Cameraman and director Erik van Empel NSC, about his award-winning documentary
‘Paolo Ventura, Vanishing Man’
After graduating from the Dutch Film Academy in 1979, Erik van Empel moved more and more towards documentary filmmaking as a cameraman. Established with many international awards he has shot over 100 documentaries. Absorbed with cinematic images in his mind, he decided 14 years ago to direct a film by himself. Now with his third documentary ‘Paolo Ventura, Vanishing Man’ (2015), he won the prestigious Prix Italia.
‘Paolo Ventura, Vanishing Man,’ shows how an Italian artist creates his own timeless melancholic world in a barn on an abandoned mountaintop in Italy. With paint, cardboard, and relics of a human life, he resonates his childhood’s memories and isolation by giving himself and found objects a new magical life.
According to the jury, the award-winning documentary is “an unexpected trip to a timeless world. The script, photography, and directing are in full harmony with the artist’s universe. We are being taken in the world of a unique illusionist and his magical world of images.”
During a visit to the annual photography fair ‘Paris Photo’ in 2011, Van Empel saw a stunning piece from Ventura’s War Souvenirs series. “I did not understand what I saw. It looked like a movie still. Staged, but there was more going on. I could not lay my finger on what was so special. When I looked closer, it occurred they were dolls. But why telling such a grim World War II story with dolls? His style was fascinating me. It is something I have affection with,” says Van Empel. From that moment on, he collected all photo books of the artist.
Van Empel came in touch with the artist through a gallery owner in Amsterdam and traveled to Italy for an introduction. During this first meeting, he raised the interest of the artist, even though he was also in contact with an American documentary filmmaker. Ventura wanted to know more about the documentary filmmaking process. Van Empel sketched him two possible scenarios. To write a script, look for an interested television station and then apply for funding. “When we’re lucky, we can start principal photography a year later. Or second, I will return in two weeks and just start to film. I thought I’ll just buy two cheap flight tickets, come with Mark Wessner, a befriended sound engineer, and my camera equipment. Film for three days so we can create a trailer to convince a broadcaster and funders.”
“Ventura found the latter a good plan. I had already figured out which scenes I wanted to shoot. From there, an extra scene emerged for the next shooting period.” Van Empel was in such a flow when he started principal photography that he did not even get time to approach a broadcaster. Between shooting periods, he assembled all scenes in sequences. “Finally, I went to Italy three times and had shot most of the film on my own expense. Based on a ‘trailer’ we got ‘Uur van de Wolf’ Editor, Oscar van de Kroon, interested in the film.”
During research, van Empel always takes his camera along. “When Paolo showed me the studio on top of the mountain during our first encounter, it was beautiful foggy weather which made the setting very cinematic. I immediately filmed some exterior shots with my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. Eventually, these shots became the opening shots of the film. In addition to the Pocket Camera, I often carry a Panasonic Lumix GH4 with me. What a pen is for a writing journalist, that’s a camera for me. It helps me during research to see if the subject comes alive on screen. Perhaps it’s a cameraman’s approach, you can also literally hide behind a camera. By becoming a director, I had to step aside from that camera to make contact with the person in front of it so they felt more comfortable and were able to perform.”
Besides directing, Van Empel was also responsible for the cinematography of the film. “On my three films, I never doubted I would not shoot it myself. That’s very obvious for me, which is perhaps not the case. Filming and directing naturally come together, it would be odd for me to work with a cameraman. Then I have to pay attention to what that person is doing.”
“Besides the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and the Panasonic GH4, I shot most of the film mainly with my Sony PMW-F5 and some Nikon zoom lenses. The GH4 is ideal in some cases. I used it to shoot some atmospheric images of old trams in Milan with this camera. Mark Wessner, the sound engineer was already returning to The Netherlands and I had still one morning reserved. In this occasion, it was unfeasible to carry my F5 and heavy tripod through Milan. But armed with the GH4, a very compact telephoto lens and a minuscule photo tripod it was easy to manage. I walked through the city and suddenly came across this train station where some beautiful old trams passed by. It was drizzly weather, and the scenery totally matched the atmosphere of Paolo Ventura’s photographs. Unfortunately, I was unable to make any pan movements because of the photo tripod.”
These atmospheric images of Milan are intentionally aligned with the artist’s work. “I have searched for images within Ventura’s vocabulary, which can be a tricky thing with films about artists. If you don’t nail it, then it seems as if you want to imitate the artist as a filmmaker. For example, you follow a photographer who makes grainy black and white photographs which trigger you as a filmmaker to shoot grainy black and white as well. I do not like that at all. But in this case, it was important for me to make a connection with Paolo’s work and the Italian reality. You feel that his melancholy and color palette are rooted in reality.”
By funding from ‘Het Uur van de Wolf’, van Empel involved Joost Seelen, former producer of Zuidenwind Film as co-producer on the production. In the budget were only twenty days of editing with an editor planned. “Honestly, after seventeen days we were still getting nowhere. Suddenly I was unable to watch the film anymore. A strange phenomenon during editing, you normally never experience as a cameraman.” At that moment Seelen suggested that Van Empel had to struggle with some unedited footage himself, and use the remaining three days with the editor to finalize the film. “This resulted in seven weeks of editing on my own, working each day until midnight, after which Joost received a link from me to watch. Each morning at 8 AM I opened my inbox and read his comments on the link of the previous day. The last two weeks he visited me during the day time and we re-arranged the order of scenes together, after which I continued editing on my own from noon till midnight. At midnight, I send him a link, after which everything started again. In this way, we got those fragile layers in the storytelling. That’s something which slowly arises after many versions, and I couldn’t reach on my own.”
“I really like the editing process. That’s where you really tell the story, which you can do better with a professional editor for sure. A spectator who can objectively watch the footage.”
“As a cameraman, you can learn a lot by editing your own footage. Here I was confronted with my own limitations. As a rather economical cameraman, who for 25 years was used to film on expensive film stock, I work with thoughtful decoupage and don’t like to hit the recording button spontaneously. Even though an extra shot of this or that could not have been very harmful. Highly educative.”
“Camera work must serve the subject you are filming and capture this as modest as possible.
Without any hodgepodge and cinematographic show-off.” –
Erik van Empel, NSC
“At a given point in life, Ventura gave up a successful career as fashion photographer because he had to produce the images that haunted him in his mind. Through this story, I recently realized why I started directing fourteen years ago. I also walked around with certain images in my mind that I wanted to realize in a film myself. It fascinated me to be at a certain location, a place where a long time ago an event took place and let this event visually come alive in the present; so past and present get to blend together.”
Van Empel achieved this in his first film ‘Tour des Légendes’ (2003), a film about ‘imagination’ based on myths from Tour de France, where fact, myth, present, and past all come together in a cinematic slot sequence. “This scene has been shot on the famous pass the Col du Galibier during magic hour. Slowly it starts to snow. Being in the present, some phantom images of the Tour from ’48 appear in the rear-view mirror of my car. In the film, I’m in search of what has happened there and make use of old archival footage to recall that world. It was one of the first documentaries in the Netherlands that made extensive use of VFX. It was through this slot sequence, which I saw so clearly in my mind that I had to make this film.”
“But besides that, it was also a kind of sabbatical.” The film gave Van Empel renewed energy as a cameraman. “The last ten years I’m filming with much more fun, flair and flexibility than at the beginning of my career.”
“When I decide to make a film myself, the form has to be challenging enough for me to experiment. This is often the case with a subject that contains layers of time, such as the ‘Tour des Légendes’. But also with ‘Paolo Ventura, Vanishing Man’. At our first meeting, Paolo arrived with a bag full of Super 8 films from his youth. That material became a pillar for the whole film.”
For Van Empel, content and quality of the performance in front of the camera remains the first priority. “Camera work must serve the subject you are filming and capture this as modest as possible. Without any hodgepodge and cinematographic show-off. I think it’s important that people can stay in their own rhythm and pace, therefore you need to keep thing as simple as possible on the technical side. No complicated setups with dollies and so on, but stay serviceable to the situation you’re shooting. From a tripod or handheld and not much more than that. I scan the atmosphere and try to determine to keep my distance or come close to someone’s face and be intimate. For the same reason, I try to keep the lighting as simple as possible. Thanks to the increased dynamic range of the current generation cameras it is possible to do a lot of things without any extra light. After thirty years of experience, I know where I have to place my camera to make the most advantage from the daylight coming from a window. For this film, I can’t remember a scene where I adjusted the existing light situation.”
To capture the optimal dynamic range of the camera Van Empel used the ‘Cine EI Mode’ on the camera. “I started using Slog2 because Slog3 did not exist when I started filming. At some point, I switched to Slog3. I put the camera by default on EI 1250 and when handled with care you get so much room to play with afterward, that you don’t have to worry about the underexposed parts.” During filming van Empel makes use of the standard Sony REC 709 LUT of the PMW-F5 on his viewfinder. “Last year, I attended an LUT-workshop at Pinewood Studios, which was organized by the NSC and Vocas. With colleague Peter Brugman, we built our own LUT. But it looked so much like Sony’s given REC 709, that I continued using their LUT. In the beginning, I was really worried about filming in Log mode. There were and still are so many contradictory stories on the internet. I don’t have time to look at the histogram during filming. In the end, I have found so much support in the following quote by Alister Chapman: “If it looks good on REC 709, it sure looks good in Log.” That was something I could recognize from all those years interpreting my Aaton viewfinder for the right exposure.”
The color correction took place at Filmmore in Amsterdam with colorist Wouter Suyderhoud. “He found it an interesting project and has put a lot of effort in it. We did not do anything extreme during the color correction process. I subconsciously shot the film in the same color palette as Ventura’s artistic work. I haven’t shot his house in bright sunlight for example. Thus, we did not have to pull too much on the image.” At a given moment in the film, Ventura is taking pictures with his son. This turned out to be the most difficult scene during color correction. Van Empel was aware of the short attention span of the boy and knew he had limited time to shoot the scene. “I shot this continuously with the F5 from my shoulder and a Lumix GH3 on a tripod. We were losing light during filming, which resulted in underexposed GH3 footage. Wouter has been struggling for more than an hour with this scene to make it work. Now the underexposed footage doesn’t bother anymore, although you can still notice it in projection.”
After three films, it’s inspiring Van Empel to make another film soon. “Now I got the taste for it, doesn’t say that I prefer directing above camerawork. It’s more like that directing helped me with shooting for other directors.”
Interview by Vincent Visser
English translation by Herman Verschuur & Vincent Visser