The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Presidents Desk
ASC Close-Up

Tran was similarly affected by her work on the award-winning documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. “Director Grace Lee and I worked on that for six years, and it really changed the way I see the world today. It’s the reason I started gardening, it’s the reason why I became more interested in politics, and all of that makes me a better storyteller.”

Tran’s interest in conservation informs not only her approach to storytelling, but also her feelings regarding the film-versus-digital debate. “I used to love printing in the darkroom, and as a still photographer I was one of the last photojournalists to switch to digital,” she says. “However, I quickly learned to adapt to the new format, and there seemed to be a lot less waste, which is important to me.”

At the time of this writing, Tran had just shot a pilot for HBO called Mogadishu, Minnesota, and was prepping for the presentation of two narrative features at Sundance entitled The Little Hours and Deidra & Laney Rob a Train. She reiterates her belief that it’s ultimately all about story: “Technical aspects aside, as long as I’m telling meaningful and impactful stories, I’m a happy shooter.”

Pieter Vermeer

Dutch director of photography Pieter Vermeer also found his way to cinema via still photography. “Both of my parents are artists, so I grew up in a visual environment,” he explains. At the same time, Vermeer was becoming exposed to the work of filmmakers like Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Polanski and Scorsese. “I became more and more interested in telling stories with a camera as opposed to just dealing with a single image,” he says.

His first break came with an internship operating a primitive form of video assist for director Pieter Verhoeff. “Eventually, Pieter took me on to his next movie, where I worked in the electrical department,” Vermeer recalls. Vermeer went on to work as a grip and gaffer on a number of films in the Netherlands, ultimately becoming a director of photography in commercials. “I went international, shooting commercials in France, England, the U.S. — which led me to relocate to New York in 1997.”

Through music videos and commercials, Vermeer met director Elliott Lester, who asked the cinematographer to shoot his features Nightingale (2014) and Aftermath (2016). These films allowed Vermeer to flex different creative muscles than he had been accustomed to with his shorter-form work. “Commercials and features are quite different animals,” he says. “In a film, you have so much more time to tell your story and to develop your shots and scenes; in commercials, you have 30 to 60 seconds and generally the main purpose is to sell something.”

While working in features, commercials and music videos has allowed Vermeer to shoot extensively on film negative, he has fully embraced the digital revolution. “I like the latitude and color space of digital,” he says, having shot his last three features on Arri Alexa cameras. “Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes miss the texture and grain that come with shooting film. Unfortunately, in my experience the infrastructure for shooting on film is slowly disappearing; it’s difficult to find the right people and the right labs.”

When shooting digital anamorphic, Vermeer tries to take the sharp edges off by using older glass like Panavision C and E lenses. “I’m always trying to deconstruct the image a little in digital,” he says, adding that he spends a great deal of time in the final color correction fine-tuning the image. “The possibilities for finessing it there are fantastic,” he asserts, “though in the end it’s all about taste and vision — how your taste as a cinematographer allows you to find a visual interpretation that helps tell the story.”

Ed Wu

Cinematographer Ed Wu didn’t start out with aspirations to work in the camera department — in fact, he didn’t have aspirations to work in movies at all. He began as a classically trained musician, and throughout his pre-college years, he recalls, “I always thought that was what I was going to do. I think it has a big influence on how I approach cinematography. Listening to and playing classical music, you have an attachment to the instrument and how you express the notes on the page. You feel it. With cinematography, I have to tune out what’s around me and think about how the camera movement feels and how it’s emotionally impacting me.”

Wu developed an interest in filmmaking while working on a video-yearbook project in high school, but he still didn’t realize that cinematography was where he belonged. “I didn’t even know what the name for that job was,” he remembers. He laughs as he recalls that he finally became aware of the role of director of photography by reading a book called What I Really Want to Do on Set in Hollywood. “I read the description for ‘cinematographer’ and that was it,” he says.

As an undergrad, Wu bought a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, eventually amassing enough good material to get into the American Film Institute, which is where he feels he truly became a cinematographer. “It really opened my eyes to ask how camera placement affects how we relate to a character in a scene, or whose perspective the shots are from and why,” he recalls.

AFI gave Wu something important in terms of mentorship as well. “At AFI we had many professors who were mentors to me,” he says. “Stephen Lighthill, ASC; Bob Primes, ASC; Sandra Valde-Hansen; Tal Lazar — but the most influential for me was Bill Dill, ASC. He taught me so much about how to ask questions about what’s driving the camera.” Wu recalls that Dill’s tough-love style could be a bit much for some students. “He doesn’t hold anything back when he breaks down your films,” Wu recalls. “I’ve heard of students crying in his class. But in the end, you learn so much. I think it’s rare in our industry, or as artists, to be critiqued critically in a nonjudgmental way, where the stakes aren’t that high.”

After AFI, Wu developed relationships with cinematographers Rachel Morrison, ASC and Edu Grau through the mentorship program at Film Independent’s Project Involve. “They’ve helped me wade through the political aspects and nervous breakdowns of bigger challenges on bigger projects,” he says. Through Project Involve, Wu also met the producer of Sleight, which was Wu’s first feature. It premiered at Sundance to critical acclaim and a positive audience response, but Wu notes that he still feels like a newcomer. “In all honesty,” he says with a laugh, “I’m still breaking in.”

Editor's Note: A media-capable version of this story can be found here.


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