Cinematographer James Laxton told us about filming 2014 Sundance entry "Camp X-Ray." His previous projects include "The Myth of the American Sleepover," "For a Good Time Call," "Medicine for Melancholy," "California Solo," and "Adult World." The first-time feature from director Peter Sattler, "Camp X-Ray" tells the story of a young woman (Kristen Stewart) who works as a guard in Guantanamo Bay, where she befriends a detainee.
What camera and lens did you use? We shot on the Arri Alexa with Ziess Ultra Primes and Alura Zooms.
What was the most difficult shot on your movie, and how did you pull it off? Many scenes in Camp X-Ray take place through a 6-inch wide viewing window of a cell, which was a challenge to photograph in a way that kept the images engaging and pushed the story along. We explored as many different ways to capture each scene as possible and assigned each one to a scene that spoke to the way we wanted it to feel emotionally.
What's the best film school for an aspiring cinematographer? This is a extremely difficult question to ask. I went to Florida State for film school, which I loved. It's not in a industry hub the way a NYU or USC is, but that was actually an advantage for me. I really enjoyed learning my craft in a smaller community that didn't have the added pressure of industry success. This allowed me to learn my craft in a way that felt natural. For me it was perfect. Not to mention I found great collaborators there that I still work with today.
Do you think the shift from digital is good or bad? As much as I loved learning how to make movies on film and the magical feeling of watching dailies for the first time, I have to say I would never be in the position I am now without the availability of the digital platform. The first two features I shot ('Medicine for Melancholy' and 'The Myth of the American Sleepover') would never have existed without the advances in digital cameras, so ultimately I have to say that the shift is a good one. I also pay a lot of attention to how the process by which projects are made effects the final film, and have to say that especially for young filmmakers, being able to look at a monitor and see what you have and make adjustments on set accordingly is a huge advantage for both cinematographers and directors, especially if you are pushing the boundaries of the medium. Waiting till too late to see that you went too far OR didn't go far enough can be a huge disappointment for everyone involved.
What advice do you have for cinematographers who want to get to Sundance? I don't consider myself to be as talented as the other cinematographers at Sundance this year (I'm an enormous fan of Lance Acord and Darren Lew), but I do consider myself one of the hardest working DPs around. If you know you want to be a DP and are willing to work harder than the person next to you, there is a Sundance premiere in your future. If you don't love it enough or can't make the sacrifices needed than it's probably not in the cards. Wanting it more than anyone else has always been my driving force.
What's the best career advice you've received? A camera operator once told me that you're not hired because you know the gear or the technical process better than someone else, you're hired because you communicate with the actors and director better than someone else. I find this to be very true. Communication is probably 90% of what I do.
Editor's Note: The "How I Shot That" series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated cinematography and photographed Sundance talent at Canon Craft Services on Main Street.