When it comes to making films, Vic Sarin wears many hats. “It’s just easier to get things done that way.” His feature films as a screenwriter, cinematographer and director include A Shine of Rainbows (2009) and Partition (2007). His work as a cinematographer includes Margaret’s Museum, Whale Music, Nowhere to Hide, Norman’s Awesome Experience, and Riel. He has also directed such projects as Left Behind, and Wind at My Back. These films have earned him more than a dozen award nominations for best photography, director and screenwriting; his mantle includes a 1992 Emmy Award and a 1990 Gemini Award, both for best photography for a television series.
The Vancouver-based Sarin, 71, wanted to make films since he was a child, and began his career in his teens as a cinematographer. His life-long interest in the cinematography led him to make his latest project, the feature-length documentary film, Keepers of the Magic, which he directed and produced (through his company Sepia Films).
Serious film buffs have already seen at least a couple of documentaries about the art of cinematography. Cinematographer Style (2006) and Visions of Light (1993) are two exemplary films about the subject. Yet Sarin felt the world needed another one. Keepers of the Magic features legendary cinematographers including Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor), Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie), Cesar Charlone (City of God), Philippe Rousselot (Sherlock Holmes), Roger Deakins (A Beautiful Mind, No Country For Old Men), John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Gordon Willis (The Godfather trilogy)—all sharing behind-the-scenes stories about the making of their great films.
“I felt all of those existing films were made for the club, for auteurs to talk among themselves about history and technique,” says Sarin, on the phone a few days before the world premiere of his documentary at VIFF. “I wasn’t interested in teaching people about how to shoot films.” Rather, he wanted to celebrate cinematography in great films and give viewers the opportunity to get to know the masters on a more personal level. Interviewed in their homes, the renowned cinematographers talk about their experiences, how their individual journeys contributed to their work, more than they itemise camera and lighting techniques—although some of these details fascinate as well.
“All the cinematographers are so different,” says Sarin. “You give the same scene to them and they will all do a wonderful job but they will all be different. And that’s what excites me.”
Sarin wants viewers to appreciate “the amazing eye” that elevates each of the cinematographers in his film. “To me, visual media is the strongest media available to the human race. We speak in thousands of languages, but we only see in one. The power of image is so strong: It’s international and universal. I want to celebrate that.”
At the same time, he says, “how you see is very important. When you walk into the room, people see different things. But only one is the most effective. Only one way will capture the true sensibility of the scene. How you find that is an art. That’s what I’m saying in my film. I admire that ability so much.”
The magic a good eye and a feel for the light can create is part of the inspiration for the title of Sarin’s film. “Keepers of the magic” is also the way crew referred to cinematographers during the era of film. Before digital cameras and monitors took over sets, only the cinematographer knew what had been captured on film.
“The responsibility was immense,” says Sarin. “It was only after processing the film, days after, months after—with everyone sitting in the screening room,” that the secret would be released. “They were the keepers of the magic,” says Sarin. “They were the only ones who knew. But now, in this new technological era, it’s totally different. You can play back, everyone has a monitor, everyone puts their two cents into it. The dynamics have changed.”
But you still need the eye. And you still need the feel for the camera. “It’s a gift,” says Sarin.
And it’s this gift the filmmaker turns his focus on in his new documentary.
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Nancy Lanthier writes further about Vic Sarin and Keepers of the Magic in the next issue of POV.