Focus on the Edge of Beauty
By Jonathan Brown
Rodney Charters, ASC is no stranger to camera lenses. He lives and breathes them. In a highly enthusiastic and effusive way, Charters speaks of how 2 to 1 compression in anamorphic glass offers the most painterly, expressive feel to the image. But it's the stuff that happens at the edge of the frame which gives him the most satisfaction.
He shifts in his chair to savor the thought and then gestures towards an invisible cinema screen.
"There'd be a lovely, sharp image on a person in the foreground," he says.
"But the image falls into great beauty at the sides of the frame. I love that."
In life, getting the big picture figured out is pretty straightforward. Some would call that "having a dream"... But it's the edgy details that ultimately determine our fate, and in some cases, reveal pathways to greatness.
In Charter's case, riding on those details has played a considerable part in his becoming one of a handful of cinematographers ranked top of their profession by peers and associates. Rodney Charters is firmly one of them. To date, Charters has been cinematographer, director, and producer for over 51 film and television projects throughout his career.
Charters was born in 1948 and grew up in New Plymouth, a small town on the west coast of New Zealand – an environment he says that both encouraged and fostered his career path.
Inspired by his father Roy Charter's love of movies, Charters got behind a camera early on, progressing quickly to his father’s Bolex H16 REX-5. His proudest childhood memory, however, was watching Roy hand-develop a 16mm film of Queen Elizabeth 2’s visit to New Plymouth during the 'royal summer' of 1953–54.
Keenly observing how the stunned local audience watched the footage come to life in the local cinema the next day, Charters felt an indescribable connection to the moving image, stirring an emotion from deep within.
“I had witnessed the magical experience of processing and printing my first photographs in my father’s laboratory,” he recalls.
"From that moment on, it was inevitable that I should fall in love with movies and become a cinematographer."
The Path to Becoming a Cinematographer
When Charters left his father’s studio, he enrolled at the University of Auckland to continue his formal studies. During this time, he made his first solo film, a black and white short called Film Exercise (1967), which premiered at the Sydney Film Festival. As fate would have it, the film earned Charters a place at the new film school at London’s Royal College of Art in London—past alumni include directors Tony Scott, Richard Longcraine, and D.P. Stephen Goldblatt, ASC.
After graduation, Charters worked on commercials in London then after a move to Toronto, found employ shooting documentaries for a Toronto-based Canadian network. The next fifteen years were spent globetrotting through South American jungles to Cold War affected Soviet Russia.
Charters soon gravitated towards drama and in 1986 became second camera operator on a feature called Youngblood, starring a young Rob Lowe as a teenage ice hockey player trying to make a name in the Canadian Junior Hockey circuit. The film even bagged Mark Irwin, ASC a Genie Award (the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy) for Best Achievement in Cinematography.
In 2004, Charters became a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), marking a significant milestone in his career as a cinematographer. Now with two Emmy nominations for his work on the acclaimed FOX series 24, in 2005 and 2006 respectively, Charters is also a member of the Directors Guild of America. In 2013, he was awarded a Lifetime Career Achievement in Television by the ASC.
The Technology of Success
There's an ease of understanding and appreciation for all things cinema tech-related when you converse with Rodney Charters in the flesh. Softly spoken with that unmistakable kiwi accent, he is a kind face with squinting eyes that promise years of wisdom—truth gleaned from time spent behind the camera.
And despite his numerous accomplishments, awards, and titles, Charters gives the impression that he's never settled for anything less than what has yet to come. In this way, he's always remained ahead of the curve, contemporary and relevant, especially when it comes to devices that help him with his visual storytelling.
And it's true. For perhaps the first time in history, everybody has access to high-end filmmaking gear. But anyone can have the gear to make movies. The hard part is having a good story. If, as Charters claims, you have no story, then connecting with an audience won't happen—"it's not sufficient for it to be an exercise in sumptuous visuals," he says somewhat cautiously.
More importantly, students from middle-income families can, as Charters suggests, walk away with equipment that will do a perfectly good job at a feature level.
But Charters postulates that if parents can afford to buy their kids a car when they graduate, chances are they could probably afford a decent camera too. Though he’s quick to warn that it's easy to get overwhelmed by all these potentially amazing tools, “to make them become what it's all about when in fact it's not,” he says.
In contrast, when Charters was at film school, there was no access to equipment unless he was on campus. Even then he was tasked with using the old beaten up system that the school had. Still, he struggled and produced an award-winning short. If, as they say, all great filmmakers must have a strong sense of authority with excellent communication skills, then Charters certainly demonstrated these master traits early on.
"It's about telling a story that has a beginning, middle, and end,” he says.
That's what people want to see. That's what moves them. If the photography gets in the way of that, then that's not a good thing."
Storytelling as Part of Human Evolution
Today's filmmakers use cutting-edge technology to get the most memorable shots for audiences. One of the latest tools to get these kinds of shots are drones. Nowadays, remote-controlled drones are just about everywhere, ranging from small toy drones to larger rigs with heavy payloads. With super high-definition cameras attached, they give a perspective only previously achieved using a costly helicopter, an experience Charters is all too familiar with.
"In the beginning, you'd say, 'I'd like to do an aerial shot,' and the studios would never let you do it because it was just too expensive," he says with a mixture of befuddlement and relief—relief that this isn't the case anymore.
It's only when DJI released the Mavic Pro that wider aerial possibilities opened up to filmmakers because, according to Charters, you could use a Mavic Pro image in 35mm projects, and people wouldn't know the difference from the air.
"That was suddenly, oh gosh,” he says.
"Even if you went up while you were scouting and rolled on your camera, there was a chance you could use it [the footage] because it was perfectly acceptable."
Since the Mavic Pro, Charters and his team have used a host of DJI drones including the Inspire 2 and DJI rigs such as the Ronin 2 to get those never-seen-before shots on productions as wide-ranging as MTV's The Shannara Chronicles, TNT's The Last Ship, and more recently, JAY-Z's Legacy music video. He's even used tiny racing drones to simulate the first-person view of an arrowhead whizzing through trees.
A can-do Kiwi spirit mixed with adaptability and an increasing tech acumen meant that Charters was in the right place at the right time to fully embrace the advent of drones in cinematography. It was a natural evolution of this happenstance that his team would discover DJI products and put them to use on set almost immediately.
“DJI’s system as a whole is so well-integrated,” Charters enthuses.
"They were the first company to take charge of the market professionally and say, 'Yes, we understand what you need, here it is, now go fly!'"
For all his experience and expertise over his craft, Rodney Charters, ASC, is a man most satisfied when people don't notice his work at all. This might strike some as odd, but it also speaks of how a true master views the details in their art.
"The beautiful films that work in our minds are always the ones where you don't notice the cinematography," he concludes.
"Because it attends to the story and the overall final product is deeply moving, you come away saying, 'Wow! That was an amazing experience.'"
The photography might be great, the gear used first-rate, but it's the overall story that matters most.
One last question.
How do Charters come to equate his vast attention to detail – lenses, cameras, framing – with an audience who might not ever appreciate the amount of thought that goes into a shot?
He pauses, then says softly:
"I think of it like looking at a great master's painting. You don't necessarily need to look at every brush stroke. Ultimately, it's the overall impression you get from the whole image.
It may be a kind of pointless technique in the details, and when you get in that close, you can see that. But when you stand back taking in the whole thing, it just moves you.
That's what should be satisfying about it."
Above the Clouds, Below the Surface
By Christopher Tuazon
In the arid heat of the Congo, a central village roars with vibrancy. The middle of an open square gathers a crowd. It surrounds two rows of women, swaying shoulder to shoulder in a shared cadence. Their palms strike long tam-tam drums while their voices fill the air with exclamations of “Freedom!” Among them, an artist in rolled up sleeves stands at attention. He observes, analyzes, and then galvanizes the band to play. He scans the crowd for moments – opportunities to share a complete story. This is a man locked in complete focus. This is a visionary who considers every frame of footage as an individual picture.
This is Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
With a career that includes photography, filmmaking, and lifelong activism, Yann is an individual for whom satisfaction does not exist. For someone like him, success is purely a raw fuel to take on new challenges, start from scratch, and move forward with purpose.
Yann first gained international acclaim as an aerial photography pioneer, long before the medium was established. With his telephoto lens peeking from a hot-air balloon or helicopter, Yann collected snapshots of landscapes and wildlife below. The constant bird’s-eye view allowed him to express a vision unlike his contemporaries, work in an environment of risk-taking and imagination, and present a story in a perfect frame. It also inspired a life-changing realization: the earth itself is truly a work of art.
“I didn’t invent the beauty of the world; it’s always been here. I just have to press a button to show something that surrounds us but we never really get to see.”
Released in 2005, Earth from Above is a ten-year collection of Yann’s aerial images. With over four million copies sold, this book represents a groundbreaking shift in photography, inspiring artists to reimagine their medium through a new perspective.
A Photographer at Heart
Following the success of Earth from Above, Yann turned to filmmaking, specializing in feature documentaries. His oeuvre showcases both the vibrancy of nature and the human condition, with his 2015 film Human receiving numerous accolades and acclaim.
In every second of Human, the photographer in Yann is gorgeously apparent. In one moment, a static shot is focused on a single individual. Staring and speaking directly to the camera, the interview is a classic portrait coming to life. In between interviews, scenes show crowds of people encapsulated in a perfect image, slowly pulling back to reveal a massive population squeezed in tight spaces. The slowly-widening shot ends as a dramatic aerial, turning the throng of thousands into a single painting.
Currently, Yann is completing Woman, a film that interviews three thousand individuals from 40 countries. This film will showcase the female perspective from a spectrum of cultures, ages, and experiences. A bittersweet project, Yann is considering this documentary his final feature film.
When looking back on a career that spans decades and continents, Yann often recalls a particular kind of shot: one that never was.
“I only remember the pictures that I did not take. These are shots that I failed to capture, others that I had not noticed. I suppose these moments are so vivid to me because deep down, I’m first and foremost a photographer.”
Embracing the Aerial Evolution
Throughout his film career, Yann has relied on conventional aircraft to demonstrate his unique vision. Fortunately, the rise of drone technology has opened new doors, reigniting his lifelong passion for aerial photography.
“Drones are completely revolutionizing the industry. Nothing can be more amazing for a filmmaker. To be able to move close, pull back, get higher; it's magic. It’s what all filmmakers have been dreaming for.”
Despite his vast experience, Yann is using this latest project as an opportunity to take on new challenges. This film will mark Yann’s first time incorporating drones for aerial footage, collaborating with DJI to help bring his vision to the screen. From a series of monitors in one setting, Yann hurries back and forth between camera and drone operators, commands every movement, energizes his subjects, and ensures that every detail is in the shot.
Let the Story Unfold
Yann’s photographer’s spirit and hunger to take every opportunity dictate a maverick shooting style where preparations are sparse. His films always begin with a clear goal that is carried purely by his instinct. With 30 years of visual storytelling under his belt, it is an intuition Yann trusts wholeheartedly.
“We worked on an entire series of women who undressed. Without preparation or hesitation, the women took off their clothes in front of the camera. Some were old, shy, had undergone surgery, or were simply embarrassed. Every single one made a beautiful shot full of emotion. These are the moments that define the story because they happen completely naturally. They are sudden, unplanned, organic scenes that simply unfold.”
It is in these intimate, vulnerable moments that Yann understands, with no uncertainty, his true craft. From the film studio to the hot-air balloon, through his thousands of aerial photographs and countless hours of spontaneous footage, Yann has always used his artistry as a vehicle to explore the depths of humanity. Whether it is to reveal the detriments of wasteful living or put a face to inequality, Yann is capturing a story that must be shared. By his own accord, the goal of his life is to, no matter the size of the impact, change the world through his work. It is also a goal anyone can achieve, regardless of their calling.
“I believe that everyone in their own way can try to change the world; whether you are a baker, an architect, a mechanic, or a mother. That's it, simply put. And I say this with humility.”
The Curious Case of Claudio Miranda
By Jonathan Brown
"With the wheels, I'm totally in heaven," says Claudio Miranda, ASC. You have to work hard to keep up with his rapid-fire delivery, which quickens with every beat of excitement.
The wheels in question are of course the DJI Master Wheels, something that seems to be a bit of an epiphany for the tech-savvy Chilean cinematographer. In fact, Miranda had been close to the development of both the DJI Master Wheels and Ronin 2.
“Everything I do in movies is all wheels,” he states matter-of-factly, “because I can really follow something and finesse shots better than with any other available method.”
Miranda became a semi-household-name in 2013 when he won an Oscar and BAFTA in the best “Cinematography” category for his work on Ang Lee’s visually arresting movie Life of Pi, which is based on the best-selling novel with the same name.
A true modern master, Miranda's signature style is undeniable: a mix of strikingly naturalistic lighting and innovative camera work. Miranda is someone who arduously fills notebooks by hand with visual references and location photographs. It’s this old-school or 'analog' approach coupled with his mastery of digital camera workflows that gives his work an undeniable allure.
Miranda’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. In that time, he has remained at the forefront of filmmaking technology alongside several of Hollywood's most acclaimed directors. In the span of just a few movies, Miranda has managed to create unforgettable imagery, including work on David Fincher's visually mind-boggling fable, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Joseph Kosinski's technological marvel TRON: Legacy (2010), and Kosinski's own post-apocalyptic graphic novel adaptation Oblivion (2013).
Though it speaks of the man's temperament that he should describe his career trajectory in such nonchalant terms:
"I just kind of fell into it," he says with an audible shrug.
“I was truly happy to just be a gaffer.”
From Gaffer to DP
For those not in the know, 'gaffer' is a term used to describe someone in the film and television industries as being responsible for the execution (and sometimes design) of the lighting plan for a production. But the way Miranda describes it, the fact that he was on a film set at all was perhaps just a happy accident.
Or was it?
Born in 1965 to a Chilean father and a Danish mother in Santiago, Miranda and his family emigrated to the United States, settling in Southern California. Though drawn to the world of cinema from an early age – "I didn't have a Bolex set when I was eight years old shooting little Claymation models in my backyard. There was nothing like that," he recalls – Miranda's career in earnest began in the music industry. One of his first gigs as a lighting technician was for the U2 concert film Rattle and Hum (1988) before moving onto more sumptuous visuals on hip-hop music videos for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
"So, I started gaffing for a bunch of movies and I had a girlfriend who was a producer at the time, and she needed a DP," he remembers fondly.
Said girlfriend asked him if he could shoot a music video she was working on and Miranda was only happy to oblige.
"I just thought it was an unobtainable job," he concludes thinking back.
Perhaps Miranda's career at this time was a case of that famous adage—choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.
The Fincher Effect
Miranda met long-term collaborator director David Fincher when both were working on music videos in Hollywood. It was Fincher who gave Miranda invaluable gaffing experience on late 90s cult movies The Game (1997) starring Michael Douglas, and Fight Club (1999) starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.
Impressed with Miranda's technical work, Fincher introduced Miranda to digital cameras, specifically the Thomson Viper, which both Fincher and Miranda used to film commercials.
As their relationship developed, and the all-important cosmic trust between DP and Director strengthened, Fincher did not hesitate in inviting Miranda on board as cinematographer for Fincher's 2008 magnum opus The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Miranda went on to garner industry praise with BAFTA, ASC, and Academy Award nominations for his work on “Button” as he calls it.
The Technological Edge
A self-described "technical guy," Miranda's lifelong curiosity for gadgets and new ideas has allowed him to stay well ahead of the curve when it comes to filmmaking technology. A bone fide cinematography wizard on set, he even briefly looked the part thanks to the flowing white Gandalf locks he wore to the Oscars the year he won big for Life of Pi.
His DP work on DJI’s very own depression era short The Circle (2016) alone displayed his technical prowess as it was shot entirely with an Inspire 2 drone and Zenmuse X5S camera. Miranda also worked as cinematographer for DJI’s Ronin 2 short entitled Legacy (2017), which follows a young and passionate filmmaker as his career takes flight through four classic eras of Hollywood filmmaking – seemingly all in one fluid take.
Miranda agrees that being nimble with his approach to filmmaking has kept him thriving in an otherwise unforgiving business, especially for the less open-minded.
"If I only shot with anamorphic lenses, for example, I'd only be doing a tenth of the movies I did already with a tenth of the capability," he theorizes.
“Technology is always advancing,” he says.
“There are always new and better ways to do things, you know?”
New Filmmaking Revolution
Speaking of how impressed he is with DJI's lightning-quick turnaround times for high-end products, Miranda really feels that the company has been at the genesis of a new filmmaking revolution.
"There are bigger drones that carry bigger cameras, but in a way, you're just going slower," he says, adding that there’s nothing on the market more high-performance or faster than DJI's inimitable Inspire 2, which he describes as "just a beautiful bird."
The integration of DJI Pro products into Miranda's teams' workflow has been seamless, he says, exemplified with his work on the trailer for Kosinski's Only the Brave (2017). Productions like Only the Brave showcase a creative mindset with an expansive approach to using technology.
Flexibility Fosters Creativity
Of all the topics and details Miranda has touched upon during our interview, one answer seemed to surprise. If he had to shoot a biography of his own life, would he use film or digital?
He pauses and the static picks up.
"It'd be interesting to do it on film," he says, and then backtracks a little as his duties as a DP instinctively take over.
"But I don't really know. That would be a conversation with the director making the piece."
At that, one can't help thinking back to Miranda's Oscar win in 2013 again. As he takes the stage in front of the shimmering audience, he searches for the right words expressing broad gratitude to family, colleagues, and the academy—but words aren’t enough for such a lofty accolade. The emotion is in the work, the visual storytelling, and the grit it takes to bring our dreams to the silver screen.
Then it’s back to the gear.
"I'm always watching out for gear that can help me for the future," he concludes.
Whether it's LED screens, projectors, lighting gear, LEDs, lasers—whatever it is, Miranda sees these things as clear-cut avenues to make better movies.
"I feel that DJI has an open ear to listen to our suggestions [as filmmakers], and I'm excited about what the future holds for these products."