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Cinematography: The Best Lighting School is Nature

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Lights Online Film School recently chatted with cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser about a couple of his recent projects. The interview below, which is a very in-depth discussion on many topics related to cinematography, is intended to help those who are either interested in cinematography or are interested in bettering their own work as cinematographers. Matthias has an incredible amount of experience and has worked with some of the biggest names in the game. He has a lot to teach you! But before we jump into the interview let’s first watch the video for Raphael Saadiq’s song entitled “Stone Rollin” in which Matthias was the cinematographer on.

First of all, can you tell me how you got involved as the cinematographer on this project?

Raphael Saadiq “Stone Rolling” came my way in January 2011 via my US agent Gregg Dallesandro who had followed Director Dori Oskowitz’s work for a bit and liked the idea of him and I working together. It was the first project of the year and had quite a challenged budget since it was one of the later singles off of Raphael’s then newly released album to be released.

I noticed your represented in the US by Sheldon Prosnit Agency and in Europe by Cosmic Agency Paris. Can you tell me how these agencies assist you as a cinematographer?

Producers and directors send a request to the agency looking for a DP on a certain project. If my agents feels that it I would be a good fit he then recommends me and sends my reel their way. Every agent usually puts up a variety of cinematographers up for the same job. That’s perfectly healthy and important to give the directors choices.

If there’s interest then all parties need to agree on the DP. The rate and working days will be set in a contract.

Although it has been very busy for me in the last three years I still have a vivid picture of how it was building myself as a cinematographer. It was very tough in the beginning.

An important lesson I learned in the first years starting out is that YOU are your best agent. A positive attitude and being easy to work with has a massive impact of how your career will shape up. Be social and network but don’t force it at any time. At the end of the day it’s your work that needs to speak for itself.

With the democratizing of technology, the world of cinematography has become more and more competitive. Are there certain things that budding cinematographers can do to help their chances of finding representation?

Agents are always on the look out. You can find them at film festivals/commercial and music video industry screenings. Do good work. Show your work. And they will come knocking. It’s not always that straight forward of course and it certainly helps as well to have an “in” through a signed cinematographer or connected producer you know. However, every cinematographer needs to put in the work and mature on their own first.

A great festival for cinematographers of all levels is Camerimage in Poland. I’ve had the privilege to go twice and the level of talent and legendary talent at the festival is truly humbling.

At what point do you feel a cinematographer is ready for agency representation?

Every Cinematographer must find their own voice within the medium first. It’s important to approach every project with a certain fearlessness and authenticity. It’s good to try things and imitate but always light and expose the way it feels right to you personally on a gut instinct level. It’s a great thing to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. What’s a happy accident on the previous project could be your main visual language for the following shoot and so on.

Once you have found your personal style as a cinematographer and your work is on par or better than what’s out there then you’re ready for representation. This is the way I did it but of course everyone has their personal way, process and truth.

I got signed very early on. Perhaps I wasn’t 100% ready for representation but my agent Gregg Dallesandro had faith in me. On paper I was a DP right out of film school which created a false sense in me of “having made it” yet created a sense of disillusionment when I found myself pretty much unemployed for quite a long time. It was a very important time of personal growth however since these were the years where I really found who I was behind the camera. Every little shoot I could hustle up taught me something. For example I realized early on that digital camera (at the time it was the Panasonic HVX200) were pretty much like a film stock. You had to take it and make it your own. Switch cameras for different looks and get to know them all really well.

I would like to share a clip that is about a million years old. I believe it was 2008. I shot this on the HVX. This little project felt like a personal breakthrough. I felt like I managed to make a digital camera my own for the first time. I had one HVX, a super8 camera. one lightweight tripod. A tele-photo adapter, matte-box and a handful of filters.

Many filmmakers out there would love to make cinematography, and more specifically shooting music videos, their full time job. The world of cinemtography facinates them. Playing with lights, learning how to move the camera and framing a shot is both challenging and rewarding. Why not try to make cinematography the “thing” you do full time right? However, during a panel discussion put on during Soho Short Festival with music video agencies most claimed that even their represented music video directors don’t make a full time living from music videos alone. The budgets simply aren’t there so most cinematographers and directors are required to find work in other forms of media as well. Has this been your experience as well? If you wanted to, could you make cinematography or music videos your full time living?

It took about three years for me to work full time on music videos and make a humble living. Two years after I managed to break into commercials and made a good living. Music videos are an excellent way to experiment and find your voice. You get to experiment with most tools and toys. You learn to work very fast and with very little for maximum impact.

I think it is possible to make a good living with videos only but at the end it wasn’t for me to do videos only. The music, artists and videos I enjoyed shooting never had enough budget to really pay a decent rate. These projects were gold for the reel but certainly not for my wallet. I know DPs who make a good living in music videos but they usually shoot bigger pop or rap artists and do a ton of them.

Good agents will always work hard to get you noticed on all levels. Once the ball gets rolling and a DP starts working with a certain director repeatedly their job had payed off and that’s the point when both you and the agent start to really benefit. It should always be a health and symbiotic relationship Therefore it is important to be honest with your agent at all times and speak your mind. The more they get to know you as a person and artist the better they will be at finding you the collaborators you want.

What camera and lenses did you use for the “Stone Rollin” music video project?

It was an interesting time in terms of technology. By the end of 2010 I was ready to transition into commercials which wasn’t only financially motivated but also had to do with my personal reluctance to shoot on a DSLR. I shot a good amount of videos on DSLRs but never fully enjoyed the experience. I think there’s a good reason why both Still and Motion Picture Cameras exist.

Arri donated their brand new Alexa to the production. It was my first time filming with it. My first goal was to find a look with this camera that I could call my own. I wasn’t interested in creating a sterile ‘test footage’ music video piece. A few hours before the shoot I shot quick tests on set going through various ISO settings to see how the texture (grain/noise) would effect the feel of the image and how the highlights would hold up.

I was impressed to say the least. The “noise” of that camera had a strong resemblance to film grain which I love and the highlights would hold up particularly well in the higher ISO settings. I parked the camera at ISO 1600 and didn’t change it for the entire project. As a matter of fact 1600 is still my favorite ISO setting for 90% of projects.

While 1600 retains a bit more detail in the high-light compared to 800 it really is a very personal choice. It’s not for everyone but I do like the textured look more than a what I feel is more plastic looking clean digital look.

The label and director at the time felt that a second camera was necessary to capture additional b-roll moments. I rarely like the idea of a second camera especially when it is an inferior one. In our case we had a Canon 7D which at the time was one of the unfortunate work horses of the music video world.

If you look close you’ll be able to pick out the 7D footage. It’s very noisy and doesn’t resolve nearly as well at the Alexa considering the ultra low light levels.

The lenses I used were Cooke S2 Speed Pancros. These vintage Cooks are light weight, lower contrast and add a wonderful color tone and soft quality to the image. The pictures are still sharp but not overly so. Essentially a step closer to mimicking the look and feel of film.

Did you use any other filters or camera add-ons?

I decided early on to a 1/8 Ultra-Con filter throughout the entire shoot. It was an experiment based on intuition at the time. The glass lifts the blacks ever so slightly and therefore creates a more velvet image with slightly lower contrast.

Going more low-con in front of the lens allows me to also light more contrasty in many ways. In some ways like working on film. The ultra-con became my weapon of choice for many videos and commercials to come.

Furthermore I wanted to play with different diffusion in addition so I changed between 1/8th classic soft, Glimmer 1. Most of the Alexa footage ended up being the ultra-con only since adding additional diffusion to any any of the male performers looked too soft for my taste.

Experimentation is always key for me. Some things I did on “Stone Rollin” I still do, others I wouldn’t do anymore. However, it was worth trying them or I wouldn’t have ever known.

Overall I just really loved the song which for me is the most important decision making factor when it comes to a music video. Dori put together a great treatment and after discussing each other’s ideas on the phone I had a sense that we could shoot something really visual with lots of energy.

I forget who said it, but it was on the topic of cinematography when a cinematographer stated “I’d forgo the fully equipped lighting trucks for 1 light and a good location any day”. As a cinematographer how do you approach the location?

The first step for us was finding the right location. Dori wanted to show me the one we ended up choosing first off and see if we could make it work. He was worried about a few things for good reason. I loved that space but also saw potential challenges. Generally some of the things to look out for are available light. Existing textures and colors within the space. The amount of space. This location was fairly long but narrow.

In that sense the space wasn’t perfect but first and last thing when making any decision is listening to your gut feeling and so we went for it. The reflective white tile on the wall worried us at first but ended up working really well as a key element of the art direction.

Some lights take up lots of room obviously so we went with small practical fixtures, a PAR can rig on the ceiling which you can see in the video on a couple occasions and a small fluorescent overhead light combined with a KinoFlo on a menace arm.

I had a gaffer and key grip I had not worked with prior but our communication and ideas went hand in hand. We went for a mixed color temp (tungsten and cool white fluorescent) minimal lighting approach with most of the light coming from the ceiling.

With limited resources at our hands we tried to make the best of it using a small lighting package, some atmosphere and a really good art director who delivered a beautiful color palette with all the furniture and practicals working in perfect harmony with the existing space.

If the environment you’re filming is already looking great the lighting will make it all that much better. When you have to film ugly and not the good kind of ugly then even the best lighting will make it bearable at best but never great.

Now let’s start from scratch on the Stone Rollin’ shoot. Before you ever step on set, I’m assuming you know who your team will be. I notice a perfect cohesion between many of the different departments in this video. For example, I think you were given a really nice “stage” to shoot. The art, design, wardrobe, hair and makeup departments did a great job here. For example, I noticed some nice architectural backgrounds in the video. For example at 1:03 (leading lines up the stairs) or :59 (nice lines behind the drummer + bricks creating a pattern), at at 1:30 with the patterns of the speakers behind Raphael Saadiq. You even see it at places like 1:32 (with the design elements behind the girl creating an irregular pattern). Now some of these elements exist nativity in the environment. However, other elements are added by these different departments. How closely does the cinematography department work with these other departments to ensure you are given strong backgrounds and visuals to shoot against?

A great production designer and art director are absolutely key for the image. Same goes for costumes. It really is a team effort and I can only encourage any up and coming cinematographer to be as involved in all departments when it comes to color and texture as possible.

From a technical standpoint I try to keep the light levels as low as possible. On digital I pretty much underexpose always since these chips read so much into the shadows. That way I maintain more highlight detail and the over feel is more gritty and filmic which I personally like. It’s a fine line however and takes lots of care.

“Movement” is a one of the macro elements of cinematography. Tell us a little more about how you approach the choreography of movement for a shot like this. Your camera is moving all of the time throughout the shoot but at times you move fast or you punch in for a close up (for example at 2:10). Have you ever edited before? How did you know you’re giving the editor footage that would stitch together nicely? Is it part of a cinematographers job to understanding editing?

I never edited professionally but going way back in time I started to get involved with tape to tape editing when I was sixteen having just started to experiment with a small JVC VHS-C camera as a hobby. I went into early non-linear editing shortly after and cut peoples holiday and wedding videos for money. In 2001 Final cut 1.3.5 was the game changer and editing became a hobby of mine through film school. I still edit my own reels and little projects here and there. I think knowing the editing process helps a lot in being able to make the right choices on set quickly and to be able to give the director and editor what they need and so much more. Once we get what we have to have for a specific set up I often run wild for a take or two and cover and action, scene or performance totally freely and get all kinds of extra moments and close-ups that were not boarded. That way I can give the editor more options and it also satisfies my personal urge for artistic expression. Especially in commercials sticking to storyboarded moments only can be very frustrating and limiting. Some of the best moments you can’t board. I’ve always had tremendous appreciation for musicians. In particular percussionists. A beat triggers an emotion while a sequence of beats can tell a story. Editing is just like that. In film the images are the beats. As a cinematographer you have a vast variety of lenses, cameras, film stock and settings at your disposal to strike just the right emotion one image at a time. Editing a sequence will tell the story. Not sure if this made sense but it kind of makes sense to me.

From reading the director’s treatment I knew from the get go that I had to be as free with the camera as possible. I wanted to dance with the performers.

I usually enjoy a mix of everything. Handheld, mounts/rigs, lock-offs, dollies and slider moves. I like when you can’t quite put your finger on the method and the camera feels effortless and minimalist. I went handheld for about 80 percent on this video. Really stripping down the camera to the bare essentials lets me react and anticipate all kinds of nuances in the track. My operating usually gets better the more I hear and learn the subtleties in the music and performance.

We decided to utilize the Steadicam for straight push-ins but particular for cycling around Asia the lead girl. Her movements and sensuality lend themselves perfectly to a circling camera I felt.

I’m very blessed with excellent focus pullers who can adjust in a split second to whatever erratic move will come next.

These days a remote follow focus is always on set but still prefer a manual follow focus. Sometimes I reach in and pull my own focus mid take. Especially on music videos.

I’m not doing this because I think I can do better than my 1st AC but it ads another level of artistic control at times when things shouldn’t be sharp or rack into focus in a subtle way etc.

On most projects including “Stone Rollin” I often use diopters on close ups. A Diopter +1 is usually just the right amount of subtle edge distortion and added close focus to the lens. I like getting really close to peoples’ faces and float hand held with them while trying to maintain focus right on the eyeball. I always enjoyed that direct connection with the artists and I think it makes for some good impact visually at times.

Atmosphere and lighting go hand in hand for me. I feel it makes everything more natural and relatable. In nature as well as interiors you have a different atmosphere all the time which in turn makes for a certain mood. Different weather conditions, light in different countries and continents, a variety of street light on a clear night, fog or rain. Smokey interiors, and open window next to the ocean and a setting sun. The varieties are endless and the best lighting school is nature. A hazer is one of my essentials. In particular the DF-50 is always on my truck on almost every project. A little haze gives the lighting more texture and softens the image in a three dimensional way. I often do the same for the outdoors as well. Painters use atmosphere of perspective to create depth on a flat canvas. I like slightly hazing up the background to do the same for moving images. On Raphael Saadiq I used quite a lot of haze since I wanted to create the feeling of a smokey jazz club and take away the view of the back wall to create the fantasy of a bigger space.

Now let’s take a moment and watch another project you were hired as the cinematographer on not too long ago: Possession (staring Scarlett Kapella and directed by Paul Minor).

There were many elements related to cinematography I loved about this video. I thought the choreography by Katie Malia fit the piece perfectly, the sound design and the styling was great and I loved the visual contrast between the two worlds. You had quite a bit to play with in this piece. However, what I loved most was the gritty feel to it. It seems to me that there was some very intentional grainy element added. What camera and lenses did you use to achieve this effect?

Possession was a passion project with Paul Minor and myself. We were both quite tired at the time of having our work influenced by people with limited artistic integrity or non thereof. We came up with a humble budget out of pocket and set a few parameters for the shoot.

Here are some of the main ones:
Shoot on 35mm.
Shoot for one day only.
Use available light or maximum of one light which can be powered by a battery.

Paul and I talked over general aesthetic preferences we had for the project and a few days later he came back with a script. Our model friend Scarlett Kapella came on board who’s obviously also a talented dancer. Katie Malia who’s friends with Paul and who we’ve worked with on a few videos prior came up with a brilliant choreography. Paul composed the music on some of his vintage synths.

Since all funds went to buying film short-ends and processing I decided not to bug any of my friends and do all camera assisting myself. Looking back that sure was a big mistake. I ended up loading the film out of the back of my car. carry the camera and cases to location , pull my own focus, change filtration etc.. all basic stuff of course but I chose a Arri 35-III which is quite the un-ergonomical camera and all gear weighs a ton. Somewhere along the way I picked up food poisoning between the day and the night segment of the shoot so I was throwing up and running to the toilet a lot during that shoot. All the street scenes at night downtown were done with available light except for the 1×1 litepanel. Once all film was in the can and processed we got really lucky. Marshall Plante at Ntropic in LA agreed to help out and color the film.

Marshall did an incredible job. All daylight stock was 5207 250D Kodak Vision3 and the night exteriors 5219 500T Kodak vision 3. The film seemed almost too slick and clean at first even though we pushed all night exteriors by one stop. Marshall showed us a process in telecine were you tell the machine that it’s looking at reversal film not negative which brought a whole new starting point in terms of the color spectrum as well as added a significant amount of grain to the image. We loved the look.

You can do so much digitally nowadays but originating on film gives you so many options in-camera as well as post. I definitely love shooting film whenever possible.

A year later Paul and I did a follow up project together with Treats! magazine .. also shot on 35mm with big favors from Panavision Hollywood. This time we had two nights, a a small but real crew, a couple more lights and a few more toys. Overall tho it was very similar to Possession but we had learned from our mistakes.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights with us Matthias. I say “thank you” on behalf of all of our blog readers students in our online film school. Our audience and students let us know all of the time that they really appreciate it when filmmakers open up to them like this. Thank you very much.

Matthias Koenigswieser Website
Matthias Koenigswieser Vimeo

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One Response to Cinematography: The Best Lighting School is Nature

  1. McBain February 18, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    He is the one of the best DOP I ever seen! Great interview, fantastic tips, thank you so much for this text! :)

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