Keepers of the Magic

Cinema is a language of images. The men and women who make those images often do so with little fanfare and celebration. Actors, directors … we know their names and their stories. Writers, less so. Cinematographers? How many can you name? How many can I name? It was with some subdued shame I started watching Keepers of the Magic, a documentary featuring a many of  cinematographers behind some of cinema’s most classic films.

Here are just a few: Cesar Charlone (City of God), Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis), Gordon Willis (The Godfather), Roger Deakins (Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049), Phillip Rousselot (Sherlock Holmes), John Seale (Witness, Mad Max: Fury Road). Directors also appear to discuss how their work is amplified by their collaborators, including Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) and George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, Happy Feet)

Each man has a chance to talk about decisions he made during the creation of his most famous work. They talk about they chose the lighting, the perspective, the tone of the shots; what the use of primary colors means to the emotion of a scene, and even go into how much of certain sequences are actually photography versus the modern tricks enabled by CGI. In some cases they even discuss how to turn day into night. It’s like being the only audience member in a behind-the-scenes look at a magician’s bag of tricks.

Most of the sky in Mad Max: Fury Road was actually shot from a hotel room away from the set and later placed into it. Did you know? I did not know. Could you tell? I could not.

Cinematographer Vic Sarin wrote and directed the film, and it definitely feels like a love letter to his profession. But it functions as a wonderful primer for anyone curious about just how a cinematographer operates on a set. The anecdotes feel like more than just trivia, and hearing them from the men who designed them is a treat.

I say “men” because there isn’t much cultural diversity among the subjects featured in Keepers of the Magic. For a documentary largely populated by popular movies, it would be understandable if Sarin’s focus led him to a predominantly white male voice; the issues within the industry are well-documented elsewhere and it would be pretty easy to end up only securing a skewed base of interview subjects. Yet in the end credits, Sarin features Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Santosh Sivan (The Terrorist), and Mandy Walker (Australia). Cinema is the century’s most cross-cultural language and it just feels odd that there weren’t more of these three, when interviews with them were clearly conducted.

That nitpick aside, Keepers of the Magic is a joy for casual film fans and anyone who wants to take their knowledge of the mechanics of cinema to a deeper level. Highly recommended.

Keepers of the Magic is a documentary feature at the 2017 Heartland Film Festival and will be presented at:

6:00pm Monday, October 16th at AMC Castleton Square 14

8:45pm Wedneday, October 18th at AMC Traders Point Theater 12.

Tickets are available at http://heartlandfilm.org/festival/tickets/, by calling 1-866-HFF-1010 or at the box office at the time of the screening. 


Administrator of Midwest Film Journal. Previously a staff writer for TheFilmYap.com, Evan has been writing film criticism in the Indianapolis area for over half a decade. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. He also reviews Oreos.


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