MATRIX: As a Camera Operator, where do you find yourself principally?
CHRIS: Principally with First Unit. We started out as one big unit for about the first six weeks of the movie, shooting all the freeway material. Then we split up and I stayed with Second Unit and continued with the freeway for about another four weeks. Now I’m back with First Unit again.
MATRIX: How did you become a Camera Operator?
CHRIS: Basically I went the film school route. I went to the American Film Institute [AFI], and then started working my way up through the ranks of camera as a loader, second, first, and now operator – those are the levels that you go through. I’ve been doing it probably about fifteen years now altogether.
MATRIX: What were the first few films you were involved in?
CHRIS: One of the very first ones that I worked on when I was still in college was an AFI film called Graffiti, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best short. So the first film I worked on was nominated for an Academy Award, and it has been all down hill since then!
MATRIX: When you went to school, did you know which direction you wanted to take?
CHRIS: I didn’t know that I wanted to be in film at all. It was a business school and I needed an easy grade for my grade point average, because I was failing miserably in business. I saw this Super 8 film class, so I took that and then on the first project they asked who wanted to do the camera. I said I’d try that and ended up kind of liking that field. Then at AFI I went for the cinematography program, so I pretty much knew I wanted to try to be a DP [Director of Photography] at that point, and I’ve been gradually working my way up that way.
MATRIX: What are some of the particular challenges of a small and a large feature?
CHRIS: Mostly the money aspect of how expensive these shots are, so you have to nail it or there’s a lot of money going down the drain.
MATRIX: In some of these shots, you must almost be as much a part of the action as the actors.
CHRIS: Yes, a lot of the kung fu stuff we’re doing you have to follow the action, and everything has to be perfect. It’s a big choreography, a kind of a dance. Luckily it takes quite a few takes for the actors and stunt people to get it exactly right, so you have a chance to dial in your move as well, so there’s a big element of camera choreography.
MATRIX: How many cameras are usually on?
CHRIS: It’s usually just one or two, a wide and a tight.
CHRIS: They’re very specific on the frames. They spend a lot of time getting the exact frame that they like, and then I just try to duplicate that for them and give them what they want.
MATRIX: So you work with the storyboards before you even get behind the camera?
CHRIS: Yes, you have the storyboard shots and then they have the video viewfinder as well, so the Directors are very specific on setting up their frames and the specific piece of action that they’re looking for. In a way you don’t have as much creativity as you would on some other films where it’s a little more freeform, but they really know what they’re doing, so you can still throw suggestions in there, and they’ll either listen to you, or they’ll say, “No you’re crazy”. It has been a great experience for me.
MATRIX: What has been the most challenging of the three sets here in Alameda?
CHRIS: I think the freeway was pretty dangerous with a lot of the big stunts, but it was also exciting. I like that kind of work – racing around on insert cars – so that was pretty challenging. The kung fu [on the Park set] was challenging in another way, where it was so specific and everything had to be perfect, which makes it tough as well. I’m looking forward to shooting the Zion Temple, it should be a little different from what we have been doing, which was mostly all action oriented. The Temple is going to have lots of extras and is a big set, so it should be a little more traditional filmmaking.
MATRIX: What other films have you worked on in the recent past?
CHRIS: I worked on Swordfish and Gone in Sixty Seconds, and before that a lot of action oriented movies.
MATRIX: So you’re used to car explosions on a set?
CHRIS: I’ve been doing a lot of car movies lately. It seems to be a trend in Hollywood right now.
MATRIX: How does what you saw on the freeway compare to what you’ve been seeing in the past few years?
CHRIS: Bigger and better, I think. Bigger stunts, better stunts, and not just the cars themselves, but the characters. It’s really all about the characters, and the cars are background props really. I think the first MATRIX film is everybody’s favorite, and hopefully this one will be as good, or surpass it.
MATRIX: Thanks Chris.
Interview by REDPILL