Mark Vargo, ASC

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Allen Easton operates the first shot of the day.


The following is an excerpt from a book I'm writing, "A Filmmakers Guide to Success". This passage is from the Production section of the text.


Day One - here we go!

As I mentioned earlier, many 1st AD’s will try to schedule a couple of easy days at the front of the schedule. This allows the crew to get off to a good start in the eyes of the producers and the studio. Keeping the studio happy means less interference from nervous studio executives who may have stuck their necks out for the project, the director or the lead actors.


On the first day of principal photography, everyone is excited to finally start shooting, enough with the meetings and memo’s. On day one, we rarely get off to a fast start, and once behind schedule it can be difficult to catch up. Success depends on getting the actors to the set on time. The Hair and Make-up teams will take a bit more time today, especially if an actor suddenly decides that their character “look” isn’t working. This can be a real problem and a bad omen. Eventually, the actor will get out of the chair and show up for rehearsals and blocking, though not in full costume or finished make-up.


It’s now time to rehearse the first scene and much discussion might occur for the benefit of the story. On almost every project, there has always been an actor that challenges the director in some way regarding the notion and mechanics of a scene. This can be hard to watch and listen to. Eventually, a compromise is reached at the cost of expensive production time and momentum. Makes me wonder why certain actors with this reputation ever get cast. I never look forward to shooting scenes with actors who are perpetually dissatisfied or difficult and whenever I see them coming I say to myself, “Throw out the Anchor.” You’ll get no names from me.


When everyone is finally on the same page, the process of creating a scene begins. Most actors perform at half speed when rehearsing. Often times they’ll be referring to the script for their lines. I’m a keen observer of rehearsals and it’s the DP's job to help actors get to places that are better for camera and lighting. Like staying out of corners or playing to the lens a bit more. If I see a potential blocking issue - adjustments should be made before everyone gets to used to playing it a certain way. Diplomacy is key here and the blocking revisions should be fair to the actor’s instincts while serving the technical necessities. Sometimes an actor will say no to the new idea and that’s certainly their prerogative. The camera operators input is encouraged at this time because they are thinking about the entire shot and not just the first position. They need to make sure the coverage of the actor is maximized while staying out of each others way. They will work things out together quietly and efficiently - most of the time.

Camera Operator - James Reid


The First Shot

Throughout the entire rehearsal process Cinematographers are thinking about where the camera will be placed for the first shot. Convention dictates that it will usually be a wide shot where the actors play the scene out in a master shot. Master, meaning that all the actors will be included in a shot that designates their geography and movement within the set. In the studio, the first shot is a bit easier to find because we control the lighting and can move set walls if necessary. But if on location in a room with windows, you’ll want to shoot in the direction of the windows first because the natural ambient light will change rapidly. On lower budget projects where there isn’t a large grip department to control the natural light, its all the more important to shoot the angles toward the windows early on.


As a general rule, the first shot establishes the geography, actor action, screen direction and the lighting scheme. This first camera angle is foundational and all of the subsequent coverage will be informed by it.


When I’m watching a rehearsal and committing to the first shot, I’ll have a reasonable idea about what the next five setups will be. Sometimes directors do not plan that far ahead in the coverage scheme. Now’s the time to quickly review what those shots will be and not just for the director, but for the entire on set crew so they can be planning for their departments needs accordingly. It is usually at this point where the director will discuss any “specialty” shots he wants to add to the general coverage. These shots can be anything from using an unusual lens, shooting at a different frame rate, adding a filter or diopter, introducing a lighting effect or choosing an odd angle that might suggest a different point of view. In other words something “special” and out of the ordinary.


On a television show, where several scenes are shot each day, there are many “first” shots to design. Don’t get careless with these, I’ve seen many a director insist on starting in a direction that ends up being wrong and painful to recover from. It can be stressful and embarrassing and the crew is very sensitive to these “rookie” errors.


Once an exterior location is selected in prep, I’ll visit it a couple of times and shoot a lighting study. Before production starts the director and I will already know where the first camera position will be for the scene - and more often than not, it will feature all of the action in backlight.


If eventually you’ll be travelling to a distant location on a lower budget film, one can plan a shot with Google Earth and any solar positioning application. I’ve done it successfully many times without any issues or surprises.


The Importance of the First or Master Shot:


1. Establishes Geography, Actor Action and Lighting.

2. Defines the “Stage Line” or screen direction.

3. All subsequent camera coverage is informed by this first angle.

4. Scene length can be quantified and recorded by the script supervisor.



Have just finished an episode on NCIS LA as their B Camera Operator. What a pleasure working on an extremely well run television show. They are in their 9th season and are shooting on the Paramount lot occupying stages 8 and 9. It was fun for me to sit back and watch everyone else tear their hair out for a change. I love operating and especially with a cast that hits their marks time and again. My friend Terence Nightingall directed "Warriors of Peace" and it should be on sometime in March. Would love to return to this considerate and professional team!



Check out my latest video on how to create an awesome meteor strike illusion at the Premiumbeat tutorial channel on Youtube.



"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!



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…


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.