I recently had the very exciting opportunity to speak with Mark Vargo, ASC. Mark has worked on some of the most iconic films in the history of cinema like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ghostbusters (for which he was nominated for an Academy award in 1985). He graciously shared his thoughts on film vs. digital, his experience shooting “The Way Back” and where technology might be headed in the not-to-distant future. Special thanks to Mark for taking the time to chat with me. Here’s what he had to say.
You started out in visual effects work didn’t you?
I did. That seems like quite a long time ago but yes I did. My first film credit was “Empire Strikes Back” and that was a very seminal experience for me. When I was up for a professorship at a film school they said, “Well you don’t have a terminal degree” and I sort of laughed to myself and said, “Yeah, I guess I don’t have a terminal degree because I was busy making “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Empire Strikes Back” and “Dragonslayer” and “ET”.” I’m not exactly sure where those forces meet. But at least I’m an adjunct professor now.
My path is sort of backwards from yours. I started out doing more cinematography and now I’m in Boston working as a VFX artist. But you started in VFX and now you’re a DP. What made you move from VFX into doing more shooting?
Well, I wanted to be closer to the story. I didn’t want to be a bricklayer anymore. And believe me I’ve laid tons of brick. And I just like to shoot! I love animating peoples material and I did that until I was 30 years old and then I thought now I want to generate that material that someone else can deal with. And I think we accomplished that very successfully on “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. So it’s still with me even after all these years. I’m still shooting plates for certain people and shooting action scenes for other people. I’ve seen it from photochemical to “now lets put down some tracking marks and then we can put this figure in the geometry of this set and just do whatever we want”. I can’t believe in my short lifespan I’ve gone from black and white mattes to digital composites that you can hardly even believe. And I’ve seen more then Georges Méliès saw from 1898 to 1940 by a factor of 10 or so at least.
It definitely has changed drastically just in the last 10 years. Do you have any sense where the next big breakthrough might be and where things might be headed?
Well, my sense is that it’s going to go to a virtual experience which I don’t want. I think we already live in a virtual world as people. I like two dimensional photography. I think everyone needs to take a break and sit down and watch something that isn’t exactly like their life experience. But theres no question in my mind that it’ll be 3d. And we’ll never escape anything .You won’t feel like it’s a cool thing to get on a train for an overnighter from Vancouver to Banff. And that really bothers me.
In becoming a DP did you teach yourself or did you go to school for it?
It was all self learned on the road. I didn’t go to school to be a DP. I wish I knew of a school like that. I’ll tell you one thing. The class that I just taught and the one I hope to teach next fall, if I had these sophomore that I had this year for another four or five months, they could actually graduate and shoot a feature film. Its just great! They’re really hungry. I gave them 15 years of experience in 15 weeks.
Lets talk about “The Way Back” I was very excited about the movie since I read the book. Prisoner of War escapes are a big interest of mine.
I know! I read the book too. I actually taught cinematography at Montana State University this semester and I told my students a third of the book is on this train where people are standing shoulder to shoulder naked, shivering, dying, vomiting for more than fifteen hundred miles from Poland to Siberia and Peter Weir picked it up when he should have. At the camp. And I get that.
How many countries did you shoot in?
Lets see. Bulgaria, on the edge of Greece and the Greek Alps for the Siberia shots, Morocco and I think we nibbled at the border of Algeria and then India.
Its probably getting harder today to shoot these pristine untouched landscapes. Did you have any shots where you had to digitally remove any radio towers or distractions?
No. Not where we were. Not that I’m aware of. I mean we were conscious of contrails but everything I shot was absolutely pristine. In the world its still possible to do that. I’ve shot in New Mexico and Arizona and the deserts of California where it’s amazing. As many people as there are on the planet you can still find a shot.
How involved was Peter Weir with your shooting?
Well if he wasn’t there in person we had a strong sense of what he was looking for. He’s more of an actor/story guy. He doesn’t even have an email address. And he will know. He was there every day and its like its cool or its brown or its sepia or its whatever and thats what he wants from us as cinematographers. It’s the most honest filmmaking you’ll ever be a part of. There is nothing artificial about it. Its like, this is where it was, this is how hot it is, this is the color that we’re seeing today. And he doesn’t shoot digitally. This is a movie we shot on film.
But you shot your latest film “Ted” digitally. Do you approach shooting digital differently?
Yeah, I did unfortunately. Its hard to take it as seriously. When there is a movie camera on the set people say, “Oh we’re shooting film this is much more serious”. It’s the difference between the district court and the supreme court basically. Because you actually have to take light readings and go with an exposure unlike digital where you’ll look at a histogram and say well thats ok we can deal with it later. Film is an immediate thing. For instance did you ever have a film camera? When you blew your exposure it was irretrievable wasn’t it. That’s the difference.
How much of “The Way Back” was storyboarded?
I don’t think hardly any of it was. We didn’t know the locations. No, we didn’t work from storyboards. At all. We get the location photos, then we’d tech scout it and get the angles. I can’t even remember seeing one storyboard from “The Way Back”. He might have storyboarded “The Truman Show” quite a bit because it was mostly on stage and then they probably storyboarded the storm sequences on Master and Commander just for budgeting and accounting reasons, but a movie like “The Way Back” is sort of like a bowl of mercury of a film with the actors. It was an ensemble piece from the get go. And the story told and the earnestness of the performances outweighed where we were looking . So it was up to Russell Boyd and I where we could shoot and Peter was good with all of it. A very different movie. Not your normal movie. “The Way Back” was really just a documentary.
How much grading was done on “The Way Back”?
There is not much grading there. That was the color that was available to us. Thats not forced in any way. That was because Russell and I are very natural photographers not just still guys but movie guys, that’s the color we shot.
What advice would you give to a cinematographer starting out?
Find what you really want to do. I’d be a far more accomplished cinematographer at my age if I hadn’t spent 10 years in visual effects. Although I feel like I’ve made up a lot of ground. But you’re feeling your way through it. You’re seeing shots that work, you’re seeing shots that don’t work. And the day that you become frustrated and think, “I can’t work on this anymore” then you have to think, “Well whats the next step?”. And if you want to be a DP or a director or a writer or a post production supervisor thats all up to you. So my advice is check out state websites, film commissions like Louisiana and New Mexico all these places where you can get a job on a set, on a movie immediately without having union regulations. because inevitably the hottest states that are making movies are “right to work” states and then start out at whatever capacity you can schmooze you way into whether it’s a PA or production or a camera intern, or whatever. But you don’t have to be in LA and do the west coast thing the way you used to. That was a baptism of fire for me. I did it for 20 years and now I’m not there anymore but I do know the value of that. But its also important to know that it’s ok not to have had that experience to be a successful filmmaker. I know everyone thinks you’re not really a practicing muslim until you’ve gone to Mecca. In the film business thats not true anymore. So don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything. You might get just spend five grand to get there and learn it isn’t for you. I like to demystify that.