Becoming a better filmmaker doesn’t require more money, connections or newer equipment (although those are great). Becoming a better filmmaker requires your passion and determination to expand your vision.
Here are three activities that I pursue passionately and see immediate results in improving my DP game.
1. Seeing classic films on the big screen. If you follow me on Twitter, you know of my love affair with MOMA Film. So far this year, I’ve seen 27 films at MOMA. You can purchase an Artist Membership at MOMA for $50 and watch an unlimited number of (classic and contemporary) films.
What I’ve learned:
– Watching a film theatrically is a unique education. I’ve seen Rossellini’s "Rome Open City" a number of times, but felt it on a deeper level when I saw it projected. I had no distractions. I got to experience its size and scope as the director intended. I was in the story, instead of just observing. Composing for the big screen vs the small screen are two different disciplines. We should strive to master both.
– I like to say "let our limitations create our aesthetic". Classic films have me re-examine what are true limitations. If you’re not familiar, read up about and find inspiration from the making of "Rome Open City".
Silent films are also a wonderful education in how to turn a production limitation into an asset. MOMA had a retrospective of Georgian films. I got to see two silents by Mikhail Kalatozov (best known for “I am Cuba” and “The Cranes are Flying”). Kalatozov was probably shooting with a camera the size of a Mini Cooper*, on slow film stock, with slow lenses and still resulting in superior cinematography. His “Nail in the Boot” taught me how locked off shots can make a war film even more dynamic.
Obviously, Silents also have a limitation in dialogue. That limitation asks me how can I most effectively tell a story visually? Sometimes that answer is found in lens choices and compositions. Other times, especially with German silent films, the world and story evolves through intricate production design.
In New York, we are fortunate to have MOMA, Film Forum, BAM, Film at Lincoln Center, the Museum of the Moving Image and countless other venues to see classic/retro films. Hopefully, you have at least one retro movie theater near you. As much as you commit to viewing and supporting new films, do the same for the old (and those theaters). See a film even if it sounds boring or you’ve seen it on YouTube. This is about improving yourself as a filmmaker not (solely) about finding entertainment. Also check your local library for screenings or organize your own.
2. Treat Instagram like a job. I was dragged kicking and screaming to Instagram, but now I see immense value. I’m not interested in using the medium to show plates of food or selfies. I want to strengthen my creative eye. Be rigorous about the images I capture and the potential moods they can create. Every day, I can take photographs, instead of waiting on the next (visually challenging) DP job to improve my skills.
What I’ve learned:
– Likes are wonderful and encouraging but it serves me best to keep my focus on the photograph. Could I have framed it better? Did I rush the moment? Does it tell a story? What makes it a strong image? Can I challenge that? Improve upon it? Is it gimmicky?
– My creative eye is improved through self imposed challenges. The hardest one I’ve given myself is to find simplicity in NYC.
– Non models/actors have the most beautiful faces. I’m delighted by wrinkles.
– Street photography is an excellent way to study body language and group dynamics. This is helpful insight for actors and directing actors.
– Photojournalist help me to connect to the news in a more personal and visceral way. Sometimes their stories are small. Or take time to develop and mature. They’re not always "breaking". But their images do inspire documentary ideas and innovative ways to shoot docs.
– Photographers see composition and color differently than filmmakers. They have the limitation of how to capture one image that is worth those thousand words. I learn a lot when they share their process and offer feedback on my work. I can learn, adapt and grow when its an on going dialogue. Compare this to my life as a Cinematographer, where feedback comes after the film is completed. A small sample of some of the people I follow on IG are: xST, Zun Lee, Maria Moldes, and Elif Suyabatmaz.
Joining IG is not the point. It’s taking on another artistic discipline, engaging in that community and committing to it.
3. Listen to others over-analyze a film. I teach a Cinematography for Directors class. After watching a film clip, the class and I discuss the lighting choices, camera angles, movement, blocking and possible lenses used. Before the conversation dwells too much on the technical, I always ask “but how did it make you feel?”
What I’ve learned (and try to teach):
– Filmmakers are selling emotional journeys to their audiences. Not lens packages. Next time you see a film with a friend, family member, industry or not, ask them how a particular shot made them feel. Even if (especially if) you are the film expert, learn to listen to someone else’s interpretation. I can over-analyze a film ad nauseum. I am well versed in the film language. But audiences experience film through their personal lens. A scene that fills me with joy, might fill another with dread. Knowing the alternate ways a scene can affect someone makes me a more helpful, less myopic, cinematographer. I’ve learned a lot from my students.
Indulge in cultures other than your own. I recently went on a rare tour of the Valencia Movie Theater (one of the five Wonder Theaters, now a black Pentecostal church), enjoyed the "Tea with Jim Sheridan" event at the Glucksman Ireland House and a tour of the Eldridge Street Synagogue (built 1887). Each event was free. Different cultures’ self expression teaches me new ways to use color, interpret space (architecture, urban planning) and stories/myths/fears/dreams to share.
Second Bonus: if you’ve never shot a documentary, do so. It will strengthen your storytelling skills. It will keep you on your toes, hone your ability to set up shots/compelling compositions on the fly and sensitize you to when a unique story is enfolding vs what has already been done.
This article is dedicated to Professor & Cinematographer Herman Lew. Your joy was infectious.
From the archives
* Please share any knowledge you have about 1930s Russian film production in the comment section