Cinematographer Martim Van Shares the Importance of Eliciting Nostalgia in Netflix’s Voir
David Fincher and David Prior are producers on Netflix’s latest upcoming series Voir— aseries of visual essays celebrating Cinema and the personal connection we each have to the stories we see on the big screen.
PH: Hi Martim! How are you? What have you been up to the past few months?
Martim Vian: Hi Briana! I’m doing great, thank you. Hope all is well with you. 2021 was a busy year, which I welcomed after 2020. I recently wrapped production on Alone Together, a feature written and directed by Katie Holmes. It’s a love story set in the times of COVID, in which two strangers share an Airbnb to ride out the pandemic. We shot in Connecticut and New York City with an amazing cast and crew, and I can’t wait for it to come out. Besides that, I’ve been shooting commercials, music videos, and some documentary work as well.
PH: Can you talk about your previous industry experience? Was this always the career path you wanted to take?
Martim Vian: As a kid, my dream was to become an animator and work for Walt Disney. Growing up in Portugal, I didn’t know how seriously I took that idea though — it was a bit of a pipe dream.
As I got older, my attention started shifting to live action movies and television series. Our TV channels at home would show behind the scenes featurettes of all the big Hollywood movies, and I’d record those on VHS to play them back, over and over again. I would pause whenever the cameras or lights were in frame, and wondered how they did it. I really wanted to know why “real” movies looked so much better than the homemade ones I made with my cousins. What cameras were they using? This was the start of my love for filmmaking.
So, I enrolled in the National Film school in Portugal, where I studied cinematography. After graduating, I started working as a camera assistant. I did that for about 5 years, worked with some amazing cinematographers, and learned many invaluable lessons. But, it was hard to move up the ladder back then, so I decided to move to LA and do a masters at the American Film Institute in the hopes it would help me transition into becoming a cinematographer.
PH: Let’s talk about Netflix’s series Vior. How did you become involved? What drew you to it?
Martim Vian: I interviewed for the job with the director, David Prior, and eventually was offered the role.
David and I connected over the movies I grew up with in the 80’s, and more particularly Steven Spielberg’s movies. These, of course,were going to be a big part of the first episode of Voir, given that the first episode’s entire focus is on Jaws.
I was excited to work on a project where film was the main theme, and especially with such talented people like director David Prior, and all the folks at Campfire who produced the series, and of course producer David Fincher, someone I’ve looked up to for so many years.
PH: Did you come into the project with a specific vision in mind? What did the pre-production process look and feel like for you?
Martim Vian: I didn’t come in with a preconceived idea of what I wanted to do. I always like exploring those ideas with the director, and finding the language as we dive deeper into the material.
We knew we had two main shooting blocks to design:
The first one consisted of the “interviews” portion of the series. Each episode is narrated by a guest in a dark theater, watching a movie projection as their words can be heard over the images. It was important to find the right theater, so we spent some time scouting for the perfect one – the Orpheum Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. We also did some camera tests to find just the right amount of underexposure for these images, and lit the space in a way that allowed us to feel the sense of scale and opulence of the room. It was all about creating visuals that evoked a certain romanticism, that reflected what it feels like to be in a theater when the lights go down and you are transported somewhere else.
The second shooting block focused solely on the first episode, ‘The Summer of the Shark’, which was more akin to shooting a short-film than a documentary. This happened a little later in the schedule and we approached it just like a narrative project.
PH: What were some of the cinematography challenges? How did you tackle those?
Martim Vian: One of the biggest challenges on the first episode was picking how to pay homage to Jaws and that era without being gimmicky or heavy handed; and at the same time make something that felt current. It was all about balancing our decisions, and basing them on the script and characters so they were serving our story – a coming of age tale of a little girl growing up in California in the ‘70s.
One way we did that was by using period anamorphic lenses for example (similar to the ones used on Jaws), but counterbalanced that with a more current look, lit mostly with soft light, which didn’t make our look overly vintage. And in some key moments we emulated famous shots from Jaws, but adapted them to the story we were trying to tell, so the moments felt grounded and like they belonged to this story, as opposed to a facsimile of the source material.
PH: What did having personal interviews and anecdotes from historians and filmmakers bring to the series?
Martim Vian: I think that’s one of the most original facets of Voir. Each guest brought their own vision and personality to the series, which helped create an extremely varied collection of episodes. They vary from narrative to documentary to archival, but they all have one thread in common – their creator’s love of film.
PH: What feelings do you think this series will evoke?
Martim Vian: I hope that it will remind audiences of the power of film, and why people love it so much. Movies have the ability to transport us, not just to different places or times, but also into other people’s lives and their points of view. I find that exhilarating and important, and as a medium it has so much more to offer still. As an art form, it stands to be criticized and rediscovered, experienced and interpreted by each one individually. I was incredibly moved by the last episode of Voir, ‘Profane and Profound’, and Walter Chaw’s personal take on the movie 48 Hours.
PH: How do you play upon the nostalgia factor visually (and through interviews)?
Martim Vian: Nostalgia needs to be elicited inside the audience, so we can only try and guide them there. To me, that feeling comes mostly from recognition. Seeing or hearing something that triggers a memory, or a feeling, or a time. As a filmmaker, we need to first find and decide what those elements are going to be that might power those feelings, and then, most importantly, present them in a way that feels authentic, so the viewer can relate to what they see on screen. The right type of lighting, or texture, can be the key to unlocking something personal to those watching, and that’s when what they see on screen truly speaks to them and reflects their own lives.
PH: Can you share some movies that come to mind that have changed you and made a huge impact on your life?
Martim Vian: It would be a very long list, but I can mention a few! Blade Runner, American Beauty, Splendor in the Grass, Funny Games, The Lion King. These movies moved me and made me want to be a filmmaker.
PH: Are you working on any upcoming projects that excite you?
I am currently in pre-production for another feature that shoots very soon. It’s a new genre for me, and I am really excited to explore it.
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