Mark Vargo, ASC

Unleash Your Creative Potential!

Welcome! My website is filled with valuable tips, anecdotes, and tons of useful information not found in any textbook. I’m dedicated to sharing what I know with up and coming filmmakers.

New Gig as a Camera Operator…

…and shooting on film once again!

 

October 7, 2017

 

We should be at work today but we’re off, due to Hurricane Nate who arrives here in about 3 hours. It’s raining as hard as I’ve ever seen it at the moment. I’m in Gulf Shores, Alabama operating for Michael Goi on his feature film directorial debut. He also serves as the movie’s cinematographer. We’re here making a horror movie aboard a possessed 65 foot sailboat named, “Mary”. The great Gary Oldman, plays the proud new owner of a boat he always wanted and that’s about all I can say about the story for now.

I was so excited to get the call - it’s the first time in my career where my only job is as a camera operator. I like it, just concentrating on each shots set up, composition and execution. Michael Goi, (American Horror Story) is a brilliant visualist and shot-maker so at times, the operating can be very demanding, particularly with our short schedule and modest film budget. The need to get it right in a couple of takes is not only paramount – it’s expected.

 

What’s cool is that the film format is 2.35 anamorphic - processed at Fotokem in Los Angeles. Some of our lenses are 40 years old and so far the end result looks terrific. Panavision has bent over backwards for us and given us a very generous rental rate. In addition to our three Panaflex XL’s, is an Arri 235, an Arri 3, a handcranked Arri 3, a handcranked 16mm Arri SR and a old super 8 camera. We have five different color and black and white film stocks too. This extensive camera package was prepped in New Orleans by Bryan DeLorenzo, our “A” camera first assistant, in barely one week with very little help. In addition to running the camera truck, Bryan is a world-class focus puller.

The only digital shot in the movie - a Sony A7 fitted with a Panavision lens on a "bodycam".

Bryan Delorenzo aside the "A" camera.

 

You don’t realize how big movie cameras are until you try shooting on a 65 foot sailboat. It is very difficult to find the space for the camera and operator and then pick a lens and make a shot that captures the story point effectively. It’s a challenge that we seem to be meeting successfully. I’m not a particularly limber person so I wake up a little sore each morning from stuffing myself into tiny spaces aboard the boat. We shoot in hand held mode for about half the day and that can be physically demanding on top of it all. In the next two weeks we’ll be out on the water filming the scary parts of the story - that will be tricky - and I’ll report back after we finish the movie at the end of the month.

Dawn in an Alabama boatyard, one of our locations.

The iconic and incomparable Panavision camera system.

 

 

***************************************************************************

on the road again

I’m in LA for a series of meetings about a pre-production shoot for a much larger project that starts in a couple of months. Because the meetings are interspersed across two weeks, culminating with a 2-day shoot, I decided to drive down from Montana.

It’s around 1200 miles and there are two ways to go: Interstate 15 via Las Vegas and Utah or through Nevada on the “loneliest road” in America, state highway “6”. I chose the latter. There is something about 2 lane roads that really appeal to me, particularly when I’m headed for a city that has 10 lane super highways.

I pledged to stop and take a few photos along the way.

 

I drove 700 miles on the first day and camped 50 miles southwest of Ely, NV. The stars were amazing and the night sounds soothing. There are few areas left in America where you might be the only human within a 20 mile radius - where I camped is such a place. I hoped for an alien visitation but I can’t remember if that happened or not!

The following morning I got on the road headed for Tonapah, NV roughly 125 miles away. It was almost 90 minutes before I saw the first car of the day headed in the opposite direction. Now that’s a lonely road! I love the fact that I can be driving through the most desolate region in the U.S. only to arrive in it’s second largest city, Los Angeles 10 hours later. Experiencing these revelations are why I drive every so often. And as I cruise along in comfort at 80 miles an hour, I scan the horizon imagining tough pioneers trudging their way west, staring at yet another mountain range to traverse.

Wild Mustangs live in this part of Nevada and I’ve seen them grazing in small herds far off in the distance. These rugged animals are said to be descendants of Spanish horses the Conquistadors rode while exploring this region centuries ago.

 

It’s ironic, but the purpose of this trip also has something to do with exploration, though of the immensely technical kind. I’m not allowed to talk about it yet, but it will all happen in the facility pictured below, very soon…

            ********************************************************************************

HONG KONG!

Just got back from an amazing assignment in Hong Kong and mainland China. The job was to film NBA legend Kevin Garnett visiting China.

KG at a press conference.

We shot ENG style with a C-300 a GH4 and my old XA-10. It was lots of fun chasing him around Hong Kong.

Fabulous Hong Kong as seen from Kowloon. I was a bit surprised at how hot and sticky it was everyday. Had some problems with lens fogging but no out right camera failures due to the heat. We did some shooting from the 106th floor of the incredible Ritz Carlton, the latest "tallest" building in town.

This picture is shot from the 116th floor of the Ritz. This is one busy place on land and at sea. Ships, ferries, patrol boats, you name it. I did not see one private vessel of any kind.

As always, I kick myself for not shooting more stills. China is an astonishing place and my expectations were exceeded many times over on every level. Try to visit it one day if you can.

*****************************************************************************

Family History Comes Alive!

My 90 year old Mom has a number of old trunks that contain years and years of family memorabilia. Recently, one of my sisters came across what looked like an old leather billfold. In it was not money, but about 100 old black and white negatives. She sent them out to me to scan and print. The above photo is of my Grandfather T.E. McCready on an unknown vessel in the northern latitudes sometime in the late twenties. Why the lack of specificity? Easy. This is the first time my Mother has seen the photo! He was born in 1898 and she says he looks about 30 in this photo and knew that he sailed in the North Atlantic early in his Coast Guard career. He served in WWI and WWII and retired as a Commander and Chief Engineer the year I was born in 1954.

 

I copied the negative, backlit on a lightbox with a GH4 Lumix using a 12-35mm lens. Imported the marginally over exposed digital "negative" into photoshop and inverted it to a positve image The neg is surprisingly clean and of decent relative sharpness for the day. I'll take it to our local camera store and have it scanned on a high end scanner to see how much more detail the negative contains.

 

Whats of interest to me is the dimension of the negative: 2.5" X 4" and it's modern 1:66:1 aspect ratio. Still trying to figure out what camera took this photo.

The Tech Scout

The “tech scout” is a one of the last big group outings before principal photography begins.  In attendance are all department heads, the cinematographer, the key grip, gaffer and their best boys. To some, this will be the first time they have seen  actual locations connected with the shooting plan developed in prep. The best boys are probably freshly hired, so they’ll be the ones scribbling madly and asking as many questions as time allows.  In addition to be being a very important last chance get together to review and report the progress of everyone during prep – now concepts are actually finally finalized. Such as: placement of base camp, crew parking  and the working trucks. Generator placement and power distribution will be plotted and if there is any night work, grip and electric will have a good idea where the lighting lifts will be set up. The cinematographer will now know in which direction the first shot is and where the cameras will be placed. At this point, everyone is working on Plan A and it’s anyone’s guess how long Plan A will last.

 

“Best Boy”: a crew person charged with the everyday administration of the grip or electrical departments. They closely monitor the schedule and arrange for any special equipment and additional manpower needs required on any given day. They also are responsible for ordering and maintaining the inventory of expendable items such as rope, tape, foil, markers bulbs, in other words, everything required to make the project. Usually best boys are experienced in the craft and can assist on set if necessary. The “Best Boy” is a term that has been around since the beginning of the industry. Nowadays, women can be “Best Boys” - and I know several very good ones.

 

The tech scout fills in many blanks and without it, it is near impossible to arrange for all the equipment and manpower required to accomplish the scene.

 

You’ll see clip boards, set plans, schedules, storyboards, measuring tapes and lots of pictures being taken. Typically, the director won’t attend the tech scout because it is logistically intensive and is critical time specifically set side aside for the benefit of the crew. If a director does attend, he’ll need to be reminded of this, maybe even more than once.

 

Any new equipment or manpower requirements discovered during tech scouting will be added to the “shooting” schedule,  the bible for all scene specific additional special requirements.

 

On larger projects, the tech scout might take several days and involve forty to sixty crew people.

 

Next: The “Production Meeting”.


***************************************
VIEW ALL TIPS OF THE DAY