I spent January in Iceland shooting a personal photography project. Just before I left Australia I spotted a note in the National E-News about an IMAGO Cinematography Masterclass taking place in Vienna around the time I was due to head back home. With a quick chat with Ron Johanson OAM ASC, a bit of flight wrangling and Airbnb booking I found my detour booked.
The event took place in a little theatre in the centre of Vienna and was set up as three days of half-day guest speaker/interview sessions as well as couple of social events. There were over 120 participants from 24 different countries.
First cab off the rank was Barry Ackroyd BSC (The Hurt Locker). Ackroyd began by focusing on his personal inspiration, the work of Chris Menges BSC ASC who worked primarily with Ken Loach. Films referenced included Kes (1969), The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986).
He went on to detail his own twenty-five-year-long collaboration with Loach and how the documentary style established in this time went on to influence his more recent feature work collaborating with directors such as Kathryn Bigalow (Detroit), Sean Penn (The Last Face) and Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips).
One point Barry noted on several occasions was to “discover your own voice in cinematography”, emphasising that everyone is different and what works for one cinematographer may not work the same for you.
While not focusing too much on the technical side of shooting Ackroyd made particular note of various cinematography choices that influence the style of each film. Some of the memorable ones for me include the choice to go for 16mm and zooms on The Hurt Locker. This was to keep a strong documentary feel as well as allowing the three and four operators stay light and nimble in their movements. Alternatively, Captain Phillips employed a mixture of 16mm and 35mm. 16mm was used when shooting the pirates side of the story, while 35mm was saved for footage of the Western cargo ship and its characters. Aiming to give a different feel to both worlds; one is rough and dynamic, while the other is clean and controlled.
Another shoot that Ackroyd noted was his work on Greengrass’ United 93 (2006). The majority of the film set on a plane, Greengrass wanted to create long, 40-50 minute takes in a time where standard 35mm mags ran about four minutes. This was achieved by running two cameras simultaneously but with an offset start. When one ran out the Assistant Camera would grab one of the newly loaded mags that were spread under the airline seats along the length of the plane. One operator was working on a wider lens while another was shooting on a 24-290 hand held with the assistance of a monopod holding up the lens!
The second day began with a session with Dan Laustsen ASC DFF (The Shape of Water) which was moderated by Laustsen’s teacher from film school, Andreas Fischer-Hansen DFF. Laustsen began by discussing his path from a 22-year-old self-trained fashion photographer through to his current projects. With that was also the transition of working with a firm set of photographic ‘rules’ to a place where his shooting is a lot more dynamic with a greater level of freedom afforded to him.
Laustsen screened sections of Crimson Peak (2015), John Wick: Chapter 2 (2016) and The Shape of Water (2017), going into detail on his approach to shooting a number of the scenes. One story that I found interesting was the bus travel scenes in The Shape of Water. These were shot before principle photography and were originally meant as camera, lighting and makeup tests. Once the editing began these scenes became important in character development. Laustsen’s note on this was to always do 100%, because even though you think you’re just shooting a few tests and a shot for a montage it may grow further down the line.
Day three began with a session by Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler). This started with some background of her early career which included two years as a rock and roll photographer while shooting stills on adult films. “That was my film school, because at the sets I met a lot of students for NYU and Columbia University”, she explained.
While Alberti did go into some detail on shooting projects like The Wrestler, Creed and Chappaquiddick she tended to lean more towards thoughts of advice, inspiration and looking at the overall cinematic feel of a project.
An audience member asked about being a woman working on ‘male films’ such as Creed. The reply, which I thought was fantastic, noted that gender didn’t matter. She was a 60-year-old shooting a Rocky film for a talented, enthusiastic 27-year-old director and was having the professional time of her life.
The final session of the masterclass was with Australia’s own Greig Fraser ACS ASC. Fraser began the session discussing inspiration and ‘anti-inspiration’. Whether when starting a film you should immerse yourself in similar films, artwork and photographs, or alternatively strip things back and keep your mind clear of these outside influences. Fraser will often not watch any movies while in the planning stages of a new film so he isn’t accidentally or subconsciously influenced.
Some of the films covered by Fraser included Let Me In (2010), Killing Them Softly (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Foxcatcher (2014), Lion (2016) and Mary Magdalene (2018). All these films had quite different aesthetic styles and Fraser went on to outline the stylistic and technical choices made on each. This included the use of large format digital, night vision units, ultra-high speed film cameras, LED lighting and custom lens options.
While Rogue One (2016) was covered briefly there was a very interesting little story from it, being given the task of lighting Darth Vader and the high-gloss helmet. Spending a lot of time coming up with a plan and arranging the construction of a 70ft x 100ft silk that was to be stitched in a particularly way where the seams would not be visible in the reflections. After all this work on the day before the shoot the silk arrives and has been stitched the wrong way resulting in a very last minute re-think on shooting the scene. No matter what the budget and pre-production time, some things just don’t go to plan.
Some final advice from Fraser was on the topic of technology. His thoughts were to “Embrace technology but don’t let it rule you”.
The two main points I took away from the sessions were that every cinematographer is different. We all have different approaches to our pre-production, lighting, crewing, equipment choices and working with directors. There is no wrong or right way, just what works for you. The second was a note that every speaker brought up; that was the importance of protecting and taking control of your images throughout the process. This is particularly important after the shoot where grading decisions are often done without discussion with the cinematographer.
The masterclass trip was well worth the effort. What I particularly enjoyed other than the sessions themselves was the discussion I had with a wide mix of ages and backgrounds of the participants from various parts of the world.
Mark Broadbent is a freelance cinematographer based in Brisbane, Australia.