ONFILM Interview: Mihai Malaimare Jr.

Published on website: January 02, 2013
Categories: ONFILM
Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Photo by Douglas Kirkland)

The goal of all cinematographers is to create images that will be printed forever in the audience’s mind. Everything you do and everything you see will come through in your approach. I use the meaning of a certain color, contrast, or diagonal in the frame to manipulate or channel the audience’s feelings. I might not be consciously thinking of these things, but it comes from somewhere inside me. I’m fascinated by still photography, and I love the various formats that have developed over the history of photography. When it comes to format, the more choices we have, the better. We chose to film The Master on 65 mm film with photochemical processing because the characteristics of the images echoed the iconic still photography of that period. The images are amazing.”

Mihai Malaimare, Jr. is a native of Romania who attended the National University of Theatre and Film in Bucharest. His work can be seen in promotional spots for Drake, Eminem and Nicki Manaj, and his feature credits include Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

A Conversation with Mihai Malaimare Jr.

I understand that you grew up in Bucharest, Romania, and that your father was an actor. Did that help lead you to cinematography?
Yes. My father has an interesting story because he started as a film actor, but he mainly wanted to do theater. He trained in pantomime in Paris. He has had his own theater company for 16 years, where he acts and directs. When I was about 15 years old he did a show that required 180 light changes. That was kind of my playground at the time. I’m sure a lot of my interest in cinematography comes from there. Around that time, he gave me a video camera, and as soon as I started playing with it, I knew what I wanted to do. He thought I was joking or fooling around, but then my passion got intense. He enrolled me in an afterschool program in still photography. I had a darkroom by the time I was 16, and I was training for the film school.

Talk about your film school experience at the National University of Theatre and Film in Bucharest.
The program is now three years, but when I did it, it was four. It’s an interesting system, the same as most other eastern European countries. It’s a combination of the French system and the Russian system, where there are a limited number of places, but everything is pretty much paid for. You need to pass exams in the history of art, and you must be able to analyze a painting. We shot a lot of black and white in the first two years, and processing at the school. We were shooting, and then running to the basement and waiting for the negatives to come out. All these things helped our education a lot, I think. We did six or seven short films in 16mm and 35mm. There is emphasis on composition, color and the history of painting, which is definitely very helpful.

Your short films won prizes, and after graduation, you worked as a commercial still photographer. You shot a feature film, and then were hired by Francis Ford Coppola to shoot Youth Without Youth, which brought you a best cinematography nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards. How did you connect with Coppola?
He came to Romania, and because there were so many parts for actors in his film, he decided to do 10 shooting days instead of regular casting sessions. And he decided to use a different DP for each day so he could choose one. Two of the other cinematographers were my teachers, so I thought there was no way I’d get the job. I was happy to shoot the test. Two months later, I got an email from Francis saying he’d like to work with me.

Are you conscious of bringing an eastern European sensibility to western films?
I think all the elements one brings are important. Everything you do, and everything you see, will come through in your approach. That’s not a bad thing. There are advantages and disadvantages. There are advantages to having seen all these old Italian or Russian movies. But then Francis introduced me to Michael Powell’s movies, and I was amazed. It was crazy that I had not seen them. You come with a certain amount of baggage, but there’s so much more you can discover.

When you’re working on the set, are you thinking of the emotional effect a shot or decision will have on the audience?
Yes, I try to think of everything. There's an amazing book called “Art and Visual Perception,” written by Rudolf Arnheim. Arnheim talks about the history of art and images, and the things you can do to manipulate or channel the audience’s feelings or reactions with the meaning of a certain color or contrast, or a certain diagonal. I might not be consciously thinking of these things, but it’s somewhere inside me. You’re also working with a certain set and a certain scene, so it’s finding a balance.

On The Master, with director Paul Thomas Anderson, you shot on 65mm film. What was the thought process that led to that decision?
There was a long prep and testing period to figure out the format and the aspect ratio. I’m in love with still photographs. In the story, Freddie works in a portrait studio, so there are still photography elements in the story. We looked at what kind of format was used in that period, after World War II. Paul had the idea to try a larger format, and it blended pretty well, because if you think of the most iconic still photography from that period, you think of really shallow depth of field. For example, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima was photographed on a Speed Graphic 4X5. So all your memories and references for that time are related to a large format negative. I loved that idea of trying a larger format than 35mm. I’ve done a lot of still photography on medium formats. We actually tested VistaVision, and it was interesting, but we had to struggle with it. We knew that Panavision had a bunch of the 65mm cameras, so that was the next test. And then, we went even further with the 65mm 8-perf, but for a variety of reason that wasn’t feasible. At first the plan was to use 65mm for the portraits, maybe about 20% of the movie. But every shot that came from the 65mm negative was so amazing. After a week or two of shooting, we switched and ended up shooting 85% of the movie on 65mm, and the rest on 35mm.

You made extensive use of KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203, with a photochemical finish, correct?
Paul is so in love with 50 daylight, and we shot almost everything on that and the 200 tungsten. The whole process was photochemical. Paul really believes in the photochemical process. It delivers better quality. If you scan a 65mm negative, it will give you at least 8K resolution for the DI, but that is definitely expensive. Maybe it’s a matter of respect for the format. It’s about the approach you take. If you know from the beginning that you don’t want to scan, you’re more careful with the lighting and everything. With a DI, you tend to be sloppier because you know you can fix and hide things later. By using the large, low speed negative, not using any filters in from of the lens, and using these very sharp lenses, you get extremely high image quality – and you don’t want to ruin that with a scanner.

Your work is very grounded in still photography, is it not?
Yes, partly because of my training in Romania. For some reason I bought a Crown Graphic 4X5 just a few months before meeting Paul. I do believe that things happen for a reason. We ended up using that camera in the movie and also for the portraits that we did for The Master. I did it in 4X5 black and white negative. A lot of times, when you have a certain type of training, you get this opportunity to use things that you already know. I try not to think too much about the opportunity because it's better to just relate to things you know and just go forward. I have 12 still cameras, and I’m shooting still photos everywhere, especially when I’m starting a new project. One reason I don’t have a really competitive digital still camera is the lack of format. I can shoot any format, including panoramic with Hasselblad two-frame 35mm. There are so many things you can do, and history has developed so many formats. I find that very interesting.

So the history of photography affects your thinking as well?
Yes. It’s interesting how things are evolving. Francis has a 1912 Pathé crank camera. One day we were fooling around in Napa and I asked him if I could try it. I was shooting landscapes in Napa Valley with a 1912 handcranked camera and VISION3 film stock. It looks so amazing. That camera is like the beginning of everything. I do believe that the more choices we have, the better.