Hello Film Doctor friends.
Julio Macat has lensed some of the most loved American comedy stories of the last three decades.
Those films include the Home Alone trilogy, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Miracle on 34th Street, Wedding Crashers and the Daddy’s Home films.
Here Julio joins us for a Film Doctor In Conversation to talk about shooting one of the most iconic Christmas films of all time, how to shoot for comedy and his most recent movie Daddy’s Home 2.
Julio, tell us how you got started in film?
I started young. After a couple of years at UCLA studying Motion Picture and Television, I wasn’t getting it, so I decided to get a job at an equipment rental house. I started from the bottom, cleaning equipment and then becoming more of a technician, and, eventually, becoming a camera assistant.
I was fortunate to work with some really great Cinematographers; first was Mario Tosi, and then two British cameramen, Alan Hume and the other, Chris Menges. I’ve learned a lot from them, and later, as I moved up to camera operator, I worked more closely with the Director and that was what propelled my career – my relationship with a Russian director, named Andrey Konchalovsky. I worked as his camera operator on 4 different films, and that is how I got to work with some very good Directors of Photography.
Through my relationship with Andrey [Konchalovsky], I was given the job of second unit cameraman for Peter MacDonald on Tango & Cash (1989). I ended up doing a lot of action photography. It was my jump into the studio system. Because of that, Warner Brothers thought I’d be a good mix, as an up-and-coming cameraman, to work with Chris Columbus on Home Alone – and that was my very first feature as Director of Photography. It was a Warner Brothers movie originally, until a couple of weeks before we started filming when it shifted over as a project for Fox.
I’ve been working ever since – it’s been 30 years. I’ve got 36-37 movies under my belt. Because of the success of Home Alone, I’m often the usual suspect for the bigger comedies. There’s a tendency in Hollywood to kind of categorise you, once you’ve done something that worked and has been a big box office hit. They make it harder for you to say ‘No’ [laughs]
Tell us about Home Alone. What was it that made that film work so well to become a classic?
I think Home Alone was one of those circumstances where all the stars lined up. At the time we were hoping that we’d do a good kids movie, one that was entertaining and empowering for a young audience.
Both Chris Columbus and I had a lot riding on it. It was my very first studio feature, I thought at any point they’re going to figure me out and see that I didn’t know what I was doing [laughs]. So I was working really hard to make every shot the best it could be. For Chris, it was his 4th or 5th movie, and he had a couple of misfires before. We both worked hard on it.
It was a combination of an amazing script – by John Hughes, who apparently wrote Home Alone in two weeks! – great performances, then the photography and the production design. The way we told the story, it all fell in together into this mini magical Christmas space.
It was very well edited by Raja Gosnell and then John Williams picks it up and takes it into the stratosphere with this incredible music score!
It was as if everybody was firing on all cylinders. And that kind of thing doesn’t happen very often in one’s career. To me it’s happened probably two or three times maximum, and not as well as that. Wedding Crashers was kind of a similar thing, where everything came together well.
It’s not often when all the stars line up and it all works out and the best possible results are achieved.
QUESTION FROM A READER: Was it net stockings over the lenses on Home Alone?
I used a netting material behind the lens. A lot thinner than stockings – which you might use for a period picture. It’s more like a wedding veil. I’ve had it for forty years. I got it from an old-time camera assistant Dick Meinardis.
I used it behind the lens and combined it with black pro-mist filters in front of the lens. It was a combination of those two filters.
Sometimes in Home Alone you get these little star effects – that’s because of the netting. It’s a very subtle material.
QUESTION FROM A READER: What was your main type of lighting for Home Alone?
I used a lot of bounce light. The lighting instrument would be on one side of the camera and I would bounce the light over the camera, like banking cue ball off the side while playing pool.
After that, the light would go through a piece of diffusion like muslin. That would be my go-to key light
You have some visual consulting credits for animation movies like Wreck-It Ralph and Sherlock Gnomes on your CV. What does that entail?
Well, it started with Rich Moore, the Director of Wreck-It Ralph – I did a Lighting seminar for their Animation department. So we got to know each other and I said: “I’m always curious to see how you get inspired to have lighting designs or moods.”
I said “normally, on a feature film, the Director of Photography and the Director get together and they look at pictures, they use references, to describe what each sequence should be like, etc. and then they talk about the pacing and where the camera should be moving or where it feels like it should be static, and so on.”
After the success of Home Alone, I did a lot of analysing to try to understand why it was that the film seemed to work so well; this later helped me to comprehend and find ways of dissecting a script and try to figure out when the camera should be moving, or static, when it feels like the scene is claustrophobic. For me this is critical and has become a tool and reference for making choices on my later films
Rich Moore thought it was a really great collaboration, so we got together 2-3 times after that and I brought in all my reference photos of different sets and different moods, which I thought were appropriate for Wreck-It Ralph. One of them was this massive sewage dump in Brazil, where people were living, that I’d seen in a documentary while researching something else. I brought things like that and we hit it off right away.
I ended up consulting on some of the scenes – details like where the lighting should come from, the mood that the lighting should create for certain sequences (especially, the one for the Central Station in New York), etc.
So that’s sort of how I got started and then came back to Disney on a couple of other occasions – to do seminars for the lighting guys and the word gets out.
I helped with the composition and the camera movement on what’s called ‘layout’ in animation – sit with the guys at the computers and go “normally, on a practical set, we’d do this and this”, and I help them push it forward that way. I think that the virtual world of Animation has too many options and you can go into directions that do not help the storytelling.
Roger Deakins has done this work at Dreamworks. It’s interesting how Animation is looking for Live Action DPs to ground the camera work with, blocking, lighting and composition that is more familiar and interesting to the audience . Nobody does this better than Roger.
So tell us about Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2. How do you shoot for comedy?
As a Director of Photography, for me it’s really important to establish trust with the actors – I’m very sensitive to setting up this safe zone for the actors on a set to make them feel like they can be free and not be locked into blocking scenes in confined spaces.
I am especially sensitive to this relationship between Cinematographer and actor because I’m married to an actor (Elizabeth Perkins). She has helped me understand the filmmaking process from the point of view of actors.
This trust between players is very important and especially delicate in a comedy.
On Wedding Crashers, I learned that improvisation is also the key to success; overlapping of the dialogue is critical sometimes for the scene to feel fresh, and to be able to edit it together more smoothly, since in comedy there is often so much of actors talking over each other’s lines.
So, it’s normal for me to be shooting with two cameras almost all of the time – which I got used to from photographing children. You lose kids from a set after working for six hours. So, the team has to work fast and efficiently.
I like to approach comedy as if it were a documentary. And although it can be hectic at times, a happy atmosphere on a set, with the trust from the filmmakers can make filming very pleasant. That trust from the director and the actors is key, allowing everyone the freedom to improvise.
I’m also a big believer of filming rehearsals. I can’t tell you how many times you’d do a blocking rehearsal and the actors run the scene for the first time. Often times, It’s so funny that first time, and somehow you never get that moment back! That first reaction between actors, especially, with somebody like Will Ferrell, or Melissa McCarthy will most likely only happen once. Some actors live for that unexpected moment and it has to be captured.
So we do a positioning blocking with what’s called the second team – the stand-ins for the actors – and they walk the different positions, so the camera guys can have an idea what’s going to happen; then we pretend it’s a documentary and shoot with 2-3 cameras. Often, you get comedic gold and enough coverage for editing the entire scene in one take.
This style of filming creates a challenge for the cinematographer. Often, I’m shooting a 2-shot and two over-the-shoulder shots simultaneously – and we DPs hate that because we are not able to control each shot as much as we would like, but, after a while you get good at it and there’s undoubtedly, it’s a big comedy plus.
And what’s your approach to lighting comedy?
My main philosophy with comedy is to not over light it. I hate the thought, which a lot of people have, that because it’s a comedy, it needs to be brighter. I disagree with that 100%. I think it’s kind of the opposite, actually.
I always try to light as natural, as possible, considering how the actors will look in the Lighting that’s established. I want them them to look their best. Then I kind of work backwards, and light the set so that it’s not over-lit, rich, and colourful, if this is what’s appropriate.
Where did you shoot the film?
We shot around Boston – never quite in the city. It was a non-descript location. We shot the original in New Orleans, but never sold it as New Orleans – we were there for the tax credit. Now that New Orleans is as beneficial on the tax incentives, and Massachusetts is, the producers opted for filming in Massachusetts.
We shot for 43 days about 45-60 mins drive from Boston. The little town featured is called Concord – a quaint New England village. The cabin that Mel Gibson picks for the family to vacation in – we found that in Great Barrington, which is about an hour and 20 minutes drive from Boston.
Our wonderful Production Designer, Clayton Hartley, built the interior of a massively huge cabin, made from real logs. This was an incredibly beautiful set that we built in a studio complex located about 45 minutes from Boston; we did about 10 days of filming on that stage, all the interiors of the cabin.
And how was it to work with the cast again?
It’s a wonderful cast. Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell felt like real life old friends reuniting again. Having John Lithgow and Mel Gibson as the parents was the icing on the cake.
It ups everyone’s game when you’re working with such professionals. You don’t want to make them wait around, you want to be super efficient and get to the work. Ideally, the goal is to give the Director enough time to work not just on the scripted scene but also give the opportunity for the Director to try variations, as often, that is where the comedy gold comes from.
I’d say 50% of the time, that unrehearsed, improvised take at the end, that’s the take used in the movie. There’s something about that release of pressure from the actors, when the Director says …” I’m happy, we’ve got this, do you guys want to try anything else?. This is when magic can happen” Especially with Will Ferrell – he’s so good with coming up with new “unexpected material” and it is hilarious each time.
Overall, we had a great time making the sequel. Sean [Anders, the Director] is a huge fan of Home Alone, so every time I’d bring up a reference or a shot “inspired “ by the film, he just loved it.
There was a flavour of Home Alone in, some of the gags and settings.
What advice can you give to an aspiring cinematographer?
The best advice I can give any young Cinematographer is to try and anticipate the problems that will inevitably come your way.
Your worst enemy is wasting time when you are not filming. So try to help yourself tell the story you want to tell visually. As you come up the ranks, no matter how much more money you have in your budget, at the end of the day it’s ALL about how much time you’re rolling the camera , and discovering the great accidents that you set yourself up for.
This is why the more the DP knows about the nuts and bolts of production such as locations, props and even the make up and wardrobe departments, the better.
This knowledge can help prevent wasting time and in turn, this all facilitates more time to create.
Every detail of a production will influence a DP.
The sound department and filming and near an airport or a freeway, as an example, can be deadly. You could potentially spend half of your day waiting for quiet conditions to shoot.
Pick locations that work for the photography as well, instead of trying to force a location when it is a big challenge to shoot. If you don’t have the capacity to put big silks overhead to control the sunlight when the sun is overhead, in the ugly middle of the day, and you’re getting a harsh light coming down on you, find a location that is covered…under a bridge possibly.
With our light-sensitive digital cameras now, many times it’s more about controlling the available light and cancelling it, than actually lighting.
It’s very important to plan the day accordingly, so that you don’t fail by trying to control something beyond your control. I’d recommend to young cameramen that when you’re blocking, do so with as many scenes as possible to have the sun working in your favour, which is normally working with backlight, or with the sun low in the horizon.
Another recommendation for young DPs is this – the harsh reality is that you are certainly going to run out of time, therefore think in terms of… “if you had to tell the story in one shot, and one shot only, where would the camera go?”
This forces you to block something that is strong in its storytelling.
Perhaps the shot starts as a wide shot to establish and then it moves to accommodate blocking the actors to come towards the camera.
This approach is interesting, and once you start thinking that way, the economy of shots works in your favour,
Many times that shot becomes the master shot of the scene.
Thank you so much, Julio, and Merry Christmas everyone!