Interview with Hollywood Director of Photography – Thomas Ackerman, ASC

I had the opportunity to speak to renowned Hollywood Director of Photography – Thomas Ackerman, ASC (Jumanji, George from the Jungle) – while on set in Munich for the new ‘AliBinAli’ TV Commercial. (Production: Voodoopartners – Producer Axel Breuer)

Here ‘s the transcript of the complete interview – I shot for the official ‘Making Of‘ this production.

“You can come up with the best plan, with a great AD, wonderful production staff, but at the end of the day, there’s no science of it.” – Thomas Ackerman

Thomas Ackerman
Director of Photography Thomas Ackerman, ASC

Alex: I’d like to welcome you on the set here in Munich. You just came from a big movie set and flew directly here to Munich for this commercial. What is the big difference between movie sets in e.g. Hollywood compared to this production here in Munich?

Thomas: I came from working on a movie in Montreal, straight to Munich to work on this production. So obviously there’s a time difference, there’s a cultural difference, there’s a crew difference, to certain extend an equipment difference. But the fact is that I like to mix things up. Obviously the dynamic of a large feature film production whether in Europe, Canada or the US is quite different from a commercial. A commercial is kind of custom crafted, it’s got a very specific setup, creative targets. And it allows you to really break out of a certain way of seeing into a new way of seeing films. That’s what’s exciting about commercials – both as a Photographer and as a Filmmaker. So, the difference is that at a large movie the process tends to be more industrial, larger numbers of people, a lot more equipment, longer schedules. You know – a movie takes maybe 4 months out of your life including the prep time, could be more. Where as a commercial – you get on a plane as I did – fly from Montreal to Munich, get off, meet the key people, look at some locations, and the next day you’re pre-lighting to shoot. So, commercials are immediate, that’s where the excitement is – and everyday there’s a new discovery.

We have plans, we plan everything very careful, we have storyboards, but there’s always the chance for this unforseen opportunity, the surprise. Because there’s no science of running horses through a field, honestly. You can come up with the best plan, with a great AD, wonderful production staff, but at the end of the day, there’s no science of it. You have to make the best possible plan to limit the variables, and then, you go for it. And we got some great footage today. We were fortunate to have excellent weather, it’s been raining in Munich for the past week. We have sun, and a beautiful sky and so we are lucky people.

Alex: Whats the difficulty doing a commercial when animals are involved?

Thomas: We’ve had horses, swans and falcons in this commercial. Working with animals is always a problem. There’s no way to convey to an animal in any kind of language that we know. It’s very important for you to stay in frame and remember to hit your mark so that the focus will be good. So when working with animals – and I’ve done it a lot (Jumanji) – it’s a matter of limiting your strategies so that you’re going through a specific and known type of image and then hiring people who can work with the animals and trick them into doing what you want.
Today we had a track laid out in the grass so the horse would be knowledgable and could repeat time and again the run. Obviously with an actor all you have to do is say walk over to that tree, we don’t have the ability to tell a horse, so we set it up mechanically. But it all starts with the concept, we have very tight storyboards, we have a very specific shot list. Axel and I spent a lot of time in preproduction, talking about the shots. So that when we come to the set we know a lot about what we’re gonna do. We don’t know everything. And with animals in fact there’s not the ability to know everything.

Yesterday when we were working with the falcon in the studio, Axel himself launched the bird. He had experience with birds in the past when he was a kid. So he took it upon himself to be the bird launcher. I think whatever he brings to it as a filmmaker and as a bird handler, it paid of. Because in about a half a dozen takes, we got two perfect flights and I think that’s quite extraordinary.

Alex: Tell us a little about the underwater scene, how do you stay in touch and give directions to the camera team, which is literally underwater.

Thomas: When you are working under water, obviously communication becomes far more difficult. In this case we had an underwater sonic telephone (PA system) – which would broadcast our voice to the people under water, the performers and the camera operator, the grips and so for it. But it’s a very poor quality so again, just like coming to work with the horses in the field, you come into it with a very tight plan, very tight shot list, storyboards that actually mean something – indicative of what we eventually wanna do with the FX composite, so honestly, I would say that our mastery of communication under water was not a big part of this. Obviously my ability to go down physically under water was zero, I don’t do that. The only thing we could do was to have a plan, a very tight plan. Supposed to a typical shooting day like yesterday, where we did 30 individual shots – many times, different lighting, different lenses, different moves – we had one basic angle. You can light it and tweak it and make it perfect and then we’d run all our performers through it.

And again, we had a beautiful model in a costume that was carefully fitted, and we had three little girls, who were phenomenal adequate mermaids. They were extremely excellent swimmers, very used to performing in the mermaid costume. We had a beautiful setting, we had a day of pre-lighting, this is very important, we had a whole day on Monday to get ready on Tuesdays shoot. This is important because lighting under water is not like – you don’t phone it in. However, that said, whether it can be very beautiful and the light we created was extraordinary. Once we had that look dialed in we put the various actions & actors through it.

Alex: I can see your passion and it is agreat honor to be on set with you. Do you actually have time to visit and enjoy a little of Munich during your stay and what’s your next plans after this shoot?

Thomas: I’ve been in Munich before, I think it’s a lovely town, so far I’ve not had a lot of time on this trip to do anything but go to the set and back to the hotel , sleep and get up and go to the set. However, when we wrap we do expect to stay around for a few days and of course I want to touch base with Axel and all the post production people as the final editing and compositing happens but basically I’ll be on vacation.

Alex: Thank you for your time.

Thomas: Pleasure.

The Interview took place 15th June 2012 on set in Munich (AliBinAli TV Commercial – Production: Voodoopartners – Axel Breuer)

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