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Spotlight: Andrew Bujalski, Director; Matthew Grunsky, DP; ‘Computer Chess’

Director Andrew Bujalski and his production crew retrofitted a Sony AVC-3260 camera to shoot Computer Chess, a nostalgic look at the early days of computer programming. The 40-year-old black-and-white video camera was stripped of its antique tape mechanism and upgraded to record to 21st century hard drive technology, delivering a low-tech look appropriate to the film’s subject matter. Computer Chess takes place over the course of a weekend tournament for chess software programmers circa 1980.

How involved were you in choosing the camera and production equipment for Computer Chess?

Andrew Bujalski: The camera was the genesis of this whole project, in a way. I made three features on 16mm in an era where everyone asked me constantly, “Hey man, why do you still shoot on film?” I guess I got tired of answering that question.

I had seen a documentary by Michael Almereyda called William Eggleston in the Real World. It had some amazing clips that Eggleston himself shot in the ’70s on a Sony Portapak. Those images haunted me, and ultimately the camera we used [on Computer Chess] was in the same family, the Sony AVC-3260. Before I knew this would be a movie about computer chess programmers, I knew I wanted to do something using the old analog tube cameras. I was fascinated by the look.

Matthias Grunsky with the Sony AVC-3260

What did your camera choice mean for production and post?

Bujalski: Nightmares. Thank goodness we had an amazing team. Matthias [Grunsky, director of photography] was great. Associate producer Drew Xanthopoulos and E.J. Enriquez, our first assistant camera, were among those in the trenches figuring out how we were going to get this old technology to work.

Matthias Grunsky: The Sony AVC-3260 black-and-white video camera probably would have been used to cover an event like this computer chess competition. The heart of this old camera is a 2/3-inch vidicon tube that has technical limitations and unearthly artifacts, which seemed perfect for the style of this movie dealing with the relationship between man and machine.

It sounds like your crew was inventing as you went along.

Bujalski: Yes, this was a unique rig. We were very lucky to find a guy named Thomas Lowe, a retired Sony engineer living in a suburb of Austin. He was very generous with his time and was able to do a little retrofitting for us.

Andrew Bujalski

Matthias Grunsky. Photo by Titus Schulz.

Grunsky: To shoot with this technology felt like traveling back in time. When I turned the camera on for the first time, I got very excited and felt like an adventurer on a quest. When the art department set up these old, bulky computers, it changed the atmosphere of the whole room. The computers were great to play with in our 1.33:1 frame, which they often predominate. Like the computers, we wanted the camera to be an element of the story. Besides the character of the video tube, we added weirdness and comedy with our framing.

While we didn’t have any difficult actors, our camera behaved like a diva sometimes. I remember moments when we were ready to shoot, everything was set up, and the delicate camera would suddenly react to a highlight—sometimes a bright shirt or even the slate would be enough—and suddenly change its video settings. Then I had to pull out my screwdriver and readjust the levels while everybody was waiting. But nobody got mad because we all knew what we were working with: a 40-year-old camera that has its own way of interpreting a scene.

What did shooting on this format mean to you personally?

Bujalski: I think it’s important to recognize what a format feels like and what it does to your storytelling. If I’m going to do video, I’m going to think about what that video feels like and what I can do with it. From there, I figure out how can I maximize the potential of the format for a story. 

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