The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) defines cinematography as:
A creative and interpretive process that culminates in the authorship of an original work of art rather than the simple recording of a physical event. Cinematography is not a subcategory of photography. Rather, photography is but one craft that the cinematographer uses in addition to other physical, organizational, managerial, interpretive and image-manipulating techniques to effect one coherent process.
B movie Cinematographers have many challenges while working with directors, lighting, cameras, production designers, and basically every department to make sure the film comes out perfect. In addition, the Cinematographer has yet a bigger challenge when there’s no VFX supervisor on set especially in CGI heavy films.
They are the heart of films and must be a patient person and a perfectionist. Alexander Yellen has been a Cinematographer for almost a decade and has worked on almost fifty titles.
What motivated or encouraged you to become a cinematographer?
ALEX: I became interested in still photography at a pretty early age, playing with mother’s cameras and later learning the basics from her. She has always been a pretty avid amateur photographer and I think flirted with the idea of becoming a professional on a few occasions. She got me my first film SLR when I was 13 and through high school I rarely went anywhere without it. I also ran a small photography business shooting events and processing and printing in my basement. When I got to college I took a couple of film classes, which at Wesleyan are quite good, and having also always loved movies became immediately interested in the process of shooting them. I immediately took to moving camera work and on the advice of a professor shot several other students’ thesis films. I left college feeling that perhaps I could make a career of this hobby and have been very fortunate to have thus far supported myself doing what I love while continuing to grow and progress in the business. The whole story is a quite a bit longer but if you really want to hear it, let me know.
“Grimm’s Snow White” was filmed in Austria at castles and in the woods, which appeared to be far from “civilization”. How challenging was it to do Snow White?
ALEX: “Grimm’s Snow White” was one of the more challenging films I have done but also one of the most rewarding. While the English spoken near Vienna was generally quite good, very little was spoken in the countryside where most of our desired locations resided so the language barrier was a real problem. Rachel Goldenberg and Mary Brown, the director and line producer, had already been in Austria for almost 2 weeks by the time I arrived they had identified our best option for a castle, Schloss Rosenburg about 90 minutes Northwest of Vienna, that was ultimately where we ended up shooting about half the film. It served as two separate castles in the story, the Queen’s and the Prince’s, and as a practical location most of the rooms were already dressed taking a huge burden off of the art department and allowing them to focus on the elf cottage, which was an empty barn that had to be completely furnished and dressed from scratch. I was also fortunate to find one of the best lighting crews I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
The woods were surprisingly difficult to find. Because most forests are public land and shooting on such land requires a rather laborious permitting process, we had to find a privately owned tract and spent a great deal of our free time doing so, braving spiders, and stinging nettles, and once beaching our car on a tree stump. Ultimately we found several square miles owned by a monastery that served our purposes well in terms of tree size and proximity, canopy density, and ground cover. We were able to get those dramatic rays of light coming through the trees and make the space feel full with a limited number of extras, thereby creating a more grand and satisfying final battle. Another challenge came up because we weren’t able to quickly adjust to the unfamiliar structure of European crews and the responsibilities apportioned therein, so many tasks typically performed by ADs and Production Coordinators, most importantly managing the schedule and running the set, fell to Rachel, Mary, and myself taking a great deal of additional time and effort. At the end of the day though the most challenging projects are usually the most rewarding, especially when such projects reflect what I feel to be some of my best work to date.
Do you have a database full of locations and if you can’t find the ideal location how do you go about finding it?
ALEX: Shooting on location has the benefit of exposing me to a great variety of natural and man-made environments and structures. The ever-changing scenery is one of the most appealing parts of working in the film business. The large number of projects I have worked on translates to a lot of locations I have seen. I certainly keep track of where I’ve been so I can suggest them based on future scripts. Location scouts and producers are the most important cogs in the location machine as the former have the broadest catalog of places to shoot and the latter will ultimately determine what is possible within the budget. The balance between cost and production value is always a tenuous one. If we ultimately can’t find the perfect practical location we have several other options. One is to build a set though this can often be cost prohibitive. Another is to find a similar location and modify it with some production design. Again, that catalog of locations past and research are helpful here. The last option is to modify the script to suit a location we are able to get. As long the spirit of a scene is preserved, this may sometimes be possible.
With the numerous films you work on a year, are you constantly out and about and doing research?
ALEX: The short answer is yes. My friends often complain that I’m a serial workaholic but I’m constantly updating my knowledge base. I have always been a movie lover and I watch a lot of movies as a result. I have always felt that the more material I have to call on, the greater my range in terms of looks, styles, and types of directors with whom to relate based on reference material we have in common.
100 Million BC was your first Asylum film. How was that experience for you?
ALEX: In actuality, my first Asylum film was one called “Universal Soldiers.” “100 Million BC” was my third film with them but I think it still rates as the single most challenging. It was a long schedule for an Asylum film at that time with 15 shooting days and a higher number of visual effects. It was also a film that paved the way for them to start producing original films for the Syfy channel. The scope of the project was pretty grand and Griff Furst, the director, had some very ambitious ideas. Shooting the film called upon some skill sets, like lighting large areas of downtown LA at night and shooting from helicopters, that at the time were pretty far out of my comfort zone. We also worked some very long and physically demanding days. One memorable story involves shooting at a cave in a Ventura county park. It took us half a day just to haul all of our equipment by hand up the trail to this cave and we had a full day and a half of shooting to do there so we couldn’t very well bring all of our gear back to the trucks in the evening. As we were logistically unprepared for the situation I volunteered to sleep in my tent on location and keep an eye on the gear for the following two nights. I learned a great deal from working on that film, as really I do from every film that presents me with new situations or challenges me to rethink something I believe I already know.
With experience behind the camera, cinematography and assistant director, will we see any films directed by you?
ALEX: In fact last September I directed my first feature, now titled Battledogs, that has only very recently been completed and will be airing on Syfy on April 6th. I feel strongly that my work as a cinematographer prepared me well for taking on that challenge and again, I learned a tremendous amount from the experience. Whether or not I do another I guess time will tell.
Be sure to check out Alex’s IMDB and website for his upcoming films.