In Orbit With... Jeff Cronenweth

TMU: How important is the chemistry between a Cinematographer and a Director?


JC: I think that chemistry is imperative, good or bad, in defining the visual language. It’s the foundation for a Director to guide his performances and craft his narrative. It’s not always a perfect bond and in some cases that tension is so deeply rooted in the visuals that it actually transcends the shoot onto the big screen in glorious ways.  Of course, being in sync is a far better experience for all and usually makes for a more coherent and complete film.


TMU: Do you need to share a visual aesthetic and view of the world? 


JC: No - however you need to understand and agree upon the story you’re telling and what visual language you will use to define that journey. How do you know you’re speaking the same language? I think you look at references, watch movies, discuss styles, and test as much as you can to arrive at an appropriate feel.


TMU: Could you describe a typical first meeting with a Director – what’s the exchange?


JC: It’s all about diving straight into each other’s take on the film. How one likes to work. Discussing approaches, time lines, personnel, budgets, locations, etc. Ultimately for me it’s really getting a good read on the Director’s vision and their expectations of me.


TMU: Are the best Directors ones who inspire you with a strong, clear vision of a project or those that give you more freedom of interpretation? 


JC: I’ve photographed movies for all types of Directors and enjoy different processes, but a true collaboration is what I get the most satisfaction from.


TMU: How do you know where to place a camera – are you looking for maximum emotional impact out of a scene?


JC: It depends on the story you’re telling and that particular scene from that story. You can decide ahead of time to use certain lenses or certain light for certain scenes or characters and in general have an overall language for the film. But until you’ve rehearsed the sequence with your cast in the location you can’t be certain that you will not discover alternatives.


TMU: You shot Fight Club on film – has the digital era changed your style from back then?


JC: I don’t feel it has changed the way I approach a film photographically at all, in fact it’s opened many more doors then it has closed. It took an understanding of the new tools and how best to make them work for me. Shadows verses highlights, depth of field, color sciences, ISOs have always been core fundamentals of photography and it was just a case of wrapping your head around the new and evolving technologies.


TMU: What format did you use for Gone Girl – how was the experience different between those two films? 


JC: Gone Girl was photographed with the Red Dragon back then - we framed for 2:35 and used Leica Similux C’s. I feel that the stories are very different and the choices we made when lensing the characters and the light used supported that.


Fight Club was shot on film with Panavision primo glass and we used tungsten and fluorescent sources. Gone Girl is a more ‘present’ story and our sources reflected that as did the lensing. Although you could say both films showcased the darker sides of humanity, they were very much different perspectives of life, hence were the styles.


TMU: Is there any life left for film as opposed to digital - don’t you miss the quality and texture of projected film? 


JC: I love film, always have. I miss the tangible texture that helps bring humanity back to stories, the forgiveness in photographing a face, the mastery and experience needed to create beautiful images. Being able to look through an eyepiece and knowing how to expose that image. The magic of the happy surprises and owning those images as you have created them.


TMU: People say cinematography is all about shaping stories with light to elevate a film. Now that hi-def cameras can pick up almost anything, is that still a fair description?


JC: How many reality TV shows elicit emotions for you, create atmospheres, direct an audience to focus on what you want them to or mislead them down an unknown path? It’s easy to turn a camera on and shoot, but it’s not easy to create a beautiful scene and keep the continuity and beauty of that scene throughout the coverage for as many days and angles as it may take.


I think that the role of a creative Cinematographer is more important today than ever before. The audiences we are trying to entertain today are very sophisticated, they can make and edit their own films at home. So we need to keep pushing the boundaries and raising our own contributions.


TMU: What exciting new developments do you think we’ll see in cinematography in the next few years? 


JC: Larger formats, higher definitions, focus assist tools, simplified visual effects, fantastic light sources, new glass.


TMU: What advice would you give an up and coming TVC / short film Director about choosing a Cinematographer? 


JC: Go with someone whose work inspires you, who respects the collaborative experience but will push your ideas and aesthetics past your normal comfort level.


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