Saif Al-Sobaihi: A Cinematographer with an Eye for Story and Success

Saif Al-Sobaihi
Cinematographer Saif Al-Sobaihi

Cinematographers are instrumental figures in the filmmaking process. In the past it was the actors, and occasionally their director, whose names were remembered by the public; but there is a growing list of creative cinematography auteurs who are are finally receiving their due praise for their contributions to the film industry.

Cinematographers need to possess the ability to blend technical practicality with specific artistry. They both employ and manipulate lighting, shot angles, close-ups, color and have to guide camera operators and gaffers to create moving pictures that present the visual story to an audience in such a way that goes beyond simply ‘looking impressive.’ Cinematographers create images that drive emotional responses from audiences and ensure a film takes a place in the cultural framework.

Saif Al-Sobaihi is one such example of a cinematographer whose crucial role in the construction of films like “El Circo” and “Pinwheel” has helped create striking visual sequences, and he’s built an excellent reputation amongst his peers as a consequence. Indeed, the foreign filmmaker received praise and an Emmy Southeast Award for his cinematography work with “El Circo,” while “Pinwheel” gave Saif an opportunity to showcase themes around true love.

El Circo
Film Poster for “El Circo”

When discussing “El Circo,” Saif recounts how it “was pitched to me by…the Salvadorian director Jose Pablo Ramirez. I really enjoyed reading the script and the values Pablo wanted to capture. It was certainly one of the most joyful sets I’ve worked on.”

“El Circo” director Jose Pablo Ramirez is a renowned filmmaker who’s also known for his work on “The Astronaut’s Son” which starred Megan Mazzoccone, who’s known for the TV series “The Buzz.”

“El Circo” concerns a circus clown, Charles, who invites three audience members on stage to assist him with his final act. Invoking the spirit of his predecessor, Charles tries to teach his audience a thing or two about one’s self, family and the power of laughter. Saif recounts how he used his expertise to showcase the character’s dual personalities – Charles, the good side, and Stupidus, the evil side.

An actor might do that with shifts in mannerisms, a costume designer might do that with different wardrobe pieces – but Saif discusses how he achieved this goal with “subtle changes in camera compositions.” He elaborates, “For Charles I chose angles that were predominantly eye level, and for Stupidus I chose to use slightly tighter shots. The emotional impact that I wanted to achieve with Charles is that his personality is still in the comfort zone of the audience.”

“For Stupidos, I chose to shoot some intimidating angles like I mentioned ‘in your face.’ I chose lower angles and close ups to ECU shots. Stupidos breaks the 4th wall in some of the shots and look straight into the viewer’s eyes. His personality is confusing and unclear, so I encouraged my focus puller to intentionally miss his focus marks on some of Stupidos shots. That way we were visually showing the audience that he is [abnormal] and doesn’t follow the rules.”

Such a detailed explanation proves Saif’s specific understanding of shot composition and his expert-level cinematographic skills being crucial to the development of the story in “El Circo.”

Saif’s expert level knowledge is also evident when discussing “Pinwheel” and how he shot the project. “We shot ‘Pinwheel’ with the Arri Alexa SXT (camera) [and] Cooke S4/i Primes (lenses)… There were a lot of camera and dolly movements; my camera operator Ryan Hance and the hardworking dolly grips were on the same page all of the time, and that made everything so much smoother.”

That project was directed by Francesca Crichton, well known for her project “Jamil Houston: Make it Last,” which starred Sebastian Condor (“When I was Younger”).

Saif’s down-to-earth attitude has clearly also been a crucial factor in developing his distinguished career. Unlike actors, who build their reputations through associating their face with big studios or other famous actors, a cinematographer like Saif has crafted his career through working with top-level companies like Sony, Viacom and PopSugar.

In addition, Saif also has enjoyed spending time on set with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Zac Efron while working on blockbuster films like “Baywatch” for Paramount Pictures.

All of these accomplishments are not surprising, but Saif is very humble about the strong start he had in the industry. These auspicious beginnings were obviously a sign of a distinguished career to come.  

“My first ‘real’ gig as a cinematographer was for the Swedish singer Peg Parnevik for her music video ‘We Are,’ which we shot in Florida. It was later picked up by Sony Music. I was nervous, of course, and wanted to meet so many expectations. My crew and I made some mistakes, but we learned from them and had so much fun shooting this project.”

 

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