Cinematographer Kris Kachikis; Communication is the key to success on set.
“There’s no room for grumpy,” says cinematographer Kris Kachikis in regards to the current state of filmmaking. “There’s no room for jaded.” Though he’s completely abashed at his own success, Kachikis also knows exactly what he is doing, and he works hard, which has helped to cement his reputation in the industry as a DoP capable of reliable coverage and quick rigging with a quick crew. Following up work on the feature-length film Mascots for master director and comedian Christopher Guest, now streaming on Netflix, Kachikis was already working on his follow-up as lead camera on the upcoming Christmas comedy, Why Him?, starring James Franco and Bryan Cranston, before Mascots had even debuted at the TIFF festival in Toronto this last September.
“My first camera project, professionally, would have been a music video for Spike Jonze for Sean Lennon,” he explains, mentioning that he actually started out in Hollywood in pursuit of screenwriting and direction before moving into gripping and electric. Jonze’s principle feature photographer, Lance Acord, was on the East coast, and was unavailable for the inventive music video shot in L.A. Kachikis, who had been working regularly on Jonze’s team, was suggested for the job by Acord.
“Spike said ‘You want to do it?’,” laughs Kachikis, “I’m like ‘Yeah, of course, who wouldn’t want to shoot for you!’ It was this tiny little job, and once that happened, than these doors started opening to becoming a cinematographer. That transition is always hard, from being a gaffer to being a DoP. It’s really hard now, but I think about eighteen months and I was shooting regularly… Then, I think, it just really suited me. It came so naturally. A lot of it is the artistry, and the photography, and things like that, but a lot of it is also communication and leading a group of people to accomplish something. People would say that I was very good at those things.”
From there he segued into plentiful commercial work as well as short films and documentaries. His first feature length, American Son, starring Nick Cannon, was accepted to the Dramatic competition at Sundance in 2008. Interestingly enough, however, it was the commercial work that gave him a break into bigger audiences. Kachikis works on commercial productions frequently, as does Christopher Guest, which is where they first began to associate. Kachikis had a healthy working relationship with Guest on commercials for nearly two years prior to Mascots, but he admits that he was still somewhat shocked to be asked by the auteur to run camera on a Guest feature-length.
“To be sitting every day, not only with the guy, but working with him and creating with him?” Kachikis says incredulously. Guest is absolutely pivotal in the genre of satire, having revolutionized it with his contributions to the seminal film Spinal Tap. Since then, he has stuck with the consistently successful Guest formula of heavily improvised comedy scenes from an ensemble cast of regulars. This time around, Guest even reprised his role from Waiting for Guffman as Corky St. Clair. Mascots also features several return performances from staple cast members like Parker Posey, Fred Willard and Jane Lynch.
“I think Christopher really strengthened my sense of story,” continues Kachikis, “by boiling things down to what’s really important, not just for the movie, but also for the scene… being spare with the overt comedy and instead letting the performances come through.” Guest works entirely without a script, instead relying on a heavily detailed outline for the narrative and plot points as well as deep character histories that are given to the actors in preparation for their improvisational dialogue.
Behind the lens, the challenge for Kachikis as DoP was to light for two separate camera axes while also keeping the picture from getting too flat or boring, which he refers to as sitcom-lighting, where the set must be evenly lit from every direction to appease a multiple-camera setup. Calling it their “Birdman” approach to lighting, Kachikis says that Emmanuel Lubezki’s lighting setups on the film were a big influence on the way that he and his crew lit for Mascots. Even though Lubezki used only single-takes for the most part in Birdman, the concept would be the same for Kachikis, as Guest prefers to shoot only a few takes for each improvised scene before moving to the next. Like Lubezki, Kachikis placed several fluorescents and practical lighting fixtures within the frames that also helped to create backdrop.
“Christopher always wants cross coverage. He always wants two cameras playing two different directions,” Kachikis says. “Because of improv, you’re never going to get another first take on what these people say. They’ll never say the same thing twice. You have to have both sides of the banter that actors create on a Christopher Guest movie. You have to get those back-and-forth reactions… To do that, to light two faces facing each other, a lot of times we’d put the source in the frame. You’ll see that in Mascots.”
Because he was anticipating a lot of light spill from within the shots, Kachikis chose classic Panavision Primo zooms for their healthy flare suppression. He also went with Chimera diffusion to control the light spill itself. Stepping up to the bigger-budget Fox comedy Why Him? gave Kachikis a bit more of a budget, so he bumped up to the similar but much newer Panavision Primo V lenses, which are rehoused Panavision Primo lenses that have been redesigned for digital photography. Kachikis also employed two of his own Angénieux Optimo zooms, the Optimo 19.5‑94mm and the 28-340mm, which he says cut well with the Primo V lenses during testing, and had sharper resolution to him than the older Pana Primo zooms. (Though Super 35, the lenses are able to cover the 27.1mm sensor diagonal of the Sony F55.)
Kachikis owns two ARRI Alexa cameras for his commercial work, but Netflix, which produced Mascots for limited theatrical release, requires a full DCI 4K picture workflow at 4096 pixels, rather than UHD solutions at 3840. Because of that limitation, after camera tests he chose to work with the Sony F55 for Mascots despite his favored ARRI Amira proving to have better results. When not using his cameras and lenses, Kachikis offsets their costs by renting them through the local Panavision outlet in Los Angeles.
For Mascots, Kachikis employed the Cineo HS2 remote phosphor (similar to LED) lighting systems with Chimera Lightbank softbox kits. “Those lights were great because we could bring them in fast, plug them in the wall, not need a lot of power needs, and shoot quick,” explains Kachikis. As there was little downtime between projects, and since he was so used to the behind-the-scenes workflows on Mascots, Kachikis and his crew brought the same Cineo lighting and Chimera diffusion to Why Him?
“Why Him? was a little bit bigger and more work on built sets,” he continues. “We used a lot of ARRI Sky Panels… We could color them anything we wanted and they’re dimmable, from one big dimmer board, for our sets. For the location work on Why Him?, we used the Cineos again, because we liked how the Cineos looked on skin. The Sky Panels were good for an overall top light if we needed it, but we used the Cineos for skin, either in daylight, or in tungsten.”
With background as gaffer and electrician, Kachikis is enthusiastic about LED technology now that many available models are capable of needed output and spectrally-consistent spread. “It’s amazing,” he says, “low power, low heat, but it’s also saving on the labor and the wire that you’ve got to run into a building if you want to do big lights.” He still utilizes traditional, reliable systems like HMIs, as well, which he couples frequently with Chimera diffusion to control spill and glare.
“We also used a lot of balloon lights, because we went into a mansion the first two weeks on Why Him?. I like to light with big sources generally. It was a very sensitive location and we didn’t want to destroy it with a lot of gear. We used balloon lighting in HMIs and tungsten, depending on the situation. They were bi-color, as well, and colorable.”
Kachikis got the job for Why Him? because an assistant director on Mascots had put in a good word as to how quickly and efficiently his team was producing cross-coverage shots for the improvisational production. Written by director John Hamburg of I Love You, Man and Along Came Polly, the film was heavily scripted, but like Mascots, which had no script at all, the production intended to use a lot of freeform improvisation. Kachikis says that they had some takes between James Franco and Bryan Cranston that lasted for forty-five minutes. “The guy probably is a genius,” says Kachikis about Franco’s improvisational talents. “A lot of his ideas are going to be in the finished movie, things that he brought to the set that same day.”
Kachikis says that with both films, there were also plenty of cut scenes that were absolutely hilarious but didn’t fit for tone or other editing reasons. When asked if he ruined any takes himself just through laughing, he admits that there were a few shaking camera scenes that he was to blame for. “I’m not kidding. They had to stabilize some stuff in post,” he laughs.
Photos Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation