By Max O'Connell | Indiewire January 23, 2014 at 2:08PM
Cinematographer Topher Osborn told Indiewire about shooting "Dear White People," writer-director Justin Simien's satire about four black students at an Ivy League school where a riot breaks out following an "African American" party held by white students. The film, which was Indiewire and Tribeca's first-ever Project of the Year, played in the Dramatic Competition of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Osborn's previous credits include the documentary "African Election" and the short film "Little Canyon", which played at Sundance in 2011 and 2009, respectively.
Which camera and lens did you use? [Red] Epic X, Cooke 18 - 100, Cooke S4 set.
What was the most difficult shot on your movie, and how did you pull it off? Justin Simien loves the wide angle lens. I find myself drawn to medium lenses, the 32mm is my favorite focal length. So he would really push me to go wider and wider. This had me thinking differently about compositions and forced me to take different approaches to my lighting. So with that said, there wasn't one most difficult shot, the whole movie was a growing experience for me. Working with Justin is great because he has a very clear vision. I made it my goal to support it and do whatever I could to try and push it further and further with him. I loved collaborating with him. Hopefully, one day I have an opportunity to shoot a handheld project with him. I think it would be blast since this film was so static and composed.
Who is your favorite cinematographer, and why? Sean Bobbitt, BSC. I love his aesthetic and his simple approach to lighting. Everything I see him work on is shot beautifully. His eye for composition is amazing. I particularly love his work and approach to "The Place Beyond the Pines." That film was so well done and executed so simply. Nothing grandiose in the tools used, just very thoughtful work. It's inspiring because it shows us that anyone can do it. A small budget might present some limitations, but all limitations can be overcome with creativity and thoughtful filmmaking. If the story is there, and it's great, no budget is too small. I feel the same way about Bob Yeoman, ASC.
What's the best film school for an aspiring cinematographer? Is it necessary? UCLA, and no, I don't believe it is necessary. Just one way to learn a craft. I personally loved film school. I met so many great directors whom I hope to keep working with for years and years.
Do you think the shift to digital is good or bad? I don't see it as a bad thing. I'm sad that I became a DP right around the time when film was on its way out. Fortunately I was able to shoot 20+ short projects on film while studying at UCLA. This really helped me cut my teeth, particularly with lighting. I have also shot a handful of professional projects on the medium as well. I always suggest film, and it is almost always shot down. I think I will make a habit of continuing to suggest it and see what happens. It truly does make a lot of sense for some projects, just as digital makes sense for others.
What advice do you have for cinematographers who want to get to Sundance? So many elements go into a great project, cinematography is just one of many. So really it's about finding great people that you can collaborate with and whose work you can help make shine.
What's the best career advice you received? The PA on your set today might be the producer on your set tomorrow. Stay humble and give everyone the respect that their handwork deserves.
And the worst advice? "Always be shooting." I don't understand this mentality of working all of the time. As a creative, I feel having down time in your life to reflect on the work that you're doing is just as important as staying busy. It allows you to think about the choices you're making and gives you the breathing room you need to grow. My agent, Lana Wilson, told me this in our first meeting and I immediately knew we were a match. Whenever I'm not working I'm either spending time on my bicycle or making black and white prints in the darkroom I use downtown.
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.