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Hollywood hot shot returns

Daniel (Dan) Mindel was born in Johannesburg on May 27, 1958. The father of four received most of his education in Australia and in Britain.

He began his career as a camera loader before becoming a clapper loader and assistant cameraman on John Boorman’s 1985 film, The Emerald Forest, under French cinematographer Philippe Rousselot.

He soon after moved to the US and began working on commercials. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Mindel has collaborated with big name directors in Hollywood, among them Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and JJ Abrams.

In 1997, he was assigned as second unit director of photography on Ridley Scott’s GI Jane. The married father of four moved to Australia in the ’70s before South Africa had its first television set. Mindel is married to Lisa Fallon Mindel with whom he has four children, Samuel (Sam), Eden, Molly, and Lily.

Even with the advances in technology, Mindel still prefers to shoot on film rather than HD. Mindel holds three memberships with different cinematographer societies.

He is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) and the South African Society of Cinematographers (SASC).
It is not every day that one gets a chance to meet a South African-born Hollywood filmmaker. The New Age recently spoke to renowned, soft spoken and world acclaimed director of photography Dan Mindel who is known for his work with legendary film directors such as Tony and Ridley Scott and Star Trek’s JJ Abrams among others.

Over the years, Mindel has earned his stripes working with Hollywood A-listers such as Will Smith and Tom Cruse to mention just two. Obviously, as a technical man in Hollywood, he can afford to use his famous personal quote: “I’m in the position now of working on some really great films. And I try very hard to persuade whomever I’m working with to allow me to shoot on film and to shoot anamorphically even though there are so many different ways of making movies.

“I want to focus on just one way and really learn how to do it inside and out. I am still in that process. It’s phenomenal to be allowed to do that,” which many movie publications have used over and over again.

The Hollywood hotshot recently took time out of his busy schedule for a two-week stay in the country of his birth. Mindel who is a member of the South African Society of Cinematographers was roped in to offer his expert eye in the kykNET Silwerskermfees, which recently took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

South Africa has reason to smile as Mindel commended the young up-and-coming filmmakers from some of the country’s filming schools such as Big Fish, South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance (Afda) and Umuzi Academy.

“I was impressed by the level of talent in the country. I can feel that the winner today will go on to do something great in the future. It is important to use the ingredients that Hollywood filmmakers use to tell your winning story and I saw that in the contestants,” Mindel said.

With enough government support, Mindel says South Africa has the potential to grow as a film industry. “The difference with America is that the youth there are given opportunities. America invests in its youth and gives them the platform to express themselves and it pumps money into the film industry. South Africa just needs to do the same,” he said.

With more than 20 big-budget films to his name, Mindel who is recognised by three societies in the world counts films such as the Star Trek film franchise, which in total has earned more than $5bn from the box office between them. “You could say working with JJ Abrams on Star Wars has been one of the greatest moments of my life as a cinematographer.

“I am proud that we have been able to maintain the integrity of the initial Star Wars film franchise stories.

It’s a big technical undertaking being involved with such a big production and that we have been able to consistently make it feel and look like a seamless product makes a big difference as well,” Mindel said in a recent interview.

As a director of photography or cinematographer, Mindel’s job is to preside over the camera crews working on set. He is responsible for making artistic and technical decisions related to the image and how it all translates to the look and feel of the entire production.

For films such as Star Wars this is no easy undertaking and often requires one to work with different departments on set, but most importantly with the director. He has to choose the look and feel of the end product and choose what type of film will be ideal for the shooting of the entire production.

Having worked with big names such as Tony Scott, Ridley Scott, JJ Abrams and many other big name directors, Mindel says learning from directors is what makes a good director of photography on any given film set.

“All these directors have something that I learn from. “It is important to learn from one another and each director may have his own way of doing things and how he wants to communicate his vision.

I have to then work with what they give me so that I can translate their vision on camera.”

The self-taught camera operator says his father had a camera, which kicked off his fascination with pictures and visuals.

“My father had a Bell and Howell camera, which he used to record our adventures when I was growing up.

“But it was not until much later that I saw a still camera that I got interested in photography.

By the time I was in secondary school in England I had already started dabbling in photography with 35mm stills. I persuaded my high school teachers to have my own photographic lessons using the school’s dark rooms as my lab and taught myself how to print.”

Later on, Mindel says he got interested in documentaries. “I learnt that still images could move up and down and found out that in order for me to carry on I would have to begin learning about moving picture cameras.

“I also came to know about a film union, but it was difficult for someone like me to join in unless you knew someone. One day I saw a newspaper advertisement looking for someone to help look after a film studio. The job involved cleaning and making tea but it was a great way to learn.

“The owner of the studio allowed me to help around with his camera crew and the learning never stopped.

I became a trainee and the company got me union membership,” Mindel says of getting his foot in the door in England, which opened more doors for him to eventually work with some of the biggest names in England.

After travelling between London and America working on commercials, low-budget films and television shows, Mindel was asked by the late Tony Scott – with whom he had been collaborating with on commercials – if he wanted to work with him on Enemy Of The State.

The film had a budget of more than $100m and Mindel says this was an offer he could not refuse.

“It was a mind-blowing experience and I shall be forever grateful to Scott for leading the way for me to meet more American film-makers and get into the American Union of filmmakers, which can be very difficult.”

Mindel recently finished shooting God Particle, an upcoming science fiction thriller film directed by Julius Onah and produced by JJ Abrams. It is scheduled for release on February 24, next year in Imax and conventional formats.

Mindel advises young South African filmmakers to go out there and tell their own stories, using the ingredients of American filmmakers to tell their stories. “The trick is to grab the attention of the viewer from beginning to end. It can be scary but the possibilities are endless if young people are given the support they need to tell their stories,” the soft-spoken movie maker said. Mindel admits he still misses the Johannesburg of his youth.

“I still miss the smell of South Africa and though I do not get to come home often I still miss being in South Africa,” Mindel said.