Art of The Shot: Eric Edwards

The DP of Lovelace, Knocked Up, and Bosch talks life, work, and vintage cinema lenses.

You have seen Eric Alan Edward’s work. I would go so far as to say you have likely watched more than one of his films. This has been my journey discovering the cinematography of Eric Edwards. As I did my research I realized I have, on more than one occasion, sat in a theater and watched his work flicker by on the screen in front of me while I stuffed my mouth with salted popcorn. The big comedies “Knocked Up,” “The Break-Up,” and “Delivery Man” are just a few big budget films he has lensed. Then there is his more dramatic work on “Lovelace,” the Amazon Original series “Bosch,” and “The Slaughter Rule.” Edwards also shot music videos for Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Donna Summers, Alanis Morissette, Paul Simon and the Red Hot Chili Peppers video Under the Bridge which won a MTV’s best music video of the year. Like I wrote, you have likely seen Edwards work.

If print does not do you justice you have an option to listen to Eric in person by heading over to Sight, Sound, & Story. Manhattan Edit Workshop’s speaker series. The workshop will dive into the craft of visual storytelling from masters behind the lens. Joining Eric Edwards will be Eric Lin (My Blind Brother), Academy-Award nominated and world-renown Director and Director of Photography Ellen Kuras, ASC, and Richard Crudo, ASC (American Pie).


HALLETT: When did you first consider yourself a cinematographer?

EDWARDS: I went to Rhode Island School of Design for four years and then graduated. I had shot two or three features right after that, but I was really working in production houses for local commercials for 8 years in Portland, Oregon. I learned a lot about lighting and camera operating during that time because that was the one thing you don’t learn much of in college. I guess I didn’t really consider myself a real working cinematographer until maybe 1985 or so.

HALLETT: How much did film school prepare you for those first eight years?

eric-alan-edwards EDWARDS: Film school for me—because this is like 1975—film school was really about editing, so I learned all the rudiments of editing and we would go out and shoot our own films and edit our films. My teachers at that point were good editors so it was really about how to shoot coverage for an editor, how to edit, and it was really about protecting the editor. I think for the most part I learned about film cameras, some of the early video cameras at the time, and about lenses and zooms and shooting techniques. The lighting kind of came later.

HALLETT: Do you still see yourself as a protecting the editor still?

EDWARDS: A lot of directors are very confident, and they know when they have it, but sometimes you just have to double-check and say do you have what you need? It’s really like shots you might think of that are not directly related to a scene. Often enough it’s thinking about what shot in a sequence is going to be the first one. What’s going to be the widest one?  What’s going to be the last one? It’s almost like when you’re shooting in documentaries it’s like asking yourself, well what’s the first shot of the movie going to be and then what’s the last shot of the movie going to be?

HALLETT: Do you catch yourself shooting and you find the right shot for the ending like this is it, this is the best I got to end it on?

EDWARDS: I think when you’re doing documentaries you’re discovering what that shot is as you go, so you might have two or three possibilities that strike you as a first shot in the movie.

HALLETT: Would you say you prefer to do features or documentaries—if money and time and were no object?

EDWARDS: I think definitely features. I mean features are a lot more engaging and you’re in control of so much. It’s also this idea that you’re making something out of nothing. You’re kind of building something out of very designed parts. It’s a real process of construction and I think documentaries are far more like a discovery in a way and you don’t have quite the control that you have when you’re doing a feature film.

HALLETT: What advice would you say that someone gave you that really helped?

EDWARDS: Let’s see. That’s a good question. There’s just little ones that kind of pop up—like when in doubt, backlight. Another one is never over-light a background, which I love. That one actually came from a gaffer whose father was a cameraman. I used to do these workshops at the June Laboratory at Sundance, and there was one Japanese cameraman named Kazuo Miyagawa and he always liked to have one room just  slightly vary the color of a different room. Which is kind of a background question now, like never over-light a background, another way is to give a background room or a background part of the set a different color just to give you separation. I think a lot of those lessons are about separation or what you can call a figure-ground relationship. You’ve got a subject and you’ve got something around the subject. There’s such an emphasis on shooting film with neutral densities on the camera, even outside. We’re all putting neutral densities on the camera because the ASAs of the digital cameras are so high that even when you go outside, it’s kind of become an aesthetic and a normal sort of technique to throw the background out of focus during the daytime. It’s kind of stylized and it’s also done of course because digital is too plain and we’re always fighting the clinical nature of digital, so it’s still kind of a figure-ground relationship thing.

eric-edwards-on-the-break-up HALLETT: What advice would you personally give, that you learned along the way?

EDWARDS: In terms of lighting and in terms of, I don’t know, there’re so many lessons in this business, there are so many certain ways to do things, you know. It kind of breaks down to equipment: what you do with a crane, what you do with a Steadicam. Gems, huh? That’s a hard one. Maybe I’ll think of some as we go along.

HALLETT: The tech. How much does the tech of filmmaking make you excited, if at all? Some people are gearheads and other people are like it’s just another…it’s just a wrench, in so many words.

EDWARDS: Yeah I think they’re just tools. I think there is so much technology out there right now that there’s sort of a lot of just very specialized technology and a lot of redundant technology. There’s so much of it that it’s easy to get confused by the degree of it. Maybe it’s hard to learn the basics or maybe it might be harder to come back to what the fundamentals of cinematography are, like camera movement, framing. There’s so much out there it’s just nuts. There’re so many drones, there’re so many gimbals, there’re so many ways to move the camera down the road on these Russian Arms, there’re camera rails, there’re all kinds of tracking devices. There’s a load out there and I just think is the camera turned on or off and to me, it’s a choice of lenses. It’s understanding why you use which lenses, which focal lengths for a composition and what size? It’s harder, I think to learn, to have a zoom lens on your camera the whole time, or when you’re learning how to shoot a film if you start out with a zoom lens. You might not understand the subtleties and the physics of fixed-length lenses and what they mean in terms of framing a subject or framing a landscape and you can get kind of lazy about your choices. It means something to shoot with a wider lens and then when you go in for a close-up you’re not only put on a longer lens, but you move the camera closer. With a zoom lens you can get lazy and just sit back and zoom it straight in, so you’ll often end up with a close-up that’s got a really, really super out of focus background and it hasn’t been a considered thing to how in-focus the background was in the wider shot. It’s better to make those choices and understand lenses than it is to not understand it.

HALLETT: Do you have a set of lenses you prefer?

EDWARDS: I have a great set of Zeiss Standard Speed 2.1 Primes. I’ve also got two zooms that I love: the 17-80 Cooke and a 25-250 Angenieux, which is a lovely lens.

HALLETT: You’ve got a new one or an older one?

EDWARDS: The 17-80 is very new. That’s the Cooke. I’ve got a really old 25-250 Angenieux that I like a lot. There is also a number of sets of lenses that I think are pretty interesting. I like a lot of these vintage lenses that are around. I also like a lot of lenses that are superspeeds because they got a really wide f-stop.

HALLETT: What do you mean by vintage lenses? Are you talking about the old Panchro Cookes or something similar?

EDWARDS: Yeah. There’s a piece I’m doing coming up that I’m going to be testing the Super Baltars, the Speed Panchros, the Leica Summilux. I love the Zeiss lenses, I think they’re amazing. There’s the Zeiss Superspeeds and they’re pretty amazing. I’m a huge fan of Vantage Hawk Anamorphics, I think those are amazing lenses.

HALLETT: It sounds like you are a lens guy more than anything.

EDWARDS: Oh yeah. I think it’s the one tool that you have a lot of choices with, and then you have a lot of choice over the personality of the image. With film going away, we really lost a certain aesthetic. We’re faced with certain choices now like how do you get digital to look like film? There is a lot of just chasing the tail of the animal here. You choose lenses that vignette or have light loss at the sides or like when I go into a digital intermediate I will often put in a very, very slight vignette. In fact, I do it to pretty much on every film I do on digital intermediate because digital is so clinically bright from corner to corner, there’s no variation. You don’t have that warm technology feel. It’s kind of like vinyl versus mp3. The glass is the one thing you can make a choice with and put in front of the camera and you always have that choice of what kind of glass you’re going to use, so it’s good to know what all is out there and it’s good to exercise that I think.

HALLETT: How much filtration do you use? Do you use like a net with that glass or you just go with the glass?

EDWARDS: I do them all. I used to use a lot of soft effects. Mitchell diffusion. There’s a classic soft that I still use, and there is a lot of new ones like, what is it, Black Magic Frost and Glimmerglass and there’s a lot of new filters out there that are pretty low in their effect, but often you’re trying to take the edge off of lenses that are too clean like the newer Cooke S4s. Or you’re just trying to keep a nice glamorous look, so often classic softs are something that I get to use. I like those a lot. Nets I don’t use so much, although there’re times when I put them on if I can—they’re a little time-consuming, but it’s really down to the lower cons and the diffusions that I work with.

HALLETT: When you see someone else’s work do you look at the visuals and just watch the movie? What part of it excites you? Is it visuals, is it seeing how they used their lenses, is it the way they’ve used their color, the light, perhaps?

EDWARDS: I’m always studying lighting and I’m always interested in how people use color temperature, how they mix it. Lighting is kind of everything to me. It’s always been everything from the beginning. We’re kind of coming from painting, because the master painters were looking at light very carefully, long before the camera was invented. I’m constantly very interested in the mood of the scene and emotion of the scene. Basically in any film you’re trying to figure out some overall tone to the movie, and tone involves contrast and color and lighting ratio—how many lights you use or how few lights you use, whether you use negative fill with rags, or whether you allow more light to come in, how you bounce light. I think between lenses and lighting, that’s certainly the parts of cinematography that excite me. I mean it’s always amazing to figure out how you’re going to move the camera, but the artistic things that come in are the lighting and lenses.

HALLETT: Talking like this is there like one camera you use or are you more worried about the lenses and lighting?

EDWARDS: I’ve used pretty much everything. I’ve shot a lot of films with Panavision, I’ve shot a lot of films with Arriflex. Panavision, of course, is its own kind of glass and its own kind of look, but it’s mostly been Arriflex and Panaflex. Now with the digital cameras, for me, it’s the Alexa. I’ve used the RED. I’ve used the Alexa, and I’ve used a number of other cameras.I think the people at Arri seem to have the color science down the best of all of them.

HALLETT: Let me shift gears here. How do you balance your work and life? How do you make filmmaking work for you?

EDWARDS: It’s pretty much everything I do. I’m not married, I don’t have children, so it’s pretty much about my career, really. I’m kind of one of those guys that’s married to his career. It simplifies things a little bit. Ever since I got out of college, one of my first influences was just being on film crews, and there’s sort of a military rigor to filmmaking in that it’s like the hierarchy of different roles and labor divided into different areas. I’ve always enjoyed what it means to get up and go out and make films with people, to get in a van and know where you’re going and work hard. And it’s hard work for twelve hours a day. Then you come back and still go look at dailies. They’re 14-hour days usually.

HALLETT: What is a great day for you?

EDWARDS: A really good day is when you have two days to shoot at Wrigley Field in Chicago and one of those days is where you have the stadium to yourself and the next day is where you’re actually shooting a game. It’s sunny and it’s nice and you’ve just got three cameras and you’re rolling away on the game. Sort of the pressure is off because you’re basically just doing coverage. Then the day you have the actors you’ve got much more limited angles and it’s all been planned out, and it works really well, and you’re seamlessly using movie magic to connect the two days—the one where you’ve got a full stadium and then the one where you have only got 100 extras—and somehow you make it all seamlessly one big sequence that takes place on the field.

HALLETT: Who do you think succeeds in filmmaking?

EDWARDS: I think it’s interdisciplinary. I think it’s true for directors and it’s true for cinematographers that there is a lot of disciplines involved with filmmaking—everything from drama, writing, theater, acting, from the physics of lenses, the mechanics of cameras. I think everybody has to kind of be a renaissance individual. You have to be like Rembrandt. You have to be somebody who embraces the art and the technology. I think directors have probably the hardest part, or at least they seem to emerge as the geniuses of embracing multiple crafts. There’s a lot on their plate. They have to understand the camera as well as the cinematographer. I mean certainly we all have to understand what writing is, and we understand what storytelling is, but directors really have to embrace it. I mean if they’re good, they really have to embrace it all.

HALLETT: I’m looking at your work here and I see you have a bunch of comedies, and most recently you have the Amazon Original Bosch. Do you go after genres or you just kind of see what comes to you?

EDWARDS: I started out with independent films (I mean I suppose you could say independent) like My Own Private Idaho was the first feature that I shot where we had amazing Hollywood actors in it. It was independent in that it was a very, very simply told story. We shot it almost like a travelogue. We were going around to all these places so visually it opened up. I really enjoy dramas and I enjoy the art of a drama. I think comedies can be shot very dramatically and I try to shoot comedies naturally. I’m adverse to flat, corner-to-corner lighting. For me, comedies should be done naturally and you don’t have to see into every actors’ eye. There can be dramatic lighting in comedies. I like the challenge of comedies. They’re filmed where there’s a huge importance on the word, and on the performance, so you’re often shooting two cameras or even three cameras at once. I like the challenge of that, although it’s very nerve wracking sometimes when you don’t have ideal conditions because really the best kind of lighting is done for one camera. As soon as you put a second camera in there, you’re going to have compromises. You’re either going to compromise the lighting on one of the cameras or you’re going to have a background that’s not as successful on another camera. But I’ve done so much of that now that I have my techniques and ways you can light that are flattering. I love comedies. I love watching comedians do their work because they’re just the most amazing people in the world, but at the same time, that’s also true of dramas. I think in dramas you can be far more adventurous with the lighting. You can be more experimental. You can impose a lot more styles. You can borrow styles from still photography and fashion. It’s just a more experimental form than comedies are as a rule. You’re often lighting drama for one camera.

HALLETT: Let’s talk about Bosch. When I look at this footage, it has much more of a naturalistic look you could say, more of a gritty, naturalist look. How did you come to this look? 

EDWARDS: Gritty is a good word. The thing that was important about Bosch is that for Connelly, the writer, it was very important that it be LA and whatever photography we do it needed to showcase LA. So in the choice of locations, it was very much these LA locations and not just available and existing light, but longer lenses. It was a film noir, you know. It was a thing where we wanted to sometimes tell the story with the fewest amount of visual information. LA needed to look almost like the idea of LA from a Raymond Chandler story or like you can go back to what’s the one, LA Confidential. We’re kind of borrowing on the iconography of LA so it was important to have as much inky blackness in it as we could do. A bit of that work was a manipulation in the digital intermediate, but most of it was the directors’ choices of the locations in LA. There was just something very LA about where we had a view, like in the beginning of the film we’re overlooking the city itself, and we wanted to have echoes of past periods of LA in it. So it was really driven by the inkiness and the darkness and the grittiness. Grittiness is a good word for it.

HALLETT: It looks natural, but how much augmenting are you doing?

EDWARDS: I’m usually doing something. We shot at this one location that was also in what’s the Michael Mann film “Collateral” I think. There was a house up on the hill where we wanted to shoot the lights of LA. We needed to shoot the lights of LA as naturally as we could, you know, no augmentation of light. So I’m shooting that at T1.3 for the most part, so any lighting I’m adding has to be very, very low and very minimal. I think we have the characters inside the living room and inside the kitchen. You have to work at such low light levels and your focus assistant has to be pretty on top of their toes. The scene is driven by what LA really looks like, and my lighting is pretty much responding to that actual light of Los Angeles. There were moments where it was very much available light, or just my having to adapt the little bits I was doing to the landscape. That was pretty much it. We were relying as much as we could on the locations and what the locations offered. If you overdrive those things it’s simply you lighting a scene and so much of the natural parts of the locations drops away if you’re lighting too heavy, so we were really trying to be open and sensitive to what the locations offered.

HALLETT: Do you use LED lights? I ask this because there are some films where almost the whole production is LED because it’s so cheap. 

EDWARDS: LEDs are a huge part of what I do now. More so than they used to be, because a lot of LED lights can now switch between 6000 degrees and 3200 degrees. They’re very quick. They are more expensive units, the new technology is still pretty expensive to rent too, but what it can do is work with the much higher sensitivities of digital cameras. You start out at shooting on many cameras at 800 ISO and you go up from there to 1600 or 3200. You can do so much with very little light, so it frees you up in so many ways. I really embrace them. On films now you’ll have an HMI package and then you’ll have a LED package and also Tungsten package. The Tungstens are really cheap, and you can just add those on, but they also take up a lot of space on the truck. The LEDs you can put them inside of automobiles, you can tape them to the windows, I like to put things up in the ceilings. When I’m on locations I like to just put a strip of LEDs right up in the corner between the wall and ceiling just so I can sneak some backlighting behind characters. LEDs are amazing, but it took a long time for people to get the color temperature right. Then it took a long time to make them practical because there was a lot of impractical LED lighting in the beginning. There still are a lot of really clumsy LED fixtures, but they’re getting very, very smart, and they’re getting very lightweight on their feet. Sometimes you just carry a couple of light panels around. I call them grenades. You just have these battery-operated light panels that you can diffuse the heck out of them and just dim down. You can dim them without the color temperature changing. They’re amazing.

HALLETT: What do you think comes down the pike for you next? It seems you’ve done a lot of drama, you’ve done a lot of comedy. Do you have anything you’re really looking forward to?

EDWARDS: It would be really cool to do a black and white film. It would be very cool to do a Western. Anything black and white would be a lot of fun, even if it were like a film noir or mystery or whatever. There’s such a wonderful abstraction that exists with a black and white film that draws your imagination into it and you don’t have to worry about color temperature. I’d love to do something in black and white. Just a wide Cinemascope Western would be a lot of fun.

HALLETT: Why would that be fun? You’re the second person who’s said they’d love to do a Western and I’m kind of wondering why?

EDWARDS: Well because of the really wide format. I’ve done four films now in a 2:3:5 format, and that format certainly has its own feeling of class and quality and you can put the very interesting anamorphic glasses on your camera. You can even use that format indoors. It’s a wonderful format both indoors in out. You take a film like The Graduate. It’s stunning. But I think that once you get the camera outside it really wants to see wide. Any subject that involves the horizon is going to be just fun to design for. A Western’s like that. And when you have a wide format you have such direction to it. You can place somebody way over on the left and you can place somebody way over on the right and you have this ability to shift the eye, to shift the audience’s eyes very dynamically. You deal with diagonals in the frame—on a single shot you’re constantly having to figure out what background to have behind them, so often you lower the camera and use the ceiling as a background. It’s just a format that you have to think ahead and really involves graphic design, so in a way, I think it’s challenging and intriguing to meet all the problems of shooting with a wide format.

HALLETT: When do you think you’ll hang it up? Or will you? Will you just keep going until you can’t anymore?

EDWARDS: Oh yeah, no, I’ll never stop. I love it too much. It’s too much fun. I think you just keep getting better with what you do. You accrue all this knowledge with experience. Let’s face it: there’s no other job that’s this engaging that I know of. You’re designing something and you’re making something. I guess there’s enough for a cinematographer to do that you feel like you can own a huge part of the design of a movie without being in any way in conflict with the director and how much the director designs or auteurs themselves. It’s a good relationship. I don’t think anybody’s particularly jealous of what the other person does when there’s so much for each of you to be doing.

HALLETT: I’m kind of wrapping up here, and I have a question I wanted to ask you. What would you suggest to the men and women who are in Film School right now, what would you say is the smartest thing they can do?

EDWARDS: I would suggest exactly what I did. When I got out of college, there never was any kind of career placement thing going on. It was just you’re out on your own, and so for me, you took whatever you can and do anything you can. I haven’t done a lot of shorts. It’s funny because when I got out of college I met somebody that just wanted to shoot a feature, and so we shot a feature. Then we shot a second feature. Then through some film festivals, I met other directors who were doing features, and I kind of went straight into it. I also did a lot of commercial work. For me, doing commercial work was a matter of learning the lighting because the lighting is so much of what it’s about for a cinematographer. That’s the first part I’d say is the most important, but really you just go, you do whatever you can. You can start out as a First AC, you can start out lower, you can start out as a camera operator. I think you just have to shoot anything you can get your hands on. You just have to get your hands on lights and start out with whatever you can.

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Brian Hallett, is an award winning cameraman, editor, and producer. He has shot everything from Network broadcast news, promotional image campaigns, music videos, short films, and documentaries. Check out his reel at hallett-brian.com