Lights, Camera, Action! The Talented & Multi-Awarded Film Director, Producer, and Writer - Raphael Bittencourt
Lights, Camera, Action! The Talented & Multi-Awarded Film Director, Producer, and Writer - Raphael Bittencourt
Author: Ben Libby, Chief Creative Officer, Bear Notch
Contributing Author: Raphael Bittencourt, Director, RAP Photo Design
Update: This Article Has Been Corrected
Since a young age, I’ve been passionately interested in cinematography and storytelling, my dad had a JVC camcorder in the 90s and would always examine the buttons and figure out how to use it. As time went on, I would write stories and want to film them, and this is how I eventually ended up in computer animation and motion pictures in college. In video advertising, storytelling is the crucial key in getting an audience to move with emotion and feelings, then the style of directing allows you as a viewer, to complete the picture. This month we have the absolute pleasure and privilege interviewing Raphael Bittencourt, a multi-award-winning director, producer, and screenwriter, who has done it all.
Hello my friend! It’s been quite a while, sincere apologies for the late interview, it’s been quite busy on our end. We wanted to pull you in a for a series of film related questions. So, without further hesitation, we’re firing off questions for our readers.
[Bear Notch]: First things first, as an award-winning Director, we’re challenging you to an art test. The goal here is to remake your favorite movie poster but in MS Paint / or Mac Paint. No cheating with adobe creative cloud or other advanced software. Please list title! Maybe this will bring you back to your design days!
[Raphael Bittencourt]: A Clockwork Orange
[BN]: Tell us about yourself, where did you grow up and how did you become interested in film in your early days? Favorite vintage and present-day film?
[RB]: I was born and grew up in Curitiba, the capital of the state of Paraná, in the south of Brazil. It’s an often cold and rainy town, the coldest capital in Brazil and it rains more than in Seattle. I come from a family where arts, music and literature, especially from European countries, were very much appreciated. Probably because of that I grew up as a very visual person and also interested in storytelling.
I ended up in the Graphic Design program of the prestigious Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) in 1992. During my time there I was introduced, in a more technical and analytical way, to all sorts of creative and visual techniques, visual storytelling, photography and cinema, besides Design itself.
My interest in film was deeply developed there with studies of narrative, editing, composition, starting from the early film days. That makes Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin one of my preferred films from that time for all it represents to the modern film narrative.
While I was still at UFPR, I started working in the third biggest (in terms of relevance and structure) advertising film production studio in Brazil, SIR Cinema Video e Audio. I was then part of the CGI and special FX department and also doing some editing. It was 1995/96 and digital video and post production was still something new in the professional world. The company had just acquired a Quantel Edit Box for the bargain of U$730k. Since I was the only one in the staff with fluent English, I was the one in charge of receiving the training to operate the beast and then spreading the knowledge to the other editors. All the system was still based on rolls of Beta and BetaMax tapes and the transition to digital was done in a frame by frame automated capture that took hours. There were only two other Edit Box in the country, one at Globo, the biggest TV network there and another at Casa Blanca, the biggest production house at that time.
After SIR, I ventured more towards the Advertising Agency and Graphic Design studios market for a while, with heavy focus in photography and image treatment and composition. Started a few companies and my own production company and felt the need of reconnecting more closely to film and narrative storytelling.
That took me to a one-year film program in another prestigious school there, Centro Europe in 2007. It was refreshing and helped me get acquainted with the latest digital film practices. It was the beginning of DSLRs and REDs in the film market. I graduated as the best student in that class and that lead me to become a cinematography teacher in the very same film program. As a teacher I had the opportunity to teach and mentor more than 400 film students and act as a production consultant in more than 200 shorts and music videos, not to mention my making own productions.
Then I decided I needed more, in terms of technique, structure and challenge and decided to go after an MFA in filmmaking and expanding my work in film and my connections. This took me to LA, where I am currently based since 2014.
About the films, well, one of my preferred vintage ones I said already, Battleship Potemkin. I could have said Metropolis too, among a number of great other examples. More recently, I’d say Reservoir Dogs, from Tarantino. And from the latest Oscar batch, Cold War, from Pawel Pawlikowski, is a masterpiece to me.
[BN]: Do you remember your first film project? What was it about? And, what format did you use?
[RB]: Yes, my first really well-structured narrative film project was an action/thriller short called Insubordinação (2008). It was shot in 720p with a Sony HVR-Z1E and nowadays I really really miss it being shot at least in 2K with some better camera. Even 1080p DSLR would have been better, but the revolutionary Canon 5D MKII was made available only one year after that.
[BN]: DP’ing is important when planning moving images, what was your first camera? And first film camera? Have you ever spent more money on film equipment than what your budget could handle?
[RB]: My first (stills) camera was a Canon A1 35mm camera with a motor drive. First video capable camera of my own was a Canon 5D MKII. In my childhood and as a teenager, my father always had VHS cameras that I could also use. Nowadays I don’t own them, but I work regularly with a variety of cameras such as RED, ARRI, Sony, Canon and so on.
I have never spent in gear more than my total budget can handle, but have certainly spent my entire budget in gear, causing me to have to work for “nothing” in order to become the owner of the gear so it could be used in other projects. I try to do it in a conscious and strategic way aiming at the long term.
[BN]: When developing storyboards, do you draw them or photo storyboard? What’s your favorite go-to? Do you use any digital software to plan / execute?
[RB]: It all depends on the project and even the amount of time I have in the development stage. I have done storyboards actually drawing on paper, as real illustrations and have also used software like 3D Studio Max, in which I could build precise virtual locations and produce as many simulation shots emulating light and lenses. A few times I used photography to replace storyboards but that is not my preferred way to go. My best experience was with a mix of hand drawn and mostly CGI stills.
[BN]: Can you name a few crucial bullet points in pre-visualization that must be done for a successful film? And during post, what’s your favorite video editing software? Have you worked with anything higher than 4K video?
[RB]: For useful previsualization I think one should consider:
Real knowledge of the location/situation of the scenes. There’s no point in planning and designing a scene that will be shot in a location different from what’s in the project. Precise measurements are fundamental for things as basic as the choice of lenses.
Know the physics. Natural light direction and actual practical light sources matter in the blocking and framing.
In some situations, color matters too, a lot. Try to integrate realistic color information as it matters and influences a lot in the final composition and contrast of a scene.
Think on the final edited material. Generate stills or frames in a shot by shot fashion for every scene. It’s not easy, but that gives you (and any other person involved in the project) a great approximation to what the final piece is going to look like. You can avoid a ton of problems and mistakes by doing that as it serves as a precise guide for the shoot. It also saves A LOT of time on set since everyone, especially the DP, knows what’s in your mind. Last but not least, this makes the editing process a piece of cake. It almost feels like cheating.
My editing platform of choice is Adobe Premiere for all its abilities when mixing media from different sources and minimizing the number of renders until the final piece is ready for delivery. Less information loss. I have worked also with AVID, Final Cut and Resolve to get to that conclusion. Davinci Resolve as a standalone color grading tool remains the best option for me, but depending on the project needs, I’ll still stay within the Adobe world for the mentioned reason: avoiding unnecessary renders.
Yes, I’ve worked with materials higher than 4K. It’s not mandatory, but it may help in certain situations involving SFX, greenscreen, post stabilization FX, etc. There’s is also the “being future proof” thing if you consider eventual demands for distribution, but that is really not a strong issue, for now. A good 2K source material still beats an ordinary 4K source in terms of visual quality and experience.
[BN]: Back in the days, we had to learn Super 8mm and 35mm techniques, do you still utilize this method for any type of film? And, what’s the most challenging aspect of working with traditional 35mm film?
[RB]: Not anymore, or at least not regularly. I love the traditional stock look and love when I can work with it, but in a more artistic crafty fashion. Commercially speaking is very hard to justify that for all the implications related to time and routines involved in it, not to mention the cost. On that regard, digital is hard to beat. That is valid for either movies or still photography.
[BN]: Which film director inspires you most? Do they have specific benefits over others? And why do they inspire you?
[RB]: I guess my favorite director is a Frankenstein. I never really spent much time electing a single name as I spot different reasons to like (and dislike) them. If I take the best part of each one of them, I guess I’d have the perfect Frank! Let me name a few, not in order of relevance:
1. Sergey Eisenstein, again for his composition and great visual metaphors
2. Quentin Tarantino, for his then peculiar, now vastly spread approach to storytelling in a non-chronological way with multiple storylines.
3. Andrej Tarkowsky, for his ability to create such meaningful images/scenes, shot after shot, in his films. Each of his images carries so many layers of information.
4. David Fincher, for his usually perfect visuals, which serve as a base for very intense moments in his storytelling.
5. Woody Allen, for his great exploration of existential and psychological conflicts in all of his characters, ordinary or not.
6. Martin Scorsese, for the deep and sometimes gruesome depiction of his characters reality. Also, for his ability to keep his projects under control (he uses storyboards A LOT).
7. Cohen Brothers, for the non-standard approach and great humor, sometimes dark and ironic, in their storytelling.
[BN]: Have you submitted your films to any prestigious film festivals such as Cannes or Sundance? Can you name them here, title of the film, with a link, and awards won?
[RB]: I have participated in a number of film festivals around the world. I guess one of the most relevant was Worldfest Houston in the US or maybe Gramado, in Brazil.
My last film, as a director and producer, is called BID (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6156016) and it is a proof of case for a feature. Its festival run is ending, and it was pretty successful with 8 awards and 20 festival selections. It’s not available online yet, but you can watch a trailer (https://vimeo.com/175960230)
Honorable Mention - 2º Festival De Cinema de Jaraguá do Sul 2019
Gold Remi Winner - Worldfest Houston 2018
Best Film - Brazil International Film Festival 2018
Critic Award - Falcon International Film Festival 2018
Best Actor - FESTCINE - Festival de Cinema de Pinhais 2018
Honorable Mention - Festival Brazil de Cinema International 2017
Honorable Mention Direction - Festigious International Film Competition 2017
Best Editing - Festigious International Film Competition 2017
[BN]: When winning an award, do you go in knowing you’ll win it, or is it all anticipation? Not knowing if you’d win one.
[RB]: When we submit to the festivals there’s never a certainty of winning or even being selected as it’s impossible to predict what are the other films submitted, if good or not so good. When selected, there are a few festivals that eventually tell when you should attend the awards ceremony because there must be “something for you”, but they usually don’t tell you what you actually won. Of course, in the festivals that actually announce nominations, such as the Academy Oscars, then there’s a lot of buzz around the probable winner, but leaks are not supposed to happen.
[BN]: Have you met interesting people at film festivals? If so, anyone notable? Any truly crazy people?
[RB]: Festivals are almost always a great place to meet people and expand the network. For example, a while ago, in the Brazil International Film Festival, 2018, I met people like the Norwegian actress Ingvild Deila, who plays the young princess Leia in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In that same festival I also met two great Brazilian talents: Isabel Fillardis and André Ramiro (Elite Squad, 2007). She is now attached to two projects I’m developing, one feature and a TV show, and possibly a third one. It all started in that festival.
Yeah, there’s always some eccentric people in festivals or some of them had just a bit too much booze. I saw once one of the Back to The Future stars dropping an award, in front of an audience, before it actually reached the winners hands. A clear case of booze or something else.
Festival related events are also great places to go and meet people. I had the pleasure to hear Oscar Winner Alan Heim, Bob Fosse preferred editor, complimenting me for my work as an editor in the documentary Fosse: Recreated. Apparently, the documentary really reflects Fosse style. It was directed by my great friend and former Fosse producer Wolfgang Glattes.
[BN]: After submitting your film, what’s the experience like at a film festival, from arriving to leaving? Can you give us an overview?
[RB]: After submitting it usually is a long wait until you hear something from the festival. Then after you eventually get the great news about your film being officially selected, things tend to move faster and if you’re not local to the festival home, a run against the clock starts with the need to clear the agenda and find tickets, accommodation, as not every festival provide you that. Often you have to also prepare DCPs and materials to support the film such as posters, business cards, brochures, etc. It’s intense. For international travel, of course, visa arrangements may be necessary.
When you’re finally there it’s a total immersion experience from the time you get out of the airplane because other filmmakers are usually getting there at the same time, in other flights and will take the same shuttle as you. Networking and sharing start there.
When you’re dropped at the hotel it continues as, of course, dozens of other film makers, actors, producers, etc are there too. The bigger festivals usually have a welcome pack waiting for you in your room, with all the necessary badges, instructions, schedule of films, interviews, agenda of festival related events, tickets, restaurant suggestions, etc.
There’s always a great buzz in the city or neighborhood where the festival is happening and suddenly the streets and surrounding areas are flooded with film directors, producers, actors, writers, film enthusiasts in an almost surreal situation for a few days. Everyone eats, drink and breath film for that period. Again, it’s intense, kind of like a summer camp for film lovers. It’s also interesting to see sometimes some hundreds of people “migrating” on the streets from one venue to another after the next screening or event several times in a day.
The experience is so remarkable that every time, when you leave, you have the “I wish I had another day here” feeling, especially when you leave with a trophy in your hands.
[BN]: We’re currently working on a few live-action short film scripts, and want you to direct them, what do you think?
[RB]: Of course! Let me know more, I’m curious already.
[BN]: What’s your ideal cinema camera setup? Are there better cine cameras than others? We’re currently eyeing the Black Magic Ursa Mini 4K, Canon C200 Mark II, and Arri Alexa Mini! Give us your thoughts?
[RB]: the ideal camera is always the one that fits better each particular project and that can vary a lot. Of course, there are cameras that are better than others in certain aspects such as image quality, operation, durability, cost, etc.
Taking the examples, you mentioned, for instance:
The ARRI line is one of today’s benchmarks for color science and general image quality. The amount of information it can store in its files is amazing and a joy to work with on prost production. It requires some serious investment in the cameras itself as there’s no “budget” camera nor post production gear when you’re dealing with ARRI.
The Canon C200 has a very nice color rendition and it brings a solid architecture with very nice user interface for a fraction of an ARRI camera. It eats a lot of memory cards and has no option for external SSD recording though which can be a problem depending on the nature of the project.
The Black Magic Ursa Mini 4.6 MKII is the most accessible of all three and the MKII comes with great new capabilities: shoots 4.6K raw at 120fps (this is huge) and had the color science (which was already nice) improved. It offers easily interchangeable lens mounts which broadens a lot the quality one can attach to it. Comes with multiple memory card slots and records in a variety of formats and set ups, something the Canon does not offer. It’s not as sturdy as the others though, but the operation is easy.
That said, if an ARRI, or a RED is not an option because of budget restrictions, I’d probably go with the new Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K MkII. Considering also the memory and related hardware necessary to work with the files produced by the camera.
Last Minute UPDATE: Did you see the new Sigma “FP”? It’s a pocket-sized full frame mirrorless cutie that shoots 4K Raw video!!! (https://www.dpreview.com/articles/9907285861/hands-on-with-new-sigma-fp-a-compact-full-frame-l-mount-mirrorless-camera)
[BN]: From film to advertising, cinematography and the team is important. What’s the typical number of production members, titles, and who is usually on set?
[RB]: The size of the teams can vary a lot according to the budget and characteristics of each production. I’ve been on sets in a “one-man band stand” and also on sets with a few dozens of people. If we take the photography (camera and electric) department, a basic on set team would be Cinematographer, 1st AC (focus puller), 2nd AC, Gaffer, a Best Boy Grip plus, ideally one or two Swings (that would assist the Grip and the Gaffer in putting the lights up). Then there’s the rest of the team which can be a lot of people: producers of different kinds (line producer, location producer, etc.), Art Director, Set Designer, SFX Artists, Wardrobe, Sound Mixer, Boom Operator, Director, DIT, and so on.
In “guerilla” style projects, sometimes the camera department is a single person that will operate the camera, set the lights and pull focus and eventually there will be a PA helping with various tasks or even the producer himself.
[BN]: Have you ever been in a dangerous environment while filming? Can you tell us your worst experience? And, have you ever worked with terrible production or actor/actresses? Any crazies?
[RB]: Define dangerous, lol! I’ve already done shoots almost hanging out of helicopters and cars, have shot in dirty filthy basements covered in suspicious dust full of rat poop, have shot in the middle of a Brazilian favela (slums) and also on construction sites and oil plants, to name a few.
Shooting from a helicopter without the door on my side and tied up only by my seatbelt while the thing made turns with my door less side facing down was probably the scariest experience I’ve ever had, but one of the coolest at the same time, if you know what I mean.
Yes, I have worked with terrible actors/actresses already. And, if I may say, the “divas” are often not the real big and great established talents on set, but just some arrogant wannabe. That has exceptions, of course. Some big names can be really eccentric.
[BN]: Greatest achievement / award in life so far?
[RB]: Greatest achievement is probably being able to still be in LA after 5 years. Now seriously, participating, as a DP and Editor/Post-Producer, in Fosse: Recreated, a documentary about Bob Fosses work, directed by Wolfgang Glattes was something big for me. That led me to also work in the production of Wolfgang’s book “Memories of La La Land” (not related with the feature with similar title).
Talking about awards, I guess winning the Brazil International Film Festival or the Gold Remi Award in the Worldfest Houston were my best moments.
[BN]: Becoming a director, is it challenging? And do you think a film degree is necessary?
[RB]: Anyone can decide to be a director. It’s probably the single one position that requires absolutely (proof of) no qualifications at all. Even a PA (Production Assistant) needs to show some qualification. That said, becoming a respected and recognized director is a whole different thing.
It’s a hard path and requires lots, I mean, LOTs of determination, patience and investment (of time, money, soul). One of the hardest things is breaking the vicious circle in which one has to have experience to be given the director position, but then if no one lets you direct, how are you supposed to gain experience? The answer is: you have to be also your own executive producer, and that’s when determination and investment comes to play.
Having a degree and going to film school helps you thinking more objectively and avoiding mistakes. It’s a great way to start you in the formation of your technical and critical side and to start focusing on the definition of your own style. On the other hand, one can definitely do that by oneself, away from the schools, but definitely with way more dedication and disposition for research. You have to be best friends with books and films, but maybe the hardest part is starting a network. Schools help you a lot with that.
[BN]: Can you advise us on the best full frame dslr / mirrorless to use on our own DP projects? Also, do you think a full frame camera can be just as effective for filming as a professional cine grade camera? Any recommendations?
[RB]: We live in interesting times. Until not so long ago my answer for the best mirrorless around would be go Sony Alpha A7III. Today a lot of options are popping all around from other brands besides Sony, including Canon, Panasonic, Olympus and Fuji to name a few. Since I have a lot of Canon lenses and accessories, I’m holding until I see a mature full frame Canon mirrorless camera. Canon is still not there, but from the rumors out there, that might change soon. For now, I’m stick with my trusty 5DMkII and if I was to replace it with another SDLR, that would probably be a 5DS-R (I still do a lot of still photography work) or a 5DMkIV.
We can produce entire feature films with basically any tool we have in our hands that is capable of recording video, so yes, one can use a DSLR or a mirrorless professionally. It’s more of a matter of adequation to the project and the expectations. Tangerine (2015) was shot on an iPhone and was listed for the Academy-Award. Unsane, from Oscar Winner Steven Sodeberg, was also shot on an iPhone. This year, one of Canne Festival highlights was The Best Years of a Life, from Claude Lelouche, another Academy-Award Winner.
Guess what! DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are way better, quality and resources wise, than iPhones. We can definitely produce feature films, TV Shows, web series, DOCs and commercials with them with actually great quality. It’s the same as having an ARRI or even a Black Magic URSA MiniPro at your hands, of course not, those will give you a lot more room for color grading on post, among other benefits. But still, it’s possible, especially if your tool, whichever it is, shoots 4K, today’s minimum standard at the majority of the distributors.
My accessible real digital film camera to go is the URSA MiniPro 4.6K MkII.
[BN]: What’s on your bucket list for the next 3 years?
[RB]: I have a number of feature films and TV Shows/Series at different stages of development. My goal is to produce and direct at least one feature per year and have the first season of the two shows produced in the next three years.
I’m also on the market after a producing and development partner(s) for these and other projects. Using the same structure to produce other kinds of content (Docs, branded content and short form) is also part of the plan.
[BN]: Lastly, can you tell us something about yourself, a big takeaway for our audience?
[RB]: Long story short, I was born a believer. I believe in finding and promoting the good in every person, yes, there must be something there. I believe I’m good with visuals since I was young and good with storytelling even before that. At least I always liked both things. I believe one can change the world through good storytelling, in any form, written, visual or speech. And, yes, when I say “the one” I’m not talking about Neo, I’m talking about myself. I can do it, anyone with a legit will can.
It’s past the time we all take responsibility in changing the world into a better, nicer place each and every day. My way is through storytelling, through design, through art and all those infinite little actions and habits we can develop on a daily basis. Did you say “hi” or “good morning” to the doorman you see everyday today, and meant it? Did you read that nice article (one of Ben’s nice posts for instance) and illuminated yourself a bit more today? You may not know, but you’re telling a story to the world everyday with all your actions at home, at work (whatever that means) and out there, in the world. Beware of it and own it. Tell a good story.
Director / Editor Reel (2017)
Raphael Bittencourt is a multi-awarded Brazilian Writer-Director-Producer. In his early days he worked as an Editor and Director of Photography and also collected awards in both roles. His work has been showcased and acclaimed by the critics in festivals around the world. The working knowledge in practically every department in the film production made him a director with a very unique style and approach and also a desired and frequent collaborator in other directors projects.
During four years Bittencourt was also a professor of Direction of Photography at The Digital Film program of Centro Europe, a renowned film school in Brazil. A restless professional, artist and researcher, he has a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design (UFPR - 1996) and an MFA in Film-making (NYFA - 2016).
He lives in Studio City, California, and is involved in the development and production of several film and TV projects.