READ MORE: 14 Films We Cannot Wait to See at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival
Tom Hurwitz is one of the most honored cinematographers working in nonfiction today, having won two Emmys, a Best Cinematography Award at Sundance (“The Queen of Versailles”) and having photographed films that have won four Academy Awards.
On “Nothing Left on Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper,” he works with newly minted Oscar nominee Liz Garbus (“What Happenned, Miss Simone?”) to capture the expansive life of Gloria Vanderbilt, a member of one of America’s most storied families and the mother of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.
What camera did you use? We shot with the Canon C-300 and, for 90% of the film, my large set of Canon EF lenses, zooms and primes. Occasionally we used other primes, like Cineprimes, or Ultra Primes.
Why was this the right camera kit for the job? Our work on this film went from complicated two-person interview setups, which had to be beautifully composed, carefully lit and look rich in color and contrast; to intimate cinéma vérité work with old people in tight and delicate locations. The size and ergonomics of the C-300 were just what we needed. This was also a film that was about art, so the beautiful color reproduction of the Canon system was ideal.
What was the biggest challenge in shooting this movie? And how did you pulled it off? This is a film about a woman with an extraordinary life, filled with creativity and love, but also terrible pain and loss. These areas are covered in dialogue scenes as well as interviews. Making beautiful and expressive images, but allowing the truth of the interactions of our subjects to take place without intrusion or interruption, is always a documentary challenge. Here we were able to work with a small crew, really skilled in the documentary arts. It helped us to maintain a warm and unobtrusive environment when we had to.
Of all your training and schooling what one experience made you the cinematographer you are today? I had the opportunity to apprentice and learn my craft from some greats. However, when I was just starting out, I worked on a syndicated television series, “Big Blue Marble,” making short documentaries about children all over the world. I would be dropped into, say Zambia, and have to write, produce, and shoot a 12 to 24 minute film with my crew, in a short time, and then move on to the next story. I had to learn a culture, find an interesting story, relate to new young kids, make beautiful images. It was a baptism of fire, but it prepared me for a life shooting documentaries.
What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer? Is film school a good place to start? In narrative or documentary, our job is first and foremost to tell stories. Technique and design are important, of course, but so is an understanding and knowledge of the world, its history and its culture. If possible, I would advise someone looking to start a life as a cinematographer to get a liberal arts undergraduate education, then go on to film school. The two great things about film school, and I teach in one, are that you develop a peer group with whom you can network for the rest of your working life; and that you are in an environment where you can try things and fail, with limited jeopardy. These are two huge benefits.
Who is your favorite cinematographer, and why? That is almost an impossible question. And my answer changes among a group of heroes of mine, depending on when you ask me. This year, my answer is Haskell Wexler. He was a consummate cameraman who knew how to tell stories visually with heart and brilliance. His images are filled with truth. Also, he was a deeply committed person and member of our work community, who stood up for what he believed. It helps that I agreed with him as well.
What new piece of equipment are you most excited about using in 2016? I’m still having fun using my new Canon C-300 MkII. It’s a great documentary tool.
[Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated cinematography and photographed Sundance talent at the Canon Creative Studio on Main Street.]