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Life as an independent cinematographer, an interview with Nancy Schreiber, ASC

nancy on set by lightI had the pleasure of speaking with Nancy Schreiber, ASC, who will be featured at the upcoming Manhattan Edit Workshop event September 30th, 2015. She will be presenting with other notable cinematographers like Hugo Perez (Betty La Flaca, Juliet Y Ramon), Matt Porwoll (Cartel Land, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1), Jerry Ricciotti (Vice, Vice News), and Paul Koestner (Louie, Deadbeat, Better Things). Nancy has a huge list of work throughout her career ranging in short films, documentaries, TV and feature films.


You started off as an electrician and gaffer, but was it always your goal to become a cinematographer?

Well, I think I really just fell into it. I have a psychology degree, which everyone laughs about, but it has become useful with all the personalities out there! I started to get interested in filmmaking when I was at the University of Michigan, at the undergrad level. I decided not to go and finish grad school in psychology and become a therapist. I’m a very active person and I don’t like sitting on my butt. This also a reason why I couldn’t be an editor. I really enjoy the physicality of shooting and before that, lighting. So I followed my boyfriend at the time from the University of Michigan to New York and I answered an ad in the Village Voice to get onto a movie set. That’s really how I learned about New York. They were sending me all over the city to get props, costumes and such, and I just fell in love with the city. But they were so understaffed that I ended up in the lighting department, really not knowing anything. I didn’t have any experience with lighting or anything electrical but I did have an art background and I quickly saw that lighting is where it’s at! There are no boundaries and hopefully you never repeat yourself.

I had a gaffer that taught me and was very open about sharing his knowledge. I took to it quickly and just loved it! So I started my career, crawling my way up the ladder. I know I raised some eyebrows with gaffers because there were just not very many women doing what I was doing. I didn’t see any reason for it to be gender based because there was already a trail of woman in theater who were lighting directors but in film it was just backwards.

I have a mentor named Mark Obenhaus, a documentary director and filmmaker, and I used to do a lot of lighting for him. On one commercial shoot with him Mark came to me after viewing one of the dallies, in which I was not invited, and told me I should use his 16mm camera because I should just start shooting. So I did and worked my way up. Shooting little things, donating my time and shooting student films.

How important was that experience moving up through the ranks? I ask because in some ways I see this sort of career progression disappearing, since so many young professionals can get a camera and start creating their own content, rather than having to gain the experience before they’re allowed to touch a camera.

That’s an interesting question to think about once you have done it. Certainly things have changed. And it was more of a New York thing to come from gaffing and then on to camera and DP. Because in Hollywood it was to go from 1st AC to operator and then finally DP. It’s more common now because it’s so easy to pick up a camera and shoot. There are just so many people who don’t go through the ranks. I really liked moving my way up. I really like set etiquette, how to deal with producers, actors and such, so for that reason I think it was a good training ground.

I actually think I regret not having gone to film school. Because I see so many connections made at film school and I see the people who work out of film school work with the people they met while at school and that’s beautiful, but I didn’t have that.

I’m happy that I came up through the ranks, and some people don’t need to. It’s such an individual thing. I do think it’s important to learn the basics but there are many talented cinematographers out there who are shooting beautiful things. They pick up a crew who make them even better so they don’t have to go through the ranks.

 Nancy Schreiber ASC

You’re based in New York and Los Angeles, so what can you tell us about the differences between the two markets in terms of the work you pursue and book?

Really there’s very little difference today between LA and New York other than [for me] there’s more work in New York. We haven’t had tax incentives in California until recently. And throughout the years there’s been a lot of work in Canada, which was one of the first area to offer incentives, and then other states [in the US] started catching on.

What’s been really interesting for me, because I do shoot in all the tax incentive states, is how many really wonderful people there are in those other markets. It’s exciting to work with all of these people around the country who are very talented!

But having said that, a lot of the projects originate out of New York and Los Angeles so it’s not a bad thing to have some sort of presence in those places. It took a while for me to get used to living out in LA because people didn’t like the fact that I was coming in from NY, but now people don’t really know where exactly I live. Now I have a lot of interviews by Skype or FaceTime today because we’re traveling so much, so it doesn’t matter where I live so much.

Glancing through your IMBD page, you’ve worked on just about every different kind of project that’s out there. Is there a particular type of project that you gravitate toward?

I love shooting period films. One of my favorite projects was a turn of the century film set in China. So I would love to do more period films.

Having said that, there’s nothing like stories about real life. Documentaries are amazing and I do think they fuel my fiction work by seeing the real work and noticing human nature and certain natural light. Technically, they help me because I’ve shot features where it’s mostly natural light or handheld, and I look forward to doing all styles and working with different people. 

Early in my career I started out shooting music videos. Now that was fun! I’m a big music person and I would do more if they asked me.

What’s been your biggest challenge as a working cinematographer?

I would say the biggest challenge today, because I still work in independent cinema, is people getting their financing. It’s really hard and the budgets are so small. My biggest challenge is finding ways to do the work without compromising my skill or my eye in the time allotted.

I’ve shot two movie in 15 days each. Now, both movies were geared toward being able to be shot quickly. One of them called “It’s a Disaster” was set pretty much in one house with an ensemble cast. But that’s not the norm. So the challenge is getting enough days to shoot properly, getting the budget for the proper gear, and potentially asking crew to work for a cheaper rate.

Nancy Schreiber ASC

How much does your skill as a gaffer and working with lighting affect how you approach cinematography?

Lighting is very important to my cinematography. I’m usually fast but I’m also respectful towards woman actors. I remember early in my career I was shooting this very low budget movie. There was an older woman actress and we did the blocking for a scene while it was still dark. When the older woman came back from hair and make-up I looked through my viewfinder and the woman looked too old for the scene. I told him I just need 5 minutes to fix it and the director wouldn’t let me. It was the only time I had quit the production, but after that the director understood and since that situation we’ve worked together many times, year later. But it hurt me to have to shoot something that was not attractive to a human being who would appreciate me taking the time to make her look better.

Certainly there are times you want an edgy look and you can have some leeway with men or on certain films with women that do not need to look their best, but I always try to give eye-light because I believe their souls come through their eyes. I also like directionally soft light and natural light, especially with period films. It’s fun to create because you’re imitating what was right at the time like before electricity.

How important is knowing the script well and why?

Well, it all starts with the script. Certainly I’m attracted to projects when it’s all about the story and the script. When I get a script for the first time I read it once as if I’m a viewer, and I don’t stop. Then I go back and I try to visualize the film. But the script is the Bible. If I’m not moved by the script in some way, whether it’s a comedy or a drama, then I’m probably not the right person for the film. 

What are you shooting with these days, what’s your A list gear?

If it’s digital, which it mostly is these days, I like the Alexa. It’s very filmic and very intuitive. A film I recently did down in Atlanta, they had two RED Dragons, and that’s definitely the best RED camera I’ve used.

It’s so funny, we’re chameleons, not only with style but with cameras. It’s just a tool, so it’s all about what you do with it. Especially today with many shooting raw or log so that everything is fixable. I shoot with the best lenses I can get my hand on. I remember when Super Speeds were the cheap lenses, I’d use the Panavision zooms and add a set of Super Speeds because back then they were cheap. Now everybody wants them because they are a little flawed and we want to make this digital cinema look more human. It’s all about the glass today.

Last year I shot with the [Canon] C300, C500, Sony F55, Alexa and just recently I shot with the Amira. And of course RED. I haven’t shot with BlackMagic yet. They’re just computers with lenses on them so you want to get the best and most appropriate lenses for your project.

You’ve served on the Sundance Dramatic Jury, Los Angeles Film Festival Jury, as well as the AFI Film Festival Jury. Is there any advice you’d give to potential participants about what they can or should do to catch the eye of a jury member?

That’s such an individual thing but I have to say one thing because it’s happened in my experience shooting for directors. Make sure you show your film to a varied audience before you lock picture. Because what’s in your head and what’s on that page may not be [in your film]. Don’t be afraid to have as many screenings as you can. Have a verbal Q&A afterwards and then offer the audience to submit anonymous written notes about your characters, favorite and least favorite parts of the film. It’s too bad more people don’t do that.

Nancy Schreiber ASCWhat’s the best advice you’ve been given throughout your career that has stuck with you?

I would say the best advice I’ve been given is don’t give up. There is going to be rejection. You’re not going to get the jobs you always want. But if you want it you’re gonna keep going, no matter how much rejection you get. There’s so many people shooting and only so many projects out there.

Also, find a way to have a life outside of film. I like to travel, I like to visit art and photography exhibits, I like to garden. I like to go and see theater shows and also donate my time to causes. I have a well rounded life. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

I’ve said this before but I hope to drop dead on set when I’m 100!


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Bobby Marko is an award winning filmmaker based in Nashville, TN. A retired professional musician turned filmmaker, Bobby has covered the world of film and video, from live production and chroma key capture to short films and feature length documentaries. He’s had published articles at Cannes Film Festival and has been a featured presenter at IBC in Amsterdam. Bobby’s passion is to capture the heart of a story through moving imagery and share his experience along the way. You can catch his podcast show on iTunes and Soundcloud, the Authentic Filmmaking Podcast.



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