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Still Image Master Moves to Film: Sandro Miller Part 2

October 21, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Jordan Poast

Still from Sandro Miller's "Butterflies"

Sandro Miller has been blessed.  After spending 30 years of his decorated career as a portrait photographer travelling across the world directing shoots with celebrities, models and athletes, Miller had reached a zenith that few in his profession could hope to attain.  While most people would be satisfied with such a series of fortunes, Sandro is not like most people.  Constantly starved for new challenges and modes of expression, Miller began branching out from the profession that he had become synonymous with in favor of a new medium, film.  “I always knew I could make films and make them well.  But to sacrifice any bit of my life as a photographer for anything less than immediate success, I felt, would be a failure.”  With such elevated standards for artistic achievement, the stakes for Sandro’s venture became unbearably high.  Luckily, Miller met with the instant success that he strove for in 2011, when he was recognized as one of the best new directors at the Cannes Film Festival for his debut short, Butterflies. Displaying both dazzling visuals and innovative techniques that could only be produced by a veteran maestro of imagery, Butterflies marks the emergent moment of a unique and promising cinematic artist, one who has incorporated rather than shunned his previous medium.

Beginning work in 2010, Miller’s Butterflies blossomed around an all-too personal subject for the director. Alarmed by the plight of many of his over-50

Still from Sandro Miller's "Butterflies"

friends who were being forced into early retirement and left with vacant futures, Miller began weaving a visually dazzling avant-garde piece that would deliver his audience directly into the dark recesses of the alienated modern male.  Casting his longtime subject and collaborator, John Malkovich, in the central role, Sandro centered Butterflies’ around one such societal casualty, whose world begins deteriorating as he indulges in self-destructive vices in his seamy basement den.  Featuring both the Caravaggioesque interplay of light and shadow and the preponderance of expressive faces that has come to be the signature of Miller’s photography, the director managed to make an unsettling subject enticing, sympathetic, and wholly poetic, thereby establishing himself as anything but a typical movie novice.

After weeks of preparing and storyboarding Butterflies, Sandro not only knew what he wanted his film to look like, but more importantly how it would feel.  “I wanted Butterflies to be raw, powerful, draining experience.  And that was really dependent on John.”  Drawing from a relationship that dates back 15 years to when the budding photographer was commissioned with taking member portraits for Steppenwolf Theatre, Miller knew that the authenticity he strove for in Butterflies would hinge on the performance he could evoke from his good friend, Malkovich.  Sandro’s first order of business was to assemble all the elements of the setting in a manner that would immerse Malkovich in the retiree’s lonely dwelling, thereby giving him a Lion’s den where he could roar.

Still from Sandro Miller's "Butterflies"

Striving to evoke a grimly hypnotic tone reminiscent of the opening titles of Seven, Sandro tasked set designer Angela Finney with crafting the all-important basement environment, the decayed appearance of which would mirror the protagonist’s damaged psyche.  “To accurately convey the desperation and loneliness I needed to have a basement that you could actually smell.  You need to feel the alcohol, the drugs, the self-indulged sex.  That’s the only way I felt it would be real.”

Having established the canvas from which his art would develop, Miller next began devoting a tremendous amount of care towards making every frame of Butterflies as nuanced as possible by populating the mise-en-scene with a series of picturesque details, such as outlines of missing family portraits and a myriad of television images that conform to the protagonist’s emotional breakdowns.  While this attention to detail progressed naturally from Sandro’s photographic experiences, the director soon found the formidable process of preparing a film to be entirely different to what he was accustomed to.  “In the still world, you have one moment to capture your audience. But, unlike film, they are allowed to scrutinize that still for as long as they want.  In film, your image is there for two seconds, and then it’s gone.  This requires a great deal more consideration.”

Leaning on both his technical expertise and the ambition of a wide-eyed newcomer, Miller quickly mastered these new challenges by incorporating some of his old tricks.  As the most stunning feature of Butterflies, Sandro pioneered an innovative technique to give the film a vibrating visual pattern, an eye-catching strobe which gives still images the illusion of motion.  Malkovich’s character oscillates between two- and three-dimensionality, which is both dazzling and baffling to audiences.

To achieve such an effect, Miller ingeniously drew from his long history in the photographic arts by pairing his DSLR camera and film camera side-by-side, shooting both simultaneously. Afterwards, editor Josh Bodnar was assigned with splicing the still and motion footage together to give it a distinct visual rhythm, thereby placing it in a new artistic category of cinema/still hybrid.

Still from Sandro Miller's "Butterflies"

Finally, in order to breathe life into the semi-inert images, Sandro began collaborating with the L.A. effects team Gentleman Scholar, who were tasked with adding the finishing touches of decay and damnation.  Complementing the stark images of the shoot, they gave the film a grainy appearance resembling the deteriorated emulsions of film stock, added flickers of a demonic underworld, and bent the dimensions of the retiree’s world inwards into a void.  “I can’t say enough how much I admire the work they did.  You can just feel the devil and hell taking over this poor man.”

Unlike other transitioning artists that leave their previous media behind like shed skins, Sandro Miller has found a way to pay proper reverence to his longtime passion.  Rather than paint himself into an artistic corner by slavishly conforming to one medium, he has found a way to fuse his new dedication for film with a long history of photography.  In doing so, Miller could soon usher in an exciting new breed of films and filmmakers that celebrate both stillness and animation simultaneously.   Clearly, this old dog still has the capacity to learn, and teach, some new tricks.

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