Niko Tavernise utilises the camera as a tool to provide us with an intimate look at the film industry. He frequently works alongside director Darren Aronofsky, and has produced stunning stills and compelling ‘making of’ videos while on-set. Having a comprehensive knowledge of professional post-production software has also allowed him to extend beyond being just a photographer/videographer. In this day and age where the camera has become more easily attainable, it is no surprise that Niko’s keen eye for detail sets him apart from the masses.
You started out as a lighting engineer and a stage technician for bands on tour. What made you transition to working with cameras instead?
Well I started to get bored with doing backline and lights on tour, so I started to film the shows and the tours and a friend hired me to shoot stills for an ad agency in Los Angeles. They gave me one of the first digital cameras, and I shot mostly people when I toured around the world. From that I had been working with Darren Aronofsky on his films for a couple years, and he asked if I wanted to come to Montreal and shoot the making of for his film, ‘The Fountain’. So that’s when it started.
What equipment did you start out with?
I started shooting on Canon and have stuck with them ever since. I think it was a 10D I bought off the set photographer from ‘The Fountain’.
Were you self-taught or did you have someone teaching you the ropes?
My father was a photographer, but I never really went in that direction…more towards the rock world and touring I guess. Then, when I went to shoot the ‘making of’ for ‘The Fountain’, I met the set photographer, Takashi Seida, who taught me what he knew and let me use his cameras, and that’s how it all started. Darren liked my photos on that and asked me to be the on set guy for The Wrestler. And the rest was trial and error, learning how to be on set and around actors and how to deal with studios, etc.
Was there a defining moment where you knew it was time to take photos and videos professionally or was it a gradual transition?
I guess it was a gradual transition, since after shooting The Wrestler I only did ‘The Messenger’, then no one called…So a close friend, who did the visual effects on ‘The Fountain’ and was Darren’s roommate in college, Dan Schrecker, hired me as a VFX compositor and producer. I did that for a couple of years, then Darren hired me again for ‘Black Swan’, much to the studios chagrin. They didn’t want to hire me, and Darren and his producer Scott Franklin put their feet down and said that they wanted me. Now I treat it as my profession since it pays for my family’s health care and is a nice income if I can keep getting movie gigs.
Did you face any difficulties establishing and expressing yourself when you first started out?
No, it wasn’t a difficulty of expressing myself; it was more if people who wanted to hire me would accept my style. I think I spent a year photographing my dog and trees, just to learn the camera. I experimented with slow shutters and started looking at other peoples work and trying to figure out how they did it. I mean I still do that. Learning new stuff about cameras and lighting is a daily thing for me.
How did you advance your career from shooting promotional material for bands to doing on-set photography and filming ‘making of’ videos for some of the biggest films out there?
It really boiled down to a lunch I had with my close friend who was the producer on The Fountain, Eric Watson, and he said, look, if you really want to jump on this train that Darren is driving, there might be a cool future in films for you…so I did just that, and just found a style of shooting and have kept honing that, and just trying to get my feet in. Even with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that I’m on now, I literally didn’t think I would get the gig last summer, and then things just fell into place. Luckily my images speak for themselves and I am able to get some pretty cool gigs.
What is it about documenting the ‘making of’ these films that draws you in?
It’s all about capturing the minutiae on the film sets, down to the smallest details that make these giant machines we call movies. Being able to see what no audience member will ever see. And also the fact that most “Behind the scenes” suck. They usually are shot by a crew that comes in only for a couple days and rack zoom on anything the director does and interviews the actors kissing ass. It all is really just for TV spots (now for internet). So I took the idea of making a real documentary about the film being made.
Do you ever feel star-struck when working with notable members of the film industry?
Sure, you can’t help it. But they are usually nice people. Unless an actor is an absolute terror to work with. Generally they are all pretty nice and approachable. I used to get way more star-struck meeting musicians when I was in that business. It just always sucks when you have these huge expectations about an actor or director and they wind up being completely asinine and mean to the crew. But for everyone one of those, you have the opposite end…incredibly nice and talkative and fun to be around.
Why did you decide to start up your own production company, Antwrangler Inc?
A couple years ago I talked to my accountant, that was all. Antwrangler had been my website name for years. It was my credit on Darren’s movie “Pi”.
So far, you have done directing, editing, producing, and have even handled camera, sound, score and visual effects work. You also did the script for your sci-fi short, ‘The Delivery’. That’s pretty much the whole package. Do you think you’ll ever want to make your own feature film?
Yes most definitely. I started working in this business many years ago so I could learn how to make a movie. Now I know how to make a movie, and so now I’m just procrastinating. That’s what The Delivery is. I was a bike messenger for years in New York and San Francisco and always thought about how a cyclist could get revenge on a car. Not the driver, but the car itself. I also have a couple films that I’m slowly writing, but that is the hardest thing of all—writing. It’s possibly the most difficult thing on earth for me to do, but one of the most gratifying when you are done.
You also co-own an event photography business with your wife, and you shoot weddings together. How do you two go about as a team to make your wedding photography unique from the many others who do the same?
It really is a dream come true with wedding photography. The work is way harder than on set film work. Instead of breaks every hour or so, you are constantly running and shooting. But with my wife who covers all of the women as they get ready, etc. It makes sense. I really don’t know how anyone else can shoot both sides of the wedding by themselves. My wife is a fantastic photographer and both of us make a great team. That’s what works. We also shoot some video for the couple so they have a bit more than just photos. When it’s a moving image, it just can grab you right to that moment forever, the sounds, etc. The wedding market has been completely overrun by people who can easily afford a simple DSLR and shoot shallow depth of field and charge a super low rate, but it’s so much more work than that. Covering all your bases during a wedding or event and pleasing everyone is incredibly tough. You really have to not even second-guess your equipment and you also have to be able to edit thousands of photos from one shoot and not burn out. Very hard to do if you are shooting every weekend during the wedding season. There are professional wedding photographers who charge accordingly and those who offer a crazy low rate and they usually have unhappy or oblivious clients.
Between closed movie sets, public events and shooting on the go, do you have a preference for any of these or for a certain style in particular?
As any photographer will tell you, it’s all about the light. If you see someone in the right light, you know it’s made to be. When I’m shooting anything, especially if I’m hired to shoot, I am constantly looking for images…like the Terminator with his Heads Up Display telling him everything about what he sees. I guess I kind of approach shooting that way. A very strange form of hunting. Always scanning. But really it comes down to light and seeing parallels of objects. Contrasts, colors, shadows. And then there are the moments you capture, an action that no one else can see. Freezing time. Those are the fun ones.
Any tips for those who wish to pursue photography and/or videography in the future?
It’s very hard to work in this industry now. As a set photographer it seems like we are a dying breed, even though I get many emails from people asking about how to get in the industry. With the advent of 4K and soon 6K and, I’m sure in 10 years, 8K capture on digital film cameras, a lot of producers will try to cut us out of the mix. But the thing they forget is that the set photographer is a pair of eyes that no one else has on set. You can see things that no one else does—you train yourself to do that. To go where the camera is not above everyone’s head or between a door jam. Once I get done with a film, most producers just ask how I was able to get certain shots, and it’s usually because I was in a place that the camera wasn’t. As for videography, I think it’s pretty easy to get yourself some big video cameras for cheap and start shooting…but what would you shoot? It’s really about what you want to shoot. I know many people who have shot unreal documentaries with virtually no money and I was blown away. It’s not that hard, especially with cheaper DSLR cameras out there. You just have to have a good idea and time. As far as ‘making of’s go, I lucked out on this one. Darren has really stood up for me against big studios wanting to hire the usual EPK (Electronic Press Kit) people, but in the end my work tends to be more like his films—eccentric and more fly on the wall. Less intrusive, I guess. Anyone who wants to get in that business really needs to have great contacts or a friend who wants them to shoot their ‘making of’ for their film. At first you will make no money and sacrifice a lot, but in the end if you have something very cool to show for it.
Text by : Jillian Tan
*Images courtesy of Niko Tavernise