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On The Rise 2014: Cinematographers To Watch

On The Rise 2014: Cinematographers To Watch

In what’s become an annual tradition, this week we’re kicking off our On The Rise series of features in which we take a look at emerging and blossoming talent across a variety of fields. This year, we’re expanding our remit to encompass a couple more categories and subcategories, but we’re starting with a perennial favorite: cinematographers.

Perhaps there’s no single field of filmmaking that has been as impacted by the advent of digital than cinematography—it is, after all, one of the crew positions that most marries aesthetic and artistic talent with technical and technological know-how, so a fundamental change in that technology has profound effects. But one of those effects, if we’re to generalize, has been to open up the field at the lower budget, independent end, to experimentation and potential discovery that might have been too costly and too risky to attempt in previous decades. As a result, for all the doomsaying about the death of film and its impact on the aesthetics of filmmaking, for our money we’re seeing a blossoming of photographic talent that digital technology has liberated. And indeed, a new lease on life for some veteran cinematographers too.

Which is not to say that everyone featured below works exclusively in digital photography, just that it has provided a new avenue into the industry/up the ladder for some undeniably bright talents. In previous years we’ve featured the likes of Ben Richardson, Bradford Young, Robbie Ryan, Rachel Morrison and Mihai Malamaire Jr. as likely successors and future peers of the greats like Lubezki, Deakins, Kaminski, Doyle et al, but this time we’re expanding the selection to ten so we can work off a slightly broader, more international base (here’s our 2013 DPs list). Here are the ten-plus cinematographers, some new, some overdue our attention, some only recently making waves this side of whichever pond, who have caught our eye(s) over the last 12 months, and who we’re anxious to see more from in future.

Daniel Landin
Going from shooting experimental art films to a Scarlett Johansson movie isn’t your average path, but when that Scarlett Johansson film is Jonathan Glazer‘s hypnotic, haunting “Under The Skin,” which Daniel Landin was the cinematographer for, it feels like an appropriate one. Landin started working with video as a teenager in collaboration with band Throbbing Gristle, before co-founding a militantly experimental performance group in the late 1970s, and attending art school in the mid-1980s.

Landin began working as a cinematographer in the early ’90s, and soon became a much-in-demand DP in the commercials and promo world–his credits included work with directors including Roman Coppola and John Hillcoat, and artists including Oasis and Bjork, while also beginning a long-term collaboration with fashion designer Alexander McQueen, for whom Landin served as lighting designer for his fashion shows until McQueen’s death in 2010. Landin started to work with Glazer on commercials and a music video for Richard Ashcroft, and when original cinematographer Ivan Bird was unavailable, he even shot a day of additional photography on Glazer’s directorial debut “Sexy Beast.” At long last, Landin made his feature debut as a cinematographer in the inauspicious surroundings of “Sixty Six,” a cosy 2006 British comedy starring Eddie Marsan and Helena Bonham-Carter, and more work followed, including the horror remake “The Uninvited,” and gangster thriller “44 Inch Chest,” both handsome, but not star-making stuff, exactly.

But “Under The Skin” was something else: Landin had been preparing with Glazer for nearly two years before the shoot, and the results speak for themselves. Whether filming incognito with Johansson on the streets of Glasgow with an almost verite feel (including subtly relighting a nightclub so they could film there without anyone noticing), to the nightmarish imagery of Johansson’s inner sanctum, it’s phenomenal work throughout. Landin’s use of darkness, both in the near-performance-art blackness and in Gordon Willis-style twilight, is especially unforgettable. Right now, Landin doesn’t seem to have another feature lined up, but fingers crossed that means that him and Glazer are plotting something new.

Hong Kyung-pyo
Also sometimes Hong Kyeong-pyo, Hong Gyeong-pyo or Alex Hong
Coming from the singular vision of Bong Joon-ho, “Snowpiercer” presented a very specific set of challenges for its cinematographer. But the narrative strictures (shooting in the tight, linear space of a train carriage nearly the whole time) and the technical constraints (everything was shot in a studio; a great deal of work was to be done to many of the shots in post-production) somehow didn’t hamper DP Hong Kyung-pyo from delivering textured, evocative and often quite beautiful photography (in that ground-in grimy, gunmetal kind of way).

Hong is hardly new on the scene in Korea—he has 20-odd credits over the last decade and a half, including a prior relationship with Bong from his brilliantly nasty 2009 film “Mother.” And prior to that even, Hong had firmly established himself in the prolific and exciting Korean film industry by 2004 (here’s our starter-pack feature on Korean New Wave cinema, if you’re curious) when he attained a great deal of local success (and a few awards) as cinematographer on the epic “The Brotherhood of War,” which had been the most successful Korean film of all time to that point. But ‘Brotherhood’ is a handsome, almost lush period drama, and “Mother” a gritty, unglamorized thriller (which recently did a reverse-“Nebraska,” being reissued in black and white). So while both films look good in their own specific registers, there’s not a lot of precedent there for the stylized-but-lived-in, high-contrast, dystopian look of “Snowpiercer,” let alone the clever way of framing and fluid camera movement, so that while we understand the geography of these confined spaces, we don’t feel claustrophobic.

Hong is also clearly adept at understanding when to shoot for CG elements and when to use practical, in-camera effects: he insisted, according to Bong, that the torch that Ewan Bremner carries is real fire and that no electric light be used for that iconic sequence, but it was also Hong who filtered light through trays of water to give the aquarium carriage CG artists practical lighting effects to work with. “Snowpiercer,” from what we know of Hong’s previous work, seems to truly add an impressive new string to the DP’s bow, and if there’s any justice, its international success will bring him international recognition too. Whatever the case, we hope he works with Bong again soon, because something special always seems to result.

Sean Porter
As with elsewhere on this list, Porter’s is a name that first popped onto our radar a couple of years ago, and in his case, with the impressive SXSW ‘12 favorite “Eden,” and then with “It Felt Like Love” which we reviewed and loved at Sundance 2013. So what, exactly, did Porter have to do to actually get a spot on our list this time around? Well, with “It Felt Like Love” finally getting a release earlier this year, a couple more of us got to see what he was made of. And then, most importantly, he followed it up with a film that shows his versatility and flexibility, in addition to his way with composition and lighting—one of our Sundance 2014 favorites, “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter.

David Zellner’s film, which is still making the festival rounds and hasn’t got a release date slated as yet, presented a unique challenge in that it is clearly divided into two very separate halves, one set in Japan and one in sub-zero weather in Minnesota. Shooting on location with a small budget, the only way it could work was by using local crews in both countries, and so Porter headed up a totally different team in Japan from the one he used in the U.S. And the results are fascinating—there is definitely a different feel to both halves, as there should be for the narrative to work, yet Porter maintains a recognizable through-line, even mirroring some shots of Rinko Kikuchi against the different backdrops and making the most of her expressive, almost silent-movie face and physicality throughout.

And he also shows that he is at home outside the shallow-depth-of-field dreamy visuals of “It Felt like Love”—if anything, ‘Kumiko’ feels unromanced, especially in its Minnesota half as Kumiko trudges along blue-tinged snowscapes wrapped in a stolen quilt. In his more matter-of-fact visuals, Porter achieves a balance with the quirkiness of the storyline which lends realism, and perhaps even tragedy, to a small and offbeat narrative, one that could easily have led to outright whimsy. Not only that, he also avoided simply mimicking avowed influence Roger Deakins’ work on “Fargo,” which had to be a temptation as that film is the basis for the ‘Kumiko.’ It’s possible Porter should have been on our list in previous years, but we’re glad we get to include him as the result of such unusual and laudably unshowy work.

Sofian El Fani
Among the many impressive elements of last year’s all-conquering Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color,” perhaps the most consistently and unfairly underpraised, compared to the performances and the direction, was the cinematography by Sofian El Fani. Tunisian El Fani has actually worked with the ‘Blue’ director on all of his films bar his debut, but in the capacity of camera operator until ‘Blue,” which was his first film for Kechiche as DP. However it’s a film whose look we can see is born out of a close understanding between the two—the intimate, naturalistic photography, using frequent close-ups and natural light, is deceptively simple (you can investigate the careful use of color, especially blues, to see just how considered and controlled it is while giving the illusion of strict naturalism) and invites us into the central relationship in an almost transparent way.

But as much as we admired the photography, we were curious to see how well El Fani could work in a different register, and perhaps for a director whom he does not know as well. And our answer came, appropriately, one year later at Cannes 2014 where El Fani was DP on Abderrahmane Sissako’s outstanding competition opener “Timbuktu.” It’s a wholly different animal from ‘Blue,’ and looks wholly different as a result, with El Fani using wide shots as frequently as tight and capitalizing on the rich locations, the deserts and dunes and mosques that make the film’s backdrop. And he also finds a way to portray the banality and brutality of violence—the film is set during a community’s occupation by Muslim jihadists—with his unflinching camera capturing truly shocking, and utterly heartbreaking moments with equally calm observation.

But see elements of personal style emerge too. El Fani favors the use of natural light, or as-near-as (he mentions as much in this short interview) and he has an almost preternatural talent for filming faces—Exarchopolous’ in ‘Blue’ and here especially newcomer Ibrahim Ahmed’s—in such a way as to make empathy and identification utterly impossible to avoid. Based on these two films alone, El Fani’s sensitivity and unobtrusive dedication to the characters and the storyline has already marked him out as one of the most exciting new cinematographers to have come along in recent years, even if the Cesars chose to award “The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet” for cinematography instead of ‘Blue.’ Then again, the French Academy snubbed ‘Blue’ in every category bar “most promising actress,” so yeah, Cesars, whatever.

Natasha Braier
Hardly an ingenue on the cinematography scene, the Argentinian Braier has worked consistently over the last 15 years, on shorts and features, latterly for some high-profile international directors—Shane Meadows, Lynne Ramsay, Claudia Llosa. Her initial breakout came in 2006 with Rotterdam winner “Glue,” which she followed up with Lucia Puenzo’s Argentinian hermaphrodite drama“XXY” that won the Critic’s Week Grand Prix in Cannes 2007, and is marked by soulful, evocative photography in a muted grey/green palette.

Since then, amid copious commercial and shorts works, she shot “Somers Town” in lovely black and white for Shane Meadows, and Llosa’s 2010 Foreign-Language Oscar nominee and Golden Bear winner “The Milk of Sorrow.” That film showed Braier working with the sweeping vistas and dreamy shallow-focus close-ups that characterize Llosa’s work and would probably be the style with which we would have most associated Braier (just because of that film’s international success and very composed and constructed imagery), but then we saw “The Rover” and realized that we’d been underestimating Braier’s versatility.

Braier’s work on David Michod’s follow-up to “Animal Kingdom” is a huge part of what makes the film so distinctive—with a narrative as lean as this one, dialogue as spartan and performances as internalized, the images are everything, and Braier rises to the occasion magnificently. Using a parched, bleached-bone yellowy palette, as though the whole world is jaundiced, her camera captures bleak, baked landscapes, ugly prefabricated nighttime shacks and the minute topography of Guy Pearce’s haggard face with equal fascination, and packs visual detail into even the most desolate setting. Braier herself accounted for the range of her portfolio as being a result of her “instinctive” approach in a recent interview: “I have to feel things in my gut first, then I figure out how to achieve them technically. The main thing is the connection with the director. I can be excited about any kind of film as long as I connect with the script and the director.” We can’t wait to see which director she connects with next, and where it will bring her.

Thimios Bakatakis
We sure are glad that Eskil Vogt’s “Blind” gives us an excuse to include Thimios Bakatakis on the list of cinematographers who’ve been top of our minds for the last year or so, because his continued absence from these lists was starting to feel a little glaring. Not only did he shoot Ira Sachs’ wonderful, vital “Keep the Lights On” in 2012, but his one-two punch of Giorgios Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” followed by Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Attenberg” essentially gave the Greek Weird Wave movement its characteristic look: an icy-cool palette, exceptionally formalist compositions and a certain ironic detachment from the events they observe.

Sachs’ film, however, saw him move away from those conventions into a warmer, more naturalistic register in which his camera captures the beauty and pain of the central relationship without judgements, a philosophy that according to Sachs extended to how he shot the film’s sex scenes, and was, according to the filmmaker, one of the key reasons he chose Bakatakis: “…he shoots sex better than anyone else I see working today. Affectionately, and with humor, as well as an openness. For Thimios, sex is just a part of life. The camera doesn’t have to shoot it any different than a dinner scene, or a birthday party. This is a very important theme in the film: it’s a story driven by shame, but we wanted to tell it shamelessly, with all the lights on.”

Norwegian film “Blind,” which picked up a little heat in Sundance this year, and which we loved when we caught it in Berlin, sees perhaps a synthesis of Bakatakis’ previous aesthetic approaches: it is back to a cool palette again, this time the eggshell blues and white of a Scandinavian apartment, but there is an intimacy and a compassion here that shoots through the mischief and the drollery that we got in “Dogtooth,” for example. And thematically—it’s told from the point of view of a blind woman, struggling to recreate details of the world she remembers seeing in her mind—the film gives Bakatakis rein to play quite overtly with depth of field and focus in a way that could become irritating if it wasn’t so cleverly and warmly achieved. So yes, an overdue inclusion, but we’re happy it can be for such a visually remarkable film as “Blind.”

Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal

A slightly tricky dual listing here for the two credited cinematographers on Pawel Pawlikowski’s stunning “Ida,” but it’s unavoidable: when veteran Lenczewski fell ill, he turned over DP duties to his cameraman Zal, so both men are undoubtedly partially responsible for the look of the finished, black-and-white film. But being monochromatic is not even the most remarkable thing about the look of “Ida”—it is also shot in in a boxier-than-usual 1:33 aspect ratio, and displays from the opening shot an unusual commitment to eye-catching compositions and framing, especially of lead Agata Trzebuchowska’s unsmiling, serious face.

Zal is the apprentice, in a way: ”Ida” is his first feature credit as cinematographer, though he’d previously won a Camerimage (International Cinematographers’ Festival) gold for documentary short “Paparazzi” in 2011. Lenczewski, by contrast, has over 50 titles to his name, among them John Crowley’s “Intermission,” Pawlikowski’s own “My Summer of Love” and “The Woman in the Fifth” and 2011’s troubled but tremendous “Margaret” by Kenneth Lonergan.

But he, along with Zal and Pawlikowski himself, seems to have reached new levels with “Ida,” which somehow manages to exude the kind of harmonious serenity that Ida herself so often displays, even during scenes of confrontation or revelation. Said Zal: “[We] shot using ‘poster storytelling,’ where a scene is presented with tableau shots that are not connected by a master. Each frame was carefully designed to suggest the wider world beyond, and to communicate the characters’ sense of strangeness and loss.” These meticulously assembled frames and the surprising softness of the black and white, which is so often high-contrast and harsh but here mostly occupies a kind of dove-grey register, brought the duo another Camerimage gold award, and it’s not hard to see why: it is simply one of the most sublime and ravishing films that we’ve seen in a long time.

Manuel Alberto Claro
Perhaps the most inappropriate cinematic feeling our Jessica Kiang felt all year was during the opening of Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac, Vol 1.” There are many elements working in concert to create that uncanny reaction over what is, essentially, a scene of a woman lying beaten unconscious in an alley: meticulous sound design, sudden gratuitous use of Rammstein, a preoccupation with dripping gutters and drainpipes, but most crucial perhaps is the camerawork. Manuel Alberto Claro’s excruciating but hypnotic slow pans across the roof edging, brushing past brickwork, nosing into open vents, finally cutting to the wide of the alley with our partially obstructed view of the woman, usher us into the world of the film brilliantly, and announce, louder than any title ever could, YOU ARE WATCHING A LARS VON TRIER MOVIE.

It’s strange then that Claro has only worked on two von Trier films, “Melancholia” and “Nymphomaniac” (which we’ll count as one film from here on), and yet his sensibility and his visuals seem so precisely attuned to the most recent phase of Von Trier’s career that it’s hard now to think of one without the other. And in fact, it is probably the equally difficult but less divisive “Melancholia” that most would point out for its cinematography—those iconic dream images of Kirsten Dunst struggling through weeds in her wedding dress in nightmarish high-definition slow motion. But the Chileno Claro who has stated in an interview that “my aim is to make images that are in love with the story and not with themselves” has a filmography as long as your arm, and the two von Trier films are in many ways as atypical for him as they are for a director who it is increasingly difficult to believe ever had anything to do with the resolutely anti-formalist Dogme movement.

Moving from Chile to Denmark as a child, most of Claro’s credits prior to “Melancholia” are for Scandinavian productions, including 2003’s “Reconstruction” by Christoffer Boe, which won the Camera D’Or in Cannes, and for which they used available light, and left pictures un-color-corrected. Then in 2005 Claro won Best Cinematography in Venice for another Boe film, “Allegro,” inspired by Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” But tricksy and surreal though it is, it is shot again in a far more rough and ready manner than his collaborations with von Trier. Do they signal an irrevocable new direction for Claro or is he simply stretching his muscles? Perhaps the best way to judge is to wait until Chris Rock’s directorial outing “Finally Famous,” which will feature Claro’s work.

Autumn Durald
It’s fair to say at this point that the Coppola family are excellent scouts of cinematographers. Francis Ford had a long collaboration with Gordon Willis, and even recently, discovered Mihai Milamaire Jr., who went on to shoot “The Master” for Paul Thomas Anderson (and was featured in On the Rise ’12). Sofia had long relationships with Lance Acord and Harris Savides, and gave one of our picks from last year, Christopher Blauvelt, a big boost with “The Bling Ring.” And even Roman‘s otherwise forgettable “A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Charles Swan III” displayed good work from debuting photographer Nick Beal.

So when Gia Coppola went into the family business for her directorial debut, hopes were high that she’d pick someone great, and she did not disappoint: Autumn Durald‘s visuals might be the highlight of Coppola’s “Palo Alto.” The youthful Durald studied art history at Loyola Marymount University before deciding to switch tracks to cinematography, winning a place at AFI. Even before she started her second year there, she’d already shot a feature, Rafael Palacio Illingworth’s 2009 film “Macho.” Soon after graduation, photographer and director Melodie McDaniel picked her to lens a Levi’s campaign, and she’s been working consistently ever since, racking up plentiful promo credits, including several sunkissed Haim videos, an artfully black-and-white Arcade Fire spot, and clips directed by actors Jena Malone (Lavender Diamond‘s “I Don’t Recall”) and Max Minghella (Christopher Owens‘ “Nothing More Than Everything To Me”).

Durald met Coppola when filling in for a friend when the director was shooting some test scenes for “Palo Alto,” and hit it off in the process. And you can tell from the finished work on “Palo Alto,” the woozy yet clean, lightly neon-kissed feel of the film is inspired by other classic coming-of-agers like “Dazed & Confused,” “The Last Picture Show” and “American Graffiti,” with the atmosphere seeping off the screen. Even the nighttime work, fog-tinged and luminous, was very strong indeed. Right now, she’s at work on another feature, “One & Two,” the fiction debut of “Rich Hill” director and “You’re Next” DP Andrew Droz Palermo, and to be picked by another photographer to shoot their movie feels like an appropriate compliment, given the strength of Durald’s work to date.

Erik Wilson
“There are no big breaks, just lots of little ones,” said Erik Wilson in a 2012 talk in Manchester, but looking back through his filmography, we’d probably place Richard Ayoade’s “Submarine” in the at-least-slightly-larger-break category. Of course, Wilson had a pre-existing relationship with Ayoade from various music videos for The Arctic Monkeys and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs among others. But the offbeat, stylized look of Ayoade’s debut got him some attention, which led to a DP role on Paddy Considine’s scorching, brilliant “Tyrannosaur.” That film also plays out very differently, visually speaking, from “Submarine”—it is as gritty and subdued as “Submarine” is heightened and non-naturalistic. Yet Wilson found a certain sinewy poetry in the images there as well, and proved his versatility early.

His next high-profile gig was on acclaimed 2012 documentary “The Imposter,” which added a non-fiction arrow to his quiver, after which he reteamed with Ayoade for the terrific “The Double,” which saw him turn back to embrace a more non-realist, constructed and artful composition and lighting style. Indeed, the cinematography of “The Double” was where we really started to take notice, commenting in our review on how clever the framing is so that it feels like not a single inch is wasted, and how the photography in general evokes ‘50s noir, all smoke, shadow and directional lighting.

So we knew then that Wilson could work on both these levels, but perhaps it’s mostly Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s20000 Days On Earth” that has us really excited for what he might do next. The Nick Cave docu-drama about life, music and the creative process is a highly eccentric project to begin with, but Wilson’s imagery gives it weight and gravitas like the gravel in Cave’s voice. Somehow the dark glamor he brings to the simplest shots of Cave stalking around his “archive” or interviewing figures from his past in his car, seems to us to be the clearest evidence that Wilson, independent of any particular director’s vision or genre, is a pioneer in his own right, and can take potentially ordinary material and spin something rich and fascinating from it.

As ever, when we started to scrape the surface of the last 12 months in cinematography, we found there were a lot more names that had impressed us than we had room to do justice to here. Among those narrowly missing the cut was Nicolas Bolduc, whose work on Denis Villeneuve’s outstanding “Enemy” was so impressive and was followed up by some gorgeous shotmaking in Claudia Llosa’s “Aloft,” even if that film left us pretty cold overall. Mike Giolakis was another DP we had on an earlier incarnation of the list, for his exceptional work on arthouse/horror hybrid and Cannes sensation “It Follows,” in which the cinematography is probably the greatest single element that makes the film into something special. And Kasper Tuxen is someone we’re keeping a steady eye on, because while he sort of failed our “had a big moment in the last 12 months” test, seeing as we weren’t mad on the look of “Hateship/Loveship,” the “Beginners” DP is currently filming “Seas of Trees” for Gus van Sant and we’re expecting something special there.

Otherwise, Luca Bigazzi (“The Great Beauty”) and Yorick Le Saux (“Only Lovers Left Alive”) both made our eyes pop out of our heads with the loveliness of some of their work, but we felt both were quite well-known already. Frankie DeMarco’s impressive collaboration with JC Chandor continued with “All is Lost” which is a good exemplar of a very transparent, serving-the-story kind of photography which is a fine, unpretentious antidote to the pretty-pictures Malick me-toos of the world, if not quite remarkable enough to crack our top ten. Jeremy Saulnier deserves kudos as both director and DP of the excellent “Blue Ruin,” but we feel like we’ve been talking about him a lot, and he may well feature in some other On The Rise categories—stay tuned.

Aside from “Gravity” companion piece short film “Aningaaq” we haven’t seen enough from Alexis Zabe since “Post Tenebras Lux” to warrant including him here, while we’ve heard good reports about South African “Of Good Report” but haven’t been able to catch it yet to check out the work of DP Jonathan Kovel just yet. And finally we’d like to give another shine to the terrific “Le Weekend,” this time for its understated yet warm photography from French DP Nathalie Durand.

So we hope you enjoyed our eclectic but heartfelt selection. Chime in with your own picks below if you wish, or go back and check out our previous years’ On The Rise cinematographers features 2013, 2012 and 2010/11, or our recent Cinematographers-turned-Directors article.

Jessica Kiang with Oli Lyttelton

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