Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Oren Soffer. In this interview he talks about the art and craft of cinematography, finding creative solutions within budgetary limitations, keeping track of technological changes in his field, the current production landscape as the Corona-related restrictions are being slowly lifted, and his life-long love of movies. Around these topics and more, Oren dives deep into his work on the just released “A Nightmare Wakes”.
Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.
Oren: I grew up on all the classic ’80s and ’90s blockbusters. “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, “Back to the Future”… “Jurassic Park” is the first film I remember seeing in theaters; I was five at the time, and I loved dinosaurs as a kid, so that movie was a big deal for me. I just loved movies since I was a little kid.
As I got a little bit older, I started getting interested in how films were made. Up until a certain age there was a magic to the whole process, and then it started to get demystified when DVDs started coming out with special features and behind the scenes featurettes. At the time they were quite elaborate and detailed, and the big one for me was the “Lord of the Rings” extended edition DVDs, each one with 10 hours of behind the scenes bonus material. They were so detailed, and got into all of the different processes of filmmaking, including cinematography, which I had never really thought about at that time or realized was this separate thing.
As a kid I was also very much into drawing, painting and working in visual arts – starting to get into photography as well. That combination of learning about how films were made, realizing that I wanted to make films and then learning about the role of the cinematographer as the person in charge of crafting and designing the visuals of the film – that was the perfect meeting place of my interests, which were visual art and filmmaking. I was in middle school at the time, and that’s how my interest in cinematography started.
My friends and I started shooting silly little films with home video cameras. We’d be recreating music videos or shooting parodies of movies we loved in our homes and around the neighborhood. It was sort of like that film “Be Kind Rewind” that Michel Gondry directed, where they’re making cheap versions of films.
Skipping ahead, I ended up going to film school at NYU. While there, I focused on cinematography and shot a lot of student films, and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve been a working cinematographer ever since and it’s been great.
Kirill: Did you get to experience the “end tail” of film as the medium?
Oren: Funny enough, we were the last class at NYU that shot on 16mm black-and-white reversal film in our introduction class, as the year after us switched to digital for the first time. We still shot on film and learned on film in the cinematography classes. I got to shoot on 35mm and on Super 16mm.
These days film has made a sort of comeback in the commercial world. There are a lot of commercials and music videos being shot in film now. People are going back to that medium because it has a very specific texture to it that people really like. And obviously a lot of features are still shot on film to this day.
I was quite fortunate to be able to learn on film. We also learned editing on flatbeds. We would shoot 16mm film, get it developed and then physically cut and splice the film like they used to do before computers were around. That was a great way to learn, and I wish more people could learn that way when they study filmmaking, and not just cinematography. It was just such a great way to understand editing and film language, and how to work with limitations. It was a great experience.
Kirill: Cinematographers love to talk about film as the medium, of course. Do you think the viewers at home care as much about it?
Oren: To be honest, most average viewers won’t tell the difference, and that’s something important to keep in mind. Personally, I don’t have a horse in the race in terms of this debate. I don’t think one medium is better than the other.
I personally enjoy shooting on digital. I like having the immediate feedback of being able to see what image you’re composing in real time. With film you have an approximation of it, and then you only really know what you’ve shot when you watch your dailies. I like the immediacy and the responsiveness of digital. It makes me feel like I can be more bold in my lighting and in my cinematography choices. I can go darker and moodier. I can push the image a little bit more.
I think a lot of DPs could use a reminder sometimes that at the end of the day we’re making films for audiences, and what really matters is the storytelling; using film language to tell your story and create a subjective experience with your characters. We get interested in the medium and the technical sides of it. They’re fun for us as cinematographers and as nerds of film and filmmaking, but most audiences don’t notice it [laughs]. I tend to not get bogged down in that.
I like to create an environment that’s simplified and not overly complicated, so that I can focus on film language, shot design, and lighting.
Kirill: If you asked me 20 years ago what the job of a cinematographer is, I’d imagine somebody grabbing a camera, putting it on their shoulder, pointing at the actors and pushing some sort of a button to get it rolling. When people ask you what do you do for a living, how do you convey the actual complexity of it?
Oren: On a basic level, that’s pretty much accurate: a big part of it is deciding where the camera goes. If it’s a low budget project, the cinematographer also ends up operating the camera, and on bigger budget projects or projects with multiple cameras you tend to have other operators come in.
The one aspect that most people aren’t necessarily aware of initially is that the cinematographer also designs, shapes and controls the lighting.
It depends on the circumstance. On “A Nightmare Wakes”, because of our budgetary limitations, the director and I embraced a minimalistic approach from the get-go. From the planning and conception stage we designed this film to lean into limitations, because we knew we didn’t have the budget to pull off any big elaborate things.
We were also fortunate to shoot in this incredible location. Historical homes were designed to harness natural light in a good way in pre-electricity days. So we had this great location that looked so good naturally, and we knew going into it that we wouldn’t have to do too much work to artificially create the look of the film. We knew that we could lean into the more natural look in terms of natural daylight coming in through the windows for daytime scenes, and then using candles for nighttime scenes. These circumstances work together to craft the final look.
On this one, more than usual, it really was about figuring out where to place the camera, and that was a big choice. That process may seem simple conceptually, but in practice, it takes a lot of planning, thought, and finesse to figure out. What is the perfect place for the camera in this specific room, or scene? What is the ideal angle that embraces the natural light in the best possible way? Or what is the angle that best reflects the emotional place the character is in? When you’re crafting a film in this way, you’re really working around the light. The position of the windows and the position of where candles would go in a scene end up dictating a lot about how you build the scene around those elements. It ends up being a fun process, kind of like solving a puzzle.
Then, of course, you’re also selecting the lens, which can be a big decision. It makes a big difference in terms of the audience’s subjective experience of feeling closer or farther from the characters in the action. Different focal lengths of lenses can either bring you into the action or keep you at a distance from it.
Those are all the things that we tend to think about. It’s fun sometimes to walk people who don’t necessarily know about it through the process. I love teaching people about the process and about cinematography. It’s great to share that with everybody when the opportunity comes up.
Kirill: It’s been pretty amazing to see how much we can do these days with consumer-grade DSLR cameras, and even cameras on our smartphones. On the other hand, it’s never easy to keep track of the latest improvements and to choose the “best” camera to buy. Are you able to keep track of what is happening in the world of technology around you?
Oren: That’s a big part of the job of the cinematographer. You need to keep up to date with the technology, even if it’s only to know what tools are available out there in order for us to be able to create. At the end of the day, the most important aspect of this is the creative one.
That is the question that I always ask myself when a new camera is announced, and the same goes for new lenses: how does this contribute to my ability to be expressive and creative. You need to keep an eye out for interesting ways to use new tools creatively.
For example, advances in digital sensors over the years have given us the opportunity to embrace the sort of lighting style that we used on this film even more. As cameras become more sensitive to light, you can shoot in lower-light scenarios without having to add too much artificial light. It opens up all sorts of creative opportunities that just weren’t there before.
The same goes with lenses. There are two aspects to it. The first is the textural qualities of the lens that come through with technical elements within and on the front of the lens, creating different looks, textures, softness or sharpness, warmth or coldness, different looks of flares, etc. And the other aspect is how fast the lens is in terms of its F-stop. That in and of itself can open up all sorts of creative doors.
On “A Nightmare Wakes”, one of the reasons we were able to embrace the minimalistic, naturalistic creative style that we decided upon was because we shot on very fast lenses. We combined the Arri Alexa with fast lenses from Panavision called Ultra Speeds, which we shot at their widest-open aperture, and that allowed us to light scenes with single candles, and to really lean into and embrace that darkness. We were able to shoot certain scenes at the final little end of twilight and exposure just before the sky became completely dark, creating dark and moody images through harnessing the technology.
Kirill: How anxious do you get when you work with natural light and it doesn’t cooperate?
Oren: Very anxious. We had a decent mix of interior and exterior on this film, about two-thirds interior and one-third exterior.
At the end of the day, having to rely on harnessing nature in that way is stressful. We were fortunate to be able to shoot in one location, which helped mitigate that anxiety somewhat. All of our exteriors and all of our interiors were in the same physical area, so we were able to be somewhat flexible with our schedule. That allowed us to lean into whatever nature was giving us on a given day, to embrace that and change our schedule accordingly if it wasn’t playing ball.
For example, we wanted all of the exteriors to have an overcast look that would fit in with the overall moody atmosphere of the film that we wanted. Also, the historical events that the film are based on took place during a famously dark summer. The history behind it is fascinating. There was a volcanic eruption in Indonesia that covered the Earth in ash, and resulted in this dark and cold summer that forced all of these artists to stay indoors, and ended up generating the competition that led to the creation of all of these famous works of literature. The vampire and Frankenstein and all of it was born out of this volcano that erupted on the other side of the planet.
For all of those reasons we had a very specific idea of what we wanted our exteriors to look like in terms of the light. So because we were shooting in one location, we were sometimes able to switch the shooting days around. If we checked the night before and we saw it was going to be sunny tomorrow, we could switch to shooting interior during the sunny day so that we can control the interior light a little bit better. Then we’d hope for overcast days where we could go back outside and shoot our exteriors. It didn’t always work. There’s still some sunny exteriors that made it into the film, but thankfully it all lined up well with the thematic and emotional nature of those scenes; it worked that the scenes that were sunny ended up being sunny. We got lucky that way.
The most stressful challenge that we had in terms of harnessing natural light and what nature was giving us was the climax of the film. We had this crazy idea to set the entire climax of the film during blue hour. It’s the scene which starts indoors in what we called the tub room, then snakes its way through the house and outside, and ends up in the lake. In our heads, we conceptualized the scene as taking place as the sun is fading. It starts at dusk, and then it gets gradually darker and darker, until the final shot which is at that moment just before full darkness.
When you come up with a concept like that, in theory it makes really good creative and thematic sense because it dovetails well with what’s going on with the characters at that moment, as the sun is setting on their relationship and Mary Shelley is fully embracing this darkness that’s within her. It also makes sense story-wise in terms of the timeframe of the scene. In real time this sequence takes place over maybe about 5-10 minutes. But in practical reality you have to face the logistical limitations.
Filming a sequence like that, a long scene with a lot of dialogue that moves through many different spaces and also has some special effects elements (the scene that takes place during the lake that require a costume and makeup change) – that process takes hours upon hours to shoot. We stumped ourselves by coming up with this idea and then facing the challenge of figuring out how to shoot this sequence in a very narrow window of time and have it look consistent.
The solution that we came up with was to shoot it over multiple nights. That entire sequence took us about four different evenings. We shot during the whole twilight hour, and we were able to extend it a little bit earlier and later, using technical tools like ND filters in the camera that darken the image, and removing them as the light began to fade. We’d darken the sky before so that it looked as dusky as we wanted to look, and then would take advantage of our fast lenses and the sensor to shoot into the darker twilight hour. This way, we got about two hours of filming every day for four days, and this was near the end of the schedule as well so we couldn’t switch things around. We just had to hope that the weather would play ball.
Thankfully we mostly got really lucky. We had a torrential downpour on the last day that forced us to wait until we could finish the scene, but thankfully it cleared up and we ended up getting this really beautiful and incredible stormy sky once the rain cleared. A photo I took of our lead actress Alix after that downpour actually became the poster of the film, it was just one of those random serendipitous moments. We got this amazing sky, we put the character silhouetted against it, and I took a photo that ended up on the poster.
Sometimes you get lucky. You can’t plan for those things, and those are the moments that are really magical, and then all of the stress of worrying about it goes away. But up until the point where you’re actually shooting, the stress very much there [laughs]. You see the sun fading fast, and the sky getting darker and darker, and you know that you still have more of the scene to shoot. It’s not fun, but it’s fun when it works out.
Kirill: You mentioned that your job is to define the visual language of the story. How was your working relationship with the writer-director of the movie Nora Unkel?
Oren: Nora and I went to film school together, so we’ve known each other and worked together on projects for many years prior to this one. Because of that relationship, I was aware of this project well before it ever was physically getting made. I had read an early draft of the script years before, so I had a fortunate advantage of being able to already be thinking about it before we ever set out to make it.
So once it got financing and was scheduled to shoot, we already had a good baseline to start off of. Nora and I also like a lot of the same movies that are in this genre, so we had a lot of good mutual touchstones to go to as initial ideas of what was going to inspire the visual look of the film.
Low budget projects tend to be passion projects, where everybody involved in the film is not doing it as a job. We’re doing it because we’re passionate about the film and the material. Because of that we’re able to and willing to dedicate extra time to the movie outside of official parameters. So Nora and I had a long and great unofficial pre-production period of about six months. We would get together for a few hours a week in between our other jobs and shoots that we were doing separately and work on the shot list and exchange visual references.
When you do a low budget project, you don’t have a lot of time in the schedule to shoot it, so that kind of pre-production is important. You want to show up as prepared as possible, and have as solid a plan as possible. So all of those elements together created a great pre-production period. The collaboration was fruitful and fun. That kind of collaboration is my favorite part of filmmaking.
We were able to bring in our production designer Madeline Wall, our costume designer Jennifer Stroud, our makeup designer Mickayla Pence, and all work together to craft the visual look of this film. We were looking a lot at Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre.” “Lady Macbeth” was another big influence for us; it’s a film that Nora and I both like and both think is quite underrated. On the lighting side our inspiration was “Barry Lyndon”, “Bright Star,” “The Beguiled,” “The Witch,” The Crown,” “Game of Thrones,” and other dark movies and shows with period settings. We also looked at “Alias Grace” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” quite a bit for inspiration for subjective framing. And we also looked at “Black Swan” and “Mother” for how to integrate surreal, nightmare imagery and have it blend into the world of the film. It was a great collaboration.
Kirill: You mentioned the budgetary constraints a couple times. Do you think that some movies can only get worse if they get the Marvel-side budget?
Oren: One hundred percent yes. Limitations can be a blessing. I think that the key to the success of a film with a Marvel-sized budget is the filmmakers’ self-imposed limitations to work within. Those are the films that end up being the most successful.
I mentioned the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is one of my all-time favorite films, and the same goes for Nora as well. When you compare that trilogy to “The Hobbit” trilogy, you see the difference. The thing that separates them is that the budget of one of “The Hobbit” films was equal to the budget of all three of the “Lord of the Rings” films. They had to come up with all these ingenious creative solutions and approaches to how to make the original trilogy. The minute those limitations were lifted, and they had access to be able to do and make whatever they wanted, the magic was gone – because they had unlimited funds and unlimited time.
The lack of limitation can end up being crippling. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true. You could say the same thing about the “Star Wars” original trilogy vs the prequels – similar dynamic.
On this film, we were aware of the budgetary limitations ahead of time. We were able to embrace them and lean into them from the conceptual stage of sitting down and actually designing the look of the film. Because we were able to lean into those limitations, they ended up guiding all of the creative decisions, and it ended up making a better film – in my opinion – and forcing us to think minimalistically.
As a DP, my personal philosophy and approach to cinematography is to embrace minimalism anyway. The films and cinematographers that I admire and look up to are all ones that embrace minimalism in lighting, leaning into darkness and naturalism. We would joke that this was our European art film version of the story because we were forced to shoot scenes simply, to find ways to let a scene play out with just one camera angle, to not get overly complicated with blocking and coverage because we didn’t have time or a big team to pull that off. So in the end I’m really happy with how the limitations guided the visual look of the film. It ended up aligning very much with my personal taste, and more importantly, what I think was right and best for the story.
Kirill: Was removal of saturated colors one of the limitations you wanted to impose? I’m thinking about the opening sequence with the ink-black lake and then it goes into the forest that is supposed to be luscious green, but almost all green is drained out of it.
Oren: The color grading was one of those self-imposed limitations. At the end of the day the camera is just capturing data, and the way that you interpret that data in the color grade can manifest itself in so many different ways. There’s a version of this film where you crank the saturation up, and it would look and feel completely differently.
The limited color palette was a self-imposed limitation, and it really dovetailed into the natural, limited lighting and camera approach we took overall. We wanted that approach to manifest in all of the different visual elements including color. As you mentioned before, at the end of the day, audiences probably aren’t attuned to the technical aspects, but they do feel the results of those technical decisions, so desaturating the color is a big part of creating that feeling.
The mood that we wanted to craft with color grade, and that feeling of unease, and of the lush forest being anything but – that’s what we wanted to imbue in the audience. We wanted to create this sense of dread, unease, and darkness throughout the whole film, even before that darkness becomes manifested in the story itself. I think it all worked together in that regard.
Kirill: Probably it was real ink and fake blood in those scenes. How much time did it take to clean it up in between the takes?
Oren: This whole film embraced the minimalistic approach all the way down to the crew. Mickayla Pence our makeup artist also did all the special effects makeup. I think she had one or two assistants, and the three of them were doing absolutely everything. It was a herculean task, and it was incredible.
The solution is just that you don’t have a lot of takes. You have to lean into the idea that you’re not going to get a ton of opportunities to capture it. Thankfully, we were able to do a couple of rehearsals without introducing the messy elements until we felt that we had the scene down. When we knew where the camera was going to be, we went for it. I don’t think we did more than 2, maybe 3 takes tops on any of the messy special effects makeup stuff. I will say that some of the shots are VFX, but I’m not going to say which ones [laughs]. I’ll keep a little bit of the magic alive. The VFX shots are where we were physically limited by the space, where we couldn’t get the furniture or the floors messy.
Kirill: As she goes into her daydreaming – or maybe nightmares – envisioning the Frankenstein’s lab around her, and it turns into this greenish haze – was that color grade or was that captured on camera?
Oren: I like to capture color in camera as much as I can. There’s all sorts of different ways you can manipulate that. You can do colored gels on lights. You can use RGB LED lights where you can dial in the color. And you can do it in the camera, messing with the white balance and also with the green-magenta tint.
I like to bake some of that in, as much as I can. I think that the final result is a mix of me messing with some weird funky white balance and added green in camera, and then it was finessed in the color grade a little bit in order to complete the circle. That was our sort of classic Frankenstein homage. We wanted to give a little wink to the pop culture concept of Frankenstein without being too overt with it.
The other factor that went into that thought process was that we wanted to separate the different worlds visually. We wanted reality and that nightmare world to feel distinctly different, so that the audience could be subtly cued into understanding where they were in terms of Mary’s consciousness.
Kirill: How did you know which green was the “right” green?
Oren: It comes down to gut reaction. Everybody responds differently to different aesthetic cues, and finding that specific color was one of those things where you know it when you see it. I don’t think we experimented with it too much, maybe just in terms of saturation. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly when you know that it’s the right color, but you sort of just know it when you see it.
When you talk about these things verbally, people have different ideas of what different things look like. Like for example, we had a whole debate on what color we wanted the candlelit scenes to be. Nora and I watched a lot of period references that were shot in candlelight, and we realized that the deep orange color that people generally associate with flame, the color that we saw in a lot of the reference films – there was something about it that just didn’t sit well with us. We ended up going back and forth a little bit on how we can treat the candlelight.
We ended up finding inspiration in an unexpected place which was on “House of Cards”. All of the nighttime lighting with modern lamps in that show ended up having more of a desaturated yellow look to it – as opposed to an orange. We really liked that, so in the end we ended up borrowing from this super contemporary David Fincher aesthetic and then applying it to this period setting. I think that a lot of the overall desaturated palette came from that, in general.
It’s interesting to think about how all of our different references mesh together in the final piece.
Kirill: How do you know that I, as a viewer, am seeing the colors as you intended them to be? I watched it yesterday on my laptop, and I have no idea if I’m seeing the same greens and the same yellows that you wanted me to see. Do you worry about this?
Oren: The truth is that you probably aren’t seeing the same colors that I see or that Nora sees. At the end of the day, perception of color is one of the more subjective things in the human psyche. It’s something that’s really interesting to me as a cinematographer is to study and understand the differences in how people perceive colors. It can vary by culture and background, and it can vary by technical settings on whatever device you’re watching on.
Knowing that that variety exists, I think as a cinematographer you have to just let go of it. Nobody is ever going to see the exact color that you see in your head, and nobody is ever going to see the exact color that you see in the professional projection room in the post house where you do your color grade. You have to embrace it and let go of it. What’s more important to me that audiences get is the overall effect of the mood and atmosphere that we’re trying to create with that color palette.
You never really know if people get it. You can do test screenings. You can send the film to people to get feedback, and hope that you get the information that you’re looking for to see if what you’re trying to accomplish is working. But at the end of the day, once you make the film, you put it out there and you have to hope and trust that all of these creative decisions that you made all throughout the process, all the hundreds of little choices and decisions have their intended overall effect. It’s always a joy to find out that they do when you get certain feedback or read reviews.
It’s fun, but it’s also anxiety-inducing because sometimes things don’t work the way you intended them to. But that’s the nature of film, and any art form really. Once a piece of art is out in the world, the viewer becomes a part of the piece. Their experience of viewing it is imbued with their own meaning and whatever background they’re bringing in context that they’re bringing to it. I think that’s great. You have to embrace that and learn to love it as part of the process [laughs].
Kirill: Would you say that your job is done well when viewers don’t talk about it?
Oren: Roger Deakins says that all the time. He says that he did a great job when nobody talks about the cinematography. Now the irony is people constantly talk about his cinematography, because it’s so great and distinct.
I think I have a bit of a different approach to this question. I’m happy if people notice that the cinematography is supporting the story. If that connection is made, if it feels appropriate, if all the different elements – cinematography included – come together and create a cohesive whole, and people notice the cohesiveness of it, and notice how the cinematography supports the story – that’s when I’m happy. If somebody singles out the cinematography as a standout element and then single out other elements that don’t work, then that’s a red flag for me. That means that something that I’ve done or that we’ve done with the film doesn’t work in concert with each other.
But if people notice the cinematography and like it, as long as it’s within the context of uplifting the story and supporting the characters and the narrative, I think that’s a good thing.
Kirill: Is there a particular favorite scene of yours on “A Nightmare Wakes”, or perhaps the most challenging or the most satisfying?
Oren: The most challenging scene was definitely that climactic scene that I mentioned earlier. It’s the one that we had to break up over multiple days, and then in the edit as we cut from shots that we shot days apart that in the film are continuous with one another, hope that it all works. Thankfully, it did.
Probably my favorite scene that comes to mind is what we call the “dark and stormy night” scene. It’s early on in the film at Byron’s manor where they’re having dinner and it’s raining outside and he comes up with the contest to write these scary stories. I love that room in the historic manor that we were shooting in, it was probably my favorite room. There was just something about the quality of the pieces of furniture that were in it, and the way the windows interacted with the space that I just really loved.
Being able to light that candlelit dinner scene in this large space and showcasing the beauty of the location was fun. It was also being able to shoot a scene that was a little lighter, with some jokes in it and seeing the characters in a little bit of a looser setting than the darkness that comes later. We shot in a way that allowed each of the characters their moment to shine. It’s also the scene where Mary initially gets drawn in to the darkness within her psyche. She’s drawn to this notebook where she ends up writing the story. Crafting that visual and the little push in when she approaches the book, creating that subjective experience, that’s the stuff I love about cinematography. I’m happy with how that scene turned out and how it looks. And everybody was having fun during that scene, including the actors.
Kirill: You said that people come to art – cinema included – with their own experiences, and every viewer sees that story through their own lived lens. It felt to me that this movie is of a variety where it doesn’t spell out everything. There’s a lot of pieces, big and little, that can be interpreted differently. Do you prefer to work on stories that are not necessarily straightforward, stories that leave the viewer with maybe more questions than answers?
Oren: A hundred percent. I come at this both as a filmmaker and as a lover of film, so both of those things are combining when it comes to the types of stories that I am interested in telling and and the types of films I’d like to work on as a cinematographer.
For me it comes down to emotional complexity and stories that don’t give you easy answers. Those are the films that I like the most, the films that leave you sitting in your chair afterwards – or on your couch or in the seat in the movie theater, hopefully soon – and they leave you stewing on your thoughts. They don’t give you an easy answer to anything, and they maybe even leave you with more questions than you had going in. And then on the way home you think about them, and that’s when you start to imbue your own experiences and background and thoughts into the film, and come up with your interpretation of what it all means. I love those movies, and those are also the kinds of stories that I’m drawn to as a filmmaker and the kinds that I want to tell.
Another element that’s important to me is telling stories that embrace the diversity of humanity, uplifting stories about women, minorities, LGBTQ characters, and anything that’s off the simple status quo path. These are the stories that I’m drawn to, and that are important to me to elevate as a filmmaker – and that I tend to find more interesting anyway.
Kirill: Speaking of going back to the movie theaters. The inevitable rise of the streaming services and networks got an unexpected bump from the global pandemic that has decimated the theatrical side of the industry in 2020. Do you see the world where going to a movie theater is like listening to a vinyl record, something of an oddity?
Oren: I think movie theaters are here to stay. I would compare them more to going to a live music concert. There’s something different about the experience compared to listening to even a recording of a live album. It’s just not the same as being there physically.
The value of the communal experience of watching a film is something that still holds a lot of importance to enough people to keep the theatrical distribution industry going once we get on the other side of this pandemic. Maybe more casual viewers will choose to stay at home. Long term, I don’t even think that’s a bad thing. I’m sure you’ve experienced this as well. Sometimes, going to the movies is not the best experience. All it takes is one audience member that can ruin the whole thing. It can be hit or miss sometimes.
I miss it so much, and I can’t wait to go back. There were a few films in 2020 that I was really bummed not to see in theaters with an audience. I still enjoyed watching them on my own at home, but I do think they would have played even better in a theater.
Having said that, I don’t have any issue with the rise of streaming or people watching films at home. I grew up in a smallish city in Israel, not having easy access to any arthouse theaters or anything like that. So I watched most of my films on DVD from this local video store in town that specialized in arthouse and classic cinema; they had the full Criterion collection and everything, and so I ended up watching most of the classics on DVD. And it didn’t make them any less good films than if I had seen them on the big screen.
I can’t remember when we switched to widescreen TV, but it must have been around that time. It was a big chunky plasma, pretty pathetic in comparison to modern standards. Now I have this 4K OLED HDR TV that looks incredible, better than some movie theaters probably. We’re spoiled nowadays, but at that time you would take what you could get. The point is that even though the first time I saw “Lawrence of Arabia” was on DVD on a crappy TV, it didn’t make it any less of a masterpiece. Thankfully, I was fortunate later in life to have the opportunity to move to LA that has all these great revival movie theaters and cinematheques that show 35mm and 70mm prints of the classics on the big screen. I was able to go and to watch “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” and others the way they were originally intended.
But it never bothered me when I was growing up. I was still able to love and foster a love of movies and cinema, even though I was watching them on a TV. I don’t think that’s changed today. There’s a place for everything.
Kirill: How well do you think the industry has been adapting so far to the Corona world?
Oren: I hope whatever adaptations have been made are temporary, at least in terms of the day-to-day logistics of dealing with the virus specifically. I also hope that some of the other adaptations are permanent.
I certainly think there were a lot of health and safety concerns on film shoots that weren’t being addressed, and that Covid initiated newfound interest in trying to do something about. The biggest issue for me is shooting hours. I think that the 12-hour day minimum model is unsustainable long term. I have a lot of friends in the industry who have young kids, and it’s really difficult to make that commitment to work on set for 12 hours. And it’s actually a 14-hour day because you have to factor in travel, lunch break, and all these other factors. People with families have a hard time with not being able to come home and put their kids to bed, and it’s unfair to force them to have to make that choice. Also people without families deserve to live a life outside of work, and have other interests, activities, relationships and friendships.
I hope that one of the changes that sticks is this move towards working shorter hours. I’m a big believer in the 10-hour work day that’s been gradually gaining popularity in the industry. Marvel shoots all of their films on 10-hour schedules, and some TV shows do it as well. It’s so much better and it makes the filmmaking better. People that are able to live rich lives outside of work are able to bring that richness and tapestry of experience to their art, and people who aren’t tired all the time do better work too [laughs].
In terms of distribution, a lot of these changes were already in progress. Maybe Covid sped up certain transitions to streaming, but that was going to happen at some point anyway.
Overall I’ve been impressed with how robust and quick the industry found ways to shoot. I shot a feature with Covid restrictions in the fall. We shot in Canada, following all the required health and safety limitations. Everybody felt safe on the shoot and we had zero cases. We did testing three times a week, everyone wore masks, the whole cast and crew was in a bubble at the hotel. It was interesting. We adapted and we adjusted.
That’s one of the great things about film as a medium, as an art form and as a workplace. There’s a lot of ingenuity, a lot of creative thinking and collaboration, and I love all of these aspects about it. I think it’s manifested in the Covid response in a good way.
Kirill: What keeps you going in the field?
Oren: I love movies. I’ve always loved movies, and I’ve wanted to make them for a long time.
What keeps me going is remembering that and realizing how fortunate I am to be able to have this job. I was a random nerdy kid in the suburbs. My parents are in computer science. We have very few professional artists in the family, so I came with no connections to the film industry. I started with just the love of movies, and to be able to get to where I am now is really something else. I have to sometimes pause and remind myself that I am fortunate and grateful to be able to do this for a living.
It’s the best job in the world, and cinematography is the best job within the best job. You get the best of all the aspects of filmmaking without the financial pressures of producing, or the decision-making pressures of directing, or the anxiety and self-doubt of writing. Cinematography has it all. It’s the best job. I’m biased, obviously [laughs], and I love it. What a beautiful, amazing thing is it to have your creative calling also be your job. I think a lot of filmmakers, if not all filmmakers, feel that way about it. That’s what makes it really special.
The creative calling aspect of it is what makes you go above and beyond, and want to eagerly and happily do all the extra work involved in creating something with limited resources. This field is built on those balances and contradictions. It applies to art forms in general, but to film especially. It exists in this tension between commerce and an art form, and that tension is interesting. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is a job, and people deserve to have a workplace that is respectful, tenable, not exploitative, realistic and feasible. But it’s also a form of artistic expression. It’s both at the same time.
Going back to the stories that interest me, contradictions like these are what interests me in life. It’s just interesting that it permeates into the field itself. Some situations are tough to navigate. You have to work on yourself and figure out how far are you willing to push it, when do you put your foot down and when are you willing to walk away from something. Everybody in this field has to make these decisions. It’s not easy. But I love it.
And here I’d like to thank Oren Soffer for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and Nathalie Retana for making this interview happen. You can see more of Oren’s work on Vimeo and Instagram. “A Nightmare Wakes” is available for streaming on Shudder. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.