain is no stranger to shooting for television. Film, however, is where he feels he has the most freedom.
“I love TV,” he says, “keeping the same crew for 10 months and really getting to know the actors. But TV is ultimately a producer’s medium. And your hands are tied by the five-act structure that’s now dominant.”
Bonvillain got his start at the U. of Texas, when a teaching assistant asked him to operate the camera for his thesis film. “Midway through, the d.p. dropped out,” he says, “and I stepped up.” Fast-forward some years, and Bonvillain is the man behind the shaky-cam in last year’s thriller “Cloverfield.” Paramount originally planned to shoot the film with a Steadicam and “shake it up” in post, but Bonvillain wanted to make the story as real as possible, a sort of “War of the Worlds” YouTube-style.
“The style apparently made some people a bit queasy, but I’m glad we shot it exactly as we wanted,” he says. “And I respect Paramount for standing behind us. … Telling the story from the point of view of an amateur video camera was incredibly liberating.”
Most recently, Bonvillain shot the “Eli Stone” pilot as well as the moody (and very filmic) “Fringe” pilot, another collaboration with producer J.J. Abrams. “Fringe was a 180 degree change from ‘Cloverfield,’ ” he says. “We wanted the show to have a lot of movement and texture. Early on, we talked about snow, smoke, steam — anything we could do to put atmosphere in front of the lens. And movement. No matter how much we moved the camera, we got notes from J.J., ‘more movement.’… Filming it in the Toronto winter was fantastic. The actors’ breath was a mile long.”
Film that changed my life: “The first two ‘Godfather’ films. ‘Apocalypse Now.’ I love ‘King of Comedy.’ All of Scorsese. Everything Woody Allen has done.”
Mentor or inspiration: “The closest person I have to a mentor would be J.J. Abrams. J.J. has been very loyal to me over the years, and I’ve learned so much from him.”
Tool I can’t do without: “I can work with a ball of yarn and a Handicam if I have to.”