Pic from CSC
Canadian Society of Cinematographers 4/03: Cinematographer Nikos Evdemon
Nikos Evdemon CSC: 2003 CSC TV Series Award
The Cinematographer as Entertainer
“I’ve always been an impulsive person. I think how I want the film to look but I’m not married to it. I allow myself the freedom to use my impulses.”
With his soft accent and the smiling, bearded countenance of an operatic tenor, Nikos Evdemon csc is the embodiment of the show business that he captures with his expressive camera.
Entertainment is in his blood. It has been part of his soul since his childhood in Greece, although acting on the stage or screen, he discovered early, was not for him. He eventually turned his creative eye to the art of cinematography, and it has been a perfect match ever since. The love affair has graced Canadian film and television for nearly 35 years, including a remarkable 28-year career with the CBC, and an abundance of awards has followed.
The latest accolade for Evdemon’s work is the 2003 CSC Award for best cinematography in a TV Series, specifically the “Nothing to Fear” episode of Mutant X. The honour joins a list that includes the 1998 CSC Best TV Drama Award for Peacekeepers, four Gemini Awards (1986, 1987, 1989 and 1996) and four Gemini nominations — three of them in 1998 and the most recent last year for Torso: The Evelyn Dick Story.
Born in the picturesque port city of Salonika in northern Greece, Evdemon told CSC News that “I grew up in a theatre environment; most of my father’s friends were actors and directors in the theatre and I was always hanging out in theatres. I loved the environment, and I loved going to movies.”
When he finished high school, young Nikos knew he had to study something, to become an engineer, a lawyer or a doctor. He chose engineering at a German university, but “I realized that’s not what I wanted. I just couldn’t imagine myself sitting behind a desk, and I quit my studies in the middle of the second semester when I got a letter calling me to serve in the Greek army.” By the time he finished his military service, “I really knew what I wanted to do and I went back to Berlin to enroll in film and television at the Institute of Optics and Photo Technique.
“At that point I had seen so many movies I knew I was not good looking enough to become an actor. I don’t think I even had the dramatic flair. Maybe I did but I sensed I didn’t have the qualities to be a good actor. As a 14-year-old, I remember watching (Greek actress) Melina Mercouri (Never on Sunday) and thinking I would never be able to do that.
“But I wanted to be in the environment. I was always a visual person; I liked to draw and I was sketching at school in Germany. I was good with my hands, technically, and with my eye, so I thought maybe the best thing would be to study cinematography. That would allow me to be able to fulfil that kind of drive I had. Even as a child, when I met actors on the stage, I just wanted to get closer, I wanted to peer right into their eyes.”
The heroes of Mutant X are played by (from left) Lauren Lee Smith of Vancouver (as Emma deLauro), Forbes March of Halifax (Jesse Kilmartin), Emmy winner and Gemini nominee John Shea (Adam Kane),Victor Webster of Calgary (Brennan Mulwray), and Victoria Pratt of Chelsey, Ont. (Shalimar Fox). Photo courtesy of Fireworks Entertainment
When Evdemon graduated in 1967 after three years, he went back to a Greece that had fallen into the grip of a military junta. “It was horrible,” he recollected. “Greece had developed quite a strong film industry, but when the junta came to power it stopped. Everything came to a halt because of the censorship. I managed to work in two films, one of them totally underground because the censorship was so terrible. I am not the sort of person who puts his tail between his legs, but I had pride and I had to get out.
“The problem was that I couldn’t go back to Germany to work as a cinematographer or anything in the film industry, because as a foreigner once you graduated from a German academic institution you had to leave; you couldn’t stay and work there unless you got married. That was the last thing I wanted to do, so I had to find a way to get to Hollywood. That’s where the action was.”
Evdemon was unsuccessful at getting a visa to work in the United States, but a travel agent friend suggested that he go to Canada and from there to the U.S. “So I came to Canada in 1968 with only $200 to my name. I was lucky, I met commercial producer Bob Schultz and started doing commercials through his company.” However, greater work opportunities required IATSE membership and when that application was rejected he took the union’s suggestion and knocked on the door of the CBC.
The CBC had no openings in the film department, but offered him a job as a lighting man. “I said ‘I’ll take it’ because I was 27 and I was running out of funds. I worked in lighting for about three months and then got a job as a camera operator. So I went to film production and that’s how I started my career.
“After about a year I was operator on the series The Whiteoaks of Jalna, but I realized that to become a cinematographer in film production would take a long time, so I became a news cameraman. I worked for a year, year and a half for news and Newsmagazine, then there was an opening for a cinematographer in film production and I went back.”
The DOP said he did a lot of documentaries at first, then moved more and more into drama until he was selecting only two or three good documentaries a year, “travelling around the world, which was a great experience and I loved it.” He shot on film, he added, for both drama and documentaries “because a lot of producers still preferred to use film, not only for the expertise of the cinematographer, which was a very serious consideration, but also for the quality.
“When we did documentaries, we were very careful what we shot. Film was expensive, so we really captured the story. Our experience and our training knew where the meat was. When they went to tape they started shooting everything, 100,000 feet for a 20-minute item. I remember when it was said that if you cannot tell a story in 100 feet of film you’ll never become a cinematographer.”
He left the CBC, he said, because drama production had dried up in his last two years, when “I did maybe two or three movies. The last year I did one film and that was it.” CBC management had changed, and policies changed, too. Earlier, “when I wanted to do something outside, they would let me go do it. For instance, they allowed me to go out and do the mini-series Glory Enough for All (1989 Gemini winner for photography). I considered that experience. And I did a lot of National Film Board films and feature films. They would allow me to do that. At the end, when they had no production, the new management wouldn’t let me do other things. Finally they agreed to give me a severance deal, and just after I left they eliminated the whole film production department.”
Evdemon stepped into the freelance world in 1996 “with the idea that now maybe I will be able to just travel and relax,” but the phone rang and producer Jamie Paul Rock asked him to shoot on the series Nikita during a troubled first season. “I just went to do the odd show, but they liked my work and asked me to do some more, so I did six altogether. Then Jamie said he wanted me to do the second season of 22 more episodes.”
The DOP said he wanted to shoot a movie before the second season of Nikita ended, and he was glad to be able to turn the show over to his gaffer, Jim Westenbrink csc, who also alternated with Evdemon when he was asked, again by Rock, to shoot the first season (2002) of Mutant X. “I really admire cinematographers who regularly shoot series by themselves. It is very tiring and it becomes a routine. After a while, you just want a change. I mean I love doing series, but not for such a long time. I never wanted to do 20 episodes.”
Evdemon lightened the dark look of Nikita because “I felt that it needed to place the environment where the whole psyche of it was. Nikita (Peta Wilson) was put into that environment against her will, and it was a very cruel, very cold, very sterile environment and it had a lot of edges. She always had that secret desire to escape and do something with her life, but she knew she wasn’t allowed to have a personal life. So I tried to warm up her life a little bit.”
‘I wanted to get a really dark and metallic look’
With Mutant X, produced by Tribune Entertainment and Fireworks Entertainment and shown in Canada on CTV, he said he wanted to have “a more high-tech kind of look” that was timeless, “like it happened in the future somewhere, a different kind of look that didn’t have to be real.”
The award-winning episode “Nothing to Fear” added another dimension to the storytelling of Mutant X — the seemingly infallible mutant heroes fall under the mental control of a bad, revenge-seeking mutant who has the power to bring out their personal fears through dream-like trances.
“This episode gave me the opportunity to explore this surreal situation visually with more depth. How am I going to visually enhance this feel of subconscious darkness, to make the characters look totally different and still be effective? I wanted to get a really dark and metallic look. I wanted their faces and lips to go silvery, not to take the colour out but to mute it to a point that it would enhance the look of fear.
“I decided to bypass the bleach process at Medallion PFA, on all the sequences where we had our mutants confronting their personal fears, and Jamie Paul Rock told me to go for it. I had to play with the lights a bit, because with the bleach bypass you not only get this metallic look but also the blacks go black and highlights on the negative pop right out. Knowing that the whites would blow out quickly, I didn’t push them too much. Some areas were really just borderline dingy, but it worked beautifully and Jamie and the network loved it.”
Evdemon used both 200 and 500 ASA Kodak Vision 35mm film on Mutant X (Nikita was shot on 16mm), and for the bleach bypass segments of the “Nothing to Fear” episode he went with the 500 stock “to get the depth. I didn’t want it to be flat, and not knowing what the bypass would do, how much grey I’m going to have in the image, I felt that if I shot wide open (with 200) it might be a really milky image, and I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be contrasty and harsh, so I thought with the 500 I would get a bit more aperture, a bit more depth of field and that would allow the image to be dark but still define the people within it.”
He used Panavision Platinum Panaflex and Millennium Panaflex XL camera systems, with the Primo lenses, on Mutant X. “I had the XL mainly because it was a quick camera to put on the steadycam. I had all the tools that anybody could dream of.”
Evdemon’s latest series was the quirky detective comedy/drama Monk starring Tony Shalhoub, a 16mm show which was not as much fun for the DOP as Nikita or Mutant X because there were not as many photographic challenges, exploration with colours that are part of the story. “In Monk, if you do too much then you take away from the story and that’s not the purpose of cinematography.”
Sometimes, though, “visible cinematography is what makes the difference in a good movie. Sometimes it’s nice to be fancy. I’ve always been an impulsive person. I’m not very complicated; I don’t like to think too much. Of course I have a central idea of what I want to do on a film after I discuss it with the director. I think how I want the film to look, but I’m not married to it. I allow myself the freedom to use my impulses.
“When we block the scene and I see that something changes, I adapt to it, take advantage of it, deviate a little bit from what I had in mind. Because if everything always looks the same it’s not very interesting.”
© Canadian Society of Cinematographers