Fundamental Lessons for Oscar Winning Cinematography

On December 11th 2013, The Rural Media Company held the last Master Class in our BFI Academy programme and what a class to finish on! We were very fortunate to have two times Oscar winning cinematographer Chris Menges with us for an entire morning speaking to us about his illustrious career.

So far all of our Master Classes have been wonderfully multifaceted; Producer Alistair Clark was talking about perseverance as much as he was talking about producing. Geoff Thompson spoke to us about fear as much as he did about being a writer and Esther May Campbell spoke about authenticity as much as she did about her directing career (see previous blog here). Chris Menges on the other hand came in to speak about cinematography…and speak about cinematography is what he did! Questions about finding your ‘inner cinematographer’ were few and far between and Chris mainly spent his time answering one question…’HOW THE BLOODY HELL DID YOU MANAGE TO DO THAT???’

He showed us clips from Oscar winning film ‘The Killing Fields’ in particular the scene where (SPOLIERS) an American B-52 has bombed the town Neak Leung. It’s an epic scene rich with pyrotechnics, background action and vehicles as well as special effects make up. “How did you know where to place the camera?” Someone asked after picking their jaw up from the floor.  To answer that question Chris took us back to his beginnings; Chris’s first camera job was working on ‘World in Action’ filming in places like South Africa, Cambodia and Vietnam, shooting documentaries in some intimidating places at the time. On location in Zimbabwe, after jumping out a plane Chris was called “Fearless” by Michael Parkinson but Chris just explained he was ‘excited to see the world.’

Chris then went on to say how ‘incredibly enriching’ documentary making was to him personally and professionally. Being in a space and observing life taught you how to find the story, find the essence of the world around you and then placing the camera isn’t such a difficult task. Chris did however did go on to say that ‘finding a subtle way of influencing the action can be very difficult’. It was wonderful to hear Chris talk about ‘Kes’ and developing this realistic shooting style with Ken Loach who used a lot of non-professional actors for that film. Chris had a lot to say about realism in his work, ‘Watch that technology doesn’t interfere with your actors. If you can avoid using lights in a room then do it, use practical lights if possible.’ Sometimes that may seem impossible to do depending on the locations you have but if I were to take anything away from Chris’s talk it would be his working ethos, ‘Think sideways, always.’

So to summarise, if you want to create Oscar winning cinematography, I’d take these lessons on board

1. Explore with documentary

OK so documentary isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, heck it wasn’t really mine until I started and even then it took me a while to appreciate it. I think Chris makes a wonderful point here because I completely agree; documentary making is a brilliant way to become a better storyteller, cameraman, director and filmmaker in general. Why? It’s harder. There are so many variables and complications with documentary as opposed to drama and to find real emotion, real heart, to find the real story can be quite difficult. Do your future self a favour and make a documentary.

2. Watch technology doesn’t interfereThe Killing Fields

It’s hard to imagine a shoot without the wonder of technology but Chris is absolutely right. Ultimately, your success still comes down to the characters, the actors and the story. Sure, we’re thinking of new and inventive ways of producing films but essentially you need to tell a story. Next time you’re on set or in a production meeting really ask yourself, do we need that pocket dolly/green screen/zero gravity lighting rig? Or is that getting in the way of the story? By the way, don’t google ‘zero gravity lighting rig’ I made it up…actually google it, by the time you read this it may well be a ‘thing’.

3. Think sideways always

I don’t think I need to remind many filmmakers that shoots are hard work. Being on a set or on location can be a gruelling experience and a problem can arise at any moment which is why thinking laterally is such a necessity. Remember that your film at its conception isn’t the film you’re making now. Remember that your film in pre-production isn’t the film you’re making now and remember that once you go through the edit you’ll have a different film to the one you shot. I know it sounds a little trippy but my point being is that film evolves and changes and an unwillingness to think laterally will always, always…destroy the essence of the film. Problems arise, think sideways always.