Category Archives: Cinematographers

Cinematographer Guy Pooles’ Intuitive Visual Style

When it comes to movies, the audience always focuses on the actors and plot line, yet there’s one key behind the scenes player who not only captures the entire picture, he also conveys the mood and atmosphere in manner that really puts the entire plot and action across. This, of course, is the cinematographer, an essential contributor to any film and one of the top young guns working behind the camera in 2018 is the talented British-born cinematographer Guy Pooles.

Pooles came to the field through an unlikely conduit, one both poignant and liberating in its unusual nature.

“I’ve always suffered from quite severe dyslexia,” Pooles said. “Growing up, this would make it difficult to consume fiction via the reading of a book. So, films became my primary window into the world of fiction and storytelling. Paired with this fascination for cinema, I also adopted, at a young age, a great love for photography. As both of these interests grew and deepened throughout my life, they slowly evolved to form one entirely consuming fascination with the art and craft of cinematography. I was and continue to be, endlessly amazed at the human ability to tell stories through nothing more than the juxtaposition of images.”

The camera freed Poole from the constraints his condition often imposed and this unusual quality imbues his work with a clarity, vision and overall sense of artistry which really sets him apart. Moreover, Pooles’ approach to cinematography, both as an art and a science, relies on the emotional elements of his assignment, and his ability to blend the aesthetic and technical underscores a uniquely empathic brand of craftsmanship.

“My narrative interests seem to move through all genres, spanning many subject matters, artistic styles and tones,” Pooles said. “I think the one constant that a story I work upon has to possess, is an element of raw human truth. If the film never takes a moment to teach the viewer an emotional truth about his or herself, then I find it very hard to approach the cinematography from an emotional level, and I find it very hard to do my job well.”

Pooles’ always outstanding work is primarily achieved through his own regard for the story and, ultimately, forges an ideal vision of how to present it to the viewer: Case in point, his work on Marko Grujic’s extraordinary short film Unaligned. A tale of unconventional May – December romance between a college student and her one-time female babysitter, Grujic’s story came loaded with exactly the sort of raw psychological components Pooles thrives upon.

“Marko reached out to me after seeing my work on a low-budget web-series called The Ferryman,” Pooles said. “I believe this is because he knew he would require a cinematographer who could execute a complex production without sacrificing the emotive potency of the film’s visual language.”

The director’s instinct was spot-on. “Guy is much more than a common cinematographer,” Grujic said. “He goes deep into the characters psyche and translates it visually on screen with lighting and framing. Guy listens and adjusts to a situation. He understands a director, asks a lot of questions and tries to figure out things from more than one perspective. He is a tremendous talent.”



Although a short, the project presented its fair share of challenges. “The budget of film was very small, as was the crew,” Pooles said. “In light of the scope of the screenplay, it is safe to say that the production was quite ambitious. Our schedule was often so tight that, to fall behind even by few minutes, could result in losing the opportunity to shoot key scenes at the end of each day. Marko and I had to work meticulously with the first Assistant Director to ensure that our plan for the schedule was as watertight as possible and that we were prepared for contingencies, should something go wrong.”

Pooles’ used a shrewd, holistic methodology that took into consideration both the film’s logistical and artistic needs. “My approach to lighting was quite different on this project,” he said. ”I worked hard to keep my lighting set ups as simple as possible, often trying to key a scene off a practical lighting unit already on location. I did this knowing that every minute saved from a lighting standpoint would free up more time for the cast to get the performances that they and Marko were striving for. I was very aware that with a story this intimate and character-driven, it would be very hard for an actor to relax into her or his performance if they were constantly under the gun schedule-wise.”

Thanks to the seamless Pooles-Grujic collaboration, the film was successfully completed and will begin screening along the busy festival circuit later in 2018. For Pooles, who won the American Society of Cinematographers Linwood Dunn Student Heritage Award in 2014 for his work on the short film Dirty Laundry, it’s another step forward in his fast moving journey of professional accomplishment. With a raft of credits both in the camera & electrical department and as a cinematographer (including 5 episodes of TV anthology series Two Sentence Horror Stories), Pooles is poised to emerge as one of the leaders in his field.

“My philosophy has always been, that a viewer should never be able feel the cinematographer’s hand upon a film,” Pooles said. “The visual style can be bold and assertive, but the minute this leads a viewer to dwell upon the strength of the cinematographer’s work, rather than the potency of the storytelling, the entire narrative experience will begin to fall apart. The cinematographers that I admire the most are those whose work remains largely unrecognizable from project to project and who guide a viewer, almost subliminally, along the emotional path of a film.”




Jose Andres Solorzano was looking for work that has a greater sense of adventure. He already had a very successful career at Red Bull Mexico Headquarters but wanted to pursue his career as a filmmaker full time. Although he had experience as a cinematographer he had never taken the full plunge. Feeling that the fortune smiles on those who take the risk, he quit his safe day job and ended up getting more risk than he had imagined or hoped for. Within a very short time he received a phone call from Argentina. Hernan Vilchez, famed documentary director, was looking for someone to cover the gathering of the traditional government of the Huichol Nation on top of their most sacred mountain. The Huichol were discussing a situation with a Canadian mining company that involved one of their most sacred sites. Without skipping a beat Solorzano was in, beginning what would become a three-year-long journey which would include escaping from armed drug cartels, witnessing ritual sacrifices, and often find him alone in nature without protection from its brutality. If Jose were not so busy filming a documentary about the Huichol it would be fascinating to watch one about his own epic experience as DP for “Huicoles: The Last Peyote Guardians.”

“Be careful what you ask for.” is a highly appropriate description of this period in Jose’s life. For three years he travelled some of the most remote areas of Mexico, sometimes alone and often at great risk. At times being around other people posed more danger than the forces of nature. It’s fitting that the Huichol and such a spiritual and enigmatic people; it’s an apt description of Solorzano’s experience as DP working with Hernan Vilchez on this documentary. Hernan sent Jose to the Huichol traditions government gathering on top of the Cerro del Quemado. He was so convinced by what Solorzano captured (by himself) that he immediately extended the project into a feature documentary. Due to Hernan’s permanent residency in Argentina, he often sent his trusted DP out by himself to get the footage he required. The belief of this celebrated director was both confidence building and demanding.

“Huicoles: The Last Peyote Guardians” follows the Ramirez family trough their sacred pilgrimage to Wirikuta, the place where they connect with their gods and gather peyote in order to talk to them. The documentary portrays at the same time the cosmogony of the Huichol culture and their fight against foreign mining companies that are trying to create an open sky mining in their most sacred territory. This natural protected area known to them as Wirikuta is the most biodiverse desert in the world for cactus plants. The documentary tells the point of view of the Ramirez family and the Huichol culture but also presents the point of view of the mining companies and the mestizo population of that area, presenting a dialogue to all the parts that create the complex problem of mining in this region of Mexico. The members of the Ramirez family are introduced on camera as we learn about them, their history, culture, and this pilgrimage that is intrinsic to the relationship they have with their gods. We also see the inhabitants of the Wirikuta, a very poor region of Mexico in great need of the work resources that could be brought by the oil company. The documentary tries to balance both points of view, allowing the audience to make their own decision.

The journey of the Ramirez family and the documentary start in Laguna Seca, Jalisco and it finishes on the top of their most sacred mountain, the Cerro del Quemado (Mountain of the burned one). Jose created a visual language for the film based on his director’s desire to be very realistic but also communicate the aesthetic of the sojourn. The method which both director and DP agreed upon was the use of time lapse photography as a recurring resource for this language. Time lapse allowed for the portrayal of these amazing locations in an unconventional way. This technique allows the audience to witness with an altered perception of time and movement normally unseen by the human eye. Time lapse allowed for this film to show the stark contrast of natural terrain and topography versus machines and other manmade objects. Of course, it also magnifies the viewer’s understanding of the mysticism and magic the Huichol feel connected with.

Remote locations without electricity, the middle of the desert, tops of mountains, the depths of mines, etc., were some of the many challenging factors which Solorzano was confronted with in his work on this production. The absence of running water or a sewer system can be navigated but cameras without electricity cannot be dealt with the same way. Solar power mats, power inverters that ran off car batteries, and gear which utilized less power in general were all a part of the required package for the cameras. Extreme heat, cold, and pervasive dust exacerbated the complications of running even a small amount of production gear. Jose concedes that it was the Huichol themselves who enabled him to survive due to their knowledge of navigating this perilous journey. Professing the constitution of these people he recalls, “We had been shooting a ceremony in the bottom of a valley and we needed to carry all the gear down the mountain to this sacred place. They sacrificed a cow and had a ceremony. After shooting the ceremony we needed to walk back to their village on top of the mountain. There was a moment when my legs couldn’t go any further. I was literally crawling and couldn’t keep on going. Hernan was still going forward and while in pain he kept a good attitude on every step of this way up. Near the end some of the women in the family grabbed my back pack and tripod and helped me to finish the way back to the village.”

Jose Andres Solorzano went looking for change and he found it. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that he helped to make it.  “Huicoles: The Last Peyote Guardians.” had a premier tour that visited many different venues, two of which were a part of the Huichol nation territory. Thousands lined up outside the theater in Guadalajara to see the documentary under the rain in Mexico City, a strong indicator for any premier. This feature documentary garnered more than 11 different awards at international festivals. The effect on the Huichol and those who viewed their story is public, the lasting meaning on Solorzano has been much more private until now. He reveals, “For me, this documentary changed my life and how I live it. Before starting to work on this production I came from doing a lot of actions sports content for brands like Red Bull and Vans. This content was really fun to shoot but I was missing something. ‘Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians’ took me back to my interests of trying to shape a better society with my craft. It also helped me understand a unique culture that is still alive in my country, the Huichol nation. With the understanding of their cosmogony it also opened my eyes to my interest in learning more from my roots and the different native indigenous cultures that are still alive in Mexico. If I had to choose the most memorable part of this production for me, it would be all the knowledge I gained and the people I knew in the road. That is a really interesting difference between narrative and documentary film. In a narrative film you are trying to create a world in order to portray an idea or message. In a documentary film you are trying to grasp that knowledge from other people and circumstances and at the end of the movie, you have changed because of all of that you have learned. Documentary filmmaking changes the filmmakers and the audience. At least, that is what it should do in my estimation. I believe that after three years of going to the desert and the different Huichol communities, I became a completely different person. The old Jose Andres died in the desert in one of those adventures when I rolled from a mountain or maybe when the drug cartels stopped us. One thing is for certain, without this movie I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

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Filmmaking is All About the Beauty of Collaboration for DP Olesia Saveleva

Cinematographer Olesia Saveleva
Director Joshua Amar and DP Olesia Saveleva on set of “Steady Eddie”

The filmmaking process is arguably one of the best examples of a group of people collaborating across multiple departments in order to bring a single vision to life. Turning the initially ‘invisible’ vision of the director into a visible story that viewers around the world can experience is a massive undertaking, and though the role of every department is integral to the finished work, the relationship between a director and their cinematographer is one of the most vital.

Esteemed cinematographer Olesia Saveleva says that, for her, “the collaboration part of filmmaking is one of the most interesting and attractive parts of filmmaking.” She adds, “You never know how the dialogue with the director and other principal team members will go. I love when there is trust and honesty. I love when everybody is sharing ideas and I love when a director hears all the suggestion and takes a lead in making decisions.”

As the proverbial ‘eyes of the director,’ the cinematographer has to first understand the director’s vision, and then use their creativity and technical skill to translate that vision into what we ultimately see on screen. One of the things that has made Olesia Saveleva such a successful and sought after cinematographer in the film world is her ability to understand what the directors she works with envision for their project.

Earlier this year Saveleva wrapped production on Joshua Amar’s (“Velvet Waterfalls,” “Billy the Kid”) dramatic film “Steady Eddie,” which was chosen as an Official Selection of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival where it premiered in November.

Starring Robert Daniel Sloan (“How I Met Your Mother,” “Bad Teacher,” “Sinister 2”), Gabriel Sousa (“Mad Men,” “Growing Up Immigrants”) and Shawn Lockie (“Criminal Minds”) “Steady Eddie” tells the story of Jesse (Robert Daniel Sloan), a young boy who, fearing his autistic older brother Ed (Gabriel Sousa) will die in battle, takes Ed to their father’s cabin in the wilderness in hopes of getting him to avoid the Vietnam War draft.

“In this project we wanted to stay in the perspective of the young brother, so we are much closer to him,” explains Saveleva.

In order to bring the audience closer to Jesse, Saveleva made sure that each scene in the film included both a shot from his point of view and one of him and his reactions, which helps viewers to identify with what he is feeling. From the lighting, which helped to transport the audience to the 1960s when the film takes place, to the decision to initially keep a portion of the frame out of focus in some shots, which directs the viewer’s attention to a specific area, Saveleva’s extraordinary work as the cinematographer of the film was key in making “Steady Eddie” a highly cinematic and visually gripping story.

Out of all of her productions to date Saveleva marks “Steady Eddie” as one of her top favorites. She explains, “It was the smoothest and the most pleasant set. And we had a very creative, responsible and collaborative team. The production of this film was the best in terms of organization, and I had the best director and producer. Everybody was on top of their jobs so we got everything we needed.”

As a cinematographer Saveleva is also known for her work on films such as Jorge S. Pallas’ “In Girum Imus Nocte,” which earned the Award of Recognition from the 2016 IndieFEST Film Awards, the comedy film “The Worst People at the Party,” the crime film “Brothers,” “X & Y” and the recently released drama “Immigrant Brothers.”

About working with Saveleva, Olga Solodukhina, the director of the film  “X & Y,” says, “It is a very fruitful collaboration. She bring a lot of ideas to the table. Olesia pays a lot of attention to the details. As a cinematographer she is very good with composition and designing camera movements. But also she collaborates closely with the production designer and costume designer.”

While she has undoubtedly made a powerful mark through her work as the cinematographer on a diverse range of narrative films, she’s also lent her unparalleled skill to countless music videos. Most recently she worked with artists Julia Proskuryakova, Elena Esenina and Maxim Galkin as the cinematographer on their music video for the hit Russian song “I’m a Mother,” which was released in October and has garnered extensive attention from media outlets across Russia. The music video, which already has over 377,000 views on YouTube, follows two fed up housewives who get tired of doing everything for their family and getting no appreciation from their husbands so they decide to break free and have some fun.

From the way she zeros in on the intricately arranged food and shows only the housewife’s hands, which gives the sense that she is more of a servant than a person, to the following framing, which makes it feel as though she is trapped within four walls, Saveleva’s composition in the opening scenes perfectly supports the story. Through her camera movements, such as slowing down over a stack of plates as they shatter on the ground, signaling that the housewife is ready to break free, to the way she speeds up the shots and keeps the camera traveling once the women have reclaimed their freedom, Saveleva used her seasoned skill to set the pace of the video.

Thanks to her extensive experience in the field, Saveleva’s technical skill is so on point that she has the capacity to get creative with her director when it comes time to shoot instead of being fixated on sticking to one plan.

She explains, “When I plan a shoot thoroughly with a director we kind of get on the same wavelength. So that when we come on set we are both flexible to change shots and be creative because we are still on the same wavelength.”

At the end of the day filmmaking is all about collaboration; and a strong collaborative relationship between a director and cinematographer is one that often continues over the course of each of their career, with the two joining forces again and again to make magic on screen. And for Olesia Saveleva, that is precisely the kind of relationship she looks for in the people she works with.

“I want to find one or several directors who I collaborate well with and make many projects together. The collaboration part excites me the most because I believe in synergy. The better I know the director, the faster the decision making is happening. We trust each other in making creative decisions and we can challenge each other with ambitious plans. I believe that in those collaboration processes the strongest movies are being made.”

Calvin Khurniawan on the impressionistic art of cinematography

There is an age old saying that tells us “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For many different art forms, these words could not be truer. For instance, by nature, the art of cinematography is entirely subjective. What may appeal to one person, may disinterest another. What you consider beautiful, your peer may deem hideous. It all amounts to the different ways in which individuals perceive the world. In order to succeed as a cinematographer, therefore, an artist must be able to speak to multiple different audiences at once. They need to understand how to channel the vast array of emotions, thoughts, and experiences that life has to offer into their medium of choice. They require a different kind of creativity and they must use it to entertain audiences of all different sizes. They need to see the world the way that Calvin Khurniawan does and once they do, they need to share their artistry with people from all walks of life, challenging them to see their surroundings in new lights.

“It seems obvious, but if you ask ten different painters to paint a tree, you’ll wind up with ten different styles of paintings of the same tree. It truly comes down to an artisanal approach. No other cinematographer would be able to replicate and do the same thing as the other, even with the same material to focus on. Everyone will light and place the camera differently. For that reason, I would say that cinematography is an impressionistic art. It makes my job all the more enjoyable because I get to determine how I’d like to tell a story and then I get to bring it to life,” told Khurniawan.

Khurniawan’s unwavering passion for filmmaking extends back as early as his childhood and his perspective derives from years of immersing himself in the arts. At a young age, Khurniawan’s father allowed him to use the family camera to take photographs of their vacation and he became addicted to the feeling of seeing his photos once he had them developed. He began to notice the different ways to manipulate an image he’d like to depict and loved the depth of emotions he could capture. It wasn’t until he began taking videos with his first ever mobile phone that he realized how intrigued he was by filmmaking. From there, he never looked back. His work as a photographer and cinematographer has landed him success with a number of films, many of which he ended up winning awards. For instance, Khurniawan’s film Alchemist won Best Student Film at festivals like the Around the World International Festival, the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and more. His other films, such as Antifilm and Kudeta, have also earned Official Selections at a number of prestigious festivals, as well as praise from his peers. He is a force to be reckoned with in the filmmaking industry and he has no plans of stopping any time soon.

In July of this year, Khurniawan collaborated with fashion guru Peggy Hartanto to bring Kudeta to life. The film juxtaposes modern choreography with modern fashion as it portrays Hartanto’s finesse in the fashion industry. The simplicity of her design doesn’t simply translate as modern, but rather it signifies a daring take on modern wear. Essentially, the basic idea of the film was to dress female warriors in dresses and present them like they hadn’t ever been seen before. It created an anti-thesis to fashion film and Khurniawan is drawn to the idea of bringing unexpected notions to life before his audiences. Prior to filming, however, Khurniawan was apprehensive given the amount of VFX shots that he would need to create. Rather than succumbing to the pressure, he dedicated every fiber of his being to learn how to use VFX to the best of his abilities and the result was profound. In fact, his mastery of VFX and his eye for filmmaking made him an instrumental key to the film’s success.

“It was truly challenging at first because I knew there were going to be a lot of VFX shots, but I trained and I took my time to understand the tools. I stayed up all night prior to each shoot in order to prepare so that I could be confident that I would capture the best content as possible,” recalled Khurniawan.

Another of Khurniawan’s favorite aspects of his profession is getting to collaborate with other top artists in the industry. For Kudeta, Khurniawan was fortunate enough to work with Hartanto and explore the world of modern fashion. He was also able to work with other designers and film enthusiasts on set. For instance, Kudeta’s production designer, Indrianty Lihardinata was humbled by the experience of working with Khurniawan for the film. Most artists who work with him are taken aback by the caliber of professionalism and expertise that he brings to the table when he works. According to Lihardinata, in fact, Khurniawan was the ideal combination of professional and enjoyable to create with.

“My favorite part about working with Calvin is his willingness to spend time with key departments to discuss the different aspects of the film. Kudeta was a fun one because it is a high-speed fashion film and so he would shoot everything in a high frame rate to accentuate the movement of the dancers. He is the coolest person to work with because he would take the time to frame every minor detail to ensure that it had a strong “wow” factor,” emphasized Lihardinata.

In all, Khurniawan takes great pride in the content he created for Kudeta. For this reason, he was even more pleased when Kudeta earned the recognition that it did so early on in its festival run. It was chosen as an Official Selection at both Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival in Florida, as well as the Short to the Point Festival in Bucharest and will likely go on to inspire even more audiences as time progresses. In the meantime, the esteemed cinematographer is excited to try his hand at creating a documentary. He believes that it will allow him to exercise his instinct as opposed to allowing technical elements to dominate his content. Stay tuned for more.


Photo by Joshua Kang

Ismaël Lotz on the honor of working alongside his childhood idols

Ismaël Lotz

When Ismaël Lotz looks back on his inspiration to pursue a career as a Director of Photography, Lotz recounts a unique combination of motivators. He recalls watching television and films with his father as a child. In fact, at the mere age of 7, Lotz saw E.T., and it was his first time seeing a film on the big screen. He was left in complete and utter awe, eager to see many more films just like it. After E.T., came films like Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. Eventually, he began experimenting with photographs and with shooting film on an 8mm camera. Even at a young age, he was confident that he could build a future out of his passion. His fascination with telling these gripping stories through different lighting techniques, filming methods, and sound styles opened an endless amount of possibilities and creative outlets for him to channel his artistry. He promised himself that one day, he would produce films that audiences would love the way he loved films like Back to the Future. Little did he know, he would one day work with the actors who crafted these stories before his eyes; however, today, instead of being his idols, these actors are also his equals.

Over the course of his career, Lotz has built himself into a highly sought-after Director of Photography in the arts and entertainment industry. His creative process typically begins when he assesses the story of a script and determines which style of film would best suit its inherent messages, moods, emotions, and atmospheres. Once he develops a vision for the script, he works tirelessly to ensure that he brings it to life in such a way that honors every element of the writer’s vision. Lotz distinguishes himself by his ability to capture every detail of a storyline, no matter how large or small. In his free time, he researches and experiments different filming techniques used by other directors of photography to master new techniques and broaden his range of abilities in order to enhance his skill set for the better of his future projects. In fact, in 2016, he had the unique opportunity to test his hand at filming a documentary called I Am Famous, featuring the life of Tom Wilson.

After he developed the idea of I Am Famous, Lotz was extremely excited about the opportunity to work with an actor that he had admired and idolized ever since he was a child. Wilson, who played the infamous role of Biff in Back to the Future, built an entertaining comedy reel out of his experiences after Back to the Future stormed the film industry. His role was so well known and vehemently disliked by audiences across the globe that he became accustomed to strangers approaching him and saying, “I hate you!” For I Am Famous, Lotz was not only the Director of Photography, but also the film’s sole director and editor. His personal approach to shooting the documentary allowed him to unveil Wilson’s true self. Being able to get to know one of the actors who inspired Lotz to become a Director of Photography was an opportunity unlike anything else he had ever encountered. He worked tirelessly to ensure that the final product of the project was nothing short of perfect.

“The way I create documentaries is very close and personal. I think the closer you can get to your subject, the more honest and real you can present them in your film. I like getting close to my subject on an intellectual level, but also with my camera. The result of I Am Famous was more than I could have ever dreamt. It turned out to be very successful,” told Lotz.

On the other side of the camera, Wilson was extremely humbled by the project. He doesn’t often allow for filmmakers to tap into his personal journeys; however, he felt that he could trust Lotz to portray him in an honest, organic light. He developed a confidence in Lotz that allowed him to feel at ease on camera and that allowed Lotz to challenge him to open himself up before his audience. When Wilson agreed to the project, he had no idea that he would be so moved by the final product and he felt that it was a distinct pleasure to be able to experience working with such a well-established Director of Photography.

“Working with Ismaël was a pleasure, as he is kind, easy to collaborate with, and keeps his humanity of the utmost importance – which is sometimes a rarity in filmmaking. His friendly demeanor makes a fine foundation for his skills as a cinematographer and director who gets things done. His knowledge of the technical demands that underlie the complex technologies of filmmaking are at the highest professional level and he has proven that with a long list of impressive professional work. In my almost forty years of filmmaking, I must say that Ismaël combines the essential ingredients for a successful filmmaker; a high level of technical skill, a deep commitment to the art of cinematography, and the personal character that makes for a solid and lasting success,” noted Wilson.

I Am Famous premiered in 2017 on ShortCutz Festival in Amsterdam. It went on to screen successfully at a number of subsequent film festivals such as the Miami Independent Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Awards, New York Film Awards, Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards, and many more. Knowing the film has done this well so early on in its screening life is a testament to Lotz’ prowess as a Director of Photography. He is motivated to explore the possibility of creating a follow up film.

For anyone aspiring to follow in Lotz’ footsteps, he cautions them to remain honest to themselves and to their environment. He understands that in his field, it is imperative to create as much as possible. With that, will come mistakes and ultimately, learning opportunities. By watching the work of other cinematographers, you can learn new techniques and gain an appreciation for all of the different styles present in the industry. The learning never stops and maybe one day, up-and-coming cinematographers will get to work with their idols and perfect their craft as Lotz has done in his remarkable career.


Director Nikki Ormerod wanted to use her background in still photography as an inspiration for the film “If” which celebrated the differences in human beings. She wanted the most basic of presentations in order to focus all attention upon the individuals presented onscreen. She had long desired to work with cinematographer Stuart Campbell and was pleased when he consented. The resulting film was an official selection of the Ottawa Film Festival (2016) and earned Campbell a nomination for Best Dramatic Cinematography from the Canadian Society of Cinematographers. The most fitting description for the film would be classic. “If” is streamlined and yet possesses a massive emotional impact. If (no pun intended) the desire of Ormerod and Campbell was to exhibit the corporal form and communicate the essence of our connective substance, goal soundly achieved!

Most directors hope to capture a performance that is believable. In her film “If” Ormerod wanted to simply capture the beauty and complexity of what is already in existence. The desire was to manifest a “filmic version” of the type of photography that interested her most. The soul of the individuals onscreen should be visible and instantly relatable to the audience. Nikki knew Stuart’s work and knew that he understood how to capture the correct moments to exhibit this. She confirms, “Stuart elevated the film to levels of quality I had never thought possible. ‘If’ is a very simple film that centers purely on showing the faces of a variety of individuals from different walks of life. Considering the static nature of the shots, it was necessary to have a cinematographer that could think beyond just shooting beautiful photography and instead capture thoughtful, conceptual, and cinematic imagery that delved much deeper, which is exactly why Stuart was the only man for the job. Based on my initial idea, Stuart brilliantly introduced the idea of incorporating slow motion shots and poetic narration to the film to help support the idea and visuals, which I must say was a stroke of pure genius. The slow motion shots and use of black and white photography created strong rhythmic and timeless imagery.”


Working together, director and cinematographer created a visual statement which communicates a unifying vision of community; one which literally shows how we are all the same regardless of age, sex, race, religion, and other factors…because we all feel the same emotions. The Rudyard Kipling poem supplies the verbiage which tells this but the imagery packs the punch of this idea. Within mere seconds of viewing those onscreen, one can see the same desires, hopes, and motivation in an outwardly eclectic yet inwardly cohesive group.

The sincerity and simple beauty of Nikki’s idea for the film spoke so loudly to Campbell that he offered up a streamlined and simple approach to the camera’s view. In its singular manner, the cinematography of “If” established the ability of the audience to focus on the individuals seen on the screen rather than a variety of framing, lenses, and other technical processes that Stuart could have used. There’s no shortage of technology available to use on a film these days. Drones, Go Pros, and other technological gadgets enable a cinematographer to create a myriad of different looks for their work. Stuart explains, “Some prefer to have a lot of toys at their disposal so they have options while they’re shooting. I prefer to figure out what needs to be done and focus in on that and get the gear that is needed. Different jobs have different needs. Some jobs you really do need to have two, three, four cameras around because that’s what’s appropriate for the job and what you need to cover. Personally, I love one camera jobs because it allows me to shoot everything the way that I think it needs to be shot. Controlling? Maybe, but everyone is different and everyone sees the world differently. Someone else may not shoot something the same way I would. And sometimes things come up where you need to adjust and roll with what’s happening. There’s no guarantee that someone else will react the same way.”


There’s something to the idea that a great cinematographer gets inside the brain of the director they are working with. If the cinematographer is the eyes of the project, the director is most certainly the mind and heart of it. Campbell contributed more than just the images seen in “If” because he “got” Ormerod. Nikki’s original idea was to have music, vague & droning instrumental tracks to accompany the people seen onscreen but after prompting from Stuart and some research, the Kipling poem was added and gave a whole new dimension to the film. That poem was written for Kipling’s son as a piece of paternal advice. It gives general conditions to succeed in achieving a happy & beautiful life. If everyone lived by similar “rules” the world would be a much different place, and potentially a much happier one.

One very obvious and complementary part of Campbell’s contributions to “If” is the use of slow motion. The gravitas of the imagery in the film, coupled with the poem by Rudyard Kipling, are enhanced by the calculated lethargy of the movements seen in the film as a result of this. This grants the viewer the ability to hang on every person, every frame, every emotion, fully supporting the idea and experiment of a “moving photograph”, as was the director’s original desire. Stuart confirms, “The slow motion was a very clear way to allow the viewer to really take in the emotion that the subject was giving out. Like a photograph, the longer you have to sit with something, the more story comes out of it. It was an opportunity to let the viewer take their time and experience the visuals along with what was being said in the poem. The film is an emotional piece and sometimes it’s best to just take your time with things. Using slow motion also gave us an opportunity to make some emotions mean more by speeding them up or picking a speed somewhere in between. Shooting in slow motion just gives you options and lets you bring some more drama to what you’re shooting (sometimes).”


Stuart Campbell is known for getting amazing results with an often very basic camera set up. While he is quite comfortable with the updates that technology’s cutting edge offers up, it’s because this cinematographer is so committed to story and connecting with the essence of a production that he often uses a very limited set of tools for himself. It’s via this “primary” approach that Campbell feels he is able to more sincerely communicate the essential ideas that the storyteller wishes to impart. It’s Stuart Campbell’s contention that more tools do not make one more skilled, rather it’s by using the tools you have when they are called upon that empowers one to honestly communicate the essential idea of any story.


Anyone who has been in a long distance relationship will relate to the film “Distance.” Whether it’s romantic or platonic, being separated from those you love is difficult, particularly when you are on opposite sides of the planet. To communicate the feeling in images, director Haixiao Lu enlisted Ruixi Gao to take the helm as cinematographer. Based on her previous work in productions like Last Call, Locked, Under the Pieces, and others, Lu was confident that Ruixi could deliver the sentiment and creativity he was looking for; a notion that was proven correct when “Distance” earned wins at the 2017 Hollywood Film Competition, the LA Shorts Awards, and the NYC Indie Film Awards (earning the Best Short Film). Gao is justifiably proud of the look of the film. What it lacked in big budget financing, Ruixi made up for in creativity, tenacity, and good old fashioned hard work; it’s a situation she often prefers as it requires her to prove her ability to deliver an exemplary product regardless of the monetary factor. The slick look and beautiful vibe of the film belie any struggle to make it. While the storyline of “Distance” may be painful and the process of making it hard fought, watching the film is completely effortless and enjoyable.

The perennial theme of the movie is love, in particular a long distance relationship between young lovers. While in China, a young Korean girl meets a boy and the fall in love. When her love goes to study in LA she is understandably heartbroken. They go about living separate lives while still in the relationship. While it is difficult, they FaceTime every day. Inevitably the spacial distance and their busy lives take a toll, creating an emotional space between them. With a grand romantic gesture to surprise him, the girl flies to LA but finds him in the embrace of another woman. In a letter, she tells the boy that the memory of their love will endure but the relationship cannot, at least it cannot for her. In the final frames we see the two former lovers returning to the places they were in the beginning of the film but appearing changed. While this story is not new, the way it is communicated is done with such grace and beauty that it elicits a transcendent beauty and pain which cause it to be markedly different than similar films that preceded it.

While many filmmakers romanticize over the days of actual film, Gao feels that the digital age has empowered many cinematographers to create a higher quality of imagery in films within greater time and budget constraints. Even more, the transition from film to digital has allowed DPs to create looks previously impossible. The result is the transition to a new age of a more realistic sensory experience, a richer color screen, and new innovation opportunities. Rather than a detriment, Ruixi considers the advantages of digital to be a powerful tool to be used in the appropriate manner. That said, she is fond of using an analog methodology when it is called for…as she did with an important aspect of “Distance.” When the director (Haixiao) told Gao he wanted to have a split screen simultaneously showing the male character in LA and the Female in Korea, Ruixi experimented with different ways of achieving this for the film. She reveals, “It’s always a challenge when you want to achieve the look of a big budget film on a smaller budget but I honestly feel that there is no substitute for being creative. I studied and researched a lot of different methods for doing a split screen. I did camera test before the shooting and then showed the director my experimental video. I simply covered up half camera’s screen(monitor) and then combined the two in post-production, placing one on the bottom. Together they made a perfect complete picture. There are many ways to shoot. Working with the editor gives a variety of means to achieve the effects needed for this.”

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While the filming was done in one city, it was Ruixi’s job to make sure that the main characters appeared to be in locations on opposite sides of the planet. The moods of the boy and the girl would also need to be passively communicated to relate the emotional mood of the characters. Gao used a simple lighting design for the film with low key lighting and a soft filter for the Korean girl and a somewhat more revealing and higher key lighting for the boy in Los Angeles. Gao professes that a simple design is typically the stronger one in her estimation, which director Haixiao Lu agrees with. He notes, “Anyone who has seen Ruixi’s reel will attest to how attractive it is. She has this innate ability to find the natural beauty in all things, which is always the most honest and powerful when it comes to visual imagery. I did not hesitate to seek her out to be the DP on this film once I saw the reel. She really knows how to work with a director. She is a passionate artist and working with her is exciting because of this. Talent such as hers is rare.”

Ruixi Gao is a reminder to all in the film community that embracing a “hands on” approach to innovation can mean using traditional tools or the most advanced ones available. The only rule that is important in art is the constant pursuit of it. The form is elevated by those who take risks and follow their own muse. While Gao may have learned from others, she forges ahead with an open mindedness that serves her and those she works alongside well. The pain that one feels when watching “Distance” would not be as intense and ironically enjoyable without the look this cinematographer has created for us.