Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski | The Backlot Podcast | NYFA 

Tova: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you an Oscar winning cinematographer. If you’re a lover of cinema from the past 30 years, well, you have definitely seen his work. Lincoln, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Saving Private Ryan, Jerry Maguire. He’s a DP who went from shooting Cool as Ice, starring Vanilla Ice, to Schindler’s List in a short two years. And he’s been Steven Spielberg’s goto cinematographer ever since. We are talking about Janusz Kaminski. Mr. Kaminski came from Poland to the United States 40 years ago with little knowledge of the country or its language. Though his solution for learning English quickly was, well I’ll just say inventive.

Janusz Kaminski: I came to America in 1981. I spoke no English. I went to Chicago first and I started learning English little bit for a year and a half. Then I started dating my teacher. That was really helpful. Jill Rosenheim. She dumped me. She said, if you were somebody I would have marry you, she ends up marrying Joel Horovitz. Broke my heart. But nevertheless, I managed to go to film school. So I went to Chicago, got my B.A. in Chicago, moved to Los Angeles in 87, went to AFI. And when I was in AFI, I started working for Roger Corman as a gaffer little bit shooting B camera, shooting second unit, you know, then eventually I went outside Roger Corman, shot a feature. Come back to Roger Corman, shot a few features and I did a couple of television films. And I was just gradually getting ready to have an interesting career. I was just about to do Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That movie was already given to me, which was my first bigger budget movie. And then, of course, simultaneously I met Steven and as he was making Jurassic Park one, I was making Huckleberry Finn. And after that, I made a movie with him, which is Schindler’s List. Right? So Roger Corman was great because in two years I’ve probably done 25 movies as a gaffer and I shot three or four movies for him, you know, which is really interesting experience. Right now that kind of organization doesn’t exist anymore. During that time, in the early 80s and 90s, there were some independent studios, you know, Cinetel and Roger Corman, and there was another one, Motion Picture Corporation of America. So there were few independent entities that would make this low budget semi-exploitation movies. You know, I don’t know how you start right now. I have no idea, although some of the interns that I’ve had, they became bonafide, some photographers and they’re making, you know, okay. Living in them, making movies, you know. So there is this entire world of independent cinema that I have no contact with, you know, although I did win Spirit Award.

Eric: Working for Roger Corman, the legendary producer of over 400 low budget movies, is one of the best hands on experiences a filmmaker can get. Just ask Ron Howard. Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, and the countless other directors who worked with him. But Janusz Kaminski also deepened his education of cinema by attending a traditional film school, too.

Janusz Kaminski: I went to Columbia College, which is very much of a hands on school. It’s a relatively formal school where you don’t have to commit to any particular field. You know, I happen to like cinematography simply because it was the first thing I’ve done. When someone says you’re good at it, you know, you’re coming back from Eastern Europe, you know, you’re not being rewarded as a child, you know. And someone said, you good at it. Right? And I just fell in love with it and gave me very much of a concrete profession. You know, as an immigrant, you need a profession. You cannot be director because you’re unemployed. Right? Unless mommy or daddy puts the money in. Now you can make your own films, right? With little digital camera and stuff like that. You still need a good story. Right? So but as a cinematographer I learned about electrician and camera assistant. It was horrible camera assistant. Very good electrician. Very good grip. Very good dolly grip. So I had a concrete profession that would allowed me to go and do a commercial during my school year and make 250 bucks and my rent was 280. So it’s pretty good, right? It was all about making little bit of money so you can pay the rent. And believe me, nothing changes. You still just making the money to pay the bills.

Eric: And part of this learning process requires making mistakes. A lot of them.

Janusz Kaminski: There are always mistakes. You learn from mistakes. You know, I’ve made a career out of mistakes. Out of focus, you know, shaky camera, you know, flares, all that stuff, you know. A shutter that’s weird, you know. Mistakes, if you have a movie that makes sense to apply the mistakes, you know, you could tell a nice story. But you learn that if you put a half filter and it’s red and looks great in the sky. But then you tilt up, everything changes, right? Or you pan across the red filter goes across someone’s face, you know. Oh I better don’t do that no more again.

Eric: A great way to avoid some of the mistakes is working with the right people. For a cinematographer that means finding a trustworthy gaffer, the person who is most responsible for realizing the DP’s vision.

Janusz Kaminski: The scope is way too large. You can’t really demand every light to be placed on the set according to your desire. So you have a gaffer who is knowledgeable, who is interested in doing lighting, and he gets some gaffers who are more intellectual and others are much more, you know, technical and just do the lights. And then on the shooting day or day before you talk about the specifics of each scene and you change the light, in particular, the lighting of the main section of the scene, or you adjust the lighting or you do the lighting with the gaffer on the given day, right after the rehearsal. But if you lighting three city blocks, you know, you can’t really generalize. You know, don’t make a backlight. I don’t want to be backlight-ish or you say I want a backlight. I want this to feel romantic. I want to be blue-green.

Eric: And of course, a great DP will be somewhat limited if the director’s not on board as well.

Janusz Kaminski: For me, it’s very important that he tells good stories, you know, whatever that story is. Doesn’t have to be linear story. But I just like a director who is interested in storytelling, not necessarily in just entertaining people, but telling the stories, you know. And sometimes you get the chance to work with other directors outside Steven who are good storytellers and sometimes not. And I don’t want him to be my friend. I also want the director to respect me, respect my work and realize my contribution and realized my years of experience and not to be afraid. And the fear is a paralyzing thing for many directors. I want him or her to have good aesthetics or whatever it means.

Eric: That Steven he’s alluding to? Steven Spielberg. I think you’ve heard of him. It’s a remarkable collaboration that’s now spanned over 25 years, twenty films, five Oscar nominations, and two Oscar wins. And it’s a union that began thanks to Mr. Spielberg’s love of television.

Janusz Kaminski: I shot a little movie directed by Diane Keaton. That was I think 1990. It was a television movie. He likes television, you know. And that’s the way he connects with the world by watching television. He loves television. And he saw it on television. He really liked the movie. Stephen liked the work called my agent. We met and he offered me to do a television movie for his company. Television movie directed by Gregory Hoblit called Class of ’61, which was a civil war movie that deals with the West Point graduates in 1861. And after that, he offered me Schindler’s List. So pretty much like that. I was a really hard working boy when I was in film school. So it wasn’t just like he found me on the streets of Krakow, you know, and brought me to America. I mean I was here for 13 years and I’ve shot six, seven movies, you know. So I was rather experienced. I just didn’t have that little push. You know, he’s the most hardworking person that I’ve ever met. The moment we finish the movie within two weeks from the wrap, he’s got a pretty good final cut. So he works weekends, he works during lunch, he works after work. All the fame and the money he deserves. The other ones not necessarily deserve, but he really deserve it.

Eric: Most people would be completely intimidated working with a true titan of cinema for the first time. How could you not be? But Janusz Kaminski didn’t overthink it.

Janusz Kaminski: I was pretty naive when I started working with Steven. I really didn’t know what it meant for my career and for my life in general to be associated with him and work on the movies with him. So I was very naive. Now I’d be very scared. But at that point, I was just, you know, I saw another filmmaker whose work I admired and liked. I knew that I’ve got something offered to him that he liked and admired. So that was the base of our relationship, which was trust, a little bit of infatuation with each other’s work. And that relationship evolved in a bit of a friendship that lasted since 1993. I mean, obviously, I knew that his visual sense was superb and still continues to be superb. And I like the cinematographers he worked with but I wasn’t really intimidated or or afraid or felt out of the league. I just knew that I have to do good work. And that’s what he respected. You know, good work. Whatever that means, good work.

Eric: I think it’s fair to say Schindler’s List is more than just good work. The movie won a slew of Oscars and remains one of the most heart-wrenching stories ever committed to film, only deepened by its stark and gorgeous use of black and white. For Mr. Kaminski, it was a major step forward for his career while returning to where it all began.

Janusz Kaminski: Well, I mean, it was very emotional simply because I’ve not been to Poland for 13 years. I left as a young fellow with pretty much zero in my pocket and I came back with Spielberg to make a movie. And I left during the communes. Came back at the early stage of democracy. It was very emotional, very much interested in being in Poland. And I learned a lot about Holocaust. You know, we as the Poles, we’re not being taught about Holocaust. You know, we’re being told about the Second World War and the destruction that the war created on various ethnicities, such as Gypsies, Slavs, Germans, Russians, and Jews. But we were not really focusing on Holocaust or Jewish people, right? So that was extremely revealing experience. You know, it was very emotional at first. And then pretty quickly, I realized that it’s basically it’s the same country that it used to be. You know, I still have the same sentiment to some degree. My generation is the generation that is running the country and your generation will improve the country. Right now, it’s still a little bit tough. There’s some great people there, 40 million people. You’re bound to find some great people.

Eric: One of the film’s most indelible images is Oskar Schindler, noticing the girl in the red coat. It’s the only bit of color in a sea of black and white. A remarkable visual moment that actually began with the book.

Janusz Kaminski: It was not my idea. The movie’s based on a book and the little girl in the red dress was written into the novel right? Steven wanted to retain that aspect simply because it was metaphorical and created this certain symbols. And, you know, as you know, symbols, their interpretation is very individual, right? Technically, how we’ve done it, we’ve done it with shooting a color film. And then the image would be rotoscoped, which I don’t know if you guys know, but each frame would be hand painted and the color was was taken out and then each print was hand spliced because obviously you cannot print color negative and black and white negative on the same print stack. So each print was hand spliced at least in the primary market. And that’s the technique. That’s how we achieved the brief moments of color in black and white movie. Now, the meaning of it, whatever you think it is.

Eric: At this point, Janusz Kaminski preparing for a film with Steven Spielberg is a streamlined process. A little conversation about what they’re going after and for Mr. Kaminski knowing what to avoid.

Janusz Kaminski: Well, the preparation is very simple. We go look at the locations, him and I once. And then he comes back and we shoot the movie. That’s the preparation. We may look at one film or we may not. That’s the preparation, really. Lately, when he’s doing big movies like Indiana Jones, he would spend weeks and weeks and weeks in animation studio where he would do the previsual – previsual-ation. What it’s called, you know, he gets like a, like a animated storyboards, you know. So that’s what he would do. That’s his preparation. But you know, he just, sometimes we just don’t talk at all. I don’t know, I mean we don’t we don’t go to intellectual about things. But between Steven and I, very little preparation. We don’t talk much about it. Very little until I start doing the tests very early of tests where I’m doing some test and I’m beginning to show him certain things. And the way I, I work is not necessary that I know what this movie will look like. But I definitely know that’s not going to look like like a Robert Redford film. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but it’s not going to look like that. So I work by elimination. I eliminate what I don’t want this movie to look like. It’s the trust, you know and knowing that the guy who you’re working with is the guy that is really good for your movie. But there’s another way of working. You can sit and break down every single shot, create storyboards, create visual references and I’ve done that. I’ve done that with Cameron Crowe on Jerry Maguire. Where we sat through the entire movie and we did shotlist list and he did storyboards and stuff like that.

Eric: Part of Mr. Kaminski, his preparation is revisiting the imagery from his stories’ time frames, how people remember and identify those eras. He found that especially useful when capturing the 1970s for Munich.

Janusz Kaminski: The whole color palette. You have to work with certain color that represents the 70s and of course, what represents the 70s are the movies of the 70s. It’s Vanishing Point, Panic in Needle Park, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, French Connection. French Connection, I think was one of the bigger influences because of the color. But then you’ve got The Ipcress File, which is pretty amazing film. And then you get Get Carter. So a lot of inspirations. Not necessarily that I was borrowing the scenes, but all those great movies in the 70s that basically made me wanting to come to America because my perception of America was built based on watching American movies from the 70s. So I kind of remember what that felt. You know what that felt when I was sitting in Poland watching movies in the 70s so I kind of imagine what America must have been. So when I was just watching this movie here I’m thinking, wow, this movie really feels like the 70s. Oh, it takes place in the 70s. So I felt just for me, I succeeded in creating or recreating that kind of a feel of the 70s, you know. And the cars. I mean it’s not that hard to create period look. You put a couple of cars. You put people in funny haircuts and wardrobe, and you’ve got a sense of the period, right? What’s interesting is to restrain yourself from going too far. Like what Harry Savides did in the movie with Denzel Washington about the drug dealer. What was it called? American Gangster. I think Harry did a fantastic job. He totally restrained himself. He wasn’t flashy. He wasn’t really showing off. And he really conveyed that period. Nobody paid attention to his work because it was just so right and so perfect, you know, so you have to be little bit flashy so people can look at it and see, wow, this is it good work, you know.

Eric: Though there are limits to this research, especially for films set before photography, or if he wants to get certain shots that nobody dared capture in real life.

Janusz Kaminski: What influences me are the images that hopefully were taken during that particular period. Right? I mean, of course, you’re talking about 1890 and slavery there are not that many photos and the images were very deteriorated or period movies. But if you’re talking about Second World War, there’s a very large library of images that you can use as your resource, right? But the problem with those images is that, you know, if you’re a combat cameraman and you’re sitting there in the field, you’re not going to be running with that camera because you’re going to get shot, right? So you sit behind a rock or behind some kind of obstruction. You’ve got a long lens and and you capture the images that way. Well, we were not creating dangerous situations, so I was able to come up with visual style that allowed the audience to feel like they participating in the war. So the camera was hand-held. Usually the camera was just one single camera following the actors. You know when the actors fell down, the operator would fall down, that kind of stuff. The explosions were happening left and right. So you had this immediacy of the war that frequently combat cameraman would not be able to convey simply because they would not exposed himself to that kind of a danger. You’re looking at documentary footage and of course, you understand intellectually how powerful the war was, but you’re really not feeling emotionally what that war feels like. And then again, our recollection of periods, you know, that, you know, 1890,s warm, 70s, fluorescent and ugly. That kind of stuff. So war is usually black and white, particularly the Second World War. But they just discovered recently a large library of George Stephenson’s color movies, and they were amazing. It’s amazing to see war in color. And I did an interview a few years ago about the beauty of the war and war an be beautiful. Well intellectually it cannot be beautiful because people are dying and all that stuff. But visually, it’s a stunning experience. Explosions, blood, colors, you know, and the grit. You know, it’s just really, really visually stimulating. It’s not beautiful. It’s just visually stimulating, the war.

Eric: Janusz Kaminski also takes color inspiration from where his various movies are set, which helped audiences orient themselves during Munich‘s globe trotting set pieces.

Janusz Kaminski: Greece was very yellow, which is very interesting, this movie to play with the colors because you have to let the audience immediately identify where they are. So if you’re not using some strong, very strong visual metaphors I guess, you will lose the audience. So the first explosion was very yellow. Then we go to France, it’s a bit more bluish. Then we go to Israel, it’s very steel blue, you know, that kind of stuff. Italy is very warm and fuzzy. France is very warm and fuzzy. So using those visual cliches that we as the people identify with specific countries, you know. Israel, warm, sunny, you know. Iceland, you know, all day you get light, you know, dark, and at night, you know, blah, blah, blah. Russia, gray and smoky, you know, France, you know, bluish kind of, you know. So, yeah, you let the gaffer do as much as he can on his own, because if he doesn’t, then you’re going to fall behind and you have to do more work. So surround yourself with the best people you can work less. And I want to work as little as possible. You know, except when I’m on the set, then I work as much as I can, but I don’t, I don’t like preproduction. I like going on location scouts and walking. Let’s talk about the sequences from inside the car and shooting through the back window and seeing the people. Then you rack focus to the mirror in the foreground and that mirror sees. It was a bit of a nightmare because you have to constantly balance and you lose light in the mirror. You lose it in the glass. And you have to light the people outside and you have to light the people inside. It becomes problematic.

Eric: When determining the look of each film, Mr. Kaminski actively tries to avoid the obvious choices or clichés surrounding the use of color.

Janusz Kaminski: Color is a part of the artistic expression, right? Up to some degree, black and white is much easier because you don’t have color, so you don’t operate on that level. When you have color, you have to organize colors and make some kind of a story. Right? And Storaro was like the first cinematographer who really brought the whole intellectual concept of using the color in movies. Right. And he was not inventing the genre. Anybody who reads a little bit about psychology will realize the influence of certain colors on our behavior. He was just the one who verbally explain it to most of the viewers what he was doing in terms of the colors. So blue is sad, red anger, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I’m more interested in what happens when you change things, you know. Where you don’t make the blue to be sad, but blue could be happy as well, right? What happens when you do a period movie and rather than having beautiful period images, you go into hand-held and you do it really gritty and ugly right? I’m interested in those things, you know? So I use color, I know color, and I try to organize color in in some kind of a manner that tells the story. But it’s also to go against the cliches and against the expected results, you know.

Eric: Many cinematographers prefer to have complete lighting control on their sets, but Janusz Kaminski enjoys the creative challenges and prefers the limitations of a practical location over a soundstage.

Janusz Kaminski: Particularly in Malta, some of the stuff that was shot at the safe house was really difficult because it was just basically a rundown building with not really great access to the windows and stuff like that. You just simplify, you just make a one light that’s really hot. Let it bounce from the walls and makes a interesting style statement and also works for you in terms of the storytelling, you know. It’s better on location than in the studio because in the studio I’ve got all the freedom, all the equipment. Not necessary at the time, but all the freedom to move the walls and so forth. But you don’t have is actually the limitations and you don’t have the background, no matter how much you work on putting artificial background outside the windows it’s always tiny bit looks artificial, you know. Locations are great. I love locations. Actually more than the studio.

Eric: Perhaps no collaboration with Spielberg was more challenging than Saving Private Ryan. Janusz Kaminski found himself throwing away many of the conventional rules of filmmaking and just kept waiting for the legendary director to call him out on it.

Janusz Kaminski: Well you do tests and you know, all that stuff that seems to be unprepared was very prepared and very rehearsed for one reason. You know, it takes about a week and a half to lay all the explosives. So if you blow it, you just blew it. You don’t have a take. So it was very much rehearsed. Everything was rehearsed. What was not rehearsed was the speed of the actors as they’re traveling through the scene. And just, you know, everything happens slightly different when you, when you actually have explosives blowing up next to you and you get the stuff flying, everything gets a bit more adrenaline. In terms of the visual preparation, I have done very extensive tests in terms of how I’m going to manipulate the image, what is the technique I’m going to use, to what extent I will manipulate the images so they still look like you can follow this story but they so disjoint that you almost feel like you’re looking at something that’s documentary, you know. So I knew what I can achieve, what I had to do, not necessarily convince the director, because the director was very easy to be convinced, but to make him to fall in love of it. And he did, you know, which was great. You know, actually, there was one instance when we started making the movie, which is the Omaha landing. We shot for three days and we didn’t get the dailies for three days. And Steven usually looks at the scenes where he’s got the entire scene filmed. And I’ve seen the dailies and I knew that we were verging little bit on student filmmaking here in terms of what I was doing, because the images were very disjointed and look closely, look oh there goes Tom Hanks, you can’t even see him. And I was still, you know, working out on the treadmill. I had my treadmill losing weight. You know, his assistant comes in and says, Steven wants to talk to you. And he had his own editing room assembled on the location. So I’m going All right. There we go. See you later. And he just loved what we’ve done. And he says, can we do it more? I said yeah. What did you do here? I did this. Okay, let’s do it more. Okay, let’s do it more. And that’s what you want from director. You don’t want director to say, whoa, this is scary. I don’t know. Will the studio like it? You know, you want the director to really like what you’re giving him or her, you know. And that’s when you fly. That’s when you become the most productive and free. And I think that’s Steven’s trademark. He gets what’s best in people because he doesn’t allow us. We’ve got it. But he gets what’s in us. And he positively reinforces our desires to be better. And I think one of the good traits of the director is to hire great people who can make the movie for you. Of course, if they make a really bad movie, you tell them, well, you know, I told him not to do it. But if the movie is good, yep, we all did it.

Eric: Around this time, Janusz Kaminski began experimenting with what’s known as bleach bypass. It’s a process that enables the silver of the film to be retained in the emulsion, which then changes the color palette. Notable examples include Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and Ready Player One. It’s a unique process which Mr. Kaminski gravitated towards because the story called for it.

Janusz Kaminski: I think during the Amistad, which was 1996, I was looking for a way to de-beautify the image. You know, it’s a slave history. It will be totally wrong to have, you know, beautiful firework with pretty warm colors while the guys are getting chained up and locked up in the prison, right? So I started investigating different processes. And the practice that I started using is not the practice that really was invented for me. It was invented for Storaro hence why his movies look so great, because he was the only one who was doing it for so many years. And once they did little test, I realized, wow, I’ve got a little bit of advantage over other guys because it just becomes so much more beautiful. The whole images become more interesting, more beautiful. They have unique quality. The color saturation becomes different. The shadows become different. Everything becomes more velvety, more gorgeous, you know. There are problems with it. But you learn that if you do it. And pretty much since 1995, every single movie I’ve done was with bleach bypass.

Eric: While staying true to the needs of each story, Janusz Kaminski still manages to put his own visual stamp on each film he shoots. As he explained, even Steven Spielberg himself is guilty of that, too.

Janusz Kaminski: Well I think each story has its own representation. Of course, I’m the one that puts my own little imprint. Not consciously. I’m not sitting there thinking, OK, this is what I’m going to do, because that’s what I do. It’s just, I express myself through cinematography. And it’s apparently to you and others, it’s very obvious that there is a certain resemblance from one movie to another or certain motifs or elements from each movie to another. But at the same time, you know, he makes essentially the same movies. You know occasionally, when he makes Jurassic Park or War of the Worlds. But War of the Worlds is nothing but guy with strength to connect with his kids, you know. Schindler’s List is about guy who who discovers humanity. E.T. is about this little kid who discovers tolerance. So, I mean, all these movies are essentially, they’ve got very similar theme. And few years ago we watched Baretta and I think he directed a couple of Baretta, I think. And I was just laughing as we doing the same shots. I mean, the same shots as in Baretta. So, you know, we don’t really change dramatically. We just refine certain things, you know? But, you know, as a filmmaker, I think he he expresses himself through directing even when he’s making these high budget, extremely commercial movies. There is still part of him that he allows the viewers to learn about. It’s the same to my work.

Eric: Well, if it was good enough for a 70s cop show, it’s good enough for Bridge of Spies. Though the art of filmmaking has changed a great deal in the five decades of Steven Spielberg’s career. For instance, nowadays, very little filming is actually done on film.

Janusz Kaminski: I think digital is getting better. I think it’s, in Europe it’s the norm. Nobody has the money anymore to make movies on film. It’s getting better. People are saying it’s fantastic, you know. And what’s interesting is we’re not comparing it anymore. Digital has its own language and you tell the story and the images, they don’t necessarily look like film. But they look great, right? And now you do something on film with the DI. You know, it looks like bad digital. That’s going to be the norm. You know, in five years, there’ll be no more film, you know. It’s like the typewriter. Bye bye. That’s my take, you know. But what do I know? I have very little experience with digital.

Eric: So what parting words of wisdom does one of Hollywood’s biggest cinematographers have for the next generation of storytellers?

Michael Pessah: I know you make it look easy, but you’ve had incredible longevity to your career.

Janusz Kaminski: Not much longer, baby. All these young people coming up. And I will die, by the way, so they will be opening. That was my thing when I came to Hollywood. I’m thinking, all those guys will eventually die. Well, they dying, but I’ve made it a bit sooner. We will die off and there will be opening. Half way serious, half way joking. Tremendous amount of room at the top.

Eric: Well, Janusz Kaminski is not going anywhere anytime soon, except maybe back to set. His next to Spielberg collaboration’s are already in the works. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and a remake of West Side Story. We want to thank Mr. Kaminski for speaking with our students. And thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and curated by Tova Laiter, co-moderated by Michael Pessah. To watch the full interview or to see or other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

 

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