December 21, 2014

Profound Words of Wisdom & Inspiration from the World's Best Cinematographers

Light & Shadow - Martin Scorcese
Remember Zacuto's epic 2012 camera shootout? Outdated though the results of that shootout may seem two and a half years later, one well-crafted remnant remains more relevant and inspirational than ever.

During that incredibly complex production, in the presence of many of the world's finest DPs, Steve Weiss shot a supplemental documentary called "Light & Shadow" that is perhaps one of the finest pieces ever created about the intangibles of cinematography. We all know that the technical side of filmmaking can be learned by anyone, but the artistic choices made by history's most storied DPs reveal that there is far more to the craft than simply placing lights and cameras. There's an indescribable human element that informs each artistic choice we make, and being able to tap into that element for the purpose of visual storytelling (in the form of cinematography) is the most powerful tool at any DP's disposal.

If there's anything to be taken from this piece, it's something that most of us already know: fancy gear does not inherently result in the creation of memorable visual art. There's no debate that cinematography is a highly technical endeavor, and increasingly so as digital technology marches onward. However, as gear gets more advanced and more affordable, and as information about how to create technically competent imagery becomes widespread, it's becoming harder and harder for newcomers to distinguish themselves and their work from the massive catalogue of amateur visual content now freely available on every corner of the internet.

For that reason, up and coming cinematographers are facing a bit of a conundrum. The traditional advice for honing cinematography skills is to constantly be shooting. However, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that personal and artistic growth are more important factors when it comes to developing a distinct and individual cinematographic voice.

Because film is an amalgamation of artistic mediums -- it's a one of a kind combination of photography, music, painting, theater, literature, and numerous other forms -- it stands to reason that well-rounded filmmakers should be versed in these mediums. Because psychology plays a unique role in how humans perceive and interpret imagery, cinematographers should have a grasp on the basics of psychology. And of course, since film history is replete with beautiful, well-constructed films that evoke every emotion imaginable, up and coming filmmakers should be aware of the cinematic ground that has been successfully treaded by their predecessors.

I would consider all of these endeavors to be important facets of becoming a stronger cinematographer, but there are more theories than can be counted regarding how to develop true filmmaking prowess. What would you recommend to young cinematographers looking to distinguish themselves from the pack? Let us know down in the comments!     

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14 Comments

What a fantastic video - thanks for sharing! I agree with your assessment 100%.

As a rising cinematographer, I feel that pressure on a near daily basis, but I too have always felt some reluctance towards the adage of "always be shooting".

I never quite understood how over-working yourself to exhaustion on a bunch of small projects that are getting you nowhere will make you a better cinematographer.

It seems to me that in order to stand out from the crowd, one has to actively seek opportunities and endeavors that will challenge them and offer chances to really hone the craft and learn new things - even if that means turning down work once in a while.

I also couldn't agree more with the various pundits in the video when they say that the obsession with technology and gear has gotten way out of hand and that true artistry and skill is developed by honing talent and experience, not by obsessing over which camera has more dynamic range or better low-light capabilities.

Anyway, excellent post all-around!

December 21, 2014 at 8:13PM

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Oren Soffer
Director of Photography
1863

Thanks Oren. Your reel is awesome, by the way. You have a real knack for colorful, expressionistic lighting and a solid eye for composition. Keep up the good work!

December 21, 2014 at 9:21PM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4393

Thanks, Robert! That's so kind of you to say! :)

December 22, 2014 at 8:11AM

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Oren Soffer
Director of Photography
1863

I second that assessment.

February 8, 2015 at 2:32AM

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What are the 2 soundtracks used in this piece...rather - which movies are they from?

December 21, 2014 at 8:52PM

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Govinda Angulo
Freelance Assistant Camera
81

Thank you for sharing this.
Inspirational.

December 21, 2014 at 9:34PM, Edited December 21, 9:34PM

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Dang. That was incredibly bad ass. Thanks for sharing.

December 22, 2014 at 2:45AM

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Speaking from a tech stand point I have seen well done 1080p footage from a DSLR outclass average work on a Red Epic. So for me a better color space, bit rate, and bit depth are more prized than the race for resolution.

On the artistic side the best thing I heard was from Janusz Kaminski. He said to watch life around you and see how light and shadows change and shift. That might be the best was to absorb without constantly creating content.

December 22, 2014 at 2:20PM

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Kyle Acker
Cinematographer/ Video Editor
224

FWIW, I just found an interview given by the Jean Jacques Buyon (not sure about the last name spelling), the president of the French Cinematographer Association, that was given in Sankt Petersburg, Russia a couple of weeks ago during an international cinema professional gathering.

It's in Russian but Google Translate does a decent enough job. Buyon opines on a number of subjects from Godard to Renoir to the old hand held cameras like Eclaire to the modern digital.

And the photo of Godard in a wheel chair directing Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg is "Breathless" is worth the click all by itself.

http://www.colta.ru/articles/cinema/5768

December 22, 2014 at 8:59PM

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Dan Leo
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Honestly every cinematographer I've talked to has said, do no try and imitate someone else's style, it just gets lost in the void and its so true, you have to go with your gut, do things that feel right to you. If you are the Director of photography, embrace it, make it yours, make it something you are proud of every shot.

It's true technology is evolving all the time and I'll be damned when my camera becomes obsolete (about 2 months from now) but I think you gotta stay ahead of the game by changing it. Great post here, made me start a membership.

December 22, 2014 at 9:22PM

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Graham Uhelski
Director of Photography/Video Editor
329

Thank you Robert for posting this, that was very kind. I have to tell you that after 30 years in the business working on this project was my favorite of all. Being able to interview all of these individuals (people who have inspired me for years) was a learning experience that I can't even begin to tell you. How some of the interviews came about is a story unto itself. It's hard to get access to cinematographers like this (not to mention schedules between projects) but good friends like Rodney Charters, Nancy Schreiber, Steven Goldblatt and Bruce Logan and all of their friends in the business helped immensely.

I remember sending Haskell Wexler some of my work and asking him if we can interview him and he said "sure-OK". So he says, "you'll come buy, we can go across the street and shoot in the park". I was just thrilled to have him but I wanted to shoot him on my signiture black background so I told him no, we really have our own vision of how we want to do this. I stood my ground hoping he would understand our vision was worth fighting for. So he said, "you'll come by, we'll take a look, and see". So we go to Haskell's apartment and he's shooting us as we walk in the door. Constantly shooting documentaries, even of us shooting him. He says, go in my den and setup your lighting and we'll take a look. I think Den Lennie, Mick Jones and Lan Bui, Jens and me were there. All we wanted to do is take our pictures with Haskell's Oscar sitting on the coffee table. So we finishing setting up and Haskell walks in, looks at the image on the monitor and sits down for the interview, he didn't say a word. I think that was high praise from him, he's a tough but fair customer. Happy I got what I wanted I, said nothing and started asking questions. Janusz too said come to my house and we'll shoot in the park across the street. I again told him that wasn't my vision. We were setup at his alma mater, the AFI and begged him to come over. He said yes and it was a very emotional interview. The worst situation by far was Vilmos Zigmond. He really wanted to be apart of it but he doesn't live in LA, nor do I. Every month or so for a year he would tell me he's coming to LA and I told him I was in Chicago. So finally he said he is coming to CineGear and I said we were going to be there. Since we were on the backlot at Paramount for the CineGear show we had no choice but to shoot him on the third floor of one of the NY 3rd story walkups on the fake Manhattan streets on the lot. We didn't know we were going to be an interview so we had to scrounge up a battery light and try to copy what we've done in this loud trade show. We didn't have permission and didn't want to plug anything in the wall for obvious union issues. We figured once we got Vilmus up there, no one at Paramount would want to upset him and tell us we couldn't shoot. The footage wasn't very good because we used an LED light and didn't have our cardboard soft box. So in post I opted to make it B&W with some of that 16mm projector sound under him to block out the sounds of crowd noise and drones flying around the trade show. Good times and I learned a ton. The footage on the cutting room floor is so noteworthy but you have to know when to kill your babies to make a good tight film.

The one who had the hardest job was Jens Bogehegn my partner in Zacuto and my cinematographer since 1985. He had to light over 30 of the greatest cinematographers of our day. These interviews were shot at different times over a year and half. Each time he would say, are they going to like my lighting. Can you imagine having Janusz, Haskell or Vilmus judging your lighting. Our whole lighting scheme was a single open face light with frost incapsulated in 3 foot long foam core tube/box. It created a small pool of soft light and allowed us to shoot in small rooms with our portable black background whilst keeping the light off the background. Almost every cinematographer walked onto the set and said, "single light source", excellent.

Someone asked about the music, it was all APM library music. Don't discount library music, I've scored and used library music in my career and library music in most instances is the way to go mainly because you can get very specific kinds of music and full symphony orchestrations, that you can't get from scoring yourself unless you are Steven Spielberg with John Williams.

December 22, 2014 at 11:01PM

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Steve Weiss
Producer, Director since 1983. Product Designer at Zacuto
79

Thanks for making such an insightful film and for sharing those stories, Steve! I was completely starstruck the first time I watched this. I can't even imagine how it must have felt to interview such legends of the craft. Anyhow, Light & Shadow has definitely become a regular watch for me, especially when I'm in need of inspiration, so thanks again for taking the time to bring all of these one-of-a-kind voices together!

December 23, 2014 at 1:46AM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4393

Thank you guys for this video. Love it! Such inspirational stuff from the experts for us the young people. Thank you.

December 23, 2014 at 8:03AM

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Such a beautiful film. Thanks a lot

December 23, 2014 at 1:04PM

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Great post, except that, in this part of the world where I am at the moment, it is not possible to watch it due to the lack of fast Internet connectivity. Alas the IT!

February 8, 2015 at 1:48AM, Edited February 8, 1:48AM

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rita zanin
Filmmaker
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