S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: Even when you have to cinematographer’s on a show, you do want to kind of bring in your own flavor as much as you can, but at the same time, you owe it to the content to be consistent. You both really want to be on the same page to hold that consistency from start to finish.
S3: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, Ramona Lum, and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.
S1: Isaac, it is that time of year boyin at its target 345. It’s really too cold for outdoor dining at the handful of the New York establishments that are trying to offer that the holidays, by which I mean days without school, are looming. So what are we going to do besides watch movies and television shows, it’s just feels like the perfect time to talk to our guest this week. Can you tell me a little bit about Michael Watson?
S4: Yeah, absolutely. So Michael is a cinematographer for film and television, as we talk about in the interview itself. He began in the camera department and worked his way up. And I was interested in talking to him because he was essentially the co-director of photography on Lovecraft Country, which is on a visual level, a really fascinating show that offers a lot of different creative challenges. It’s a period piece. It actually takes place in many different periods, but none of them are the present day. And it’s playing around with a lot of genres, kind of like, you know, like classic horror and H.P. Lovecraft and science fiction. I mean, there’s even a role playing game style dungeon crawl in one episode. And I was just really interested in how you solve that and deal with VFX and all those sorts of things while trying to do your job.
S1: So can I tell you this shameful truth that I’m not really sure how much I understand what a cinematographer slash director of photography is? Now, this is despite being married to a photographer and director myself. And obviously I have seen David’s work and I understand exactly what it is he’s doing. But I’ve also spent a lot of time on sets making television commercials, which was my old job. And I never totally grasped the difference between the director and the person managing the camera. I wonder if that makes me an idiot.
S4: I think if you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it, you know, I think that role remains kind of obscure because we think of the director as the kind of like auteur who is in charge of everything that you see. But actually, most of the time, they’re the ones who’s, like, making the final decision on a lot of stuff, you see. But those ideas are actually coming from other places. And I feel like I’ve reached a point where cinematography is actually the thing that is kind of looming as a gap in my knowledge. I need to fill in more. And some of that grew actually out of book research, like in researching the new Hollywood era in the 70s. One of the things that’s happening that allows for this shift in how movies are directed and acted is that there’s new kinds of zoom lenses and there’s the Steadicam rig and there’s all this technological innovation that’s actually driving that. And that’s made me a lot more curious about those kinds of decisions and how they go into what you see.
S1: Your conversation with Michael really showed me how I often, especially when we’re talking about movies and television, will just let the work wash over me. You know, in a museum, I might linger over a painting trying to figure out how the artist made it. But I tend not to do that kind of analysis when I’m watching something on screens. And maybe that’s not uncommon, right?
S4: Well, how can you linger over an image when the image is moving or cutting to another image before you get a chance to kind of pore over it? Right. I mean, I think that some of that’s just kind of baked in to the form. And if you want to study the images, you have to go back after you’ve seen whatever it is and look at a sequence or look at or pause it and look at the lighting or whatever to break it out into its constituent parts. But, you know, at the same time. I think with film and television, you know, all of those images exist in context, they’re sequential. There’s other things before and after them, and they’re often moving at the same time. You know, on Twitter, I follow a lot of those Twitter feeds, the post very beautiful, still images from film. And while I love that because it brings a little art into my life as I’m doing scrolling, I also feel on some level like, am I betraying the medium? Because the whole point of the medium is that these things exist in relationship to other stuff.
S1: Maybe I should just relax and just learn how to, like, enjoy things, you know, before we jump into your interview, it’s my turn this week to give the usual slate plus pitch. And I just want to point out that it’s Thanksgiving week. So if you’re grateful for Slate’s podcast and news and cultural coverage, I urge you to become a member of Slate. Plus, you can get two weeks for me right now. Just go to Slate dotcom slash working plus. And I can assure you that me and my colleagues here are grateful to you for your support.
S5: All right, now let’s get to Isaac’s conversation with Michael Watson.
S4: Michael Watson, thank you for joining us today on working.
S6: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on the show. This is really a great honor. I appreciate it.
S4: So let’s just start with the basics. It’s a show called Working. What is it that you do?
S6: I’m a director of photography, also known as a cinematographer. Are those terms interchangeable, by the way? More or less. I mean, at the end of the day, you’re directly responsible for bringing the director’s image of the script and his ideas of the script to fruition. That’s kind of your role as a director of photography slash cinematographer.
S4: And how do you do that? How do you I mean, obviously you’re designing I assume you know what the camera is doing within the shot, but can you talk a little bit about that?
S6: Absolutely. I mean, that the director and I, you know, there’s a large collaboration between myself and any director that I work with, and we basically drill down on tone. There’s a lot of discussion about the tone, the feel color. And with those meetings, we then kind of all agree and decide on a look and a feel for the piece. And that translates into what takes place on set, how we approach lighting and lensink camera movement, placement of talent, so on and so forth.
S4: Was there a certain point when you realized that cinematography was kind of what you wanted to go into as a field?
S6: I started out wanting to be a fashion photographer and trying to find a way into that industry in a roundabout manner led me actually in an accidental manner, led me to cinematography. I applied for a job at a camera rental house. What I didn’t know at the time that I was applying for the job, that it was a motion picture camera rental house, not a still camera rental, but it was a job. And I needed I needed a job and I wanted a job and, you know, in the industry. So I kind of hung in there, spent two years at the rental house and the rest is history.
S4: Wow. That’s fascinating, because I think of, you know, the thought process behind what a still image needs to look like and what a moving image needs to look like are kind of two different things. How do you think about that as someone who started in the still images and moved into the moving ones?
S6: For me, I find that with with a still image, you have more opportunity to kind of craft and polish that one still image. Whereas when you’re talking about motion picture, where the images and the subjects are moving through the frame, there’s a constant process of thinking about where that subject is going to end or begin and end in that frame and how your lighting will play on that subject, moving through that frame. So I find cinematography a lot more challenging, a lot more involved, a lot more hands on.
S4: Our listeners can currently see your work on the HBO television series Lovecraft Country, which is a really fascinating, fascinating show and I’m excited to talk to you about it. So what at what point in the development process of Lovecraft country did you come on board the very beginning?
S6: Well, when when HBO, I guess, finally decided that this was a show that they wanted to get behind and the pieces started coming together, I think I came into the process a little bit before pre-process started. The pilot of the show was actually shot about two and a half, maybe three years ago. We did extensive reshoots on the pilot, but I think the project itself had kind of been in HBO’s hands for some time before they were ready to pull the trigger on it.
S4: Wow. So the first episode that we saw, some of that was shot two or three years ago and then some of that was reshot once the show was greenlit.
S6: That is absolutely correct.
S4: There is another director of photography on the show, Robert McLauchlan, but did you to develop the kind of style of it together, was that a collaboration between the two of you knowing that the baton would have to be passed halfway through the show?
S6: Absolutely. Rob and I had extensive meetings together with himself and Michelle Green, the showrunner. Even when you have two cinematographers on a show, you do want to kind of bring in your own flavor as much as you can. But at the same time, you you owe it to the content to be consistent from one episode to the next. So that’s actually a very valuable aspect of working with another cinematographer. You you both really want to be on the same page to hold that consistency from start to finish.
S4: What were those early conversations with Mischa Green like? What were the kind of priorities or the thought process behind what the show was going to look like?
S6: As you know, if you seen the show, it’s a period piece that takes place in in the nineteen fifties and Atticus, our lead, you know, is returning home from the Korean War, so on and so forth. So a lot of the conversations that were being had were directly linked to the tone and the feel of what we wanted from the show. You know, the show has it’s kind of a mix of genres, right? Like there’s kind of cult or sci fi. There’s horror. With that being understood, we kind of wanted to serve a little bit of each of those genres, visually speaking.
S4: You know, that’s fascinating. You’re anticipating my next question, which is about the sort of mix of genres that goes into the show. Were you studying films in those genres to figure out sort of, you know, like these are the camera angles that mean horror? It’s at a Dutch angle at this point or, you know, where were you breaking apart those films to just kind of study like this is what a camera does. That means horror to an audience or how do you how do you evoke those those genres?
S6: You know, I think I have a strong mental and visual library of what certain types of genres of films should feel like. But at the end of the day, I do love to incorporate a little bit of my own style, but yet staying true to the genre. So, yeah, there was a fair amount of reference that we all kind of gathered and contributed. And when we would have these sit downs to kind of discuss where we wanted to be visually on the show, those references played in quite a bit. I myself reference a lot of photography, you know, to help me develop what I call look books. So for each one of my episodes, which were five, six, seven and nine, I liked to come to the table with a look book that I kind of preconceived in my head and some images that I put together that I could share with my gaffer and what have you for the episode that we were working on, but at the same time still staying true to what we’re all what we’ve all agreed. We want the show to look and feel like.
S4: Yeah, that’s interesting because it does seem like, you know, part of the challenge would be how do I translate this idea in my head in such a way that my collaborators and the people working under me can understand what it is. That sounds like a very tangible you can give them an actual tangible object and say, look, look, look, it’s this.
S6: Absolutely, absolutely. And it helps immensely. You know, I remember there was one particular scene in episode one of five where I wanted the color of the Sun and I wanted the feel of the sun beams coming through a window to kind of reflect this specific image that I had. And and you’re absolutely right. I basically said, let’s do this today. And it was it was great. So I love to to have visuals. And that’s the great thing about technology. Also, you know, I can pretty much load up my iPad with my ideas for a particular episode and that when I’m prepping that episode, I have these conversations with my gaffer, with my key grip, with my first day scene, with my camera operators where I really want to be within this episode.
S4: Do you have a just kind of pre-existing huge library of images that you go through, or is that research sort of more directed like, oh, it’s the Korean War, I need to go look at time life, Korean War collection or whatever it is? That’s a good idea.
S6: No, it’s a little bit of both. It’s a little bit of both. I mean, I have an extensive kind of library of images that I collect a lot of different stuff. I still shoot a fair amount of stills. So I also have some stuff that I like to reference of my own work. Yeah, interesting.
S4: You mentioned earlier that, you know, yes. You want to play with these genre elements, but but you also want a bit of your own style in there. And I was wondering how you think of or would describe your style as a director of photography.
S6: For me, it’s all about cleansing, you know, lighting plays hugely into it, but I really gravitate to the framing of an image and you know how an image is lens. I think there’s a lot of emotions that can be evoked through lenses coupled with lighting. And I think a large part of that is because I came directly from the camera department into cinematography. Some cinematographers come from the electric department where they’re already developing the lighting and shaping lighting, and then they kind of, you know, learn lenses on the way. It was the other way around for myself. So for me, framing and Lensink plays a lot into it.
S4: Yeah. Can we talk a little bit about lenses? Because I feel like, you know, there’s a certain section of our listeners who, you know, they just love the creative process and want to hear about they might not be sort of familiar with how specific lenses create the mood in an image that they’re seeing on their TV screens. I know. I feel like I could be more conversant in it, too. So how does Lensink work to do that, to create those fields that you’re talking about?
S6: So here’s a perfect example of that. In Episode one or nine, the director of that episode and myself, we there is some key moments in that episode. One of them is, well, show’s over. So I’m assuming your audience may have seen it, seen the moment now. But one of the points.
S4: But spoiler warnings, in case you haven’t, you might want to fast forward 15 seconds.
S6: All right, go. Spoiler warning here. So the group have made a decision to recover a book, and that book is not in their present time. So they they have a way of time traveling. I’m trying not to give away too much here. They have a way of time traveling back to the past and retrieving this book. There is a moment when. One of the characters has a very deciding moment where he is looking through the portal of the time machine into nineteen twenty one nineteen twenties basically, and. It is such a traumatic event that took place in his life during that period, in that era, that he’s really conflicted about going back there. And what I wanted to do with with this moment was I really wanted to bring forward his thought process. And the way I was able to do that was I use a specialty lens called a swing shift lens. And with that lens system, I was able to kind of shift the focus of the character’s face. So the focal plane would fall in a different area than when you would of where you would expect it to fall. And the area that was sharp would fall in an area that you wouldn’t expect it to fall also. So in the end, I was able to really pull forward that character’s eyes. So you could almost be in that moment with him seeing this thought process, this conflict of him having to go back to what is one of the most tragic events to take place in his life.
S4: You know, when you’re talking with directors to prepare for these episodes because because one of the things that we should say is that, you know, one big difference between most TV series and films, you know, is that you’re working with different directors over the course of a of a series and often on with a constrained time frame and stuff like that. So, you know, what are the conversations like with the director that produced that moment? Are they saying, oh, I really want to make sure we’re getting the feel of this? And you’re like, oh, I have a great lens for that. Or or directors often more prescriptive about kind of what you’re going to do with the camera in those moments.
S6: You know, it can be a little bit of both. Some directors come to the table very, very prepared and they know what they want to do the moment they walk into the room. You know, they’ve already been handed the script. They’ve already read maybe a script before their episode or a couple of scripts before their episode. So some of the directors that I work with come very, very prepared and have very strong ideas for their episode. Some directors also come to the table and and it’s not that they’re not as prepared, but I think they are more open and more malleable to ideas and to the collaboration of their episode. So the discussion in particular with this episode was that we really wanted to capture this character’s anxiety. And I felt that the best way to do that was with this particular lens.
S5: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Michael Wilson after this.
S1: In almost every episode, you hear our hosts solicit listener questions. We want to know what your challenges are at work, creatively, professionally, whatever it is, this is more pressing than usual, because right now we’re working on an all listener question episode of Working It’ll Air before the end of the year. If you have a question about how to get inspired about how to manage your time, whatever it is, you can give us a ring at three zero four nine three three work. Or you can always e-mail us at working at Slocomb if you’re enjoying this episode. Don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts and look out for that Listener Advice episode later this year.
S5: OK, let’s rejoin Isaac’s conversation with Michael Watson.
S4: Do you do a lot of storyboarding, do you like to storyboard with directors, is that something that you find pleasurable or do you more like want to work it out in the moment on set or what?
S6: No, I think storyboards, you know, they can be kind of a double edged sword. And by that they’re very, very helpful. However, storyboards sometimes do not capture the scope or the or the physicality of the scene. So, you know, a storyboard artist will draw a scene in a specific way and it gives you a general idea of where you want to go within that scene, whether it’s a camera movement or a or a particular lighting style. However, what the storyboard artist may fail to understand is how that actually takes place. I’ve run into a couple of scenarios where a storyboard artist will make this great camera move within the storyboard, but translate that into reality. And it’s not necessarily possible the way they’ve drawn it. And I think sometimes directors get really fixated on their storyboards, you know, so storyboards are very helpful. But at the same time, there has to be an understanding there that it’s a representation of the idea, not the idea itself. Manifested physically.
S4: Right. Right. You have to plan and then you have to be willing to deviate from the plan. A little bit, yeah, yeah, one of the, I imagine, big challenges with Lovecraft country, although, although I could be wrong, is there’s a lot of VFX work in it. I mean, increasingly in television, there’s a lot of VFX work that we don’t actually notice. That has to do with filling out an environment with a green screen or I once got a screener for a TV series where the the none of the ceilings in the rooms have been put in yet in the shots. And I was like, oh, all the ceilings on this TV show are done on a computer, even though it’s just set in an office. So, you know, like there’s a lot of effects that we don’t even see. But Lovecraft country especially, there’s a ton of it in there. What is it like to plan a shot where not everything in the shot is actually going to be seen in your viewfinder?
S6: I have a lot of conversations with the visual effects supervisor, you know, and that was a big thing on this show. You know, we have creatures exploding up out of the ground. We have huge set pieces that were built. And even though the set pieces that were physically built were enormous and beautiful to work in, there were still extensions that would be added onto those. So you kind of had to keep that in mind and frame for those things. So a lot of conversations I have with the visual effects supervisor and a lot of times we do a significant amount of privies, previous realization of a scene, particularly if it’s there’s a large visual effect element to it. So there’s a fair amount of privies. And what previs basically is, it’s almost an it is an animation of the scene that we want to film with the animated visual effect in it.
S4: So it’s it’s like a little cartoon color is, I feel like so noticeable in Lovecraft country. You know, the costumes are very colorful. The world is very colorful. It stands in sharp contrast to I think there’s a sort of washed out look that sort of permeated film these days, especially genre film. And so it’s you know, it’s fascinating to see in Lovecraft country how much color really pops in there. Can you talk about your approach to color and how color shaped the creative process in Lovecraft country?
S6: You know, once again, going back to Meesha, she was very clear about wanting to have a very vivid looking, you know, tapestry, and I think a part of that played into my hand because I love to incorporate color. I feel that color is always a great way to convey very subtle bits of emotion, in particular what a character might be going through. So, you know, in one of my first episodes, one of the characters really struggles with his sexuality. And there’s a beautiful moment where he more or less comes to terms with it. And in that moment, I play red a lot because there’s something very passionate about what he’s feeling for his for his lover, you know. So I play and read a lot because I really wanted to convey that essence of passion and heat and love and link the emotions to the color.
S4: And that’s something that also has to be worked out with the design departments. Right. Because, I mean, obviously, it has to be lit in such a way that the red on a shirt or whatever pops. There’s a way in which everyone’s job is sort of dependent on the decisions that other departments are making.
S6: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
S4: It does seem like you have to collaborate with a lot of different people from a lot of different disciplines to do your work. There’s the people who you manage who are, you know, working under you on your team. There’s the directors who change every episode. There’s the showrunner, there’s the design departments. How do you think about collaboration? How do you navigate collaboration in the workplace?
S6: Myself. I think depending on what the need is at the time, you know, kind of determines who my collaborators are. For example, I collaborated extensively with, you know, Rob and I collaborate extensively with the production designer. And in those initial conversations, they kind of set the tone for where we’re all going. But then as you kind of drill down into the actual photography and into the actual shooting, now my collaborations and my my conversations will happen a lot with, say, for example, the technician who’s directly responsible for all the practicals that I will be seeing in a frame practicals, meaning lighting that you are physically in the set like table lamps or candles or what have you. And on this show, that particular individual and myself, we worked really closely because there’s lots of practicals on this show.
S4: It’s a period piece that set in doors. It’s electric lighting. It’s.
S6: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And and there’s there’s there’s a period and a village where there there is no electricity. So there’s there’s a lot of candlelight and a lot of flame. So there’s a lot of conversations to be had with individuals who kind of make that part come together. So, yeah.
S4: How do you navigate disagreements in your collaborative relationships? Because it’s a conflict is going to happen, right? That’s part of that’s part of the creative process. How do you how do you think about navigating conflict?
S6: I think for myself and I can only speak for myself, obviously, but. I’m always entering a relationship, and that’s kind of what you’re you’re in when you’re on a film, on a television show, particularly because, you know, you’re you’re there for X amount of months and you’re working with the same people for X amount of months. You guys are basically in a relationship. And the way I like to enter that relationship with my collaborators is I’m open as much as possible to their thought processes. And I think the thing that you have to keep in mind is that at the end of the day, everybody on that show, we’re all trying to move in the same direction. So, yeah, there will be times where there will be disagreements and and ideas may conflict. But in the end, if you’re still servicing the material, if you’re still servicing the story, then that’s what kind of brings everybody back to the same place and resolves the conflict. That’s what that’s really what the script is there to help you with. It’s your roadmap. And if we’re all going down that same road together, sure, there may be some shortcuts to get to a specific point. But at the end of the day, we’re all trying to get to the same place.
S4: Right. Right. The shared goal. You keep your eye on your goal. Yeah, that makes sense. You know, your job does not end when the camera turns off. Can we talk a bit about the digital intermediary suite and what that is and how that’s a part of your process?
S6: That’s a that’s a huge part of the process. In particular, I find with television, because in television, even a show as immense as Lovecraft, you still have a certain schedule that you really have to stay on episode to episode. You know, you’re only given so many days to shoot an episode, so many days to prep an episode, you have to stay within that framework. So there are times where when I’m on set, if I don’t have the time to physically address something on set, but I know in my mind that I am able to deal with that back in the day, then I will actually let that go a little bit. A perfect example is if there’s a wall in the background that I don’t have the the manpower or the time to grade it down physically where I want it to be.
S4: What do you mean migrate it down? I’m sorry.
S6: Just really cool, for example, you know. If a wall is a perfect example, I run into this from time to time, you know, you’re shooting exterior and in the distance there’s just this enormous wall that it’s four or five, six stops over where you’re shooting this particular scene in the background. So it draws the audience’s eyes to that wall as opposed to where you want the audience eyes to be, which is on your subjects. So but I know in my mind, OK, that wall is a problem, but I’m not going to take the time to deal with it right now. I can deal with that in my color session and I can apply a window that will enable me to break that wall down to the exposure that I want that wall to be at. So it’s things like that where you have to make a decision. And I feel that the way to make that decision is knowing what you’re able to do in your discretion. So and the decision has become very, very powerful. And, you know, the magic that you can pull off and die will save you at times as a cinematographer.
S4: Wow. You know, for our listeners at home who maybe aren’t actively thinking when they’re watching TV and film, you know, about the camera and what the camera is doing and stuff, what should they look for if they want to think about what they’re seeing from the point of view of cinematography?
S6: Well, here’s the thing, like, really, I know what I see when I look at a piece now as a cinematographer, I, I see some of the challenges that that cinematographer must have had when shooting a scene, because I know what is involved. I know what it took to get that look. But a layperson, I don’t know if they would would necessarily understand the inner workings of what it took for that cinematographer to get that look. Now, they can absolutely appreciate the lenses and and how they feel at that moment that they’re seeing that that scene and the color and the information that the cinematographer has chosen to share with them. But as far as the mechanics behind the inner workings, I don’t think they understand that, though.
S4: Right. Do you feel like your knowledge of that mechanics? Has that made the movie watching process more or less enjoyable for you? Is it nice to be able to break it down? Are you constantly anxiety because you’re like that shadowy corner? If only you could get a lighting instrument?
S6: It’s gotten to the point for me where I literally have to watch a show twice now because the first pass is the cinematography pass. The second pass is watching the show and just enjoying the show. You know, the first pass, literally, you can’t really watch a television show because the first pass I’ll pause the show. I’ll do a screen so I can reference and think about like, how did he do that? So you had the first pass. The first time I watch a show is I find that I watch it as the cinematographer. And then the second time I watch a show, then it’s more as like I can just enjoy the show.
S4: Well, Michael Watson, thank you so much for joining us this week on working and talking about your process.
S6: It was an absolute pleasure and I look forward to doing it again. Thank you so much for taking the time to have me on your show.
S1: Isaac, I’m so happy that you asked Michael some of the really technical and basic questions, because those came to my mind, you know, how does the language of the camera move support the conventions of a certain kind of storytelling? Who onset is the person deciding what? Because I don’t know that stuff. And I was really curious to hear about how the sausage is made.
S4: Yeah, I was really excited to get to ask them. And I feel like it’s one benefit of doing this show is that, you know, you can book a guest who’s an expert on something and then ask him your dumb questions and he’ll answer them generously. And, you know, one thing that I really marvel at and this was true in our earlier interview with Brenda, the costume designer for American Pikul, is how many decisions by how many people go into any random three seconds in a movie or TV show. And all of those decisions are interconnected. Character gets realized in costume, the colors of the costume, you know, determine or in a relationship with the lighting, which is in turn in relationship with the camera and on and on and on and on and on. And, you know, that’s one of the really fascinating things is is how many cooks there are in that particular kitchen.
S1: I was really tickled by Michael describing watching something that he didn’t work on and being unable to take off his cinematographer hat, right. That he’s watching and thinking about how a film works and maybe trying to glean something that might inform his own practice. I really admire that, though. I can see how it might get on your nerves if you’re trying to just unwind in front of Hulu.
S4: Yeah, I can imagine you. You just want to sit down. You want to watch the Great and suddenly you’re like the color palette here is really fascinating. Let me go back and rewind it. I get the sense that to him, though, that process is deeply pleasurable and part of the fun, like even though we wouldn’t think of it as relaxing, I feel like the same thing sometimes happens as a writer, though, you know. You know. Do you feel like you compartmentalize between when you’re just kind of reading and then when you’re reading as a critic and then reading to learn craft things as a writer that you might steal for your own work?
S1: Yeah, I do. And it’s funny because this is one of the weirdest conditions of quarantine that I have not yet dealt with, which is that in months previous when I was reading a book that I was going to be writing a review of, I tended to be reading that book on the subway. And so I was kind of sitting up and more attentive. And when I got into bed at the end of the day, the book that I was losing myself in was usually not something I was actively working on until I was reading more for an experience of pleasure. I’m not really taking the subway anymore. I’m not really sitting at cafes or waiting for my kids to get out of school in quite the same way. And so the bulk of my reading happens at night. I’m not yet at the point where I can sort of sit around for two hours in the middle of the day and just read a book. So what happens is I stay up really late reading and I forget to turn on my professional lens and I lose myself in the pleasure of the book. And then I’m like, oh gosh, I’m supposed to be reviewing this book. I have to go back 50 pages and start underlining. I haven’t been paying rigorous attention.
S4: Yeah, I totally feel that. I actually reached a point where because I was feeling under the gun with this book right now, I was like, I actually have to stop doing Pledger reading at night and I need to spend that time on research related books, maybe on the more fun end of the research related like it might be a celebrity memoir, for example. But, you know, that was what I needed to really focus on. I really mourned not being able to just read whatever I want and enjoy it for the last 30 minutes of my day, to be completely honest.
S1: Yeah, I think if you’re a writer, you’re probably a reader. And, you know, if you’re a cinematographer, you’re probably a film buff. And there is something to be said for being able to lose yourself and the pure pleasure of it. Yeah, totally. You know. As always, with this show, I think it’s really fun to steal the lessons from one field and apply them to your own. When Michael was talking about the resolution of conflict or maybe just difference of opinion being rooted in the fact that film is collaborative arts and that the chief interest is in serving the script for the story, I found that really instructive. It really helped me understand what it is to collaborate. You know, it’s almost in the same way that we try to impart to our kindergarteners the importance of sharing, like we need to remember that lesson when we’re working with other people. Well, it means caring, Remon.
S4: I completely agree. And I think that we often, as a culture, don’t like to acknowledge how collaborative the creation of just about anything is. Take books. You and I both write books and those books have our names on the cover. But their collaborative acts, they’re there. We take in feedback from readers. We take in you know, there’s a heavy collaborative process with an editor and with a copy editor. There’s a collaborative process to figure out the jacket art, which actually really impacts people’s reading and interpretation of the book more than we’d probably like to acknowledge. You know, all of that is collaboration. And I do think that collaboration really breaks down when you don’t have a shared understanding of what its purpose is. You know, when I talk to friends who’ve had terrible times with editors or, you know, actors who are terrible times, the director or whatever, it’s actually often because no one has explicitly stated this is the thing we’re working towards and the thing we’re serving. And once that’s explicitly stated, it exists outside of you and is divorced from your ego and you can dedicate yourself to it. And I think that’s really, really important in any kind of collaborative enterprise, whether that’s a PowerPoint deck for your meeting with your boss or an episode of a television show or a novel.
S1: Yeah, I think that’s well said.
S4: I said, oh, thank you. It’s something I think about a lot from from being a theater director, because part of what you do in the first rehearsal is you articulate this is the job, this is what we’re doing, and then you can all kind of work towards that. And actually, I think it’s kind of one of the big, big jobs of being a manager, being in charge, being a director, whatever it is, is actually being able to articulate that stuff. We have a delightful request for advice this week that I was really curious to get your thoughts on remand. So I’m just going to read the email. It comes from a listener named Caitlin and she says, I’m writing because I’m looking to change up my creative practice. This morning I realized, hey, maybe I could incorporate chance as an element of my art experiments from concept to completed work. I feel like it would let me have a break from my brain overthinking everything via limitation and direction. I also think it could make art more about exploring and fun. I’m looking for applying the synonyms of chance, luck, kismet, manifestation the unexpected, anything to the creative process. I’m thinking of practical techniques to spiritual approaches, anything you or your guests can come up with. What do you think? So what do you think, Remon?
S1: This writer does not indicate what medium they work in, which makes this a little harder to answer. But I will say that there is a long tradition of this element of chance in the creation of art, both visually and in writing, which is what I do for a living. I’m thinking of Sheila Heti’s extraordinary book, Motherhood, which came out, I think, a couple of years ago now in which the author writes of Casting the Kitchen, and she’s doing so to try to answer a question for herself about her own life. But there’s a sense that the eating was actually fundamental to the writing of the novel in front of you. I think if you work with words, there are so many ways to do this, I have a set of dice that have words on them and sort of numerals, and sometimes I play with those to land on a particular word. You could do the same thing with, like a magnetic poetry set, right. My own approach to chance is that writing is to discipline, to form, to really thrive for me anyway when chances at play. So what I do is I go with the opposite approach, which is to create exercises that have a lot to do with arbitrary rigor. You have to write a page that has three hundred and thirty three words, for example, or you have to write for twenty two minutes the exact length of an episode of sitcom television. And so you turn the TV on and you play the episode of Friends and you keep it on mute and you start when the when the show begins and you stop when the show ends. So its ways of instituting these false sense of boundary that ultimately are a kind of chance but maybe is different from the kind of liberty that the writer is talking about. What do you think, Isaac?
S4: I completely agree, Ramon and I have the additional challenge of being a nonfiction writer mostly so I always feel like I’m at war with the very dominant left side of my brain. A lot for me involves creating space for inspiration and for the ineffable to kind of strike you, you know, which I think in some ways what your limitations are doing. David Lynch, who does not believe that ideas come from the individual, but rather from a kind of collective unconscious zone that one reaches through meditation. David Lynch talks about this like catching ideas like he’s a fisherman, essentially. And, you know, you go walking, you take a long walk and an idea strikes you. But as soon as you have an idea, you write it down. You try to do something with it, which I think is one way of doing it. But there’s lots of chance operations out there that you can play around with. The etching is one lots of writers have used the teaching. The beats use the etching. Philip K. Dick used the etching. You know, that’s been a really significant influence on American writing since the 1950s. Another one of them is to look up Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, which are very strange. I don’t even know that.
S1: I can say they’re very strange. They’re they’re. Yeah, that is a hard thing to summarize for sure.
S4: But you can actually just look them up. It’s a list of of things for the creation of art. They’re props, but they’re not real props. It’s not like write about your mother using three syllable words. Right. It’s like take the wrong way around. Right. Right. You know, and then you just have to build off of that and you can as as Raimondo’s simply create new ones for yourself. Write whatever it is you could off the top my head, pick up a Bible, you know, like flip to a random passage, put your finger on a word and be like, I’m going to make something about this word. You know, the chance you can find in all sorts of different places, there’s a lot of different ways to kind of throw a bunch of monkey wrenches in your creative process to force you to do something new.
S1: I mean, counterintuitively, I do think that it requires a kind of discipline to identify the kind of chance that you’re going to rely on and that you have to commit to following it wherever it leads you. So if you’re going to do an exercise like I described or the one that you just mentioned, which I think is a very valuable one, another thing I tell my students a lot is to pick up a book you hate and find a sentence from a book that you hated or to find a sentence from the book that you liked and use that as the starting point. And the question inevitably from the student is like, well, as a starting point for what? And the answer is that, like, that’s the whole point of this exercise, is that you I can’t tell you. You have to allow the chance to take over.
S4: I think that’s an absolutely great point. And thank you so much for writing us. And we hope this has been helpful. Let us let us know how it goes.
S3: We hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s show. If you have, please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and you’ll never miss an episode. And yes, I’m going to give you that final slate. Plus Petch Slate. Plus members get benefits like zero ads on their podcasts and bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year. You can get a free two week trial now at Slate that com slash working plus. Thank you so much to Michael Watson and our amazing producer Cameron Drus.
S4: We’ll be back next week with a conversation between June Thomas and the food writer Clancy Miller. Until then, get back to work.
S1: Hey, plus, listeners, we have a little extra treat for you, Isaac and I are going to talk a little more in-depth about what cinematography really is and cite some examples from movies that we love. Isaac, you know, one thing that I heard in this conversation is that there is this very intimate relationship between technical choice and the aesthetic or the emotional effect of a work like a certain kind of film uses the camera to give you a certain kind of feeling. So if you’re watching a horror movie, the camera is one of the tools that is being used to make you feel afraid, that stuff that you might not think about but is really having an effect on you.
S4: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, one of the ones that I think about a lot, I think John Carpenter uses this in Halloween. And then it became a kind of staple of horror films. Is the camera pushing in on an image where nothing is happening, usually on either an object or a closed door, and it gives you this absolute feeling of uncanny dread, even though literally nothing is happening? I mean, the whole point is that nothing is happening. But you feel this kind of filled with dread. And one I’ll admit I just find deeply, deeply pleasurable because I love those paranoid thrillers of the 70s, particularly the ones shot by Gordon Willis, is when they use like a longer lens. So the camera’s at a remove from the actor who’s being observed. They’re using a longer lens and there’s an out of focus object piece of furniture, building cars, something in the foreground which just really instantly creates the feeling that you are eavesdropping on the character or that you might be watching from the point of view of someone else who’s eavesdropping on them. And if you watch the third season of The Wire, they really use this to great effect. Actually, it’s the one season where they do this all the time and almost every dialogue scene is shot like that. And so you constantly feel like you yourself are eavesdropping on these people. It’s really, really effective. And I just find it fun. It’s like every time that shot happens, I’m like, Hello, old friend.
S1: It’s the kind of thing that you don’t necessarily think about in the moment, right? It’s it’s but it’s working its particular magic on you. One of my favorite movies, if not my favorite movie, and this is a complicated one, is Hannah and her sisters, Woody Allen’s film. I think it’s from 1986. There’s an extraordinary scene in this film where Hannah and her sisters are sitting at a round table at lunch. It’s an extremely fraught moment. It’s very short, but the camera spins around them. And so you’re circling around as these three characters are having these three different sort of emotional entanglements with one another. They’re extraordinary performers. That’s Mia Farrow and Barbara Hershey and Diane wheezed. And you really feel like you are sitting at this table with them and that you are seeing these things that are unfolding on their faces and in their words, again, it’s really short, but it’s really dizzying because literally dizzying because the camera’s moving around. But it’s also very moving and it establishes a real intimacy between you, the person watching this thing and these performers pretending to be fake people on screen. It’s kind of an amazing moment.
S4: Yeah. You know, Mark Harris had this thing that he wrote where, you know, one of the reasons why you can’t dismiss, particularly the prime era of Woody Allen’s career just because of the problems of Woody Allen, is that those movies also belonged to his collaborators who are doing such great work, particularly Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton. But it’s also true, the cinematographers he worked with amazing cinematographers during that period, and they they are killing it. I mean, Manhattan’s probably the grossest of those movies from the vantage point of today. It’s also the most beautiful. Gordon Willis is black and white. Cinematography for that film is breathtaking. I wanted to spare a moment, though, for one director who rejects all of this in a very pointed way that has become his aesthetic, the Scandinavian filmmaker Roy Anderson. Have you ever seen his movies? He did this. He has this. Well, his final film is coming out soon. But but he’s announced he’s retiring. But he is did this series of movies, the first one of which was called Songs from the Second Floor, which is one of my favorite films where each scene is this somewhat absurd in a kind of Beckett sense, apocalyptic vignette with some element of surprise in it. But the camera never moves in any of the scenes at the camera’s still watching this kind of almost like a Dutch master painting is what each kind of scene looks like. And there’s often something way in the background that’s happening in something way in the foreground. But the camera in all of songs in the second floor, the camera only moves one time every other time. The entire scene is one really long take with the camera not moving. And there’s something about the kind of rejection of the normal tools of cinematography that makes that, I think, quite appealing.
S1: I mean, I think this is just illuminating for me. That closer study can often be really enriching with your relationship to a work so that when you’re looking at. You know, an Alice Nehal painting, and you’re like, well, how did she make the body fit in relation to me standing in an art gallery looking at it, or you’re looking at those motion pictures and you’re like, how did he create this sense of color without actually betraying the physicality of the brush? That that’s time well spent and it’s time well spent. When you’re thinking about a movie or a television show or anything, I think it deepens your relationship to the work room.
S4: And I think that’s a great point. And I think that’s kind of one of our missions with this podcast is to get to engage with the work in a deeper level by thinking about the way that it is made. And we are so grateful to all of you listening who are Slate plus subscribers who enable us to do that. So thank you again for listening. We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode.