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How I Shot That: DP Elliot Davis on the Rigor and Speed it Took to Create ‘The Birth of a Nation’

How I Shot That: DP Elliot Davis on the Rigor and Speed it Took to Create 'The Birth of a Nation'

READ MORE: Sundance: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Ignites a Bidding War After An Electrifying Premiere 

Cinematographer Elliot Davis has shot more than 50 films, including “Twilight,” “Out of Sight,” “Thirteen,” and “The Iron Lady.” However, “The Birth of a Nation” presented a unique challenge: Not only was he responsible for realizing first-time director Nate Parker’s exacting vision, he also had to do it while shooting faster than he’d ever done before. 

Which camera and lens did you use? “Birth of a Nation” was shot on an Alexa, and it was almost shot exclusively with optimum zooms. At this point in my career, I’m really at the less is more stage, and so I really went with basically three lenses.

Why was this the right camera kit for the job? Because it gives me the most flexibility. I’m prepared for handheld as well as any studio mode. I was probably the first person to ever shoot a feature with a Minolta 28-76, and 15-40, when I shot “I Am Sam.” And those are basically just still lenses that Panavision had.

People said, “You can’t do that.” I shot the whole film that way. I loved it, and ever since then I was waiting for those lenses to be perfected, and they finally — within the last two, three years — have actually become real lenses.

What was the biggest challenge in shooting “Birth of a Nation”? How did you pull it off?  Speed. I didn’t have much time. It was just such an ambitious project. I was literally shooting a shot every 10 or 15 minutes. That includes the lighting, the actors getting in their with the director, and shooting it. Television doesn’t even shoot that fast.

We were going for a very specific look. Nate (Parker) was very meticulous and rigorous in his research, and he had a whole lookboard of about seven or eight films. And he must’ve had a total of 200 shots from those films. Two of them were films I’d shot. We would just study those frames and what it took to get those frames. So, part of it was education on my part. The only experience an actor would have would be the end of the process. You have no idea all the parts it takes to do it. If you’ve not budgeted for that time, that makes a lot of tension.

Of all your training and schooling, what one experience made you the cinematographer you are today? Before I came to film, I was an architect. So, I bring the principles of aesthetics that architecture brings, which is really the mother of all the arts. Long before I started shooting, I was already dealing with light and space and perspective and all those things that it takes to create an environment.

I think that the first director that I really found a common language with was Steven Soderbergh when we did “King of the Hill,” and Steven is a very intelligent guy, very savvy, we understood each other in terms of how to create an image and the importance of the image.

After Steven, I think my next big leap would’ve been with Catherine Hardwicke, who was also trained as an architect and a production designer. So, she already had those architectural and production design language embedded in her, so when we met we hit it off immediately. We launched into the movie “Thirteen,” which kind of set the independent film look for the next decade. I’m a big believer in form follows function. If you don’t get the function part right, the form is not likely to happen for you.

What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer? Is film school a good place to start? The best thing a young cinematographer can do is become something else first. I would study some other art form like architecture, painting…something that has bigger and broader implications. Cinematographers used to do many different kinds of movies. You could shoot a musical. You could shoot a drama. You could shoot a comedy. Now it’s like you’re just one kind of cinematographer, and I think that’s a danger for cinematography.

Film school is a good place to start. It’s just that you have to bring something to film school. I think film school should be much more of a graduate program, and then when you’re an undergraduate, you should study other things. I don’t care what it is. Economics. Philosophy. Art history. Anything but cinematography. There’s nothing wrong with taking cinema courses. But your mind should become disciplined in developing a worldview of things. You’re not just an appendage.

Who is your favorite cinematographer, and why? I’d have to say of course Emmanuel Lubezki. Rodgrio Prieto has done some good stuff. I’m thinking of course about older cinematographers like Conrad Hall. He had such a super-sensitive eye. His differentiation of the shadow line — you could tell when he shot that he was so conscious of where light met dark. To me, cinematography, it’s where the light meets the dark. It’s all relative. A lot of newer cinematographers don’t know that. They just think darkness is turning off the light. Hence you get this very grainy, muddy look in a lot of films.

I admire Ed (Lachman) because Ed has a good classical knowledge of cinema. You can tell by his composition of frames and his lighting. He doesn’t go to the default setting in modern cinema, which is just handheld following the action. You don’t have to light it as well or compose as well. I think Ed is very good that way. I don’t think it’s an accident that after Steve (Soderbergh) and I went together that he went to Ed.

What new piece of equipment are you most excited about using in 2016? What I’m excited about is the trend. I’m much more into the trend than I am the specific piece of equipment because that changes every three months. I started having this discussion with Panavision in the mid ‘90s when they first came out with their camera — The Sony Genesis — and the first thing I did was strip it down to the smallest camera I could. And they’re looking at me like, “What?” I’d just like to see a chip with a lens on it and a monitor that you can hold in one hand like an iPhone and transmit the emotions that I’m feeling and let it translate to my hand and just dance with what’s happening. That would be a very go-to thing for me because the cinema I’m interested in is the most subjective kind. Film to film, I try to become more and more subjective to get more and more into the characters. 

[Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated cinematography and photographed Sundance talent at the Canon Creative Studio on Main Street.]

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival

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