Creative Content Wire article. What’s Your Story? Cinematographer Pietro Villani Tells Us His
Los Angeles-based cinematographer Pietro Villani has been shooting movies, documentaries, shorts and commercials worldwide for 18 years. His most recent film is Rubber Tree Productions’ “I’m Not Here,” starring J.K. Simmons and directed by Michelle Schumacher. The feature is an intimately filmed, haunting study on memory and the paths in life that lead to unplanned places. Other credits for this Brooklyn native include “Nathan’s Kingdom,” (2018) which has had a successful run on the film festival circuit, and “Like Cotton Twines,” for which he won Best Cinematography at the 2016 Ghana Movie Awards.
What was your pathway into this field? “During the Depression my grandparents and mom went to movies all the time: It was cheap entertainment. Old habits die hard, and my grandparents took me to movies a lot – probably some I shouldn’t have gone to at my age!
My junior college, Fullerton College, had a film and TV program, and during this time I got my first crew job working on a movie called ‘Dream Parlor.’ Then I got into Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film & Media Arts where I thought I was going to be a director. I took all the directing, screenwriting and cinematography classes, and I discovered I enjoyed being behind the camera.
After going to Chapman and figuring out what I wanted to do, I attended the American Film Institute Conservatory, where I earned an MFA in cinematography. I didn’t think I’d get in – they’re very selective. But I had done a couple of projects and applied and was accepted into the cinematography program. From that point it was full on, it was a career for me.”
What do you feel you learned the most from? “My mistakes. And the mistakes of others, too. My first mentor, Jurg Walther, who was my first cinematography teacher at Chapman, told me that. School gives you the tools to go out in the real world where every time you work it’s an unknown. So you’re open to making mistakes – and you will make a lot of them, sometimes painful ones. But you can learn from them.
The best training is on the job. I started from the ground up putting down cable, doing lighting, gaffing, operating and eventually shooting 2nd unit. It was the best way to learn. Early in my career I was lucky enough to be able to watch a group of cinematographers with resumes full of great films: Bill Pope, ASC, Paul Cameron, ASC, John Lindley, ASC. I could go up to them and ask them anything, and they were very free with their knowledge. I still talk to them.”
What do you think people need to succeed in this field? “Talent is important, but mental toughness is another key attribute. There are peaks and valleys in this business; you get great jobs and bad jobs, you have busy periods and slow periods. This isn’t a sprint: It’s a marathon. Being mentally strong is an asset.
When you work on set you sometimes run into difficult individuals, people who can be really nasty. And certain locations can be taxing physically and mentally. I shot ‘Like Cotton Twines’ and one season of the TV series ‘40 and Single’ (2018) in Ghana. In places like that the film industry is so small that they’re not used to doing what we do on a regular basis or at our level.
I used to look at some of the credits of my teachers and wonder why are they teaching? But people get tired of this business, and they get out of it. I understand that.”
What is the project you’re most proud of? “The smallest projects can be the most challenging. I won an Emerging Cinematographer Award [from International Cinematographer Guild Local 600] for the short film, ‘CarJack’ (2011), directed by Jeremiah Jones. We shut the freeway down to shoot a car chase! A lot of times people attempt this kind of production, and it doesn’t work. But I credit Jeremiah, who also wrote the film, for giving the story a beginning, a middle and an end, all action-based.
I’m also proud of ‘Like Cotton Twines,’ which was also not an easy film to shoot. We were battling the humidity in Ghana, and the crew wasn’t at the same level I was used to in Hollywood, although it was composed of extremely hard-working people who gave it their all. But it turned out to be a great film.”
What is the toughest problem you’ve solved? “We had to pull off some pretty big stuff on ‘Like Cotton Twines,’ where we didn’t have the equipment we use here. Every time we went into a scene I had to think of the resources available. There was a less than ideal amount of equipment and limitations to the equipment we did have. So I really had to think about how every unit was going to be used more than normally.
It’s easy when you have all the equipment and crew in the world, but having limited resources makes you sharpen your skills. When I got back from Africa, I was sharp! A small movie still has to hang with the big boys – it has to meet a certain standard; there’s no disclaimer on a small movie.”
What is the most fun you’ve had on a project? “In 2018 I shot ‘Nanny Surveillance,’ directed by long-time collaborator Olu Odebunmi, in LA for Lifetime. We all had such a good time. I had a lot of my regular crew on set and also a lot of people in the production team itself; I went to Chapman with some of them. So, great people pretty much from top to bottom. We were like a family. It’s great when those times come along. When it’s good, it’s good!”
What is your most indispensable tool? “My brain, the store of knowledge I’ve accumulated and my mental toughness. If I had to pick a gadget it would be my light meter. Even though I shoot digitally I still think in the analog world – it’s the way I came up. Monitors can be off in their calibration so I like to tie the meter to the camera.”
What are you currently working on? “I’m prepping a series of promos to be shot in Ethiopia. And I’m in soft prep for ‘All the Children Are Insane,’ a movie I’ve been attached to for a long time. I day-play as an operator on the TV series ‘S.W.A.T.,’ among other shows. The DP of ‘S.W.A.T’ is Francis Kenny, ASC, a veteran cinematographer, highly talented and such a nice man to work for. I like to help other DPs and try to make their lives easier when I operate.”
What is your passion project? “‘CarJack’ was a passion project. I have a screenwriter friend whom I’m trying to help get a dramatic feature made. ‘The Bow Hunter’ wouldn’t need a big budget and would shoot in the Pacific Northwest. I’d also love to do a western – I think it would be fun to shoot.”
How do you pay it forward? “I used to be an AFI mentor, which was great – they pair you with a student, you give advice and you go on set and visit them on their thesis project. I try to pass on my knowledge to anyone who asks me questions since people have done the same for me in my career.”
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned? “Take care of your crew because, in the end, they take care of you. I came up through crewing and always have the greatest respect for my crews. My second lesson would be to go with your gut feeling. Nine times out of ten it’s the right decision. If it feels like you’re supposed to do it, you should.”
Voyage LA Article, Meet Pietro Villani
Today we’d like to introduce you to Pietro Villani.
Pietro, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I started out in the film industry in the set lighting dept. And eventually, I went to college. My undergrad was from Chapman University Dodge College of Film & Media Arts in 2002, and then I earned my MFA in Cinematography from the American Film Institute Conservatory in 2004.When I got out of school, I went back into lighting and would shoot whenever possible. Meanwhile, I was gaffing. When I wasn’t busy shooting my own stuff, I would shoot second unit for some of the DP’s I gaffed for. This eventually led to me shooting features and commercials. I just finished shooting my 18th feature film.
In 2012, I won the Emerging Cinematographer Award for the Local 600 camera guild. I recently won a Ghana movie award for a feature called “Like Cotton Twines.” As of lately, I have been getting into shooting TV and just finished shooting a show call “40 and Single” for UMC.
Has it been a smooth road?
I wouldn’t call it smooth. First, there are currently way too many people trying to get in the film industry and everyone calls themselves a DP now. Its the same in other disciplines as well (directing, producing, etc.). It’s interesting, because many times the best person is not always picked for the job.
You also have the fact that when you are not working as a DP coming up through the ranks, some people don’t see you other than what your title is that day. For instance, I would occasionally gaff for a DP that often worked with the same producer. One time the DP wasn’t available and recommended me to shoot for this producer. After the job, the producer told me he never thought of me in the capacity of DP. It’s a weird thing.
This industry is not easy. But I always say that your work speaks for itself, and I always strive to do the best job I can no matter the budget or level of difficulty.
We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I am a director of photography. I am responsible for the look of a film. So camera and lighting is my area of expertise. I work with the director to bring their vision to life. I have done everything from Commercials to TV shows as of lately, but features is what I am known for and what I prefer to do.
I am proud of some of the smallest films I have done. (Nathan’s Kingdom and Like Cotton Twines) They were the most challenging. When you make these films, there is no disclaimer saying, Please forgive this low budget movie cause it needs a pass card to compete with a larger budget film. A film is a film whether its low budget or not, and it must live up to being a film.
I think what sets me apart a lot of time is that I stay true to the films that I do. A cool shot is just a cool shot, but if it doesn’t support the film, then what is it? A perfect example of this is ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ Now it doesn’t have flashy photography, but it is a cinematic masterpiece. It is exactly what it should be. Done by one of the greatest cinematographers Roger Deakins.
Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
Of course, I love the weather, you just can’t beat it. What I do dislike is the large numbers of people and the traffic. However, when shooting in LA, the best crews and support are at your disposal. There is no place like it.
British Society of Cinematographers
A SUBTLE SHIFT IN FOCUS
ACROSS THE POND / MARK LONDON WILLIAMS
THE FIRST NEW COLUMN OF SPRING FINDS US, ONCE AGAIN, “BETWEEN FRAMES,” AS IT WERE. IN THE ANNUAL CALENDAR’S RELENTLESS MARCH - NAB! CINE GEAR! EMMY! OSCAR! - THERE IS A BRIEF EXHALATION WHEN AWARD SEASON WRAPS UP, AND WE CAN CONTEMPLATE OTHER MOVIES AND OTHER WORK. BEFORE, OF COURSE, WE’RE OFF TO THAT SAME NAB IMMEDIATELY AFTER FILING THIS.
Nor was Schreiber the only DP in our current roundup to draw inspiration from her time living in New York. The city “has a lot of what I call natural culture and character,” according to Pietro Villani, the DP behind the indie film I’m Not Here, which was shot a couple years prior and is just now seeing release. Of NY, and perhaps specifically his native Brooklyn, he says “it’s one of those cities that’s not trying to be anything. I think the old world feel of New York gives a certain vibe. It’s home for me even though I haven’t lived there for many years, but I visit often.”
Whether development and real estate pressures have allowed NY to retain that charm is a subject of debate, but the themes of I’m Not Here are about changes almost entirely unwelcome, as J.K. Simmons, in a wordless turn, plays a man who is celebrating his birthday alone, in a dark, barely lit house, looking back on his life, realizing his string has been played out - and deciding whether to make this his very last birthday or not.
It’s to the credit of Villani’s lighting - and Danielle Aziz’s art direction - that the film absolutely looks like it was shot in a real house, with practical lights.
“About 95% of the film was shot on a stage on a set,” he reveals. “If there is a practical in the frame, there was a movie light doing the push. There is a scene where it may seem like the hanging light is lighting him, but it wasn’t. All that did was give motivation.”
That motivation was captured “on two cameras: an ARRI ALEXA XT and Mini, with Panavision Vintage Ultra Speeds and Primos. Present day stuff is much lower lit across the board. You have a lot of single source style lighting. The ambient light was achieved by SourceMaker blanket light above the set achieving a cool ambient tone with a neutral key push from traditional tungsten heads.”
Best known for his work on I'm Not Here starring JK Simmons and Sebastian Stan, Pietro Villani is an LA based cinematographer with 18 years of experience in movies, commercials, and documentaries. Pietro talks to Mandy News about how he began his career as a lighting technician, working on movies like Spiderman, Dreamgirls, moving on to become a cinematographer. By James Collins
How did you get involved in the film industry? My grandparents used to take me and my mom to the theatre, they lived through the depression and they would say movies were a way to escape. When I got to college, where I think you find your way, I took some film history classes and of course I watched films too but when I decided to get into the industry I don’t think I wanted to be a cinematographer, I wanted to be a director. But, as I started working I found I really liked the images, I had always enjoyed good looking films. I felt like after I had done some camera stuff, maybe I didn’t want to be a director, I felt the camera was one of the most important jobs and the one I enjoyed the most. The camera was what I gravitated to.
How did you get involved with ‘I’m not Here’? I had done Michelle Schumacher’s first film as a director. I shot a short film and there was an actress in it who used to babysit for the director. The director was cutting her show reel and she saw my work, and at the time she was looking for a DOP. I got an interview and was hired. We got along and when this came up a few years later she asked me to do it. The film is basically about a man who is reflecting on his life, he’s an alcoholic and he’s dying. It’s a very deep film that raises questions about the choices we make. It’s a thought provoking film.
What was the approach to the look of the film? There are these periods in the film; when the character is a little boy, then in college and then his ending days of life, so the film has a different look for each period. We did unofficial prep on the film for a year, I gave notes on an early script and then Michelle sent me her thoughts. We would exchange calls and photos and came to an agreement on the approach and that we didn’t want jarring flashbacks. The three looks are different but we have been told by people that it looks very subtle. The early flashbacks were shot on different lenses, hand-picked at Panavision, for the second period we used a set of Primo’s and for the third, Primo’s but with lots of lighting changes.
What are you working on at the moment? I’m attached to some films, a feature in the fall and another with the producers from ‘I’m Not Here’. Right now there is a lot of stuff going on, it’s the start of the year so some things have been pushed but we are currently waiting to hear about a project due to shoot in two months. Also, when I don’t shoot I operate. I work for a couple of DP’s and it’s nice to go help as I know what they need. I know the plight of the DP first hand because I live it.
What advice would do you have for up-and-coming Cinematographers? Get on set and wear those hats, try those things and you will find you passion and your place. I worked as a lighting technician on some of the biggest films in Hollywood for some of the best DOP’s and directors like; Paul Cameron and John Lindley, some of the greatest cameramen of all time. You can learn about other departments on set as you can observe, I went to two film schools and of course I learnt stuff I feel I learnt even more by shooting my own stuff and by just being on set.
SHOT ON VARICAM MAGAZINE
New Africa, DP Pietro Villani shoots UMC TV series, 40 and Single with EVA1
Written and directed by Leila Djansi, 40 and Single is an UMC (Urban Movie Channel) television series that tells the story of a bisexual, mixed race, single bridal fashion designer as she maneuvers life and business in post-colonial Africa. It recently won the Audience Award at The LA Film Festival for Episodic Pilot and was shot by cinematographer Pietro Villani with the EVA1 cinema camera.
According to Villani, the biggest challenge in shooting 40 and Single was shooting in Ghana, which has no production infrastructure. Because of this, he needed a camera that was compact and lightweight for run-and-gun shooting, could capture in low-light environments, and had wide dynamic range for uncontrolled lighting environments. “You sacrifice having your usual gear and crew in trade for a beautiful country and their hard working crew,” says Villani. “We had a fair amount of night exteriors and I needed a camera that could use the existing street light as a base. Condors were not in the budget and they don’t really use them in Ghana, so a camera that could handle that amount of low light was necessary. In the daylight shots, I had a cast with mixed skin tones – dark, medium, and light – to deal with in an uncontrolled environment with small HMI heads.”
Due to the show’s modest budget, Villani knew he had to be creative in his approach to the visuals. He and Djansi had previously shot a feature film in Ghana and wanted to create a completely different look. “I did tests on dark skin people here in the U.S. and tried different looks,” explains Villani. “For this movie, we just touched on references in the film and art world, but we tried to approach it as if it was the first time anyone had shot in Ghana, or Africa.”
With the EVA1, Villani shot in UHD (3840x2160) at 23.98-fps in 10-bit 422 LongGOP 150. (The ALL-I 400Mbps codec had not been released at the time of shooting.) “I was shooting mixed skin colors so I need the most range I could get,” reveals Villani. “I like the Panasonic V709 LUT because it’s a little aggressive, which gives me safety since the blacks are very crushed and the whites are pushed. I did many tests back in LA with my D.I.T., Dino Dumandan. I would always look at the V-Log before we shot and gauged it there.”
For many of the night exteriors, Villani shot under street lights and added his own small fixtures to accent the feel of the sodium vapor lamps in Ghana. “I set the ISO at 2500 base and then dialed down to 1600,” he says. “There was no noise. It is hard to get used to cranking up the camera and shooting that way. Old habits die hard and new ground is sometimes scary, so you could say I played it safe.” For lenses, Villani went with Canon Cinema EOS primes. According to Villani, the Canon lenses felt right with the EVA1 and had the speed he needed for night exteriors.
One of the most difficult scenes was shot in a bridal shop, which had tinted windows that were an ND 12 and were similar to ½ CTO. “I had two 4K HMI pars that I would blast through windows, but I had to gel them to 1/2 CTB to combat the tint,” says Villani. “I didn’t get the push I wanted so I had to get creative with exposure and placement of interior heads. Because of this, there wasn’t as much ambient light in the room so I had to place small lights inside to bring up the ambient and help the windows wrap. I have to say that watching the footage you would never know the issues I had to deal with. People will watch the scenes and say, “Oh, that daylight interior with plenty of windows must have been easy to shoot.”
40 and Single was posted at Simerly Post Productions. Villani set his looks by grading still images on his own computer and would send them to his colorist for reference. “I like sending stills that I corrected because I feel it gets them thinking about the grade before I arrive,” explains Villani. “The way this show was posted, I could spend some time in the suite coloring like a feature, but not to the full extent.
“The EVA1 really lived up to and surpassed what I thought it would be capable of doing,” continues Villani. “Great latitude, image, workflow, and capabilities. As Dino said many times, ‘I can’t believe how great this camera is.' I’m still floored at seeing the footage that came out of this little camera."
NY Times Article on UMC mentioning "Like Cotton Twines"
By GLENN KENNY APRIL 21, 2017
The Urban Movie Channel, or UMC, also features five features directed by the Ghanaian filmmaker Leila Djansi, including her most recent, “Like Cotton Twines,” from 2016. The drama is a sensitive, beautifully shot story about “Trokosi,” described in the opening as “a practice of religious slavery found in parts of Western Africa,” in which a virgin girl is given up by a family whose member has been found guilty of a crime. The picture depicts an American teacher in Ghana (Jay Ellis of the HBO series “Insecure”) attempting to rescue a student from being traded away by her father.
Like Cotton Twines wins big at Ghana Movie Awards 2016
By Pep Junia December 5, 2016
Among other wins at the 2016 Ghana Movie Awards Pietro Villani wins BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY for the feature LIKE COTTON TWINES
Eye Piece: Like Cotton Twines Went Digital to Capture the Depth of Ghana’s Beauty
By MM Staff on November 1, 2016
Shooting under the blazing hot sun in Ghana’s salt fields isn’t an easy feat.
High temperatures and brutal humidity can affect cameras and gear, and there isn’t exactly a support center nearby if technical assistance was needed.
DP Pietro Villani found himself in a tricky situation when shooting Like Cotton Twines on location in West Africa. With the film taking place in Ghana, it only made sense to shoot there so the country’s scenic beauty could be properly captured. That meant that Villani and his gear had to be prepared for what the shooting conditions would bring.
Like Cotton Twines is an independent feature that follows Micah, an American volunteer who goes to Ghana to teach and experience his mother’s homeland. Micah teaches at a school in a village where he meets Tuigi, a smart 14-year-old student. Tuigi’s fate is changed when her family must atone for an accident committed by her father and, by custom, she must abandon her education and become a Trokosi, a religious sex slave. Directed and written by Ghanian moviemaker Leila Djansi, Like Cotton Twines explores how Micah fights against the tribal culture to try and save Tuigi. The film premiered in June 2016 at the LA Film Festival and has played at other venues on the circuit, such as the Urbanworld Film Festival and Savannah Film Festival this fall.
Hot Under Pressure
The L.A.-based Villani (a previous winner of the International Cinematographer Guild Local 600 Emerging Cinematographer Award) has shot recent features Where Children Play (also by Djansi), Michael Robertson Moore‘s The Sphere and The Labyrinth and Michelle Schumacher‘s I’m Not Here, starring J.K. Simmons and Sebastian Stan.
“I previously worked with Djansi on Where Children Play in 2015, so I was very excited when she asked me if I wanted to go with her to Ghana to shoot Like Cotton Twines,” Villani said. “Since we didn’t have the budget to ship over case after case of equipment, we knew we were going to have to be selective and think small when choosing our gear.”
“We needed something proven and durable, especially with the weather. I’ve been burned before when trying to shoot in the heat. Memories of putting ice bags all over a camera while shooting in the desert still haunt me. We were shooting in remote spots where we knew we were not going to get much if any support should something go wrong. The conditions were hot and very humid—the perfect combination for a digital film camera to overheat and fail.
“We also needed something that would work with the lighting conditions. Our lighting package was small and some of the locations had extreme contrast we needed to pick up. For example, when shooting in the salt mines, we had pure white salt next to the actor’s rich dark skin tones. We needed a camera that had enough latitude to capture both and not lose the details.”
Good on the Go
With those perimeters in mind, Villani selected Blackmagic Design’s Production Camera 4K. (The Like Cotton Twines crew used Blackmagic Design’s HDLink Pro technology to put a LUT on a monitor and DaVinci Resolve to color grade dailies.)
“I had used the Production Camera 4K before and I felt it was perfect for what we were looking for: small, durable and good on the go. Djansi and I really felt that the film demanded a 4K image, due to the beauty and texture of the country. When you watch the movie, you can see a lot of the detail, which is exactly what we were going for.
“The camera’s dynamic range made the challenges of shooting extreme lighting conditions a lot more manageable. For the film’s look, we were going for an overall warm film with rich colors and rich blacks, with something that could dig into shadows as well. The camera had great latitude and had a lot of play in post.
“We were on a tight schedule and were planning to do both studio and handheld work, so we purposefully selected a camera that could quickly and easily transition between the two—the Production Camera 4K was built on a custom rail system that let us switch back and forth between handheld and studio mode.”
All recording was done internally onto SSDs and we decided to shoot 4K ProRes due to budgetary constraints. It ended up taking a little over 10 TB for the whole film,” Villani concluded. MM
Like Cotton Twines recently won the 2016 Savannah Film Festival’s narrative feature jury award.
ICG Magazine: ECA Winners Then and Now
By Pauline Rogers September 2016 issue
We catch up with a handful of honorees to find out how/if/when the most unique award in Hollywood changed their lives.
Peter Villani (DP, 2012, Carjack): Director Jeremiah Jones and I were on a commercial roll for years. He had done a few small shorts in school, but always wanted to do something grander. The goal of the film was to get him some narrative recognition. The film not only got into the ECA’s, but it won a decent amount of festivals. We have done another short together since and a few more commercials. He is planning to do a feature next year and is pushing a few scripts. I am going to shoot whichever one goes.
Peter Villani: Winning the ECA helped me get an agent, but I feel like it got me peer respect, which got some of my peers to recognize that I was more than a camera operator. This led to some 2nd unit gigs – jobs from new directors who had stuff in the pipeline. Since my win, they have attached me to their projects.
Peter Villani: [I tell every honoree to] go to Camerimage and any festival of importance to enjoy the celebration of your film. This was an honor to have won, and if anything, it proves that you are good enough and on your way. But that said – push harder than ever.
ICG Magazine: ECA 2012
Another year another giant leap in progression for this years Emerging Cinematographers Award nominees
By David Heuring& Beige Lucian-Adams September 2012 issue