January 22, 2008

Model Worker

Precision Is The Hallmark Of German Pinchevsky

By John Zollinger

Pinchevsky (right) developed a mastery of miniatures and special effects for films like Beware of the Car in the USSR.
In the early 1960s, German Pinchevsky studied the art of cinematography at the Moscow Film School, the oldest institute of its kind in the world. Five decades later, his unique craftsmanship and ingenuity is a key factor to ensure students at the oldest American cinema program keep on rolling.

Based in a small, well ordered workshop above the Production Equipment Center, Pinchevsky has been servicing everything from cameras and lenses to sound equipment, lighting gear and more since he joined the staff in 1997.

“Every day it’s something different,” Pinchevsky said. “Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it takes a bit of experimentation to solve.”

“We used to send most of our cameras out for repair, taking them off line for weeks,” Facilities Director Doug Wellman said. “With German here, often he can fix the problem and get the piece back in the student’s hand that same day.”
Beware of the Car is a Soviet crime comedy film by Eldar Ryazanov, produced by Mosfilm and released in 1966. It is often credited as one of the best Soviet (Russian) comedies.

Pinchevsky has also devised modifications that dramatically enhance equipment performance. Among them are: eliminating electrical problems on the school’s Arri S cameras by replacing faulty factory power jacks with more common and less expensive XLR style plugs; upgrading the viewfinders from ground glass to fiber optics to provide sharper focus; and fine-tuning lenses when they are out of adjustment.

Such experience comes from a life-long interest in cinema. Though born in the then-Polish city of Brest-Litovsk in 1938, the Nazi invasion of 1941 forced the surviving members of his family to flee to Russia. Pinchevsky’s childhood on the banks of the Kama River in the Urals was austere, yet he made the most of growing up by the water, building rubber-band powered boat models and developing a penchant for books about the sea.

“These books, this harsh life, this river. It made me Romantic. That’s why I ended up in the movie business,” Pinchevsky reminisced. He did his first photos in the navy when a friend lent him a 35-mm still camera. Soon his knack for shooting grew into an unofficial photo studio, with subjects ranging from enlistees to officers.

One of Pinchevsky's  recent projects is a 48-inch replica of John F. Kennedy’s PT 109.
Pinchevsky got into motion pictures when he entered the Moscow Film School in 1965. (Founded in 1919, the school’s faculty included Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko, to name but a few.) Upon graduation he joined Mosfilm as an assistant cameraman. Even though he started on the entry level, he frequently found himself doing the work of those above him.

Pinchevsky also developed a mastery of miniatures and special effects. In some instances, like the comic film Beware of the Car, the crew used models to avoid destroying real autos, which were a valued commodity in the USSR. Other times, such as the opening sequence for War and Peace, Pinchevsky used a projector to display aerial footage of a battlefield onto a plate of glass that had the title words etched into it. On the other side of the glass plate, he set up a camera to capture the blending of the aerial footage and the etched glass. The result was a composite image, which made it seem like the red letters of the title emanated from an exploding shell.

 Pinchevshy inspects a camera lens in the small workshop area above the SCA Production Equipment Center.
Although he enjoyed working on films, Pinchevsky found his career limited by the enmity many Russians and the communist party held against Jews. Because of his origins, he said his name never appeared in the credits. When others received bonuses, he did not. The last straw came when his group was to go abroad to do a project. When he arrived at the appointed departure time, none of his comrades were there. Finally, the cleaning lady told him the others met earlier, intentionally leaving without him.

“This is when ‘the water came to the nose,’” Pinchevsky said, using an old Russian expression.

Pinchevsky (center) adjusts the camera to do a masking shot for the cinematic adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's Ruslan and Ludmila.
Taking advantage of the pressure that the United States put on the Kremlin to liberalize its emigration policies or face reduced grain shipments, Pinchevsky and his family moved to Israel in 1972. Thirteen years later, they once again uprooted to come to the U.S. After receiving his green card, he applied for the job at USC and was hired on Woody Omens’ recommendation.

When he’s not working on SCA equipment, Pinchevsky still pursues his love of miniatures, crafting radio-controlled boats. One of his most recent projects is a 48-inch replica of John F. Kennedy’s PT 109. Proving he still has his technical touch, Pinchevsky shot a sequence of the boat in action. By speeding the camera to 60 frames per second from the normal 24 fps, the model creates a wake that is as close as you can get to the real thing.