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.
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.
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).
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.
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.