Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Paul Van Haute | Freelance Director of Photography

Interview :: Paul Van Haute
by Juanita Berge, 1 Jun 2008

This month's Creative Personality is Paul Van Haute, a freelance Director of Photography in the Philadelphia area.

PCG: When did you start out in this business and how?

PVH: I started on July 1, 1976, at TPC, a small video tape studio in Pittsburgh, as a tape librarian. I had a college friend who, as a student, did an internship there. He seemed to enjoy it very much, and I thought it would be an interesting place to check out. I had been producing concerts in college and somehow saw a connection between the two.

PCG: Did you set out to do this or did it just happen? Tell us about that.

PVH: I had absolutely no formal education in motion picture or video production. I had started college in the School of Civil Engineering and wound up graduating 5 years later with a BS in Secondary Education, Language Communications. I enjoyed watching films and thought it would be interesting to find out how they were made. There was an opening at TPC for a librarian, cataloging tapes, pulling masters for edits, making sure dubs were being made and were ready for shipping, etc. It was boring as hell, but it afforded me the opportunity to hang out in the studio at nights and on weekends if any production was happening. I was intrigued.

I kept my job as librarian for exactly one year (my initial commitment). On July 1, 1977, I officially became a freelance grip. I think there were about six of us in all of Pittsburgh. It was a great time and a great market to learn in. We were all young, and we learned from each other.

PCG: What were and are the main motivators/influences on you and why?

PVH: As a freelance grip, I was exposed to more varied forms of production, commercials, sports, and TV shows (Fred Rogers was still producing shows at WQED). I was also exposed to a larger variety of filmmakers, and with filmmakers came the discussions of films and filmmaking. I went to the movies a lot. I went to see films I had previously seen in college but now saw them from a different point of view. Now I could see the craft and the artistry.

PCG: What experience did you learn the most from?

PVH: The first DP I worked with was Glenn Przyborsky. He was a problem solver. Besides having a wonderful eye for photography, Glenn would walk into situations with limited resources and produce beautiful footage. Once we went to a steel mill outside Pittsburgh. The building we were in was larger than a football field and incredibly dark. Glenn asked me to set up two lights, one for the actor, who was about 8 feet from the lens, and a larger unit about 80 yards away aimed at the back wall of the building. I believe the fastest film stock at the time was 200ASA, and we didn't have nearly enough light to expose the shot. Glenn just stood there patiently with the actor. About ten minutes later, this huge bucket came sliding across the ceiling suspended from above by a crane, forty feet in the air. It stopped behind the actor halfway into the building and started to tip. Glenn stood up, told us to stand by, and as the bucket tipped and a stream of molten iron poured into forms below, Glenn called for action as the actor gave his lines. The red-hot liquid steel illuminated the entire building. It was gorgeous. I learned a lot that day—so much for key, fill, and backlight lighting. I found out later that we had one chance to get that shot. That was also one of the first times I thought about becoming a DP.

Paul Van Haute, Freelance Director of Photography

PCG: What projects stand out for you because they were unusual, challenging, or fun?

PVH: The project that has had the most influence on me as a person was a documentary that I shot in Riga, Latvia, in 1993. I accompanied a medical team from Philadelphia to Riga about one year after Latvia severed its ties with the Soviet Union. Their purpose was to instruct the physicians in Riga on more modern techniques for heart surgery. The methods being used in the Soviet Union were about 20 years behind the advances made in the Western world. Instead, what evolved was a wonderful transfer of information and techniques. The Soviet and Latvian medical teams learned many new and exciting procedures. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of their country (there was none) could not provide the tools necessary to perform these procedures on a day-in, day-out basis. What the Americans learned was how to perform these same procedures with basically nothing compared to what they usually had at their disposal. It sounds a bit trite, but we really have a good thing going here. The challenges in our daily lives come nowhere near what others are dealing with around the world.

For me the most fun and challenging projects are feature films. It is a real challenge to visually tell a story in about 100 minutes. It is also unbelievably fun.

PCG: What would we be surprised to know about you?

PVH: No surprises.

"With constantly changing technology, it is important to try to stay current and to build a good technical network."

PCG: With constantly and rapidly evolving technology, how do you stay current?

PVH: Good question. I constantly have to determine what information I need to know and carry with me and what information I need to know how to reference. With constantly changing technology, it is important to try to stay current and to build a good technical network.

PCG: What are the first three things you look for when framing a shot?

PVH: First would be the natural or believable source of light. Second, the background and finally whether these two elements can be incorporated.

PCG: What do you think is the future for filmmakers in Philly?

PVH: I think the city is doing pretty well. We have good crews, good support, and we seem to have a good reputation as a production city. We also produce our own talent from within. Let's hope more and more of the talent stays here, and then the city will continue to do well.

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