By Daniel Rodriguez
Manhattan Edit Workshop’s recent Sight, Sound & Story: Art of Cinematography in New York City featured two one-hour panels: “Thinking In Pictures — Perspectives, Compositions, Lighting and Mood” and “Life Behind the Lens: DPs Talk Careers and Creativity in Film and Television.” The first focused on documentary work and the second on narrative-based storytelling. Both sparked questions and ideas in the head of this DP, including what roles and responsibilities cinematographers play in the storytelling process.
“Thinking In Pictures — Perspectives, Compositions, Lighting and Mood,” moderated by DP David Leitner, featured fellow cinematographers Wolfgang Held and Kirsten Johnson. Johnson’s documentary Cameraperson has made the Academy Awards Documentary shortlist.
The role of a cameraperson is essential to any film, narrative or documentary, but especially in the documentary world where much of the action is unplanned or out of one’s control. Johnson remarked how “we all live in a new way of filming and being filmed.” So, while much of their talk reflected on their own careers, they also looked toward the future. Her statement made me think about the current state of filming and seeing how stories are becoming much easier to tell thanks to technology that ranges from high-end digital cinema cameras to the ever-improving video quality of cellphones.
It brought to mind the saying, “the best camera is the one you have with you,” as some of the most stunning documentation of the human condition in the past decade have been on phones and lower-end cameras. Today’s ability to capture images is a far cry from a time when Super 8 and 16mm were the few feasible formats for documentary work — even then, the technology limited the possibilities due to technical skill or the unfortunate reality of a film magazine running out and the precious few minutes one might lose while reloading.
Working off older terms like “reloading,” all three on the stage expressed their distaste with the term “shooter.” They emphasized how they weren’t shooting any firearms and, if anything, the real shooters were the ones pointing guns at them — this had them reflecting on the death of Leonardo Henrichsen, a cameraperson who filmed his death while staring down a rifle’s barrel as a soldier fired at him during Salvador Allende’s rule in Chile.
Oftentimes camerapersons have to live in the moment, whether in narrative or documentary to judge the conditions they’re in and make decisions that’ll maximize their coverage and approach. To paraphrase Johnson, she made the brilliant observation that “directors work by anticipating what happens next, while a cameraperson nourishes in the present.” Regardless of filming background, whether documentary or narrative, this statement rings true because time is usually the most pressing factor in the field or on set.
While I do believe that a cameraperson must be somewhat aware of what they are striving to tell or cover, this feeling of nourishing in the present permits one to be flexible with how the given moment affects mood and emotion. I’m going to paraphrase once more — Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman has said, “If the documentary you were looking to shoot is the same one you get at the end then you weren’t paying attention.” The statement that Johnson made only enforces this idea because you must be able to fully immerse yourself in that moment in order to truly understand how to capture it.
Possibly the most simple and effective statement hat really summarized the role of a cameraperson was from moderator Leitner. He said, “Every shot matters.” While that is a very general statement, it does raise many questions regarding the cameraperson’s role in today’s world. Since we are now living in a predominantly digital age where truly cinematic images can be captured easily and on cheaper prosumer cameras, our artistic roles as cinematographers and camerapersons come down to the intuition we have as artists to make every shot matter.
With the advent of digital cinematography, excessive coverage and the ability to shoot longer has now become part of the norm; oftentimes this is a sacrifice of quality for the sake of having more to work with. Coming from analog film backgrounds, each person on the panel, specifically Leitner, emphasized how this finite length of film made the utmost care and attention go into every shot.
Wolfgang Held most effortlessly showed this approach as he screened bits from the latest film he worked on as cinematographer, Sophie and the Rising Sun was largely shot handheld, but unlike this feeling of over-coverage, each shot feels thought out and effective in adding to the story. The role of a cameraperson is an ever-changing one, especially in our current age, and as technology becomes more accessible to many the emphasis will always be on the artist and their approach.
“Life Behind The Lens: DPs Talk Careers and Creativity in Films and Television” was moderated by cinematographer Marcin Kapron and featured Eric Lin, Eric Alan Edwards and Vanja Černjul, ASC. All four cinematographers come from a narrative-based background and they reflected on the moments that inspired their career choices and projects they’ve worked on.
I loved hearing how each panelist began in the industry. They all came from different walks of life and have built their careers in different fields, ranging from television to indie films to major blockbusters. As a young DP, it was very exciting to hear that they each shared a persistent and infinitely curious approach to creating images from early on, mostly originating through stills photography and related techniques.
Each pro screened clips from projects and discussed their approach on set and the technical challenges they each faced. The talk eventually looked toward the future and newer storytelling formats, such as high frame rate, HDR, and 4K projection. All agreed that there has yet to be a common standard set for newer methods of displaying these new formats. Despite this, each panelist agreed that there is definitely potential in these formats, especially in HDR which Vanja has direct experience with, shooting episodes of Marco Polo for Netflix, which requesedt an HDR version for delivery.
Speaking with Vanja directly after the event and having spoken with the colorist who collaborated with him on the SDR and HDR versions, Dado Valentic, the biggest challenge with HDR is having ways of displaying and monitoring on set in a cost-effective way. Ultimately, each panelist agreed that these are simply tools to aid and provide new methods of storytelling and, as cinematographers, they’re excited for the future.
We currently live in an industry where the tools that were once exclusive to camerapersons and cinematographers are now affordable, compact and available to anyone. Listening to these panelists talk about their experiences and opinions on the future was exhilarating and encouraging. Regardless of whether you work on narrative or documentary fare, ultimately comes down to the role of the artist to bring their unique approach and creative work ethic to make every shot matter.
Daniel Rodriguez is cinematographer and photographer living in New York City. Check out his work here. Dan took many of the pictures featured in this article. He is credited with the photos in this piece.