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.

Last Man Standing

One of the best things about working in the film business is that you get to meet fascinating, famous and sometimes historic people. I just finished a short trip where I met a man who possesses all three of those attributes and then some.


In my estimation - at least until last week, the two most historic figures I ever met were Walter Cronkite and Buzz Aldrin. I can now add Retired Lt. Colonel Richard Cole, USAF to that very exclusive list. Why? Because Colonel Cole is the last of an 80 man squadron who bombed Tokyo 16 weeks after Pearl Harbor on April 18, 1942. “Dick” was the copilot in the lead plane of that mission, and was seated next to none other than Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the commanding officer of the “Doolittle Raiders.”


During our filmed conversation with Colonel Cole, he re-counted what was special about being a “Raider”, fascinating and harrowing memories of the mission and his cherished relationship with Doolittle. Dick is now 101, and for a man of that age he did especially well in the interview. His answers were deliberate, thoughtful and occasionally wry. In his close-up, I could still see an unmistakable twinkle in his eyes.  We filmed for two days at the impressive National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.


This trip was the first step on the long road of creating an epic mini-series about the monumental Doolittle Raid. The project can be loosely thought of as a “Band of Brothers” for the Pacific Theatre.

“Target Tokyo” is a masterful and must read book about the raid and could end up being the title of the project. If not that, it will certainly serve as the foundation and “Bible” for the forthcoming screenplay upon funding.

From left to right: Vickerman, Col. Cole, Von Ancken, Scott.

The principles on the trip included:  Director - David Von Ancken.    Screenwriter – Michael Vickerman.    Author of “Target Tokyo” – James Scott.    UPM - Meg London-Boche and me as DP.


You can be certain that the Doolittle Raid resides proudly In the pantheon of consequential U.S. military actions.  It’s high time that the heroic efforts of the Doolittle Raiders finally get their well deserved and overdue close up.


The interview was filmed in a double system, three camera setup. Two Lumix GH 4’s were in a side by side, wide and close neutral angle.  A Sony A7 was framed for the profile angle.  We shot in an uncontrolled museum environment where anyone who came upon us stopped and watched for awhile. All of them recognized that something special was happening.


Thank you Colonel Cole for enriching all of  our lives.


What's the temperature of your white balance?

Filters have been replaced by scores of creative options at your fingertips!

Color Temperature. noun: the temperature at which a black body would emit radiation of the same color as a given object.


Lord William Thomson Kelvin was an accomplished mathematical physicist known for his advanced work in thermodynamics. He is credited with accurately determining the correct numerical value of absolute zero. (-273.15 C) Because of his contribution to science and engineering, absolute temperatures are stated in units of kelvin in his honor.


As photographers we don’t relate to “black bodies” and emitted radiation scientifically, but rather creatively by adjusting the white balance of our camera sensors electronically, or with color correction filters for emulsion based film.

FILM - Almost every DP I know prefers the look of Tungsten balanced (3200K) film for day exteriors. They’ll put an orange filter (#85) in front of the lens to convert the daylight 5600K to 3200K - tungsten. To keep a little more of the blue, you can accomplish a “half” correction with an 81EF filter that corrects to 4400K. In 1989, Kodak introduced a daylight balanced emulsion that did not require a color correction filter. I never liked the look of 5245/50D film because it was contrasty and lacked color vibrancy. 


Under certain fluorescent lights, a light magenta filter could be added to minimize the green spike in those otherwise tungsten fixtures. In general, there are just a few filters that DP's use to effect the color balance while shooting tungsten film. Once exposed though, a myriad of different looks can be introduced in post while creating a digital intermediate.

Lord Kelvin is bookended by an extreme range of color temperatures. From the barely actuated, low temperature tungsten filaments, to an off the color temperature charts - super high energy lightning strike. Shades of red and orange represent the lowest end of color temperature, while white light transitioning to blue light reside at the top of the Kelvin scale.

DIGITAL – With electronic sensors instead of film, we have the amazing ability to choose practically an infinite number of color temperatures prior to imaging. I tend to play it a bit safe, because I can’t “un-bake” an unconventional “look”, later on. I’m old school and tend to do most of my image processing in post, where there are many options and I’m more objective. I must say though, the ability to “custom” white balance because of some strange light source is very cool. I custom white balance almost everything I shoot these days, something that just isn’t possible with film without shooting a test first, just to be sure.

Photo credit: “Lightning from the Thunderhead” – Kara Swanson


Train to Nowhere

I  love trains, grew up with them – and go out of my way to get on one.  I’m also a realist. When I heard that legislators in Sacramento wanted to build a high speed train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, I did not rejoice because it didn’t make sense. Especially when I heard the estimated cost - ($100 Billion) - which was astronomical and only an estimate. Being a resident of California and suspicious of huge government projects, I decided to make a video that illustrated the relative costs of such an endeavor, in our car crazy culture.


To accomplish that, I needed to buy a train and build a model.


As a team member at ILM and Boss Film Corporation I was exposed to the best model and creature shops in the world.  What rubbed off on me is that they were inventing reality. If they could, then so could I - albeit on a much smaller scale.

My reality was the desert southwest, quite possibly the easiest topography to re-create.


I bought an HO scale “ACELA” train kit and planned  the rest of the background  scaled on that HO size and distance the train needed to travel. In this case – just a quarter of a mile. Luckily, that all played perfectly on a 4x8 sheet of plywood. (I actually did the arithmetic.)


The mountains are card board cut outs but the near and foreground mesas are shaped from canned foam insulation and painted with textured spray paints available in any hardware store. I shaped these “mesas” with a coarse rasp and heavy grit sandpaper. There is no set shape for these land features, so I sculpted them to camera. For those of you who know the southwest,  the topography is somewhat repetitive for hundreds of miles. Sandy, barren - god forsaken land. I happen to like it,  and enjoyed recreating it on a very small scale. I shopped for HO fencing, livestock and a hut or two. The small trees are dead weeds, the stones and sand I harvested from my yard. All in, excluding the train – maybe $125.


I also built a slider for the project that I use to this day. The key to the success of any model is believable lighting and maximum depth of field. Nothing says miniature like a train that isn’t completely in focus.


The model was built on a rolling table so it could be wheeled outside for a realistic look. In this case, backlit sunlight - bright enough to shoot at f 22.  That f-stop that gave us enough depth of field to keep everything in focus on our tiny set. (Canon XA-10). I didn’t cut the sun flares as I thought it might help with the illusion. In the end – no one was fooled - but the financial point was made - visually. That was my goal - and I learned some great new things while achieving it.


Watch "California High Speed Rail"


A Technicolor Camera that works!

I’m down in Los Angeles looking for work - but I have lots of friends here too. One of them is a mentor of mine named Richard Edlund, ASC. Please look him up. He’s a Renaissance analog man who transitioned to the digital age seamlessly. I’m pretty sure, that if he has dreams about movie stuff, it’s not in the present day. He has an amazing collection of cameras that represent every significant advance in the art of cinematography. There simply isn’t anyone else in the world like Edlund. Part mad scientist, part inventor, storyteller, historian and four time Oscar winner, in short – our modern day polymath.

We talked about lots of things in our get together. I heard months before that he had just finished restoring a three strip Technicolor camera. Knowing him as I do, that meant that there is only one three-strip camera in our solar system that is operational – and it belongs to Richard. It was a cathartic moment for me to see this machine run. It sounded like a symphony of sewing machines. I know a little bit about fabrication and precision. I spent ten years in a business where if a shot wasn’t rock steady, it was unusable. The demands on the success of a three pass Technicolor shot in an age before estar base stocks is mind blowing to me. Don’t forget, the parts in use at the time were fabricated by hand, long before CNC mills and lathes. It’s photographic masochism on an unprecedented level.


What drives a man to salvage a Technicolor camera?  Richard reminds me of Gutzon Borglum - the man behind Mount Rushmore.


Anyway. Here is what a three-strip camera looks like on the inside. The white leaders are “dummy” loads. The actual black and white raw stock would have been grayish in appearance. Those of you who shot Tri-X know what it looks like.

The green record (predominate color in the visible spectrum) is photographed alone, where the red and blue records are captured in bi-pack with specially coated red stock and orthochromatic blue sensitive film. A one of a kind, multi-colored prism assists in dividing the light into red, green and blue bands. Amazingly complicated and mind blowing even by todays standards - much less - 82 years ago -  and on so many levels too. Not just the reproduction of color and image integrity but the precision required to make a perfect three pass composite color print that will be blown up from a poker chip sized negative to a fifty foot wide screen. Remember, a technicolor print is dyed in three registered passes. Color film had not been invented yet! The precision of the machining necessary to pull off this visual feat is something that never gets enough attention. Richard Edlund wants people to know a bit more about what went on behind the scenes in those machine shops and film labs in years gone by. He has breathed new life into a system that was left for dead, an amazing system that needs new recognition for it’s complexity, precision and it’s success in creating ruby red slippers at the end of the black and white era.


Storyboards: The imaging begins.

The best way to get everyone on the same page is to create storyboards.


Storyboards have been around for a long time. Think prehistoric cave paintings. In fact, some of my drawings look just like some of those ancient pictograms! One of the reason’s I encourage students of film to learn how to draw, is because sooner or later, a drawing will convey a vision far more effectively than words ever could. Particularly if you’re working abroad where language is already an issue.


Drawing is one of those skills that with practice you actually can get better.


The collage of storyboards pictured above is a good cross sample of the boards I’ve worked with in my career. In the eighties most visual effects companies had in-house art departments that would create storyboards and key frame production paintings that captured the scale, mood and dramatic intent of a particular scene or moment in the script. Most storyboards in those days represented all of the elements in each shot that could be broken down into schedulable and budgetary terms - a visual menu if you will. Art departments needed a lot of wall space because each board was tacked up, in sequence, for all to see and talk about.

Storyboards should be drawn with the projects aspect ratio in mind. The three boards across the top are drawn in the 2:40 to 1 or “widescreen” format. In the old, old days art directors would actually draw with a specific lens in mind from a shoot-able spot determined from a plan view drawing - now that’s knowing your set.

What’s inherent to storyboards is that they are static and Pre-Visualization is not. This animated process gives the director a peek into the possibilities of framing, speed and scale of a sequence. It’s a moving storyboard that can be edited and improved upon prior to actual shooting. The down side of pre-vis is that the animator may create something that is very difficult if not impossible to shoot. A lens too wide, a camera move that’s too fast or a focus and magnification issue that is un-obtainable with standard equipment. Also, if everyone falls in love with the pre-vis it denies the filmmakers a chance to improve the sequence in the real world with real people. This actually happened to me once on a very big feature film: I thought I came up with a better, more efficient way to shoot a scene, pitched it passionately but was ultimately shot down because, “the studio likes it the way it is.” They had seen the pre-vis and wanted it shot exactly that way. Boring, and we also had to reshoot parts of it because the pre-vis didn’t translate well to live-action. I tried to warn them!

On the other hand, a storyboard is a guide that’s expected to be improved upon during production. It’s an inventory of beats that will be photographed in a real setting. Screen direction and blocking will be established on the day. In other words, don’t be constrained by the boards.


It’s why we mostly only board action bits and Visual FX sequences. Anything complex and potentially expensive should be planned as meticulously as possible. Never show up on the day without the equipment you need and a couple of sketches on a napkin. Please don’t prepare that way because the crew will punish you for it.


We don’t board much in TV because they don’t want to pay for the illustrations and there is rarely enough time to shoot the scenes properly as it is. In those cases, I’ll do some simple drawings of my own to keep track of the moments that are essential to the sequence.


Work on your drawing, it’s a very handy thing to know how to do.


Farewell, SALEM.

After 3 years of adventure, SALEM has been cancelled. I was looking forward to a season 4 with new ideas about how to make the show look even better. I will miss the crew and Shreveport locals who I came to meet and work with. It was a wonderful experience and I move on as a better cinematographer. So on to new frontiers - I'll head to LA in a few weeks and see what I can scare up. Meanwhile, I'm available - pass it on!


Small Chip, Big Chip

 (micro 4/3 v. full frame: magnification )

In the final analysis I think you’ll want both.


Quality versus pack ability, price versus practicality – lots to talk about, but not today. The point of this post is to demonstrate the difference in apparent magnification between small chip and big chip cameras.


I’ve always been interested in different film formats having worked with so many of them as a visual effects artist at ILM and Boss Film Corp. In those days, larger film formats like Vista Vision and 65mm were used to preserve maximum quality due to generation loss - inherent in optical composite printing and subsequent release print processes.  For proof, look no further than an Imax film for superior image quality from a large original negative.

In general, the image quality of a small chip compared to a big chip is far less obvious than comparing super 16mm and Vista Vision images. Digital images aren’t plagued with grain, dirt and negative scratches that are far more onerous on smaller film formats. Plus, the data is digital rather than emulsion based, so there’s no perceptible quality loss in sharing and copying back. In other words, NO emulsion based printing intermediates are required for VFX or release printing. For more about printing intermediates check out my “Blue Screen 1980”.


The playing field is far more level when comparing digital sensor sizes for color, detail and sensitivity. In fact, the only notable difference is the apparent image magnification relative to the sensor size in a camera.  Below are some comparative examples of magnification or more precisely: the Field of View differences between small and large chip cameras.

For those of you considering a wide angle theme for your next project, a big chip camera might be the way to go. Beautiful wide shots are possible without resorting to spherically imperfect “wide angle” lenses. To get undistorted, high quality wide shots with a small chip camera, you’ll need pricey 8, 10, or 12mm lenses. I recommend shooting some tests before you commit to one or the other.

In all of the test photo’s, the truck was 300’ from camera. The 100mm lens in the big chip frame renders a horizontal view of 108’ and a vertical height of 60’. The small chip horizontal is 52’ with a vertical dimension of 29’ – almost twice as tight as the Canon 5D field of view. So, to match the size of the Lumix small chip 100mm image, you’ll need a 200mm lens on the big chip camera.

f you’re thinking about lensing your next project with a telephoto feel, a small chip camera might be the way to go. The micro 4/3 line of long lenses are small, lightweight, reasonably fast and well priced. To match the 150mm micro small chip example above, you would need a 300mm lens and that can be one big hunk of expensive glass. Think about all the camcorders you’ve owned, lousy on the “wide” end with way more telephoto than a novice ever needed. That’s because those cameras have a very small sensor - an unfortunate,  almost counterintuitive design for the beginner resulting in shaky, unwatchable family memories.


The lens on the left is a Micro 4/3 Olympus 40-150mm f4-6.3 zoom that I bought used for $125.  The lens on the right is a Canon 70-200mm f2.8L zoom that I bought used for $1600. I shot with these two lenses for this post. The 50mm full frame was photographed with 17-55mm f2.8L zoom. If you’re thinking about buying a very good 300mm prime or zoom lens, check out the pricing options below.

Final thoughts. When shooting for the highest quality possible, bring your full frame sensor camera and lenses. If you need a big telephoto, rent it. You can’t beat the large “negative” image that can be blown up to billboard size prints. If you’re packing light, a micro 4/3 system with a couple of zoom lenses is more than adequate and it’s what I take on vacation, location and wildlife shoots. The images are very good and the replacement cost if lost or stolen won’t break the bank or your heart.


In the final analysis I think you’ll want both.

hartsville, sc

I've been getting a lot of traffic from this small town in South Carolina.
I would love to hear from one of you! MV