NICHOLAS KINSEY
a career in film
writer, director, producer, director of photography and editor
"Nicholas Kinsey is an accomplished scriptwriter, an award-winning feature film director, a successful producer, an experienced director of photography and a feature film editor.  He is a camera nut eschewing modern technology such as time-code and video assists, preferring to work with an old Arriflex 35BL. His films are shot on very tight, often miniscule budgets, always on 35mm film, usually offshore, with friends whenever possible. ”   Chronicle, San Francisco, 2003
The Writer

“I am an avid reader of fiction, some 50 novels a year, mostly psychological thrillers, detective and historical novels, lots of them bestsellers. I suppose I inherited this taste for escapist literature from my mother who was a short story writer. Story ideas are what make me tick and the novel is a fantastic arena for exploring characters and story lines. Lots of ideas, however, don’t translate well into films, but the idea mill in fiction is very handy. I am constantly borrowing characters and situations from novels, reformulating them and putting them to work in scripts of mine. You cannot possibly write a decent film script today without this vast reserve of fictional stories at hand.”

“Writing is the key to good movies. The story idea is very important. Is it fresh, new,  different? Are the key characters sympathetic? Can we identify with this character or that? These are the main questions that we must ask ourselves when we embark on a script. A lot of times the structural problems in a film come from the script, so the cheapest way to address the problem is to do the work on script first. It saves an immense amount of time and money later.”

“Feature films are all about story telling and pacing. Forget about the flash of the commercial world, the music video and the videoclip. You can’t build a movie on the story board of a videoclip. Movies are very basic. They are about stories, not about jumpy images with large close-ups. Nothing gets more boring than a clip with no story. How can we tell the story and make it come alive? A slow beginning will kill viewer interest in a picture. People want to immerse themselves in the lives of the characters and lose interest fast if nothing is happening. If you haven’t done it right, you risk losing half your public by the end of the first reel.”

The Director

“A lot of people talk about auteur-driven films and artistic expression. I don’t believe there is much of the auteur in cinema. I don’t really think of cinema as art. In my opinion it’s a trade like any other with the director’s and writer’s personal quirks and foibles that sometimes come across in the movie as new or different. If you put ten directors to work with the same screenplay, you are going to get ten very similar films. These people are all good competent directors and they know their trade. They are all going to exploit the same emotions and work with the same story points. Of course, there are directors out there who enjoy throwing in totally nonsensical twists at the risk of losing the spectator in order to make a statement about their own creative vision. This is the price we pay today to satisfy the creative pretensions of the auteur-driven cinema.” 

“To make a successful movie, you have to throw all your energy and creativity into 5 or 6 major scenes, the rest is really not as important. Look at any movie, most of the scenes involve the comings and goings of characters, getting into cars, entering buildings, etc. This is expository stuff - the establishing scenes - that are very necessary but they won’t make the movie. There is no payback in these scenes so you have to move them along quickly and get to the heart of the matter. It is amazing to see how much time and energy lots of young directors spend trying to set up complicated shots for scenes that are really secondary in their movies and may end up on the cutting room floor. The key scenes in a movie include the dramatic moments, the in-your-face emotions, and, of course, the pivotal scenes in the script that make or break a picture. Do these scenes right and you will have a great movie, do them wrong and you fail miserably.”

The Director of Photography

“Faces are important in movies. Emotions are written on the faces. Light a face properly and you make the character come alive. It is very important to remember this rule when lighting a key character, even if the character is in the background. I find a lot of directors of photography don’t make this distinction and the key characters look very shabby and under lit. My priority is always the face and the logics of lighting direction are always secondary. You need to be able read the face, the rest isn’t as important. ”

“I can light a set very quickly using available light. I can use the natural daylight spilling into a room and just tweak the backlight adding a bit of soft frontal light to kill any harsh shadows. I don’t need a large number of units to make the shot. It all depends on the scene and the production schedule. Great scenes need great lighting which takes time, expository scenes can be done in a flash.”

“Movies are all about special moments. For instance, I am very partial to horizons. I like to use coral and magenta grads on skies. They add colour to flat backgrounds and make the moment special in a film. The same goes for lighting. The light falling on a face can create a special moment. You have to be constantly alert to these opportunities on a film shoot and often improvise to get them.”

“The 35mm picture is a very superior format with very little depth of field. Close-ups stand out due to the soft backgrounds. The 4K image has been around for over 100 years and is the standard by which all cinema is measured. I am not a big fan of new technology, but Sony, Canon and Red are bringing us fabulous new 4k cameras which will soon be the standard in the industry. Far superior to HD and to 2K imaging systems, 4K cinema and TV is on the way."

The Editor

“I love to cut film, to run it through my fingers, pull out a frame and look at it. You can’t do this with a software program. You can only do this on a Steenbeck. A few years ago I had to develop a way to synchronise picture and sound on the Steenbeck without standard number coding. This was at a time when no one was cutting films anymore in the traditional way. It was quite a simple solution really and saved several thousand dollars (money I didn’t have). Each time you cut picture and sound, you mark the edge number directly onto the sound track before and after the cutting point. This is quite time-consuming but absolutely fail-safe. It allows you quarter frame accuracy throughout the editing process. It is the kind of editing technique that filmmakers used in the 1950s and 1960s.”

“I also cut film on Final Cut Pro which I enjoy because it is so fast compared to film cutting. I have found that the cutting techniques I employed on the Steenbeck have prepared me to cut features in FCP. Basically, the Steenbeck trains you to plan your cuts in advance and for a reason. "Don't cut when it is not necessary" is the rule. This means our movies have substantially fewer cuts than the usual TV drama or feature film. We might end up with 800 shots whereas another editor working on an Avid would have some 1200 cuts in a feature-length movie (around one shot every 4.5 seconds).   Cutting film on computer software with low resolution pictures pushes directors to double the number of cuts in their films. The small picture makes directors nervous and to compensate, they want more cuts. Most of these cuts are totally unnecessary and a turn-off for viewers. The technology is pushing the art, not the other way round."

The Steenbeck is a great teacher. To cut a movie on a Steenbeck, you have to have a plan in your head. You don’t decide after the fact, you reach a decision before you cut the first frame of a sequence. You check the script to find out what the preceding scene is showing. You look at the rushes. You select the best angles and you make your cutting plan in your head: for instance, you might start with a close-up and finish wide or vice-versa. You then cut the film according to your plan and your edit has a vision. It is not just a jumble of pictures. It is a sequence of pictures taking the viewer in the direction you and the director have designed. A lot of US television drama will show you just how awful the art of film editing has become. Useless cutting back and forth doesn’t help the pacing of a picture, it only makes it harder for the public to concentrate on the story.”

The Producer

“Success is often an empty shell, a mirage on the horizon. What will work with a wide public is often the lowest common denominator and, by definition, these films are often quite shoddy pieces of work. Good movies are like vintage wines, they get better over time. Their stories stand out even though their directors, actors and writers are often unknown. These very creative people are condemned to struggle in the shadows away from the limelight.  A great film must have the capacity to endure... You can watch it five or ten years after its initial release and it is still working its magic. The performances, the pacing and story-telling, and even the photography is still first class... This is the sign of a great movie.”

“Young filmmakers today need nurturing and most of them aren’t getting any... A lot of features today are made by first and often last timers. Many of them haven’t got a clue. They are full of it: the artistic creation, the theory, the hubris.... They are living the great life. They’ve made their sales pitch, put on the right clothes and won the lottery. A producer needs to spend a lot of time on the set with these young people bringing them back to reality. There is a lot of very necessary coaching to be done. Where to put the camera, how to dress the actors, and what props are needed? It is a common opinion in the industry that creative flash should be sufficient to make a great movie. Unfortunately, filmmaking is a trade like any other. Some things work, some things don’t... and learning the trade takes time.”

"In recent years it has become more and more difficult for directors working on low budget films because often the locations don't fit the script or cannot be modified to fit the script due to budgetary constraints. This means that young directors are required to mix and match locations - use a kitchen in one location and a bedroom somewhere entirely different. This is often very time consuming and technical for directors who are not very visual in their approach. Young directors often get lost in this kind of work because it means shooting a single scene in several different locations. It also means scheduling changes since scenes need to be broken down into different parts, each at a different location.

In the past a director would simply hire a location scout to provide a list of acceptable locations knowing that the producer would have sufficient funds to secure these locations. This is no longer possible nor desirable in the low budget environment. You simply cannot find the perfect location so mixing and matching becomes the rule. Directors now must spend an enormous amount of time location scouting, planning scenes and modifying shooting schedules than ever before. "


Excerpts from interviews recorded live at:
TIFF, Toronto 2011
Mannheim radio interview, Mannheim, Germany 2002
Atlantic Film Festival, Halifax, Canada 2003
Newport Beach Film Festival, California 2003,
Victoria Independent Film Festival, Canada 2003
Festival of India, New Delhi, India 2003
Bergamo Film Meeting, Italy 2003

Excerpts from various interviews:
"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005
TIFF 2011 interview on Boston's TTN online podcast:

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