December 24, 2014

7 Takeaways from THR's Uncensored 2014 Cinematographer's Roundtable

Hollywood Reporter's 2014 Cinematographers Roundtable
Round-table style discussions are a great way to get a sense of the different viewpoints of working filmmakers. This year, THR packs their table with cinematographic talent to discuss different approaches to the craft.

In the 2014 lineup is: Dion Beebe (Into the Woods), Jeff Cronenweth (Gone Girl), Roger Deakins (Unbroken), Benoit Delhomme (The Theory of Everything), Matthew Libatique (Noah) and Dick Pope (Mr. Turner). Check out the 40-minute video here:

Here are some of my takeaways from the discussion:

People confuse "pretty" with good cinematography.

With now ubiquitous access to "quality" looking images, the role of the cinematographer becomes even more difficult and important. Adjectives like "beautiful" and "spectacular" have lost their meaning completely, and cinematographers are not looking for shallow compliments. They want their work to melt into the bigger picture -- they want their movies to work.

If a review only picks up on the cinematography and forget about reviewing the film, if that's the only thing they can grab onto -- that's about as bad as it gets.

The late great Sydney Lumet said:

Good camera work is not pretty pictures. It should augment and reveal the theme as fully as the actors and directors do -- The overriding consideration for me is that the techniques come from the material. They should change as the material changes. Sometimes it's important not to do anything with the camera, to just shoot it 'straight'. And equally important to me is that all this work stay hidden.

This viewpoint is heavily reinforced by the voices at this round-table -- when watching a film they don't want to be thinking about the cinematography, they just want to surrender to an experience.

Being asked back is the best review a cinematographer can get.

Dick Pope says of his second collaboration with Mike Leigh: "It's the most wonderful thing to be asked back, if you want to. It's a great honor. It means more than any credit or any review that they enjoyed the experience and they want you to do another one." There is much more than the technical qualifications that a DP brings to the table. Being an enjoyable person to work with is a huge part of our job security. Arguments happen, differences arise, heads will butt -- but we must not let these things get in the way of the work.

Start every film with "I don't know how to do it."

Benoit Delhomme stresses that he doesn't feel he has a style -- and he doesn't want one. He looks at each project as starting over, a redefinition of his style. Every time is risky because he's trying to do something new; he's applying a new rule on each film. For Delhomme, most of his preparation is getting to know the director.

What actors do technically meets what cinematographers do creatively.

In the early days of movies there were more technical considerations that actors had to think about: lighting, depth of field, where you can walk and where you can't. Actors have now been freed up by modern cinematography. There are many kinds of actors -- some want to get involved and know about the technical side of filmmaking -- others just want to take care of their character. The creative and the technical however, are inextricably linked, and it's good to recognize that actors have a technical component to their craft just as cinematographers have a creative one.

Working with weather is like rolling the dice.

When working on location and with exteriors, despite many useful apps to help predict the weather, there's no real way to know what it will do. Therefore, the DP must make a choice on which look to maintain throughout the scene. This choice can sometimes continue for days or weeks, but it's basically a coin flip cinematographers have to make. Dick Pope also makes the case for having a little good luck on your side, as he did for the cloudscapes of Mr. Turner.

Film projection is on its last legs.

The shutter effect that everyone loves so much about film projectors comes at the cost of the quality control of film prints. With film prints you never really know what the quality will be like, if the print will be covered in dirt, or scratched. Some view this as a lost charm of projection, but there's also a comfort for cinematographers to know that the DCP will be the same every time.

High dynamic range is not simply better.

Contrast is important. Our eyes aren't used to seeing all the details outside a bright sunlit window and shadows in the same image. Dion Beebe states:

I could walk into any restaurant in the middle of the night in LA and photograph in it without bringing lights with me. But is that cinematography? Surely part of what we do is about shaping light and telling a story with light. And I do worry, do you just stop applying light?

What do you think of this roundtable and the role of the cinematographer today?     

Your Comment


Some really powerful stuff in here. All of which is just as inspiring. As someone who is struggling with finding my "voice" as a cinematographer, I find it reassuring to keep hearing from cinematographers whom I admire that they try to be as transparent as possible. That they aren't trying to WOW with every image. It's so easy to try and make a shot as pretty as I can. However, if it isn't helping the story along... I'm simply not doing my job. Thanks for this post NFS.

December 25, 2014 at 1:13AM


These roundtables are fantastic. Such a wealth of information and inspiration. I love how emotion driven their cinematography is, as though the director is kind of pushing for a 'style' and the cinematographer is interpreting that through the emotion of the scene. Or maybe the other way around. but the emotion vs style paradigm is an interesting one, which wasnt touched on hugely but its something im still really trying to get my head around as a director and i tend to stick to emotion over style which works but doesnt offer the additional pizzazz to kind of stand out. I would love to hear any thoughts or experiences around emotion vs style?

December 25, 2014 at 3:57AM, Edited December 25, 3:57AM

Isaac Elliott

I think you really hit the nail on the head twice there. A good cinematographer should have emotion-driven work that also reflects their interpretations of the director's attempted or perceived style. One of the hardest things I find is trying to decide when and how to blend a particular style and emotion. I don't really think there is any one answer, other than to try and capture what best supports and reflects the story.

December 26, 2014 at 12:18AM

Emerson Shaw

It seems like its almost about setting limits around the style your doing in the film, so you an exploit that style to create the emotion. Or else you get stuck in the dangerous world of cliché, where all you have to play in is what you have seen to work in other film. Hold a close up for emotion for example, or general wide/over/over coverage etc etc. I guess you could compare the films of Derek Cianfrance and Wes Anderson, two very very different film makers that in my opinion seem to restrict themselves to a particular style that are after in a movie and then exploit the emotion or the story within that style.

I guess the conclusion im coming to for myself is that research and knowledge and understanding of different art, culture, photography, music, storytelling etc etc, really is the key to attaining a style while then exploiting it to best tell a narrative and the emotion of the characters within it. This will allow me to articulate what im after with references rather than scattershot hope that 'looks cool' or 'works' etc etc. Articulating and and understanding really does seem like the key to finding and exploiting a style while also being abel to exploit the emotional aspects within that style.

December 27, 2014 at 8:11PM

Isaac Elliott

This was what I was trying to tell someone the other when we saw a movie that didn't have the so "pretty" images, but he was set on "ugly" equals a low quality production. I see this every time I visit a short film festival (at least in Sweden) where judges and audience ignore strong short films because they didn't have a shiny surface. We always hear "content is king", but it's so sad to see how many people who are judging the book by it's cover like it's an indicator that writing, acting, directing and so on is on an acceptable level.

December 25, 2014 at 8:51AM

Hampus Lager

Great stuff

December 25, 2014 at 5:57PM

Miguel Sotto

Fantastic roundtable, as always, and great discussion in the comments here as well! It's always really inspirational to hear from the cream of the crop. Jeff Cronenweth seems to be just the most incredible, soft-spoken guy. It's fascinating to think what his working relationship with David Fincher must be like, and it's also great to hear that even someone who is constantly working with the most cutting edge technology going all the way back to his and Fincher's early adoption of digital cameras that content is still key.

That said, one thing I will say is that this roundtable does somewhat reinforce the whole "cinematographer is an older boy's club. Next year, it would be great to hear from some younger voices who are doing some really, really exciting things - just this year alone, I could totally see Bradford Young, Roman Vasyanov and Greig Fraser contributing some really great stuff to this discussion!

December 26, 2014 at 12:56PM

Oren Soffer
Director of Photography

Will they give Deakins the guy this time? No.

December 26, 2014 at 4:25PM

Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor

People also confuse "moody" with good cinematography.

December 27, 2014 at 11:57AM

Chris Santucci

REALLY enjoyed this presentation. Amazing amount of passion, talent and at the same time humility.

December 27, 2014 at 2:23PM

Alan Austin

Hi NFSers! I want to note one thing that doesn't get picked up by most people who are outside of the movie business.
While these gentlemen are great cinematographers, they I are great politicians in the first place...Just watch how carefully they pick their words when they talk or express their opinions. There were moments in the video when the show runner tries to get insights about A. Jolie and Deakins avoids the corners and responds with very generic answers, though his face were telling much more then his mouth. While been a great cinematographer is a chance to get in the movie industry, been a good speaker is just a must on the level they work. I think it is a invaluable skill for the person who works in a collaborative environment.
The rest they were saying was nothing new to me, but I enjoyed the their skills of talk and been nice.

December 29, 2014 at 9:07AM

Einar Gabbassoff
D&CD at Frame One Studio