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The Cinematography of “Facing Icons”

 © 2017 Charles Templeton

Cinematographer Ian Kerr stares blankly at the drab, grey, fluorescent-lit warehouse that is the location for a major interview with two DEA agents.  He and the crew then begin to empty a corner of the space, carefully arranging the sole pieces of set decoration: a steel desk and chair that Line Producer Rod Bellamy has liberated from an office down the street.  Attaching a deep magenta gel to a single overhead lamp, Ian then creates a zone bathed in a garish pink hue. 

DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Peña enjoying the effects of pink lighting.

DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Peña enjoying the effects of pink lighting.

The two puzzled DEA agents sit under the pink glow and their skin turns the colour of wild pacific sockeye salmon.  With a flourish, Kerr rotates the video monitor and reveals the effect: by “cheating” the camera’s sensor to see the pink light as “white”, the rest of the dull room has been transformed into a moody, greenish lair.  The agent’s skin-tones remain natural while the background, lit with the in-house fluorescents, has taken on the dramatic hue.

Ian takes a mental note that he will buy John Houtman a beer for teaching him this trick in the 90s during the height of the post-Matrix “Green” era.  Looking through the viewfinder, the simple table and chair suggests an interrogation room- a perfect location for the two hardened agents to tell their stories of hunting Pablo Escobar. 

“Elevate the interview” was the mission that series creator and show-runner Derik Murray assigned to Ian at the launch of Facing.  The seven-part National Geographic series executive produced by Murray, Paul Gertz, Kent Wingerak and Michael Miller and Kevin Mohs would take Kerr and crew through six countries over an exhausting five months. Vladimir Putin, Pablo Escobar and Suge Knight were among the global icons whose stories were told through interviews with people closest to them. 

Derik’s background as a commercial stills photographer and director has created the “Network Entertainment Look”, a high-end, demanding style that has caught the eyes of studio executives.  For this series, Murray wanted to refine this look with Ian, elevating the show from a “talking-head” piece to a level that a studio executive later called “The best looking interviews ever aired”.

Kerr and Murray could be next be found at a Vancouver mansion accompanied by an actor, a crew of six and a ludicrous amount of equipment.  They shot of a full day, tuning the look and developing the visual dynamic for the entire series.   A range of lighting fixtures and methods were tested in a “real-world” scenario, eventually reducing the pile of gear to a tight shooting kit of twelve air-shippable bags.

Putin critic and billionaire Bill Browder in London.

Putin critic and billionaire Bill Browder in London.

To reflect the dark, complex and conflicting personal histories, Ian developed techniques that alternatively exposed and masked the show’s characters.  Specialized bellowed swing/tilt lens sets, generally used for perspective control by architectural photographers were used for 80% of the film.  Kerr also often moved lighting fixtures while rolling, shifting the patterns of light and shadow, alternatively revealing and concealing characters.

Crucial to the success of the series was Derik’s early directive to pursue dramatic, designed settings for each character. This decision proved costly financially and in lost sleeping hours, but it transformed the interview backgrounds from generic spaces into powerful, silent characters that informed and elevated each stories. 

After receiving a background essay on an interviewee, the production team of Rod Bellamy, Joe Tuck, Nicole McKay and Tanner Zurkowski hunted spaces that met specific technical and artistic needs. Kerr designed a worksheet that local location scouts, armed with calibrated smart-phones, used to document potential interview settings. The rich library of data often allowed Ian to plan his lighting and design approaches in advance. 

Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko in a  wonderfully quiet presidential palace in Kiev.

Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko in a  wonderfully quiet presidential palace in Kiev.

Challenges on location were many. During the shooting of "Facing Putin", Ian spent an increasingly tense day in Kiev discarding locations due to ever-present city traffic noise.

Finally, a beautiful quiet location was found, protected from both street traffic and foreign film crews by a heavily armed Ukrainian Army unit. The palace, deep inside the capital’s security perimeter required considerable negotiating to secure but was aided by the fact we were interviewing a former president. 

Later, a literal blank wall stared at the crew. The large, concrete slab in rural Washington state was presented as the backdrop for former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Darkening the area and carefully edge-lighting the subtle textures of the wall transformed the space into a bunker-like space suitable for Dr. Gates’ tales of espionage. 

Another uninspiring wall in NYC challenged a tight profile shot. Ian built a panel of mirrors in front of the wall, reflecting a slice of the rich background from the frontal shot that was 90 degrees distant; into the profile camera.  The two shots shared a perfectly complementary background without adding a light.  

Some of Ian’s techniques relied on more mundane materials. While shooting an interview with Nadya Tolokno of Pussy Riot he wanted to create a horizontal steak from a spotlight to emphasizing the glamour of the setting and our subject. Kerr applied a thumbprint to the top of the lens and smeared it vertically, creating a faux anamorphic flare so beloved by hip producers and J.J. Abrams. 

Ian's "Thumb-Print Flare Filter" is applied over this frame from Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova's interview.

Ian's "Thumb-Print Flare Filter" is applied over this frame from Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova's interview.

Ian was dismayed when we met our subject, Escobar’s chief hitman, Jhon "Popeye" Velasquez, in a beautifully decorated, light-filled villa.  It was decidedly not the look planned for an infamous assassin.

In addition to the lighting problem, many of the crew’s own bodyguards were former Columbian police officers who had fought a brutal war against the Medellin Cartel and Popeye’s troops.  Eager to put these thoughts aside, the crew persuaded the bodyguards to form an impromptu grip team and stretched black fabric across every window and white surface creating a dark, brooding space out of the friendly home.

The sole light to fall on Popeye’s face was placed outside the house and passed through a window and several carefully cut pieces of a laundry-soap box, placing a sliver of light on his shadowed face.  The rest of the room receded into dark tones and Popeye began his fascinating and terrifying story.  The bodyguards sat nearby, captivated by the tale and many posed with him later for photos.

The show’s punishing schedule left the crew feeling as beaten as their ragged travel documents.  “I’ve never seen this many stamps on a carnet” said one customs official as the crew slumped away to another hotel.

Deploying a strategy of charm and concealment, the camera team carried three heavy camera packages onboard in a combination of roller-bags, courier bags and stuffed pockets.  Twelve additional checked cases contained the remaining kit, delicate lenses gently cradled by rolls of clothing and personal toiletries. 

As a nod to his creative cinematography, or perhaps to his thriftiness under duress, Ian was made co-producer by Murray midway through production.  Since the series aired, Kerr was nominated for a Emmy for his work on Facing and is now wrapping up a film for AMC.

Ian Kerr