Mko Malkhasyan is an Armenian-born cinematographer who relocated to the United States in 2012. For the last 15 years, he has worked on features, documentaries, pop videos and commercials in 40 countries in the US, Europe, Africa and Russia. He was a DoP in various productions from large-scale period feature films with massive battle scenes and special effects to arthouse, 3D and VR cinema. We had the pleasure of speaking with Mko about his activity as a cinematographer with a focus on the 3D documentary Cunningham. The film concentrates on the three decades from 1942 to 1972 when Cunningham (Merce Cunningham – an American dancer and choreographer who was at the forefront of American modern dance for more than 50 years) was making his reputation. Gorgeously shot in 3D, Cunningham brings us closer to these works than any audience has ever been before.
Mko, thanks so much for speaking with us today.
It’s a pleasure talking to you.
Could you tell us how you first broke into the industry?
Interestingly, I knew I was going to shoot movies since age 7. My first step was a camera assistant job at a local TV station in my home country Armenia. I was 18 years old. By that time, I was an undergraduate student in the school of Architecture, but I quickly realized that I need to be in a film school and transferred to a filmmaking program at a university back home. A few years later, after going through an interesting journey from making documentaries to music videos and commercials, I ended up landing in a world of feature films.
Can you talk about who were the photographers or the filmmakers or cinematographers that inspired you to get into the business?
I can say that two cinematographers greatly influenced me at the beginning of my career. The first one was my mentor and teacher at the film school, Albert Yavuryan, the cinematographer of Sergey Parajanof’s last two movies. I believe that the relationship with Albert Yavuryan affected not only my professional self but also my personality. The second one was Vittorio Storaro, the greatest Italian American cinematographer who inspired my artistic vision as a cinematographer for many years.
Can you think of a shot, either throughout your career or in the last few years, that has been particularly challenging and was very satisfying when you completed it?
In the very first shot in one of my recent films, “Cunningham,” where the dancer stands in the middle of Elbe tunnel in Hamburg, Germany, I decided to do a “vertigo effect”; it was on of the most challenging shots in my career. When the camera moves forward while the lens zooms out, the vertigo effect is a pretty challenging technique on its own. There were very few attempts to do it in 3D films before us in the history of filmmaking, so we did not have references. Also, we had a pretty short time making it because the whole tunnel was closed for only 1 hour. So we could do just 3 takes maximum. Everyone doubted this experiment, but I was confident, and the result was awesome.
What’s been your biggest challenge as a working cinematographer?
One of the biggest challenges as a cinematographer for me is effective communication among the whole crew and creative team, especially with the director. I should confess that I learned it only later in my career. It is not a secret that a good movie results from productive relationships between people who create it. So there are unique communication skills that one learns through actual, first-hand experiences in different projects.
Let’s speak about ‘Cunningham,’ the 3D documentary where you created a space in which anything can happen.
Yes; let’s do it 🙂
How long did it take to shoot the film?
The whole process of making the film took seven years. But the active shooting process started in 2018, where we had 18 shooting days in Germany and only one day in New York. In addition, previously, we had three shooting days in Paris back in 2015.
Does shooting in 3D follow a different set of rules?
Yes, it does. Especially when it is a 3D dance movie where you are not dealing with actors but dancers. You have to be very specific and precise in every single shot. Plus, we decided to cut as little as possible in order to keep dance energy to flow.
How different can the role of a DOP be in a 3D film?
In the 3D film, a new chain emerges for a cinematographer – a collaboration with the stereographer responsible for 3D effects in the set and after in the post-production. We were lucky to have one of the most talented stereographers in our team’s film industry, Josephine Derobe, from France. She has the most extensive experience in 3D films working on Wim Wenders movies. The director Alla Kovgan and I kind of “leaned on” Josephine’s 3D experience.
Did the screenplay also include notes on how each scene’s ‘3D Effect’ would work out?
Director Alla Kovgan and I went through a long preparation process. We created a workflow in the Previs FrameForge 3D program for every single shot. First, we chose dance pieces; then, we did a long process of location scouting first in NY, then we ended up changing it to Germany. When we finished the storyboarding for all scenes, we went through and adjusted these with the stereographer and the 3D supervisor Sergio Ochoa. So besides the clear storyboarding, we had a precise understanding of how the 3D effect was going to work for each shot.
Can you make changes or improvise on the set?
Sure! The paradox is that in order to be able to improvise on the set, you need to be very well prepared. It allows you to have enough time for changes or improvisations. In our particular situation, we did very few improvisations and almost no changes.
How do you shoot scenes that are required to be left partially blank for the VFX shots to come in later?
I have been using the same tools as for all other scenes. While doing an elaborate storyboard in FrameForge, we had a clear understanding and visual references, which were agreed upon with CGI and VFX supervisors. Also, they were on set with us during the scenes that would necessitate CGI or VFX.
Some of the older 3D films used a single-camera system, which was then retrofitted with 3D lenses. But technology has changed now to dual cameras. Can you tell us how it works?
For Cunningham, we were specific in finding the right 3D rig because we knew we were going to deal with dance; the rig and camera should be as light-weighted as possible to allow us to move with dancers and sometimes be a part of the choreography. We ended up getting the rig from a German company, Screen Plane, based in Munich because they have the world’s lightest rigs. That allowed us to use stadycam frequently and do more rehearsals with the camera and dancers.
Are night/darker shots tougher to film in 3D?
Night/darker shots are usually more challenging to make. In 3D movies, they are even harder. One of the reasons is that 3D rigs use a special mirroring system that decreases the lighting exposition level for 1 – 2 steps, which made us use a higher amount of lights in particular in night scenes.
What about the colors? Is the 3D effect more pronounced when the scene is colorful?
Because we were caught up with a technically challenging shooting process, we tried not to overly focus on the color during the shooting because we knew we were going to go through a long and thorough process of post-production, where we would have a chance to create a color pallet we wanted to. During the post-production, we realized that some colors intensified or the opposite reduce the 3D effect.
Is it important for a 3D film to also work in 2D?
Of course, in general, a film should work for both formats. In Cunningham, we aimed to create a unique relationship between space, body movement and camera; thus, we tried to focus on using 3D to make it perfect. However, I believe our film also works well in 2D.
Tell us a bit about the color grading process. Is it different than a color correction for a 2D film?
Our 3D supervisor Sergio Ochao worked with director Alla Kovgan and me also as a colorist. He is also one of the inventors of a color grading program called “Mistica.” We used it for the color grading, which made the process easier because it allowed us to do color grading and 3D grading in the same program.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given throughout your career that has stuck with you?
20 years ago, in my graduate school back home, there was a motto statement highlighted on the wall of the filmmaking department that stated famous Russian director Mikhail Romm’s words:
“We should help talented; mediocrity will break through itself” (1950s). I believe in this until this day!
Do you have a website or social media account where our readers can find more things about you?
Sure. Here are the links:
On Instagram, find me as @mkodp