The Culture Trip: April Newsletter


 

A regular round-up of the latest talks, films,
music, books, interviews and cultural news.

 
 
“The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger, tastier.” This is an excerpt from Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow*. I’ve been reading it these days (I also recommend Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind* by the same author). It is a clear-sighted and though-provoking view, related to things we already know and things that are already happening to us, of where mankind is headed, and here is the thing. We can take this time of sheltering in place to slow down, reflect, reevaluate our lives, better ourselves and come out of this connected with ourselves and others in more meaningful ways. Or we can learn nothing and go back to old habits (to whatever extent that will be possible anymore).

Here are a few things I hope many of us will learn. That maybe we will stop looking for role models on Instagram, but in books, magazines, and old movies, which has always been my philosophy. That freedom is wealth. That knowledge is wealth. That health is wealth. That we have a life that does not involve work. That we must work smarter not harder. That more and more travel does not necessarily make you wiser (are the ones whose every trip was a status symbol shared on social media and who now post from their travels past really learning anything? Why can’t we learn from professional photographers who are starting to become even more creative while indoors?). That we must support our local communities and small businesses. That we remain true to our values, not follow the Jones’. That more is not better. That we will listen to ourselves more and to the noise around us less. That we will rediscover or discover our ability to know what is ours, our sense of identity. That we finally appreciate and care for nature. That we appreciate what we have. That everything is not about having, but about being.

“I understood that the most beautiful, dangerous, adventurous and gratifying journeys of all is the one inside yourself, whether you’re sitting in the living room or under a canopy here in Budelli. That’s why staying at home and doing nothing can be really hard for many.” The words of Mauro Morandi, the Italian who, for 31 years, has found serenity in solitude as the sole inhabitant of a beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea, capture so well the current mindset.

From all the small businesses we can support at the moment, the independent bookstores are a top priority. If you don’t have a local bookshop this is mine you can support, here is how to find one. And this is how bookstores step up to keep their activity going while keeping their doors closed.

Below, a few books worth your attention (besides Sapiens and Homo Deus).

The Lacuna*, by Barbara Kingsolver, which follows a man through his life weaving in and out of the life of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, is one of the best book recommendations I have received lately.

Akikomatic: The Art of Akiko Stehrenberger* compiles the work of one of the most talented contemporary film poster designers and illustrators. My recent interview with the artist also offers an insight into her work.

For the kids: a few great under-the-radar children’s books to trigger their imagination and curiosity and their sense of exploration while we stay at home.

The solitude specials from one of my favourite podcasts, Terra Incognita. Adventurers, travellers and explorers are sharing how they are coping in challenging environments, how they are channeling their energy towards things within their control and how they’re enjoying this time to learn, do and make new things.

One of my favourite film poster illustrators, Midnight Marauder (the other one is Tony Stella), shares the fascinating process behind designing the poster for A Hidden Life (in collaboration with Tony Stella) aka Radegund, directed by Terrence Malick.

For your consideration: Yuval Noah Harari, the writer of the aforementioned Sapiens and Homo Deus, shares his pertinent opinion about the world after this crisis.

In need of a good laugh? Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, season 10, is out now and currently running on HBO.

“Music beats everything.” The trailer teaser for Damien Chazelle’s Paris-set musical miniseries The Eddy is here. It is written by Jack Thorne, with original music written by Glen Ballard and Randy Kerber. The series consists of eight episodes and will be released on Netflix on May 8. Now I want to rewatch both Damien Chazelle’s and Jacques Demy’s movies.

Filmmaker Rashaad Ernesto Green’s top ten makes for a great list of movies to watch these days.

Even in these times, when everyone, even the more skeptical ones like myself, are thankful for the benefits of online streaming and Netflix, I am still pushing for a film archive in one’s home. Or, better said, especially in these times. Because the simple act of choosing a film to watch from your own library, taking the dvd or blu-Ray out of its case and placing it in the player is an intentional act, it doesn’t feel forced by the circumstances, it feels more like a date-night-in, or a date with your favourite actors or directors than clicking on your remote and settling on whatever is available. But if that is not an option for you, you can of course subscribe to Criterion Channel (their April lineup is pretty great) if you are in the US and to MUBI if you are anywhere in the world.

But there is another, more important reason, for supporting the independent movie industry that goes beyond our own viewer satisfaction. Netflix streaming does not save the problem of closing independent cinemas. Even before these difficult times, it was more of a problem for traditional cinema. In that regard, partnering with Art House Convergence and Janus Films, the Criterion Collection has announced an online fundraiser for arthouse cinemas in the US.

How else can we help indie cinemas? Movie-goers are presented with the option to buy a “ticket” through the “Theatrical-at-Home” initiative and they are given the option to select a theater to support; once they’ve selected the theater, they can purchase a virtual “ticket.” Then they’ll receive a one-time screening link to the film on its release date. Why is it so important to support small cinemas? Because to lose the cinema experience means “losing the centerpiece to how our community functions, celebrating art, not always bowing to what’s the biggest and most marketed and must funded movies.”

Filmmaker Magazine has made its entire latest issue available online.

The BofF Podcast: why the world should pause and reset its priorities.

The University of California Press is making all its journals freely accessible through June 2020.

Step inside Francis Mallmann’s Provencal kitchen for a meaningful travel story: “Was that what travel meant? An exploration of the desert of memory rather than those around me?”
 
 
* For easily accessible, more in-depth descriptions of the books mentioned in this article, I have linked to the respective publishing houses. However, in these trying times, our intention is to support artists and small businesses of any kind, especially bookstores, so we will not link to global online book chains or corporations, leaving you to make the choice of helping your favourite independent bookshop and placing your order with them. If you don’t have a favourite indie bookstore, here is how to find one you can support.
 
More Stories: Colour and Costumes: From The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to La La Land / For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond / Art Directing Film Posters: In Conversation with Illustrator Akiko Stehrenberger

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film | | Leave a comment

On Craftsmanship and the Modern Woman, with Sue Stemp of St. Roche

St. Roche

 
Delicate in details, but the St. Roche woman is a free spirit, with her own uniqueness and true values, in a time when femininity is ripe for re-shaping. The St. Roche aesthetic carries something wild beneath its soft exterior. It’s understated femininity, subtle in its power. Their collections focus on clothes made by hand, merging tradition and the craftsmanship of artisans from India and Peru with openness, simplicity, mindfulness and sustainability.

Based in Los Angeles and co-founded by husband and wife team Sue Stemp and Paud Roche, St. Roche is a brand that is sympathetic to global issues without losing sight of the aesthetic side of fashion, committed to fine fabrics that will have a long life, motivated by the desire to conscientiously create timeless designs, and driven by the belief that looking good will prompt customers to make good choices. St. Roche makes a point to encourage women to invest in fewer, well-made, durable pieces, embracing individual style over fast fashion. It is a brand that has grown by feeling and intention, with meaning and care.

In our interview, co-founder Sue Stemp speaks about their vision for the brand, what it is that makes St. Roche different than other sustainable fashion companies, about New York vs Los Angeles for making it in fashion, and Hitchcock.
 

St. Roche

 

If you could capture the essence of St. Roche in one sentence, how would you describe it?

St. Roche is relaxed, artisanal, feminine and free-spirited, unique everyday wear.

Who do you design for? Who is the St. Roche woman?

Our vision is to create beautiful handcrafted clothes designed for a modern woman who cares that what she wears reflects her values and lifestyle.

What does style mean to you personally?

Style is purely personal. Having amazing style is knowing what looks and feels good on you and is as unique and individual as you are.

You use hand printing, embroidery, knitting and handloom weaving in your designs and work with family businesses in India and Peru. In an overly-digitized world, it feels so special to make things with your own two hands. Coupled with an awareness for ethical production and the artistry of local makers, even more so. How did you find these artisans and what have been the biggest challenges and perks of working with them?

I’ve been working in the fashion industry for a long time now and have built up a strong and select network of talented and reliable manufacturing partners. I travel to India at least once a year and work with them directly, I’m very hands-on. This saves so much time, as sometimes ideas and designs can get a little mis-interpreted via tech-packs and it’s a slow development process. Also the face-to-face contact and getting direct input back is invaluable.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from the community of craftsmen in India and Peru you are working with?

Generally, the artisans we work with have a traditional craft and skill that they’re proud of, and are open to seeing how this can be modernized and used in a non-traditonal way, and hopefully be profitable to them and their community too. We choose our manufacturing partners in India and Peru very carefully, working directly with them where possible, only working with small factories / family and women run businesses that are ethical and compliant. Our supply chain is short, and I see first-hand how and where our clothes are made. One of our partners, for example, runs a small organic farm and creche alongside his workshop and another started a women’s embroidery collective, paying 3 x the minimum state wage and educating these local workers in an old and regional skill. Sharing a vision with who we work with is a high priority.
 

St. Roche

 

You have been working in fashion for years before founding St. Roche, designing for the likes of Daryl K and Alexander McQueen. The textile industry and its products have shaped the contemporary world more than anything else. The disposal of textile waste is one of the biggest preoccupations we have at the moment. What made you change paths and start on your own, and how do you see the future of fashion? Do you think there is a significatly increased interest in the locally-made, in craftsmanship and mindful shopping or do you think it will take mass action to curb our addiction to mass-produced, cheap products?

The tide is definitely turning. In the last year we’ve seen significant changes within the fashion and textile industry and consumerism towards a more sustainable future. Personally, I hope that the interest in heirloom quality craftmanship and buying less products that last longer will continue to grow. I think people are realising we have to be more responsible and mindful with our choices to protect the planet and its people.

And what do you think is the first thing every individual should do in order to address this issue, any tip that may help someone else just starting out on their sustainable journey?

That any small step you take to being more conscious with the options you have, either as a consumer or a business owner, helps, and will have positive effects.
 
 

”Generally, the artisans we work with have a
traditional craft and skill that they’re proud of,
and are open to seeing how this can be modernized
and used in a non-traditonal way.”

 
 
What do you think is the one thing that differentiates St. Roche from other sustainable fashion brands?

Our original textiles and the handwork. The design references behind each collection range from my British heritage, the influential time both myself and Paud spent in New York and now LA, and global influences from our travels. We have a unique perspective behind our textile designs and artworks, which are sometimes collaborations with likeminded artists. These are then translated as much as possible by hand, by the artisans we work with.
 

St. Roche

 

How have your different backgrounds, your being from England and your husband, Paud Roche, from Connecticut, and having both lived in New York before moving to Los Angeles, informed your designs?

We both have a shared love of travel and textiles, and our global influences have always inspired us and our work.

I once read that “NY is a place for making it. LA is a place for making things.” What are the pros and cons of starting a fashion company in Los Angeles, away from the “fashion capital” of New York?

There’s much more of a fashion community in New York, it’s a more compact city, it’s fast paced, very easy to meet people and get things done. However, from a designer’s point of view I find working in LA more inspiring, we live in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills surounded by nature which is a constant reminder to me to try and build a more sustainable business.

What are the most important takeaways from running your own business?

You really have to be passionate about what you do and single minded about what you believe in. It’s hard work!
 

St. Roche

 

You are an inspiration for designing with purpose. But who and what inspires you on a daily business?

Our children, Kitty and Harmony, are our constant inspiration.

We live in a hectic world and more and more people are trying to go back to basics, to find a balance, to live mindfully. How do you find balance every day? How do you live life as a conscious choice?

Spending quality time with our family and friends is so important to us. Paud loves to cook, we both love music and film, and I like hiking; we try and balance these in our daily schedule as much as possible while running our business.
 
 

”Be passionate about what you do
and single minded about what you believe in. ”

 
 
What is the best film you’ve watched lately? I think this will come in handy for many of us right now.

Now that we’re on lockdown, we’ve been watching countless old classic movies. A few nights ago we introduced our kids to Hitchcock and watched Dial M for Murder. I love Hitchcock. My favorite film I’ve seen at a theatre in the last few months has to be Little Women, it was beautiful.

In this time and age, what do you wish people appreciated more?

Nature and the fragility of our planet. Anything unique made with thought and not mass-produced.
 

Sue Stemp, co-founder of St. Roche

 

Website and online shop: st-roche.com
Instagram: @st_roche

 
 
More stories: When Art Meets Fashion: Interview with Marguerite Bartherotte / Essential Minimalism: Interview with Fashion Illustrator Sandra Suy / A New Sweden: Interview with Lisa Bergstrand

Posted by classiq in Fashion, Interviews, Style | | Leave a comment

Art Directing Film Posters: In Conversation with Illustrator Akiko Stehrenberger

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “Venus in Fur”, 2013, directed by Roman Polanski

 
It’s about creating the right mind-frame. You don’t quite know what will happen in the film being advertised, but a sense of its atmosphere draws you in. That’s the art of film poster design.

Be it the minimalist optical illusion of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where the negative space of a reddening flame is used to create two female faces sharing a kiss, or the conceptual brilliance of The Last Man in San Francisco, at which I may have had to look twice, but my forever fascination with the steepy streets of San Francisco quickly stepped in and helped me grasp its double meaning, or Naomi Watts’ hyperrealist face for Funny Games that says so much by showing so little, or the refreshing reinterpretation of Breathless, each design is so stylistically different that it’s hard to believe they are the work of the same artist. That would be the work of one of the most talented contemporary film poster art directors and illustrators, Akiko Stehrenberger.

With each new film poster, she seems to be opening the door to imagination even wider, not just for herself as an artist, but for the viewer, too – even movies you know, you come to think of them differently. Each of her poster designs extracts that special quality of the film it represents, is conceived to suit not just the story, but the feel and the mood of the film, creating visual symbols that merge completely with the experience of the film. Because you don’t just watch a film, you experience it. That’s the work of a visionary, who, with an aesthetic that is often strikingly minimalistic, enigmatic yet very precise in encapsulating a powerful frame of mind, has paved the way to less conventional movie poster design, driven by the desire and strengthened by the skill to create poster art that has its own visual identity. And I think that this shows faith in the creativity of the audience as well.

Akiko Stehrenberger has designed, art-directed and illustrated posters for the films of David Lynch, Michael Haneke, Jim Jarmusch, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Lynne Ramsay, the Coen Brothers, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, Tom Ford and Steven Soderbergh, among many others, and her Instagram account, Doyrivative, is an even wider and ever evolving sketchbook for her creativity, wit and humour. Her book, Akikomatic: The Art of Akiko Stehrenberger, is now on worldwide release.

In my interview with the artist, we are discussing her versatility of style, how she merges hand with digital illustration, the stories behind posters such as Funny Games and Nocturnal Animals, and whether she watches any movies just for relaxation.
 

Film poster designs by Akiko Stehrenberger
Left: “Ghosting”, 2015, directed by Kim Sherman | Right: “L’Enfer”, 1994, directed by Claude Chabrol

 
 

”The piece has to feel appropriate for the film
rather than just be illustrating for the sake of illustrating.”

 
 
What sparked your passion for cinema?

I’ve always loved movies, especially arthouse and comedies as they were an escape for me.

How did you get into film poster design? And were there any early influences in your work?

I fell into movie posters after working as a freelance illustrator doing spot illustrations for entertainment and music magazines. It came at a good time because coincidentally all magazines were moving online and budgets were starting to be cut drastically. The earliest influences for my movie poster work were Polish posters. They still are. I love their boldness, simplicity and creativity.
 

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “Funny Games”, 2007, directed by Michael Haneke

 

One of your film posters that has always stood out for me is the one for Funny Games, with Naomi Watts in close-up. I’ve never been quite sure whether it is a photograph or an illustration. It is so minimalist, yet so striking, and I keep coming back to it. A photograph film poster, although there are some great ones out there, rarely grabs my attention to this degree. And given the film storyline, I have an even greater appreciation for it because it says so much by showing so little, challenging the viewer to fill in the blanks. So is it a photorealist painting?

Michael Haneke expressed interest in the specific scene. All I had was a tiny dvd screen grab of it that would’ve never been able to blow up to a 27”x40” image. Using the small still and photo reference of Naomi Watts online, I was able to recreate this scene by digitally illustrating it. It was originally supposed to be a placeholder until the studio provided the high resolution still. However, Haneke decided to use my piece instead.

Do directors have a say when it comes to film posters, do they deal with that?

Sometimes they do, but mostly the marketing team at the movie studio overrides them because they’re the ones trying to get people to the theater.
 

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “Breathless”, 1960, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

 

Nocturnal Animals is a film poster where you used photography. Again, very minimalist at first sight, but it awakens in me a sense of discomfort and apprehension, just like I felt when watching the film, a great and haunting cautionary tale. How did you come to that design?

I wanted to use the novel from the film as a graphic device to violently interfere with or reveal the characters. Jake had a special shoot whereas Amy did not, so I had to find a unit shot of her that I felt matched his tone and paint her eyes so they were looking at camera.

Your poster design style is very versatile, either traditional painting, digital illustration, or graphic design based on a photograph and creative type writing (I love your posters for Somewhere and Lost Highway). So I would like to ask you about your creative process. Where does it begin? Do you watch the film and try to understand the rhythm, structure, mood, and then decide on the exact design style you will approach? Do you settle on an image or on an idea and bring your own self and imagination into the world of the film?

It depends on when I am brought into the project. Often times I’m brought in before the film is even shot and I’m working off of a short synopsis. Overall, I try to hone in on what the main concept of the film is, really find its tone, and build my ideas off of that. I start with looking at photography and art online to get the wheels turning. I then come up with ideas that have line lists, reference images, and a quick thumbnail sketch to communicate my idea best. I present this to the clients and from there we move forward to honing in on one of my ideas to fully execute. For me, the style of illustration communicates almost as much as the idea does. This is extremely important in my work and why my work is as versatile as it is. The piece has to feel appropriate for the film rather than just be illustrating for the sake of illustrating.
 

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”, 2019, directed by Joe Talbot

 

I would like to insist on this versatility of style. Two other of your film posters that stand out for me are Collosal and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, because of the way you use negative space. Is there a lot of resistance to negative space, to this extreme minimalism, from a commercial point of view?

It depends on the studio putting out the film and how many posters they are releasing for it. In the case of both Colossal and Portrait of A Lady on Fire, Neon produced quite a few posters, some more traditional and mainstream and before releasing mine, so they could take a chance on mine.
 
 

”I haven’t given up doing things by hand and never will.”

 
 
 

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, directed by Céline Sciamma

 

Do you ever miss drawing just by hand? I am asking because even though hand-drawn poster illustration has seen a revival, you have managed to make a successful transition to this new concept of graphic design and digital illustration, while continuing to fill in this increased craving for unique and creative design. How challenging was this transition?

I still draw and paint by hand for posters when I see fit. Quite a few pieces of mine are scanned in paintings. But yes, things have been going more digitally for me because the deadlines (for consistently working movie poster designers) are becoming increasingly impossible. Aside from poster work, I love using graphite and many other media for my personal work. I haven’t given up doing things by hand and never will.

What makes a good movie poster?

A good movie poster has a simple and clever idea. It also intrigues the viewer enough that they want to see the film in hopes it will answer the questions the poster imposes.

The film poster is the first interaction of the audience with the film. Why isn’t the name of the film poster designer on it? Do you think movie posters are given the importance they deserve?

I’m not sure if there will come a time when the movie poster designer or the agency will get credited on the actual movie poster. Until then, you can see who’s credited on impawards.com (this is an online movie poster database that posts posters as they are released.) Movie posters should be given importance because they determine what and who will have the interest level in the film. It’s like the front cover of a book.

When does the work of the film poster designer come into play, especially in the case of a new film? I know some posters are required before starting filming and they can be used to get funding for the film.

I work on posters at all phases in the film production.
 

Film poster designs by Akiko Stehrenberger
Left: “La jaula de oro”, 2013, directed by Diego Quemada-Diez| Right: “13 Assassins”, 2010, directed by Takashi Miike

 
 
Do you seek out inspiration for your designs outside of the cinema world? Are there any unexpected sources of inspiration?

I try to look at as much as possible when trying to come up with concepts. The most random thing may spark something perfect for the film.

Some of your posters reimagine classic films (The 400 Blows, Breathless, L’Enfer). You have also collaborated with companies like Kino Lorber, who are doing a great job at enriching and preserving a film culture of which the promotional artworks are a huge part. Do you think they will attract a new audience for classic cinema?

Quite possibly. None of these pieces were made as fan art, but rather for the DVD releases of the films. I think it will definitely attract a new audience for classic film the way Criterion Collection has done such an excellent job at doing so.
 

Film poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger for “500 Days of Summer”, 2009, directed by Marc Webb

 
 
If you could choose one classic film to make the official poster art for back in the day, which one would it be?

That’s a tough one! I’d rather redo a classic film with a not so great poster than one with a good one. If it ain’t broke…

Do you ever watch a film just for relaxation?

Yes, comedies!

 

Film poster designs by Akiko Stehrenberger
Left: “Somewhere”, 2010, directed by Sofia Coppola | Right: “Her”, 2013, directed by Spike Jonze

 
 

Akikomatic: The Art of Akiko Stehrenberger
is now available to buy worldwide.

 
 

Website: akikomatic.com | Instagram: @doyrivative

 
More stories: On and Off Set with Unit Still Photographer Merie Weismiller Wallace / La enfermedad del domingo: In Conversation with Costume Designer Clara Bilbao / Interview with Photographer Laura Wilson

Posted by classiq in Film, Interviews | | Leave a comment

Let’s Explore with Kids Through Books

”Lions and Sailing Ships”, by Svyatoslav Sakharnov*

 
 
In times of uncertainty, culture always helps. And now, that we stay home with our children, not only do we want to make them feel safe and happy, but be careful not to limit their sense of exploration, curiosity and imagination that would otherwise be triggered through many other means. So where do we escape with our children, besides play-time in the yard (for those of us lucky to have a yard), and games and activities indoors, especially that we still make efforts to limit screen-time? Books. We read, dream, learn, explore, travel. And then invent our own stories. Not only do books broaden their imagination, but they develop empathy, help them (and us) accept their emotions, deal with fear and scary situations, often times in imaginative ways. We all need that these days.

That being said, you may already own some of the most talked about children’s books, so here are a few great more under-the-radar children’s books you can order online. In doing so, we can also lend a virtual helping hand to the artists who wrote and drew them or maybe to your favourite local bookstore that had to close its doors for the time being. By ordering from them or by buying gift cards or pre-ordering new releases you may ensure they keep their activity going to some degree. Here are five eight ways to support your favourite indie bookshop. The culture-driving businesses are usually the independent and small businesses. Let’s do our part.
 
 
The Wolves of Currumpaw and Shackleton’s Journey, by William Grill

When I first bought William Grill’s The Wolves of Currumpaw and Shackleton’s Journey, I knew they were two of those books to save for later for when my son could truly discover their beauty. It seems we are slowly getting there, not because we can read for ourselves (not there yet), but because the drawings lead us through the stories in a way no other book does, and help us discover the stories in a truly explorative sense. We gave names to all the wolves in The Wolves of Currumpaw, tracked their trail, helped humans make peace with them, tried to understand bad behaviour and accepted that the humans made a mistake and were trying to change, becoming friends with the animals. And then we counted every single one of the 69 dogs in Shackleton’s Journey, studied every map and name written on it (which lead to pulling out the world atlas and to more exploration), checked out every supply and dog igloo and camp activity and sledge in the story. It’s not just a story we take away, but countless. We escape.

That’s what William’s books, with his style of drawing, those effortless, unrestrained, natural-flowing, child-like (in the best possible meaning) strokes of pencil, do: they leave enough room to the imagination, taking us on a journey of wonder.

Note: If you don’t have a local bookshop you can support, you can order William Grill’s books from here if you are in Europe and if you are in the US or other parts of the world you can refer to your regular bookshop or book provider**. There is also an activity book available, or wooden toys you can order directly from William Grill’s online shop.
 

“While looking out over the Currumpaw I knew this view had to be the shot that established Lobo surveying his kingdom.”
”The Wolves of Currumpaw” by William Grill

 
 
The Lying King / Crocodile’s Tears / Monkey See, Monkey Draw / The Jungle Grapevine, by Alex Beard

Alex Beard believes it is his ​“duty as a human being to be a responsible tenant of the natural world” and that, as an artist, he has “certain tools to help accomplish that goal, therefore not using the talents at my dispoal for greater good is both irresponsible and selfish”. Nature and those that you find in it are what inspires him the most (no wonder, given his lineage – Alex’s uncle was wildlife photographer and artist Peter Beard). What better example to set for our children?

About his children’s books, Alex has told me: “Tales from the Watering Hole are anthropomorphic parables in the vein of Aesop and Kipling. The Jungle Grapevine is about rumors, Monkey See, Monkey Draw is a book about the fun of making art for little kids, Crocodile’s Tears is a story about endangered species and the environment, and The Lying King is about a warthog.”

Note: If you don’t have a local bookshop you can support, you can order the books directly from Alex Beard’s online shop if you are in the US and if you are in Europe or other parts of the world you can refer to your regular bookshop or book provider**. His illustrations from the books can serve as a creative source for drawing, too.
 
 
Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau, by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Éric Puybaret

We are into the underwater life. Big time. Journeys under the ocean, the biggest fish, what the blue whale eats, how big the eyes of the colossal squid are (the biggest in the animal world, if you are curious, the size of a bowling ball), what’s the biggest depth of the ocean… we are curious about all of it. So Jacques Cousteau is slowly becoming a hero in our home. It’s about endless curiosity. How can it not capture a child’s imagination and sense of adventure? And children can slowly begin to learn how passion can lead to positive impact. But what makes the story in Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau so irresistible for kindergarten children are Éric Puybaret’s illustrations. His drawings are rooms of wonders, letting fantasy be part of reality.

Note: If you don’t have a local bookshop you can support, you can order the book here if you are in Europe and if you are in the US or other parts of the world you can refer to your regular bookshop or book provider**.
 
 
In the meantime:

Children’s books authors and illustrators are coming up with online readings and drawing tutorials to keep children occupied at home.

Flying Eye Books comes with activity suggestions while staying indoors, some of which are downloadable.

Libraries, archives and other cultural institutions are sharing free colouring sheets and books from their collections for at-home projects for kids.
 
 
* The book “Lions and Sailing Ships”, by Svyatoslav Sakharnov, pictured in the first image, is a classic children’s book that unfortunately has been out of print for years.

** In these trying times, our intention is to support artists and small businesses of any kind, so we will not link to global online book chains or corporations, leaving you to make the choice of helping your favourite independent bookshop. If you don’t have a favourite indie bookstore, here is how to find one you can support.
 
 
More stories: Journeys to the Other Side of the World / Talking Books and the Art of Bookshop Keeping with Vlad Niculescu / Editorial: The Children Are Alright

Posted by classiq in Books | | 2 Comments

On and Off Set with Unit Still Photographer Merie Weismiller Wallace

”The Tree of Life”, 2011 | Photograph by Merie Weismiller Wallace | © Fox Searchlight Pictures

 
By the very nature of photography, you have to get in close in order to get a good picture. But on a movie set, that can become a very challenging job and to do it well can be extremely difficult. That’s the job of the film set photographer. Because a good unit still photographer must get close while remaining unseen, is ever-present yet invisible, incredibly quiet and gentle, yet forceful and determined. They may be obliged to keep the distance, but they must know how to be in the right place at the right time, which is everywhere and at any given time. And so not only do they require technical skill, but they must know and respect film and possess a keen understanding of human behavior and patience. And they wear black and hide so that they record not only the situation that is presented to them and document the film as it’s being made, but also capture the moment. That moment of intensity, of an actor immersed into a role, or that moment of earnestness and contemplation between takes that makes the viewer forget that a film is being made and seems depicted from life itself, not a still-frame of what’s seen on screen but something much more real and authentic, before the editing and special effects come into play. It’s not just about the image, but about the feeling.

Merie Weismiller Wallace is the unit still photographer of so many great films, from Mystic River and Titanic, to The New World and Nebraska, and her beautiful work in cinema is a great reminder that making a film is truly a team work. In our interview, I am talking to Merie about the uniqueness of her job, about how it is like to work with Clint Eastwood, Terrence Malick and Alexander Payne, about the The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers, and about the importance of putting the camera down sometimes and participating to life instead of watching it.
 

Clint Eastwood on the set of “Flags of Our Fathers”, 2006, Iceland | Photograph by Merie Weismiller Wallace
© Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Many filmmakers are very particular about the set photographers they allow to document their work. You have repeatedly worked with Clint Eastwood and Terrence Malick, who are well-known for their close and loyal team of collaborators. What is it that gained you their trust?

I believe I gained their trust by being professional and authentic, as they are. They don’t go for pomp and circomstance. And I believe they could see that I take my job with true inspiration as I capture all the collaborative contributions – while still remaining attentive to taking still photographs for Publicity, Advertising, and Archiving.

Do directors usually let you take initiate or do they tell you what they want you to photograph?

Directors rarely tell a Unit Still Photographer what to photograph, unless they see something exciting and they call us over to catch a shot they like. Generally, the only people who tell set photographers what to shoot are the Studio Publicity Department photo editors who read the script and know what shots they want to publicize for the project. However, they too generally let us take our own initiative. We know what is needed, we know how to get it, we know when something remarkable is unfolding, and we know when we need to step back because of personalities or time constraints.

In this regard, how difficult is it to get close while keeping your distance?

Set Photographers do have to remain quiet and unseen, but that is also a bit of a prejudice, we are no different than the boom person, dolly grip, or focus puller; we have a job to do and must do it without being distracting to the cast or other highly focused crew such as the camera operators and director. That goes without saying, it is par for the course. Where the difference is, is that Stills are not required to make a movie, they are required to sell one; so we are guests in that way and yet must become part of the fabric of the set. Also, some people are camera shy, they are distracted by a still camera in a way they are not distracted by a sound microphone. So we must be subtle, unnoticed, while still getting the dynamic shots that the motion picture camera is getting. There have been countless times I was painfully aware of myself and where I had to be to do my job during highly sensitive scenes – that is the story of our profession. We pick our positions, we pick our lenses, we wear black, we move slowly, and we hope the actor can ignore us as they do the rest of the on-set crew.
 

Saoirse Ronan in “Lady Bird”, 2017 | Photograph by Merie Weismiller Wallace | © A24 Pictures

 
 
 

”When a set photographer is trusted,
we are ignored, and then our true abilities
and personal creativity are free to flow.”

 
 
There was a time when film set photographers were asked to take a photograph of a scene that had just been shot by positioning their camera in the same spot as the film camera, and to leave immediately afterwards to avoid delaying the work of other technicians. But the role of a unit still photographer has become much more important than that. How do you yourself approach set photography?

Let me say that many photographers consider ourselves lucky if we get to put our cameras where the motion picture camera was, because we rarely get that magnificent angle otherwise! That being said, that is not our job. Our job is to capture the moments of a performance live, during a take as it is unfolding, and it is never, never the same if they hold the set and actors pose for stills. I approach set photography as a witness and an admirer. I watch everything, every moment performed, how the light is falling, how the crafts such as wardrobe, make-up and hair are also telling the story. When we are rolling, I am capturing what the actors are giving as well as the director’s, production designer’s and cinematographer’s visions. Between takes I am watching as the world is being made, the people standing-by as well as those stepping forward in the instinctive choreography of collaboration. When a set photographer is trusted, we are ignored, and then our true abilities and personal creativity are free to flow, and we do our best work.

Do you know immediately when you have taken a good picture, maybe that very photograph that captures the essence of the entire film? Is there a split second when you press the button and you know you have made the shot?

I know when I have seen something remarkable, and that I was in tune and captured the moment. As unit photographers, we lay in wait, watching for the moment when a tear glistens, or mist engulfs. We are poised and atuned, and we know when we have caught a moment as surely as we knew it fleetingly existed.

And then there are shots that show the scale of the set you are working on, like this one from Midsommar (ed. note: image below). The bird’s-eye view evokes this feeling that you inhabit a silent world where you are on your own just watching. And I think that just shows how special the job of the set photographer is.

Films use enormous crane arms for sweeping shots that show the scope of a scene and the emotion of the move, often from wide establishing into the eyes, heart and soul of an actor’s performance. In this shot I asked the generous Grip Department if they would give me their tallest ladder in a position similar to the wide establishing, but just out of their way. Sometimes we are not able to make such a request, because of the impact on the department in the rush of work, but this time I was. It was marvelous being up for a take or two and solitarily watching all the puzzle pieces fall into place. Then I climbed down and went closer for the performances in later takes. When I watch those crane arm shots on the monitor I always wish I could fly!
 

”Midsommar”, 2019 | Photograph by Merie Weismiller Wallace | © A24 Pictures

 

How often does it happen that the filmmakers and studios choose the images you yourself would have picked to represent the films? Does your idea of what represents the film often differ than theirs or do you often find yourselves on the same page?

I know what type of imagery is needed to publicise a film, and I almost always know which images they will use. We understand genre, we capture the essence of stories and theatrical tone to tell or publicise the story. However, those images are usually not my favourite images from a project. That is why it is so wonderful to exhibit with the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers: We have the oportunity to show our favorite images, serendipity moments often not suited to a Press Kit.

You were president of the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers for four years and you are still co-chair of the SMPSP Exhibition Committee and Archive Committee. Could you tell me more about the organization? How important is it to be there and what was your biggest accomplishment during your tenure?

The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers was founded in 1995 as an honorary organization dedicated to the art of motion picture photography. We pursue exhibiting our favourite images to promote our interest in proper archival preservation of set photography for its intrinsic artistic, historical and cultural importance. To become a member one must have worked as a dedicated unit still photographer for a minimum of eight years, and to show artistic excellence beyond standard craftsmanship; there is a rigorous application consideration process. I had a marvelous four years as SMPSP President recently where we reached out to Studio archivists, promoted exhibitions across the country including three at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in their Mary Pickford Center for Motion Picture Studies, revamped our website to present us clearly and creatively, and worked on committees for outreach and member support.

You have documented so many great films, from Mystic River, Strange Days and Million Dollar Baby, to The Tree of Life, Nebraska and Lady Bird, and each must have been an extraordinary experience. But has there been any particular movie when you felt, during its filming, that you were witnessing something truly special?

Actually, on every movie you listed I felt that way, as I have watched through my lens cinematic history being made. And to your list I will add Sideways, The New World and Titanic. Sideways was an odyssey of humour and human failure, and shooting it became a celebration of capturing director Alexander Payne’s uncanny vision and comedy of farce. The New World was a gorgeous period piece where the wardrobe, lighting and production design were destractingly photogenic – but then in that context, the performances of Colin Farrell and Q’orianka Kilcher were so passionate and arresting that I could not stop shooting the spontaneous moments Terrence Malick inspired.
 

Q’orianka Kilcher in ”The New World”, 2005 | Photograph by Merie Weismiller Wallace | © New Line Pictures

 

Photographing Titanic was tanamount to living in and capturing a lightening storm. Scene after scene I was swept away by Kate and Leo’s honest, profound, and enchanting performances, by camera operator Jimmy Muro’s uncanny skill in capturing the dynamic world Director James Cameron brought to life. Titanic was an ovation of masterful story telling and pushed the envelope in all departments.

Nebraska was filmed in black and white. Do you think this beautiful form should be more present in contemporary cinema or are there certain stories that seem to lend themselves to being made in black and white?

On Nebraska it was made very clear from the beginning that no colour images were to be released – and I was so excited for that rare opportunity! These days, black and white photography in film-making and set photography is a rare creative choice. And because it is now an option with digital files, the Studios want all set photography in colour, and then they can adapt the file and printing to black and white as needed. As artists, photographers – and cinematographers – love to work in black and white because it conveys imagery in such a striking, stylistic way. Some moments and images we just see in black and white. Others you shoot in colour and secondarily adapt to black and white, play with the greyscale, hard blacks and mixed tonalities; it’s a joy to work with! I believe the Studios are afraid that black and white represents the past, and that modern viewers won’t be interested. I believe that is financial thinking, not creative, and underestimates the power of black and white and the creativity of the audience.
 
 
 

”Good set photography is both creative and witnessing.”

 
 

Bruce Dern in ”Nebraska”, 2013 | Photograph by Merie Weismiller Wallace | © Paramount Pictures

 

Some of the pictures taken by a still photographer are used as film posters. What makes a good movie poster?

A good movie poster is full of the pathos or mirth of the project, is visually dynamic, and presents the subject in a way that invites audience curiosity rather than giving away the punchline or plot twist.

With movie posters, I like it when they use my set photography rather than an organized advertising shoot where the actor looks perfect and is looking into the camera at the viewer. Set photography captures the performances the director inspires, the actors give from the heart and soul, in the lighting the DP intended, in the context the production designer creates; so those moments really tell the story of the film if picked and presented artfully by the Studio Advertising departments.
 

”The Descendants”, 2011 | Photograph by Merie Weismiller Wallace | © Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

Raymond Cauchetier, the photographer of The French New Wave, said: “Artists are creators. I am a witness.” Do you agree?

Some photography requires witnessing and documenting, the astute photographer sees things most people pass by unoticed. Some photography is creative such as when the photographer throws their creative perspective into the mix through lens choice, camera angle, subject-focus; and then some creative photographers light and direct their subjects as well for a purposeful portrait. Good set photography is both creative and witnessing: We have our own creative instincts and abilities which we bring to the table to best capture the artistry presented by the world’s leading collaborative filmmakers.
 

David O. Russell on the set of ”Joy”, 2015 | Photograph by Merie Weismiller Wallace | © 20th Century Fox

 

How predictable or unpredictable is the encounter between you and your subject when you do a portrait?

There are spontaneous portraits, and then there are posed portraits. Set photographers’ portraits are generally seized moments, so for us it is completely unpredictable. I get an instinct for character very early on when I meet someone, and that is what I generally shoot for in a portrait. I look at the colours they have chosen in their clothes, I look at jewellery and wrinkles, is their hair brushed, what book they are reading, how old are their shoes. It’s great to get to know someone, but often we don’t have the leisure to do that. More so I try to put the person at ease, and let them give me who they are.

What is the biggest misconception people have about Hollywood?

That it’s an actual place you can visit. It is not. Hollywood is an Industry, and it only materializes when all the parts of a production are in place for the fleeting time between Rolling and Cut, between Day One and Picture Wrap.
 
 
 

”It was like Alice through the Looking Glass,
I’ve been shooting ever since.”

 
 
 
Do you always carry a camera with you?

I go through phases. For years I always carried a camera, and often I still do, but one can get lost behind a camera, watch life instead of participating; so now I am careful to put my camera down sometimes and get into the splashes of life.

How did you first fall in love with photography?

I was in Borneo, Malaysia, supervising a 2nd Unit shoot on a feature film called Farewell to the King written by John Milius and starring Nick Nolte and Nigel Havers. The Unit Still Photographer was busy on 1st Unit, so when asked, he said “You do it!” So I did, and it was like Alice through the Looking Glass, I’ve been shooting ever since. In fact, I took everything I earned on that film and went to Singapore on the way back to the States and bought a full Camera set-up to pursue the career! I had gone to USC Film School just before that and gotten an MFA in Film Production, so I thought shooting Stills on set would just be a way to support myself while I continued to learn about Production and continued my goals of screenwriting. But with persistence, my career as a photographer took off, and I ended up just riding the wave.

Have you considered picking up screenwriting again?

For me, writing and photography are somehow mutually exclusive as if it is a right-brain, left-brain conflict: As long as I am shooting individual frames, my mind does not tell me stories. For now, I am still lost in the Wonderland rabbit hole of photography, with no plans for, or against, writing in the future.

Sean Penn in ”The Tree of Life”, 2011 | Photograph by Merie Weismiller Wallace | © Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

Website: meriewallace.com
The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers: smpsp.org

 
 
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