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
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.