Sight, Sound & Story: The Art of Cinematography 2017

By Amy Leland

After EditFest NY moved to London, Manhattan Edit Workshop picked up the reins with its Sight, Sound & Story (SS&S) conferences. The first post production event premiered in June of 2013. The format was similar — top-of-their-craft editors and post specialists participating in panels focusing on specific areas of the industry. Over the years there have been great panels on TV editing, sound effects and audio editing, VFX and virtual reality. I have attended these events since they began. They are a great chance to get inspired, learn more about my industry and meet great people.

In September of 2015, SS&S created a new event that focused on the part of the process before we post folks get involved: the shoot. I recently I attended the latest Sight, Sound & Story: The Art of Cinematography. Even though cinematography is not my department, I was as entertained and educated. Here is a recap of some of the best moments of the panels.

The Art of Cinematography in Documentary Filmmaking
As a first-time documentary filmmaker myself, this panel was of particular interest to me. Moderator Hugo Perez (Neither Memory Nor Magic, Lights Camera Uganda) spoke with panelists Joan Churchill, ASC,(Shut Up & Sing, Kurt & Courtney, Last Days in Vietnam) and Buddy Squires, ASC, (The Vietnam War, The Statue of Liberty, The Central Park Five) about their view of documentary filmmaking from behind the lens.

The most common theme throughout the panel was the emphasis both panelists put on listening. Cinematography is a visual art, but the panelists repeated the importance of listening carefully throughout the process in order to get the right shots. Squires included it as part of an overall sense of observation. He described his job as, “capturing the unexpected.” He said in order to do this, you have to carefully observe everything that is going on around you. When you sense something is going a particular way, you have to follow it. “It’s a calculated gamble that things will move a particular way.”

L-R: Joan Churchill, Buddy Squires and moderator Hugo Perez.

A particularly poignant moment was when he showed a clip from the documentary, The Last Dalai Lama? In it, he is filming a line of people getting a momentary audience with the Dalai Lama. Even though he didn’t understand what was being said in these moments, something compelled him to follow two particular people as they walked away from the Dalai Lama, clearly very moved by their experience. He ultimately found out that these two young women were homeless and with no resources to speak of. After hearing their story, the Dalai Lama instructed one of his helpers to make sure these young women were taken care of and given a place to live. All of that was clear once translations and subtitles were in place, but it was a moment of instinct that caused Squires to follow them and capture that magical moment. It was an incredible example of what he was describing.

Churchill also stated emphatically that, “Documentaries are nothing without good sound.” She talked about how you can cut around bad picture, but you can’t cut around bad sound. She makes sure she is constantly hearing, through her earpiece, whatever is being recorded by the sound person. This lets her know if sound isn’t being captured, but it also means that she may hear something, from her vantage point, she couldn’t see. That lets her know to move and capture what is happening.

Related to this, she talked about how sometimes you simply have to sacrifice picture to get the moment. Even if all you can get is a badly framed shot, or a shot with a low-quality camera; as long as you have the sound to go with it, you may have the moment you need. To illustrate this, Churchill showed a clip from the documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Their interviews with Aileen Wuornos took place in small visiting rooms at the prison where she was on death row. In one of those interviews, when Wuornos saw that the interview was over and equipment was being put away, she started speaking more frankly about her crimes, and whether she had committed them in self defense. As a cinematographer, Churchill could have taken her camera back out, and tried to frame a perfect shot of Wuornos talking. But by listening to what was happening, she knew that her camera would become a distraction to the emotional moment that was happening, and might even cause Wuornos to stop talking. Rather than finding that shot and stopping the moment, she stayed crouched by her camera bag, and got a side shot of Nick Broomfield, her co-director, talking to Wuornos. Wuornos isn’t even in the shot. She made a choice as a cinematographer to sacrifice image to make sure the moment was protected.

Of course as cinematographers, and especially with Squires being a long-time collaborator with Ken Burns, both are incredibly skilled at capturing beautiful images, but what most struck me about this panel was how much each was more focused on story and truth, rather than image, in order to serve the needs of their projects.

The New Age of TV: Bringing the Look of Cinema to the Small Screen
For this offering, moderator David Leitner spoke with panelists Martin Ahlgren (Daredevil, House of Cards, Blindspot) and Igor Martinović (House of Cards, The Night Of) about the changing art of cinematography in television. Much of the conversation focused on how their work was being affected by the increasingly film look or cinema style of television.

L-R: Martin Ahlgren and Igor Martinović.

One thing they addressed was the popular idea that film is a director’s medium and TV is a producer’s or writer’s medium. Martinović pointed out that with a lot of these new media shows, from companies like Netflix and Hulu, they had not just a head writer/showrunner, but also a director auteur driving the creative process. For example, they brought up David Fincher and his House of Cards and Mindhunter. Though he didn’t direct the entire series in either case, he did establish the visual world and rules for the shows. And there are certainly other examples, such as Reed Morano and The Handmaid’s Tale or Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, which airs on FX. Both panelists spoke about how there is a trend toward creating a specific look that they, as cinematographers, are working within.

They also both talked about how this cinematic aesthetic is changing what they are allowed to do as television cinematographers. For a long time, television was “radio with pictures.” TV shows were meant to be watched without needing to pay close visual attention. The focus was hearing dialogue, but now there is more freedom to tell visual stories. Martinović showed a series of clips from The Night Of and pointed out that there is almost no dialogue in the scenes he showed. He was able to tell story and advance character through specific visual images, a freedom television cinematographers didn’t always have.

Both also spoke about low light being a more acceptable look in television now than it used to be. Ahlgren showed a clip from House of Cards that he lit almost entirely with candlelight. He spoke of this difference in lighting aesthetic as being partly about changing standards in television, but also made possible by digital cinematography. While many cinematographers talk about the advantages of film, one thing most will say is that digital cameras can shoot more effectively at much lower light levels. They both talked about the expanded range of creative choices this gives them.

Martinović concluded by showing us some incredible images from a look book he put together for a new show he is going to be shooting. This is a technique used often for film, but not as often for television, which really speaks to the shift in how television is being created. For his look book, he compiled an incredible collection of images to show ideas of framing, tone, and even light and color. This book gave him a better “language” for showing the director what he thought they could do in telling their stories.

Listening to incredibly talented television cinematographers talk about their craft provided a lot of insight into why television seems so much more exciting these days. It was also a great reminder to all of us to pay better attention to the visual language of the shows we love, just as we do with films.

Behind the Lens: A Conversation With Cinematographer Julio Macat, ASC
The final panel of the evening was a special conversation with Julio Macat, ASC, the cinematographer of a wide range of great films, including Home Alone, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Crazy in Alabama and The Wedding Crashers. As often happens in conversations with people who have had such a big impact on their field, what struck me most was how unbelievably humble Macat was about the work he has done. He spoke about his rise to success as filled with luck, when the breadth and quality of his work make it obvious that there is clearly a lot of talent involved as well.

He discussed the numerous opportunities he has had to work with first-time directors. One common theme is that first-time directors come to him with extensive shot lists for every scene. His advice to them is to think about why the writer wrote the scene and what the point of the scene is. He asks the director, “If I have to place the camera in one spot to tell that entire scene, where would it go?” That guides them into knowing what is most important. It is especially vital when they find themselves running out of time, and they need to make sure they have what they need. He said that shot often becomes the master shot for the scene.

Julio Macat

In talking about Home Alone, one aspect of his work that I just loved was that he did a lot of his prep on his knees. He planned a lot of shots from this vantage point with a wide-angle lens to capture the viewpoint of a child. Compared to how an adult sees the world — everything is bigger to kids, and the lights are brighter. His approach, of making sure his camera saw the world the way the lead character would, was such an important aspect of the look of that film. It seems that ideas like this, the ability to see the world through different perspectives, is what separates the really talented cinematographers from all of the people who are just good with cameras. I loved seeing that insight into his approach.

Macat described his prep work for Home Alone, his first feature film, which he has carried forward to today. Rather than thinking of each scene on its own, he creates a summary version of the script. That summary —which may be as short as three pages — includes one-line descriptions of each scene and color coding to indicate things like location, interior/exterior, etc. Seeing the structure of the film laid out that way helps him to see how the work he is doing will eventually be edited together. He includes the editor in that prep work so they can truly collaborate on the vision of the final film. His description of this process made me wish it were far more common for cinematographers and editors to directly collaborate.

He also spoke about the importance of working musically. He started working on music videos and concerts, so he always thought of music and rhythm while operating cameras. He says now he can tell immediately if a camera operator is really good with a camera technically but doesn’t have that sense of musicality in the work. Every scene, every story has a rhythm. Finding that rhythm in the work before the scenes are edited together, and a score underneath, is one of the most important skills in his toolset.

Having shot so many comedies, he had an interesting insight into capturing those moments. First he said that working in comedy was how he learned to shoot multicamera, so that it looks natural. With so much overlapping dialogue and gags based entirely on timing, it is vital to capture every moment as it happens, rather than individual takes of each angle. He also encourages directors to do blocking rehearsals with the actors that he can film rather than off-camera rehearsals, after so many experiences of watching a rehearsal with great energy and timing that just wasn’t there anymore once the cameras were rolling.

My favorite element of his comedy technique was what he called “second-team theater.” When the lighting setups are being done, and the second team stand-ins are in place, he asks the director to have that second team do the lines. If the cast is watching, it’s a great moment that allows them to relax a bit before the scene. But he also said some great actors have come out of those “second-team theater” moments because the director gets a chance to see them act. I’m sure it also leads to a more relaxed and fun atmosphere on set for everyone.

Listening to him talk about the way he feels about actors was really moving. He spoke of the importance of building trust with actors. His job means putting cameras into their personal space as they do their work. He advocates for letting the actors know what he has in mind and what he is planning to do. “Actors are really smart people. They get it,” Macat said. By seeing the actors as his collaborators, rather than just the people on the other side of the camera, he is better able to achieve his vision.

One of the recurring themes of these Sight, Sound & Story events has been rare opportunities to sit in rooms with truly impressive artists at the top of their field, and being so touched by how kind and generous they are with their time and ideas.

Manhattan Edit Workshop streamed these panels, as they often do, via Facebook Live on their Sight Sound & Story page. If you would like a chance to see the panels for yourself, and hear all of the other amazing insights of these wonderful panelists, you can find it here.


Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.


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