The Photography of Paul Mitchnick: Interview

By Elizabeth Gracen:

I

NVERT—Amusement parks bewitch me. Always have. This infrared photo of a group of people on a park ride in Vancouver has them flying through the sky.


I seem to always be talking about my work on Highlander: The Series and Highlander: The Raven and all the important relationships that my experience with that franchise has afforded me over the years. As I've said before, those connections run deep and wide, and I consider it such good fortune to be part of that world. My friend Ken Gord was producer on the original series; we have remained great friends through the years, and I somehow convinced him to be a regular contributor to Flapper Press during his stay in Venice, Italy, during his film prep for the upcoming Across the River and Into the Woods. Through a fortuitous sequence of events, Ken reconnected with me Paul Mitchnicik, a cinematographer who worked on one of my very favorite episodes of Highlander: "Money No Object." Not only did I get to work with Adrian Paul, my beloved Stan Kirsh, and Nichols Lea, we flashed back to the 1920s in that episode, and I got to wear all sorts of fabulous clothes, a bright-red flapper wig, . . . and I robbed banks with a Tommy gun and died in a hail of bullets. What's not to like?


After Paul and I reminisced about Highlander days and the tragic passing of Donald J. Paonessa—artist, director, photographer, supervising editor on the show and my filmmaking mentor—we talked about Paul's wonderful photography.


We at Flapper Press love to feature the work of creative minds, no matter the medium. With a penchant for black & white photography, I'm always excited to find out more about the artistic eye behind the camera that captures special moments on film. Paul Mitchnick's work is no exception, and I am so very happy to feature his work on the site.


Please meet Paul Mitchnick!


EG: It has been a long time since we worked together in the fantastic days of shooting Highlander. I have no idea what it was like for you to work on that production, but it was a great adventure for me. Canadians are terrific people to work with! Please tell our readers a bit about yourself, where you are from, and what you do.


PM: I am a Canadian Cinematographer currently working out of Toronto. While I was at film school, my friend Danny Goldberg was making the now cult classic Cannibal Girls with Ivan Reitman. Danny asked if I would be interested in being a production assistant on the film. You Bet! School could wait. This was a time when there were maybe six movies a year made in Canada.


Set work was hard, but there were amazing people, and it was fun. And maybe there was a future doing this . . .


After school, I was fortunate to find a little work because of the people I met on the show. Although film work in Canada was spotty then, I hung in and progressed my way up through the camera department, doing pretty much everything on every kind of show: features, documentaries, corporate films, a few commercials, and TV series like Highlander.


Highlander was such a cool show. Every episode we went someplace new and different. The time travel element was especially fun and challenging. I was the camera operator for two seasons and when the Director of Photography left the show, the last six episodes ended up being mine. From that time forward, I worked as a camera operator and a DP. Now I just work as a DP.



FERRIS WHEEL AT DUSK —I’d finished shooting long exposures of amusement park rides at the Canadian Nation Exhibition in Toronto. Just as I was about to get into my car, the sky turned pink. I love this photo. It is very elegant. Shooting at the beginning or end of the day always brings a special magic.



EG: Flapper Press features and promotes artists from all over the world, so when I saw your work on the Art Works site, I was more than happy to tell the world about your lovely photos. I’m partial to black-and-white photography, so there are a couple of images that I really have my eye on! When did you start taking photos, and who are your influences? Do you have a preference for shooting stills or live action?


PM: My youth was spent reading National Geographic over and over and over. Going to exotic places and reading about lives other than mine. Adventure. Curiosity. Images. Stories.


Sometime late in high school, I decided it might be important to learn something about still photography if the film business was going to be my future. I bought a Canon camera and shot black and white film. I also discovered that there is something about sharing the way I see that is important to me.


While in University, I got a summer scholarship to study photography at the Banff School of Fine Arts.


I don’t really have a preference for shooting stills vs live action. They are such different animals.


Shooting still photographs is a more cerebral, solitary use of all the technical knowledge I’ve garnered over the years. Alone. Quiet. No pressure. Taking chances and experimenting, usually motivated by a destination or an idea. Images present themselves to me. They tell me their story, and I try to honor that. I will follow my hunch until I am satiated. If they don’t work out right away, no one has to know. Some ideas last days, others last years. Taking a still photograph is an act.


I am a fan of the universal human condition, and my strongest photographic influences have been Robert Frank, Dianne Arbus and Vivian Maier. All of them capture real life at its most tender and most raw.


Shooting film gave me a lot of amazing travel. To get to these places, to see these things, to understand all of it; the camera was my witness. In truth, a still camera is almost always with me. Real life happens all the time and everywhere. Shooting stills also keeps me busy when I am not working in film. Like a musician practicing scales.




TRAIN STATION GIRL—I was in India doing post-production on a movie. On my days off, I would wander around shooting infrared black and white stills. At the train station in Chennai, I saw these two young, graceful girls cooling themselves under pipes that were spilling water onto the tracks. From another direction, I saw the stationmaster running towards them. I ran also. By the time I got within range, the younger sister had disappeared and I got one shot. This photo encapsulates for me everything about being in India.


EG: For those who don’t know a lot about the film industry and how it works behind the scenes, can you briefly describe the work you do as a DP and some of your favorite productions that you’ve worked on?


PM: So I have these two second cousins in my pocket: cinematography and still photography. The framework and mechanics are similar, but the execution and mindsets are so different.


A Director of Photography is a bit like the photographic general on a set. I collaborate with the other creators—the director, producers, and the production designer—on the Look and Execution of the show. Fifty percent of the job is the organization to help the other fifty percent, the creation.



THE BOYS—After shooting a commercial in Sri Lanka, my wife and I went exploring. One day we hired a tuk-tuk and traveled to some out-of-the way villages. An hour north of Tangelle, I took this photo at the end of the day as the three young men were watching women walking by on their way home from work. I made a number of informal portraits in this village. People kindly gave themselves to my camera for 1/250 of a second.



Before shooting, I am involved in the planning of how the project is going to unfold. What needs to be done so that the film can be realized. I like this part a lot because it is idea talk tempered with creativity and budget.


On set, I am the director’s co-conspirator, helping execute his or her vision. Decisions like where to locate the cameras, how the camera is going to move to enhance the story, and where to put the lights all to help enhance the story—and not go into overtime! Being a DP is being part of an event.

I was the 2nd Unit DP and B-camera operator on The Pledge, a film directed by Sean Penn with Jack Nicholson and lots of great actors. I am a kid from Hamilton, Ontario. It was kind of like being allowed into the Buckingham Palace of filmmaking.


The Show, directed by Giancarlo Esposito, was a challenge for me as a DP. The subject was dark and controversial: televised suicide. It deals with the balance between morality, exploitation, and sensitivity. My job was to weave the cinematography into those themes.


Menendez Brothers: Blood Brothers, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, is a project I am very proud of, a somewhat mystical interpretation of the events surrounding that crime.