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DP James Mathers Speaks on The U.S. vs. John Lennon

DCS co-founder discusses some aspects of the film By John Virata

John Lennon was a man of many talents. Member of The Beatles, anti-war activist, father. During the tumultuous times of the late 60s and early 70s, he was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and the U.S. government, so much so that President Nixon had him investigated by the FBI and CIA. Wiretaps, eavesdropping, surveillance were part of his early life in the United States. In a time when Lennon's message couldn't be more relevant, a film has come out to discuss John Lennon's bout with the Nixon Administration. The U.S. vs. John Lennon was lensed in part by Director of Photography James Mathers, using Panasonic's AJ-HDC27 VariCam HD Cinema camera. He shot the contemporary interviews with the camera. In addition to his cinematographer title, Mathers is a co founder of the nonprofit educational cooperative, The Digital Cinema Society ( He speaks here on some aspects of the filmmaking.

DMN: How long have you been shooting, and working with HD?
James Mathers: I have been shooting for many years, having completed 30 features or MOW's (movies of the week), and have seen six different series from inception through at least the first season. I shot my first HD project, a short called Last Night With Angel about five years ago, when Panasonic loaned us a Varicam before they were officially on the market.  I now own a Varicam, but also still shoot many film projects. 

DMN: Travel is mentioned when shooting the interviews for The U.S. vs. John Lennon. How did you prepare your gear for the rigors of airline travel?
JM: Anyone who travels with equipment knows how tough it has become; excess baggage charges start to be assessed once a case is over 50 pounds, (even though some of our cases weigh that much before we even add equipment). If it reaches 100 pounds, it is usually required to be shipped as freight, which is not guaranteed to even be on the same flights as you are traveling. A few extra bucks to the Sky Cap used to insure everything would go through smoothly, but with today's security concerns, that is no longer the case. I've always hauled around a lot of gear, and I'm not sure why the weight has become such an issue lately, but I suspect that perhaps it is just a way for the financially ailing airlines to generate a little more income.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate anything the airlines and security can do to protect us all from a terrorist threat, but we just need to know how to prepare and deal within their parameters in a way that will also protect our gear. As of August 11th, 2006, in addition to the new no-liquids, there are other restrictions for carry-on bags. I can't stand the idea of my camera, even in a hard padded case, being thrown around by baggage handlers who seem to resent the extra weight, and I hate watching it slide down to slam at the end of the baggage carousel. Even though I'm required to pull it out of it's case and send it "naked" rolling through the X-ray screener, I prefer to hand carry my "baby" on the flight; but we are also getting some flak there.

DMN: Does the AJ-HDC27 work well with this type of documentary? What advantages did you realize with the AJ-HDC27 that you might not have experienced with a different camera?
JM: We shot with my Varicam and Canon HD lens, a system that has definite advantages for such work. The DVCPRO HD signal has good color space which eases the ability to pull a matte; and having now seen large screen 35mm projection, I would have to say the HD image holds up pretty well in the output to film.

DMN: Do you have an idea of how many hours of HD footage you shot in total?
JM: We shot between thirty and fifty hours of tape.

DMN: How was the footage that you shot assembled with that of the vintage 1970s footage? What editing system was used to put the film together?
JM: The story is told using a combination of 1970's era archival footage, and Green Screen interviews featuring insights from some of those on the scene at the time, like Walter Cronkite, George McGovern, Gore Vidal, G. Gordon Liddy, and of course, Yoko Ono. The project was cut on Final Cut Pro. 

DMN: Will we see more footage in a DVD release?
JM: A DVD will definitely follow the theatrical release, as well as being seen on VH1, who was a partner with Lion's Gate on the project.

To view the trailer of The U.S. versus John Lennon, click here

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John Virata is senior editor of Digital Media Online. You can email him at [email protected]
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