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An Interview with Craig Wrobleski

Craig Wrobleski is a cinematographer and has worked extensively across the board in film and television. He has worked on acclaimed series such as, Fargo, Legion, The X-Files, The Twilight Zone and The Umbrella Academy. I spoke with Craig about his background in cinematography, his experience working on Fargo, and how he shot the prison bus crash in Season 3.

Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?

I wasn’t one of those kids that shot Super 8 movies with my friends. I enjoyed movies but didn’t have particular aspirations to make them. I went to school to get into radio which I thought, since I loved music, could be a fun career. I quickly learned that radio wasn’t just getting to play music and have a great time like on WKRP in Cincinnati (there’s a dated reference for your younger readers) so I was a bit at sea as to what I was going to do. The course I was taking was structured as Radio in the first year and TV in the second so I decided to see if TV interested me. Before the first year of school ended, we went through an “Introduction to TV” course that gave us the basics of what to expect in the second year before we went on summer holidays. One of the first courses was “Introduction to the Camera” and I’ll never forget the moment: we were all lined up to try panning, tilting and zooming on an ENG camera set up in the middle of the studio. As the line moved along, I didn’t really feel much excitement or curiosity about the camera - just waiting in line. Then it was my turn and I experienced the strangest sensation when I touched the camera - it felt like I knew what to do with it. Operating the camera just felt natural - like a latent skill I didn’t know I had. My life changed right there and then. Ever since that moment I have been obsessed and fascinated by the camera as a tool to capture moments in time and tell stories.

Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who have really inspired your work?

I have been inspired or have learned from just about everything I’ve ever seen. That’s the beauty of what we do - the world it is a bottomless well that we can continually draw from for inspiration, ideas and education. As for particular influences, the work of Roger Deakins has always been an inspiration to me (as he is to just about every DP). He manages to strike that delicate balance between simplicity and complexity - telling the story in a sophisticated and complex way but doing it with an economy and simplicity and always in support of story. I had the good fortune to meet him at the ASC Awards this year and to thank him for all his inspiration.

Harris Savides work on music videos and with David Fincher and Gus Van Sant was also a big influence - the fact that he could achieve the pinnacle of beauty in his music video work and then strip it all away to create raw and real films like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant or Gerry was wondrous to me.

The work of music video directors like Mark Romanek, Jonathan Glazer and Chris Cunningham opened up my eyes to the power and versatility of imagery. I love DP Lance Acord’s work with Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation was a big influence) - Lance’s commercial work as a director is also wonderful.

Pretty much everything Vittorio Storaro has ever done - particularly his use of colour on The Last Emperor and the compositions in The Conformist. Watching Apocalypse Now again, knowing back then they didn’t have the benefit of all the VFX technology we use so readily today, it’s mind boggling what they achieved. The sheer scope and ambition of the film is remarkable. There is a close up of Robert Duvall on the beach and the background is filled with helicopters and explosions - every frame is filled with the world of their creation. The use of atmosphere and moving, dynamic light in the night work on the film really left its mark on me as well.

Allen Daviau was always doing inspiring work - Empire of the Sun blew my mind when I first saw it. I wore out the VHS tape of the Behind the Scenes featurette watching and re-watching and trying to figure out how they achieved such marvellous visuals.

European directors opened my eyes to a world of filmmaking so different than the Hollywood movies I grew up on. Kieslowski, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Bertolucci to name a few. Their holistic approach to shot design - to see the image be intrinsic and inseparable from the story - is something I have been working to achieve my entire career. There is a difference between a shot and an image - those directors and DPs created indelible images that transcend the ephemeral nature of a mere shot.

I love films like Powaqaatsi and Baraka for their ability to transfix an audience with only images and music. When images and music really connect, it’s sublime.

Stanley Kubrick was a big influence on shot structure and composition. I remember seeing 2001 in re-release as a kid as a guest at a friend’s birthday party (his dad thought it was a Star Wars knock-off - boy was he wrong!). The other kids at the party were bored and rambunctious but I remember sitting there awestruck by those images. The way Kubrick guided us through that world was, and is, mesmerizing. Full Metal Jacket is a war movie like no other.

Speaking of war movies like no other, I loved The Thin Red Line and Terrence Malick’s work (for better or worse) is always beautiful to watch. His faith in the imagery to carry this story is always an inspiration. Conrad Hall was a genius - Searching for Bobby Fischer is one of my favourite films and his the diversity of his work is only matched by its brilliance.

That’s a brief list that only scratches the surface - the influence of painters and photographers is a whole other conversation!

You worked as cinematographer on Fargo (2014). Can you tell me more about this experience, and how the opportunity came about?

As a lifelong fan of the Coen Brothers and Roger Deakins, the opportunity to shoot Fargo was a dream come true. It felt like I had been preparing for it my whole

career. I was contacted by the Fargo team to shoot some second unit work toward the end of their first season. They had been compiling a list of shots owing and just embarked on an epic final episode so they needed someone to help with the workload as Dana Gonzales was the sole DP on season one - a herculean task. I would be shooting with executive producer John Cameron and showrunner Noah Hawley so it was kind of a high-pressure situation but I was all-in and we hit the ground running. As shooting continued, our call sheets slowly evolved from more typical second unit material (establishing shots, drive-by, inserts, etc), to short scenes with principal cast, to dialogue scenes with principal cast and culminating in a multi-page interrogation scene involving all the principal cast. It was a very natural evolution in the ambition of the unit and we rose to every challenge and Noah seemed happy with the work we were handing in. That second unit shooting was one of the best creative experiences of my career and I was thrilled to be asked to join the team for the second season to alternate with Dana.

There's a great slow motion scene in Season 3, in the episode The Law of Inevitability, where we see the prison bus crash. How was this scene captured?

Capturing that scene was a team effort in every sense of the word. It was scripted that we were to be in the bus with Nikki Swango, Mr. Wrench and the other convicts when it suddenly flips over onto its side. The larger vision for the crash was that it comes as a surprise to the audience at the close of The Law of Inevitability and then we open the next episode, Who Rules the Land of Denial, with the backstory of how the crash was conceived and executed by Vargas’ men and seeing the crash itself from outside the bus. Our director for the episodes, Mike Barker, was brilliant and he envisioned a sequence where we are lulled into the drudgery of Nikki’s long trip to prison and we see her drifting off to sleep only to be shockingly woken up with the violence of the bus flipping onto its side and the occupants being thrown around as it flies through the air and skids to a stop on its side.

The first step was to build a bus interior on a “rotisserie” rig that would create a controlled 90 degree rotation that would enable us to have the cast, surrounded by stunt performers, experience the physical reality of a bus flipping on its side but do it in a safe and repeatable way. The SFX team, led by Dave Bendikston, cut up a bus and welded together an impressive rig that did the job beautifully. This was easier said than done and required hours of meetings and conversations to make it happen. Once we understood the physical realties of our bus set we put our minds to the best tools to travel the camera through the bus as Mike and I envisioned.

Moving the camera through the tight space of the bus, populated with seats and people, as the bus rotated was like threading a needle and required very specific tools to be done safely. The camera needed to be independent of the bus so we could push in past the flying bodies to find Nikki. The decision to use a 15 foot Technocrane to move the camera through the bus was a fairly straightforward one. Deciding which remote head to mount on the crane was a more difficult process. If we only required the camera to have pan and tilt functions our decision would have been much simpler. The complicating factor was that we wanted the camera to not only travel through the bus but also rotate 90 degrees with it as it turned to create a zero-gravity feel and make the shot that much more surreal and disorienting. Then, once the dust settles, the camera needed to rotate 90 degrees to re-orient itself as we see Nikki lying unconscious on the side of the bus. Oh yeah, one more thing - the lights on the bus would start flickering after the bus impacts the ground but that’s for the lighting team.

Back to the remote head question: there wasn’t in existence a three-axis remote head small enough to be able to thread through the bus without hitting everything and being a safety hazard to the people inside. The solution to the problem came in the fact that we weren’t executing a true three axis move. The camera actually required very little panning and tilting as it was a travelling on a fairly straight path through the bus to Nikki. The largest amount of movement was on the Z axis as the camera rotates with the bus. As we were shooting on Alexa Mini cameras that opened up our options for heads as well. The Mini Libra head was the only tool that would enable us to achieve the shot in those cramped quarters. The Mini Libra is a stabilized head that has a footprint of about 1 foot cubed and, while not a true three axis head, has a few degrees of Z axis movement as a by-product of its stabilization. The Mini Libra, when nose mounted on the Techno, would be no larger than the footprint of the crane arm and would allow us the smallest form factor possible to move through the bus. By nose mounting the Mini Libra on the Technocrane we were effectively making the pan motor the Z-axis motor and giving ourselves the ability to rotate the 90 degrees required. The small amount of third axis movement on the head effectively became the pan function and gave us just enough range to be able to hold the frame as the camera threaded through and past the objects in the bus. This was no small task for the operator but fortunately we had one of the best, Daryl Hartwell, at the wheels and he rose to the challenge as he always does - with energy, passion and a great deal of skill.

After we adjusted a few elements inside the bus to accommodate the tools, we were ready to go. The bus and rotisserie were built in a warehouse in southeast Calgary. We put the Techoncrane on track as the reach of the telescoping arm itself wasn’t enough for the length of the move. The crane and track were put on risers to compensate for the elevated position of the bus. Careful calculations were done to ensure the height of the crane arm and head were even with the nodal point of the bus rotation so that minimal operating was required as the camera pushed in. The grips surrounded the bus with greenscreens (no easy task with all the rigging surrounding the rotisserie), the electrics rigged with bus with LED fixtures that would flicker on cue and now all that was left to do was rehearse and shoot.

I can’t recall how many takes we did but it wasn’t that many which the cast and stunt performers appreciated as being thrown around the bus while handcuffed was, to say the least, uncomfortable. This shot is one of the most complex I’ve ever encountered and required enormous amounts of planning, communication and collaboration. When you’re faced with a complex shot such as this one and the shoot day goes as well as this one did, it’s due to the hard work and dedication of all involved. The Fargo crew were among the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

You've worked on many series including, Fargo, The X Files, Legion, Heartland, The Umbrella Academy, Tales From the Loop and The Twilight Zone. Do you prefer working in television to film, and what is the biggest difference between the two?

I have shot both features and television and there are fewer differences between them than there used to be. The streaming services have changed the rules as to what is possible on series TV. I’ve had the great fortune to work on some very ambitious television series and shooting those episodes is much more akin to shooting a one hour feature film than it is to shooting what would be considered “series tv”. The creators of the series I’ve been shooting definitely aspire to feature film production values. The fact that you see an actors like Ewan McGregor, Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Michael Stuhlbarg and David Thewlis signing up for Fargo speaks to that. If you watch the season premieres of Westworld this season, that is feature-film level production value and world-building. I also think that the streaming services have altered audience expectations of what to expect when they turn on their television. Back in the day, I believe audiences has certain expectations of scale and production value when they went to the theatre and lowered those expectations when they were in their living room watching television. Now when you tune into a streaming service you are presented with many options and, I believe, audiences have the same, or very similar, expectations of a series that they would have for a feature film. If they aren’t wowed, hooked and drawn into the world completely they will move on. The old excuse of “there’s nothing else on” just doesn’t apply anymore. I, for one, love the ambition of television today and don’t see a lot of difference between the series work and features at least on the budget level of the features I’ve shot. I’m sure there are greater differences when you get into the tentpole movies with 9 figure budgets.

Can you think of a shot throughout your career that you are particularly proud of?

Both sides of the bus crash sequence in Fargo year 3 is something I’m very proud of. The “inside the bus” portion described above was followed by the “outside the bus” night exterior sequence in the next episode. Shooting a practical bus crash at night, the chaos inside the bus and the night and day pursuit through the woods that follows is not the kind of thing a television series would usually take on but Fargo was never afraid to punch beyond its weight. The entire sequence was a massive technical, logistical and dramatic challenge but we pulled it off and I’m very proud that everyone’s hard work is there on the screen for the audience to enjoy.

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