ONFILM Interview: Cynthia Kanner

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Cynthia Kanner - Photo by D. Kirkland

"We are involved in preproduction planning from the moment that a script is approved. There are early meetings with the director and cinematographer to talk about their visions for the look of the project, be it a film or miniseries. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. Our ability to manipulate images in post production is more robust today, but it still begins with the artistry of the director and cinematographer and their creative team who make the compelling images that tell the story. I believe it more important than ever to create films that people will take the time to watch, because there are so many entertainment options vying for their attention. I also take pride in the fact that all HBO movies are archived on film that is in pristine condition for tomorrow's audiences."

Cynthia Kanner is vice president, Post Production, for HBO Films and Miniseries. After earning an MBA degree, she left business consulting to start over as a production assistant on independent films. She worked on a range of small films as location scout, A.D. and eventually, line producer and production executive. She joined HBO in 1994 as the head of post production for HBO Pictures and has subsequently worked on some 110 television films and miniseries, including Angels in America, Conspiracy, John Adams, Elizabeth, Walkout, Recount, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Lackawanna Blues, Generation Kill and Grey Gardens.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

Vice President, Post Production
HBO Films
by Bob Fisher


QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?

KANNER: I was born in Berkeley, CA and raised in San Francisco and Palo Alto.

QUESTION: Was anyone in your family a filmmaker?

KANNER: My mother, Charlotte Kempner Beyers, became a documentarian when I was in college. She and my stepfather were both journalists. My stepfather, Bob Beyers, ran the Stanford University News Service for 30 years.

QUESTION: Were you interested in photography or filmmaking during your youth?

KANNER: I was always visually curious. My sister is an artist and my father and stepfather always had Leica and Nikon cameras hanging around their necks when I was growing up. During college I interned in the photography department of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and considered doing a graduate degree in art history.

QUESTION: What were your aspirations for the future?

KANNER: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought I might be a ballet dancer or a teacher or a museum curator. At Yale I studied history. I fell into a consulting and accounting program for Coopers and Lybrand (now Pricewaterhouse Coopers) because I wanted to travel and they were a multi-national company. Little did I know I would have to start business school at NYU seven days after graduation.

QUESTION: How did you get from accounting into the film industry?

KANNER: Just as I was finally being sent to Paris for Coopers and Lybrand, I decided to quit and start all over as a PA. I moved to Los Angeles with all my possessions in my car. I had a job and a place to live lined up, but when I arrived in L.A., both fell through. I ended up sleeping on the couch at my sister’s house and getting a job as a PA from an “in production” listing in the Hollywood Reporter. The first film I worked on was Rock ‘n Roll High School Forever in 1990. It was a sequel to a film that Roger Corman produced in 1979. After that experience, I was a location manager, line producer and producer for several independent films. On the first film I produced, I also worked as the apprentice editor. We were lucky enough to have our cutting rooms at Amblin Entertainment where I met Marty Cohen (head of post production for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin), who was kind enough to mentor me. When I got stuck, I walked down to Marty’s office and asked his advice.

QUESTION: When did you begin working at HBO?

KANNER: I was hired as a freelance post supervisor to work on a film called The Enemy Within in 1994. When that ended, I came on staff (even though I was six months pregnant) and I have been here ever since. Fifteen years later, I still feel lucky to work with a great group of people on really wonderful projects.

QUESTION: How many HBO films have you worked on?

KANNER: I have worked on approximately 110 HBO films and mini-series since 1994.

QUESTION: At what point, do you and your post production team get involved in the production of new projects?

KANNER: We are involved from the moment that a script is approved for production. There are early meetings with the director, cinematographer, costume and production designers to talk about their visions for the look and visual style.

QUESTION: Can you give us an example of planning a specific film?

KANNER: Lackawanna Blues was directed by George Wolfe. He is an amazingly talented director. The story takes place in a boarding house where a young boy lived during the 1960s. At our first meeting, George described the look he envisioned as the outside of an orange bumpy and textured peel — which is a very unusual way to describe the look of a film. George said that he was going to open with a shot of feet walking down a hallway and pan up to a woman who was pushing a cart filled with towels. He saw the boarding house as a character in the film. The people who live there are bringing up a little boy who was born in the house. George also described the music that he envisioned as this woman brings towels to the people who live in this house. We could feel the rhythm he was describing, and get a sense of the choreography he had in mind. It’s that way on every film … it’s a collaboration between everyone involved in production and postproduction.

QUESTION: Give us an example of a pre-production discussion about sound.

KANNER: During pre-production meetings for the mini-series Generation Kill (writer/producer) David Simon was clear that he didn’t want a musical score. The words the marines were saying and the collage of sound effects were the score. Obviously, it is important to have everyone on the same track when decisions like that are made.

QUESTION: That’s really interesting. Give us another example.

KANNER: We are currently in post production on a movie called Temple Grandin. The film is about an autistic woman who designed most of the slaughter houses in the United States, because she had an ability to understand animals in a way that most people don’t. The on set sound recordist got lots of wild tracks of the cows and their mooing to help us tell the story.

QUESTION: Post production is a different world today than it was when you learned how to cut film on a Moviola. How is that transition affecting the collaborative process?

KANNER: Traditional answer printing with film cut on flatbeds and Moviolas is rare today. When you hear people saying things like, ‘we can fix that shot in post,’ it has a new meaning today. It is true that you have more flexibility in post production today, however that takes time and money, and it’s rarely as good as if you thought it out and planned for it during production. Our ability to manipulate images in post production is more robust today, but it still about the artistry of the director and cinematographer collaborating on how they are going to light, frame shots and cover different scenes. It’s a collaborative process with everyone involved that begins with an agreement in preproduction about the vision for the film.

QUESTION: Post production obviously plays an important role in fulfilling that vision.

KANNER: There is an amazing toolkit available in post production today, and it is constantly evolving. For example, in 2002 we produced a film called The Laramie Project. It was Moises Kaufman’s first film, even though he was a tremendously talented theater director. They took a play and turned it into an incredible piece of filmmaking. The cinematography by Terry Stacey, production design, costumes and everything else that they did during production was terrific. Then, Brian Kates did an amazing job of editing. He cut the film, including visual effects and sound in a way that created not only the right pacing, but also an auditory and visual collage that added a new layer of meaning to the film. I’m repeating myself, but I’ll say it again. No one makes a great or even a good film alone.

QUESTION: What role does the cinematographer play in choosing the production format? Let’s use Generation Kill as an example.

KANNER: Ivan Strasburg (BSC) was the cinematographer for that mini-series. The story was about a U.S. Marine Corps reconnaissance unit and a Rolling Stones reporter who was imbedded with them during the early days of the war in Iraq. Much of the story takes place inside the Humvee vehicles they are driving. Ivan suggested producing the mini-series in Super 16 format. He felt it was the right format and compact camera for that intimate environment. To be honest, there were people who were concerned, because there were so many visual effects. We had a lot of conversations about shooting in 35 mm format, because some people at the visual effects facilities were concerned about registering composite shots, but Ivan made a compelling case for Super 16 film. We shot some tests, and people at Cinesite in London, where most of the visual effects work was done, said that with the tools available today they could do it with Super 16 film.

QUESTION: How did it work out?

KANNER: I was thrilled with the look, because it puts the audience in the story.

QUESTION: Where was the Generation Kill mini-series produced?

KANNER: We shot in desert environments in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. People were concerned about using 16 mm cameras because of the dirt and dust, but there were no problems, and the intimacy of being able to shoot with a comparatively compact camera felt right.

QUESTION: Were there concerns how a Super 16 format film would air in HD?

KANNER: Absolutely not. I love the look of film. We have done many shows that shot on Super 16 mm and delivered on HD. With today’s stocks, grain isn’t the problem it used to be. When I first joined HBO, everything had to be produced on 35 mm film, however the new stocks have improved so much during the past five years that’s no longer an issue.

QUESTION: What was the first HBO movie produced in Super 16 format?

KANNER: The first one I was involved with was Conspiracy in 2001. Stephen Goldblatt (ASC, BSC) was the cinematographer. It was his suggestion. The story pretty much took place in one room where Nazi officials planned the Holocaust. Stephen wanted kind of a documentary look with a handheld camera that put the audience in that time and place. Digital intermediates (DI) were just starting and Super 16 mm allowed Stephen and Frank Pierson (the director) to get the intimacy they wanted and allowed us to be able to have film prints to project at our premieres. After Conspiracy, HBO produced Elizabeth, Walkout,Recount and Generation Kill in Super 16 format with digital postproduction done at high definition resolution.

QUESTION: Is the archivability of media a consideration?

KANNER: Absolutely. All HBO films and mini-series are archived on film, we require an original camera negative or DI negative and an interpositive. They are maintained in pristine condition so we can re-master it, if necessary.

QUESTION: Why would that be necessary?

KANNER: At HBO, we scan films for post production at 2K resolution today, but we are already hearing about 4K resolution television sets being developed in Japan. The reality is that we don’t know what display technologies the future will bring, but we do know that film is both the safest and most cost-efficient way to archive our programs. That’s not just my opinion. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences did a study and published a report called The Digital Dilemma a few years ago. HBO takes archiving seriously. We believe it is really important to keep our library of films viable for future generations. There is a group dedicated to doing it right. It’s a question we ask ourselves everyday when we are making decisions about post production.

QUESTION: We are going to change the subject. What role do you think films produced for the cinema and television play in our society?

KANNER: They can help us think about things in a different way. We produced a film called Taking Chance, about bringing a soldier killed in battle home from Iraq. That film was the first time since the first Iraq war that civilians saw the process and honor with which we treat our soldiers who are killed in action. It was screened in Washington D.C. and was directly related to changing the ruling so that images of caskets may be shown in the media if the family of the deceased approves.

QUESTION: How was Taking Chance produced?

KANNER: It was shot on 35mm.

QUESTION: How are the challenges of producing programs for television evolving?

KANNER: One of the challenges is that there are so many television channels and other options vying for people’s attention today. That makes it more important than ever to create films that people will take the time to watch. I believe people want to spend their time watching and listening to stories that deal with people and things they care about.

QUESTION: You sound very passionate about the work you are doing.

KANNER: When you work in post production, you are involved from the time you read the script through preproduction meetings, overseeing and watching dailies, and the various stages of editing until the film is ready for release. I am really lucky that I work on films that I care about and love watching. I truly want to share that experience with other people in the best possible way. I believe that in the future people will still want to sit down and experience films both in theaters in cinemas and in their homes.

QUESTION: How are decisions made to choose the right media for different projects?

KANNER: I’m a huge fan of using cutting-edge technologies, but you also have to understand all the issues involved. For us the choice of production media begins with the recommendations made by the director of photography. HBO is determined to produce cinematic films that tell engaging stories. The reality is that whether you are producing a story in film or digital format, the cinematographer still has to take the time needed for artful lighting and storytelling. Everyone in our group has worked in the field before they came on staff. I believe that makes a difference. We understand what the filmmakers are up against. We are passionate about the films we create. The topics are interesting and important, and we get to work with great people who are talented filmmakers.

QUESTION: You and your colleagues at HBO must be doing something right. Ten of the 28 Emmys presented last year (2008) went to HBO programs and to the people who worked on them. HBO also has an interesting out-reach project for educators.

KANNER: Watch It And Learn is one of my pet projects. Some of our films and documentaries are available online on HBO.com along with lesson guides for teachers and students. The films that are online today include Recount, John Adams, Walkout and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The background material and teaching plans are free and DVDs of the films are sold to educators at cost.