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PIETER de VRIES ACS: Cinematographer

Pieter de Vries is the first Australian cinematographer to have won the prestigious Milli Award from his peers for his work on a documentary; that was for a doco about rats in New York, but he’s shot bigger subjects, too, like sharks, the space shuttle and wind …
ANDREW L. URBAN reports on one of the Whizzards of OZ.

RAT, which won de Vries the 1998 Golden Tripod for Best Documentary (and the Milli Award as Cinematographer of the Year, Australian Cinematographers’ Society), was directed by Mark Lewis, whose unique style was noted with his funny and informative Cane Toads, which had a successful theatrical season around Australia.

"New York city is the backdrop for this quirky look at the rat population and the eccentric New Yorkers who love and hate them," says de Vries. "Life in the underbelly of the Big Apple from the rats’ point of view, and the people who have to live with them." (The Mark Lewis Radio Pictures Inc Production was made in association with Beyond Productions, as a co-production with National Geographic Television, Channel 4 Television and Docstar.)

"They love it…just a smear on the lens… "

Making RAT was "very challenging," says de Vries, "because there was so little money, and we were working inside people’s homes. I used a lot of periscope lenses, with the camera suspended on a gib arm, so the camera was millimeters from the floor, and the rat could follow it." How do you get a rat to follow a camera? Simple: peanut butter. "They love it…just a smear on the lens… "

And of course, there had to be rat-cam; "it’s a cradle-like contraption, basically a fancy stick on a cradle. I used a lot of micro lenses, too, to get the extreme close ups of rats’ noses and so on."

As all this suggests, de Vries travels with a bag of little tricks; "I have a very practical lighting kit and some magic arms, things to hang lamps off …I think I have possibly the biggest box of magic tricks of any cameraman."

This is not the first award de Vries has won for his work; in 1995, he won the Golden Tripod for his work on The Space Shuttle – A Butterfly on a Rocket, directed by Scott Hicks (Shine).

He had worked with Scott Hicks in 1988, on the documentary mini series, The Great Wall of Iron, about one of the world’s biggest armies - The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army. A fourteen week shoot produced by Beyond International for the BBC, NZBC and The Discovery Channel USA, it was the winner of the 1990 Peabody Award, and Episode 1 gained the High Commendation from the ACS.

He had already won two earlier Golden Tripods

He had already won two earlier Golden Tripods, one (in 1987) for The Palestinians, centering on Yasser Arafat and made for the ABC’s 4 Corners and the BBC; the other (in 1986) for Episode 1 of Sweat of the Sun, Tears of the Moon, an extensive documentary series on South America - a look at aspects of life in Latin America. An ABC and BBC co-production, directed by Geoff Barnes and Clive Fleury it took nine months of filming in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Chile & Argentina. (It also won the Logie Award for Best documentary series.) For episode 8, de Vries received a High Commendation.

In May 1998, while the ACS awards were being presented, Melbourne born, Sydney based de Vries was away (again), this time shooting not rats but sharks – and a mighty 20 meter one at that, for a 3D tv documentary tentatively titled 3D Megladon. (Megladon is the ancestor of the great white shark.) His wife, Mary, collected the Milli Award, and took it home to their proud young children, Oliver and Celia. After 10 days anchored off the island of Guadalupe (off Mexico) shooting underwater background plates, the production moved to the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History for some work with shark skeletons, and finally to Fiji for above water sequences with shark divers.

"I’m not limited to docos, although I love them."

Although most of de Vries’ work has been in documentaries, which he enjoys, he sees himself as "an all round director of photography . . . I’m not limited to docos, although I love them." In 1990, de Vries shot a feature film, Glass, a contemporary romantic thriller. written and directed by Christopher Kennedy, who went on to make Doing Time for Patsy Cline.

"What I try to do with my photography," says de Vries, "is try to give it a feature look whenever I get the opportunity – sometimes in miniature. I don’t shoot shots that look wishy washy – I go boldly, because it has to work on the small screen. In RAT, I gave the rats presence…."

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Pieter de Vries

Pieter de Vries shooting RAT

One of the subjects, in RAT

Pieter de Vries has a well designed WEB SITE
And is on email: pietdv@ozemail.com.au

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