ONFILM Interview: John Leonetti, ASC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
John Leonetti, ASC - Photo by D. Kirkland

"I was intrigued by cinematography as far back as I can remember. I never had any formal training. You learn by observation, and either it resonates or it doesn't. I had a knack for understanding where to put lights and what they could do. I trust my eyes, my spot meter, my instincts and the emotions that I'm feeling while shooting a film. I believe 3-D can add a dimension to the right kind of story. We decided to shoot Piranha 3-D in anamorphic film format because we want it to feel natural and organic the way we see images with our eyes. I have witnessed an evolution of technology that has helped the art of filmmaking. But, we have to remember that filmmaking is an art form, and never compromise our ability to tell compelling stories."

John Leonetti, ASC's credits include the television series Tales From the Crypt and Providence, the telefilm The Burning Season, and the feature films The Mask, Joe Dirt, The Scorpion King, The Woods, Death Sentence, and the upcoming release of Piranha 3-D.

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

by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised? LEONETTI: I was born and raised in West Los Angeles. I spent a lot of time in Hollywood. I kind of grew up in the industry. My father Frank Leonetti was my mentor and inspiration. He graduated from high school in Utah when he was only 15 years old and moved to Los Angeles. He was a talented amateur baseball player. An electrician at 20th Century Fox recruited him to play on their baseball team. They gave him a job as an electrician at the studio in 1932. He was on The Wizard of Oz electrical crew. My dad worked his way up through the ranks and became a top gaffer.

QUESTION: Did you have opportunities to watch him work?
LEONETTI: I sure did. I remember visiting my father when he was the gaffer on Chastity, with Sonny and Cher. It was shot just outside of Phoenix. I was 13 years old and got to hang out with my father for a couple of weeks. On the weekends, I would sit between Sonny and Cher on their bed in their motel and watch television with them. I still have a picture of Cher from that movie hanging on a wall in our house. I got to hang out with my dad on other films, and was inspired by his dedication to the craft and his work ethic. I went to work part-time in the family business after school when I was 13.

QUESTION: What was the family business?
LEONETTI: My father started an equipment rental business - originally called Leonetti Cine Rentals; later, it was called The Leonetti Company - during the mid-'50s, mainly to serve independent filmmakers. He had lighting and grip equipment, a camera department, made sound transfers and rented trucks. My father designed and made equipment that transformed the production of filmmaking on location as opposed to producing them just in the studios. Everything from light stands to cable had to be made more portable, so it fit into trucks. My father was a visionary in many ways. For example, he figured out a way to pump up the voltage in a Par light from 110 to 220. That was an effective way of creating more light with less equipment when you needed it on location. He had a lot of original ideas that helped to change the industry. For instance, he put metal wire diffusion in front of lights to knock down the density.

My father and brother, Matt, saw the need for developing an alternative to Arriflex and Panavision cameras. They redesigned and built 17 Ultracams. We also reformatted Zeiss lenses. They were full frame lenses made for still cameras that could be used to shoot VistaVision plates. My father re-mortgaged his house three times to pay for these developments. That was my basic education in cinematography.

QUESTION: What was your early, part-time role in your dad's company?
LEONETTI: I started working in the back shop riveting and drilling holes in modified C-stands. When I was 14 or 15 years old, I learned how to load magazines and how to take apart and maintain ARRI 2C cameras. When I was 15, I visited my brother Matt when he was a camera operator on a small independent film called Book of Numbers that was being produced in Dallas, Texas. They asked me to stay on and help load magazines. I was paid $120 a week. That was more money than I had ever seen. Matt made sure that they paid me less than everyone else, so I learned the value of what I was doing as an unofficial member of that crew. I still have a slate from that movie.

QUESTION: Did you get to meet cinematographers?
LEONETTI: I met quite a few cinematographers when they came to the shop to talk with my father, check out and rent equipment. I was always intrigued by cinematography as far back as I can remember. But, I didn't start working in my father's business to become a cinematographer. I worked in the shop to pay my way through college

QUESTION: Where did you go to college?
LEONETTI: I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara as a business/economics major. I just took one film class. I learned everything I knew from working at what some people called 'the Leonetti school of cinematography.' I watched and spoke with many cinematographers, electricians, grips, gaffers and assistants.

QUESTION: Did you know in college what you wanted to do with your life?
LEONETTI: I really didn't. I loved being on movie sets, and watching cinematographers and directors. That was really intriguing to me. I worked as an assistant cameraman during the summers and made more money than any of my friends. I put myself through the last two years of college. I thought about becoming a doctor, lawyer, attorney or businessman. Economics really interested me, but I fell in love with working on movie sets and watching the dynamics. I also felt a kindred connection to camera development and technology. I guess that was in my blood. I will never forget sitting across the dinner table from my father and brother and talking about lighting. We always had magazines and books about Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and other artists around the house. When I was a kid, I drew and painted with charcoal, acrylics and oil paint. I never had any formal training. I just did it on my own. I had a knack for sensing how and the way light falls on objects, people and their faces and how that affects our perceptions when we see the film projected on a screen. I was intrigued by it. I hung around my father and watched him work, but it wasn't easy to learn. It took me a long time.

QUESTION: What made the light go on in your mind?
LEONETTI: It was a culmination of various things that helped me understand where to put a light, what it could do, and why it was better to put it in one place than another. It isn't something you can read in a textbook. You learn by observation, and either it resonates or it doesn't. I also had the good fortune to work as a second assistant on a crew that shot a test with Vittorio Storaro (ASC, AIC).

QUESTION: How did you happen to be on that crew?
LEONETTI: My father knew Henry Chrosciki, who ran Technovision, the rental company in Rome that supplied cameras and lenses that Storaro used early in his career. My father and Henry had mutual respect for each other. When Vittorio came to Los Angeles to shoot a test, he needed a second assistant. My dad said, 'Why don't you take Johnny?' That's how I got to stand on the set and watch Storaro light. He had single source arc light at the end of the stage. Vittorio turned to me and said, 'Come here, John. I want to show you how to hold the bounce card.' That experience was super inspirational.

QUESTION: What did he tell you?
LEONETTI: He said, 'Look at how it reflects light in someone's eyes and off their skin. Now, ask yourself, how little or how much light do you want in their eyes or reflecting off their skin?' He wasn't talking about technology. He was talking about understanding the emotions you can evoke with a bounce card to create the right light in the right place. Looking back on that now, it helped me understand the connection those things have to the stories.

QUESTION: Did Storaro teach you any other lessons?
LEONETTI: More than we can discuss in this conversation. I was a focus puller for Vittorio when he shot One From the Heart (1982). It was fascinating watching how he attached colors to characters to express different emotions. I remember thinking it was pretty esoteric when I read his notes, but it was pure magic when I watched it happen.

QUESTION: Did you work on crews with your brother Matt?
LEONETTI: I worked with Matt as an assistant cameraman and later as an operator.

QUESTION: One of those films was Poltergeist in 1982. You were the first assistant. What are your memories about working on that now classic film?
LEONETTI: It was a very memorable experience. Steven Spielberg wrote the script and co-produced the film. We shot it with the Ultracam and anamorphic lenses. I made depth of field charts for every lens we used. They were superb Cooke lenses that were co-designed by Joe Dunton. I learned so much by watching Matt collaborating with his incredible gaffer, Pat Blymyer. They worked together for 25 to 30 years. I worked with Pat on one episode of Tales From the Crypt, which was my first paying job as a cinematographer.

QUESTION: Share a story about how working on someone's crew as an assistant cameraman or operator taught you valuable lessons.
LEONETTI: I worked on The Dukes of Hazzard television series for almost three seasons. Jack Whitman (ASC) was the cinematographer. That was another amazing experience. Jack always knew where to put the camera and why. Every shot was motivated. I learned a lot.

QUESTION: How did you step up to cinematographer?
LEONETTI: Someone was going to shoot a music video at my father's rental facility. My dad asked, 'Why don't you shoot it?' This was before I was working as a full-fledged operator. Another time, my dad pushed me into shooting a 3-D promotion for a horror movie. We used an ARRI camera with an over-under lens configuration. I was handholding the camera, sitting in a wheelchair that was being pushed down a hallway. Several times, when I was an operator on one of Matt's pictures, he had me shoot second unit. The jump from operator to cinematographer was second nature for me.

QUESTION: What do you mean?
LEONETTI: Even when I wasn't on a film crew, I was conscious of what light did, where it came from, what it bounced off and why it did what it did. Walter Hill (director) asked Matt to shoot one of the first Tales From the Crypt episodes. I learned later that Matt asked Walter about me. I have as vivid memory of Walter contacting me and saying, 'I've got this television series called Tales From the Crypt (1989). How would you feel about shooting it? Are you man enough, kid?'

QUESTION: What do you remember about your reactions to that provocative question?LEONETTI: I'll never forget it. It was by far the coolest introduction to being a cinematographer that anyone could have. Tales From the Crypt was a cutting edge exercise in using cinematography to film a horror story that took place in a fantasy world mimicking a comic book. It had to look and feel real enough for the audience to believe that it was really happening. That was an awesome opportunity.

QUESTION: You have seen new technologies come and go. How has technology affected the collaborative art form?
LEONETTI: I became a camera operator before there was video assist. I remember that at the end of each shot, everyone was looking at me to see what I thought. My report affected everything that happened next. What I saw through that eyepiece went directly to my brain and influenced the whole spirit of making that film. There was something magical that affected my relationship with the director, actors and cinematographer. That was a more visceral experience than a bunch of people in a black tent looking at images on a television monitor through the eye of a video camera.

QUESTION: What lesson should we take away from that observation?LEONETTI: Spend more time looking through the lens.

QUESTION: You recently shot Piranha 3-D, a film produced for and being distributed by The Weinstein Company. What do you say when other cinematographers, directors and producers ask you to share your thoughts about 3-D?
LEONETTI: My answer is simple. I believe 3-D can add a dimension to the right kind of story, but there is also a lot of marketing hype. Typically people are shooting 3-D movies with digital cameras, so you can see three dimensional images in real time while you are shooting. We shot Piranha 3-D in anamorphic format because (director) Alex Aja wanted it to look and feel natural and organic.

QUESTION: Tell us about Piranha 3-D.LEONETTI: I've shot a lot of horror genre films. They have mainly been independent films that are generally fun to do from a visual perspective. I have generally enjoyed them, because you can experiment and push the visual limits. I had never worked with either Aja or (producer/ writer) Greg Levasseur before. They are both young, very talented French filmmakers who are also movie buffs. Alex's father is a well-known director and his mother is a cinema critic in France. Greg's father is a producer.

QUESTION: Do you know why they chose you to shoot this film? LEONETTI: I know they considered a lot of cinematographers. There are a lot of talented people out there. They apparently saw and liked some of the scary movies that I've shot, including Death Sentence (2007). That film was directed by James Wan and it featured Kevin Bacon in a leading role. I'm proud of the lighting and the way we used the camera on that film. When I read the script for Piranha 3-D, the thing that stood out the most to me was that the story takes place in three places, above water, below water, and at water level. That reminded me of Jaws. I think the scariest moments in Jaws were when the camera was right at water level. When I told them that, they both agreed.

QUESTION: Why did they want to produce this film in 3-D format?LEONETTI: The script lends itself to 3-D in a very subtle, not-in-your-face way. It's a multi-dimensional story with fantastic characters. There are times, however, when the 3-D images are in your face and other times when the 3D cinematography is more subtle.

QUESTION: Can you give us an example?LEONETTI: In the opening scene there are images of mountains in the desert that almost look like still photographs. It is designed to pull the audience right into that scene. Suddenly, a Gila Monster comes into the foreground and almost seems to push out from the screen as though it is about to walk into the theater. We cut to the next shot with those same razorback mountains in the background and a small boat on a lake in the foreground. We cut to a closer-in shot of a character on the boat who is fishing and singing the song that the captain of the boat in Jaws sang that night when they got drunk. Richard Dreyfuss was cast in that role. He reaches down and pulls one can off a string of beers that are cooling in the lake. The surface of the lake is calm. He pops the can open, takes a swig, and puts it down. All of a sudden, he hooks a fish. That rocks the boat, causing the beer can to fall into the lake. We tracked down into the lake following the can as it sinks to the bottom of the lake. All of a sudden, there is a tremor, a fissure opens at the bottom of the lake, and water starts rushing into that hole. We cut away to the top of the lake. The water and boat are both swirling in a circle. The character stands up and tries to maintain his balance, while he is pulling the fish into the boat. He drops it on the floor just before he is thrown off the boat. After a quick dissolve we shot straight down on the surface of the lake, which was super calm. The camera tracks over the water still straight down on the boat with the fish flopping around. The camera continues to track back, drops down and tips up to see the boat resting in the now calm lake. All you can hear is the fish flopping. Suddenly a hand pops up in 3-D. All of the flesh has been eaten away! That's when the Piranha 3-D title comes on the screen.

QUESTION: Why and how was the decision made to produce Piranha 3-D on film?LEONETTI: Alex Aja is not a fan of HD cameras. He has never directed a movie that was produced in any digital format. Initially, he thought he wasn't going to have an option, because it was going to be released to cinemas in 3-D format. Then, a new process was introduced for converting film produced with a single camera to 3-D format. We quickly came to the realization that the logistics of shooting Piranha 3-D on the lake in the heat of summer would have required unacceptable compromises if we shot with two digital cameras on a 3-D rig. We shot it on film for practical and aesthetic reasons.

QUESTION: What were some of the reasons?
LEONETTI: I will give you the short list. We anticipated temperatures as high as 110 degrees at Lake Havasu, Arizona. That could have been a problem for electronic cameras. A 3-D rig would have also limited our maneuverability. The over-arching issue is that we all agreed that a film look was right for this story. We needed the latitude that film offers to record the range of contrast between the brightest and darkest elements of scenes in the environments where we were shooting. We consulted with Lenny Lipton, who wrote the textbook on 3-D photography that they use in film schools. We watched scenes from classic movies, including Titanic, King Kong and Singin' in the Rain that were converted to 3-D and were blown away. That convinced us that shooting with a single film camera is a viable alternative.

QUESTION: Our next question is why did you choose to shoot in anamorphic format?LEONETTI: Alex really wanted to shoot this movie in anamorphic format. It has a special feeling, and we envisioned a lot of avenues of opportunities for using scope to make landscapes part of the story along with the dialog and mayhem. The anamorphic format also uses the full 35 mm frame, so there is more information to feed into the postproduction pipeline to create more definition in 3-D images for projection. The bottom line is that you can get both more definition and dimension by starting with film in anamorphic format.

QUESTION: That was the theory. How did it work in practice?
LEONETTI: About 90 percent of Piranha 3-D was produced at practical locations in daylight. I was generally shooting at stop T11 or T16, so we were getting real depth of field, the way we see the world with our eyes. There were times when we chose to make focus on backgrounds a little soft when we were using very long lenses. It's an interesting optical effect when you are shooting a medium close-up with an anamorphic 180 mm lens. The background is a little soft and the face or faces in the foreground almost pop off the screen. It gives a unique quality to dimension. I should make it clear that we couldn't have done this nearly as well if we didn't have a 250-speed film balanced for exposure in daylight. That gave us a two-stop advantage in depth of field when it was needed.

QUESTION: What film are you talking about?
LEONETTI: Kodak Vision3 5207 was introduced while we were beginning to prep this film. I shot a test, and decided that was the right film for daylight scenes. It is extremely fine grained and holds the subtlest details in highlights and shadows. The 250-speed film also gave us the latitude we needed to use a polarizing filter on the lens.

QUESTION: Why did you want to use a polarizing filter?
LEONETTI: It does two things that were important for this story. It helps to render very vivid and rich colors, including blue skies. It also deals with reflections on the surface of the water. Fly fishermen wear polarized glasses so they can see the fish swimming underwater. This has the same affect. We want to see a hint of piranha in the water.

QUESTION: Don't tell us that there are real piranhas in this film!
LEONETTI: The piranhas are computer-generated images composited in postproduction.

QUESTION: How hard is it to shoot when a subject isn't actually there?
LEONETTI: It's not difficult, especially with pre-visualization. My composition had to anticipate where the piranhas were going to be composited into the frame. The first time that I shot a film with a lot of CG images was The Mask.

QUESTION: How about the underwater cinematography?LEONETTI: Pete Zuccarini, a talented cinematographer and wonderful human being, did the underwater camera work in Super 35 format. We all agreed that underwater filming required different optics that would give us more depth of field. Pete used Cooke S4 lenses, which are very sharp. The audience accepts that the underwater scenes take place in a different world than the rest of the film.

QUESTION: What about interior scenes?
LEONETTI: There aren't a lot of interiors. Most interiors are inside a boat, which has a glass bottom. Elisabeth Shue plays the town's sheriff. Her kids are stuck on a boat that has run aground on a rock in a shallow part of the lake. There are also interior scenes in a bedroom of a house and in a pet shop that we built in a warehouse. Everything else was filmed as exterior practical locations - 80 percent of those were on the lake, on or under the water. We built the largest tank in North America in Havasu City.

QUESTION: What was your approach to lighting?
LEONETTI: We shot a lot of this film in available light. I used bounce light to create a fill when needed. I don't think you can do better than the big light in the sky, assuming that you can schedule to be at the right place at the right time. The one thing you can't control is nature. We had more cloudy days in July than during the previous 38 years. I was challenged by the clouds, which made sunlight unpredictable at best, but we managed to stay on a very demanding schedule and have a vivid and naturally beautiful film.

QUESTION: Are there night scenes?LEONETTI: There is just one night scene. It is the only time in the movie I used Kodak Vision3 5219 stock. The rest was 5207.

QUESTION: What are the plans for the DI?
LEONETTI: We are actually planning two separate DIs. We will be timing the film for 3-D distribution and also for traditional 2-D release in other theaters.

QUESTION: This is kind of a philosophical question. You have been on the inside of this industry, since you were 13 years old. How do you see it evolving?
LEONETTI: It's evolving in ways that I embrace, but there are also things that I'm concerned about. I have witnessed an evolution of technology that has helped the art of filmmaking. The new film that I used on this movie is a good example, and so is the way we used DI technology to create prints for release to cinemas in both 3-D and 2-D formats. What concerns me is when technology is promoted as a way to save money. It's not right, because it deceives and raises the expectations of people who worry about the bottom line, and causes problems for cinematographers, directors and everyone else who loves this industry. We have to remember that filmmaking is an art form as well as a business, and never compromise our ability to tell compelling stories. We have an obligation to those who preceded us and to those who will follow. Think about this. I mentioned earlier that when my father was a very young man some 70 years ago, he worked on the electrical crew for The Wizard of Oz. About 15 years later, he worked on Singin' in the Rain. With all of the new technology, has anyone recently made a better or more successful film than The Wizard of Oz or Singin' in the Rain?