Cinematographer Ryan Samul talked to Indiewire about shooting "Cold In July," a noir-thriller starring Michael C. Hall as a small-town man who shoots a burglar in his house, becoming a local hero but provoking the man's vengeful ex-con father (Sam Shepard). The film, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in the Dramatic Competition, was directed by Jim Mickle, who Samul previously collaborated with on "We Are What We Are," "Stake Land," and "Mulberry Street."
Which camera and lens did you use? We used two [Red] Epics, one set of Cooke s4s and an Angenieux 24-290
What was the most difficult shot in the movie, and how did you pull it off? No one shot in particular, but we did only have two days to shoot the entire final action sequence. There was a lot to do with few resources and not a lot of time to do it in, but Jim and I knew that going in and did quite a bit of prep including some 3D rendered pre-vis animatics. Most of the questions that would come up on set had already thoroughly been talked about and the answer had already been determined. That coupled with us knowing each other for over a decade and three features together under our belt creates a like-mindedness that is indispensable. I also have had the fortune of consistently working with the same crew so our short hand has saved us time and time again.
Who is your favorite cinematographer, and why? Its probably cliché to say [Roger] Deakins, but his effortless play with light and shadow, ability to consistently create shots that tell so much, and still be so jaw droppingly gorgeous is something to be studied and admired.
What's the best film school for an aspiring cinematographer? Some would say you should just launch into working, and there is something to be said about getting paid to learn on the job, but I think the combination of a school that will let/force you to actually shoot and light projects and afford you to an ability to study film history, world cinema, and some sort of art history is something that is indispensable. Using other people's projects to make your inevitable mistakes that are essential for you to learn from, and meeting directors that *will* be making post collegiate films is a good leg up. Don't get me wrong, you spend at least two years working on real projects to learn how things are done in a professional sense, but the foundation of a collegiate study of what movies can be and how they've changed the world is important.
Do you think the shift to digital is good or bad? I think it's affording a whole new generation of voices the ability to make high quality images on a budget. Beyond that its just the inevitable march of technology. The quality just keeps getting better, offering more and more options for dynamic on set image capture and more and more ability to manipulate the image in post. Besides all that, its still the lighting, lens choice and camera movement that tell the story, not the medium used to capture it.
What advice do you have for cinematographers who want to get to Sundance? Practice.
What's the best career advice you received? Best career advice was from my dad, who is a live sports TV director, and that was that the shoot day will inevitably end. No matter how bad it is, it's gonna be over soon, "we're not saving lives here."
And the worst advice? First day on my first job a grizzled old timer looked down at me and said "Get out of the business while you still can." Who knows maybe he was right, but I honestly can't imagine any other job I'd rather be doing.
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.