Roundtable: 5 Top Cinematographers Reveal Secrets of Their Craft
8:59 AM PST 11/18/2013 by THR Staff
Barry Ackroyd ("Captain Phillips"), Sean Bobbitt ("12 Years a Slave"), Bruno Delbonnel ("Inside Llewyn Davis"), Phedon Papamichael ("Nebraska") and Stuart Dryburgh ("The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") sit down for a candid conversation about directors, actors and digital vs. film.
From left: Barry Ackroyd, 59, of Captain Phillips; 12 Years a Slave's Sean Bobbitt, 54; Bruno Delbonnel, 56, of Inside Llewyn Davis; Phedon Papamichael, 51, who shot Nebraska; and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty's Stuart Dryburgh, 61.
"I've done three movies with Alexander Payne, and I remember on Sideways-- he'd worked with only one DP prior to that -- it took about two weeks," says Papamichael. "I would see where he would stand during rehearsal, and that's usually where he'd want to place the camera. But it varies. Some people are in tune with what you're doing; you have the same instincts. With others you have to find a common language."
"They do their own shot list, and it's then 'suggested' to me as they do with [DP] Roger Deakins,"says Delbonnel. "It's a bit harder working with Tim Burton. I did two movies with Tim, and you never really knew what he wanted. We'd block the scene with the actors, and we have to be very fast to react because an hour later you're supposed to shoot. You have to be a bit more flexible. I don't really try to understand the director. (Laughter.)"
"You take years to build your own character and have your own signature, but they have to fit into the director's vision," says Ackroyd. "Anyone who wants to be a cinematographer, I say, 'It's about telling someone else's story, but with your voice.' That's how we secretly think we know what we're doing. (Laughter.) But this is my impression of what you see around the table today: quiet, gentle people. You have to have a certain degree of arrogance but not enough to make you into a bully."
"The thing we love about film is that it works in a physical way," says Ackroyd. "You can carry so much of it on your shoulder because it's made of celluloid and chemicals. The chemicals burn up in a way that is very comparable to your eye. Rods and cones in your eye are burning up. It's very sympathetic to the eye. It gives you that grain and texture that we're used to in our real lives. And we're going to lose that."
"He is a man with a very strong vision for the film," says Dryburgh. "He's a collector of photography and his Walter Mitty character is an archivist of photography. So maintaining a photographic look to the film was very important to him. But every working relationship is different; the combination of cinematographer and director, it's almost like you become one organism."
"When the projectors and cameras get to a point where you're picking up too much detail and things are too sharp, I think people are going to respond to it somehow," says Papamichael. "I don't think there is a need to keep developing it. We're going to start being in the business of degrading [the digital image]. That's what I'm doing. For Nebraska, I shot on an Alexa [digital camera], but with old Panavision lenses and stuff."
"The relationship with actors is like with directors," says Bobbit. "The relationship you develop with them is in reference to what they need. So of course you're trying to put them at ease. The role of the cinematographer is to create a space in which the actors move. And give them the freedom to find the performance. And keep 'em in frame as best you can."