Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cinematography Colored by Caravaggio

Among the many ambitious elements of the independent historical epic Wesley, which was released on DVD July 15th and continues to be shown at special screenings, is the cinematography of Arledge Armenaki. The Associate Professor at Western Carolina University likes to involve his students as much as possible with the productions that he participates in as Director of Photography, but in the case of Wesley, the story of 18th century Anglican priest and Methodist movement co-founder John Wesley, he reached back for more rarefied scholarly assistance.

"I had a series of long discussions with director John Jackman, during which we decided on a look reminiscent of Caravaggio's painting style," Armenaki recalls during an interview with FilmStew. "The 'Calling of Saint Matthew' and 'John the Baptist' were two of the masters painting I tried to emulate."

Finding the film's true 'Calling'

Much of Wesley was shot in museum settings in Old Salem and Bethaba Park, which fed into the Caravaggio context but also presented a separate set of challenges for the seasoned Armenaki, whose credits include several dozen feature films and TV documentaries. "Museums don't allow flames of any kind, so the source night lighting was an issue," the Portland, OR native explains. "I had to devise off-camera candle or firelight effects that were convincing. For most scenes, I tried to light a larger area of the set and not restrict the actors blocking."

Armenaki first started teaching filmmaking at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara in 1993. Four years later, he joined the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as its first cinematography faculty member and taught there until his move to Western Carolina University in 2005. Over the years, other films sourced by Armenaki as training opportunities for his students have included the features A Letter from My Father (2000) and South of Hell (2005) as well as Surrendering in a Champion's World, a documentary short he directed in 2003. Most recently, Armenaki finished working with students from the Art Institute of Jacksonville on the short Phishing.

"I think working as a full-fledged crew member on a set is one of the greatest ways for students to learn," he states. "To be in the thick of it, where it all matters. To see the pull and stress of a tight dally schedule, then see the final results - whether they turn out well or badly. They find out very quickly if this is actually something they want to do for a living."

Burgess Jenkins as John Wesley

With the advent of digital and high-definition technologies, Armenaki has witnessed a range of fundamental changes, from plummeting day rates to the sometimes overlooked complexities of HD cinematography. He says today's practitioners must learn to master a whole range of skills, something Wesley director Jackman has clearly grasped.

"John is a full-time minister at the Trinity Moravian Church in Winston Salem," Armenaki points out. "He is an author, an editor and a special effects artist; he even acted in the film. He is an amazing multi-talented man. I was honored to be asked to be the DP for the film and I really hope we have a chance to make more movies together."

Wesley screens next on Friday, August 13th at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin, NC and Saturday, August 14th at the Heart of England International Film Festival in Tenbury Wells. Armenaki trusts viewers will appreciate the uncommon level of effort that went into the religious biopic.

The very busy Armeneki

"The scope of the film was quite daunting," he admits. "We were doing all the no-no’s of independent filmmaking. We had a large cast of around 85 players and hundreds of extras; we had a ton of locations that all had to be dressed; we had period costumes and make-up, children and animals, a large ship to build on a blue screen stage. There wasn’t one element of the production that wasn’t complex or didn't require in-depth research."

"Some of the scenes had so many actors that we wound up shooting two sequences with a missing cast member and then green-screened them in later," Armenaki adds rather comically. "The blue and green screen work was rather technically complex. We could have used more prep time, but that’s the nature of the beast."

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