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Wednesday, Apr 24, 2024
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The Nerd Element Conversation with Director of Photography David Feeney-Mosier

The Academy Award-winning documentary short, “The Last Repair Shop,” opens with a young girl, Porché Brinker, holding her violin and talking with pride about her instrument. Directors Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot structure the short so we meet the Los Angeles Unified School District students who find joy and purpose in music, and the staff who lovingly repair those instruments for free. The intercutting between the students like Porché, the repair shop’s supervisor, Steve Bagmanyan—who pulls out files as examples of what the repair shop does— and the individual staff slowly builds a powerful narrative of the power of music in the lives of the students and the people who keep their instruments working as they tell their stories, some of which are deeply affecting.

Another part of the short that aids that narrative and the emotions of the stories told by the kids, Bagmanyan and his staff—Dana Atkinson, Duane Michaels, and Paty Moreno—is the look of the film. There’s a golden hue glowing warmly around everyone, and certain close-up shots accentuate the delicate work the staff does.

If you’ve ever wondered how a film gets a particular look or how a shot you admired was set up and put on film or digital, you go to the Director of Photography (also known as a cinematographer) and that’s where David Feeney-Mosier comes in. Feeney-Mosier’s job on “The Last Repair Shop” was to work closely with directors Bowers and Proudfoot to put their vision on the screen. The Nerd Element sent Mr. Feeney-Mosier several questions and he graciously answered in depth below, discussing his beginnings in camera work (skateboarding!), how he became a DP, what it was like to work on “The Last Repair Shop,” and because we’re nerds, about the cameras and lenses he likes using. (The interview below was lightly edited for clarity.)

The Nerd Element: Could you tell us how you became a director of photography? Was there a particular film or DP who inspired you?

David Feeney-Mosier: I suppose the real origins for me are in skateboarding. Growing up I became interested in still photography at a young age, maybe eight or nine. My dad had an old Nikon 35mm SLR that he taught me to shoot on. Around the same age I began skateboarding. All the way through high school, skateboarding was the focal point of my life. Everything revolved around it. I began making skate videos with my friends, and learned to edit at home on Final Cut. That was really the beginning of my interest in cinematography, and from there my appreciation for filmmaking grew.

I went on to go to film school, and was very inspired by directors like Spike Jonze and his cinematographer Lance Acord, who also came into film through the world of skateboarding.  Film school also opened me up to so many other amazing filmmakers and cinematographers from all over the world, and from generations past. It was a wonderful time where I felt equally excited learning about MGM musicals and the Hong Kong New Wave. That’s where I became a true cinephile.

Shortly after graduation I moved to New York City. I started in the film industry as a Production Assistant (PA) for a year to two, then got my first job in the camera department, and in 2009 I joined Local 600 as a 2nd Assistant Camera (AC) on a movie called The Romantics. That film was my first time working with DP Sam Levy, who would go on to be a real mentor to me. After The Romantics, I became Sam’s 1st AC, and we worked on six films together, including Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Mistress America, and While We’re Young. After I stopped assisting, I continued to work with Sam, shooting 2nd Unit on Lady Bird. Sam’s support and guidance has been instrumental in my development as a DP.

TNE: I noticed that you have worked previously with director Kris Bowers on a teaser for the L.A. Philharmonic. Is that how you came to work on “The Last Repair Shop,” which Bowers co-directed?

DF-M: Interestingly, I worked with Kris and his wife Briana on that project for the LA Phil after we began The Last Repair Shop. We started shooting The Last Repair Shop in 2019, and then picked up again in 2022 and 2023. I think my involvement with The Last Repair Shop was actually the reason I ended up shooting for Kris and Briana on the LA Phil project, which was a very interesting series of short films that accompanied a live performance Kris was doing at Disney Hall.

I believe the reason I became involved in The Last Repair Shop is because of a short doc I shot in 2018 called Jim Svedja: Between the Notes.  Ben Proudfoot saw the film, and apparently liked my work on it, and reached out to me. Shortly after that, he approached me about shooting a new project of his, which ended up becoming The Last Repair Shop. 

TNE: What was your process working with directors Bowers and Ben Proudfoot? As an example, the film uses a lot of close-ups of instrument parts and tight head shots. What kind of work went into making sure the shots matched the directors’ vision?

DF-M: Early on we had some discussions about our general approach to the film. We wanted to favor intentional shot design and a slightly stylized lighting approach over a purely cinema verité approach. We still wanted the film to feel authentic, grounded in reality, but at the same time more composed and slightly elevated. To this end, we chose to shoot on anamorphic lenses, creating a bit more of a subjective feel. I enjoyed this hybrid approach to documentary filmmaking, even though of course it’s not always possible.

Ben has been making short documentaries for years, and is truly a master of them. For interviews, he has long favored the interrotron* setup, which allows the subject to look directly into the camera lens and see the person conducting the interview, in this case Ben. We always shot the interviews on the same lens, at roughly the same distance from camera. Ben and Kris really love the intimacy and confessional quality of such a tight interview frame.

For the rest of the film we really just wanted to feel in a very textural way what the process of repairing these various instruments was like. So we decided to utilize a lot of macro work to really enhance those details. We also wanted to keep the palette of the film warm and dark, so that influenced our lighting decisions.

TNE: Speaking of the close-ups, how did you get the proper lighting on the extreme close-ups (e.g., the early shot where we see the tools going inside the violin)?

DF-M: That was a tricky one! We had the idea for that shot, and ended up cutting the bottom off of a cello so that we could actually fit the lens inside the bottom of the instrument. All the light was coming from outside, through the holes in the body of the instrument, and we pumped a little haze inside to spread the light. That shot was a lot of fun, and a great example of bringing a more choreographed shot to the documentary.

TNE: Another striking visual in the film was the lighting up of the saxophone keys. What do you need to do as the DP to realize such a striking visual?

DF-M: Honestly a lot of that was beginning with just observing how the technicians actually work, and finding which actions and moments would lend themselves best to being photographed. In that instance, there is actually a tool they use to detect air gaps in the keys, which is simply a small light bulb that is inserted into the body of the instrument. For other shots it was a matter of turning off overhead lights, and enhancing and modifying a more focused light (sometimes just a single word lamp) for a more dramatic effect.

TNE: What was the most challenging part of realizing the look of “The Last Repair Shop”? I loved the warm glow of the whole documentary, for instance. It heightened the emotion for me.

DF-M: Much of the look of the film was inspired by the repair shop itself. We were amazed at how trapped in time the space felt. It seemed relatively unchanged from the 1970’s/80’s, with a heavy, warm patina throughout. The ceiling-high shelves that filled the shop were lined with leather cases, brass instruments, and the rich mahogany tones of the string instruments. The work stations were almost entirely wood as well, and lit primarily with tungsten work lights. This again influenced us to lean into the warmer hues of the space, and carry that throughout the film. I think this color palette also has an emotional effect. It creates a sense of coziness, comfort, and hope. We wanted to repair shop to feel like a sanctuary, not a cold, clinical place.

TNE: What different challenges are presented when you work on a short documentary versus a feature film or a television episode? For instance, “The Last Repair Shop” versus “The Black Phone” or “Lady Bird” versus an episode of “Stranger Things”?

DF-M:  Because we aimed to approach the film with a more narrative aesthetic, it did not feel all that different from the feature and commercial work I’d done predominantly in my career. We would create shot lists, and take the time to design, block, and light shots. I think there is an incredible freedom to taking this approach to a documentary. We had a very small crew and we were not working with an extremely tight schedule, as is usually the case in TV and features, so that enabled us to really take our time to observe, react, and create interesting shots without the pressures of needing to rush. This is of course not always the case with documentaries, in fact probably quite rarely, but I found it a very comfortable environment which really allowed us to be creative.

Most of the time the crew was very small, just an AC and myself. The exception would be the end credits sequence, which was staffed more like a traditional film shoot, and was quite an ambitious shoot day. We had two cameras, Orlando Duguay operated steadicam, Mike Simpson operated B camera, Jordan Pellegrini and Jordan Scott were our focus pullers, and gaffer Kazmo Kida, electrician Quinn Brudos-Sommers, and balloon tech Brian Scotti did an amazing job setting up a large helium balloon light overhead, which allowed us to move quickly throughout the recording stage, which was filled with over 100 musicians.

TNE: Could you tell us what your favorite lenses and cameras are to work with?

DF-M: It varies from project to project. For digital, I’m a big fan of the Arri Alexa. We used the Alexa Mini and Cooke Anamorphics for The Last Repair Shop. But certain jobs call for certain looks, so I don’t necessarily have one pairing I always use. I love shooting film when the job allows.

TNE: What’s a question you wish someone would ask you that you haven’t been asked before?

DF-M: I don’t know that there is necessarily a question I wish people would ask, but one thing that does feel important to relay is a message of hope and encouragement to aspiring DPs of any age who are working as crew members. I think it’s becoming a bit less common that DPs work their way up through a particular department, and I think that’s quite unfortunate. I take pride in having worked as a camera assistant for many years. I think it’s a wonderful way to learn what it takes to make a film, from a technical and logistical perspective. You get to work with other DPs, and learn from them, and there’s immense value in that. It also gives you a more well-rounded experience, and hopefully creates more empathetic department heads.

TNE: Is there anything you’d like our readers to know that I haven’t asked you about?

DF-M: I’d just like to thank directors Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, everyone at Breakwater Studios, who have become like family to me, and all of the crew who worked on this film. And also, all of the educators and technicians who work at the LAUSD instrument repair shop!

To learn more about David Feeney-Mosier, visit https://www.davidfeeneymosier.com/

*Editorial note: The Interrotron was invented by documentarian Errol Morris. Read more about it here: https://www.errolmorris.com/content/eyecontact/interrotron.html

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