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James Franco’s Cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung On “Making A Scene”

The finale scene of “Grease” is one of the many popular scenes lampooned in “Making a Scene.” (Photo credit: AOL Originals)

By Marjorie Galas

Bruce Thierry Cheung, first and foremost, is a cinematographer. He’s worked with a number of directors on films including 2012’s “The Color of Time” and the upcoming release “Yosemite.” However, he’s proud of his connection to James Franco and the creative bond they share, and would jump on any project Franco puts forth. Currently, Cheung has been shooting Franco’s AOL web series “Making a Scene” which has taught him a lot about – making a scene.

The two men met as students in the NYU Graduate Film Program and began assisting each other on class projects. They found they had many common interests and became fast friends. An established actor at the point of their 2008 graduation, Franco wanted to continue flexing his filmmaking muscle by creating art films and asked Cheung to join him as his cinematographer.

“They were one to two minute videos that we shot (during the down times) while James was working on  features. They’d be spontanious vampire horror or spoofs of Disney films, anything we chose to do had the goal of keeping up the creative energy,” said Cheung.

Eventually, Franco began allotting more time for directing. While Cheung gratefully took on any role that was available, including still photographer (The Clerk’s Tale) and B cam operator (Sal) he also honed his director of photography skills on projects Franco directed (Rebel) and produced (The Color of Time). Through their mutual experiences the two developed a shorthand that has aided in the fact-paced, improv-driven segments in “Making a Scene.”

“Making a Scene” involves Franco and crew randomly choosing famous film scenes to pay homage to. In some cases scenes from two different films, such as the “Baby in a corner” dancing scene from “Dirty Dancing” and the “cutting off the ear” scene in “Reservoir Dogs” are mashed up, (Dirty Dancing Dogs). In others, a genre will be paired with a randomly selected scene, such as “Silent Taxi Driver” that plays out the final scene in “Taxi Driver” as a silent movie. Cheung incorporates the film styles of each highlighted scene will juggling the technical challenges that come with working with a minimal budget, a tight schedule and ample amounts of improvisation.

Pre-production involves the entire cast and crew watching the films involved. They quickly establish a unified vision for what the scene will encompass. Cheung and the crew then find a proper location for the scene that provides ample room for the camera and actors to move around. Because the nature of improv involves spontaneity, Cheung must remain versatile in capturing the action and mood.

“The process requires the actors to be daring and spontaneous, and that encourages me to be that way too,” said Cheung. “I improvise around (the actors) performances and come up with camera angles and blocking that reference the movie. There’s a lot of information to play with.”

While Cheong would prefer to shoot the shorts on an Arri Alexa, budget constraints forced him to select a camera he hadn’t shot previously – the Sony F5. He then paired the camera with lenses he was interested in experimenting with. Applying assorted filters allowed him to reference visual styles commonly seen in period films from the 70s through the 90s. The digital format also allowed for futher color range manipulation in the color correction phase. “This made each episode distinctive and unique,” stated Cheung.

Cheung particularly enjoyed the “Silent Taxi Driver” webisode He knew being able to move 180 degrees around the actors during shooting was essential. Franco knew of an abandoned warehouse, and the crew was able to utilize the entire hallway for the shootout scene. Working directly with the wardrobe and production designer, he established simple light set ups in each landing that represent the black and white tones to full effect. While shooting, he experimented with the aspect ratio to capture a feel similar to 70s era film. The two minute short was shot in roughly 45 minutes.

Cheung has learned many valuable lessons from shooting “Making a Scene” that he’s excited to bring with him to any upcoming project he joins. In addition to providing plenty of space for the actors to inhabit their characters and be as invisible with his gear as possible while on set, he feels maintaining a positive attitude has been the greatest lesson of all.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to really be open and relaxed.  That has been a very positive thing. Be generous and giving,” said Cheung. “When someone feels excited about ideas you always want them to have a voice. When we bounce ideas around it makes it more fun and excited for everyone. Also, even when things seem stressful, positivity can always get you through.”

To learn more about “Making a Scene” and watch episodes of the web series, please visit:
http://on.aol.com/show/518308302-making-a-scene/518460933