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    nordmedia Michael Ballhaus at “Hands on HD” Workshop

    By Siegfried Tesche | January 7, 2009

    Only a few German camera professionals are also celebrated for their success in Hollywood, to say nothing of having been nominated three times for an Oscar. One of these is Michael Ballhaus, diploma photographer and born Berliner, who alternately lives there and in Los Angeles. If such a thing exists as a director’s eye, then you’d say he’s all of that, but even this is too little for the 71-year-old professional. He would like to be more than the “Fliegende Auge” (Flying Eye), as Tom Tykwer once described him in the book they collaborated on. Above all, he wants to paint images and is always curious about new technologies.

    “I like to become acquainted with new cameras,” said Ballhaus, right at the beginning of a talk with around 130 participants in the workshop programmed at Hannover. The man who lectures at three universities, who at the 2007 Berlinale announced that he has ended his career in the USA, is inquisitive and adaptive, as manifested in his contact with students, primarily “because the profession of the cameraman right now changes so very much.” Above all, that’s due to the new HD technology, which brings with it advantages and disadvantages, as the experienced profi remarked.

    “The cameraman is no longer the great magician, because in the meanwhile everyone sees an image on a monitor and judges it on the spot. That can lead to a negative impact on the quality. Instead, you have today another certitude, for there’s an incertitude that images will look differently when the print is returned from the lab. Furthermore, you can experiment even more, for the cameras are always getting better.”

    Still, you should not be overtaxed by modern-day progress. Right from the start, to show how one should not go about shooting a film, Ballhaus shared work day anecdotes about his collaboration with such highly recognized directors as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Newman, and Mike Nichols. Thus, when Mel Gibson directed his last film Apocalypto, the 150 hours of footage required three editing rooms to view and select every film meter that had been shot.

    Film waste like this is not in the Ballhaus sense – nor the producers. “Certainly the viewing habits of the spectators have changed,” according to Ballhaus, “but the old film look is still quite okay. In the USA, when an actor is good and the camera rubbish, then all hell breaks out. I’ve experienced that with Martin Scorsese,” added Ballhaus.

    And you certainly believe him when he says that only the best have a chance there. And he counts among them as “Director of Photography,” the way the Americans show more respect for the cameraman than the Germans. Questioned whether HD will have a lasting effect on his profession in the future, Ballhaus answered with a clear “Jein” (Yes and No). It depends on the story. Michael Mann shot Collateral on HD because the story is set only at night. His next film will be shot on film.”

    Ballhaus deplored only one shortcoming, adding that he intends to campaign for changes. He misses the professional training of camera assistants. “This doesn’t exist in Germany any more, and these people are urgently needed,” according to the camera profi. “So I intend to call this to the attention of the film academies, to write to all the respective universities, and to assume the patronage of professional training for camera assistants.” That means that in the future many cameramen and camerawomen will profit from the experience of Michael Ballhaus. A windfall for the profession.

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