Roundtable: 5 Top Cinematographers on Why 3D Is 'Unnecessary,' Refusing to Give Advice to Actors and Film vs. Digital

9:00 AM PST 11/18/2013 by Carolyn Giardina , Gregg Kilday
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In THR's first Cinematographer Roundtable, Barry Ackroyd ("Captain Phillips"), Sean Bobbitt ("12 Years a Slave"), Bruno Delbonnel ("Inside Llewyn Davis"), Stuart Dryburgh ("The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") and Phedon Papamichael ("Nebraska") reveal the biggest surprises about being a DP, the directors who have inspired them and why the movies they shoot aren't always the movies we see.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's November stand-alone.

Their stock in trade is capturing images, and this year the films on which they worked have traveled from the bloody cotton fields of the antebellum South and the lonely roads of Nebraska to the choppy waters off Somalia, with stops along the way at vintage Greenwich Village coffee shops and remote locations in Iceland. When The Hollywood Reporter invited five noted directors of photography to its first-ever Cinematographer Roundtable, they also showed themselves to be adept with words. Taking part in the lively discussion were Barry Ackroyd, 59, of Captain Phillips; 12 Years a Slave's Sean Bobbitt, 54; Bruno Delbonnel, 56, of Inside Llewyn Davis; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty's Stuart Dryburgh, 61; and Phedon Papamichael, 51, who shot Nebraska. What was on their minds? The ongoing transition from film to digital photography, of course, in which they all are embroiled.

PHOTOS: 5 Top Cinematographers Reveal Secrets of Their Craft

What would most surprise people about the reality of being a director of photography?

BRUNO DELBONNEL: We don't have a clue what we're doing. (Laughter.)

SEAN BOBBITT: Most people really have very little idea of what we do, so they would be surprised by the breadth of requirements [inherent] to being a cinematographer. It's not just cameras, or film or lenses; it's the technical side and nontechnical stuff. You're running a crew, you know? The interpersonal relationships that you have to develop with the director, designers, hair, makeup, costumes. The filming is actually the easiest part.

BARRY ACKROYD: It's also the thing you can't put your finger on, but the thing that's most interesting. That moment when you switch on the camera.

STUART DRYBURGH: It's the pen you're using to write the story.

When you're working with a director for the first time, how long does it take you to develop a rapport?

PHEDON PAPAMICHAEL: 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. 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.

Bruno, Inside Llewyn Davis was your first time working with the Coen brothers. What was that like?

DELBONNEL: It was great. They do their own shot list, and it's then "suggested" to me as they do with [DP] Roger Deakins. 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.)

Barry, how did you and Paul Greengrass prepare to shoot Captain Phillips given the challenges of shooting on water?

ACKROYD: I would always say, "You can't fight nature, whether it's daylight or sunlight … you can't fight it." But that's what Paul likes about how I work; just get the situation set up as real as can be. I'll light it as much in advance as I can. This was the third film I'd done with Paul. And all I have to do is glance at him and get that moment of connection. When I shot on the first film, United 93, with him -- another very physical and hard film -- I struggled with every take. Halfway through shooting, we had a party at Paul's house and I met his wife, Joanna. I said to her, "I think it's going all right, but Paul doesn't talk to me, so I'm not quite sure." She said, "What? He comes home, he gets in bed with me at night and just talks about you." (Laughter.) Then I realized it was all right, you know? Everyone is different.

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Stuart, what was your experience working with Ben Stiller on Walter Mitty?

DRYBURGH: He is a man with a very strong vision for the film. 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.

ACKROYD: You take years to build your own character and have your own signature, but they have to fit into the director's vision. 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.

BOBBITT: And some directors are only interested in actors, others only interested in images. And most directors are somewhere in between that. If they have no interest in the camera at all, there is an awful lot of pressure …

PAPAMICHAEL: That's no fun!

BOBBITT: … but also an awful lot of reward. If you get it right and it works, you're certainly guiding the film visually.

PAPAMICHAEL: I prefer somebody who knows what they want. I've had directors who say, "Do that thing you do with the light and the lenses …" And that was the least enjoyable experience I've had making a movie.

STORY: AFI Fest: Ben Stiller Talks 'Freeing' Experience of Getting Serious With 'Walter Mitty'

Have you ever worked on a movie with a director who was intimidated by you, knowing he didn't have the knowledge you had?

BOBBITT: That's not unknown, particularly with a first-time director. But I think part of the job is to not intimidate them; reinforce the fact that you're there for them, but it's their film.

PAPAMICHAEL: And for every movie to look like it's their movie.

Monitors are on set now, so a lot more people can see what you're doing. Is that a good thing?

PAPAMICHAEL: It depends. If you're working with a director who's in sync with you, it's a good tool. It becomes more complicated when actors, hair and makeup, wardrobe, production designers are getting involved. My directors restrict other people from using it. With Alexander Payne, we didn't have a typical video village; we had an onboard monitor and that's it.

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