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Akis Konstantakopoulos: The Up & Coming Greek Cinematographer in Hollywood

After attending Harvard University, where he majored in Film Production, his cinematographic work received special notice by film critics and directors such as Hal Hartley and Alfred Guzzetti. When he graduated in 2006, he was awarded with the Radcliffe Fellowship pertaining to film. The same year he was accepted at the American Film Institute’s Conservatory. There, he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Cinematography and was instructed by ASC cinematographers Bill Dill, Stephen Lightill and Bob Primes. In 2008, he was awarded the competitive Panavision’s New Filmmakers Grant to shoot a short, that received a DGA Honorable mention and was featured in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. In 2009, he won a prestigious Award of Excellence from the Accolade Competition for this cinematography in The Cure, hence joining the ranks of other high-profile winners of this internationally respected award. Recently, he joined the international Cinematographer’s Union in LA, the Local 600. It is rare to see someone having achieved so many things especially at a very young age. , a Greek cinematographer who started his career as a gaffer, gave an exclusive interview to Greek Reporter sharing with us all the details of the difficult journey he has gone through, in order to be considered today one of the most promising and talented filmmakers in LA.

Tell us about your studies in AFI and Harvard. In what ways were they helpful for you in pursuing a career in filmmaking?

Both schools were an amazing experience, each one in different ways. In terms of educational experience, they complemented each other wonderfully. Harvard was definitely more old-school and traditional in its approach to filmmaking. The majority of my professors were primarily coming from an older generation of documentarians. So, we, our classes – at least the first three years – were focused solely on documentary work. We were shooting on 16mm with Bolex cameras or CP16s and were editing on Steenbecks like they did in the 70’s and 80’s. Very limited focus was given on lighting and the general technical aspect of filmmaking. However, through these studies and the films I made, I realized that my true passion was not directing – as I thought it had been – but rather cinematography. Hal Haltrey told me once, “you are clearly not a director but could become a great cinematographer”. At AFI therefore I followed the track of the Cinematography discipline. AFI is considered the premier school in the world, along with Lodz in Poland, for Cinematography studies. The education I received there was completely different than that from Harvard. It delved a lot in the technical aspect of filmmaking and I got to experiment with every single gear that is out there in the market. Shot on all kinds of formats from SD to HD and from super 16mm to super35mm. I got to meet some of the world’s most important and well-known cinematographers and got a chance to work with them on several workshops. The education at AFI was not as holistic and all-encompassing as that of Harvard but it helped me grow as a cinematographer and understand how a visual language can tell a story. It was much more specific education which is what is supposed to be at Master’s level.

When did you decide to move in LA? Did you plan staying permanently in the States from the beginning or was it something that came along the way?

At Harvard I realized that what I really like to do and what I am better at is Cinematography. My senior year in college I applied to Columbia, UCLA, AFI and New York University with the intention of studying Cinematography. I got accepted to all the schools but AFI was definitely my first choice given its reputation in Cinematography and to its alumni. [Some of the cinematography alumni include Januz Kaminski, Caleb Deschanel, Robert Elswit, Frederick Elmes etc]. So, even though New York City had always been my dream city to live, I decided to fly out to LA for AFI. As of now, I have been in the US for a total of 8 years. I love living in LA; it is a great city to be in for a filmmaker and in general. I plan on staying here for a while but you never know how things go.

What were some of the difficulties you had to face so far?

I am not quite sure how to answer this question. I am sure I have had to go through many difficulties both personal and professionally. I do not necessarily remember them though or realize them at the moment. They present themselves as another obstacle towards success. I try to deal with obstacles one at a time and do the best I can. Sometimes though things do not always depend on us and then all you have to do is accept the outcome of events. However, I’d rather lose by my hand than someone else’s.

You have worked also in film productions in Greece. Tell us from your experience what are the differences working in an American movie.

In Greece I worked with Mr. Nikos Perakis on Alarms in the Aegean (Loufa kai Parallagi) and it was truly a phenomenal experience. Working with Mr. Perakis was a true joy. He is a great filmmaker and an incredible person.

The last few years, Greek cinema has made some significant steps in the process of establishing itself in the world of European filmmaking. Some movies have indeed been recognized internationally. In my opinion, however, the majority of Greek feature-length movies are more like TV movies rather than real cinema. And even though these TV-like movies might be performing incredibly well financially in Greece, they do not necessarily help the fame of Greek cinema internationally. There is no doubt that the differences between Greek and American filmmaking are vast both in terms of resources and in terms of visual language. There are some great ideas flowing in the Greek filmmaking world – sometimes even better than those in the US – but Greek cinema is unfortunately missing the big budgets and the technical means to implement successfully these ideas and concepts.

Tell us how was your experience working with the acclaimed director and cinematographer Phedon Papamicahel in “Arcadia Lost”.

I have worked with Phedon Papamichael on 2 films so far. The first one was From Within, which was shot in Maryland and the second one was Arcadia Lost, shot in Greece. In From Within I served as a 2nd unit DP while in Arcadia Lost I was Phedon’s gaffer. Through both films I have realized what an amazing filmmaker and a wonderful person Phedon is. Phedon is a true artist who moves really quickly on set; he is inspired on the moment by what he sees around him and has an incredible talent in motivating people around him to perform their best. He has not only been a huge inspiration and mentor to me but also a great friend. I look forward to working with him on his next project.

How is life in LA and what are the things you like doing in your free time?

Life is an LA is truly great. It’s a wonderful place to be in for a filmmaker; there are premieres constantly, you get to meet new contacts everyday and there are a lot of projects going on. You are a few blocks away from all the major studios and there is a plethora of divergent locations that can be faked for New York or Chicago or even Africa and Asia. LA’s weather is also phenomenal which can be great for everyone’s mood and happiness. The people are very laid back and in general there is an atmosphere of optimism and coolness flowing in the city. It’s hard to find a place like that.

In my free time I love hiking in Griffith Park, going to the gym, playing basketball, and watching movies at the Arclight cinema and at the Egyptian theatre, both a few blocks away from where I live.

What are the things you miss from Greece?

Family and friends; seafood; Greek coffee and the nightlife. Of course, I miss the Greek sea and the sun as well, even though I definitely can’t complain about the weather in LA.

What part of Greece are you from?

I am from Thessaloniki. I was born and grew up there till I was 17 when I left for Boston and Harvard specifically. I try to go back to Thessaloniki once a year even though that does not always happen.

You have worked in many different positions including being a director, cinematographer, gaffer and camera operator. Is there a position you prefer more than the others?

Right after AFI I started my career as a Gaffer; one of the first films I gaffed was Phedon Papamichael’s Arcadia Lost. Nowadays, I mainly work as a Cinematographer. You can see my work and read news about my projects at my website: Sometimes, I work as a camera operator on feature films which is very good practice for my DP work.

What are you working on this period?

I just wrapped on a few things back to back. One was a 3D short film – all bluescreen work -, the other was a video project starring Tony Cox (Bad Santa, Me, Myself and I) and also just finished DP’ing the re-shoots for a feature film, Behind Your Eyes which will be released in August. Now, I am in cinematography pre-production for two projects. One is a feature-length film shooting in Detroit in the vein of Paranormal Activity but with more of a filmic and stylized look to it and the other is a short film, Invisible City, with an incredible script about immigration detention centers in the US.

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