Originally published as “This Ain’t no DV, This Ain’t no HD, This Ain’t no Fooling Around: A conversation with David Leitner about ‘The Technical Writer'” in the The New York Independent Film Monitor, Volume 8, No. 4 (January 2003).
The Technical Writer, directed by Scott Saunders, tells the story of an agoraphobic technical writer who lives in a basement apartment in New York City. The film strikes a balance between noteworthy technical achievement (shot and posted in Sony’s IMX MPEG-2 Digital Format) and compelling visual aesthetics. I recently had a conversation with David Leitner, who played a unique triple role as Cinematographer, Producer, and Technologist.
Tamés: The Technical Writer straddles a painterly quality and a documentary quality. On the surface there’s a lot of existing-light cinematography, but there’s clearly more to it.
Leitner: I’m using tiny amounts of light, but if you really look at what is going on, the colors are artificial. In my mind I was going after a Lucian Freud look, with fallow, morbid colors. Lucian Freud is a British painter and a grandson of Sigmund Freud. His paintings are often large nudes or portraits, and the color tones in the skin are morbid, greens and greys and flat sienna colors. The work has a sense of morbid human flesh and a lot of it.
Tamés: How does this fit with the film?
Leitner: The technical writer in the film is a man who lives in a basement Manhattan apartment and he’s agoraphobic. He has a fallow, drained complexion, and I wanted to convey that aspect of him. He spends most of his time in front of a computer screen. I wanted that computer screen to be the key light in many cases. That you could say is naturalism. For instance, if the camera was pointed at the face, you did not see what was on the screen. We would display color fields [on the LCD computer monitor] to give you the impression he was looking at different web sites going from a blue to a red, and then a second later to a green, but it does not feel unreal, it does not feel non-naturalistic. It may be a little over-the-top, and this is a tension I like to play with a lot.
Tamés: Yes, the lighting is natural and yet it’s not.
Leitner: In some of our scenes, if you walked onto the set you would be looking for the light switch, but they were lit already. If you look at a lot of the lighting I do it looks natural, but if you look a little closer, I’m fooling around with things. And I can’t explain it. I just know when I do it and if I like it. If you look carefully at the film there are a lot of unmotivated primary color light sources, but what are we talking about here is using tiny lights. My biggest colored light was a 30 Watt mushroom bulb, they are so tiny you don’t realize they are in the scene but I often place my light sources in the scene.
Tamés: Your work as a cinematographer on this and other films reminds me of Nestor Almendros. I remember reading a story he wrote in A Man with a Camera about shooting Days of Heaven in which the gaffer would set up the large carbon arcs lights every day and Nestor would ask him to turn them off. Almendros shot some comparisons with and without the arcs in order to show his gaffer the difference, however, the gaffer never came to the screenings of the dailies.
Leitner: He came from a documentary tradition. He was a maverick, as well, and that we share in common. If you can shoot at light levels that are comfortable and normal, in other words, not artificially boosted, do you shoot in a stylized way [pick and choose from the past] or do you shoot in a naturalistic direction as many people with a documentary background would be inclined to do?
Tamés: There seem to be more and more films being shot this way, and I don’t think it’s just about budgets.
Leitner: This is actually a bit of a revolution in cinematography. If you look at still photography, particularly the great documentary photographers, they used no lighting at all. So why in that very related field use of natural light is celebrated in terms of results but not in our field? It’s because we have been using these mechanical devices that required a great deal of additional lighting. Light levels had to be higher in terms of luminance to create a useful exposure. Today we have reached a point where technically the huge amounts of artificial light are no longer necessary.
Tamés: What inspired the time-lapse photography in the film?
Leitner: Back in ‘76 I attended a Warner Brothers summer student workshop and we shot in New York. We got on the Circle Line with some Super-8 sound cameras from Boston and we went around Manhattan… so in these movies you’re flying around Manhattan and the bridges are wizzing over your head, I’ve never forgotten that experience. In a personal way, shooting the time-lapse in The Technical Writer was my homage to that.
Filmmakers doing time-lapse in the past had to take the film to the lab and wait to find out if the exposure was right, if there was a hair in the gate, etc. The MSW-900P has an optional picture cache board that makes it the first true time-lapse video camera. What I can do with the 900P camera is phenomenal: I can shoot for five minutes and see my results a minute later, squeezed to 10 seconds. It gives me ideas, the ability to adjust things which allows me to evolve all sorts of techniques, some of which are in the film.
Tamés: You’ve been talking about advantages in production, but what does this new IMX digital 1/2″ tape format [MPEG-2, 50Mbps, 4:2:2, I-frame, 3:3:1 nearly-lossless compression], with double the bit rate and color resolution of miniDV look like when you screen it?
Leitner: I have to tell you the MPEG looks terrific. We were able to do screenings on a large plasma display with playback from a PAL miniDV player and this retains the clarity of digital reproduction.
Tamés: So, with all these tools it’s easier than ever to make a film that rivals bigger budget productions shot on film?
Leitner: It’s quite the opposite, it’s more complex today that it has ever been. I look back with nostalgia to the days when you just had to hold up a light meter and read a single reading to get a light level. You were not thinking about color space issues, detail circuitry… Back then the cinematographer was the only person who knew what the image was going to look like. They were magicians and as such they knew something that no one else knew, and there was a lot of mystique attached to that person.
Tamés: So, how has the cinematographer’s role changed?
Leitner: Today you are working with large monitors, usually high def monitors. Everybody looks at it, hair looks at it, make-up looks at it, gaffers look at it, the director looks at it. If it works well, then it creates a kind of true communal creative activity. My gaffer, Sam Wells (an experimental filmmaker) came up with a good metaphor: it’s very much like mural painting where someone draws the original cartoon and then all kinds of painters fill in the colors at once.
Tamés: Does this make for a better mural?
Leitner: When it does not work, you have all kinds of people that are looking at the monitor thinking they can do it better. What it has done has fundamentally altered the dynamic of the film set. When only the cinematographer knew what the image was going to look like, there was a whole lot of fear and uncertainty on the film set. For instance, to be a first assistant cameraperson you were pulling focus all of the time but you did not know till the dailies were printed how much of it you had ruined. Many camera assistants have become alcoholics and there is a reason for that.
Today, when you are working with these large displays on the set you can see instantly and it lowers the fear and anxiety quotient and sets are a lot calmer. Now again, some people will think this is great and some people will think it’s terrible for the art, but what is undeniable is the change that is taking place.
And it has another profound implication, people, are basing lighting decisions and cinematography decisions on what they are seeing on these monitors. Now if you accept the fact that no two monitors are exactly alike in terms of the way they are set up, their display is rarely a fixed thing. And the monitor is sitting in different lighting conditions, outside, indoors. The monitor and the color saturation look completely different in different ambient light conditions.
Tamés: Given that you can’t expect to make serious lighting decisions with a monitor this sounds like a problem.
Leitner: Lighting decisions are being made based on this, and you can say they should not be, you can say this till you are blue in the face, but people are going to do what people are going to do. As this practice becomes common that is what the filmmakers expect to see on the big screen, whether it’s film projection or video projection. On the other hand, no two images will ever, and can never, match, and yet, that is what some filmmakers expect.
Tamés: You shot almost all of the film with the new Zeiss DigiPrimes. Why did you choose to work with these lenses?
Leitner: For a number of reasons, first, I needed the apertures that only primes can deliver, second, prime lenses not only provide clearer images, they are considerably smaller. The director had done a previous film with a Betacam but his orientation was miniDV. In fact, he originally intended to shoot The Technical Writer in miniDV, so he wanted a very lightweight camera. As it turned out, the IMX camcorder (before you add camera and lenses) weighs in about 8 pounds, it’s reasonably light.
Tamés:So much of the film was hand-held?
Leitner: Yes, I would not have done that with a giant lens. I shot some of the pick-up shots with the Fujinon 6-30mm, that lens was way bigger than the camera! I wanted to keep the camera profile small. I used clip-on matte boxes, sometimes I just ripped the matte box off. I had this smallish camera, I got the best possible image quality, under the lowest lighting conditions, which meant I reproduced images full of subtlety.
Tamés: Could you have shot the film any other way?
Leitner: No. I took the technology I had assembled [Sony’s MSW-900P MPEG IMX camcorder, Zeiss’ DigiPrimes, DuArt’s ArriLaser Film Recorder, etc.]. No one had ever put these lenses on this camera, no one had used this camera to shoot a feature. I put them together with the expressed purpose of shooting in this style and getting this result. I knew what was possible, and it all panned out.