Posted in The Potty Mouth Interviews

Cowabunga : An Interview with Sandrine Orabona


Yes, Sandrine Orabona was “one of two cinematographers on Michael Jackson’s ‘This Is It’, using her skills to document the artist, cast and crew as they prepared for their run of shows in London.” Yes, enough said. Who cares about that stuff, anyway? In this Potty Mouth Interview, Orabona and I discuss via long distance telepathic underwater communication, her work as a documentary filmmaker, her process & multi-tasking talents, and her most beautiful mistake. We also gab about her love for surfing (while surfing), black coffee with sugar and milk, the World Cup, and the little pager that couldn’t (my dog ate it). Don’t say anything about France losing in the World cup, either. Hush. Hush. Seriously. Orabona is magic, distilled, and illuminating. I want to use that cliché too to describe her, but she’s beyond inspirational. She’s just pure spirit. Enjoy the interview.

Almost Dorothy: In your bio, it states “Sandrine Orabona has always believed in the power this genre [documentary filmmaking] to convey the intensity of human emotions.” Where does this power come from and how is it created?

Sandrine Orabona: People. Moments in time. These days, so much drama is created and inflated in our media – so called “journalism” or “reality” television (I’ve spent my fair share working for both). Documentary work takes just a little bit more time and attention than the general media is ready to give – time is money, baby. They skim the surface, take a tiny bit of information and blow up some headline without even taking the time to see if it’s true, let alone live with it or understand it. It’s simple in concept, really, the documentary format – be an aware, involved observer and then distill the emotion from the material. It’s always there.

AD: Is it image alone, above, beyond, or in conjunction with other forms of artistic expression, that gives film the power to awaken?

SO: I’d start by saying that this power depends on the quality of the filmmaking. But in my opinion the art form that holds the greatest power to move people is music. When music and visuals are combined I think that power is amplified exponentially. That’s why I tend towards music documentary but you can also find many examples in narrative film and television, when they’re done well.

Michael Jackson’s This Is It from Sandrine Orabona on Vimeo.

AD: Not every image awakens the human beast, so I’ve been thinking about what moves an audience when they view a work of art, watch a film, or read (or glare) at a book. Mom says it’s because we like to see our imagined selves reflected back at us. That true art reaffirms our daily world. So, if we’re not represented, then we just don’t get it, or care. Others, like my dog, say that true art challenges the imagined image of our selves. Turns our little blue world upside down. Fractures the mirror mirror on the wall. Sandrine, what is the purpose of art?

SO: Oh shit, really…? I don’t really dwell on that question. I ask myself “what is the purpose of my art?” and then move outwards from there.

AD: Now, for a real serious question: Lucky Charms or Yoga, coffee or tea, France or America in the World Cup?

SO: Turn yoga into surfing, I’ll take my coffee on the darker side with milk and sugar, please (I do miss a good café con leche), and I’m writing this on the day my home country of France was eliminated from the World Cup so right now I have no allegiances. After I get over the heartbreak I’ll let you know. (Addendum: I since have moved on to Germany, yet another heartbreak. I just can’t take it.)

AD: One more serious question: what really happened to that pager? Did you eat it?

SO: Woof. Grrrr.

AD: Where do you exist in your work? Around the edges? On the film? In photos? Between aperture and lens?

SO: In the moment, whether it’s while I’m shooting or afterwards when I’m editing. I can tell when something powerful is happening while I’m shooting but the reason why it’s powerful becomes more obvious afterwards in the editing room with time and space to study it. Both are amazing gifts from the same moment in time but they have a slightly different flavor, perhaps…

AD: Although you wear many hats or feather boas as editor, shooter, field/bay producer, and director, what is your process?

SO: Get small camera, high resolution, and a good microphone. Invest time and energy into people and situations. Watch all footage. Distill down to relative size. Rinse. Repeat.

P.S. I am a documentary filmmaker – knowing how to direct, shoot and edit are simply details of that definition. It’s the film business that wants to put me in the director-or-producer-or-shooter-or-editor box. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the “But what do you DO? Are you an editor? Are you a shooter?” Apparently you can only do one thing. Since everyone believes documentaries don’t make money then documentary filmmaker is not an accepted category nor do many agents care to represent people like me. These are the same people, by the way, whose brains explode when they find out a musician they’re used to seeing on guitar can play the drums with the same proficiency.

AD: What’s your ultimate goal, dream, for Sandrine?

SO: Lofty goal: I want to change the way people think when they think of documentary content. Mostly folks get all excited when they hear I work in film and television but then I tell them I’m a documentary filmmaker and I get the “oh, that’s nice, dear” look. I just smile back knowing that what I’ve worked on and whom I’ve been fortunate enough to document would change that response pretty quickly. Everyone thinks of documentaries as slow-paced, overly cerebral, educational pieces – I like to approach documentary as incredibly dramatic, emotional, high-end work with a bit of a rock-and-roll twist. I’ve also got a bit of a penchant for the music documentary so that helps a lot with the visual style.

AD: For aspiring filmmakers and aspiring artists, boys and girls, cats and dogs, what’s the biggest mistake you think everyone should make?

SO: The biggest, most beautiful mistake you can make is to listen to your heart because it will almost always steer you against what everyone else will tell you is the “right” business/artistic decision. People are quick to give you an opinion on what poor decisions they think you’re making, how you’re operating improperly as a professional artist, what you should or shouldn’t be doing, etc. Oh, and guess what – this stellar advice usually comes right at the pinnacle of your own self-torture, “am I going to fail? Will anyone ever hire me again? What am I doing to my career by making this choice?”… so, yeah, that’s awesome. I’ve learned that being an artist is a lifelong process and every experience, every project successful or perceived unsuccessful builds on your experience as an artist, whether technically or creatively.

AD: What are the 3 (or 400) most important works that move you?

SO: Le Grand Bleu, by Luc Besson. Public Meditation, by Tab Two. The Serenity Prayer, cited author Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr.

“God, grant us the…Serenity to accept things we cannot change, Courage to change the things we can, and the Wisdom to know the difference. Patience for the things that take time. Appreciation for all that we have, and Tolerance for those with different struggles. Freedom to live beyond the limitations of our past ways, the Ability to feel your love for us and our love for each other and the Strength to get up and try again even when we feel it is hopeless.”

AD: Final question: If you could be a mythical creature, or element in the known and unknown universe, what would you be and why?

SO: Water; I spend most of my free time in it.

Sandrine Orabona is a French-born, American-raised documentary filmmaker. Most recently she was one of two cinematographers on Michael Jackson’s “This Is It,” using her skills to document the artist, cast and crew as they prepared for their run of shows in London. ” Sandrine has worked professionally for more than 15 years as an editor, shooter, field/bay producer, and director to enhance her storytelling skills in the non-fiction genre. Her clients include Disney, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, RCA Records, HBO, and MTV.

She approaches all her work with the eyes and soul of a documentarian, working as a producer/director on such projects as Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” and turning the usual “bonus features” into compelling short and long-form pieces on the artists in the entertainment industry. Believing in this approach, Sandrine has produced, shot and edited what would initially be considered “B-roll” into hour-long TV shows, such as Shakira’s “La Otra Cámara” and Dave Matthews Band “I Did It.”

Raised and educated in Miami, Sandrine has been featured in the press around the world, including the Los Angeles Times, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, La Provence, and undercover.com.au. She remains focused on music documentaries, believing that musicians’ stories can be compelling, powerful pieces that audiences will enjoy.

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