Stephen Mallon and Karlyn Michelson have teamed up to bring a bi-monthly column to SHARPEN about video and motion. Here’s the first installment.
KM: We decided that for our first collaborative blog entry, we would do a conversation between the two of us. So much of the work that we do winds up being the result of an open dialogue, a running dialogue that the two of us have.
SM: One question I have for you is: how would you sum up what you do? What is your elevator pitch?
KM: My first answer is usually, “I tell stories.” Although creating beautiful images is really important to me, my work is really first and foremost about people and storytelling. My work spans a whole bunch of different categories: documentary, art, corporate, etc. and that’s just because I can apply storytelling to whatever type of video we want to make.
KM: Now, I wanted to ask you to tell a story (because I think it’s an interesting story) of how you got into video in the first place.
SM: I saw it coming with the 5D MKII coming out; people started asking me if I shot video. I realized that it was something that I needed to get more comfortable with. It had terrified me for ages. When time-lapse came up as a possibility, I thought, “Oh, this is a way that I can transition into it.” Fortunately, through my existing working relationship with Weeks Marine, I was given the opportunity to do a time-lapse film on the Willis Avenue bridge, and it was strictly built as a piece for my reel. It turned out to be an incredibly successful promo piece.
SM: You were at Sundance in 2013 with a feature 3D film. What is your next “dream big” project?
KM: Right, I directed a film called Charlie Victor Romeo, which really defies categorization. It is a series of reenactments of the transcripts from black box recordings of major aviation emergencies and we shot it in 3D. All you ever see is the cockpit and the crew members on the plane fighting to try and keep the plane in the air when things go wrong. The reason we did it in 3D was so the viewer could really feel like they are in the cockpit alongside the pilot, the co-pilot, and the engineer. We hoped it would create a sense of intimacy and emotional urgency, and I think it did.
KM: So we got into Sundance, which was amazing. But the thing about independent film is that there’s no money in it. I’m not in this job to make money, as there are many other things I can do in this world that would make my financial life easier. In order to get just one profitable film made, the kind of work that you need to do to secure financing is overwhelming to the point that I am no longer interested in trying to get a feature film financed. Also, I think that a lot of exciting creative storytelling is now not really happening in movies, but rather in television. What Netflix and Amazon are doing with their television shows is awesome; everybody wants to watch TV because all of the great storytelling is happening in episodic television. So that is really what I want to do now.
SM: Are you looking to break into traditional television? Or online series work?
KM: If there’s like a network like SciFi that wants to carry a series, hot damn! I’m not really particular about the platform because I think things are becoming platform agnostic.
SM: The thought used to be, “oh, it’s only going to the web, so it must not be a high quality production.” But now, because of the fact that so much content is arriving on the web, and and because it’s…
KM: It’s so damn good!
SM: SO DAMN GOOD, and there are outlets that are only doing it for the web, like Amazon and Netflix, which have just brilliant, wonderful content, there is no stigma about shooting for an online series anymore.
KM: Your work as a photographer follows pretty distinct lines, and you have become famous for your industrial and transportation work. But the video work you’ve done has branched far beyond that. Has your video work affected the way you think about your photography? What has it been like to be pushed beyond your comfort zones?
SM: Part of the issue of being a commercial artist in New York is that people want to be able to pigeon-hole you because they want to know, “THAT guy does THIS.” If you shoot jewelry, for example, but it’s not just jewelry it is diamond jewelry, you will be the guy who specializes in diamonds. I ended up acquiring the New York Times Magazine as one of my clients because they saw my filmmaking work. They called and asked if I was interested in shooting the Metropolitan Opera, and I was like… hell yes! Even though it has nothing to do with my industrial photography work, my filmmaking opened that door. Filmmaking allows me not to be so pigeon-holed.
SM: Speaking of the filmmaking work, we have become a potent creative team over the past two years. What do you think makes our work, work?
KM: I think it’s a lot of things that all work together. Since both of us can handle all the different aspects of video pretty well, we have each others’ backs. If there’s something you’ve forgotten, I’m relatively likely to catch it before shoot day, and if there’s something I’ve forgotten, same thing. We’re definitely going to catch it before we are on the shoot. But another fundamental part has been not just mutual respect, but a mutual level of self-confidence. I know that I make mistakes and that not all of my ideas are great, and you make mistakes and know that not every idea you have is great…
SM: …it isn’t??
KM: …but in general, we both have a certain level of confidence in our vision and our ideas. So if we’re brainstorming about something and I say, “how about this,” and you don’t like it, I’m not offended. I just think it is not a good enough idea. We’ll think of another idea together that is better. Both of us are able to speak our minds about what is working and what is not. There are a lot of fragile egos in creative pursuits, and I hate dealing with them because I just want to be honest about what I think, and I just want you to be honest about what you think. The work is always better in the end when you can be honest about what’s good and what’s not good.
We also have a lot of fun. Production can be a battering ram because it is a really hard job. Sometimes it is only 16 degrees out, you’re stuffing hand warmers in your gloves, you have to work outside for 13 hours, you’re afraid of slipping on the ice, and you have five locations! We have had to do that kind of job together, and if you can be laughing all day while you’re suffering outside in 16 degree weather, I think the work benefits.
Another part of what works is that the stuff that I love to do the most, you would prefer not to do, and visa versa. We talk about it, we still collaborate on it, and we always help work on the idea together, but I tend to drive the directing and storytelling side of it, while you concentrate on the very specific technical aspects of it. Your focus is so much more on how to get the right crew, the right look, and what the right look should be. In terms of our deepest passions, I get to do what I want to do most and you get to do what you want to do most, so we work well together because we’re not really stepping on each others’ toes.
KM: Speaking of passions, what do want to do with video that you haven’t done yet?
SM: Ooo! What I want to do with video that I haven’t done yet… there’s a long list of toys!
KM: I know, I was going to say; it’s all going to be about gear!
SM: I think I like the idea of producing something a little bit more long form. We’ve been doing a lot of short pieces, but we have not yet jumped into something that is continual. There needs to be a very specific idea, and it needs to be something that I am so hooked on that I can stay with it, work on it, and fight for it all the way through. If it’s a commission, no problem! If someone brings me into a job, I will give it my all. But if it is something that I’m trying to sell to someone to get it funded or landed somewhere, it’s got to be an idea that I love: something that I am not going to walk away from because I’m so determined to get it out there.
KM: ASMP is primarily an organization for photographers. Why did they ask us to write about video?
SM: Photographers, for the most part, are going to need to know how to deliver video to their clients. It may not be the majority of the content, but having the capability is going to make you more valuable to your client because they are not going to have to turn to a different creative force to deliver all the things they want. Even though you can just hit a switch on the camera to go from still to video, it’s a mental switch as well, and that is so much more difficult: there are so many elements to think about. You can grab a couple of stills on a video set, but you cannot really shoot video on a still set. I think that photographers need to get over some of their insecurities about shooting video, but also understand how much goes into it. Buying that camera that shoots video and stills does not make you a filmmaker anymore than buying a professional grade DSLR makes you a professional.
KM: I’ve had a lot of photographers getting into video ask me about it. The question they often get from clients is, “oh, you’re going to be shooting stills for us anyway; can you just shoot a little video too?” What advice would you give to photographers that have to deal with a client request like that?
SM: …. “For an additional fee, of course!” When they ask, “can you do a little video for us?” it is such a broad question. What do they mean? What are they expecting to get? A completely assembled and finished piece with graphics, sound mixing, audio, etc, or something else? I think that generally the photographers should say, “Absolutely, but we need to talk about what you’re expecting and what the budget will be for it.”
KM: I think that is an awesome answer. The bottom line is that clients often understand very little about video. They don’t understand what it takes to make it look good, how much time it takes, what the editing process is, how sound affects things… so part of the, “yes, let’s talk about it” dialogue is educating your own client. You very often have to educate clients about what’s possible and at what cost.
SM: Everything is possible if you’ve got the money. I will fly a helicopter anywhere in the world for you if you pay for it.
KM: Me too!
Catch more great tips, in-depth interviews, and on-the-set ideas from Stephen Mallon and Karlyn Michelson twice a month here on Sharpen!