Updated: Jan 18, 2022
By Paul Mitchnick:
Cable television and streaming have turned film production into a growth industry. Before that, a freelance film technician’s work stream was unpredictable. There had always been enough to keep me going, but its transient nature had an effect.
Traditionally, no matter what the rest of the year was like, having a job in late August or September meant you were in the film business. If not, then maybe you weren’t. Maybe you would never work again (the "never work again" was a bit of a joke; it became a bit less funny if you really hadn’t worked in a while).
Taking photos was a way to keep those thoughts at bay, and if your late August was slow and you had only "maybe" prospects, there was always an amusement park to photograph. In Vancouver, the Pacific National Exhibition came around every late August.
Everyone has his or her own issues around money: whether there is enough, whether there is not enough, whether more is coming, whether there are a few more thousand miles on those tires, whether to go into savings, whether there will be more work . . .
So my funny about money was to not spend it if I was not gainfully employed. That $150 to be spent on parking at the PNE for a week was saved by parking a dozen blocks away and taking the bus. That represented seven rolls of film and processing!
One particular Saturday, I spent a longer time than usual taking photos. The subject material and its challenges wouldn’t let me leave. Lots of exciting new things were being captured—no other place I would rather be. What great fun. By the end of the evening, I was happy and spent.
But it was hot.
And I got on the wrong bus.
And there I was—at midnight—standing at the corner of Main and Hastings in Vancouver on a summer’s Saturday night, waiting for the bus with my camera bag and tripod on my back. A white, middle-class, well-fed older guy at a bus stop in a neighborhood full of people whose lives hadn’t turned out all that well.
I really didn’t want to be there.
Thin people, without all their teeth, moving a little too quickly and talking a little too loudly to others . . . or themselves. Their history on their breath. The summer’s heat awakening the piss in their clothing. The alcohol seeping out of their pores. In shorts done up and not. The stale tired smell of it all. Frenetic. Vibrant energy not unlike the PNE, except joyless.
I really, really didn’t want to be there.
A couple of years earlier, I had been mugged midday about six blocks away from where I presently stood. Parked in my car, making a phone call, my window down. Someone grabbed my shoulder bag sitting on the seat next to me. I grabbed my bag and his arm. I also sunk my teeth into his shoulder. It all ended pretty quickly with a fist or two to my head.
I see his face, every detail clearly, as I write this. Determined. Raw edged. There were no lasting scars except for memory. So I was careful of the people close to me that night—maybe waiting for the bus, maybe not. Careful not to make eye contact with someone whose chip on his or her shoulder might just teeter at the sight of me.
But there I was.
I had taken the wrong bus leaving the PNE when I got on the express bus. So instead of going to my parked pickup truck a few miles away from the exhibition, this night found me in the edgiest part of downtown Vancouver.
Nothing happened in that very, very long wait for the bus except reliving the mugging and a certain anxiety about my current future. There might have been a lesson about being penny wise and pound foolish in that wait as well.
My fondness for amusement parks has always been inspired by memories, something sensory that resides inside me.
What pleasure can there be from shooting the same subject over and over?
What am I looking for?
Is it possible to go home again with the photography?
Of course I can no longer be that person, but there is something about the amusement park’s vibrant energy that stirs my memory.
Diversion. Pleasure. Joy. Looking for the magic that once existed under a particular circumstance, in a certain place. You get to feel it in yourself, and sometimes you see it in others. Energy so present it will (hopefully) take me to photographs with that at its heart .
My first colour amusement park photos were imitations of earlier black and whites. Boy, were they boring. What was I thinking? Colour is a different tool. It took a few rolls of film for me to discover its more intimate characteristics.
After Vancouver, I shot at the CNE. Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition has way more of everything. A grander, noisier, more intense bleeding of lights, rides, and people. But the real treat in Toronto was the Gondola that ran the length of the midway.
So I got on the Gondola, made some photos, got off, got in line, got on the Gondola, made more photos, and pressed repeat until I ran out of film. I had a pass, so I kept showing the same guy the same pass every twenty minutes. And the pass allowed me to jump the line. The same guy would just roll his eyes and let me go.
A bit like slow-motion flying.
I was IN THE ZONE. Good things always result from that. I like that feeling a lot.
And in Toronto, I took the right bus home. Leaving from Dufferin Gate put me in the company of many tired families. They resembled a room full of open suitcases after a long trip. Sugar-filled children both asleep and awake. Tired, haggard, relieved parents hanging on just to get their children home and to bed. Lots of souvenirs of the day—worn, on the floor, carried, and caressed.
A day’s adventure done.
No matter what is going on in my life, figuring things out, creating something is a certain kind of pleasure and accomplishment. A little fatto a mano, "made by hand." There is an order and rightness to it.
My early background in film production had been as a camera assistant. Among other things, you are the one responsible for making the camera function and its maintenance. Your brains. Your hands. You.
My university education was paid for by the Dominion Foundries and Steel Company of Canada. For this kindness and generosity, through four summers, my job was to maintain and repair the roller bearings that supported the spindles that sheet steel was rolled on to. I took ‘em apart, cleaned ‘em, fixed ‘em, measured ‘em, and put ‘em back together.
Before putting the roller bearings back together, I had to take measurements with a micrometer. This tool measures in thousands of an inch. This tool, in the hands of someone who couldn’t make an ashtray in shop class. But away I went. Before sending them back to work, my signature went on a log stating that I had inspected and repaired such and such a number on such and such a date. Ready to roll. The first time my signature went on a piece of work.
Technical mastery can be its own reward. Gordon Willis, the great American cinematographer, said that cinematography is mechanics and taste. The same can be said about still photography.
So although I don’t primarily consider myself a technician, it is in me.
Long exposure photos have extra technical jiggery-pokery to them. How long should the exposure be to still make out the subject matter? Will my T-stop make a difference? Will a tripod be a help or hindrance? There is a law of reciprocity that states that your math changes for longer exposures, and maybe your calculations aren’t right anyway. Since I shot film for these photos, they would have to go to a lab, and it would be two days before I knew if all the technical considerations worked out.
And none of that mattered if there wasn’t more to the photos. I wanted the magic I felt while taking them. Something deeper than the subject itself.
Paul Mitchnick is a cinematographer living and working out of Toronto, Canada. He has spent time with many gifted filmmakers in his career—Sean Penn, Lawrence Kasdan, and John Woo as Directors, as well as many Oscar-winning cinematographers. For the last decade, Paul has been Director of Photography on award-winning Canadian Independent Features and television Movies of the Week. He shot KEIF AL-HAL, the first feature film produced by a Saudi Arabian company. Whenever on assignment, Paul travels with his still camera and has taken photographs all over the globe. "I make my living looking at things, and when I have my still camera, opportunities kind of present themselves. Whether those things are looking for me or I am looking for them, I am not sure."