Chayse Irvin is defined by contradiction: “I’ll shoot black and white. I’ll shoot color. I’m mixing things. I’m breaking the rules of image continuity,” he told us. But, the more you learn about him, the more you see that he’s not contradicting for the sake of contradiction. He’s disciplined and methodical, which makes him less a man of contradiction and more a man of paradox. There’s real meaning in it.
Whether it’s documentaries, mockumentaries, feature films, or wildly popular television shows, you can probably find it somewhere on Alex Buono’s résumé. Although he’s primarily known as a cinematographer, he’s also a successful writer, director, producer, and workshop instructor. Oh, and he’s been nominated for an Academy Award.
The most interesting things in life happen on the edges. So it’s not surprising that great films are made there too. Weirdly, it’s by exploring extremes that we come to better understand our day-to-day lives and selves. You have to travel far away to fully appreciate being home. At least that’s the operating philosophy for filmmaker Thibaut Grevet, whose film Coste Contemplation not only got him a Vimeo Staff Pick, but also caught the eye of Apple’s marketing department and the ear of our film team when he licensed Musicbed track ‘Speak, We’re Listening’ to score his film.
What’s that thing real estate agents always say? Location, location, location? Well, the same could be said about film. Knowing how to find great locations is an essential element of filmmaking — and it is equal parts vigilance, thoroughness, organization, and plain old luck. In our last conversation with Casey and Danielle of MINDCASTLE, they talked briefly about their, shall we say, exhaustive scouting methods. So we thought we’d call them up again and dig into their process.
Some images are great because they capture the world we all recognize. Others are great because they show us the world like we’ve never seen it. Mike Olbinski, storm photographer and time-lapse filmmaker, falls firmly into the second category. His work seems in this world but not of it. Clouds inflate to colossal heights in seconds. Rain falls like water squeezed out of a sponge. These storms have character. They have drama. Olbinski’s films show us our world but with a super-human perspective of time. Maybe this is what storms look like to God.
You don’t need a reason to make films, but it helps. Case in point: Paul Pryor, director and cinematographer best known for his work with TOMS Shoes, Charity: Water, and The Adventure Project. Paul makes films for a very simple reason: to help people. His work has helped raise awareness and funds for some of the most important issues facing our world today. (Thanks, Paul!)
There are two stories behind every photograph: the story of what was being captured, and the story of capturing it. Tales by Light, now streaming on Netflix, focuses on the latter, documenting the wild, often perilous journeys of world-class photographers as they create their spectacular images.
It took seven years from the time Reed Morano graduated from NYU’s film school to the time she worked as a DP on the Academy Award-nominated film Frozen River. Seven years to begin making the work she wanted to make. Which is why when we asked her what advice she’d give to a young filmmaker, the first thing she said was perseverance.
Natasha Braier always knew what she wanted to do; she just wasn’t sure where she wanted to do it. While growing up in Argentina, she became interested in photography at a young age and soon began making films with her father’s 8mm camera. “I never really thought about filmmaking as a career. I was just following an artistic expression that resonated with me the most,” Natasha told us. After attending art school in Argentina and film school in Barcelona, she was eventually accepted into a master’s program for cinematography at the prestigious National Film and Television School in England.
In film, it is not enough to be a storyteller. You have to be a storyshow-er. A storyvisualizer. You need to tell stories cinematically — which, as you might expect, is what Jennifer Van Sijll’s book, Cinematic Storytelling, is all about. Sijll explains there has been an unhealthy divide created between the technical side of filmmaking and the story side: “In teaching filmmaking, story and film are often taught separately. Screenwriters are housed in one building, production people in another. Unintentionally, a divide is created where there should be a bond. Technical tools become separated from their end, which is story.”
Some people know what they’re going to do with their lives before they’re old enough to drink a beer. Some of us take a little longer. Autumn Durald didn’t decide to be a director of photography until after she’d graduated college, traveled the world, and held a steady job in advertising. Once she’d made the decision, though, she didn’t look back. Since then, she’s lensed everything from major motion pictures (Palo Alto) to documentaries (Portraits of Braddock).
There’s this concept in psychology called “flow.” It’s that moment when you become so fully immersed in your work that you lose all sense of time, sense of space, and sense of yourself. They say it happens when your challenge is perfectly matched to your ability, and that people who often reach “flow” are the happiest people on the planet.
There is so much good advice out there, but almost none of it sticks. For every thousand pieces of advice you get, you might remember one or two. But what does stick is significant. You can learn a lot about someone from the advice they’ve retained. And you can learn a lot from them too. For the past few months, we’ve been asking filmmakers what advice has stuck with them. Their answers were as varied as their work. But we noticed something: When advice does stick with someone, it becomes not just advice they remember, but advice they give. It becomes their advice. In other words, the best good advice becomes part of who you are. Maybe something below will do the same for you.
When Planet Earth first aired in 2006, it showed us our world in a way we’d never seen it before. It was an awe-inspiring example of not only the beauty of nature, but also the power of cinematography. It was a foreshadowing — or maybe even the catalyst — of an increasingly cinematic approach to nature filmmaking. Last year, a decade after the original series premiered, the BBC aired Planet Earth II. Once again, it challenges the boundaries of what we thought was possible on film, and it expands our understanding of the natural world around us.
The tagline at the end of Volvo’s new ad, “Moments,” says: Sometimes the moments that never happen matter the most. If there’s a corresponding idea in filmmaking, it might be this: Sometimes what you don’t show is the most affecting. In “Moments” — an ad as heartwarming/heart-wrenching as any we’ve ever seen — a young girl speculates about the rest of her life before starting her first day of school. What friends will she make? Where will she travel? Who will she meet? What unfolds is a fantasy within a fiction: an entire life in less than four minutes. What you see is beautiful, striking even. But ultimately, it’s just a stencil for what you don’t see. The story — the girl’s life — is the negative space.
There is a point at which most creatives wonder if they’ll ever get where they’re going. Usually, it comes along after they’ve invested a number of years, a lot of effort, and a substantial amount of money. There doesn’t seem to be a way forward, and there doesn’t seem to be a way back. In story terms, you might call it a dark night of the soul. For Rachel Morrison, this point came about after she spent two and a half years directing photography for a reality show called The Hills.
Roger Deakins said, “People confuse ‘pretty’ with good cinematography.” In a way, he’s saying cinematographers’ work is more important than simply the look of a film. It serves a greater cause — the story. In fact, the visual side of a film, ‘pretty’ or otherwise, can tell a story as much as a script can.
When we asked Robert Legato about his success rate at achieving the impossible, he didn’t immediately answer the question. He’d never thought about it. This is the man responsible for the visual effects in films like Apollo 13, Titanic, Avatar, and The Jungle Book. A man fluent in the impossible. And yet overcoming it had rarely occurred to him. It’s the exact mind-set, we soon realized, that makes Robert Legato Robert Legato.
At some point on the way to becoming who we want to be, we have to stop being who we were. Muhammad Ali had to stop being Cassius Clay. Rachel Morrison had to stop working on The Hills. And Katelin Arizmendi had to stop being a camera assistant. “I moved to L.A. and I decided I wasn’t going to introduce myself as a camera assistant ever again,” Katelin told us. “I only wanted to shoot.”
As David Foster Wallace famously put it: “Of course you end up becoming yourself.” Which probably just means that everything seems inevitable in retrospect. And maybe that’s why it’s not surprising that despite having so many things working against them, cinematographers Autumn Durald (Palo Alto, One & Two) and Rachel Morrison (Black Panther, Cake) have built not only successful film careers, but also families. Which isn’t to say it was easy. Just that, when you hear them talk about it, it makes sense. “I guess on some level, [being a DP and a mother was] always a part of the plan,” Rachel Morrison says. “But I got to the point where I was like, ‘How the hell can you be a DP and a mother?’”
How can you become a better filmmaker when there are so many aspects of filmmaking to improve? It’s easy to get overwhelmed. But here’s the thing: Filmmaking is inherently interdisciplinary. Every piece is related to everything else. Improving one part has a strange way of improving the whole. So when we asked some of our favorite cinematographers for their advice on taking their work to the next level, we realized that everything they were talking about could also be applied to a broader lifelong goal of becoming a better filmmaker. So whether or not you’re a cinematographer, here are some world-class opinions on how to get better.
If there is no “right way” to make a film, then is there no “wrong way” either? If you’ve seen Paul Özgür’s work — an award-winning Dutch cinematographer whose films have screened at festivals like Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival — you’ll start to question if there are any boundaries at all. “This is filmmaking,” Paul told us. “There are no rules.”
In a film, “Every object, every color, every detail tells a story,” cinematographer Laura Merians told us. “For me, philosophy and filmmaking have a lot of similarities. You’re trying to communicate something. You’re trying to explore a subject or find meaning. As a filmmaker, I’m constantly trying to find the deeper meaning.”
Shane Hurlbut, ASC is a legendary cinematographer who’s worked on such blockbusters as Into the Blue (2005), Terminator Salvation (2009), and Act of Valor (2012). After putting this much time into the business, he knows a thing or two about creativity, community, and collaboration. When we talked to Shane, he was color correcting his latest film, Need for Speed (2014), and he graciously took a break to let us hound him with our questions.
It may have started as a film school assignment, but the short film AWAY quickly became a film school in itself for Zach Zombek (a.k.a. Convolv). Over the course of its three-year production, the demands of the film forced Zach to master everything from cinematography to visual effects to scoring. “That’s one reason we kept the team so small,” Zach told us. “It forced me to learn these things instead of having someone else do them for me.”
It’s funny. One of the reasons we were so excited to talk to the creative husband-and-wife duo Sea Chant was to find out how they’ve cultivated such a distinct visual style. Everything they do is beautiful, colorful, almost hyperreal. They have a consistency of voice that a lot of beginning photographers and filmmakers strive for. But when we asked how they’ve done it, the conversation took a surprising (and great) 90-degree turn. It turns out Andrew and Carissa Gallo have no interest in aesthetic consistency, in voice development — in being “Sea Chant-y.”
We don’t talk about gear very much here on the Musicbed blog, but when we found out our friends Casey Warren and Danielle Warren (a.k.a. MINDCASTLE) had gotten their hands on the first ARRI ALEXA Mini, we wanted to know what they thought of it. As filmmakers, gear is an inextricable part of our creative lives, whether we’re using our iPhones or the latest high-end wonder. So while we don’t like to focus on the equipment of filmmaking too much (plenty of amazing publications are already doing that so well), we can’t help but geek out a little from time to time.