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Niko Tavernise on the Learning Curve Shooting 6 Making-Of for Darren Aronofsky

Last year, I contacted Niko Tavernise, the filmmaker behind all the making-ofs for Darren Aronofsky, to ask him if he would consider share the making-of about Black Swan online, which he did, and talk about his experience shooting and editing making-of, which he did below.

The interview set-up was informal and frankly unexpected, I asked Niko several questions about topics I was wondering about when watching his different making-of, and he was kind enough to go through them and answer, giving out plenty of information. I do feel I could have done a better job at phrasing my Qs, but well, learning curve for me too! Thankfully, great knowledge still made it through.

Enjoy:

Niko Tavernise on the Art of Shooting a Making-Of

Mentorless (M): How early on are you involved in the process/do you have access to the process? 

Niko Tavernise (NT): Working with Darren, he and his producer Scott Franklin get me in early to film storyboards and cinematography walkthroughs up to casting etc. Very involved and I can shoot for close to two years just in preproduction. But most of my energy is focused shooting during the actual filming, which to me is the most interesting part. When every cog is working in perfect (or not so perfect) sync.

Also, trust is probably one of the biggest issues with regards to access. Directors and actors need to know that they have final cut on all my material of them, which makes me being there shooting very sensitive scenes less of a distraction/worry.


M: How easy or difficult it is to film people working full speed and under pressure?

[pullquote]Being a set photographer, you need to know when a good time to shoot is and when to lay back and just let people work out there own issues without knowing someone is standing behind filming them.[/pullquote]

NT: Like every person on set or even in public, if there is a very tense scenario playing out in front of you, capturing can be a double edged sword. If you get the moment it can be historic but it can also backfire in a big way and piss everyone off.

Being a set photographer, you need to know when a good time to shoot is and when to lay back and just let people work out there own issues without knowing someone is standing behind filming them. I would bug out myself. Its a huge skill to have that you get with experience, how to sense what the crew and actors are feeling like at any given moment. And good set photographers (should) have that skill mastered.

These days though, camera phones have made people somewhat polarized on this topic. They either become numb to cameras being everywhere or they become hyper sensitive and are VERY aware of you aiming your camera at them. You just have to know your way around people is all, I guess.

meet Niko

M: How do you determine the equipment you need. I’ve seen your reflection in a mirror during a sequence with Therese Deprez, and it seemed you were holding a DSLR, no tripod (maybe a monopod?), I couldn’t see a mic either, but your sound was so good I imagine you used something

[pullquote]Just know how to hold your camera I guess. Because people forget just how fucking impossible it is to focus and shoot at the same time. It takes tons of practice.[/pullquote]

NT: Seeing that I carry all of my equipment on me at all times, I need to have everything extremely mobile. On The Wrestler, I carried around a huge 1Ds, a 5D and also an HVX2000 slung around my neck and with all my lenses in think tank bags around my waist. That sucked.

Once the 5D MKII came out I never went back to video cameras.. That camera seemed like it was built JUST for me. I can effortlessly switch from stills to video in seconds, never missing a beat. My Black Swan doc was all shot on the (new at the time) 5D MKII.

I almost never use sticks since I have to lug those around and I never have assistants unless I’m shooting weddings, so I tend to always pack light. I also found out that I have a very steady center of balance. Lucky I guess… Just know how to hold your camera I guess. Because people forget just how fucking impossible it is to focus and shoot at the same time. It takes tons of practice. Still to this day I have trouble nailing focus. But I guess everyone would, unless you have a 1stAC next to you.

For the Therese interview, I was using a wired lav mic going into a H4N, which is one of my favorite little machines. Yeah the sound on the cameras during interviews is just for match syncing. But when I’m shooting on set, I usually will have a teeny Sennheiser going straight into the camera.


M: I also really enjoyed the sequences you did where the camera moves around at ground level and you speed up the whole sequence. I wondered how you decided to take the time to do it.

[pullquote]And remember when you are on set, you have HUGE amounts of time and unbelievable resources. It’s amazing when you get the most creative and bored people in the world stuck in a basement for 5 weeks; you just start building cool stuff.[/pullquote]

NT: Oh the Car Cam! hahahaha yeah, I built this custom RC Car that had huge shocks and tires and I mounted my 5D to it and drove it around the stage at SUNY Purchase school where we were shooting Swan. Then sped it up since it was way bumpier than I thought. I killed that car on Noah when I ran it and a couple of GoPros into a fake river on the exterior Ark set. Whoops. And remember when you are on set, you have HUGE amounts of time and unbelievable resources. It’s amazing when you get the most creative and bored people in the world stuck in a basement for 5 weeks; you just start building cool stuff.

On Noah I was building drones and attaching go pros to them before they had stabilizers and mounting tabs; just foam and duct tape. Footage looked awful but it was the thought that counted. NOW it’s just insane seeing what cheap drones can shoot. Also during that time, drones were illegal to use commercially. Ahhhh well.


M: I found the visuals in Metamorphosis were particularly beautiful and it felt like it was its own film. It’s impressive to think you got all this on the fly.

[pullquote]Most Film companies can only afford EPK for a couple of days and none of them know anyone on the set and are constantly being kicked off of set etc. (…) I’m just lucky because I have a director and producer who trusts me and we make an independent documentary about how the film was made.[/pullquote]

NT: Wow! Thanks!!! Ill take that compliment. When I started making ‘Making Of’s’ I remember watching D.A. Pennebaker’s ‘Don’t Look Back’, and there is a moment when you see his reflection in a backstage mirror and he has this old Aaton film camera and his mic is duct taped to the side of it and he has a pack on his back and he’s carrying everything around.. and that movie is just fucking mind-blowing to me.

I thought why not make a movie about the movie… Why do all bonus footage on DVD’s have to suck so much… There are exceptions but that is rare; ‘Full Tilt Boogie’- the making of From Dusk Till Dawn. ‘Year of the Rat’ by Julie Ng -the making of Willard … and of course the Godfather of all these, ‘Burden of Dreams’ about the making of Herzog’s ‘Fitzcarraldo’ by the genius Les Blank.

To me, maybe 98 percent of making of’s are garbage and are specifically targeted to E news and Hollywood Reporter with crappy rack zooms and huge beta cams SHOWING YOU HOW HOLLYWOOD does it.. meh.. Why wouldn’t you want to learn something while you are watching…

Of course this is a huge luxury. Most Film companies can only afford EPK for a couple of days and none of them know anyone on the set and are constantly being kicked off of set etc. NOT that EPK doesn’t have a place in that world. WE need those people to shoot stuff for E news and iTunes exclusives. I’m just lucky because I have a director and producer who trusts me and we make an independent documentary about how the film was made. Not saying my doc is amazing, my reviews are pretty meh as well. But I dig my creations and Darren does as well. And if one film student says to me that they learned a lot watching my docs… then I’m happy.


M: I also thought it was great that you interviewed so many people for this making-of, is it something that is determined in advance, that you get on the go, or that you ask for?

[pullquote]I try to make each of my films as a film school tutorial. In-depth looks at how the hell you actually make a film and just how impossible or easy it is.[/pullquote]

NT: Depends on who will grant me one, but I try to get as many of the players as possible. I’ll usually shoot less actors and more ‘makers’ because everyone always hears what the actor has to say but what about the guys who built the sets and put up the lights… those guys seem way more interesting than hearing about how great it is to work with so and so.

There are definitely exceptions to that rule since Vincent Cassel was an amazing interviewee, but generally actors just say no to interviews. I dunno… I will stick to the people I know best which are the crew and key players on the production side.

I try to make each of my films as a film school tutorial. In-depth looks at how the hell you actually make a film and just how impossible or easy it is. (Most often the impossible)


M: How is your schedule? Do you have access to a number of days of shooting, (1st, last and x days in between) or can you just come and go as often as you can?

NT: When I shoot making of’s I’m also the set photographer so I’m there every day of production. And my access is what I had said before about knowing the set and how the actors are feeling etc. But generally I will shoot every day from 10 minutes to hours of footage.

I usually walk away with maybe 100+ hours of footage from each film. I used to shoot way more then realized that editing that SUCKS. I shoot to edit, which I learned is the way the Coen’s work and I’ve always loved how those boys operate. Pure efficiency.


M: What have you learned from your previous experiences shooting making ofs that has helped you on Black Swan and Noah?

[pullquote]A great tip a friend of mine once told me is, when you are shooting docs, try not to move your camera to EVERY moment that happens, try to see what unfolds in front of you and let it sit there an extra 10 seconds after, just so you KNOW you have that element.[/pullquote]

NT: For one was how to shoot LESS… WAY less.. On Fountain I shot around 300 hours of footage and also got all the old master tapes from Australia with Brad Pitt, so in total I have over 500 hours of stuff… 90 percent of which no one has seen .. amazing… Criterion anyone??

You should always shoot less but I think that it’s a learning curve. Anyone starting out should shoot as much as you can just so you know you are covered in the editing room. But as you get more proficient cutting, you will know what you will use or not use while you are shooting. Same as photography. Less quantity more quality.

A great tip a friend of mine once told me is, when you are shooting docs, try not to move your camera to EVERY moment that happens.. try to see what unfolds in front of you and let it sit there an extra 10 seconds after, just so you KNOW you have that element. While shooting you will want to swing the camera all over but that’s the mistake of the tourist shooter. You need to try and anticipate what will happen next, and with documentaries that can be like having ESP… and blind luck. Because truthfully you will miss 80 percent of the awesome shit happening around you, just try to make that 20 percent count!

[pullquote]I always hold the camera well below my face so I can be hyper aware of everything happening around me.[/pullquote]

Another reason I never use eyecups to shoot. I always hold the camera well below my face so I can be hyper aware of everything happening around me. I don’t know how anyone can shoot a doc that way looking through an EVF. Plus you want whomever you are talking to to feel more comfortable so I talk to them face to face while I record, so they don’t feel like they are talking to a camera… Amazing how more candid they can be. Also remember this is a one man band type of suggestions. If you have a crew to shoot… fuckin-A use EVF’s and 1stACs and jib arms and steadicams with remotes. I just don’t have that kind of patience and time. I need to jump out of a van door running and shooting within seconds. And keeping it down to an army of one I have WAY more access than a whole crew. Simple as that.


M: How much material did you have to edit and how long did you have to complete the editing?

NT: With Black Swan I had over 100 or so hours of footage to cut down to a little over 60 minutes and then I did a bonus limited edition disc for the French DVD .. (which I have actually never seen). For Noah I shot for over 2 years, and during production about 100 days of intensive shooting, and I came out of that with about 40 hours. Much better and easier to deal with. BUT that was experience in editing I like to think. I just didn’t use SO much in Swan that I just knew when to turn the camera off during Noah. Also with Noah, I made the jump to Premiere Pro of which I had never used before.

So after selling my idea to Paramount I had to learn the program… coming from the Final Cut world for so long it was actually a much easier jump for me than Avid… of which Wes Anderson’s and Darren’s editor, Andy Weisblum kept trying to get me to the Avid camp. I just couldn’t do it.. it was way more about switching things on and off… Premiere was much more intuitive. I’m still jealous of the Avid people though.. that program seems like it is way ahead of the pack.

Because Noah had such a HUGE timeframe for VFX and editing (turned out to be roughly a year after principal wrapped that they would picture lock) usually it’s half that time. But I had a massive window to teach myself Premiere and cut together, in the end, 7 pieces for Noah. Ranging around 15-25 minutes each. About 2 hours total I think.

With Swan it was half of all that. 6 months to cut etc. But with Swan I had to convert all the footage to Prores… what a PAIN in the ass. I have drives just labelled BS 422 ugh. Premiere was amazing since it took all my footage from GOPros, Timelapses, 7D, 5D, 1D and even DNx Dailies. Not even flinching on my antiquated Mac pro.


M: Can you share some Dos and Don’t

[pullquote]DO be incredibly kind and thankful to anyone you encounter on a film set.[/pullquote]

NT: DO be incredibly kind and thankful to anyone you encounter on a film set… Give them a couple chances also. If they continue to be rough and tough to you… think of a way around. But always know that you should be that fly on the wall and SO many other people have a Herculean task in front of them as well, and just get the hell out of the way. Excuse yourself and thank anyone and everyone. Just be nice… That will take you incredibly far in this business. Initiative, respect and common courtesy… amazing those concepts are lost on some people.

[pullquote]DON’T expect ANYONE will lift a finger for you.[/pullquote]

DON’T expect ANYONE will lift a finger for you. To this day I am constantly updating my website, social media and contacting 10 people a day via email. NO ONE will call you magically… if they do consider yourself the luckiest bastard ever. You have to know how to sell yourself. Pimpin is a hard game.


Niko Tavernise is a local 600 set photographer and a wedding/event photographer based in NYC. You can follow him on instagram at @antwrangler.

Watch Niko Tavernise’s Work: