ONFILM Interview: Eric Schmidt

Published on website: September 03, 2012
Categories: ONFILM
Eric Schmidt Photo by D. Kirkland

“I’m always discussing with directors how audiences derive meaning from a succession of images. When images are connecting emotionally, it’s almost always unconscious. Film resonates with people. It has a random, moving texture that gives faces and skin tones a naturalistic vibe. And film’s enduring visual power and organic feel can’t be replicated. We are image makers. We get to take chances, push technology to the limit, and find something magical.”

Eric Schmidt’s credits include the feature films The Mechanic, I Melt with You, Henry Poole is Here, and My Sassy Girl, as well as the pilots for Close to Home and Red Window. His work on the television series Cold Case earned him an ASC Award nomination. He also has photographed many music videos and commercials, including the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

A Conversation with Eric Schmidt

Question: How did you first become interested in photography?
Schmidt: My parents were both public school teachers in the suburbs of Chicago. My dad was an industrial arts teacher, and every spring he would take a group of students to Washington, D.C., on a field trip. I would always tag along. They would gather the kids on the steps of the Capitol and take a very wide photograph with a large format camera and a panning lens. My father and his buddies would often run from one edge to the other and appear in the photo twice. As a kid, I found this fascinating. My dad was always taking stills with a very basic, manual camera. After I reached about sixth grade, he starting putting it in my hands and telling me I should shoot. I loved the controls – the focus, the shutter speed. I thought it was very interesting mechanically.

Q: How did your interest in photography grow from there?
Schmidt: When I got to New Trier High School, I was taking advanced placement art classes, and I became known for my photography. We had excellent art teachers, and the school was very well equipped, with a television studio and a radio station. We made faux VHS documentaries for our social studies classes, and fake newscasts. It was an incredible experience. I was asked to be the high school newspaper photographer. I borrowed my dad’s camera and photographed sports and performances. I got interested in watching the lighting. I got pretty efficient at it, and I thought I might pursue a photojournalism career. I actually studied photojournalism at Marquette University for a semester. My job was creating the black-and-white matrices from prints so they could go to press.

Q: How did you end up at Columbia College?
Schmidt: I realized that I was more interested in the fictional aspect of things. I transferred to Columbia College in Chicago to major in creative writing and photography. The classes were very technical, and I was probably too young to absorb it all. I felt that I wasn’t a very good technician. I was still trying to find my place. I talked to a guy named Franklin Miller, who was head of the cinema studies program at the University of Iowa. He said that the reason I should come to Iowa was that he could teach me everything I needed to know in order to make a film in six months – load the camera, expose the film, cut the negative, mix the sound. But he said that what I might not learn anywhere else is what to make my film about. I had an incredible experience at Iowa, and I loved the very artsy, indie nature of the program there. I learned a lot from Leighton Pierce, an independent filmmaker who was teaching there.

Q: What did you learn from him that stayed with you?
Schmidt: He taught me that just because there’s a certain way you’re supposed to do things doesn’t mean that you have to or even should do it that way. He taught me to trust my instincts. We were shooting every weekend. I had an ARRI SR3 and a set of Zeiss Superspeeds at my disposal, as well as (EASTMAN EXR Color Negative film) 7245, a 50 ASA stock. That was such an important educational experience for me. The lessons I’d learned at Iowa helped. It’s funny, because I’ve been shooting the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials using the same Bolex camera and the same Switar lenses I was using back then. We often shoot on Ektachrome film. The director is Steve Miller, who was nominated for a DGA Award based on that campaign.

Q: Tell me about the thought process behind those spots.
Schmidt: Those spots, and their success in the advertising marketplace, really show the enduring power of film. You could try to replicate those looks digitally, but you couldn’t. We pull the cover off the Bolex and get streaks. Sometimes there are little scratches and the registration is off. It has an organic naturalism that you are not going to get with another format. By now, the agency is adamant that we shoot those in 16mm. It’s funny – all these years later, I still find myself taking off the little yellow loop on the daylight spools, cutting the perfs and threading it into the Bolex. And this is for an international, big-budget campaign.

Q: How do audiences read these images?
Schmidt: Any connectivity that you have emotionally is almost always subconscious. I think I’ve learned that from working with Mark Pellington. I met him in New York, where I worked as a gaffer during the most explosive moment of music videos. It was really experimental. Mark and I were always talking about how images in editorial connect with one another. How do we derive meaning out of something? It was the best training ground I could have had.

Q: You shot a feature film last year called The Mechanic. Tell us about that project.
Schmidt: Simon West, the director, asked me for my take on the script. The energy of the film struck me as something that needed to be told in a throwback fashion, like an early ‘70s Clint Eastwood movie. The protagonist’s life is a gritty one, and I thought the images should have a textural quality. I suggested that we shoot on (KODAK VISION2 Expression 500T Color Negative film) 5229. It’s a low-con stock, and it has texture. Everyone is trying to escape grain, but I look at that as texture. We decided to underexpose and really try to bring that out. I thought that if we combined that with warm, moody, sodium vapor top light, and shot with a roaming, longer lens, it would have a great big feeling for a relatively modest budget. It imbued the bayou landscape with a whole other kind of feeling, and it resonated with people. I got great feedback on it. Digital can look good, but film resonates with people, maybe because it’s unexplainable.

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