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Memoirs of a DP

Memoirs of a DP

Articles - Cinematography

Dion Beebe
Dion Beebe. Photo www.cameraguild.com.

Success found Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS, early on. He won an Australian Film Award and an Australian Cinematographers Society Golden Tripod Award while still a student at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney, and scored his first feature credit, on Alison Mclean’s Crush, just a year after graduating.

In the five years that followed, Beebe compiled a half dozen documentary and feature film credits and won a Golden Tripod Award in the annual Australian Cinematographers Society competition for Down Rusty Down in 1997.

After moving to Los Angeles the following year, Beebe began earning his first U.S. film credits and received an Oscar nomination in 2003 for Chicago. His most recent collaboration with director Rob Marshall, Memoirs of a Geisha, won Beebe an Academy Award and an American Society of Cinematographer’s (ASC) award for Best Cinematography. MM spoke with Beebe before an online chat with the International Cinematographers Guild (www.cameraguild.com) about his start in the industry and where that’s taken him.

Bob Fisher (MM): How long did it take for you to get your first feature after graduation?

Dion Beebe (DB): I got my first feature (Crush) after about a year, in 1992.

MM: How did you get that opportunity?

DB: Billy McKinnon was a producer and one of the partners in the music video company [ I worked  for]. He had worked with Jane Campion on the script for The Piano. Billy introduced me to Alison Maclean, who was preparing to direct Crush. I showed her some of my work, which was primarily short films that I’d shot at school. She took a gamble and asked me to shoot her film. I was a 24-year-old Australian shooting my first film in New Zealand. Of course, everyone there was thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy and why is he shooting one of our movies?’ It was a little tense on the set at times.

MM: Is it accurate to say you were never an assistant or camera operator?

DB: I was a focus puller on a movie while I was still at film school. I was terrible at it. I figured I’d never make it in the industry as a focus puller.

MM: Did Crush lead to other opportunities?

DB: I worked on a couple of documentary projects, including one with [Mad Max director] George Miller and four or five movies during the late 1990s.

MM: It seems like you’ve gone from one film to another during the past five years. You won another Gold Tripod Award for In the Cut from the ACS, an American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) nomination for Collateral and an Oscar nomination for Chicago. Memoirs of a Geisha recently came out, and you are going into post-production for Miami Vice. Yet you still find time for commercials. How do you do it?

DB: I enjoy shooting commercials. It just takes a couple of days or maybe a week. Prep time is always tight and the circumstances are constantly changing. For a while, it seemed I was working almost exclusively with film directors who were doing commercials. That’s how I worked with Sam Mendes. I also did a couple of commercials with Doug Liman and Scott Hicks. It’s a great opportunity to work with new directors on short projects; you can check each other out and get a sense of their visual language. There’s a huge advantage in watching how different people handle lighting and cameras and how they interact on the set. There is no one right look or way to do it. Everyone does it differently. That’s what makes filmmaking an art.

MM: Twenty and 30 years from now people are still going to be asking you questions about Chicago, because it was both an extraordinary and an unusual film. You also earned your first Oscar nomination. How did you get to work on Chicago?

DB: It came out of the blue. When I first got the call, I was in London doing a movie that was actually in the process of folding, because the lead actress was injured about a week after we started shooting. The project came to a complete stop while they were trying to recast her role. One of the producers had connections and he managed to get me tickets to see Chicago, which was playing in a theater in London. I was on my way to the theater when I got a call from my agent saying that a director wanted to talk with me about filming a musical called Chicago. That sounds like a story, but it’s true. I went to the play, and as I watched it, I wondered how they were going to take it to the screen and create the dramatic thread needed to make it work. The script arrived the next day. I read it and then a day or two later I had a phone conversation with [director] Rob Marshall. We had never met and I knew nothing about him. He probably knew very little about me aside from a reel of my film that he’d seen. We spoke, and I think he literally made up his mind during that conversation that we were going to do the film together. I remember that one of the things we spoke a lot about was how to make the visual transitions between the dialogue scene and musical numbers work.

MM: You went from Chicago to In The Cut, which was both a love story and a murder mystery. Your next film was Collateral. Would it be accurate to describe these three films as polar opposites?

DB: They couldn’t possibly have been more different, but I feel that every time I do a movie, there is a massive learning curve. I came onto Collateral a few weeks into production. Paul Cameron had done the prep work with Michael Mann and the first few weeks of production. They’d done a lot of work testing and experimenting with high definition cameras. By the time I came on the decision had been made to shoot with Thomson Viper cameras. I had not shot or been on a set with a high definition camera before Collateral. I had seen them, but had never experimented. I was able to shoot some side by side with the film cameras on the streets and inside the taxicab, so I got a quick education. My first scene was a shootout sequence in a Korean nightclub with 300 extras. We shot that scene on film, as it was an interior with controlled lighting.

MM: Which brings us to Memoirs of a Geisha, which re-teams you with Rob Marshall. This film is a portrait of Japan from 1929 through the mid-’40s. How did you achieve the look?

DB: Rob Marshall was very thorough in his preparation. One of the things he did was take the core group of the creative team to Kyoto, where we visited geisha houses and the primary teahouse where a lot of the story happens. That was important because it ensured that everyone had the same picture in his or her mind.

MM: What kind of testing did you do before settling on the look?

DB: We started shooting tests with Japanese stand-ins before the actors arrived. We tested lighting and makeup on faces for about a month. The actors arrived during the last two weeks. We had gone through the process of defining sort of a white palette for the makeup. There are various shades of white, so we worked with the actors to fine-tune it.

MM: How about the color palette? Did you do that in the camera or in post?

DB: We created it in camera with a combination of costumes, makeup, production design and lighting. The signature color is almost a yellow tobacco stain. We settled on motivating light with lanterns and fires. It’s warm light, using sort of a yellow straw tone with a little green instead of more traditional reds and oranges for the fires.

MM: Was this done with gels, filters, choice of films or a combination?

DB: It was primarily done with gels on the lights and flicker boxes that we used to send the color temperatures of the lamps up and down. Once we settled on colors in pre-production, we got [costume designer] Colleen Atwood to bring in samples of fabrics. The color palette for each kimono also matched their characters.

MM: Was this primarily shot with multiple cameras?

DB: I came up through the Australian system using a single camera, but I’ve become accustomed to lighting and shooting with two cameras. I knew from my experience with Rob on Chicago that he likes to work with two cameras, but we also choreographed shots with a single camera moving through sets.

MM: You were obviously collaborating with a lot of people— the director, production designer, costume designer, your camera, lighting and grip crews—while keeping the actors happy and production on schedule. How do you balance all of that?

DB: I try to not have rigid parameters. I find that it is a much more interesting and rewarding experience to have an open mind about the story and what you want to achieve. I try to really listen when someone has an idea. I try to visualize what they are saying, even if it’s not how I would have necessarily approached it. If you want an analogy… say you are filming a shot with an object on a table, I have my way of looking at that object, but sometimes you need someone to prompt you to walk around the table and see it from a different perspective. Often the results are surprising.

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