Thursday, December 10, 2009

3Questions: Rodney Taylor, ASC - Director of Photography

As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Rodney Taylor, a cinematographer who is also a member of the ASC or the American Society of Cinematographers. He has shot a combination of 26 features and shorts, as well as worked as a second unit director of photography on Disturbia and Enough and a camera operator on Carnivale.

A cinematographer collaborates "with a director to tell his story with a camera. I think of myself as a storyteller first. I use light and lenses to create an emotional depth, which contributes to a story and makes the audience feel, live and breathe a story. You need to have a lot of technical knowledge to be a cinematographer, but I focus more on the story. I'm fully invested in the script, the director, and the performances. You need to master the technical aspects early in your development, so it becomes second nature. The crew I work with is absolutely critical in this. I say work with. They are not MY crew. They are most important for me. They allow me the freedom to concentrate on the story. They bring great ideas of their own to the film. The crew has to be highly skilled so you never think about the technical issues you are going to face. They can make anything happen."

HBAD: So, tell us, how did you get your start?

RT: My career is the long winding road. I loved movies when I was a kid, but I didn't know you could work on them. I came from a very small fishing village in North Carolina. Hollywood, are you kidding? I went to college at UNC-Chapel Hill. I was in an introductory television production class. Seemed like it could be fun. I looked into the viewfinder and that was IT. I knew I had to work with cameras. I still didn't think about films. I began my career as a live sports camera operator. ESPN was just beginning and in Chapel Hill there was a hot bed of sports operators. So I began pulling cable for them and worked my way up to shooting. I shot on the sidelines of every sport imaginable for about 6 years. Handheld. Finally, I had done every sport, and wanted to try film.

By then I had become aware of cinematography. I decided I wanted to do that and I felt it would be something I would be learning for the rest of my life. I learn something new every day. I have a new experience on every film I shoot. I left Chapel Hill and attended the workshops in Maine. There I met Levie Isaacks, ASC. He was an instructor there. He was going to move to Los Angeles and I told him I was going to be moving there too. I picked up the phone when I arrived and called Levie. He was beginning some tests at Roger Corman's studio. I began working at Corman's the very next day as a camera assistant. It was amazing. It was like film school.

On the same crew, Janusz Kaminski was the gaffer and Mauro Fiore, ASC was the key grip. The film was Saturday the 14th Strikes Back. So I began working my way up after that with various cinematographers as a camera assistant. It was a great experience. I also began working on IMAX films as a camera assistant. I was an assistant for about 7 years. The whole time between jobs, I would shoot anything I could, usually for free. I continued to learn everything I could. I am self taught. I would go to every seminar I could find and watch the cinematographers I was working with. Eventually I got an opportunity to shoot an IMAX film, Alaska: Spirit of the Wild, with director George Casey, who I had been working with as a camera assistant. In the same year I also met director Darren Stein through George's son Sean. I shot Sparkler, Darren's first feature.

HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?

RT: The most difficult challenge continues to be getting films to shoot. Particularly good films. It is very competitive. I've been very lucky with most of the films I've shot. That Evening Sun was the most recent. It has just been released and it is a very good film. I read the script and felt that I just had to shoot it.

It's very challenging to have a career in film. It can be very difficult to break in and, once you're in, it's a lot of work to keep it going. But there's nothing better than shooting a film. I love it. I have to do it. I think if you don't feel that way about it there are easier ways to make a living.

Another very difficult challenge in this business is being part of your family. The hours are very long and you are often away on location. You have to find a way to balance that out and keep your family as the priority. I have two young daughters. It's a challenge and I think when you are beginning your career this is something you can't even begin to think about. But it will become very important.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to become a cinematographer?

RT: Just know that it is not going to be easy, but if you have the desire and passion to do it you can make it happen. I did it and you can too, but it takes an extraordinary amount of work and commitment. You have to do it yourself. No one is going to do it for you. I continue to work hard to get jobs and study my craft.

You can learn a lot about cinematography by shooting stills. It's a lot cheaper and it's a great way to learn composition, exposure and all the tools you'll need later. The skill set you'll want to know so well, you can forget about it and tell the story. I shot a lot of stills, and I continue shooting stills. It's another passion of mine.

Young filmmakers now are very fortunate. There is a lot of very cheap equipment out there that you can make a film with. Most people have a computer, editing software and a camera of some kind. Use it and learn. It can just be an exercise. Everything you do, doesn't have to go to Sundance. It's important to get the experience.

Learn to collaborate. Filmmaking is a very collaborative art form. If you don't want to collaborate I would recommend painting or other fine arts. At the same time I think it is important to find an art form or creative outlet you can call your own. Exercise your creativity between jobs.

Once you begin working on crews, grab every opportunity you can to shoot absolutely anything on your time off. Get the experience. There is nothing like doing it to learn. A lot of the film crew these days went to film school, and many of them want to make films. You may meet a young director who wants to shoot something over a weekend. No matter how tired you are from the film you are crewing on, just do it.

While you are working on a crew, pay attention to what the cinematographer is doing. You will find that shooting the image is just a small part of the job. The great thing about working on a crew is that you can see what all the other aspects of the job entail. This is something that is hard to learn in film school. The politics of the job. For me, the director absolutely comes first. I'm making their film. But you have to also pay attention to the producers and their needs for the budget. The actors have to be comfortable to make their performances. You work with the production designer and all the other departments so the look is consistent throughout the film. You work with post production and the editor. The list goes on for miles.

Find the most experienced crew you can to work with you. You have to be able to communicate with them. They can contribute so much if they know more than you do. Be comfortable with that.

Watch a lot of films. Study them. See what came before you. I'm surprised sometimes with the lack of film history young filmmakers have. I learned a lot about cinematography by watching films.

A cinematographer doesn't have a style. We shoot for a story and develop THE LOOK for each film.

Cinematographers do not shoot pretty images. We shoot the images that contribute to the story and contribute to the emotion in a film. You have to move the audience.

Meet everyone you can. Always treat everyone with respect. Be nice and personable. Your personality goes a long way in this business. The people you are working with become like a 2nd family. Also the PA on the job now, might be a director in 5 years. I was up for a job recently and my agent said, the director wants to work with you. He said you were really nice to him a few years ago when he drove you to a set.

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