The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents September 2016 Return to Table of Contents
Tulip Fever
ASC Close-Up
Vanja Cernjul

Vanja Černjul, ASC, HFS

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?

Blade Runner. I was only 14 years old, and it was the first time I understood how visuals are an integral part of a cinematic story.


Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?

Néstor Almendros [ASC], for his relationship to natural light. Emmanuel Lubezki [ASC, AMC], for taking that approach to new heights. Like Almendros, Roger Deakins [ASC, BSC] always seems invisible within his work, yet so confident and in control.


What sparked your interest in photography?

I was 11 years old the first time I took out a two-eyed 6-by-6 Yashica on my own. I felt that the world I was seeing through the viewfinder was inviting me to explore it.


Where did you train and/or study?

I discovered cinematography at the Academy of Dramatic Art at the University of Zagreb. When I was about to finish film school, my country descended into a brutal war and I ended up as a war correspondent for international news agencies. When things quieted down I enrolled in the Graduate Film Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.


Who were your early teachers or mentors?

The first cinematographer I ever met was Tomislav Pinter. Taking a class with the great Haskell Wexler, ASC in 1991 in Budapest was probably the most influential part of my formal education. At Tisch I was awarded an internship with one of my idols, Sven Nykvist [ASC], who made me aware of how the most elegant and functional solutions are usually the most simple and intuitive ones.


What are some of your key artistic influences?

The work of Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich was a great inspiration when I became interested in the use of color. Another big influence is Italian graphic novelist Hugo Pratt; I look at his books before I start any new project.


How did you get your first break in the business?

At Tisch, I had the opportunity to work with the most talented people of my generation, and some of them offered me the chance to shoot their first features. For better or worse I’ve never held a position other than cinematographer, which is why I have tremendous respect for my crew and sometimes ask them crazy questions.


What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

The most satisfying part of the journey is seeing the film for the first time with an audience, the crew and the director at the premiere.


Have you made any memorable blunders?

At the 2012 ASC Awards, the first year I was nominated, I had multiple alerts for the day’s events set up on my iPhone, which I thought would go off silently. Harrison Ford was receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award when my alarm went off. Everybody looked at me and rolled their eyes. A few minutes later, while Mr. Ford was still delivering his speech, my alarm went off again. I wanted to die.


What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

Tomislav Pinter once told me, ‘A great cinematographer doesn’t have a style.’


What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

These past few years I have been more inspired by amazing people I have been blessed to work with. On Marco Polo I got to collaborate closely with French cinematographer Romain Lacourbas [AFC], and on the TV series I am currently on, I was working with actor-director James Franco, whose creative energy deeply impressed me.


Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?

I would love to be involved in making films of all possible genres at least once.


If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?

I would try to combine my passion for photography with a study of visual sociology, and come up with projects that would involve a lot of research and travel.


Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Sol Negrin, Anastas Michos and Ron Fortunato. Sol was my cinematography teacher at NYU, and I worked in Anastas’ camera department as an intern. A film I’ve referenced on countless occasions is Ron’s Nil by Mouth. It was a great honor knowing I had their support.


How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

With all the technical advances and major changes in the industry, it is more important than ever to have a platform from which our point of view can be communicated. I am excited to be a part of the most influential cinematography organization in the world.

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