By Randi Altman
New York City born and raised, Timur Civan’s path to becoming a director of photography started with his background in fine art, something he studied in school and something that still influences his work… but that path wasn’t exactly planned.
“I fell into cinematography by accident,” he explains. “I had been working on a series of sculptures that had video elements in them. Through a bit of luck, someone noticed what I had been working on. So with zero experience, I wound up DP-ing a commercial for an ad agency as my first film job. The day we finished, I was asked to work on another shoot the following week.”
Things just took off from there and within a month he was a full-time director of photography. As a DP, Civan (@timurcivan) mainly focuses on spot and feature films but welcomes the opportunity to work on all types of projects. He says it helps build his skill set.
Recent work includes promos for Sesame Street, and commercials for FILA sneakers and the Home Shopping Network (HSN) and Nigel Sanford’s music video Cymatics: Science vs. Music.
I reached out to Civan to get a better idea of how he works and prepares for shoots. What I got was better than I could have hoped for. His answers are thoughtful, detailed and educational. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
Your resume seems to be fairly diverse in terms of projects, spots, promos, TV, shorts — do you prefer one type of job over another?
My two favorites are feature films and commercials. I like commercials because by their very nature, you have to deliver an exact look for your client. It hones your ability to predict what light and lens are going to do and it teaches you accuracy and speed. You may not be shooting exactly what you want, BUT when you do finally light a feature, you can quickly create an exact look that makes you and the director happy.
I find documentaries the most challenging. I’m trained to come from a studio shoot single-camera mentality. I do enjoy them, but I prefer documentaries that are planned. Think Ken Burns vs. The Deadliest Catch. However, I would love the opportunity to shoot wildlife.
How does working on a variety of jobs keep you fresh?
The more variety you shoot, the wider your skill set will become. Cinematography is interesting, because other than some highly technical photography scenarios, there is no real “jack of all trades, master of none” scenario. If you can light a face, you can light a car. If you can light a scene, you can string them together into a feature.
I really don’t believe in specializing. Why limit myself to doing one kind of job. I actively pursue a variety of projects for the different experiences.
How do you prepare for greenscreen shoots compared to traditional shoots?
Greenscreen is pretty much like chess. It takes five minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master. Just because it’s greenscreen, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are easy shoots on occasion, but with the VFX components in today’s world, they are becoming more and more complicated and more and more expensive. After a certain point, I wish directors would consider shooting some more elements practically.
From a DPs perspective, what is the most important aspect?
The most important aspect is being a good department manager. I’ve always felt there are “kinds” of DPs. Operators, lighting specialists and great managers. Of course, at the very top you have people who are all three. For example, any top ASC member. They have to be a triple threat to really succeed.
However, there are some men and women who are just geniuses at lighting and don’t like to operate camera or framing is not their strongest suit. They can always be a good manager and hire a good operator to pick up the slack. Same goes for people who are phenomenal camera operators, but lack a bit in the lighting department. Nothing a good gaffer can’t solve. Knowing your limitations vs. strengths, and when to get help makes you a good manager, and ultimately a great DP.
How do you decide on what tools you will be using for each job? Can you talk specifically to the camera?
It depends on what the project calls for. Every situation is different. We have so many different options as far as cameras these days, that I just treat them like film stock. I like the Red Dragon a lot. It’s becoming my favorite camera. I used to be split between the Red MX and Arri options. It just has a different look that’s new. It feels filmic, but not like its trying to be photochemical film. It’s just its own creation. I like that about it.
I think having all these options is great nowadays. I recently shot a beauty spot called Ties That Bind that needed a soft, glowy, sexy feel. Naturally I went with an Alexa. It’s the right tool for that job. A little while before that I did a slick sci-fi music video called Cymatics: Science vs. Music. Naturally, that needed something that looked fresh and sleek. The Red Dragon was, for me, the best choice there.
It’s really based on the content and the needs of the director and the production. Sometimes a quick turn around means a 6K RAW camera is not the right choice. We need something quick to edit.
What about lenses?
The lens choice is a major and almost agonizing decision. Lenses are the only piece of gear of which I can say I genuinely like all of them. Even bad, old, soft, wonky lenses — I love them too. If cinematography is a painting, the light is the pigment, but the lens is the canvas, brush, linseed oil and gesso… it’s how the pigment gets to the viewer’s eye. It’s a subtle effect, but it can heighten what’s there, or give a specific feel to how the color and contrast are rendered.
I own a Fujinon Cabrio 19-90mm T2.9. I like this lens because it’s a flexible, high-quality tool. It makes a pretty image, and is small and light enough to be used handheld or on a Steadicam with no complaints from operators or production. I use it mostly as my “A” camera lens. That is to say, its high-quality enough to be my primary lens on some shoots, mostly commercials, as its look is very clean and sharp.
What are some recent projects you’ve worked on?
I recently shot a short film for my friends and directing team Ian Simpson and Sara Wolkowitz. It’s a 25-minute film about a son coming to terms with the death of his brother as a child, and the effect it had on his relationship with his loved ones as he grew up. It’s a powerful script.
After that, I did a few candy and toy commercials, and I am currently in talks about DP-ing a feature film for a well-known director.
Is there a job you are most proud of? If so, why?
I’m proud of all of my jobs. There are ones that I feel I’ve learned something about my self on. I did a documentary in the most dangerous part of Naples, Italy, and the Camorra (Napolese mafia) got tired of our presence and did their best to ensure we understood they wanted to be left alone. I learned how I would deal with a stressful situation, and I made it out unscathed. That said, I’m not going back to Napoli any time soon (smiles).
Do you typically work with a DIT?
Yes, Tom Wong , Local 600. He is my film/life partner. I try not to shoot without him. He is the best.
What projects does it make the most sense to have one on set?
All of them. The DIT is your quality control and on-set laboratory. He can make one-light passes, custom build a LUT or transcode to whatever the post house needs to make their edits. The DIT is oftentimes the last time “I” get to touch the footage. The LUTs he builds are my instructions to the colorist on how the look should feel.
How do you work with the colorists on your projects?
I try to work with the colorist as much as possible, but I do my best to deliver nearly finished footage. I am a “get it in camera” guy. I like to see small enhancements and sometimes some scaling/noise reduction. That’s about it. I like to shoot naturalistic.
My favorite colorist is Andrew Francis. He understands my taste and really just matches the footage and leaves it be for the most part. If I ask for a more aggressive look, he always asks me if I’m sure, and makes a “half-power” version to show me after a while. I usually wind up using his half-strength version. I adore his subtlety.
What influences your work? Where do you find inspiration?
The universe, science, math and art influence me. I can’t really pinpoint any one thing. My experiences and aesthetic taste inform my work a lot.
How much of a role does your fine arts background play in your work?
I think it has aided my work more than anything else. When I started out, I had no formal film training. I didn’t even know if I was breaking rules or not. I never considered myself a filmmaker, but other people kept asking me to shoot when they saw what I had been working on in my dabbling in video art.
At that time I thought about how each shot would look next to each other in my head, until I found what to me seemed like the best place to put the camera. Without years of drawing, painting, sculpture etc., I wouldn’t have had the mental ability to imagine the images next to each other. It’s a very good form of training. I sometimes think that a DP who comes from a non-traditional background has an advantage because they are not yet tainted by what a film “should” look like. Instead, it’s about what the film could look like.