Updated: Mar 5, 2020
According to Christopher Doyle, there are only three groups in cinema: those in front of the camera, the audience, and the cinematographer who introduces them to one another. How, then, can we become this all-important mediator? But, more to the point, how can we break through the crowd and become notable? Despite the swath of advice suggesting mastery of camera operation or creation of a specific visual style, it is hard to know. Besides, success in the arts is always a muddy ground with each story and goal being wholly unique. Let’s take a look at three greats and see how they became giants in the field.
Roger Deakins; Film School
Deakins’ name, at this point, is almost synonymous with cinematography itself—due to his prolific output, countless awards, and notable collaborations. Although it’s relatively difficult to pinpoint his stylistic signatures, his ability to mold his talents to numerous genres and visual styles is irrefutable. Even he, himself, has said, “I don’t think I have a style, I have just discovered some methods that work for me…I get onto a new movie, and I feel like I’ve never done it before like I’m learning”. Perhaps this very feeling, of seeking knowledge, is what keeps him at the pinnacle of cinematography, despite his 40-year career.
As a student of painting and graphic design, Deakins, inspired by his photographer-cum-lecturer Roger Mayne, developed a passion for photography—solidifying a basis in three distinct visual arts that all, intrinsically, relate to cinematography. After college, he applied for the newly opened, and now extremely prestigious, National Film School (now NFTS) but faced rejection on the grounds that his photography was not “filmic” enough. However, unrenounced and continuing to develop his passion for photography, he was admitted into the school the following year.
Despite his thorough education, upon graduation, he assisted on various projects until he enlisted to film several anthropological documentaries across the globe. Returning, he utilized these newfound documentary skills in numerous music-doc productions. However, the most significant steps towards recognition came in the early 1980s, collaborating with fellow NF(T)S graduate Michael Radford on Another Time, Another Place, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, two of his earliest feature-length works. Even in this early stage, Deakins sought to innovate, as can be seen by his use of the bleach bypass process to attain Nineteen Eighty-Four’s particularly bleak visuals, a process which, since, has been widely adopted.
Deakins finally made it across the pond in 1991, kick-starting his long-term collaboration with the Coen Brothers—arguably a moment that changed the trajectory of his career. The Coens allegedly reached out to Deakins, having been impressed with his previous works. A decision which spiraled into a glorious shower of awards and acclaim, climaxing with his admittance into the ASC (American Society of Cinematography) and his first Oscar nomination for The Shawshank Redemption (1994)—a job he attained through actor Tim Robbins insisting on his involvement with the project!
We can learn a lot from Deakins’ story. Most notably, the fact that film school provides a network of collaborators to jumpstart your career. Deakins has always placed significant importance on his background in documentary filmmaking, citing its fast pace and unexpected nature as a “great training ground” for reactive camera operating (This is likely the reason he insists on always operating himself!). But, despite his educational background in visual arts, the main factor that made him break through the crowd, I believe, is his demeanor. He is a keen communicator, working closely with long-term collaborators to achieve their vision, keeping the idea of a personal style at arm's length. He insists on always working in pre-, operation, and post-, to get everything right. While remaining immensely humble to the fact that there is always more to learn, for example, when discussing Blade Runner, he gawked over Jordan Cronenwerth’s cinematography, exclaiming, “his style was wonderful, I couldn’t do that.”
Christopher Doyle: Thrown in the Deep
Dou Ho-Fung, as he’s known in Hong Kong, stands in almost complete contrast to Deakins. Doyle has a relatively distinct style—hectic, experimental, and completely wrapped in the imperfect beauty of the everyday. He didn’t go to film school, and, believe it or not, he had received no training and only completed one short film before diving into feature films.
But Doyle is unique in most ways; leaving his family at 15, and his country at 19, he traveled across much of Asia performing odd jobs until settling as a language student in Taiwan and, like Deakins, taking up photography. His leap to feature film cinematography happened in 1983, where his close friend Edward Yang offered him the role despite his lack of experience. He recalls the relative terror and excitement of it all; “I’d never made a film before. But, as with most of his directors, Edward Yang was first a friend and a collaborator secondly, allowing communication, integrity, and clarity during chaotic filming sessions.
Doyle really flourished, and came to worldwide attention, through his 90s collaborations with Wong Kar-wai, beginning in 1991 with Days of Being Wild. On-set Wong, again a close friend, consistently prodded Doyle with the phrase “is that all you can do?” an almost fabled interaction, undoubtedly resulting in the refinement of Doyle’s style. We should consider asking ourselves that very question; Im I capable of more?
Eventually, he shot his first film in the US, Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake, marking both his global impact and launching his career beyond Chinese language cinema. Throughout the rest of his career, he has bounced between countless high and low budget productions. His most celebrated works, though, always come with valued collaborators, be it Wong Kar-wai, Gus van Sant or Ai Wei-Wei. Doyle allocates vast credit to the fact that he can “work with other people who have things to say,” things which, undoubtedly, inspire his innovation.
Doyle’s story is a fascinating one, as he washed up on the shores of filmmaking—finding a passion and unbelievable skill for it, nurtured by key collaborators who pushed him to his limits. Doyle is a world-renowned cinematographer despite his educational or vocational background and, if anything, has become a far more distinguished artist as a result. In his words, “It’s not about the images; it’s really about your focus, your concentration, your world view, it’s really about your personal experience, about how you interact with other people, so it’s bigger than cinematography.”
Maryse Alberti: Moving Up
Alberti sits somewhere between Deakins and Doyle—her style is malleable but clear; she lacks formal training and began as a photographer and assistant. Originally from France, Alberti moved to the US, deciding to stay after a trip, and eventually settled in New York as an au pair, before turning to cinema. Her first jobs were somewhat atypical, landing roles as a still photographer for pornographic films and rock-and-roll groups. Nevertheless, she found herself surrounded by crew devoted to the medium of film, like her, trying to find a way to make it. As such, after wafting through enough sets, she nudged her way onto Vortex (1982) as the assistant to cinematographer Steven Fierberg, who gave her a foundational training while on the job.
Slowly rising through the ranks, Alberti quickly tired of being an assistant. She has said, “being an assistant on features is boring, it’s all technical, and you can’t say I like that light or that angle. So I moved very quickly on to documentaries…[where] you can light, you can talk to the director, and you travel a lot.” She shot her first feature-documentary H-2 Worker, in 1990, while working for the film company Apparatus. This film was a huge success, winning her best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival. The success of the film helped ensure her career and open up new opportunities such as Todd Haynes’ debut Poison (1991), which resulted in her first big-budget shoot.
As with Deakins, Documentaries served as her training ground and remained one of her passions. She argues they’re essential for developing skills as they are “always an adventure [and] a lesson,” where you “learn to work with basic tools requiring very few crew members”. As such, it is a hugely “instinctual” mode of filmmaking and helps to sharpen those instincts—especially when shooting with limited film stock.
Alberti has also gained a large amount of traction for being a hugely successful woman in a field that is dominated by men. She argues that, ultimately, her gender hasn’t impacted her career, as it is a field based on aptitude and passion, not preconception. She even pokes fun at the fact that her job requires her to lead large groups of predominantly male camera operators and assistants, flipping gender conventions on their head.
Alberti, like Doyle, wafted into photography and film without much experience almost as if it were fate but, like Deakins, slowly rose the ranks by assisting on productions. She insists, “I don’t have a rigid style, but a work style,” and although her flexibility to accommodate a director's vision is phenomenal, it is hard to deny her inclination towards documentary realism and instinctual camera operation. Regardless, she is a prime example of reaching the heights of cinematographic talent by being on set as opposed to film school.
Cut! (Tail Leader)
If there is one key takeaway from these masters of the craft, it is that every path is different. You don’t need to go to film school, but you can. You don’t need to work on sets, but you can. You don’t need to work on a documentary, but you can. Ultimately all you need is a deep, burning passion for creating moving images.
Along with that passion, it is essential to start now! We shouldn’t wait for funding, or a notable director to sweep us off our feet and into feature films. Instead, we should trust the creative individuals around us. In all three of these cases, our cinematographers debuted their skills in a directors’ first feature. More often than not, getting in close with these directors (and ones further down the line) lead to long-term collaborations, which became the pillars of their careers. But, that is not to say a cinematographer cannot develop without collaborators. Ultimately, if there is nobody to collaborate with, we must, like Deakins and Doyle, attract them to us—be it through our images, our friendships or our passions for the form.
Moreover, it’s important to remember that none of these cinematographers started as teenagers; they all stumbled into film and began shooting features in their early 30s.
But, most importantly, each of them shares similar traits. One of pushing beyond their current constraints into uncharted territories that challenge and change them. Christopher Doyle puts it best; “The worst thing about an artist is to get complacent and think what you’ve done is who you are. What you do next is who you are; what you do next is what takes you somewhere better.”