Mark Vargo, ASC

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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.

I’ll be posting a new video about the following in the next few days – here’s a preview of what it’s about.

 

In an attempt to keep people aware that there are non-digital photographic techniques that still work and can be accomplished with a decent camera, elbow grease and ingenuity; I decided to try my hand at building a miniature.

                                                                                         "Glass Shot"

 

I was looking through a book by L.B. Abbott, “Special Effects – Wire, Tape and Rubber Band Style” and saw a couple examples of “in Camera” effects shots. One was a “glass painting” and the other a “hanging miniature”. These were nifty “trick shot” techniques that were used prior to the advent of the optical printer where composites were achieved with separate elements in post production.

 

A glass shot is accomplished outside with a large pane of glass in between the camera and the background that serves as the painters “canvas”.  The glass is aligned with some topographical element that needs enhancement, sky replacement, a distant city or in this case an Italian villa.

                                                                                  "The Schufftan Process"

 

The Germans were especially adept at “in camera” effects shots, Fritz Lang’s incredible “Metropolis” is a monumental photographic achievement.  In addition to glass paintings and  hanging miniatures - “Metropolis”, made extensive use of the Schufftan process, a technique where a front surface mirror was placed at a 45 degree angle to the camera. The mirror reflected a miniature with an area scraped clean for the live action to be seen through. Pretty heady stuff for 1927.

A hanging miniature is a model that is also suspended in between the camera and the background for accomplishing a big time illusion without a big time build. A hanging miniature gives the director more time in the day for the shot because the light and shadow will correspond to the live action background.

 

The blue patches on the face of the miniature will allow the real roof to intermix with the minaiture.

 

I’m doing a hybrid hanging miniature where instead of hanging it with the pick points out of the camera’s view, I’m mounting the lightweight miniature on a blue stick that I can easily key out.

 

I’m not sure why I decided that it should be a “hole” in a roof and throughout the whole process of constructing the thing I was constantly wondering if it would even work. You be the judge!

Less than fifty dollars of craft supplies are needed to construct this 1/16th scale (3/4" to 12") miniature.

                                                                                   "Miniature on a Stick"

 

In the old days this would have been hung with thin wires or affixed to a large pane of glass.

Adding "Patina" to the miniature.

The finished product after 3 test shoots and many additional rounds of supplemental degradation of the miniature. It started to look good after a failed fire test almost destroyed the miniature. Lumix GH-4 - 25mm lens - f 14 - ISO 800 - 96 fps.

                                                                                    COMING SOON!

 

 

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"Mary": Epilogue

The movie finished on schedule despite a one day delay due to Hurricane Nate.

 

Though I was excited to hear the comforting whir of a film camera again, in retrospect I’m not sure that a film system was the best choice for our shoot. The images are beautiful but the cameras and lenses are large and reloading takes time and is a buzz kill for the actors concentration and momentum. You might think that a 65 foot sailboat is large but add two Panavision Cameras plus camera crew, a sound guy and at least two grips and oh yeh, at least two to four actors and our estimable director, Michael Goi and we were flat out of room. Because it was a private vessel, our options for rigging were limited as well, made more problematic by the sheer size of our cameras.

 

Necessity was the mother of invention in every way on this project.

A fairly typical rig on deck of the "Mary". Nothing aboard is either square or level.

 

A digital platform with light weight, super high quality DSLR sized cameras for specialty shots may have broadened our visual canvas and certainly would have saved rigging time. I figure that we spent one entire day on reloading, camera jams, rigging and other associated film camera issues. One day is a lot out of an 18 day schedule.

 

All that aside, I commend DP/Director Michael Goi, ASC. ISC for insisting on film and making the best of a very difficult shoot. I hope the movie meets his expectations and is on to the next one with a larger budget, longer schedule and more prep time.

Moving equipment on a barge to another barge for a storm sequence.

We spent a lot of time in splashbags and they worked as designed.

We were fortunate to have the hydroscope for three days.

 

I’m not bailing on film in any way and I’m convinced that it is a viable production option for  years to come.

There was a little time to take some pictures. This cloud was the beginning a huge thunderstorm that somehow managed to miss us.

Hurricane Nate made landfall 10 hours after I took this photo.

Coast Guard to the rescue!

 

My sincere thanks to “A” camera focus puller, Bryan DeLorenzo, “B” camera focus pullers, Toby White and Charlie Nauman,  “B” camera/ Steadicam operator, Remi Tournois and a special shout out to 2nd AC, Cody Gautreau for his hustle, calmness and grit. A big round of applause for our grip and electric crews led by Gaffer John Magallon and Key Grip Bud Scott. They have stories too!

 

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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.

 

 

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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.


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