When it comes to making films, Vic Sarin is one of those damned overachievers, having racked up dozens of awards and nominations for cinematography, direction and scriptwriting. “It’s just easier to get things done that way,” says the Vancouver-based filmmaker. His triple-threat feature films include the acclaimed Partition (2007), starring Jimi Mistry and Kristin Kreuk, and A Shine of Rainbows, which opened the 2009 Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). Among his works as a cinematographer are the famous Canadian films Margaret’s Museum, Whale Music and Bye Bye Blues. During his four-decade career he has directed scores of documentaries, television movies and serial TV episodes.
Ever since childhood, Sarin—now 71—wanted to make films, and he began his career in his teens as a cinematographer. His life-long interest in cinematography led him to make his latest project, the feature-length documentary film Keepers of the Magic, which he wrote, shot, directed and produced through his company Sepia Films. Serious filmgoers have already seen at least a couple of documentaries about the art of cinematography. Cinematographer Style (2006) and Visions of Light (1993) are two exemplars. 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), César 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 finest films.
“I felt those existing documentaries were made for the club, for auteurs to talk among themselves about history and technique,” says Sarin, a few days before the world premiere of his film at VIFF last September. “I wasn’t interested in teaching people about how to
shoot films.” Rather, he wanted to celebrate the cinematography in great films, and to give viewers the opportunity to get to know these directors of photography on a more personal level. Interviewed in their homes, the cinematographers speak more about ways their individual journeys contributed to their work than itemising camera and lighting techniques—although some of these details fascinate as well.
“All the cinematographers are unique,” 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 masters in his documentary. “To me, visual media is the strongest 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, Sarin says, “how you see is very important. When you walk into a room, 10 people see different things. You could film it from any angle. But only one way is the most effective. Only one way will capture the true sensibility of the scene. How you find that is an art. And that’s what I’m saying in my film. I admire that ability so much.”
The magic a good eye can create is part of the inspiration for the title of Sarin’s film. “Keepers of the magic” is also the way crews referred to cinematographers during the era of film. Before digital cameras and monitors pervaded 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, or sometimes weeks after if the film was shot on location, with everyone sitting in the screening room, that the secret would be revealed. The cinematographers were the keepers of the magic. They were the only ones who knew what they’d captured. But now, in this new technological era, it’s totally different. You can play back; everyone has a monitor. It’s much more a committee situation, with everyone putting their two cents into it. The dynamics have changed.”
But great shots still need the eye. And you still need the feel for the camera. “It’s a gift,” says Sarin. And his documentary describes it beautifully. For example, when Sarin asks Gordon Willis to talk about his inspiration for his groundbreaking way with darkness in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather series, we see that ominous clip of Marlon Brando. In a dark room, only the contours of his face are detected—never his eyes. They are black shadows, a sublime metaphor for evil.
Yet the cinematographer makes clear there was no master plan to make cinema history with his powerful shots. He tells Sarin, “I used to have people running around thinking, ‘If I could only get the formula. If you could only tell me the formula, I could do the same thing.’ Well, I have no formula. The formula is you.” (Willis passed away in May 2014, just months after this interview.)
We discover the ways upbringing, culture and lifestyle influence how these artists see through the camera. The British cinematographer Roger Deakins, a favourite of the Coen brothers, who shot O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo and others, says, “So many of the choices you make are an emotional reaction to something. If I like big, wide-open spaces, it’s because I love sitting in my boat with nothing around me.” Vittorio Storaro, the Italian cinematographer, who shot Last Tango in Paris before Apocalypse Now, is inspired by paintings. “That’s very European,” Sarin points out. “Europeans grew up studying da Vinci, the light, the brush.” Meanwhile, the Australians are all about ‘the new frontier,’ and bravura. In the film, the Australian-born cinematographer John Seale says he needed to pretend he was still making an Aussie film while working on the American-financed blockbuster, Mad Max: Fury Road, so he could get the job done. Elaborating on what he calls his country’s “just-give-it-a-go attitude,” Seale recalls the time his crew, deep in the forest, fashioned a camera tracking device out of a log lubricated with lunch’s oil-based salad dressing.
Sarin was born in India’s Kashmir region, spent his teenage years in Australia, where his father was a diplomat, and became a Canadian citizen in 1976. It’s a unique upbringing that has influenced his filmmaking. In a recent interview with CBC, Sarin said his background makes him “very attached to the human element. In all my work, I tend to bring out the emotion, as opposed to the theory of it, as the Europeans might do. To me, it doesn’t matter what film you’ve made, how much time or how many millions were spent on it—it has to touch you. If it doesn’t touch you, there is no film.”
Sarin filmed all his subjects in their own homes because he felt it would make them most comfortable to open up about their lives and creative processes. While some of the cinematographers admit to shyness and a preference for communicating in images, with Sarin they all speak generously—and often poetically, especially about abstract concepts like colour and emotions. As they share their ideas, Sarin visualizes them with gorgeous montages from an astounding array of archival footage. A conversation about “yellow” yields dozens of different, brief clips; the same with “the quality of light at sunset.” Of course, much of the documentary is taken up with iconic film scenes, accompanied by the cinematographer’s lively commentary. But when a theme takes hold, it’s another luxurious experience for viewers.
Keepers’ editor, Austin Andrews, who has worked with Sarin on many films, accompanied him on the interviews, which took place all over the world. “I think Vic needed to make this film as good as the films that have inspired him through his entire career,” says Andrews. “And he really came away with a sense that it’s all about who you are as an individual that imprints what you do as an artist. Everyone’s approach was radically different. What they liked and disliked was different. As artists everyone brings their own stamp.”
Before Sarin directed his first television movie in 1979, he’d become Canada’s go-to cinematographer (his grown son, Tobias, is also a camera operator). Sarin’s camera work has been nominated 10 times for Gemini and Leo Awards. In 1992, the PBS series he both directed and shot, Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World, won Emmy and Gemini awards for best photography. Yet it was only after he began directing films that he realised the gift a cinematographer brings to the film. “It was always second nature to me. Until that time, I thought, really, anyone can shoot and expose the film, that most people have a good eye,” says Sarin. “But I started to appreciate a lot more of the art of a cinematographer when I became a director myself.”
From a producer’s point of view, Sarin’s multiple talents lend projects a “fantastic advantage,” says Tina Pehme, who is married to him, co-owns Sepia Films, and runs the production side of the company. “He is always able to come up with ideas for work-arounds, whether it’s budget challenges or something else, just because he knows all aspects of film so well.”
Pehme says Sarin’s directing and cinematography skills inform each other. “He can just move really quickly. He knows exactly how to light something, what to do with the scene. Often a director is figuring things out with the DP, and having that conversation. Which is fine, but in Vic’s case, he’s the same person. So, he’s able to utilise that extra time with the actors, which is great for the production.”
Sarin spent more than three years immersed in the world of the best cinematographers and their acclaimed films while creating Keepers of the Magic. The most important lesson he’ll take to his future projects? His “wonderful journey,” as he calls the film, gave him a renewed appreciation for authenticity and truth: “For films made honestly. Honesty of light, honesty of performance, honesty of script writing—don’t be too contrived,” he says. “Honesty: it is the most effective way to tell a story.”