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Still Image Master Moves to Film: Sandro Miller Part 1

October 12, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Jordan Poast

Still Photography work by Sandro Miller

It has often been said that filmmaking is a young man’s game.  While no one would accuse 53 year-old Sandro Miller of being old, the up-and-coming director is nevertheless entering into an artistic market dominated by individuals twenty years his junior.  Despite this, Miller has hit the ground running in his new venture to film, as the Saatchi and Saatchi panel of the Cannes Film Festival recently included his debut short, Butterflies, in their Top-20 New Directors’ Showcase.  In being honored with one of the most prestigious recognitions for new artists, Sandro has entered into a fraternity with some of today’s most prominent and visionary filmmakers like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonez. What makes Miller’s auspicious rise all the more astounding is that he is doing so after spending the last 30 years establishing himself as one of the most renowned still photographers in the world.

Sandro’s entry into a life of artistry developed from humble origins.  Coming from a family with “no cultural background,” Miller first acquired a taste for photography while roaming through a bookstore at 16 years of age.  Drifting to the magazine section, Sandro picked up an American photography publication featuring the work of Irving Penn.  Transfixed by the stark emotionality of Penn’s subjects, Miller instantly knew what his life’s ambition would be.  “Imagery became embedded into my DNA. I became fascinated with the people, the faces I was witnessing.  That’s the greatest thing about still photography, that the subjects reveal a secret to you (the photographer) that they wouldn’t share with anyone else.  I want to know those secrets.”

Seeing the world as a buffet of personal mysteries and essences, Sandro began consuming as much life and variety as the world could offer.  He voraciously devoured poetry, ballet, renaissance paintings, Giacometti sculptures and philosophy by Francis Bacon.  And, of course, film.  Yet, despite a fascination with watching movies, which he refers to as a favorite pastime, Miller’s transition to creating them took significantly longer to initiate.  For the last 15 years of his career, Sandro has been bombarded by demands from friends, peers and collaborators to move to motion, which the artist repeatedly met with reluctance.  Life as a revered photographer affords little time or energy to be invested in an entirely different medium.  Beset by work while at the “top of [his] game” in the still arena (Sandro has published six books and has been recognized in print as one of the top-200 photographers in the world), Miller found it easier to push back a transition to the demanding field of cinema.

Still Photography work by Sandro Miller.

The catalyst for Sandro’s eventual shift to moviemaking developed from a fateful meeting two years ago with Josh Bodnar, a Los Angeles-area editor. “Josh said, I know you’re going to make the change to motion, and I want to be your editor whenever you do.”  Having been offered a collaborator before even working on a film, and feeling mentally and financially prepared, Miller dove into his new challenge head first.  Assembling a “tremendous group of collaborators” to smooth the transition from frame to screen, Sandro soon began work on his debut short, the avant-garde Butterflies.  Casting longtime subject and friend John Malkovich in the central role, Miller crafted a stirring and intimate look into the plight of an alienated retiree.

Soon after Butterflies’ completion, Sandro’s newborn creation began attracting considerable attention after circulating locally in Chicago film festivals and virally through his website.  Within months, Miller was contacted by representatives from Saatchi and Saatchi (a rare move for the esteemed council) inviting him to submit the short for consideration.  To the chagrin of Sandro, who was bursting with anticipation, the Cannes Festival officials largely kept him in the dark, as they neither provide tickets to their participants nor alert them to whether they are chosen prior to being exhibited.  Desperate to embrace what might be a pivotal moment in his assent as a film artist yet with no ticket for entry, Miller did what anyone might do; he snuck in.  Pretending to be lost, Sandro walked aimlessly though the theater halls past guards until he fortuitously reached the screening theater.  With each of the 8,000 seats occupied, Miller watched the glorious moment of his film’s unveiling from the auditorium stairwell.  Immediately afterwards, the newly-arrived director was congratulated by fellow artists, all of whom shared the sentiment that he was a natural.  While late to the party, Sandro managed to make one hell of an entrance.

Still Photography work by Sandro Miller.

While the history of cinema has seen a great number of prominent artists with roots in photography, Miller’s case is so unique because of his belated entry and immediate success.  However, despite such achievements, Sandro is keeping his priorities straight.  “I’m not departing from stills.  I still very much love that.  I simply have a passion for making enduring, powerful images. Film provides me a new and exciting way to express myself.”  Miller’s newfound form of self-expression is still in its larval stage, though, as he is learning the nuances of delegating to a larger group of collaborators and storyboarding for a sequence of shots rather than a singular image.  Still developing, Sandro hopes to follow in the footsteps of film artists like Martin Scorsese by making an iconic feature that will resonate with audiences on a global scale.  “It’s a big dream, but I’m a big dreamer.”  With a stunning debut showcasing the mastery and maturity garnered from a career in stills, Miller is a Chicago-area filmmaker that will no doubt be hearing his name nationally in no time.  For now, he’s just proving that not all beginners need luck.


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