What Ninn calls his "other life" is one in which, under another name, he has won 11 Addy awards (for commercial work) and has made over 80 music videos. He broke into adult in the early 1990s, without having performed or worked as a technician of some kind first, which is something of a rarity. In his early 50s now, he is settled down with a wife and kids and an absolutely sterling reputation in adult and mainstream film.
He didn't have what you'd call an auspicious beginning, however.
"The first picture I made in adult," Ninn recalls, "the owner of the company threw it at me. He said, 'No one wants to see this. It looks like a Chanel No. 5 commercial. It'll never sell.'" Whether from hardheadedness or artistic integrity, Ninn didn't take the implicit advice to "go with the flow." He flowed off into what is now a storied career, replete with awards, recognition and, most importantly to him, the respect of his peers.
It seems to have worked out well. After a long and fruitful association with VCA, Ninn founded Ninn worx, which not only distributes his productions through a variety of other firms but also is taking on new, young directors to be mentored and produced. As he does not do a lot of interviews — "I don't think I've done 10 in my whole adult career," he muses — it took quite some time to get him (a process managed with grace and aplomb by his wife and management stalwart, Q Ninn).
XBIZ recently spoke with Michael Ninn.
XBIZ: I was surprised that I didn't find a lot of interviews with you online in the usual places. Is it because you're too busy, or is it a policy of yours?
NINN: You know, in the early days of my career, I didn't do any interviews. When I first got in the business and I first started doing adult, I couldn't see the fuss. So I kind of stayed away from the interviews, and during my VCA days a buddy of mine did all the interviews for me.
XBIZ: You live and work in Santa Barbara, for the most part, which puts you at somewhat of a distance from the business, doesn't it?
NINN: I am always staying well out of the limelight. Even with some 80 AVN reviews now, I always try to stay out of the spotlight. I have never been to an AVN show, never been to any of the award shows and for the most part, I don't read the reviews.
XBIZ: That rocky start of yours — with the company owner more or less throwing your first movie back in your face — that must have been a formative experience, right?
NINN: Well, I've always done what I thought I should do and not pay attention to anything other than my instincts. Of course, I have learned over the years to mix art with commerce. I know what works.
XBIZ: You have a remarkable reputation, even among other filmmakers, so we are excited at the prospect of hearing you explain your filmmaking process to our readers — among whom are those other filmmakers and their distributors. The first question we always ask, of course, is, what is your camera of choice?
NINN: My camera of choice right now is the Canon H1. I love those cameras, and I like the XL2 also.
XBIZ: There's some compression even in the raw signal with those, correct?
NINN: That's right, but we step on it [apply compression] anyway. Nothing goes out of here that hasn't been film-looked, and we have render farm here, and that has a lot to do with the look we've achieved over the years. We treat the smallest projects and the largest ones the same, since we try to keep things looking beautiful.
XBIZ: A lot of the look is from the original image capture, which is highly dependent on lighting. What is your approach there?
NINN: Lighting is very important, of course. Now, there would be some in our business who would say, "Man, I can't tell them this stuff!" But for me, if I can help out a younger cat that's making films, and give him some ideas about how I approach it, I have no problem with that. I always put my fills on rollers, and my rollers follow the cameraman. My front fill is always on a dimmer, too, and on a roller so I can move it in and out as quickly as I want. That's so I can establish my wide [shot]. A lot of times in the wide you have more light to deal with and play with, but as the camera gets in you start adjusting for exposure and such.
XBIZ: And it's soft light, of course.
NINN: I like real nice, soft light so I roll in and approach things like a [still] photographer would. Because it's video, it's instant, and I like high key, so I always use real strong backlight to separate. See, the best way I can describe it is that video works like tracing paper; that's how it perceives the picture. It's tracing that image in the foreground harder than it does the background image, which can be especially apparent when you're dealing with fields of interlacing.
XBIZ: How do you deal with those oddities and artifacts?
NINN: We remove the interlacing, number one, and we frame-slur the image, so we're getting a piece of frame one and a piece of frame three mixed with frame two. That's real, real important to remove that hard edge of video. I try to take it the way film looks at a picture, so my thing has always been to soften that foreground image and step on it with diffusion in post. Oh, and always clean lenses, always.
XBIZ: Some say high-definition video (hi-def) is too clinical, so real that it's unreal. What's your take?
NINN: In hi-def we step all over it [with compression and diffusion]. Video is great for sporting events, things like that, but it's not very friendly to glamour and beauty. At least for my market, the people I am shooting for, it's all about making the girl look as beautiful and mainstream as possible.
XBIZ: Where did that outlook, that artistic vantage point, come from in your life?
NINN: If you look at what I grew up on, like early Penthouse and Vogue from the 1970s and 1980s, Penthouse was the king of available light and soft focus. Women should be beautiful. I love women. I am not one of these men who want to spit on them, and I would hope the cats who buy my films love women, the whole concept of women, every inch of them.
XBIZ: So, no bukkake series coming from Ninn Worx?
NINN: I've got no problem with other genres, but it's not what I do.
XBIZ: You do a lot more than adult work. Tell us about that "other life."
NINN: In my other life I've won 11 Addys, and I've done over 80 music videos in my career under another name.
XBIZ: But adult work is special for you, right?
NINN: One of things in shooting adult, and the reason I stay in adult, is that it's art without committee. I got to a point where, if I can't do it exactly the way I want to, forget it. At my age, I am not going to compromise what I do. My career in adult is at a place where the talent that comes on the set wants to work with me, doesn't question what I'm doing, what I want to do or how I want to do it. It's a matter of trust, and it's at a point of trust now with the girls who want to shoot with me. They trust that I'm going to do justice to their imagery, and make their imagery as beautiful as I can. We're here to make them beautiful.
XBIZ: Your friend, guitarist Eddie Van Halen, did two tracks for "Sacred Sin," and the tunes will also be on the non-explicit version of the film that you're calling "Rise." Was this collaboration controversial for him? Why did he do it?
NINN: [Eddie] is at a point also where, like me in my career, he doesn't care what people say. It doesn't matter anymore. Beyond that, I really don't know what drives Eddie. He's a complicated guy. He's a good friend.
XBIZ: So it's not a controversy in your eyes, right?
NINN: I understand the politics of what we do and how it's done in adult film. But if you don't please yourself first, you've got nothing. I try to instill that in my children, and in young directors, too.
XBIZ: Who's coming up behind you and the other top adult directors? Who has some buzz going?
NINN: There's lots of talent. But I just hired some guys that I'm distributing called Max Candy — Maury and Louie, who are 20-something with incredible skills. They know how to tell a story, to light it, to keep the audience.
XBIZ: There's a lot of buzz about this "alt-20" material now. What do you think?
NINN: There is a lot of this alt-20 stuff out there, and a lot of it is garbage. A bad filmmaker can just hide behind that label. The technical skills are still the technical skills. There's a lot of noise being made in the adult industry about some of these alt-20 cats, but most of them have no chops. I tell that to my son, who wants to be a filmmaker, because he says, "Dad, I can just hang with you." I say "No, you have to go to school, learn your craft, then we can so some stuff together."
XBIZ: In his interview, Axel Braun couldn't stop talking about your editing prowess. He said he usually tries to talk people into using Avid on the PC, but that you were such a master of Final Cut Pro on the Macintosh that he just wouldn't even bring it up to you. Tell us about your editing, the approach and the equipment.
NINN: We have two Final Cut Pro systems and four Velocity systems, and they handle and approach editing in different ways. It has to do with the right tool for the right job, for what I am trying to achieve at the time — what I need the tool to do for a certain thing. I am not an advocate for a certain platform. I've used everything from SGI to a Flame system. There are things about the Mac I don't like and things with the PC I don't like. The new Intel-based Macs are great, but I always find a way to kill any computer. They're never fast enough. I started out with a little Radio Shack box, a TRS-80, with a 5-inch floppy. And that Amiga 1000 was one of the best boxes ever built.
XBIZ: What about this new non-explicit version of "Sacred Sin," called "Rise"?
NINN: I was working on that when you called. I am a real texture person when it comes to filmmaking. I start with texture before I even get to the story. As for "Rise," I know that we'll put it out there and we'll see what it does. Some distributors want to change the name of the director, but I said no way. If HBO and Showtime don't want it because they have a policy against having adult talent in an R-rated project, fuck them. There's the Internet, there's a lot of ways to get your message out there.
XBIZ: What does the future hold for Michael Ninn?
NINN: I understand commerce, certainly, but I hope Ninn worx becomes a refuge for an avant-garde kind of approach to making adult film, for cats that want to make pictures a little outside the box. That story about the first picture I made in adult, where the owner of the company threw it at me and said no one will want to see it — well, I haven't looked back since. I guess if I listened to him, it would have been a different story. I was doing what I thought was appealing to me, and that's what I will keep on doing.