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my early work (mid 1980's)


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 12:29 AM

Someone once asked about seeing my early stuff.

I just figured out how to get some frames off of an old VHS tape I have from the 1980's (I'm amazed that it is playable...) The picture quality is very low, tape-spliced Super-8 transferred on a film chain at Yale Labs to a VHS tape master, which I had to dub to DVCAM in order to import it into imovie on my Mac, then grab frames from. I shrunk the frames down just to give you a flavor of a series of images on one forum page.

Mostly Plus-X b&w reversal shot on a Sankyo 60XL, sometimes with a wide-angle adaptor.

Some shots are time-lapse, like the wrist watch in the f.g. of the freeway. You see the dial of the watch spinning as the cars zip by. And the silhoutte of the stop sign had time lapse clouds parting to reveal the sun.

This is the sort of stuff I was shooting around the time I graduated from UCLA before I went to film school three years later, experimental films shot on the weekends with my friends. In this case, the male lead later became a producer and screenwriter on Star Trek, and the female lead is my sister. What I can't really show here is that most of my shots had a lot of camera movement (hence the wide-angle adaptor) on a homemade dolly, so I picked the few static shots to grab.

I was obviously going through my David Lynch meets Orson Welles phase back then (audio was mostly industrial sounds lifted from Eraserhead, plus Bernard Herrmann music). But this short film landed me a job shooting Super-8 for a karaoke music video, my first paid shooting job, and was also part of my portfolio to get into CalArts.

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Super-8 was really my film school...

This was back when I wanted to be a director. Students at CalArts saw this stuff and started saying "you should be a cinematographer... and shoot my film!" Which is how I started shooting for other people.
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#2 Jaan Shenberger

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 12:48 AM

dude, david, that stuff looks great. i totally felt the lynch/welles vibe before i even read your post. it's nice to see old super8 stuff from talented pros.

also, you should post the karaoke video... i have a weird perverse love of karaoke music vids-- i can't stop watching and analyzing them every time i go to a karaoke bar. my fav is all the ones from the 80s that are shot on 16mm at 8fps and triple printed, for a "stylization"/budgetsaver double punch.
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#3 Chayse Irvin

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 01:20 AM

Looks awesome David! Loving the low angle MS. The sky looks great in the background.
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#4 Steve Wallace

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 01:59 AM

fantastic frames. obviously very talented even at these early stages of developement. thanks for sharing.
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#5 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 02:13 AM

Great compositions! The CU of the eye reminds me of the opening sequence of "Seconds." My favorite one is the wristwatch/freeway insert -- I can imagine it just as you described, very cool. I like the red filter used in the last shot as well.

It's clear to me that your visual sense was formed fairly early in your filmmaking career -- what do you make of the idea that the breadth of our filmmaking talent is established within a few short years after first picking up a camera, and that all the work that comes after is merely a refinement of that talent? Do you feel that applies to your career?
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#6 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 02:26 AM

Someone once asked about seeing my early stuff.

I just figured out how to get some frames off of an old VHS tape I have from the 1980's (I'm amazed that it is playable...) The picture quality is very low, tape-spliced Super-8 transferred on a film chain at Yale Labs to a VHS tape master, which I had to dub to DVCAM in order to import it into imovie on my Mac, then grab frames from. I shrunk the frames down just to give you a flavor of a series of images on one forum page.

Mostly Plus-X b&w reversal shot on a Sankyo 60XL, sometimes with a wide-angle adaptor.

Some shots are time-lapse, like the wrist watch in the f.g. of the freeway. You see the dial of the watch spinning as the cars zip by. And the silhoutte of the stop sign had time lapse clouds parting to reveal the sun.

This is the sort of stuff I was shooting around the time I graduated from UCLA before I went to film school three years later, experimental films shot on the weekends with my friends. In this case, the male lead later became a producer and screenwriter on Star Trek, and the female lead is my sister. What I can't really show here is that most of my shots had a lot of camera movement (hence the wide-angle adaptor) on a homemade dolly, so I picked the few static shots to grab.

I was obviously going through my David Lynch meets Orson Welles phase back then (audio was mostly industrial sounds lifted from Eraserhead, plus Bernard Herrmann music). But this short film landed me a job shooting Super-8 for a karaoke music video, my first paid shooting job, and was also part of my portfolio to get into CalArts.
Super-8 was really my film school...

This was back when I wanted to be a director. Students at CalArts saw this stuff and started saying "you should be a cinematographer... and shoot my film!" Which is how I started shooting for other people.


Could you post some of the video, I for one would love to see it.

Edited by James Steven Beverly, 02 April 2007 - 02:27 AM.

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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 02:35 AM

It's clear to me that your visual sense was formed fairly early in your filmmaking career -- what do you make of the idea that the breadth of our filmmaking talent is established within a few short years after first picking up a camera, and that all the work that comes after is merely a refinement of that talent? Do you feel that applies to your career?


Yes, to some extent you probably start out with a certain visual imagination based on growing up watching movies, etc. and you spend your life refining that sensibility. Trouble though is that cinematographers shoot for directors, who have their own tastes, and you find yourself having to think outside of your own tendencies in order to accomplish what they have in mind. Some directors hate formal compositions, for example. I worked with a director who wanted to screw-up every nice composition I did because he said "it looks composed". He didn't want balanced or "arty" compositions, nor smooth operating, etc. He wanted everything to look accidentally captured on the fly, as if uncoordinated and unplanned. I had to break a lot of my own rules. The other problem was that he didn't care much about lighting nor staging with natural light or sources like windows in mind -- he saw lighting as a time-wasting problem that he just had to put up with, not an opportunity. He didn't "think" in terms of light like some directors do.

This has led to one problem for me -- sometimes I like my older work better, when I was persuing my own tastes and refining my approach (heavily borrowed from the past, of course) rather than trying to learn to work with any director and deliver any look that they ask for. For a while, I was persuing a rather Storaro-esque look which I feel reached a sort of zenith on "Twin Falls Idaho" but since then, I've drifted away from that for various reasons. I certainly wouldn't have been allowed to do much of that high-contrast moodiness on "Big Love" for example.

One nice thing about shooting for the Polish Brothers is that I have a lot of input into how the movie will be shot and I get to explore whatever visual conceit we come up with, without too much compromise other than due to budget and time. "The Astronaut Farmer" was a warmer, less dramatic, family film so I didn't want to go too far in terms of moodiness; my main regret on that one was that it was such an ambitious film that pieces were shot by other people, second unit stuff, and you start to feel you are losing some authorship over the images, losing control and consistency.

I have to find more projects that let me explore the type of photography I want to be doing, but unfortunately, I need to work... enough time passes between jobs, and anything starts to look good.

One problem is that on features with short schedules (like "Solstice"), daily shooting can seem like you're going for volume rather than quality, because you need so many set-ups these days. Hopefully I can find more directors who don't need twenty angles on every scene.
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#8 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 03:05 AM

Trouble though is that cinematographers shoot for directors, who have their own tastes, and you find yourself having to think outside of your own tendencies in order to accomplish what they have in mind....

This has led to one problem for me -- sometimes I like my older work better, when I was persuing my own tastes and refining my approach (heavily borrowed from the past, of course) rather than trying to learn to work with any director and deliver any look that they ask for....

I have to find more projects that let me explore the type of photography I want to be doing, but unfortunately, I need to work... enough time passes between jobs, and anything starts to look good.

So then are you reconciled to being an "assistant storyteller" of sorts (as Conrad Hall put it, I think), or do you think you might ever (re)turn to directing films if you don't find the right projects out there? (Of course, I understand the need to work just pay the bills). I for one would be interested to see what you'd do.
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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 09:16 AM

My audio was on a cassette tape that I ran in semi-sync with the Super-8 projector just by hitting play at the correct moment. It probably was on the VHS tape too but I only dubbed over the image since all I wanted was to grab the stills. I really should redo the audio anyway to be in better sync.

Anyone know how to transfer sound from a cassette tape into a laptop?

Trouble with doing my own shorts again, besides the costs (film is an expensive hobby, anyone notice that?) is that I haven't been in the mode of thinking up ideas for stories in a long time.
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#10 Hal Smith

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 10:07 AM

My audio was on a cassette tape ............Anyone know how to transfer sound from a cassette tape into a laptop?

Real time transfer will work, best done with a cassette recorder with a line output, and a computer with a line input. If no line output, the headphone output will work, if no line input, a resistance pad ahead of the mike input will work but using the mike input incurs a higher background noise level.

Creative makes some pretty decent external USB soundcards that all have line inputs, I've seen the simpler ones as cheap as $50 or so. An external soundcard is usually best, being outside of the laptop they usually have a better signal-to-noise ratio. The best cost effective cards I know of are the M-Audio series, I'm using the Q-44 PCI version exclusively in the audio workstations I build for clients, I haven't personally used the M-Audio USB card but I've heard real good things about them. The fact that M-Audio is a Pro Tools company probably has a lot to do with their quality.
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#11 Rupe Whiteman

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 11:23 AM

Anyone know how to transfer sound from a cassette tape into a laptop?

... David - Firebox make a gizmo for doing this, I think there is a turntable available too that will transer vinyl and audio tape to a computer - but I can't remember who makes it...

... Liked your early work. Regards...
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#12 Hal Smith

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 12:02 PM

fantastic frames. obviously very talented even at these early stages of developement. thanks for sharing.

Good point, it seems that real talent in any field is a gift from the Gods, you're born with it and can develop it further with experience and education but without the Gift you'll always struggle.

Talent is genetic sometimes and can run in families. My uncle, Alan Howard, was a Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer and I've some of a dancer's feel for body, space, and time and my youngest daughter has it in spades. She developed her talent in the direction of sports and, interestingly enough, my use of it was to successfully race sportscars for twelve years. I innately always knew what the car was doing as if it was an extension of my body. It was a real Zen proposition, I was one with the car.
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#13 Matthew Bennett

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 12:52 PM

Great grabs,

Getting a Maya Deren meshes of the afternoon kind of vibe, the key in the hand and eye I think triggering that off. I'd actually love to see it with the lynch-esque industrial soundscapes, that sounds like a moody combo. If anyone hasn't see Meshes of the Afternoon, of course, you should. Practically every shot is a good idea you can walk away with and use later in your own work at some point.



This stuff ages like fine wine...
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#14 Andy_Alderslade

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 02:32 PM

Wow, I've always wondered what some of your super8 stuff looked like, as you often refer to them. I'm now curious to see what your camera movement was like as well.

Have you still got the original reels for a new transfer?

PlusX was only 80ASA back then, wasn't it? What did you use to light the interiors with? Did you build up your own lighting kit?

It seems even though your interest was directing that you were already thinking considerably about lighting, presumably you chose to shoot as specific times of day?
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#15 Michael Collier

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 06:36 PM

Films expensive eh? never noticed...maybe thats why my bank account is always hovering around $0.

No ideas for movies? I know the feeling, I am a terrible writer, all my scripts come from others. I know my strengths and weeknesses. Great thing is with the internet you can accumulate hundreds of scripts by ametures and find the one that really works. I have a short comming up this month (**16mm at that!**) and probably 3 or 4 shorts over the course of this summer before I move to LA. Would you like to direct one of our films? That could be a kick. Wouldn't pay much, but who can turn down a free trip to Alaska? You might even get a chance to pull out a 60lbs salmon out of the Russian River. Let me know, we always have a project at some stage of development or production (serious offer, I can't pay much, but I'd throw in airfair for you and your wife, hotel accomodations and maybe a few extra days after the shoot so you can really explore our beautiful state.....free vacation for a free 3 day shoot?)

Those are some great stills. I love the contrast and the composition. I have no idea how a director can call for shots that don't look 'composed' well composed shots are what bring you to tears in the theater over simplistic shots. Look at the slow crane shot from the grounds to the speaker in 'Shawshank Redemption' a simple shot compared to some other things they did, but its so beautiful.
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#16 Matthew Buick

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 07:12 PM

Simply beautiful! They've got a nice absract feel. :)

How old were you when you shot these?
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#17 Jason Maeda

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 08:09 PM

the cranes are flying in california!

very fun, david. also, i really covet that guy's moustache.

jk :ph34r:
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#18 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 08:17 PM

Much older than you... I was probably 24, just out of college. Even though I made some Super-8 movies with my friends starting when I was 13, it was usually with a borrowed camera. It wasn't until my sophmore year of college that my parents finally accepted that I wasn't going to become a doctor and bought me the Sankyo camera. So that was when I was 19/20-ish.

After I graduated college, I worked as a forms designer / typesetter at Transamerica Insurance (they needed someone with graphics skills and writing skills, so an English Lit major who could draw was perfect.) On the weekends, I made Super-8 shorts designed to train myself on some specific thing. For example, I made one suspense piece that was all about building tension through intercutting of simultaneous action, ala D.W. Griffith. I made a romantic piece. Then I started making these more arty pieces that were about time and visual tension, but a vague storyline.

I liked shooting in b&w partly because it was so expressive and didn't have the home movie stigma that color Super-8 has unless you are careful. I learned that b&w was a lot about contrast, so I tried to shoot outdoors at the right time of day for the shadows I wanted. I often used a red filter.

I had one 650w open-face tungsten "Super8" movie light I found in a garage sale for $5. That was my "big" light and I used it for everything. Otherwise, it was mostly photofloods in reflector dishes, and outdoors, bounce cards and shiny cards, cheap reflectors.

Way back before I was interested in a career in film, when I was 12 or so, I was studying Latin as my language in high school and the state Latin convention was having a talent contest - one suggestion was to make a film. My friends and I in the Latin Club decided to make a Monty Python-type version of the Trojan War in 8mm. "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" had just come out and we were all big fans.

At this point, I had read zero books on film grammer, etc. but I remember setting up the "banquet of the gods" scene where Paris had to judge which goddess was the most beautiful. So I had all my friends in togas at this banquet table and I shot a wide shot and then started shooting short bits on a tighter lens of people eating as a montage to establish the feast. Someone sitting there said "why are you starting and stopping the camera so much -- isn't that going to look jumpy?" But when we got the footage back, we had this in-camera edited montage showing the banquet action that was perfectly cut. So I guess just from years of watching TV, I had (like many young people) an innate sense of film grammar without thinking about it.
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#19 Mike Rizos

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 08:25 PM

Very moving stills, with great composition, sense of depth, and mood. They remind me of the early work of Josef Koudelka. Thanks for sharing.
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#20 Matthew Buick

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Posted 03 April 2007 - 03:38 PM

Very nice story. I like hearing things like that. :)

And your parents wanted you to be a doctor...
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