ONFILM Interview: Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC

Published on website: November 02, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC - Photo by D. Kirkland

“What first drew me to photography was the ability to freeze time. Once you had the image, you discovered things that the naked eye never saw. Now, telling stories with motion pictures is what really interests me. We cinematographers live and breathe it. The idea of having a 35 mm frame with chemicals that react to a focused beam of light, and turning that into a picture – that is one of the most incredible things I can imagine. I try to excite and stimulate the film with light so that it does something that it’s not supposed to do. Those imperfections can give the images an unquantifiable magic. They put another layer of illusion onto something that is already artificial, tricking the audience into thinking it’s real. Film is a handmade art form that comes with a set of emotional tools. I like to use these subtleties and variations as part of the emotional landscape of the story. To me, the film medium is irreplaceable.”

Dan Mindel was born in South Africa and educated in London, where he began his career as a loader at a commercial production house. He moved up to director of photography and segued into the feature film world, eventually shooting Enemy of the State with Tony Scott. Since then, his credits include Shanghai Noon, Skeleton Key, Spy Game, Mission: Impossible III, Domino, and Star Trek, and the upcoming Savages.

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

A Conversation with Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC

Question: How did you first become interested in photography? Mindel: I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and we had no television until the late 1970s. The medium that everyone used was film. People either had 16 mm projectors at home to watch imported movies on, or they went to the cinema or the drive-in. My father had an 8 mm camera. He recorded our adventures, and we would watch them on the screen at home. But it wasn’t until I saw a still camera that I really became interested in photography. I ended up in secondary school in England in the mid-1960s. By that time, I was dabbling with 35 mm stills. I was at a school with an arts-based curriculum, but they didn’t actually have a photography class, however there were a couple of darkrooms there. I was able to persuade the teacher to allow me to have my own photographic lesson. So I taught myself how to print and do all that. Some other kids in the class became interested and would join me. We just did it ourselves.

Q: How did you become interested in making moving pictures?Mindel: I was enamored with Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries. I realized that still images could move and go underwater and do all sorts of things. I became really interested in underwater documentary. I realized that in order to carry on, I would have to use real motion picture cameras, and I learned that there was a film union, which was impossible to get into unless you knew someone. My parents were both doctors. I kept looking, and I went to college, where I saw an advertisement in the evening newspaper for a guy to come and look after a film studio – clean the floors, make tea, and that kind of thing. I got a job making 40 bucks a week, and I watched what was going on.

Q: How did you move up?
Mindel: This film studio was a commercial production house, one of the first in London. One of the partners was Michael Seresin (BSC). Michael allowed me to hang on to his camera assistants and help them out. I became a trainee and eventually the company got me my union membership. One of the focus pullers, Hugh Johnson, asked me if I wanted to come and work with him on a Tony Scott movie. I was all over that! That was basically how I got in. I met these serious motion picture workers and they allowed me in. I began alternating between Tony and Ridley Scott as a camera assistant on commercials.

Q: That must have been a great training ground. Mindel: Unbelievable. By association, I was able to work with some of the greatest commercial directors in London at that time. And we began travelling back and forth to the United States to work. Eventually, I got a job as focus puller with Tony on a movie called Revenge, which was an American movie shot by Jeff Kimball (ASC). Then Ridley was going to do Thelma and Louise, and he asked me if I wanted to work on that movie. I did and that allowed me to stay and meet more American filmmakers, and eventually I got into the union here in the U.S. Thelma and Louise was a nonunion picture that went union, and we were all invited in. At that point I started shooting commercials, low-budget pictures, and some episodic television. Then Tony asked me if I wanted to shoot Enemy of the State, which was a $100 million movie. I had never done anything like that before. It was just mind-blowing. I will always be grateful to Tony for showing me the way. That’s a really common attitude amongst that generation of filmmakers – to help kids get going. The rest is history.

Q: Fast-forward to today. What do you look for in a project?Mindel: I’m in the position now of working on some really great films. And I try very hard to persuade whomever I’m working with to allow me to shoot on film, and to shoot anamorphically. That’s all I’m really interested in as a medium. I realize there are so many different ways of making movies. I want to focus on just one way and really learn how to do it inside and out. I am still in that process. It’s phenomenal to be allowed to do that.

Q: Why is shooting on film important to you?
Mindel: The thing about still photography that got me was the ability to freeze time. And then once you had that image, there were things there that my eye never saw at the time. That really got me fascinated with taking pictures, and I still do it today. I am an avid photographer. The idea of having a 35 mm frame with chemicals on it . . . having that reaction to a focused beam of light then turning it into a picture, for me, is just one of the most incredible things I could imagine. When I shoot, I try to make the film excited by the light. I try to stimulate the film so that it does something that it’s not supposed to do. That is what I like about film images. Sometimes you get a flare or a hot spot, some aberration. That imperfection takes a mediocre picture and gives it a little zing. That is something I embrace totally. It comes partly from working with Tony for so many years. He is always looking for the accidents.

Q: How do you use those imperfections to affect the audience?Mindel: The imperfections were a lot of the motivation for how we shot Star Trek. I realized that the problem that all filmmakers have when they make that kind of movie is that you’re working on sets, and just by nature, sets don’t feel real. And as a kid I used to hate watching movies and seeing them cut from outside to a set. It used to really bug me that you could tell. So we discussed how to bring imperfection to the interior sets, and thereby trick the audience or the eye into thinking it was outside or in a real place. I think it works incredibly well, to allow that little bit of halation on the windows or on the lights – a little too bright or a little too dark, or a flare at an inappropriate moment. To me, it puts another layer of illusion onto an illusion that is already there.

Q: What appeals to you about the anamorphic format?Mindel: The first thing that’s really important to me is that the field of view is quite wide with anamorphic lenses. It feels very human and natural to me. It’s not a 4-by-3 box with a squished image in it. And the lenses we’ve been using over the past 30 or 40 years have built-in imperfections, because the technology wasn’t as good as it is now. The glass was cut by hand on lathes, not on computer-operated lathes. So there are aberrations. At a purely organic level, the light does unmanageable things when it hits an aberration. That unquantifiable magic happens. And I love that!

Q: Do you use lens distortion as a portraiture tool?Mindel: Yes, definitely. Different faces like different lenses. As we are developing the characters, I will find the lens that the character likes. And I generally like to stay with that lens and use it for everything if I can. By learning the traits of the lens, you allow them to play as part of that character. For me one of the most powerful tools that we had has been taken away – which is film dailies. Because watching the previous day’s work on the big screen allows one to work all this stuff out. Now, the director sees dailies on his laptop on the way to work and we are forced to watch them on a plasma TV in the trailer or something. It takes away a lot of that creative process. I know the lenses that I like to use. I know their serial numbers and I know what they look like, so it’s not so much of an issue for me. But the next generation will never have the opportunity to sit in dailies with their entire crew and talk about the shot in detail and how to improve it. When we did Star Trek, J.J. Abrams allowed me to do that. On a daily basis, the entire camera crew – and anyone else who wanted to come – would watch film in the theater at Paramount. I got the chance to learn so much about the process that I use, and I try to bring that wherever I go. You are able to refine the process. You come to the set with a lot more confidence. It’s a huge bonus. We get to see what the film itself is doing as we try to stretch the parameters. It’s basically every cinematographer’s aim in life – to punish the film. It’s a great venue to see how that is done.

Q: What’s your take on the latest digital video cameras?Mindel: I think the film medium is irreplaceable. The rendition of film is so good and the quality is so high, especially when you use large format. That is something we won’t be able to do with HD for years. I was watching Vertigo yesterday, which was a VistaVision movie. My god, the quality! You could project that on the wide of the Queen Mary and it’s going to look good. I think some filmmakers – Christopher Nolan is one – understand this.

Q: Your current assignment is Savages, directed by Oliver Stone. Tell us about that project.
Mindel: Oliver and his producers had their own set of ideas on how they were going to make this movie. They were interested in 3-perf spherical. I said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to waste your time, but if it’s not anamorphic, I’m not interested in doing it.’ I think that sparked an interest back in his older movies that Bob Richardson (ASC) had shot anamorphically. Ultimately, Oliver agreed. I convinced him that to make this movie and give it a big screen presence, it should be shot anamorphically. I’m going to have an arts and crafts unit that will go off and shoot all sorts of editorial pieces, using all sorts of mediums, formats and lenses – all sorts of creative stuff to bring to this movie. I have asked Kodak to give me some black-and-white still stock in motion picture lengths. Oliver is an incredibly creative guy. As far as I’m concerned he is a national treasure. So I want to bring him as much flexibility in the film world as possible. I want to give him a palette that is suitable for someone of his stature.