By Michael Coate
From shooting films on a shoe-string budget, to the “is it really HD?” look of “Jackpot,” to the panoramic images of “Northfork,” M. David Mullen, ASC is one of the rising stars in the world of cinematography. He was nominated for IFP Independent Spirit awards in 2000 for “Twin Falls Idaho” and in 2004 for “Northfork.” Several films shot by Mullen are in post-production and should soon see a theatrical release, including “Shadowboxer,” starring Hellen Mirren and Cuba Gooding, Jr., and “D.E.B.S.,” starring Michael Clarke Duncan.
Mullen, 42, is a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and recently joined the illustrious American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). In December 2004, From Script To DVD met up with David for lunch at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles. Here, David discussed his joining the ASC, his influences, and offered some candid and insightful comments on the art and craft of cinematography.
Michael Coate, From Script To DVD:
You've recently been invited to join the American Society of
Cinematographers. What does becoming a member of the ASC mean to you?
M. David Mullen, ASC: It was a great professional honor to be asked to join the ASC – it was a long-term goal of mine and I'm just really excited that it happened at this point in my career. I had thought, with luck, it would happen years from now.
FSTD: How does a cinematographer become a member of the ASC?
Mullen: Joining the ASC is by invitation only. Basically, three ASC members wrote letters of recommendation for me and then I got called into an interview with the ASC membership committee. If the committee approves someone, and then the board of governors does, the nominee’s name is posted to the general membership who, I think, has thirty days to object. If a member objects and states the reasons, then the case is re-reviewed.
FSTD: What does the ASC committee look for?
Mullen: The quality of the work is very important to the ASC in terms of who they let in, but it's not just whether they think you're a good cinematographer. They're looking for people who are interested in cinematography not just as a career but as a vocation – someone who is willing to teach cinematography, speak about it, write about it, be in forums, serve on committees and go to panel discussions… to be active in the community.
FSTD: What do you think the letters “ASC” (or similar letters from other countries' cinematography societies) following a cinematographer's name in a film's credits mean to an audience?
Mullen: I don't know if the average audience member has any idea what the letters mean… but a more sophisticated viewer might notice that many great-looking films have been photographed by someone with those three letters following their name. They hopefully will expect the work to be of a high artistic standard.
FSTD: When did you become interested in the film business and cinematography in particular?
Mullen: I had a long path toward cinematography. I was interested in filmmaking since high school and started making Super-8 films back then. Although I ended up getting a BFA in English Literature at UCLA, I had friends who got into the USC film school and I helped on their films, secretly shooting some of them. After graduation, I continued to make my own Super-8 and then 16mm short films. It wasn't until I was 27 that I decided to get a graduate degree in filmmaking; when I arrived at CalArts in 1988, I was the only incoming student with a strong cinematography background. By coincidence, one of our first required courses involved making a short film in Super-8. Having a decade’s worth of experience in that format, the photography and lighting in my own project so impressed the other students that I started getting requests to shoot graduate thesis projects for others. I quickly transitioned from being a general filmmaker to specifically being a cinematographer in film school.
FSTD: How did you train to become a cinematographer?
Mullen: I am what they call an autodidact. I spent many years seeing movies and reading every book I could find on filmmaking. I was (and still am) a big fan of American Cinematographer Magazine. When I was at UCLA as an undergrad student, I used to spend hours in the library reading back issues, all the way back to the 1920s. I've read every issue and re-read some several times, like from the 1970s, my favorite decade for that magazine. So, really, a lot of my training was from that, from reading various books, and from seeing movies and then making my own short films.
FSTD: What is a good definition of “cinematographer”?
Mullen: John Hora, ASC wrote one for the ASC Manual that states that cinematography is the art and craft of the authorship of visual images for the cinema. Any processes that may affect these images are the direct responsibility of the cinematographer. It goes beyond just photography; we are responsible for the overall photographic quality of the image and how it's used to tell the story. We work with the director and the other department heads to achieve that quality. From a production standpoint, we have three departments under our control: Camera, Electric, and Grip. Technically, “cinematography” means motion picture photography. I'm not one of those people who thinks that if you shoot digitally, it is not cinematography, it's videography. We use the word “film” to describe movies in general regardless of their origination medium.
FSTD: Which films and/or filmmakers have influenced you?
Mullen: My taste in movies is pretty expansive. I was really into science-fiction movies and books as a child. I watched a lot of “Star Trek” [1966-69] re-runs growing up. This led me to see "2001: A Space Odyssey"  which was probably my first major cinematic influence. That and “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” , which came out when I was fifteen. By the end of high school, "Alien"  was released, another favorite. So a lot of my early influences were from watching science-fiction films. Then I saw “Kagemusha”  in the theatre and discovered foreign films, especially those by Kurosawa, one of my all-time favorite directors. Next came classic movies by Hitchcock, Ford, and Lean when I was in college.
And because of “2001” and “Alien,” my first cinematography influences were mostly British, other than Vilmos Zsigmond’s work in “Close Encounters.” The first cinematographer's name I learned was Geoffrey Unsworth because I saw “Superman”  and the film is dedicated to him right at the beginning. As a teenager I wanted to know who that guy was. I was impressed the film had been dedicated to him and I loved the photography of “Superman” – that whole fog-filtered, flaring, pastel look, which you also see a little bit of in “Close Encounters.” And watching Kubrick's films led me to other DPs: John Alcott, who with Unsworth shot “2001.” I was then interested in David Watkin and Ozzie Morris. I got into “Lawrence Of Arabia”  big time… really loved Freddie Young's work. And then studying classic American films got me interested in a lot of American cinematographers: Gregg Toland, James Wong Howe, George Barnes, Arthur Miller….
When I was in college in the early 1980s, Vittorio Storaro was becoming famous as a cinematographer. I saw “Apocalypse Now”  and then “Reds” . I also saw his earlier films like “The Conformist” , “Last Tango In Paris” , and "1900" . And I became a big, big Storaro fan. I'd say in some ways he's still the biggest influence on me. And all of the people influenced by Storaro have also influenced me as well, like Darius Khondji. I love his work and it seems clear that he's somewhat of a Storaro disciple.
FSTD: Many cinematographers have a clear style or approach, such as Storaro’s theory on the use of color and how an audience might psychologically interpret the material. Do you have a similar or special approach?
Mullen: Storaro is someone who is good at formalizing or intellectualizing cinematography, where you take the story and break it down into a visual approach that will enhance that story, telling it as a series of images using color, light, shadow, movement, and composition. You look at “Apocalypse Now” and how he approached that, visually representing the conflict between North Vietnam and the U.S. as the conflict between natural and artificial energies. The scenes with the Vietnamese and Kurtz are bathed in natural daylight and firelight by night, while the American army uses harsh electric searchlights that pierce the darkness, an intrusion on the natural world. That visual conflict serves to back-up the story conflicts. So I think Storaro is very good for film students to study because his work is grounded in a strong interpretation of the story and he finds a visual approach that coincides with the story.
Personally, I do not use the same plan film after film. I break the story down into visual elements but I don't usually use the same visual tricks or style to tell that story. I'm much more of a mixed bag, you know. I like old classic films, I like black-and-white films, I love Technicolor movies; so I'll play with color saturation or diffusion depending on what I think is the right approach for that film. There are some DPs that use the same Cooke lenses and the same filters and the same cameras and the same film stocks. I don’t want to impose one style on everything, but would rather find a new set of aesthetics for each film and then try to find an assortment of tools that will accomplish the visual approach chosen.
FSTD: What impact does choice of film format or aspect ratio have on an audience?
Mullen: I believe the devil is in the details, as they say. A film has to start out with a strong story and it has to be supported by good acting. But if you have those elements, then how you direct it, shoot it, art direct it, cut it, compose the music, can enhance that story or tell it better. You know, “Hamlet” is a great story, but that doesn't mean a two-year-old can direct “Hamlet” just because it's a good story. You have to have the skill of a storyteller to make a good production of "Hamlet." So I think cinematography is one element of the storytelling process that will enhance the experience for the audience. And the audience doesn't necessarily have to be aware of this stuff. An average person doesn't know how to build a house and doesn't know anything about architecture… but certainly he wants to live in a house that is well-built. He hires experts to deal with that stuff. I think the audience expects the filmmakers to be the experts in filmmaking, that the filmmakers are the ones that know about film stocks and lenses and formats so they don't have to. They just have to enjoy the movie.
FSTD: Why do so many people – especially on the Internet – like to second-guess the selection of aspect ratios and film formats? Does the selection matter?
Mullen: Of course the selection matters, but it's not like there's one right selection and ten bad selections. It's just that with whatever format you choose, hopefully there’s an artistic reason to use it and that the format serves your production in an efficient manner. There are a lot of decisions – budget, technical, and artistic – that go behind these choices. Of course, people like to second-guess what cinematographers are up to. I bet in the 1950s, with the explosion of film formats and amateur filmmaking clubs, there were techno-geeks back then who probably argued the merits of VistaVision versus Super Panavision, so I don't know if things are necessarily different now.
FSTD: Should studios make two DVD versions – a widescreen and a pan-and-scan – available for the same title? Should consumers have a choice?
Mullen: I don't think so. I really don't believe in the notion of consumer choice when it comes to artistic issues. That's like asking if Van Gogh should have painted a painting in one set of colors and also done it in ten other colors just for people who like those alternate colors. Art is not a democracy. Everyone doesn't get to vote on plot points and who lives or dies in the story or any of that stuff… so why should they vote on what color shirt the actress is wearing or how wide the frame is??? Those are decisions made by the artist, and how can you judge their film as a work of art if you are not seeing the choices they made? I'm very much a believer in a single aspect ratio for all presentation formats: the aspect ratio that it was composed for. It's not a question of the aspect ratio of the negative or anything. It is simply, “what is the intent?” What was the primary frame that all the filmmaking work went into? I believe that it should be the filmmaker's best shot that he gets to put out to the audience for them to judge him on.
FSTD: What do you say to the consumer who states a preference for a so-called fullscreen presentation and a dislike for letterbox presentations?
Mullen: After you've explained the artistic reasons for showing a film in the format it was composed to be shown in, if they still don't buy it… well, then it's their problem. Again, I don't think art is a democracy. However, if enough consumers demand something then it happens because there's money to be made. So I don't think we're ever going to see a point where there's just one aspect ratio for each movie. I think we'll always have a mixture of formats that a movie is released in because it is the nature of the market, and I'm realistic about that. I make pan-and-scan versions of my 2.35:1 movies; I supervise them because I know they have to be done. It's not like I could refuse, but it's not a preferable situation. I would prefer it wouldn't happen.
There are certain gray areas. There are directors (like Kubrick) who for artistic reasons like to release their films in a different aspect ratio for television than for theatrical. There are films where you're not even sure what’s “intended” – like television shows that were shot simultaneously for 16:9 and 4:3. It's not always completely clear as to which aspect ratio they favored when they composed it. So there are always going to be exceptions.
FSTD: With 16:9 becoming the TV format of the future, would it be beneficial to do away with multiple aspect ratios? Would it not make sense to shoot all productions in 16:9 (1.78:1) to eliminate incompatibility?
Mullen: That's not a bad idea except that the nature of artists is that they like to distinguish themselves from other artists. So the advantage of having two theatrical release formats right now – 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 – is that you have an artistic choice. And I think filmmakers like having those choices so they can be distinct from the other guy choosing the opposite. It has sort of evolved accidentally. I'd almost prefer it if instead of 1.85:1, we had 1.66:1 so that there was even a more radical artistic distinction between anamorphic and non-anamorphic widescreen. Still, I understand why Storaro, for example, is pushing for a 2.00:1 aspect ratio for everything. But I just think it is the nature of artists to be deliberately contrary. You give him an option, he'll take it. I think having two aspect ratios for theatrical is not a bad one. It would be nice to have at least one of them match television. The 1.78:1 and 1.85:1 ratios are so close that you could almost say that they are the same, but to solidify that, it would be nice just to settle on one or the other.
FSTD: There's been an increase in 2.35:1 (aka 2.39:1 and 2.40:1) "scope" releases in the last decade. What is unique and desirable about CinemaScope-style formats?
Mullen: Well, scope is a unique case in that in most theatres, scope is a bigger picture horizontally than a 1.85:1 image… whereas on all televisions, letterboxed scope is a shorter image than a 1.85:1 image. So it is still a different viewing experience unless you have a projection system at home where you can adjust the size of image on the screen so a scope image can be wider. So I definitely think there's a different experience with scope.
There are two aspects to scope compositions. One is when you're using the breadth and size of the image to increase the visceral, immersive, three-dimensional quality. It's the wide-angle Cinerama effect where you feel you're more IN the image rather than looking AT the image. The other aspect is the two-dimensional effect where you're using the width of the format to create unusual compositional effects like imbalanced framing, someone offset far to one side. You really feel that imbalance with the 2.35:1 frame; you can deviate farther from the classical balance of picture elements that you would have in the 1.85:1 frame, which is closer to the “golden rectangle” of painting. The 2.35:1 frame is more like modern art… it allows you to use negative space and other elements more graphically. Telephoto lenses can help this effect, but it also has the opposite effect of the immersive 3D quality of wide-angle scope photography. In fact, most films alternate constantly between seeming immersive and looking flat.
I think one of the reasons for the increase in scope prints for theatrical releases was the arrival of laserdiscs and then DVDs. Filmmakers finally had the option of putting out a letterbox version of their movies for home video. Now there was less of a feeling of “I'm making this movie in widescreen but no one will ever see it that way after the theatrical run.” Now at least the people who care will see it widescreen on TV. So I think some filmmakers felt emboldened by having the option of a letterboxed video release to shoot their movie in widescreen. Super-35 also gave them the fallback position that they could create a decent pan-and-scan version for home video, plus it is more convenient to shoot in a lot of ways than anamorphic.
FSTD: What is the difference between anamorphic and Super-35?
Mullen: The biggest difference is that anamorphic uses a larger negative area so you have more detail in the frame and less grain. The grain problem with Super-35 blow-ups has recently been improved by a combination of new finer-grained film stocks and digital intermediates, which can avoid the graininess of an optical printer blow-up. So the objection to Super-35 has become less strenuous in the past two years. Still, it has less overall information in the frame than anamorphic photography and this is apparent when shooting wide shots outdoors. The trouble with anamorphic is that it may capture more fine detail with less grain, but if you’re doing night photography and most of the frame is out of focus because you don't have enough depth of field, then are you really gaining much from the increased information of the anamorphic negative? But doing an exterior movie like a desert film or a western, anamorphic is still superior for just the amount of fine detail you can resolve in the image.
FSTD: In what way has television influenced cinematography?
Mullen: Television has been having an effect on the way movies have looked for a long time, even going back to the 1950s with the widescreen revolution. Some people said that was a reaction to television. We've had the influence of music videos and commercials and those directors coming into theatrical filmmaking and changing the style of movies, the style of lighting. We've had an increase in the use of close-ups, and I don't know whether that is just because of television, editing on small computer screens, or watching on the set using small videotap monitors and therefore zooming in tighter because you can't sense a performance on a medium shot. I'm sure that's one aspect to why movies are framed tighter than they used to be. But it's also just a stylistic evolution. To feel like you're having more impact emotionally, people take any style and exaggerate it. The framing gets tighter, the editing gets faster. There are visceral ways of pumping up a movie to make it seem more exciting than a film of a previous generation. The trouble is it is a dead-end because if you overuse a close-up or camera movement, then it has no emotional weight when you finally do use it for a specific emotional effect. If everything is shot in close-up, the only emotional impact you're going to have is either by going to an extreme close up or to an extreme long shot. Nowadays we use wide shots for emotional punctuation in a scene instead of a close-up. We go to some dramatic distant shot or something to create some emotional change.
FSTD: Can you comment on the recent increase in the use of digital and high-definition video for image capture?
Mullen: The biggest changeover to high-definition capture has been with shooting sitcoms for TV; very few dramatic TV shows are shot in HD and very few features are. It's happened more rapidly in the low-budget feature realm than with studio productions. In the independent film world there's a lot more digital filmmaking in general from low-end DV to high-end HD. A lot of the 24P HD movies I've shot can be broken into two categories: one where they were originally going to shoot in DV but we upped everything to HD; or one where we were going to shoot in 35mm but we went down to HD. So, HD is either a poor man's 35mm or a rich man's digital video.
And productions have varied on how they've used HD. Some use it as a video format and others use it as a film format stylistically and aesthetically. On a technical level, HD is slightly inferior to 35mm in almost every visual category you can name. It has less color information, less resolution, less exposure latitude, fewer frame rate options and fewer range of camera types from small to large to high speed. The main advantage it has is that it doesn't have film grain. It has noise, which is somewhat similar, but if you're shooting at 0 dB, the noise level is fairly minimal with HD. However, you can make a very good-looking HD movie partly because the quality is just high enough that if you don't have anything to compare it to during the course of a movie, you can’t tell that it is sub-35mm. And if you light it well, compose it well, and do good post-production and color-correction, you can come up with very attractive images that seem to have enough resolution. It's not much lower than 2K resolution, and that has been the resolution of a lot of digital intermediate work recently. So it is acceptable quality and a compromise, but I'd hate for it to become standardized. If we're really thinking of digital cinematography replacing 35mm, then we need to have a 4K standard, with full uncompressed color – and it all has to be affordable. That's still years away.
FSTD: With “Jackpot” (2001), was it your intent to beat George Lucas to market with the first “HD-to-scope” production?
Mullen: No, that just happened.
FSTD: What are your thoughts on the state of digital projection in theatres?
Mullen: I think digital projection trades some problems of print projection for a whole new set of problems… so to me it is a lateral move than an improvement. You gain in steadiness and consistency but you lose resolution, you get digital artifacts, and you have some color problems. I certainly think the current DLP-Cinema technology is probably adequate for small to medium-sized theatres assuming you can live with some of the compression problems and color space issues – but resolution-wise, it is adequate. But I really think for a mainstream theatre, especially the new stadium-style theatres, we really need to move up to 2K digital projection if we really want to compete with 35mm. And that's just addressing resolution, not the compression and color problems.
FSTD: Which films from 2004 do you think had impressive cinematography?
Mullen: I love classic movies so “The Aviator” and “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow” impressed me with their visual references to older movie styles. I also loved the widescreen landscape work and the period interior lighting by Shelly Johnson, ASC for “Hidalgo.” And “A Very Long Engagement” was simply gorgeous.
FSTD: It is often said that filmmaking is a collaborative art. Do you prefer working with new people on each project?
Mullen: I like working with people I've worked with before because a certain amount of stress is taken away because you're not dealing with getting to know new people and learning their quirks and dislikes and their personality. I think I do better work when I work with people I've worked with before. I don't need to prove anything to them; I can explore my cinematography and take it to another level. I think when I work with strangers my tendency would be to do something I know I can do well. I'm less prone to take risks. I think you can take more risks when you're working with friends because they'll forgive you if you make a mistake.
M. David Mullen's Feature Film Director Of Photography Credits
Jennifer's Body (2009)
Big Love (2007)
Akeelah And The Bee (2006)
The Quiet (2005)
When Do We Eat? (2005)
Out For Blood (2004)
A Foreign Affair (2003)
New Suit (2003)
Tom’s Nu Heaven (2003)
Alone With A Stranger (2000)
Devil In The Flesh 2 (2000)
The Perfect Tenent (2000)
The Clean & Narrow (1999)
Twin Falls Idaho (1999)
Night Caller (1998)
The Tomorrow Man (1998)
The Fiance (1997)
Daddy’s Girl (1996)
The Last Big Thing (1996)
Dead Cold (1995)
Lipstick Camera (1994)
The River Bottom (1994)