Cinematographers are the eyes for the audience: what they see through their lens determines what we see. Camerawork is the most visible part of film- and TV-making, but the artists responsible for the craft are, to most viewers, invisible. A recent tragedy made Halyna Hutchins, who was accidentally shot and killed on the set of Rust, the face of her profession just as she was ascending in it—revealing some of the dangerous working conditions in film and television today. (This roundtable was conducted before Hutchins’s passing.)
It’s been a male-dominated field for the past century, and a few cinematographers (a.k.a. directors of photography, or, more commonly, DPs) have risen to the top of the ranks: take Gordon Willis, known within the trade as the Prince of Darkness, who shot the shadowy Godfather trilogy; or 15-time Oscar nominee (and two-time winner) Roger Deakins, who has painted beauty in every frame of his films, from The Shawshank Redemption to 1917. Only three years ago, Rachel Morrison became the first female DP to earn an Oscar nomination, for her work on the Netflix film Mudbound.
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
But that imbalance is slowly shrinking, as the rise of streaming services has blown open the gates for many previously unheard voices (and unseen visions). What’s it like to shoot for both the epic canvas that is a movie-theater screen and the tiny canvas that can fit into the palm of your hand? And have production changes brought on by the pandemic forever transformed the ways movies are made?
Alta Journal spoke with three of today’s busiest DPs who toggle between films and streaming shows—Ava Berkofsky (The Sky Is Everywhere, Insecure), Lachlan Milne (Minari, Stranger Things), and Greig Fraser (Dune, The Mandalorian)—for a view of the shifting landscape through their discerning eyes.
Cinematographer: Greig Fraser
Accolades: Winner of New York Film Critics Circle Award for Zero Dark Thirty
Featured movie: Dune (below)
ALTA JOURNAL: The pandemic initially halted production and now seems to have turned it upside down. How challenging is it to make films right now?
AVA BERKOFSKY: COVID has made our jobs a lot harder. The industry has figured out how to keep going, and we’re still doing our jobs, we’re still making our work—it’s just people can’t see how much harder it is. Wearing a mask and a shield, or a mask and goggles, for 14 hours a day is not the best way to create images, to think on your feet, to be spontaneously creative and also unrelenting in your ideas and your drive.
LACHLAN MILNE: Stranger Things was glasses and masks and testing three times a week. And this last film I did [The Inspection], we got tested every day because it was in Mississippi and there was a lot of concern, particularly in the South, about low vaccination rates and the chances of contracting the virus, and then, obviously, shutting the film down. Nowadays, it feels like the expectations about what we’re supposed to deliver each day are as they were pre-pandemic—it’s just that we’re working in a pandemic still.
BERKOFSKY: What is unique for DPs [during COVID] is that we don’t get to see the actors; we don’t get to have rehearsals with the actors. We are lighting people in masks. That’s not a way to light a face. But I’m really proud of how we’ve adapted and figured it out, because my hope is that you look at the work we do and you don’t think, Oh, this is really compromised.
ALTA: Speaking of compromise, screens have become a lot smaller. How has the rise of streaming affected your work?
BERKOFSKY: In a way, it’s democratized the storytelling universe, which I think is amazing. There’s more diversity in whose voice is getting heard, because there are more outlets for it. There are people who don’t have the same sort of legacy of content, so they can take more chances. It’s been such an interruption to business as usual. They don’t have the same sort of depth and history in production, but I think the streamers are figuring it out. And right now, with the contract negotiations with all of our unions, I’m hoping that the streamers find a way to make sustainable their empire, their presence, their place in the cultural storytelling universe. I hope that they find a way to back up the good that they’ve brought.
MILNE: There’s such a huge volume of work at the moment out there, around the world. But it feels like there’s a lot more streaming-specific—i.e., television—content being green-lit now than movies. I love both, but I particularly love doing movies, because I love sitting in a cinema and watching movies. And most of the world hasn’t really been able to do that for some time. A lot of films are made specifically for that—the classic example is Dune, which even the filmmakers are pushing everybody to see in that environment. And I’m sure a lot of people will end up seeing it on a laptop or in their home cinema or [on] television—or unfortunately, God forbid, on a plane.
ALTA: Greig, how do you feel about someone watching Dune on their iPhone?
GREIG FRASER: I mean, I can’t slap them across the wrist because I’ve watched amazing movies on my phone. I’ve had to email friends and say, “Hey, dude, I’m so sorry, but I watched your film on the plane.” I’ve got three kids and a busy career. So I can’t judge people for that. All I can tell you, from experience, is this movie, if you want to experience it properly, needs to be seen in IMAX.
Cinematographer: Ava Berkofsky
Accolades: Nominated for two Emmy awards for Insecure
Featured show: Insecure (below)
ALTA: Is that something you keep in mind now: that someone may be experiencing what you’re shooting on a less-than-ideal medium?
MILNE: I think if you do, it’ll break your heart—if you shadowbox, anticipating how people are going to see it. Films, for me, tend to be much more vast and have more scale and tend to be wider. I like to shoot things a lot wider where I can. And in television, because people are watching it on a much smaller scale, you put the faces bigger in frame, or you make it easier for people to register what’s happening faster. God forbid I ever think about “Will this work on somebody holding their phone vertically?” Do you know, I think I might give up [laughs].
ALTA: Television and streaming shows look more cinematic than ever. Do you shoot projects differently if it’s for a small screen versus a theatrical film?
FRASER: There are considerations. For example, if you’re shooting something that’s going to be shown on an iPhone or an iPad, you can be a little more rough with your handheld. But if you know this thing is going to be 14 stories high, and people are going to be sitting with a fully enveloped frame, every breath you take is going to translate to something that the audience feels. So there is a significant thought process there. But it’s really only got to do with pure logic of size of screen, versus the storytelling process.
BERKOFSKY: The production quality and the visual storytelling and everything about television—there’s so many places it’s getting lifted up. And I think it’s because they’re squeaking up the budgets a little bit, but what’s driving that is, when people are shown a great product, they want more of it. And there are so many creative people working in TV who just want to do better and better, and they’re getting shots to do better and better, because the landscape is getting diversified. And the studios are excited by it, because the studios expect it now—which is good and bad, because it’s hard to do on traditional television resources. Things that look on TV like they’re the same budget as a Spielberg movie—they’re not. Television doesn’t have those resources 90 percent of the time. Mostly, it’s just the creative people getting really excited about taking it to the next level and figuring out a way to do that.
FRASER: Soon enough, somebody will—and should—invent a system that’s fully enveloped, in which case we’re shooting with maybe multiple cameras, or wide-angle lenses, but only playing to the middle section. So then you’ll start having framing issues like “Where’s the person in the frame?” And then, suddenly, you’ve got audiences turning heads and being fully enveloped.
ALTA: That does sound exciting. Do you feel that, despite the sea change, this is a good time to be a director of photography?
FRASER: What I’m seeing is really fantastic and quite inspiring. It won’t change—filmmaking will not regress into some lowest common denominator, aesthetically. I don’t believe it can. There’s too many streamers out there, paying too much money, that are going to encourage people with scripts on their shelf to come forward and pitch. There are going to be so many great stories out there. There might be some terrible ones, too. But I think we’re going to end up with some really interesting stories and really interesting filmmakers.
MILNE: Filmmaking is the most accessible it’s ever been right now. Particularly with cinematography, people like to see the work before you’ve done the work, which is a real catch-22 kind of scenario. If you get your job wrong as a cinematographer, there’s a lot of consequences from a financial side of things. People try to mitigate the risks by making sure that you can do what you say you can do. And that probably involves working with friends, or doing short films, or doing spec ads. And you can do that now at a cost-effective, professional-looking level. There’s a lot of work out there at the moment, but there’s also a lot of competition. It’s still difficult to get there, but the film industry, for me, has always been tough to get into—and it’s a real sifting process between the people that really want to do it and the people that think they want to do it.
Cinematographer: Lachlan Milne
Accolades: Nominated for Critics Choice Award for Minari
Featured movie: Minari (below)
ALTA: Let’s get back to the pandemic for a second, which turned the industry on its head. Do you see any of the changes it brought about as being here to stay?
FRASER: Filmmaking is all about communication, and what the pandemic did is, it put pressure on face-to-face communication, and it made everybody start to go, “Whoa, OK.” What we took for granted—15 people in a small room, on top of each other—it forced us out of that, forced us into the world of remote shooting. Location scouts can go through a location with a 360-degree camera, and we can, with an iPad, move around that location. So, suddenly, instead of having 14 people on an airplane go to a city to look at a building that they may or may not use, you can gather a lot of information. So there’s a lot of energy savings there, like fossil fuel and carbon offsets, and time and efficiency savings. But minimizing crew, too—minimizing people around the camera, so that the resources that we have can go further.
MILNE: I was really hoping that it would somehow give the impetus to reduce the amount of hours on set [laughs]. And I don’t mean that in a lazy way. It just means that we do incredibly long hours, particularly in television. Once you sprinkle a bit of COVID-19 over the top of all that, and the stress that seems to bring, I thought that maybe there would be a little bit of leeway with that. But no, it’s still the same duration.
BERKOFSKY: What we were told, at first, was that we would be working shorter days. The idea was, at 10 hours we’ll stop, because that’s when we could start making mistakes that will endanger the crews, and each other, and the actors. We started that way, and honestly, I felt great doing it that way, because my mind was more fresh, I got more sleep, and I felt like I was ready to meet the difficulties that COVID really places on you. No one’s doing that anymore. Maybe they’re doing that nominally. Maybe there are a few people who are doing that still. But it’s not been my experience.
ALTA: Put another way: What needs to change?
BERKOFSKY: This drive for more, bigger, better is exacerbating the issues that were already present. Like 14-to-16-hour workdays, five days a week, ending at seven in the morning. People are getting hurt, and it’s happening more and more. It’s been unsustainable, and now it’s really unsustainable, and that’s coming to light now, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s during the rise of the streaming platforms. What they’re saying is, “We’re new media. We’re trying to figure it out.” And that’s obviously not true. Some of the most profitable corporations in the world are creating this content, so it’s meeting a lot of resistance. And I’m so proud of the work I’ve done for Apple, Netflix, Hulu. But we’re at this moment in negotiations where it’s killing people, literally, and it’s not sustainable. We can continue to make New Hollywood; we can continue to up our production value and up the stories that we’re telling. But it can’t be under the model of the last 10 years.•