A few recent shots on Ilford black and white film- my personal favorite.
A few months ago, I was in Los Angeles and grabbed coffee with my friend Eric Steelberg. Eric's a talented cinematographer and mentioned a piece of gear he wanted me to check out. Expecting the latest digital gadget to appear out of his bag, I was surprised to see him pull out a large brick of a camera that I'd never seen before. It was a Polaroid 180 Land Camera from the 1970's.
This was not the type of Polaroid I was familiar with. Eric had one of those as well, a SX-70 loaded with Impossible Project film. But it was the 180 I was drawn to. He arbitrarily took a photo, pulled the sheet of film out of the camera, and 90 seconds later peeled away a photograph of incredible quality. Unlike most Polaroid cameras, the 180 has full manual control, the image is rectangular instead of square, and has a nice white border. Fuji still makes two film stocks for these types of cameras- a 100iso color and 3200iso black and white. Even better, you can buy them on Amazon with free shipping.
I couldn't help but but think of Harry Taylor, this subject of my short documentary American Tintype, and his work. There's something amazing about having a physical photographic print in your hands moments after the photo is taken through a purely mechanical and chemical process. No electronics involved. With Eric's encouragement, I set off to find one for myself and within a month, found a lovely 180 on Ebay.
It's been a joy- The photos look amazing, and everyone gets a kick out of seeing the camera and how the prints develop. My heart always beats faster during the 20-90 second wait during development- as I peel away the photo, I wonder, did I capture the moment I wanted? Did my tricky double exposure work? When everything goes well, the feeling can't be beat.
At the same time that I've embraced analog instant photography, I've also spent more time using Instagram (@mattmorrisfilms). I should note that previously, I'd dismissed both Polaroids and Instagrams as gimmicks. I've had people ask me, "Why take a polaroid when you can get a much better image on medium format? Why use the iPhone when a 5D is a much better tool for the job?" Personally, I thought Instagram was more about people being excited about what they were seeing, not how they were seeing it. However, I couldn't deny the appeal of a more visually dynamic photo being taken on a phone. As I've used it more, I've come to really appreciate it as a photographic exercise. Unlike my 5D or Nikkormat, I have my phone on me at all times. It forces me to constantly think with a photographic mindset. The social aspect of it is nice as well, and it's allowed me to discover some wonderful photographers whose work I might not have otherwise discovered.
So what do the old school and new school have in common? For me, it's all about constraints. I find that embracing limitations allows for creative solutions you might not otherwise find- similar to poetry written with specific rhyme and meter. Both my phone and the Polaroid use fixed lenses and have limited controls. The final product comes directly from the device that took the image, and there's the pleasure of seeing the finished photo within minutes of having an idea. Is it making me a better photographer? I hope so. But mostly, it's just a lot of fun.
More on Land Cameras:
A few photographer friends on Instagram:
On all of my previous films, I've created the titles myself. The process was about as rudementary as it gets, I just used Final Cut Pro's "Add Text" feature. I wanted to try something new and part of the fun of this project was reaching out and collaborating with people that I admired, so I asked Mike Dillon, my producer at EFilm, for advice.
Mike put me in touch with Dan Masciarelli at Method Design, a recent addition to Method Studios. Dan produced the titles for The Avengers, Captain America, and Cloud Atlas, so I was really excited to speak with him. With small projects like this one, you never know how committed large, established companies will be. Fortunately for me, Method was willing to give my little project the full feature treatment, and as a result I ended up with an end credit sequence that really lifts the piece as a whole to a new level.
Dropping off gelato for the hardworking Method team. Loved seeing the signed Tree of Life poster at reception!
The Method Design team for American Tintype: Kaya Thomas, Hee Bok Lee, and Mary Melendez.
When I was in Los Angeles to work on color correction, I was also stopping by Method to work with them on the titles. Kaya and Hee Bok came up with some great options, and from there we worked out a concept- essentially the end credits would visually mimic the process of a tintype developing.
Going over Kaya and Hee Bok's initial design ideas.
The title card background would be tintype plates immersed in a liquid like the "fixer" used to develop a tintype. The credits appear and disappear as more plates are developed. The color scheme would also move from a blueish black and white to a brown image, much like a tintype does during development, and ultimately "dry" at the end.
Filming the liquid elements.
Kaya and Hee Bok filmed liquid elements and then combined them with some After Effects work. Even though filming the liquid elements gave them more work to do in what little time they had, they did it anyway because they knew it would lend itself to a better result. I was impressed with their enthusiastic attitude- with small projects it can be difficult to find people willing to go out of their way to make something the best it can possibly be, but as you may have read from previous blog posts, I was lucky to have brilliantly talented collaborators throughout the post-production process.
Months have passed and I still can't get over how great the titles look. I hope I'm lucky enough to work with Method again in the future!
Scott R. Lewis mixing American Tintype.
Two years ago, I visited Skywalker Ranch for the first time to meet with Bob Edwards and talk about the possibility of working together on Mr. Happy Man. Bob gave me a tour of Skywalker Sound and one of the people he introduced me to was Casey Langfelder. Casey was the sound effects librarian at the time, overseeing the hundreds of thousands of proprietary sound effects. It was his job to cultivate the growing collection, as well as tag the sounds with descriptors and catalogue them for easy search within the facility.
Over the years, I caught up with Casey whenever I dropped by to visit. Last fall, I was excited to hear that Casey was transitioning to editorial work. When I decided to make American Tintype, I had working with Casey in mind from the beginning. Casey took a look at some footage and jumped on board as sound designer, bringing Scott R. Lewis into the mix (pun intended) to help out with the final assembly.
Scott was great in the room, getting everything done quickly and efficiently and working with us on further tweaks. One of the highlights of working at Skywalker Sound is meeting new people, so it was a pleasure sitting with Casey and getting to know Scott and his buddy Jeremy Bowker at lunch. We talked a bit about photography and I discovered that Jeremy's father, Terry, is a pilot who dabbles in photography as a hobby. The quality of his work is pretty incredible, I highly recommend checking out the photos on his website.
Casey and Scott cutting up in the D. A. Pennebaker suite.
Catching up with Bob Edwards, the coolest guy in any room. Bob mixed Mr. Happy Man and his recent work can be heard in Beasts of The Southern Wild.
With the mix finished, I had time to enjoy being at the Ranch. It was the first time I was able to stay on the property at the Inn, so I was excited about exploring. I'd never been in the main house before, and the lovely Eva Porter was kind enough to show me around. It's hard to describe how beautiful the house is. Every corner of every room is filled with gorgeous furniture, paintings, antiques, and the occassional Star Wars or Indiana Jones prop.
Lucasfilm Research Library.
The highlight of the main house is easily the Lucasfilm Research Library. The arts and crafts style room is filled with tens of thousands of books and other research materials. Everything has a soft, warm glow, thanks to the massive stained glass skylight above. Robyn Stanley, one of the librarians, helped me find a few books related to tintypes and took me over to the old Paramount archives to find some tintypes that had been kept on file as reference material for period films.
Outside the Main House.
I spent most of my free time exploring the property on a bicycle. There are lush gardens filled with vegetables that are available to employees, vineyards, olive trees, lakes, and more wildlife than you can imagine. A small family of foxes were always around the Inn, and it's not uncommon to see large groups of wild turkeys intermingling with deer and quail.
There's also a barn area with horses, longhorn cattle, goats, and very free-range chickens (I spotted a few roaming in the woods).
Filmmaking, especially at a large scale, involves maintaining focus for long hours under intense pressure. Working in a beautiful, natural environment is so restorative, relaxing, and creatively inspiring that its easy to see the value of having post-production facilities nestled in the rolling hills of Marin county instead of the traffic-clogged streets of West Hollywood. That kind of atmosphere attracts the best talent and keeps filmmakers coming back with new projects. The Ranch has become one of my favorite places in the world, and the thought of working there again fuels my ambitions to make bigger and better films.