Frame & Reference is a conversation between Cinematographers hosted by Kenny McMillan of OWL BOT. Each episode dives into the respective DP’s current and past work, as well as what influences and inspires them. These discussions are an entertaining and informative look in to the world making films through the lens of the people who shoot them. You can listen to Frame & Reference where all the best podcasts are listened to like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Each episode can also be found in video form on YouTube. Follow Frame & Reference on Twitter and Instagram for more content, and check your favorite app every Thursday for new episodes.
In this, the second episode, (see my “pilot” with Johnny Derango) I talk to Nomadland DP Josh Richards. In 2019, Josh was nominated for an ASC Spotlight award for his work on The Rider. You might also know Josh from his work on God’s Own Country. For his full filmography, check out his IMDb page. Each transcript is edited lightly for clarity and legibility.)
About Nomadland: “The film is devastating, uplifting, poignant, a beautiful marriage of sound and picture, equal parts Terence Malick/Ansel Adams/Chloe Zhao (and, from what Richards told us, a bit of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”). Richards (who “took home” top honors at this year’s Camerimage for the film) serves as production designer too which makes sense since the main set is Fern’s van and the rest is the desolate, gorgeous, fecund plains and mountains and rivers of the Western United States. He manages to tell the story visually with aching close-ups that reveal the various unique characters and also wide shots that give a sense of scope and place, from the badlands to the Amazon factories. It’s really really something. As is her practice, director Chloe Zhao used real people, which of course led to an improvisational atmosphere that Richards embraced and never lost focus – his own nor the camera’s. (Some DPs don’t as you know!) Here’s his take on it: “Chloé is using the cinema to touch upon the lives of real people who are completely overlooked—old people, homeless people,” says Richards. “It’s about exploring life from a certain perspective that doesn’t feel purely observational. There’s a poetry to it.” Zhao’s semi-improvisational approach to storytelling extends to the shooting. “Instead of coming in with an exact sort of vision of what it’s meant to be,” says Richards, “Chloé’s very open to sort of discovering the film as we go.”
So what got you started in cinematography?
Initially I wanted to be a painter, sort of fine art was my background. I think I just realized I had nothing new to say in that medium or if I did, it just seemed like such a daunting mountain to climb, you know? And I was also, you know, I love photography and I was always snapping away and, and love movies. I was brought up on a lot of westerns. My dad is a big Western guy, big John Ford and people like that. Even at a young age, it seemed pretty clear that it’s still such a sort of untapped medium.
I got really big into Charlie Chaplin early on, and then it was only when I got in to westerns and it was really only when I discovered people like Hertzog that I started realizing what film can really be, you know. Probably a little bit more outside of the holding of seventies stuff I was watching, you know, it was, it was like, wow, film can kind of truly be this powerful form of language and communication, you know, I hadn’t really thought of it that way so yeah, and then I got my set on film school and some reason I was, I grew up in Penzance, Cornwall, and not a lot of filmmakers come out of there. For those who don’t know that is deep, deep Southwest England and, it’s sort of a fishing industry that’s a little bit on its knees so that there’s not much hope of becoming a filmmaker down there, but for some reason I just got in my head that I wanted to go to NYU. And that’s what I ended up doing.
I certainly applied there, but I ended up going to Arizona State. So you can guess how they thought about me.
[laughs] Well, do you know what though mate, the whole time I was in New York, I was longing for that landscape. You know, like in Nomadland and these things. That’s why I came to America. You know, I wanted to get into the heartlands and I would ask my professors in New York, like, “where do I have to go?” But this landscape I’m talking about was probably like five states away.
Have you ever been to Colorado?
Yeah, we lived in Colorado for two years. Lived in Denver, downtown on Colfax for two years. And that was when we made The Rider. I mean, it’s been quite interesting how the films have kind of changed our life because after making Songs, I don’t know, I just couldn’t settle back into New York after that experience, you know, it was quite a long time. We spent out there on the reservation in South Dakota and when I went back to Manhattan, I just couldn’t feel comfortable anymore. So then we moved out into the sticks into Beacon, upstate, uh, which is where Chloe edited Songs. And then we moved to Colorado. Yeah. Just to, just to be near to the reservation, I suppose. And we’d fallen in love with the Rockies. Yeah. Why do you ask?
I used to run the college ski club and I’ve been helping do that ever since [for the company that ran them]. I haven’t had to pay for a lift ticket in like 11 years, I didn’t obviously go this year, but yeah, so I’m in Colorado all the time. It’s like my second home. I love LA, I love cities, I grew up in the Bay Area, but there’s just something about the quiet of a mountain, especially when it’s snowing. Like that’s just so calming, and there’s also like a comradery that I don’t necessarily feel in a bigger city.
Yeah. And I think for me personally as well mate, like when I was at NYU, there’s a bar right next to NYU called the Apple Bar, and I do remember one of my professors saying “Josh, there’s, there’s two kinds of students here: There’s those that go home and write their scripts after class. Then there’s those that go to Apple Bar” and I knew which one I was. So part of what I’m trying to say as part of, for me getting out of New York was also that silence you’re talking about; being able to focus more and not sit around talking about your films, but just getting out and making stuff. In my career, that’s been incredibly important making that distinction, stop talking about it, just do it.
Yeah. That’s actually something that I’ve talked to a lot of my friends about, even outside of cinematography, and that’s, you know, you can spend all day reading your favorite cinematography books, there’s certainly bad stuff on YouTube, but there’s a lot of good stuff on YouTube like this interview and, you know, you can go on Roger Deakins’ forums all day, but you’re not going to get that institutional knowledge from just doing it. Like it, you can only prepare so much.
Yeah. Yeah. And I think from Chloe’s point of view, as a writer and director as well, she feels the same way, you know? I mean, it really is like Kerouac said, man, you want to be a good writer? Just write the shit out of that.
Yeah. And so for people who don’t know Chloe Zau is your collaborator…
Yeah, we’re also a couple, you know, we’re a partnership. I really I’ve learned so much from her as well, Kenny, I mean that the value of close collaboration like that, you know, it’s such a huge part of it as well. Isn’t it? Because I know so many talented DPs and probably more talented ones than I who just haven’t really got the project. You must know a lot of people too, mate, you know, you can tell that there’s so much great stuff out there visually, but if you don’t get this, you know, if a story doesn’t come your way, or if you’re not finding collaborators, it, you know, it’s tough.
I reached out to the ol’ internet to see what questions they would have for cinematographers if they had this opportunity, and a lot of them wanted to know about literally just that, like, how do you find jobs? How does that even happen?
Well, film school had to be my route, you know, I’m not sure I recommend it, but yeah I know how that feels, you know? I was in London, no doors opened for me. I just couldn’t, you know, I got a film degree in creative writing. So I read scripts for months for money and that would actually be my advice to cinematographers. It might sound weird, but get really good at reading scripts, you know? We’re concerned with the language of cinema as much as anything else, we want to start there, not with the more cosmetic things of cinematography that comes later; first and foremost is building that foundation of how you, what is your language? How do you want to make movies?
Maybe you’re your DP that can, you know, as a chameleon and can fit into every different project. I knew quite early on that I wasn’t that. The way I thought of it, when I was at film school was I need to come up with what my language is, and I need that to be recognizable. I want to be one of those DPs where they say “You know who would be great for this is Josh Richards because of what he does” and that becomes recognized. I think that’s quite valuable to people when they can see your fingerprint.
I think that’s huge. Especially these days, a lot of people will put out their reel and it’ll be like “I can do commercials, short films, yadda yadda. And instead of really focusing on creating a look, they will show the project like, “Oh, look what I did”
I made this mistake. You know, all of my work was in fashion for the most part, fashion and music videos. And then I got one short film and I put that at the head of the reel, sent my reel to work for a guy, and he said “We’re gonna use you, but I want you to know that I shut off your reel in the first five seconds. And it was my wife who watched the whole thing and told me to turn around and call you.” I thought if I put this crappy clip of the short film right up front, people will “know” I can do short films [even though it wasn’t my best work].
Yeah, exactly. But I mean, reels are tough though, aren’t they mate? Especially when you’re editing your own, you know, and being, being kind of objective about it. I don’t know if I ever made a successful one either. To be honest with you, you know, I think what happens with those is the risk that happens to all of us as cinematographers man. And I do think it’s getting too cosmetic about things. The amount of times our clients come up to me, Kenny and said, “uh, can you make it look prettier?” I’ll never get that part of my soul back again. You do have to make up your mind about, you know, there’s a lot of things, aren’t there to, to consider when deciding on your language and how you want to work.
Is there a specific look or influence you have? I think everyone’s enamored with the guy, but Fincher’s cinematography, you know, what he kind of imposes on his DPS, I’ve always thought was “boring” in a good way. Like, it’s always just so perfect. And then I found out, you know, obviously how much work he’s doing in post with split comps and deleting lights and boom poles and all this, but like, that idea of “start from perfect” I always thought was interesting.
Well, that’s interesting Kenny, cause I’d probably be the opposite school of that. This is what’s cool, like if I look at Finch and I’m like, love it, the softness, there’s a character to his films that I think is stunning. I’m just not going to be able to do it. You know, I knew that early on. The technicalities of that excite me far less than if, for me personally, if I’m out in a landscape with a face that I like. And that’s what I discovered for me. And then you kind of just keep chipping away in your own direction. And that there’s people that guide you, for me is probably Tarkovsky, I think. I look at his films, I’m just blown away.
I was talking to Roger Deakins recently, my good old mate Rodger, and he was like “I want to get to understand Tarkovsky more” And I thought that was really cool. You know, it’s like, I feel the same way. I like watching stuff I don’t quite understand, you know, I feel like it’s making me grow as a filmmaker and also watched a lecture that Tarkovsky was doing where he said “if someone said, Oh, that shots like that shot in this film” then he wouldn’t do it. It needs to, it needs to be completely new. It needs to be for the story. It can’t be like another movie. So there you go. That’s a completely different way of thinking about film. Uh, you know, when compared to someone like Tarantino, for example. So, you know, there’s just so many ways to do it in this medium. Isn’t there?
There’s something in my head that cinema and music are intrinsically linked. And one of those things was like, when you’re playing guitar and your favorite musician uses a certain pedal and a certain guitar. So you buy that stuff and then you sound exactly like him and then you lose complete interest because you did it. But then you kind of go back a little bit later when you’ve got your own thoughts. And you’re like, “I don’t actually like that pedal.” Did you find yourself doing that with cinematography? Where you were copying first and then was like “all right, I’m done here?”
Yeah. That’s what you do in painting as well, Kenny, you know, at first it’s just going to be copy, copy, copy. And then that’s how you understand the technique now, what do you want to do with it?
So, yeah I didn’t kind of go at it in a technical way though, you know. I more just like watched Chris Doyle and, and just try to absorb that freedom of what he’s doing or, or the boldness of lens choice, you know, I’m more influenced in that way rather than like “how do I achieve that thing”. I’d probably be a bit more in the Jackson Pollock school, you know what I mean mate, more than anything too intricate in the way I approach things. If that makes sense.
I’ve noticed in your body of work, there’s a lot of naturalism, you know, Tarkovsky is probably the answer there, but how do you embrace naturalism? How do you use available light? You know, are you like really grip heavy over lamp heavy or what’s, what’s kind of your approach there?
Yeah, definitely grip over lamp. I was forced to embrace it though. We were all starting with making films for no money and no equipment but also, yeah, like you mentioned, Tarkovsky, obviously Nestor Almendros, Robbie Ryan, all these guys have really led the way for me in times of natural light kind of going “Oh, okay. Well, I love how these movies look and they’re not using lights, so I’m good.” Like Malik’s been doing. And I just honestly love it. No day is the same, you know, you can never quite plan what it’s going to be. Weather is sort of a common enemy that like unites everyone, isn’t it? In a weird way. A lot of the dramas of a film set kind of go out the window and we were all chasing the sun.
There’s definitely something to be said for, you know… obviously you want to enact a plan, but yeah, that common enemy thing definitely stops arguments. If you have too much room to think you’ll start to bite each other.
People start going inward don’t they? Just “me me me me” and with the landscape and the weather. It’s like, “no, no, no, the film. Remember the film?” So it’s really helpful in that way, you know?
We could talk all day about natural light in a sense, but I kind of also realized talking to you, mate, I need… I never had like mentors in cinematography either. Did you?
We can quite quickly feel quite alone and in a void, as a cinematographer can’t you? Cause you don’t really.. I don’t know about you, I don’t know any other cinematographers. I don’t really hang out with other filmmakers. So sometimes [laughs] I could probably do with a little more comradery and learning from my peers a bit more or just feeling like, yeah, we’re bouncing off each other because for the most part, it’s all happened in a vacuum really.
I’m lucky where all my friends from college moved to LA with me, so we’ve known each other for 12 years, and we were all in film school. But I was the only cinematographer, you know, a couple of editors, a couple directors, whatever. So even when I make stuff, they’re like, “Oh, good job.” And they don’t watch it. You know, the old classic. I think I know one cinematographer.
Strange relationship though isn’t it, between us; DPs and filmmakers in general, you know, you can quickly… it’s the first thing people say, “Oh, you should meet my friend who makes movies” And a lot of times you just think “not really, no.” [laughs]
Haha, no exactly. Well instead of talking about other people and their work, talking about Nomadland, this is a story about Frances McDormond…
Well, Fran plays a character called Fern who is widowed and also left her home town of Empire Nebraska, which is, it’s actually been discontinued as a sheet rock factory, which means in the middle of the desert, right by Burning Man. And believe it or not, once that factory shut down that man, that was it for the town. Fern leaves Empire and starts finding new purpose on the road, across the American Heartlands, meeting other nomads and bouncing off, you know, other people on a journey and kind of learning that. I’ll stop it there, mate. [laughs]
Haha, Fair. It sounds a little, maybe not dire, but a little more serious of a film potentially?
I hope it doesn’t feel dire. I mean, it’s, it certainly deals with grief and loss and it deals with being in a world that you don’t belong in, that you don’t feel you belong in anymore, however, I mean, our approach on it was that it feels like a spiritual experience somehow or this sort of feeling of like, you know, what Malik’s been exploring in his films somewhat. Fern discovers herself in this landscape, you know? The book that it’s based on by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland, you know, it really is challenging our kind of societal norms in terms of, like the way we live, you know? The house, the mortgage that we get, all these things… And then in America, sadly, we have this generation, sort of baby boomer generation, predominantly women (which is possibly even more troubling) who find themselves, having worked their whole lives and their social security is nothing, they can’t afford a house, they have no choice but to do what they’re doing, which is to live a sort of transient lifestyle as a nomad, and that can sound dire and bleak certainly. And I think we’ve seen that movie. What Chloe wanted to do was challenge that. The other thing it’s like, well actually, perhaps there is another life to discover in those golden years of your life where you don’t need those societal norms, perhaps by letting go of them. There’s a new kind of freedom and identity to be found.
How’d you go about designing the look for the film? Were you kind of playing on principles that you had built over the years with the other films?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, there’s definitely a common language that Chloe and I have developed together, those collaborations become so valuable because of so much of the work’s been done, you know, and it’s unspoken. So it was real, it was kind of amazing, like thinking back on conversations, I would just say, “I was thinking of the camera could move more in this film probably what do you think?” she was like, “yeah, great. Do it.” And she just sort of trusts me to run with that. Obviously I’m never going to do anything that she hasn’t first kind of come up with, but I’m just, I’m I just know what she likes. Do you know what I mean? So the suggestion is never treading on anyone’s toes cause I’m starting with “what would Chloe want?” The groundwork’s been done in terms of working with non-actors as well.
Because there’s a bunch of non-actors in the film, right?
Yeah. All our nomads are, you know, first time actors and never, never been in front of the camera for the most part. And so, you know, that changes everything, Kenny, doesn’t it? That’s when, as cinematographers, you put the tools aside and you think about the approach. So with this being the most important thing of this being these live in true to life I wouldn’t even call them performances sometimes it’s like, people are literally sharing their stories with us on camera and it’s like, are you really gonna stick a silk in front of their face and blast them with a light? It’s like, no, you’re not going to do any of those things, obviously. I mean, it’s enough that the camera’s observing them, that’s it, that’s all you get. And so that changes everything, you know, you really work backwards from that point.
So it was like a hybrid documentary/drama almost?
Yes. Yeah Chloe and I ran out of ways of describing it in a way mate, because honestly, I don’t see that much difference with when I’ve done documentary work. In fact, if you think a documentary is more true than… I mean, most documentaries are no more true than the most elaborate fiction. They are edited. They are shot, observed, people are acting a certain way because the camera’s there, the edit, the filmmaker has a point they want to make. So, you know, it’s, it’s structured in a way, what’s the difference.
If anything, a documentary could be more manipulative because the assumption is that you’re watching someone’s truth, but the edit can absolutely warp people’s meanings, words, anything.
Like, Michael Moore: I find him at times kind of a dangerous documentary filmmaker because he does that. And it’s like, look, you’re asking me to trust you and I shouldn’t have to, you should just give me the facts, you know?
He does it very tongue-in-cheek as well. He’s assuming you know, but not everyone is as educated a film viewer as he is, or we might be.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Like turning around on Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine, for example, you know. It’s clearly one camera but it’s shot like there’s two. So they shot Michael Moore’s reaction after the fact that’s, that’s what we did on Nomadland! It’s the same thing, but obviously what’s different is in the film, there’s a script and there’s, you know, but as we both know, when you start doing a documentary, there’s definitely a map of what you want, what you’re trying to say. So I would just challenge the labels a little bit as well.
I would also argue quite an interesting thing happens when you approach people with these films, because like on Pine Ridge, for example: the Lakota Indian reservation, they are sick to death, mate, of people coming there and filming them, you know, with a long lens and like geurillas in the mist, you know like, “Ooh, look at you, you still exist.” And they’re just like rolling their eyes. But then when we went in, the reaction was “oh are you doing a documentary?” and we were like, “no, it’s a movie. Do you want to be in it?” They’re like “Totally! That’s awesome! What’s it about?” So there’s an empowerment that happens and actually I would argue that they settle into and it’s really a collaboration. I really enjoyed it mate, I found it deeply satisfying to make films with these people in this way.
Well, and I’ve always said, everyone likes being on camera, whether they say it or not, what they don’t like is being exposed. They want to be celebrated. Anyone does. I think in a documentary setting, there’s danger of being exposed. But if you have lines or if you have a goal in your head, I think you can work towards being celebrated. How many takes where you were people asking for?
Well, again, with this approach, you know, usually Chloe would start with the nomads or the first time actors… but you’re right. Carl Rogers, the clinician, you know, he came up with this thing of therapy and the ways to ask people questions. And he said a really interesting thing, and I read it before doing Nomadland, cause he said like “you need to look at people as the expert of their own experience.” And I was like, that’s so awesome and exactly what Chloe is trying to do, because if you can write for that person and if you can write for their story, they will be it, you know? Once it comes on to them, it’s perfect casting. Chloe’s just done it backwards, kind of, she just started with the character and then, wrote the script for that character and that person.
That’s what makes it possible. You can’t do this and then tried to get “Swanky” to act a certain way. That’s unfair on Swanky. She never pretended to be an actor. You know, she said she was going to bring “Swanky”. And so yes, it does celebrate her. In fact, that’s what Nomadland is meant to be, in my opinion, that’s certainly what I was thinking behind the camera is that we’re celebrating this country.
How did the project influence your gear choices? Were you just going with what you were familiar with?
Well, I approached it almost like three different films in a way that we’re kind of folding into each other. You know, there is this documentary element to it certainly in terms of totally spontaneous things that are happening. But Chloe has created a kind of parameter around that for me, for us to work in. Does that make sense? Like it’s an organized chaos, if you know what I mean? And then there are straight up scripted scenes between Fran and David. Now you have two actors, but now it needs to look as spontaneous as the other stuff. It has to feel like the same movie, doesn’t it? And then there was this kind of movement to the landscape that the challenge there mate was, it just can’t feel like a travel log. Can’t feel like postcards it’s like, how do you make it emotional?
So in terms of equipment, those three different things required different equipment for the movement. I went with the Ronin 2. I was liberated mate. I don’t know what they’re going to come out with next, but thank goodness they figured it out. Cause it was great on Nomadland. I had it ready the whole time with the Mini and the Amira just on the car. So at any one time there was two cameras for me to just grab in whatever situation. So it was a really rigid language as well that Chloe and I came up with. With one word, I’m like “okay, it’s on the Ronin, go.” It was a very quick way of working that made those sort of magic hours possible.
Yeah. Cause you were shooting a lot at magic hour, right?
We did, yes. Again, it was always this discussion of emotion and where’s Fran in the story. I know I was influenced by those Hudson Valley river school painters, you know, it’s the sublime American landscape, the mountains, and the etherial glow in the distance and it feels like the sun’s leaving us behind, you know, there’s this decay in the foreground, like a fallen tree or dead Buffalo or something. And you just feel like, yeah, it’s the journey West like that influenced it. And then Grapes of Wrath and John Ford movies… And then we watched Happy Together on set, actually. We did a little screening of Happy Together, which was cool. It was just the crew. It was like “guys, let’s just encourage each other to be as creative and free on this as possible.”
What were your lenses?
So we shot Zeiss Ultraprimes, which yeah, that was just from Chloe falling in love with them on The Rider. It wasn’t really a question and, keeping it very limited, you know, 32, 16, 25 or an 18, you know really just three lenses.
This is a loaded question cause I definitely have an opinion: How important is staying to, say, three lenses over having a full kit of zooms or an eight-lens kit or having any option you want?
Well, I’m sure we agree mate, that these limitations of what’s going to create the language and look at the film first and foremost, they create anchors in the story as well that, you know… there’s so many different landscapes in this film. That was, as I saw it at the beginning, maybe I was wrong, but that I thought was my biggest challenge was I had to anchor the audience in these places. I think the lens choice really helps with that as well. Too many options is a danger to any artist I think, isn’t it? But nevertheless, it’s still the hardest thing to do, keeping it simple.
And I think too, ya know, obviously the more work you do the more easily you can think of a lens and just like, stand in an area and go “yeah, I know what this will look like on a 23 or 32 or whatever.”
I think the most important thing to us, as people like Deakins have talked about forever, you know, it was keeping things wide and close, you know, inside the action, very much…
Intimacy, yeah. You know, and getting almost close to people is… I don’t know what you think about this though, mate, but the way I approach cinematography as well is I’m trying to communicate the way I see the world. So when I hold my fist, I can see… here’s my periphery. That’s a pretty wide angle, you know, when do you ever really see anything on the zoom lens?
I’m definitely of the mind that like, I’ve shot almost everything in my career between 18 and 35.
[Laughs] Yeah, cool. Yeah.
I’ll hit a 50 for an insert.
Yeah. A macro, insert.
Okay cool. We’re on the same page mate.
It was cool, I asked Deakins when he watched Fargo, now, would he change anything about it? You know, what would he do differently? And one of the things that came up is that he might be a bit wider with things. And then we went into a conversation about trends of cinematography and what it means… what more modern cinematography means. You know what I mean? I do think, you know, we look to films like the Revenant and we look to some of these bolder choices and in cinematography it seems more geared towards immersiveness, doesn’t it? Like this empathy machine as people describe cinema. And so I’m on board with that man. And I actually, a lot of my, I, I watch a lot of like, uh, real world gaming stuff. I don’t know about you, I’m not a gamer, but I watch it because, I mean, that’s what cinema is up against. I mean, it is beautiful what they’re doing now, isn’t it? I mean, I stopped playing computer games after Goldeneye on the N64, because I was an addict. But doing now visually is so exciting.
Yeah, there’s a couple good ones, like… let’s see, Last of Us, the new God of War. There’s a handful of games that like, reach out to cinematographers and go, like, “we’re going to put the digital camera in your hands, the iPad, and you film this scene.” Like God of War is played as a one-take.
Yeah the whole game is experienced as one take.
Really see that sound that’s… dude to me that’s the Vanguard like if we’re talking visually.
Yeah. It’s stunning, it’s won a ton of awards, but, uh, getting back to your project…. see the problem is I’ve noticed with talking with other filmmakers, other cinematographers, is we never want to talk about what we did.
It’s always like, “what’s the cool thing that I just saw!”
One thing I’m trying to do on the podcast is ask each cinematographer to highlight one of their favorite shots and highlight something that was particularly difficult. So you can walk us through the problem solving. So whichever one you’d like to start with, if you can think that quickly, the floor is yours.
[laughs] You know what’s hard about these questions mate, It’s I feel like I’m drawing attention to my blunders.
Oh no, not necessarily your blenders, just something that was a challenge that you were able to overcome. Not necessarily if it was like a bad shot or anything.
Okay. Well, it’s a good lesson because… there was a shot towards the end of the movie that I just knew was a dolly shot, but I opted not to take a dolly because I just knew I’d never use it other than just maybe this last thing, and I got the shot and I was like “It’s a dolly shot, I said it was! How am I ever going to be able to do this shot with the Ronin!?” But Chloe was like “you can do it.” And I did the shot and it’s, you know, I can barely look at it now but it’s okay. It’s okay. And stabilization’s a great thing [laughs].
Haha oh yeah. Would you say that speaks to, cause I definitely know this happens to me, that you should go with your gut 9 times out of 10? Like trusting that flow state…
I just made the decision. It probably would have meant a bigger truck, you know what I’m saying? So it was either bringing the dolly or keeping things super tight with the Ronin. And I went to the latter. I think it was the right decision, actually. That was the spirit of it, Kenny, if you keep adding things like that before you know, it, you haven’t stripped things down at all. Why don’t you just bring a few HMI’s on that as well. I mean, now you’ve got a truck full of lights and you might end using them, which I didn’t want to do. I wanted to limit my resources.
I believe in that for sure. So same question on the other side, favorite shot in the film, something that really excited you or made you go “wow”…
I think I’ve just got to go with the close up, man [of Fran at the end]… I mean, that’s what I love about cinema. You know, Bergman’s quote: it’s the art form of the human face. Because it just brought everything together. Like, the way Chloe and Fran worked together, when she stood in the doorway at the end of the film, there’s a closeup of Fran and… I just love everything about her face. There’s a critic that described Fran’s face as a national park.
She’s a national treasure!
She’s a national treasure man. I mean, that’s something else to talk about, Kenny. I mentioned it earlier, but when it comes to lighting and makeup and dealing with, you know… on certain projects, obviously, you know, you want to make sure you have the actors back and they need to look a certain way. However, on a film like this, man, if you’re not celebrating the lines drawn in people’s faces, then you shouldn’t be shooting it.
And I remember at film school, I don’t how it was for you, but I didn’t know what an f-stop was when I arrived to NYU. So Sandy Sissel, Tony Gianelli, Peter Stein, Tom Richmond… I owe so much to them, they encouraged me endlessly. However, I do remember some discussions: We were watching a scene. I won’t say which film, but there’s a scene where the actress has a particular vein that kind of, you know “It’s her vein, it protrudes a bit, she was emotional” and it was a discussion about, is that a mistake on the cinematographer’s part? And I felt really strongly about it: Absolutely not! It’s beautiful! In fact, the scene was about her remembering when she was the beauty queen at the prom or something. So the more wrinkles, the better isn’t it? you know, but you know what I’m saying mate, there’s a sort of go-to thing sometimes in this industry and with cinematographers where you’re not thinking you’re just making something pretty ya know.
That’s definitely, I think, an “early in their career” cinematographer move is to just make everything a pretty shot.
Yeah. “What does that mean?”
Yeah, is it 3-point lighting? Is it looking traditionally theatrical?
You can teach a monkey 3-point lighting. It’s tricky mate, I mean, Deakins talked about it a lot as well, man, you know, the sort of cosmetic trends we’re seeing in cinematography, you know, and it troubles me a bit because it’s being led by the commercial industry and music videos. It’s not coming from storytelling.
Yeah. Well we… I literally could talk to you for another two hours about this kind of stuff, but we gotta, we gotta wrap it up.
Ah thanks mate.
Just to end it, you know, a couple questions: what advancements excite you about cinematography? What have you done, especially during this year, that’s helped you creatively? And do you have any personal projects or anything on the way?
I mean, I’m excited by the fact that these cameras are getting smaller and smaller, you know. It’s like that Francis Ford Coppola prophecy back in the day, remember that? And that’s basically YouTube, that’s where we are. I am on board, dude! The smaller these cameras can be and the more people can make movies and then look aesthetic, you know, look cinematic is so exciting. I think, you know, 10 years we’ll be watching YouTube mate.
In fact, even now, I’ve just watched something the other day: there’s a little girl in Pine Ridge, just filming a horse in outside her trailer home, this beautiful white horse, and it just runs off into the Badlands and it’s like one of the coolest little short movies you’ve ever seen! So I think I’m excited for the like, that sort professionalism to get broken down a bit and then we can really start taking off as an art form.
[As far as personal projects] I’ve been writing a lot, and then Chloe and I’ve been sort of setting up other projects in the future and I’m sort of generating our own material really. I think I’m going to take on oceanscapes next mate, which might be a horrible idea [laughs]. I grew up by the sea, so yeah, I’m excited. I’m so inspired by this film Leviathan, not the Russian one, the GoPro one on the fishing boat. That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Kenny. So yeah, pretty exciting.
Awesome. Well, I also grew up, like I said, in the Bay Area next to the ocean, so I will look forward to that.
Well let’s hope it happens mate, fingers crossed, you never know.
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