Alexander Chinnici is a cinematographer from New York now based in Los Angeles specializing in narrative, music video, and commercial content. Throughout his 10 year career, Alexander has shot for artists and brands such as Iggy Azalea, Kimbra, and Acura.
How did your cinematography career begin?
Mainly due to being in film school and having shot so much with my fellow students over the years. After we graduated I fortunately transitioned into being a professional Director of Photography with the connections that were made. But it started earlier in a way. My father is a photographer and owned a video camera that he used to document our family vacations. My friends and I got our hands on it as early as 6th grade (12 years old) and began to make silly “movies.” Cut to high school and we were making actual short films. The same group goes to the School of Visual Arts where we begin to shoot on film and really begin our formal education on filmmaking. We were very fortunate and privileged to have had a foundation with one another before that. Due to that level of “experience” (ha) up to that point I was fortunate to shoot a lot of other students projects. This quickly turned into having several thesis films with my name on it and the ability to cut a solid reel when I graduated. Out of school I of course had to work as a crew member (mainly in the electric department) to make a living. I slowly built the reel up on freebies, fellow alumni’s projects outside of school, some of which ended up at legit production companies. After awhile I took the risky plunge of saying no to all other crew positions and sticking to my guns solely as a Director of Photography. This was very difficult at first (especially not owning a camera) but it worked out and I am happy to say that it has been great ever since.
How would you describe your style?
I always find this difficult to answer subjectively. I personally do not see a style. I always choose what is correct for the projects style but also the logistics, budgets and the reality of what is actually required to pull it off. I have been told that I am ‘precise’ so maybe that is my style? I often find that ones stubbornness for a particular style means that their ego is getting in the way. It is my job to serve the project, the director, the producers and find the correct style for the project as it unfolds. It also keeps it fresh, I don’t like to repeat, I am always finding new ways of tackling the challenges.
What is your preferred medium?
While I often shoot digital I don’t necessarily see it as a preferred tool. Film absolutely has it place as well and we are fortunately in a time now where so many formats can be considered. From S16 to S35, Full-Frame up to 65. Film and digital, it all has its place...In regards to preference, I do often prefer the 2x Anamorphic format and have been fortunate to have shot 3 out of the 4 features (that I’ve done up to date) in the format, which I love. I am also prepping my next narrative feature in this format. It isn’t always the correct one but more often than not, I find it to be the superior choice and after conversations with the directors and producers, they agree.
What would you say are your favorite projects to shoot. Commercial, music video, or narrative?
My personal favorite is narrative. This is simply due to the head space that I find myself in. Your choices come from the films themes and the characters themselves. This is undeniably a more interesting, creative space in my personal opinion. I also enjoy long form because the crew and I become a family. This ‘summer camp’ feeling cannot be beat. It is bitter sweet when it ends but nothing is like it. With that said I do love commercials for the diversity of challenges, the wide range of tools, old and new that you come across. It really does inform the narrative work since you essentially are finding new techniques for the future. This also applies to music videos, while shallow at times it is undeniable the most fun since whatever “cool” is simply the goal.
We love your music video work, and the bokeh effect in “Hands on the Wheel” is gorgeous. How was that executed?
Thank you! This is due to a specialty lens that was acquired at Panavision. I’ll call it the ‘Sasaki special’ ;) ...Dan Sasaki is the secret weapon of Panavision. The specialty optics and detuning that him and his team do are unparalleled in the industry. I also want to give a special shout out to Brian Mills who is a part of Dan’s team, Brian and I have worked closely together on many projects now, he has been a great supporter and brought many ideas and tools to the table that have made me look great! So anyway, back to the lens. While researching specialty optics for the music video (the wonderful Director Michelle Bossy and I knew that we wanted something special and truly dream like for certain moments) Brian brought out a lot of great options, one of them was this one off lens that was originally used in Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor.” It was made to look almost like a tilt-shift lens, specifically for the scenes with Kate Beckinsale as a nurse, helping the injured soldiers. It is a spherical, 100mm Ultra Speed Panavision lens, that has a positive 2x squeezed anamorphic element in the front, followed immediately by a negative element. This causes the image to squeeze and unsqueeze before passing through the normal spherical lens. It causes an anamorphic like bokeh and flaring while still projecting a unsqueezed spherical image which was appropriate for our aspect ratio and easily utilizing our other vintage spherical lenses, most of which were also unique. This allowed Michelle and I to have images really stand out and be special which is so important with the amount of content we all view on a day to day basis. I’d also like to call out Andrew Goh, the 1st AC that I worked with in LA. I was hand-held on this very soft lens at 2.8/4 (and remember that it is a 100mm) no marks, no rehearsal, just the lead singer and I basically dancing. He’s a wizard. Lastly, Alexa Lopez who works at Panavision Woodland Hills who did a big favor for our low budget music video. She makes my dreams come true each and every time and I owe her a lot of my success.
The lighting in “What Kind of Love” is vibrant and fantastic. What was the set-up behind it all?
Thank you, thank you… Tomi’s “What Kind of Love” was another fantastic experience and done all in one day! Thom Kerr (the director) is absolutely brilliant. He’s an amazing photographer in his own right and always brings new and unexpected ideas to the table. He pushes me to do some of my best work and always has a wonderful lighting trick up his sleeve. Our collaborations are always thrilling. So Thom’s initial pitch was a large projector behind her, lasers, strobes, a light bulb microphone, a glitter guitar, a wet down and theater lights in frame. The immediate challenge was our budget restraints but besides that, the idea was clear and concise. A go to fantastic Gaffer that I work with in LA is Cole Pisano, him and I worked closely to figure out how we could pull it off. After reviewing the imagery and colors that Thom designed for the projector, we found the correct units for the project. After a lengthy morning set-up, Cole, Thom and I collaborated on when certain lights and colors would come on and off. We also connected with the “laser guy” and positioned those correctly. Especially the one off frame aimed directly at the guitar. With all of the sources in frame I was confident that anamorphic was the right choice and fortunately Thom agreed. The first time the lasers hit the glitter guitar and the lenses flared, we all freaked haha. Tomi is a fantastic artist and her and I had a lot of fun “dancing” together while I was operating hand-held. My main goals were a) don’t slip on the water and b) don’t hit her and c) don’t get in the line of fire of the lasers! Lastly, I should mention that Stephen Gelb at Lens Works Rentals supplied his one off, extremely rare Meru Anamorphics for the project. As you can see they are gorgeous. I actually have a picture of the overhead that I did before the shoot, this is something that I do for nearly every shoot:
We also loved “Switch” by Iggy Azalea. Was that technically an easy or difficult project for you to shoot?
Thank you…I wouldn’t call “Switch” a technically difficult shoot. We had a good amount of resources due to the budget and it was a straight forward, beauty lighting approach for the most part. Thom had wonderful tricks up his sleeve on this one. The cut out squares in the foreground with Iggy’s face behind them was a fun one. We only used one Arri M90 HMI with absolutely nothing in front of it, at a very high angle. The crew and I thought he was crazy for a moment but we were quickly proven wrong. Iggy had to be very close to the plastic cut out (which wasn’t very big, maybe 4’ by 4’ ?) and the wall behind her was maybe another 6-8’ back and was also just two flats. She’s technical and was capable of holding the position. Steadicam operator Colin MacDonnell (a close friend and incredible operator) had the hardest job in that instance. With very little room to play, his added rolls and pushes/pulls added a lot to those moments. Another moment comes to mind...Towards the end of the video we break the bright, colorful aesthetic and go to this dark and dreamy world. Another fun technique suggested by Thom was to again, use the M90, high and ‘bare’ but this time we took a roll of duvetyne, stretched it so that it was tight and cut out a little triangle. This way the light hitting Iggy was a nice soft cut out that contoured and was really flattering. We also used a star filter (the only diffusion filter used throughout the entire video) which gave the cut out light that was directly hitting her a lovely bloom. Also because up until that point we had used the star filter on literally every single one of our videos for some odd reason and I wanted to keep the tradition alive haha. For fun I’ve also included an overhead for this one, particularly the pool set-up:
What has been your favorite project to shoot thus far into your career?
Whew...that’s a tough one...That’s like picking a favorite family pet. I have to be an asshole here and say that I can’t pick just one. Only because there isn’t one that particularly sits higher than any others. There are definitely stinkers (of course) but I have a lot of projects that are near and dear to my heart for all sorts of reasons. The first feature that I shot (‘No Way To Live’ Directed by David Guglielmo & Nick Chakwin) friends from college making a dream come true film noir with zero rules, zero budget and just loving it, a memory that I will always cherish. Or ‘Fool’s Day’ (Directed by Cody Blue Snider) and ongoing collaboration and friendship that very few DP’s will ever have the fortune of experiencing. Recently ‘Dig Your Own Grave’ (Directed by Kirk Larsen) a short that I am so proud of with an amazing director that I am so excited to grow with. I’ve been on some amazing and wild adventures with Director and Producers Judy Posey & Darren McInerney, projects that have yet to be released. The results are fantastic and the memories are just as good. Lastly, ‘Nighthawks’ (Directed by Grant S. Johnson) comes to mind as well. It was my first union feature and Grant trusted me and allowed me to flex. I am so excited for people to see the results soon.
What do you feel is the biggest difference between shooting a commercial vs. music video?
There are often less rules with a music video. It tends to be less rigid and dare I say more ‘artistic’. This is certainly not always the case but it comes down to the differences of who you are working for. Commercials tend to be run by advertising agencies which can be a fear based industry. When you are lucky, you come across a brand, a creative director or an agency who are brave and a wonderful commercial can come out of it, this is rarely the case due to the amount of cooks but it can happen. While music video budgets do struggle these days it is often a closer collaboration with the band itself which tend to be pretty creative. Music videos tend to be more difficult but with more rewarding results. At the end of the day both are advertising. You are either selling a product or an artist/band.
If you had to choose a camera and set of lenses to shoot on for the rest of your career, what would it be and why?
This question is literally impossible haha. Sorry! I don’t know if film will be around for the rest of my life time and the digital cameras are always getting better! I’m technical, I read a ton and I test often so I am always out for the best/right tools.
What would you have want to accomplished by the end of your career?
The goal for me is to have worked on a movie that lasts for a very long time. I fell in love with movies because of the effect that it had on me. For some reason along the way I fell in love with a particular part which is clearly cinematography. It is the aspect that I will attempt to master which will fortunately be a lifelong task. Likely never completed but hey, I’ll never be bored. If I can be involved with, collaborate and have contributed to an absolute classic that people debate over, get emotional over, that affects their lives, a movie that they can quote over dinner and laugh together over...That is what it is all about. Even just one and I’d be happy with that.
Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
Absolutely. The “one” is a feature version of ‘Fool’s Day’ (mentioned above) the short of which you can find here. I can’t say much more but look forward to a feature version soon… Might just be that classic that I’m hoping for.