‘The Master’ Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.: 
Director’s Finders Aren’t Dead, They're Just Going Digital (2022)

The shooter shares how he collaborates with directors (and extolls Coppola’s ‘crazy ideas.’)

Romanian-born DP Mihai Malaimare Jr. made his name in the mid-aughts with a trio of Francis Ford Coppola films: Youth Without Youth, Tetro, and Twixt. His reputation for darkly stylish visuals was cemented when he shot Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in 2012. This year, a Blumhouse thriller that he lensed for director Dennis Iliadis will be released. The film, called Delirium, follows a former mental patient who believes that the mansion he inherited is haunted.

In an interview with Redrock Micro co-founder Brian Valente, Malamaire shared how his early career was shaped by still photography and DIY rigs, how Coppola’s ‘crazy ideas’ helped him develop a visual style, and why the director’s finder continues to be an important tool, especially in the digital age. Valente’s company developed the retroFlex rig described in their discussion. Read the whole interview, published exclusively on No Film School, below.

“The main issue with DSLRs was the mirror was in the way for cinema lenses. You’d have to modify the camera so much it’s not really worth it.”

Valente: Which title do you prefer: Cinematographer or Director of Photography?

Malaimare: I never used Director of Photography, maybe because it sounds strange in Romanian (laughs). I prefer cinematographer. We get lost too much in words when we try to differentiate them. I like what Vitorrio Storaro said: “There is only one director on set”.

Valente: Can you talk a little about your path to becoming a cinematographer?

Malaimare: It was fairly easy because my father was in entertainment as an actor. He’s mainly a theater actor, but he had TV shows as well. So I grew up on film and TV sets and close to the theater. My dad had a theater company and he did everything there: directed, acted, chose the music, changed the lights, he did it all. When I was fifteen, he had a show that had something like 180 light changes, and that really impressed me. Here’s this tiny surface, and he could modify it so much just by changing the light. From that moment, I knew I wanted to do something related to images, but not necessarily theater.

Like any good parent in the arts, my father tried to dissuade me from this direction but eventually, he realized it was my passion and supported me by talking about directing, about visuals, giving me guidebooks on lighting, etc.

He enrolled me in a still photo after school program and at that point I was hooked on anything related to images.

‘The Master’ Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.: 
Director’s Finders Aren’t Dead, They're Just Going Digital (1)
Valente: Are you a still photographer?

Malaimare: Yes, and I guess that’s how I really got started. Keep in mind Romanian film school used to be very much based on still photography, because it was the cheapest way to learn composition, framing and photochemistry. We had a really intense still photography education for four years, so we were also really well prepared to be still photographers.
And I think that helps a lot. It taught me the frame is the core, the starting point, the cell of filmmaking.

Valente: In 2008 you shot Youth Without Youth and were nominated for a Best Cinematography Independent Spirit Award. The style seems very polished and mature I would describe it as very transportive, almost dreamlike. How did you develop your style, or how do you think about style?

Malaimare: That was such a strange and interesting moment for me. Before meeting Francis [Ford Coppola] I was mainly shooting Romanian productions. We were all about handheld and moving the camera as much as possible, and finding ways to move the camera with almost nothing. Trying replicating complicated techno crane shots we had seen in other movies but with cables and skateboards.

“The frame is the core, the starting point, the cell of filmmaking.”

Francis wanted to try something in the Ozu style, where the camera doesn’t move at all unless it’s for a really good purpose. That intrigued me, and it landed in my comfortable area because it related so much to my still photography background: how do you tell a story within a static frame?

When the camera is not moving at all, it’s closer to a still photograph, where the viewer has time to study the frame and absorb what’s in the shot, so composition is that much more important. But it was Francis’ idea and it carried through in the second film (Tetro 2009) and the third film (Twixt 2011) we shot together. That’s what it’s like working with Francis: he comes up with some really crazy idea that usually intrigues everybody. Even if it seems hard or impossible at the beginning it evolves in such an amazing thing by the end.

‘The Master’ Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.: 
Director’s Finders Aren’t Dead, They're Just Going Digital (2)
Valente: That’s a good segue for talking about collaborating with your director; there’s always a give and take and ultimately the director is in charge. What do you do to best collaborate?

Malaimare: The director is the only one who has all the tools at their disposal. They have sound, music, editing, art direction and of course the cinematography. As a cinematographer, even if I wanted to do more, I could not. The director is the only one with all the tools.
When I read a script for the first time, I have a movie inside my head. The challenge in pre-production is to find out what is the ‘real movie’—the movie inside the director’s head. And then figure out how to get there, to become the right tool for them.

I heard this phrase “good cinematography is the cinematography you don’t see” and I don’t think that’s entirely true. It’s such an important tool in storytelling. At the beginning, I really try to understand how the director sees the movie. A good cinematographer is a good listener first.

Valente: You have said the director’s viewfinder is an important tool to help collaborate with your director, although many people may not be familiar with it. Can you explain what it is and how you use it?

Malaimare: Traditional film cameras are typically big and heavy and awkward to use when you’re only searching for a shot. The way it first came out, it was a small viewfinder that gave you guidelines for what a lens would see, and that’s how you search for a shot before you put the lens on the big camera and start moving that camera around.

There are a bunch of options for a director’s finder, good and bad. The first ones that came out didn’t use the lens; they were small and you could see just the framing. But for me they aren’t great. They don’t show what an image would look like with the characteristics of the lens, the depth of field, the various aberrations, etc. so it gives you only a rough idea. A full-sized director’s viewfinder like the Kish Optics from Panavision allows me to use the actual lenses with all those characteristics, but it’s is still pretty big. It can be somewhat unwieldy to use.

I have used these a lot, but then I realized when I’m searching for a shot and I need to communicate the shot to the director, it’s not that easy. You can’t just hand it to the director. You kind of have to hold it for them, and it may not be entirely accurate, and it’s definitely a slow process. So it makes that important collaboration more difficult and time-consuming.

Valente: I can see how on one hand that collaboration is so important, and on the other hand the traditional tools can make it difficult

Malaimare: Yes, so it got me thinking: there should be a way for the director to see what I’m seeing at the same time. Originally I was thinking still cameras, and maybe to mount something on a still camera (I have so many still cameras!). The main issue with DSLRs was the mirror was in the way for the wide cinema lenses. Every lens wider than 35mm will hit the mirror. You’d have to modify the camera so much to use wide cinema lenses, it’s not really worth it.

When the Sony A7 camera came out, I realized it solved that issue by just not having a mirror. I slowly started to use this with a Panavision or PL lens adapter and, all of a sudden, it was so much better. For example, if you have long dolly or Steadicam shots, I used to walk with the director’s finder to see how the shot would be, then pass the finder to the Steadicam operator and walk with them again. Now I can record a small clip and give it to them for reference. It’s so much easier and faster. Or even better, with the Sony a7’s built-in wifi, the Steadicam operator can watch on an iPhone or iPad while I’m searching for the shot.

Valente: Is the director’s finder more of a pre-production tool or during principal?

Malaimare: Both. In pre-production, you never really carry the whole lens set, but you can find some lightweight zooms. Then on set, it’s the perfect tool for searching for shots. Even when you do your homework really well and plan ahead each shot, it’s one thing to look at an empty room during scouting and prep and totally different when you are on a dressed set.

And even when you storyboard the whole film, things still change. It’s a constant search and development of the visual style. It’s like solving a puzzle. I’m working with a director’s finder a lot.

“The director wanted to grab the handle and look into the viewfinder. The Sony A7 by itself didn’t really have that.”

Valente: You are describing an evolution of the director’s finder into a digital finder. Can you elaborate on that?

Malaimare: I started using the Sony A7 and it was a great tool. They have a movie mode where you have access to all the guidelines. You can see the guidelines in the camera itself, which helps a lot. There aren’t a lot of movies that are 16:9, so having the guidelines for 1.85 and 2.39 is really great.

Cinema lenses are like two or three times the weight of still cameras, so it was very front-heavy and kind of awkward to use. It worked, but it didn’t feel like a director’s finder at all. Everyone was like “oh great you have your lenses on this tiny little camera so you can see your shots.”

But also, when you use a tool that’s so valuable, you get ingrained in how you use it. There’s a certain amount of “when it works, stick with it”. The director wanted to grab the handle and look into the viewfinder. The Sony A7 by itself didn’t really have that. It worked, but it was really awkward and difficult to use with heavy lenses.

‘The Master’ Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.: 
Director’s Finders Aren’t Dead, They're Just Going Digital (3)

Valente: And that is what lead you to finding a rig for your Sony A7 camera?

Malaimare: Yes, I saw the Redrock retroFlex rig and thought yes! That’s exactly what I need to make this a better director’s finder. It was amazing. The first director I worked with when I had this said it’s amazing how great it feels. It has this analog feel like holding a Bolex or a real director’s finder. Not only can I hold it like a regular Kish finder, but you don’t have to shade the (rear LCD) to see or show it to someone. From so many perspectives, it just makes a better tool.

If I remember correctly, in film schools all over Europe, the go-to camera in year one was the Arri 2-C and the retroFlex reminds me of that. You grab the lens with your left hand and the camera in your right and just go. That camera was so well designed, I still think it’s the best (ergonomics) for handheld work even today. And when was it designed? Like, the 1930s.

Valente: You seem a bit nostalgic for simpler times?

Malaimare: We get inspired from still photography, and while the camera systems evolved because we needed more and more stuff on the camera, I just have those memories of using a simpler camera and just remembering how much I loved that style of shooting. It felt so much better.

But you know how memories are. It’s weird, sometimes you think ‘ahh, I remember that camera,it was so much better than what we use today” in terms of how you hold it and use it. It might just be a weird perception but I don’t think so. As soon as I hold my “digital director’s finder” – the Sony and retroFlex – and when I’m searching for a shot, it feels great and brings back memories. Recently I used a Sony a7SII with the retroFlex and shot some video footage with some of my specialty still photography lenses. The whole system felt like an Arri 2-C or a Canon Scoopic, it was great.

FAQs

Who was the cinematographer for the master? ›

The Master was shot by Mihai Malaimare Jr., who was introduced to Anderson by Francis Ford Coppola after Coppola worked with the cinematographer on Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt.

Who was the cinematographer for the harder they fall? ›

The Harder They Fall

Who was the cinematographer for phantom thread? ›

One of the first rumors coming from the set of Phantom Thread was that Paul Thomas Anderson would be acting as his own cinematographer for the film, which did turn out to be the case.

Who was the cinematographer for There Will Be Blood? ›

That award went to the film's DP, Robert Elswit, an American journeyman who has shot dozens of films in his career. Elswit, who grew up and attended film school in California, cites John Cassavetes as a heavy influence, and first worked as director of photography on the Rob Reiner comedy The Sure Thing.

Is The Master worth watching? ›

It isn't a great film - but it has a great film rattling around inside it. At least the performances, specifically from Phoenix and Hoffman, kept you engaged enough to want to finish the rest of the movie. It's a mess; it's pretentious; it is thundery with dismay.

Why did Freddie leave The Master? ›

It's an image that shows that reality has finally hit Freddie, and he knows that this man does not possess the abilities he claims to possess, and that he is not truly able to help him or care for him in the way that he needs. And so, in one of the next scenes, Freddie flees.

Will there be a Part 2 of The Harder They Fall? ›

Netflix has yet to announce official plans for a follow-up to "The Harder They Fall," but director Jeymes Samuel has made it very clear that he plans to return to the Old West as soon as he can.

Is The Harder They Fall based on a true story? ›

To make it even more notable, all of the major characters in "The Harder They Fall" are based on real-life historical figures — despite the message at the beginning of the film letting viewers know that the "events are fictional." So who were these real-life cowboys — and how accurately did the film portray them?

Was The Harder They Fall a flop? ›

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 87% of 181 critics gave the film a positive review, with an average rating of 7.5/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "It isn't as bold and fearless as its characters, but The Harder They Fall fills its well-worn template with style, energy, and a fantastic cast."

Why did HW set the fire? ›

A man arrives at Daniel's doorstep claiming to be his half-brother, Henry. Daniel hires him and the two grow close. A jealous H.W. sets fire to their house, intending to kill Henry.

Are Paul and Eli the same person? ›

However, after Dano had already started filming his one scene as Paul Sunday, Paul Thomas Anderson decided to replace the actor playing Eli. Anderson then asked Dano to play Eli Sunday (a much bigger role) as well as Paul Sunday, and they decided to change the film to make the brothers identical twins.

Who is Daniel Plainview based on? ›

Anderson has said that he based the character of Plainview on real-life oil tycoon Edward Doheney. Like Doheney, Plainview is from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, worked for a geological survey, and mined silver in New Mexico.

How much do cinematographers get paid? ›

Currently, the national average salary for a Cinematographer is around $65,000. Cinematographers working on indie or low-budget projects will also earn less than those working for established production companies.

Is Reynolds Woodcock a real designer? ›

Woodcock, and his atelier the House of Woodcock, are fictional. Anderson has been coy about revealing any exact references to the designers of the age that might amalgamate in his character – but if you look closely enough, there are clues to be found.

Is Reynolds Woodcock based on a real person? ›

Reynolds Woodcock's obsessive fastidiousness is loosely inspired by English-American fashion designer Charles James. Daniel Day-Lewis, a renowned method actor, spent a year learning dressmaking under the tutelage of Marc Happel in preparation for the role.

Did The Master win any Oscars? ›

The Master

What was the point of Master? ›

Master (2022) Movie Ending Explained & Themes Analyzed: Mariam Diallo's debut film “Master” is about microaggressions, caused due to deep-rooted institutional racism in academic circles in America, existing till the present day.

Is Master based on true story? ›

"The movie is a work of fiction and the director, producer and actors have said so," a Church of Scientology spokesperson said. "For example, Paul Thomas Anderson is quoted as saying: 'This is a fabricated story: pure fiction.

Who is the girl at the end of The Master? ›

Master's Liv Identity Twist Explained

The biggest plot twist in Master's ending comes when Gail finally meets up with the mysterious hooded woman (Paige Rhea Allison) that she has seen around the campus. The woman claims that she is Liv's mother, and that Liv is actually white.

What condition does Freddie have in The Master? ›

Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, carries a violent anger that can be compared to ravishing dog in a fight. His PTSD leaves him completely inhumane and dependent on toxic potions that take him to another world.

What is Freddie drinking in The Master? ›

You Drink Bomb Fluid: The character Freddie Quell, played by a terrifying Joaquin Phoenix, mixes up intoxicating chemical concoctions out of anything, including bomb fluid. Lancaster Dodd takes a liking to the libation and keeps Freddie on hand to whip up batches of the stuff.

Is Master based on true story? ›

"The movie is a work of fiction and the director, producer and actors have said so," a Church of Scientology spokesperson said. "For example, Paul Thomas Anderson is quoted as saying: 'This is a fabricated story: pure fiction.

What were they drinking in The Master? ›

In the opening sequence, he drinks the ethanol from a bombshell, mixed with some form of desert island fruit. Later, he incorporates dark room chemicals into his concoction.

Was The Master shot on film? ›

The Master was shot almost entirely on 65mm film stock, making it the first fiction feature to be shot and released in 70mm since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet in 1996.

What lens was used for The Master? ›

The movie The Master, released in 2012 and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, was shot on film using Panavision Panaflex 65mm HR Spinning Mirror Reflex - 65HSSM Camera, Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 Camera, Panavision Panaflex System 65 Studio Camera - 65SPFX Camera and Panavision 65mm Prime Lenses with Mihai ...

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