Along with his extensive work in feature films, Alexander has worked on countless short films, commercials, and music videos. He talked about these projects and his success in the film industry, his work process and what projects he's looking forward to doing next.
PH: Hi there Alexander! I'd love to learn a little bit more about your background. How did you get into the film world?
Alexander Chinnici: I grew up in New York with a big family. My Dad is a photographer, and he showed me a lot of great movies at a young age. The one that had the most impact on me would have been ‘Apocalypse Now.’ I grabbed his video camera and started making movies with my friends around age 11. By high school, we were making pretty serious short films. We all went to the School of Visual Arts together. I always gravitated to the camera and the visuals, SVA is where I started to learn about lighting. Since I had the high school projects, I was DPing shorts right away. By graduation, I had a decent reel. After a few years of shooting whenever I could, I eventually made the choice to work solely as a cinematographer and fortunately, it has been that way ever since.
PH: Can you share some of your first few projects? How did you "break into" the industry?
Alexander Chinnici: In terms of narrative features, my fellow classmates David Guglielmo & Nick Chakwin and I made our first feature together, ‘No Way To Live,’ by scraping together very little money. We treated it as 3 separate short films in a way. We would shoot a section, cut a trailer, go beg for money, get some and go back and finish the rest. After nearly a year, we had a movie. Once I had one, I could go fight for more. As I write this, I am 3 days from finishing my 7th feature, with the 8th starting in 2 months! As for commercials, since I had a reel when I graduated in 2009 and I had friends who went on to work for companies like Vox Media, I could get hired. At that time, YouTube, branded content, DSLRs and such were all the craze. I was quickly able to build a body of work, reel and resume by working a lot. I have personally never stopped hustling, and it all builds on top of one another and leads to the next opportunity.
PH: What drew you to work on the horror film V/H/S/99? How do you select which projects you work on?
Alexander Chinnici: VHS99 came my way when Johannes Roberts was interviewing DPs. My wife Natasha Kermani is a director (and is working on VHS 85!). She put in a good word with producer James Harris, and we are also buddies with producer David Bruckner. Johannes and I clicked right away. I will admit that I had little to no interest in doing found footage but working with these great filmmakers definitely made me interested. I quickly discovered that I was wrong to judge found footage. I had a LOT of fun. I quickly had to unlearn and lose all of my bag of tricks. It was stripped down. The best part was that in 1999 I was making some of my first movies with my friends at age 12 with similar cameras! It was a real trip. I am so happy to see people specifically calling out ‘Suicide Bid’ and loving it. When it comes to choosing projects, I keep all factors in mind. Some say “script, director” and it is far from that simple. I love challenges, I love doing something new, and I love meeting and working with new people. I often keep a mixture of creative and logistics in mind and weigh all of my options and balance the pros and cons. Often, new experiences and collaborations are rarely worth turning down.
PH: Can you walk me through your planning process for shooting this project?
Alexander Chinnici: Planning was mostly about making a 270-degree area for us to ‘play’ - since the script called for these young girls to operate the camera and film one another, I wanted it to be as natural as possible. I even originally pitched them operating, but Johannes, rightly pushed back, wanting them to be able to focus on their performance. I do feel that found footage only works when it feels raw and real, when the audience’s brain has that lingering question, “is this real?” otherwise, for me, I don’t get the point. So I was pushing for that, always. In our first rehearsal, nearly at the same time, Johannes and I realized that the camera (me) should be another sorority girl within the group. Speaking of cameras, I originally pushed for going to DV tape to really sell it. However, challenges like getting a proper video village up and downloading were concerns for all involved. I quickly realized that we could easily use a modern camcorder, and it would solve our issues. SD cards, Mini HDMI out and boom, those issues were solved. The reason why it worked was because the sensor is still tiny, so the depth of field is correct, you still get all of the artifacts and the feeling of the zoom from the tiny lens. I also thought it was very important that the weight and feel of it on your wrist is different. I personally get triggered when I see a cinema camera used in these instances. It immediately feels phony. In post, we went out to VHS tape and back in to really bring the look home. The next challenge was now making my operating feel “real” even though I have trained for decades. Johannes kept a close eye and was great about calling me out when I would overdo it. Lighting the 270 area was a major challenge but a really fun one. It was mostly about lighting the background, and I could get away with an on-camera light and directing the actresses to use their flashlights when helpful. Working with them was really fun and very collaborative. Especially Ally Ioannides and the work that we did together in the coffin. It was a very tight space, we were operating together, there was water, mud and real spiders - we had a lot of fun. Except for the spiders.
PH: On that note, I'd love to hear how you balance creativity as a cinematographer - especially for a film like this one?
Alexander Chinnici: That is a good question. I think that I likely balance it more than most. I am very logistically minded and time conscious. I think that it is a core element of filmmaking. When I hear stories about people only being concerned with the visuals, I find it odd. Other mediums afford such control. What I love about filmmaking is that it is organic. We plan, we pivot, we adjust, we burn it all down. When you boil it down, it really is an exercise in decision-making and how well you react. So, for me, while I find lighting, lenses & composition to be the most enjoyable creative areas, I do also find an enjoyable amount of creativity in the decision-making that a day on set creates. Since I simply love the process, the balance comes naturally. Still, frustrating compromises come up, but you choose your battles. Fortunately, lighting continues to be an area that is mostly left to my team and me and still not as well understood by others. So I know that I can always go there to make my personal, creative needs met. For VHS, it was so foreign and freeing that the balance was natural. It was stressful at times to challenge myself to “make it real,” but I am always hard on myself, and I am rarely satisfied. However, I think that the constant drive in the moment makes it better. Until you simply have to move on!
PH: I'd love to hear about the organic approach to shooting and photographic in-camera “trick or stunts” you took with this project.
Alexander Chinnici: I think that doing it all for real is the key. The spiders, for instance, are real. I guess the only trick is our whip pans sometimes would mesh cuts together as we broke it all up. But besides that, the water coming in, the monster breaking in (spoilers) … it is just for real. So we and the producers and the stunt team, etc. - they make it safe, we prep and communicate a lot, but you just do it for real. The “tricks” are done in camera by the brilliant departments involved. The age-old “in-camera” is very real.
PH: For your recent film Bandit, how did you work to transform modern-day Georgia to look like 1980s Canada?
Alexander Chinnici: Director Allan Ungar was absolutely determined to find the right locations. We ended up shooting in 3 different cities to achieve the correct looks. He is a Canadian himself, so he is well-versed in what buildings, street corners and such could sell it. We scouted like crazy! This was the vast majority of my prep. The movie takes place in many Canadian cities, so we really needed to spread out. It was very intense but totally worth it. I will take a good location over most things. When I set a shot up, the more successful it is upfront (location, camera, lens, etc.), the more potential I have to make it even better. Avoiding things like American flags were very difficult ha. We’d often find one in a reflection, or if we panned a hair to the left, boom, we would give it all away. The art department did a great job, especially considering the enormous amount of locations that we had. I also chose to shoot a bit more telephoto and with a more shallow depth of field than I normally would have to throw backgrounds out of focus. I personally like to show the locations and production design, despite the trend of wildly blurry backgrounds, but in this case, it was required.
PH: What were some of the challenges you encountered on Bandit?
Alexander Chinnici: I think that Bandit will likely be the most difficult project that I will ever do. Witha tight budget, in 21 days, we shot 120 pages, nearly 90 locations and 160 scenes. In southern Georgia, in 2021 for 1980’s Canada and mind you, covering a ton of ground in that country over the course of many years. I ran several cameras, and several units, and had to ping pong all over the place to make it all happen. Fortunately, Allan has a great eye and a drive like no other. We also had an incredible crew and an amazing cast. A great group of folks who really championed it and didn’t give up. For example, Josh Duhamel was our cheerleader throughout. Nestor Carbanell directed certain parts of our 2nd unit. It really was a team effort. Making it all cohesive was the main challenge. However, I strategically would partition my resources. For example, we would start the day in a bank but end it elsewhere. Said bank may look great, so I can keep my footprint small and have my crew pre-light the second half of the day, a location that needed some TLC. So we would approach it in ways like that to get it done and adjust on the fly. We averaged 45 setups a day and hit a record of 70-something. As crazy as it was, knowing how to do a lot with a little is invaluable.
PH: What is some of your go-to equipment you used to make this project come to life? (and why did you choose it?)
Alexander Chinnici: I chose the Sony Venice as our camera for several reasons. The internal NDs allowed me to make very quick adjustments on the fly. Due to the large sensor, I could more easily throw our background out of focus, especially in some very tight locations. Its ability in low light and its clean image at high ISO was also a lifesaver a few times, especially with some of the curveballs that came our way. Due to the speed at that, we moved, sometimes, I wouldn’t change lenses but just simply switch from 6K to 4K to ‘punch-in’ instead of changing lenses. There were times when we hadn’t even seen a location beforehand, the flexibility of the camera was very helpful so that I could react quickly. I was eager for the film to not feel doc-like but truly cinematic. The custom in-camera LUT that I had, lenses and filtration let that happen. I work hard to ensure that my starting point is a strong one. By utilizing a 70’s film print emulation LUT and unique filtration, I could get the 80’s look that I was going for. Most importantly were the lenses. I used the LensWorksRentals Type SK lenses. They are 1960’s Canon Rangefinder lenses that I absolutely adore. For me, they strike that perfect balance of aberrations while not being too distracting. Vintage lenses can often be mismatched or over the top, but not these. Our lighting package was straightforward for the most part. I did utilize the Astera Titan Tubes a decent amount. Due to footprint, low power draw, speed and such. They are used a lot these days, and as someone who started with HMI’s & Kino’s - I am very thankful for these and lights like the SkyPanels and Vortex’s. Still, nothing beats Tungsten for me which I use whenever possible.
PH: As with many roles, the ability to adapt is incredibly important. Can you talk me through how you identified the specific needs of each project you work on based on the script, cast and crew involved, and the overall goal for the project?
Alexander Chinnici: I do my best to identify the needs very early on. I try to remain open to how that may evolve and change through prep and production. I often find that I need to adjust my resources into one area over another. For example, one project may need more crew, a better camera, expensive camera support, a pre-light, more lighting etc. - I will do my best to identify which one the project needs both logistically and creatively. I will address these with the team beforehand and pitch which areas I think need more attention, time, budget, etc., to ensure success. As budgets increase, this becomes less of an issue, but I still find it important to identify what areas need more or less since efficiency and not being wasteful are important to me as a filmmaker. I find that the script itself, what is important to the director, producers and the reality of the production reveal these needs quite clearly.
PH: In your opinion, what characteristics/skill set do you need to be a successful DP?
Alexander Chinnici: You need to know how to compose a shot, how to light, and how to be a leader. You need to be able to communicate, manage a group of personalities and sell ideas. You need to be consistent. You need to be flexible and open. You need to check your ego. You need to know the script very well. You need to know the needs and wants of the director. You need to work closely with logistic elements and not fight them but work together, in harmony. You need to listen to your crew, protect them, inspire them, and drive them to do great. You need to listen to your gut.
PH: Would you like to share any upcoming projects?
Alexander Chinnici: I am a few days away from wrapping up a feature that I cannot discuss. I will share it when I can. This summer, I shot a wonderful little horror movie titled ‘A Creature Stirs’ directed by Damien LeVeck - out next fall. I am very excited for people to see it. It is an all-practical, creature feature soaked in extremely colorful, Dario Argento-inspired lighting with a strong sense of John Carpenter. We shot on wacky, old anamorphic lenses and really went for it. Our monitors had the saying, “Fuck Rules - Take Risks” I don’t know that I will ever have a more liberating, no one over your shoulder kind of experience again. It is really great to have such a bold film under my belt. I like to change it up. The movie I am on now is much more safe but still lovely, tasteful and classy. The next one coming up shortly, super stylized. Change is great.