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Photo by Gemma La Mana

Alar Kivilo, ASC, CSC was born in Montreal, Quebec, and has always been interested in art and stories. At sixteen, a still camera gave him a sense of how to use images to tell a story. He attended York University Film program in Toronto, but after his first year he landed a summer job on a film and has been working ever since. 

He began shooting documentaries and short films, including “Boys and Girls,” which won an Oscar in 1984. Next he focused on music videos and commercials, forming his own production company, “Propeller.” For 10 years, Alar directed and shot many award-winning commercials. Alar then segued into television with the TV movie “984: Prisoner of the Future,” followed by “Mary Silliman’s War,” directed by Stephen Surjik, who he would later work with again on a TV movie “Weapons of Mass Distraction.” In 1994, he shot his first TV movie with director Paul Shapiro, “Heads,” which garnered him a nomination for a Gemini Award for best photography in a dramatic program or series. He would go on to work with Paul on four subsequent projects: “Avalanche,” “Choices of the Heart: the Margaret Sanger Story” (nominated for a Gemini Award and a Cable ACE award for best cinematography in a movie or mini-series), “The Invaders” (which was his first ASC nomination for Outstanding Cinematography in a Mini-series/Movie of the Week) and “Black and Blue.” His credits also include TV movies such as “Young at Heart,” “Friends at Last,” “Gotti,” which scored him his first Emmy nomination, his second ASC nomination and a Cable ACE Award. His first big feature was “A Simple Plan,” directed by Sam Raimi, followed by “Frequency,” “The Glass House” and “Hart’s War.” In between those projects, Alar continued to shoot TV movies. In 2009, Alar teamed up with Ross Katz for the phenomenal HBO movie “Taking Chance,” which earned him the ASC Award. That same year, Alar photographed “The Blind Side,” directed by John Lee Hancock, which was nominated for several awards, including two Oscars, for Best Motion Picture of the Year, and Best Actress, for which Sandra Bullock took home the Oscar. He photographed the recently released “Bad Teacher,” directed by Jake Kasdan, and recently wrapped “The Lucky One,” directed by Scott Hicks, due out in 2012. Alar resides in both Los Angeles and Tallinn, Estonia with his family.

Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?
AK: I was a young clapper loader in Toronto in the seventies when I first set eyes on a Panavision camera. The DP had been hired to shoot a short, low budget drama in Super 8, but somehow convinced everyone that 35mm Panavision anamorphic was the only way to go. After that, I worked many years with the PSR R200 until the much welcomed arrival of the light and compact Panaflex.

Q: What was your first project you used Panavision on? 
AK: I have a long history of using Panavision cameras so it is hard to pinpoint the very first project, but I seem to recall one of the first times was on a Showtime movie called “Heads” starring Ed Asner and Jon Cryer. The movie was a very dark and twisted black comedy and I still have a clear recollection of a 10mm Primo shot where Jon Cryer is just a silhouetted speck against a prairie sunset, as he wobbles down the highway on a child’s bicycle.

Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
AK: I have always been interested in art and stories. When I was sixteen, I was given a still camera and I immediately gave up drawing and began to take endless photos. Somewhere along the way I must have realized that images can be used to tell a story and I set my sights on becoming a cinematographer.

Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, AC, key grip and operator? 
AK: Monty Rowan has been my operator since 1995. Rick Thomas has been my gaffer since 2003. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with many great key grips such as Michael Kenner, Gary Dagg, Allan Rawlins, Mike Lewis, Mike Kirilenko and Joey Dianda. Jimmy Jensen, Bob Hall, Zoran Veselic, Brian LeGrady, Peter Kutner, Dave Baron and Jay Levy have all been wonderful in the focus-pulling department.

Q: What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic?
AK: Every story, when examined closely enough, will reveal the appropriate texture and aspect ratio for the telling of it. The decision-making process is always in collaboration with the director and involves discussing the story, the characters and the world they inhabit, etc. Practical issues can also enter the discussion: how mobile does the camera need to be, how much night shooting is there, how big or small are the locations? My personal feeling is that anamorphic brings with it a classical, simple and elegant approach to blocking. Even in a close-up there is so much frame either to fill, or to keep blank, that it calls for a carefully thought out approach. There is an incredible beauty in the shallow depth of field of anamorphic lenses that serves to direct the audience’s eyes to what is important. I would say that the 2:40 aspect ratio, whether it is anamorphic or spherical is a more inherently “expressive” storytelling tool. The 1:85 aspect ratio feels more “humble” and lifelike to me. It is much easier to make the camerawork invisible with this format. Although I believe in cinematic beauty, in some character-driven stories the visuals really have to take a back seat.

Q: How much of that decision is related to your artistic take on the script vs. that of the director?
AK: As a DP, I am the eyes of the director. I have been lucky to work with directors who acknowledge and trust my visual instincts. My artistic take on the script is important but it should never happen in a vacuum. My interpretation of the material will be greatly influenced by what the director has to say, by my research into the world of the characters, by the actors, and above all, by the story.

Q: Do you have a different approach in how you shoot anamorphic vs. spherical?
AK: I don’t change my approach based on the camera format used. The biggest challenge for me on every movie is to find the appropriate visual language for the story. This language will always use composition, focus, lighting and movement as its words. The precise “words” for telling the story will emerge out of a process, a kind of dance, or musical improvisation between all the filmmakers and actors who are telling the story.

Q: Have you shot any digital projects? What did you think about the digital format?
AK: I shot Scott Frank’s “The Lookout” with the Genesis camera. In preproduction we tested Super 35 2:40, anamorphic and 2:40 captured digitally with the Genesis. The anamorphic footage looked amazing but I decided because of the amount of night shooting, the low budget and being in tight locations, it was not very practical for this movie. Because there was no money for a DI, the Super 35 footage would have to be optically squeezed and I was not happy with the resulting degradation of the image, especially in snow scenes. The Genesis was the perfect tool for this movie. At first, I was afraid that it would not handle the broad expanses of bright snow but it did brilliantly. I was especially pleased with all the night low-key work. There is a particular way in which digital captures the different gradations of blacks and shadows that I love. It looks a bit different than film, but it has its own gentle beauty. During a session where I was checking the release print against the answer print that had been made at another lab, the timer asked me what film stock I had originated on. This pleased me to no end. There is a certain aspect of shooting digitally that feels like painting. Since you are working off a beautifully detailed monitor that shows exactly what you are capturing, lighting becomes much more interactive and less technical.

Q: “Bad Teacher” was shot in spherical. Were there any other formats under consideration?
AK: Jake Kasdan and I believed that by placing Cameron Diaz’s character in a real world, and not attempting any visual stylization, the comedy would be served better. The 1:85 aspect ratio seemed right for this approach. To gain a bigger negative for the DI, I shot “Bad Teacher” in Super 1:85.

Q: When shooting “Bad Teacher,” what can you tell us about how you designed your lighting to photograph key actors?
AK: I had two simple rules to follow in lighting “Bad Teacher”: the situations had to look real and Cameron Diaz had to look great. The challenge was to have some visual variety while shooting in real classrooms and keeping Cameron’s lighting beautiful but still feeling real.  Much of the classroom lighting came from 18Ks outside the windows that Rick Thomas and Michael Kenner and their crews would sometimes soften with big frames of diffusion and at other times let splashes of hard “sunlight” penetrate the room. When it came to lighting Cameron we would retain the direction of the “natural” light on the backgrounds, but cheat her key light around so that it was more frontal and cosmetic.

Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
AK: My favorite lens is the 40mm Primo. A close up with this lens gives an actor real presence. It makes it feel like they are really inhabiting the world of the movie. The audience is right there with them. Longer lenses have a distancing effect and shorter lenses can distort and accentuate movement too much. The 40mm feels bold and honest. When I design shots I often like a scene to start wide showing the physical space and then imperceptibly move the camera to end up on the actor with this lens. Because quite often there is not enough space to get wider with the 40mm prime, I have found that the Primo 5-1 has become somewhat of a workhorse for me, enabling me to start on a wider lens but always ending up on the 40mm. Once, on a commercial, I bet the production manager that I would shoot every shot of the day on the 40mm. At some point I had to do some fancy explaining to the director when he asked for a 75mm, but in the end I won the bet.

Q: Out of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite? And why?
AK: Movies are like children: impossible to pick a favorite. I feel the greatest sense of happiness and accomplishment when I have been able to get to the emotional truth of a scene by using the camera. One of these moments happened in “The Blind Side” where a high school principal is telling Michael Oher that his father is dead. Rather than shooting traditional coverage, John Lee Hancock and I let the camera slowly drift into Michael as the principal is speaking.  Even though it is the principal who is talking, the focus is on Michael. The principal gets softer and softer as we move into Michael. With one simple shot the camera puts the audience into the lead actor’s head and they feel his pain and disorientation. That, to me, is film-making.