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#1 Twan Peeters

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Posted 12 July 2015 - 05:51 PM

Hi there,

 

I've been working as a freelance cinematographer now for just over a year. I've been lucky enough to shoot quite some films as a DP already, and to get guidance from experienced DP's. But one thing I'm struggling with for a long time is how to develop my own unique cinematography style. Everytime I shoot something, I simply inspire myself on other films, shots or photo's I have seen. But most of the time I feel like I'm just copying other cinematographer styles.

 

Now one thing I've been taught is that when you start out it's OK to copy others peoples work to learn, as long as you don't put it online as 'your work'. Apparently this is how most artists learn their trade, not only cinematographers, but also photographers, painters, designers etc. At least this is what the book 'Steal like an artist' says. 

 

My question is, do you have any advice on how to actually start developing your own visual style? Are there any clues on finding what suits me as a person, and what does not? It's very confusing and hard for me sometimes. I don't want to end up creating a film where people will critic me for copying someone elses style. Where is the line between using inspiration out of other peoples work, and literally copying one cinematographers unique style?

 

Thanks in advance :) Looking forward to your thoughts.


Edited by Twan Peeters, 12 July 2015 - 05:53 PM.

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#2 Carl Looper

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Posted 12 July 2015 - 07:02 PM

In art there are all sorts of "movements" that go on.

 

Nobody really owns a style as such. Many might claim ownership of course, or by using a particular style so much it becomes understood as their style.

 

But style is also something that can be designed for a specific project. The project inspires a particular style. Another project inspires a completely different style.

 

In this respect, to take ownership of just one style can be seen as quite limiting.

 

However, whatever style you adopt, be it project specific, or a more limited personal one that you will carry from one project to another - making that style your own is the correct method.

 

C


Edited by Carl Looper, 12 July 2015 - 07:13 PM.

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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 12 July 2015 - 07:23 PM

I wouldn't worry about deliberately creating a unique personal style. I'm sure some architects worry about the same thing, but they still have to make buildings that stand up safely, that have bathrooms and elevators, etc.  Buildings usually are not strictly ornamental, they serve a function (office, museum, school.)  Same goes for most cinematography, it serves bigger things like story, the performances.  If you concentrate on that, how to be a better visual storyteller, while applying your developing taste, then style starts to emerge naturally and organically.

 

Truth is that unless you are one of the top cinematographers, most of the time you are not "indulged" to continue an obvious personal style regardless of the genre, script, budget, etc.  What happens at the top, I'm guessing, is that you get asked to repeat yourself to some extent, you get hired to deliver that look you created before on successful award-winning project "x", and you are allowed to continue a line of development, refining your approach. At some point, even a successful cinematographer sometimes balks at getting asked to repeat themselves and will switch visual gears -- artists change with time and so do their styles.

 

But for most working cinematographers, the watchword is "flexibility" -- you can't be too caught up in one consistent visual approach, the only consistency is the quality level and the personal commitment to the projects.

 

It's a tightrope to be sure, you don't want your work to be all over the map and yet you can't apply the same style when you are going out for wildly different projects, unless you want to limit yourself to certain genres and avoid doing others.

 

I think what happens with the better cinematographers is that what they bring is their intelligence, taste, and experience to a variety of projects -- the results can vary visually but there starts to be evidence of a particular mind at work, maybe solving certain problems in similar ways or leaning towards some visual motifs more than others, but it can be pretty subtle to the outsider.

 

I think you just need to keep developing yourself as an artist -- through education, through working, through reflection -- and let all those experiences wash over you, let the lessons learned be deeply ingrained but not over-analyzed, not over-intellectualized.  As your tastes get more refined, just learn to trust your gut more about what feels right or wrong, and worry less about whether you are being original or not.


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#4 Kemalettin Sert

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Posted 12 July 2015 - 07:39 PM

Everybody takes references from previous works.Nobody is creating %100 unique style in cinematography.


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#5 Albion Hockney

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 10:35 AM

 

I think you just need to keep developing yourself as an artist -- through education, through working, through reflection -- and let all those experiences wash over you, let the lessons learned be deeply ingrained but not over-analyzed, not over-intellectualized.  As your tastes get more refined, just learn to trust your gut more about what feels right or wrong, and worry less about whether you are being original or not.

 

 

YES! watch lots of movies ...look at art ...go see things anything.... and then think about them. What did you like? why do you like these certain things? why do you like shooting movies even? what is it about it? the more to the core of questions like this you can get the more you start to understand your taste and preferences and why you have those preferences. A style will develop naturally out of this practice over time, and yes of course it is heavily influenced by your contemporaries and the current "movements" but don't worry about that too much just do your thing.

 

I was OPing for a successful MV/commercial DP not long ago and talking him up for advice and he just said two pretty simple things 1. take risks and 2. have a unique perspective....that you need to have something to say...your not just a technician, develop a voice.


Edited by Albion Hockney, 13 July 2015 - 10:35 AM.

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#6 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 04:22 PM

I like to think of personal style as a "VD," or "Visual Disease." It's something you acquire from the way you've lived, and sticks with you your whole life. Sure you can treat it with the right applications (of pressure from production), but it's always with you.

That's really it; your style flows out from what you've gone through and been exposed to in your life-- not just in the works you've seen, surely that is important, but also in every moment you can recall. For me, I think of the lighting on the street-corner when I was dumped, the way my ex girlfriend looked in the morning when the sun was just so, my dog laying in a bright patch of sunlight, or the color of a sunset behind a dust-storm in Barstow.

Lord knows when I'll be called upon the reference those moments in my head-- but they're there and I think, because they have such an emotional connection to me personally, that they more so inform my choices later on that any other work.


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#7 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 05:57 PM

Great responses so far. I think of personal style as taste limited by ability. Many people have opinions on how things should be, but very few can actually make their visions a reality. That gap is where personal style is born. So style is both a conscious and unconscious creation.

I think one huge variable regarding style that rarely gets discussed is where a particular cinematographer will make sacrifices when budgetary and production realities start creeping into the picture. A lot of what's regarded as 'style' later on comes about because of creative problem-solving in the moment. And since similar problems re-occur throughout one's career, these solutions can become a kind of formula over time. David sort of alluded to this earlier when he mentioned a cinematographer's intelligence and experience as factors.

Twan, if you haven't checked it out already you should watch 'Cinematographer Style': http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0847474/
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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 07:43 PM

I think a bigger question than "what's my personal style?" is when should a cinematographer hold out for what he or she thinks is best, putting a strain on the schedule, budget, and director's wishes?  I suspect a lot of the top cinematographers with a strong personal style are not pushovers when it comes to the integrity of the image, but obviously in the real world, compromise is inevitable and it is a collaborative art after all, so the question becomes when to fight against a tide and when to go with the flow.  It's tricky because if you become the director's and producer's best friend by catering more to their goals over your own, more than likely, you'll get rehired -- you won't lack for work -- but there will be this voice in the back of your head wondering if you would be better off following your own instincts more strongly, even at the risk of conflict.


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#9 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 07:46 PM

I thing David is spot spot on with that.


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#10 Justin Hayward

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 08:11 PM

I think a bigger question than "what's my personal style?" is when should a cinematographer hold out for what he or she thinks is best, putting a strain on the schedule, budget, and director's wishes?  

 

A producer worrying about the strain on the schedule and budget are one thing, but are there often incidences where what you thought was best was also against the director's wishes?  And if so, are you often proven right in the end and regret not holding out if you didn't?  

 

Thanks


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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 08:24 PM

You can recall the stories of Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola arguing over things on the set of "The Godfather" -- basically Willis wanting to hold strictly to the visual structure they developed whereas Coppola wanting to try things out that broke their own rules, sometimes one was right and sometimes the other, obviously it all worked in the end.

 

The director is the boss so ultimately I have to defer to that authority but it's part of my job to disagree when I feel it works against the picture, that's why I was hired after all... but I also recognize that I've been wrong at times and the director was right, so there is always a voice in my head that at some point says "just go for it -- if it doesn't work, the director has to take responsibility anyway, and if it works, that's one new thing I will have learned..." but that attitude doesn't always work that way when it comes to technical things, where certain laws of physics won't bend just because the director hopes they will.  It's particularly a problem when it involves visual effects, you don't want to deliver a shot that can't go through the post process and it's your job to explain to a director what the problems will be in post later because it will be a costly mistake.  It also doesn't work when you've been hired by the producer/studio/network to, let's say, protect the lead actress and how she looks, and what the director is asking for will violate that -- this is more of an issue in television where the director is just coming in for one or two episodes, so a cinematographer has more authority, given by the showrunner, to protect the look of the show and the cast.

 

But I don't know anyone working in this business -- in any capacity -- that hasn't made compromises that they later regret.

 

I remember a movie where we were in this huge lobby and we shot one side of a conversation on a 40mm lens, but after we turned around, we had to shoot this big action scene first to get rid of the extras and we still owed that reverse angle on the conversation.  We had moved already to the opposite end of the lobby, but rather than pick up and move the camera back to the correct spot so that I could shoot the matching reverse on a 40mm, the producer and director made me zoom into the far end of the zoom, 290mm, to get that reverse.  So now we have one person shot on a 40mm and the opposite person on a 290mm, which looked terrible and amateurish.  It would have taken me just five minutes to pick up the camera and move it back to the correct spot, but they wouldn't wait five minutes.


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#12 Justin Hayward

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 09:33 PM

I remember a movie where we were in this huge lobby and we shot one side of a conversation on a 40mm lens, but after we turned around, we had to shoot this big action scene first to get rid of the extras and we still owed that reverse angle on the conversation.  We had moved already to the opposite end of the lobby, but rather than pick up and move the camera back to the correct spot so that I could shoot the matching reverse on a 40mm, the producer and director made me zoom into the far end of the zoom, 290mm, to get that reverse.  So now we have one person shot on a 40mm and the opposite person on a 290mm, which looked terrible and amateurish.  It would have taken me just five minutes to pick up the camera and move it back to the correct spot, but they wouldn't wait five minutes.

 

Ugh, well, with all due respect to the director, that was his fault, not yours.  I know I sound like a broken record, but I just don't understand how a professional director would make such an amateur decision on a professional job where people were expecting, at least, professional results.  Like you said, five minutes.  It doesn't take a tech genius to understand it will only take five minutes to pick up a camera and move it, despite the producer...

 

...end rant :)

 

You can recall the stories of Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola arguing over things on the set of "The Godfather" -- basically Willis wanting to hold strictly to the visual structure they developed whereas Coppola wanting to try things out that broke their own rules, sometimes one was right and sometimes the other, obviously it all worked in the end.

 

Of course.  Do those kinds of arguments happen with you and a director very often?  Never mind budget or schedule or anything like that.  Only creative.  I'm only asking because you work in a much higher end of production than me, and I'm curious how common this kind of thing is. 

 

Thanks again


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#13 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 10:17 PM

The problem in that incident was that we were at the end of a 12 hour day on the last day of the movie with no budget left for overtime or meal penalties, so they didn't think they could afford to take an extra five minutes to do the shot right. The crazy thing is that once I zoomed in to 290mm, I could see grip & electric staging in the far background, but I was told that since they had a flat rate for visual effects, they would paint out the background in post. So to avoid five minutes of meal penalties, they created an unnecessary visual effect shot that was also a bad shot already, wrong lens, bad lighting, etc. I was pretty unhappy, that shot was the second to last shot for the whole feature, and normally when you wrap a feature, there is a lot of celebrating, hugs, etc. but because the last set-up involved putting me and the camera inside a closet for a quick shot of the actor ducking into the room, when we finished the take, I stepped out into an empty hotel lobby, they had rushed everyone off of the set to avoid a meal penalty.
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#14 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 10:25 PM

Sure there are creative disagreements, and some disagreements that just come from being rushed and having differing opinions on how to dig ourselves out of a hole. But they aren't usually arguments, just discussions where you present the best argument you can and then let the director decide.

Some differences in opinion are just a taste thing -- you may have an idea that the director thinks is too visually odd or vice-versa, that happens all the time on a set, you know, like when the director wonders if we should shoot a close-up with a 14mm lens when you normally shoot them on a 50mm, let's say, and your first reaction is perhaps not all that enthusiastic, but it's all context, you use your taste and your sense of what the story is to decide the appropriateness of some odd approach.
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#15 Justin Hayward

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 10:26 PM

The problem in that incident was that we were at the end of a 12 hour day on the last day of the movie with no budget left for overtime or meal penalties, so they didn't think they could afford to take an extra five minutes to do the shot right. The crazy thing is that once I zoomed in to 290mm, I could see grip & electric staging in the far background, but I was told that since they had a flat rate for visual effects, they would paint out the background in post. So to avoid five minutes of meal penalties, they created an unnecessary visual effect shot that was also a bad shot already, wrong lens, bad lighting, etc. I was pretty unhappy, that shot was the second to last shot for the whole feature, and normally when you wrap a feature, there is a lot of celebrating, hugs, etc. but because the last set-up involved putting me and the camera inside a closet for a quick shot of the actor ducking into the room, when we finished the take, I stepped out into an empty hotel lobby, they had rushed everyone off of the set to avoid a meal penalty.

 

Sheesh, if there were stand up comedy clubs for cinematographers, you would be the Louie CK  of cinematographer comedians  :lol:  Excellent points as usual.  Thanks


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#16 Justin Hayward

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Posted 13 July 2015 - 10:35 PM

But they aren't usually arguments, just discussions where you present the best argument you can and then let the director decide.

Some differences in opinion are just a taste thing -- 

Right on, thank you.  


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#17 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 14 July 2015 - 03:16 AM

The problem in that incident was that we were at the end of a 12 hour day on the last day of the movie with no budget left for overtime or meal penalties, so they didn't think they could afford to take an extra five minutes to do the shot right. The crazy thing is that once I zoomed in to 290mm, I could see grip & electric staging in the far background, but I was told that since they had a flat rate for visual effects, they would paint out the background in post. So to avoid five minutes of meal penalties, they created an unnecessary visual effect shot that was also a bad shot already, wrong lens, bad lighting, etc.


Sounds like in the time they spent arguing against moving the camera, you could have just set up the shot and gotten it. But that's always the case, isn't it!

I shot a corporate video about six months ago where we were supposed to mimic the tv reality show 'Shark Tank.' It was a crazy 2 week pre-pro where we simultaneously prepped, scouted, and shot a separate video for the same client while the director was leaving for vacation. They originally wanted to build a set in a studio, then changed their minds and had us scout various hotel ballrooms, then went back to the set build a few days before the shoot, whereupon the production designer had to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

So, the director was playing catch up after getting back from vacation, the production designer was hired last minute and had to do all his work via conference calls and emails, and the editor who directed the previous project and did the scout with me was back in NYC busy cutting his piece (and lost all the footage when his computer crashed, but that's a different story). Which meant that I ended up taking the lead on the set build and shooting plan.

We were working in a small studio and budget was tight, so I had art build only 2+ walls of the set. A Cam was on a jib with a wide lens, B Cam on a long lens picking up singles. The idea being that when we cheated our turn-around, art would re-dress the set and move the wall to the other side so we could stay on the correct side of the eyeline.

Well, art had neglected to move the wall when we got back from lunch. With no time to fix the problem if we were going to make our day, I was left with just a few feet of false third wall to make the eyeline work. Then the director comes up to me and asks if we can shoot from the same angle since it looks so much better, and no matter how many times I said it wouldn't cut he didn't want to hear it. Then my best friend and B Cam op jumps in trying to 'help' and starts showing the director frames from the wrong side of the line. So instead of continuing to fight for the correct eyeline, I just gave up and let the director make the call.

They haven't called me since, and I don't blame them. It was a big mistake, I really regret it and learned a lot from it. I now draw the line at making compromises that I know will sink the project. I can grudgingly accept poorly framed or lit shots if need be, but I will fight tooth and nail for shots that cut.
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#18 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 14 July 2015 - 03:21 AM

How to create my own visual style

 

Shoot some stuff, get backed into a corner, claim you meant it to look like that.

 

P


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#19 Twan Peeters

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Posted 27 July 2015 - 07:05 AM

Wow, thanks so much all for these in-depth responses, this has been a really  helpful. I haven't been replying on purpose since I enjoyed seeing this discussion unfold. Thanks :) I guess I should just keep doing what I'm doing know, following my intuition and fighting for my shots when collaborating with a director.

 

 

 

Shoot some stuff, get backed into a corner, claim you meant it to look like that.

 

P

 

You made me laugh, Phil. I guess this is very true.

 

Twan, if you haven't checked it out already you should watch 'Cinematographer Style': http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0847474/

 

I haven't seen it, didn't know it existsted. Will watch it, thanks!


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