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Featured Filmmaker ~ Rodney Charters, ASC CSC

Featured Filmmaker: Rodney Charters

There are, perhaps, a handful of cinematographers who are ranked at the top of their profession by peers and associates. With seven directing credits, and fifty-one film and television projects for which he acted as cinematographer, and executive producer, Rodney Charters, ASC CSC, is one of those.

In the Beginning: Nature or Nurture?

Nature did play a part in Rodney’s development. He grew up in a small town on the coast of New Zealand in an environment that both encouraged and fostered his career path. As did nurture. His father, Roy Charters, was a photographer and a film lover, who introduced his young son to the family business by casting him in many of the 16mm film dramas he made with his partner, Rowan Guthrie and the New Plymouth Film Society.

But Rodney’s interest in film went beyond acting. He was drawn to the smells of the darkroom and the magic of the enlarger, and he wasted no time learning the essentials of the trade. He cut his filmmaking teeth using his father’s Bolex, a spring-wound clockwork 16 mm camera (the popular introductory camera in film schools). He uses far more sophisticated equipment these days.

When Rodney left his father’s studio, he engaged in more formal studies at the University of Auckland. His first solo film, a short piece called Film Exercise, premiered at the Sydney Film Festival and earned him a place at the Royal College of Art in London—the alma mater of Directors Tony Scott and Richard Longcraine and D.P. Stephen Goldblatt.

When he left the Royal College, Rodney shot commercials in London and the United States. A Toronto-based Canadian network hired him to do documentaries. He spent fifteen years shooting all over the world: from the jungles of South America to Soviet Russia during the Cold War. In 1986, he moved on to drama. He became second camera operator on a feature called Youngblood, starring Rob Lowe as a teenager who goes to Canada to play junior hockey for the Mustangs. The film won a Canadian Genie (the equivalent of the U.S. Emmy), Mark Irwin ASC for cinematography.

 

In the 90s, when the motion picture world began to change, Rodney honed his skills to take advantage of the technological advances in filmmaking. He worked on some of the very first morphs to make it to the big screen. He teamed up with VFX Supervisor Jeff Okun in 1992 for Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers, the story of modern-day vampires who prey on virtuous young women in a small town. In this film Charters used his tech skills to transform humans into cats and Chevys into Fords.

 

 

After Sleepwalkers, Charters spent several years doing television work in Canada. He moved to the United States in 1996 to film the first 13 episodes of Nash Bridges, a show set in San Francisco starring Don Johnson as a smart aleck cop and Cheech Marin as his sidekick. Together, they solved crimes and took down bad guys in the Bay area. The series ran for five seasons and captured a number of Emmy nominations during its run.

Following Nash Bridges, Charters became the DP for The Pretender (1997-2000), the story of a genius and former child prodigy with the ability to become anyone he wants to be—flawlessly impersonating anyone in any line of work. The cast included Michael Weiss as Jarod, the Pretender; Andrea Parker, as a childhood friend and operative for a mysterious organization called “The Centre”; and Patrick Bauchau as Sydney, his mentor. After the show went off the air in 2000, it spawned two television movies that were aired on TNT.

Charters was both DP and Director (2 episodes) for the sci-fi hit Roswell, a 1999-2001 television series about teenagers living in Roswell, New Mexico who possess “not-of-this-earth” gifts. They are human/alien hybrids sent to Roswell to fulfill a destiny on earth before returning to their home planet. The show focused on the relationships between humans and aliens and aired in both the United States and England.

 

Then came the series for which he is probably best known—the award- winning Fox drama “24” starring Kiefer Sutherland as federal agent Jack Bauer, a member of the L. A. Counter Terrorist Unit who must stop bombs, find antidotes for viruses, foil assassination attempts, and save someone he cares about at the same time. The show ran from 2001 to 2010. “24” received two Golden Globe awards for best television drama series and 150 nominations and 44 wins in all categories from groups as varied as the American Film Institute (AFI), the American Latina Media Arts Association (ALMA), the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and the EMMYS.

Post “24” Rodney landed at Shameless then the pilots for Charlie’s Angels, Dallas and Nashville which were all picked up. He is going to Germany with Alicia Brauns to shoot the Dachau portion of her documentary Mosaic of Life. In and amongst all of that he will be tweeting whenever he can @rodneykiwi.

Q. You are one of the busiest DPs working in movies today. Exactly what does it mean to be a Director of Photography?

A. While most people think a DP just stands behind a camera, the job is far more complex. During the filming of “24”, for example, I directed a huge crew—sometimes numbering as many as 200 technicians. In the long run, the DP is responsible for the final look of the film.

Q. What influenced you to become a cinematographer?

A. My father was a still photographer in New Zealand. He trained with the New Zealand Air Force and was active in the Pacific during World War II. He took surveillance shots during the military operations. When he came home, he opened the Charters and Guthrie Photographers Studio in our small town. Mostly, he shot weddings, and I tagged along toting his bags. But it was in the darkroom that I became fascinated by the magic of chemical film. There’s nothing quite as exciting as watching your first images emerge on paper in the darkroom. I’m afraid those days are now going away from us. There was something timeless and classical about traditional chemical photography. We shot “24” on film, and I believe it is the medium of dramatic expression.

Q. What was your early training as a filmmaker?

A. I didn’t start out as a filmmaker. I went to architectural school, but I knew I wasn’t cut out for that career. I really wanted to make movies, and eventually I wound up in film school at the Royal College of Art in London. I began working as a 16mm cameraman making documentaries and commercials.

Q. Although you’re primarily a cinematographer, you’ve had some directing experience as well. What are some of the challenges you’ve had as a director?

A. Having to answer all the questions. The director is the one person everyone turns to, you have to have all of the answers especially for the actors. Even though a director has a script, it is his interpretation of the script that drives the story.

Q. There is an ongoing discussion these days about the impact of video on filmmaking. Where do you stand on the issue?

A. While shooting “24”, I began experimenting with a video camera. I shot a scene with a traditional movie camera; then I shot the same scene with a video camera to see the difference.

Q. What were the results of the experiment?

A. Actually, I was blown away by the sound and lighting capabilities of video. I thought the video camera did a brilliant job of capturing the motion picture image; and I was impressed with the mobility and versatility of the equipment. I was able to do a scene and immediately go back and look at what I’d shot. That’s a big advantage for a cinematographer.

Q. Do you see any plusses for continuing to work with film?

A. I love the grainy look of film. Digital cannot produce that look yet—although it might happen in the future. I also think film is easier to archive than digital.

Q. How do the people with whom you work weigh in on the argument?

A. It is now officially a digital medium and changes are radical. I was just asked to shoot a pilot without lights and the lab as I knew it has moved to a carry on pelican case. Why do we need a generator if I don’t have lights? Exciting, but difficult times for my crew.

Proving the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, daughter May Charters is a painter, a ballet dancer, a writer, an actress, and a successful filmmaker. Her first feature film, Lovers in a Dangerous Time, for which she was director and lead actress, received critical acclaim, won four major film awards & is playing on Netflix. She is collaborating on a nine-episode web series filmed in HD video and a vampire/zombie film about her nine-year experience as a casting director in the fashion world. She is planning a western to be shot in Calgary entitled Bred in the Bone. In the next few months she will be shooting at the London Olympics, and in Dublin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Antwerp, and Paris.

Robin Charters, Rodney’s son, is following in his father’s cinematic footsteps. He was cinematographer and producer for May’s film, Lovers in a Dangerous Time. He now lives in LA where he directs, produces, and writes commercials, music videos, and TV reality shows. His day job is as a 3D engineer at the Cameron Pace Group most recently on Life of Pi in Taiwan with the underwater unit and in New Zealand shooting background plates for Walking with Dinosaurs 3D.

Jasmin is working in LA at the ACE gallery and yet to open museum as the assistant to the Director and is an aspiring actor and writer of among other things her art related blog The Good the Bad and the Kitsch

Gillian Charters is an accomplished actress who has inspired the careers of her husband and her children.

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About the Author


Shirley Baugher has been a resident of Old Town since 1978. She and her husband Norman lived for seven years in the North Park Condominiums. In 1985, they bought the historic row house on Crilly Court and have been there ever since. Shirley earned an M. A. and Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and has written extensively in the area of American History.

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