The Review/Interview/

The Next Generation of Canadian Cinematographers

What happens when you put 10 DPs in a tiny room and make them talk about film during TIFF 16

by
Jan 6, 2017 @ 5:00am

During TIFF 16, we packed 10 prolific Canadian cinematographers into a tiny room and asked them to talk about their work. A group of DPS who have all shot respectively, countless award-winning feature films, shorts, music videos, and commercials that have changed the face of culture, all of them represent the next generation of Canadian film. We asked them to trade views on celluloid digital, the emotional impact of the job, and Vimeo ennui. For anyone curious what the next generation of Canadian cinematography looks like, come see their work on the big screen at Canada's Top Ten Film Festival.

What brought you all into cinematography?

Daniel Grant (Toronto-based cinematographer of the TIFF 16 short Emma and films ARQ, Into The Forest, Guidance, Hole, The Husband): I got into still photography when I was in high school, and was really into movies. At one point, I realized there was basically a job where someone did photography for movies. I went to film school and shot a million short films.

Evan Prosofosky (Montreal-turned-LA-based cinematographer behind Emily Kai Bock’s TIFF 16 short A Funeral For Lightning, as well as acclaimed music videos for Grimes, Solange Knowles, Lorde, Arcade Fire, Paul McCartney): I started making skateboard movies with my friends. I really hurt my ankle and I couldn’t skateboard and when you’re just sitting there watching your friends skateboard, you get bored. So I started filming them and that grew into a love of filmmaking.

Benjamin Loeb (Vancouver-based cinematographer who shot TIFF 16’s Hello Destroyer, as well as several acclaimed shorts with director Kevan Funk): I started out editing and I really didn’t like the way things looked, so I figured I might as well shoot the stuff. It grew into me looking to shoot instead.

Bobby Shore (Montreal-turned-Toronto cinematographer for the TIFF films Closet Monster, Bang Bang Baby and Goon): I used to make short films with my friends in highschool and all of them wanted to direct and act. I was way too timid to want to be in front of the camera, so I just gravitated to being behind the camera.

Peter Hadfield (Vancouver-turned-Toronto cinematographer who has shot music videos for Harrison, Odonis Odonis, and Jazz Cartier): This is really ridiculous ‘cause I have the exact same story as Evan. I tore a ligament in my left ankle and I couldn’t skateboard, so I picked up my dad’s camera and bought a shitty fisheye lens from the drugstore… Then you start watching movies, and you think, “This could be cool.” 10 years later, you end up here.

Catherine Lutes (Vancouver-turned-Toronto cinematographer for Baroness von Sketch Show, The People Garden, Molly Maxwell, and several acclaimed short films with director Jamie Travis): I did a lot of still photography when I was in highschool and was a theatre nerd. We were given the opportunity to design the whole stage for a play. I designed the lighting, and I thought it was cool, but so limiting. It was the first time I had thought about lighting outside of what a stage could be.

Jared Raab (Toronto-based director and co-cinematographer behind TIFF 16’s nirvanna the band the show, Operation Avalanche, and The Dirties): In highschool, I would make a ton of crappy little videos with my friends. I didn’t understand the distinction between shooting and just making things. I think at the beginning, it all blends nicely together. Slowly as things scale up, other things drop off. I never really grew out of the “it's just me holding a camera!” phase.

Maya Bankovic (Toronto-based cinematographer behind TIFF 16’s Below Her Mouth, My Prairie Home): It was just a love of photography and theatre and working with people. It was a bit of a shock going to film school and how much of an emphasis there was on writing and directing. Because to me, films were cinematography.

Becky Parsons (Halifax-based cinematographer behind TIFF 16’s Weirdos): I went to art school for photography in London. I was working as a pyrotechnics still photographer on motion picture and television sets, and then graduated from the stills camera to the motion picture. When I came to Canada — I’d made a few films in England — to finish my degree, I started shooting. It carried on after that.

Stuart Campbell (Toronto-based cinematographer of many short films and commercials): I was in advertising, as an art director, for about 10 years. It got to a point where I had to find something else to do because the industry changed so much. It wasn’t as creative. My skills just naturally went to shooting. I took photography in high school, and I did some skate films. It wasn’t until after I decided to leave advertising that I realized I loved cinematography.

"As cinematographers, I feel like our body of work becomes the art."

Maya Bankovic

I feel like so many people in this room are responsible for a gravitation towards a new style of cinematography. How do you think the vision of Canadian film is changing?

Ben: I’ve noticed that with more amateur content and everyone getting comfortable with watching handheld phone videos, it’s opening up a more natural approach. There’s that heavy formalism, static shot with the slow creep-in thing. But not being afraid of things like lens flare, probably come from people getting used to cheap, homemade video.

Bobby: You look at the early 2000s, it was all skip-bleach-fucking-everything. Amores Perros was “the look,” Babel was “the look,” Three Kings was “the look.” With everything I shot, which was on film back then, I’d be like, “Oh, I’m going to do a skip-bleach.” When the renaissance of music videos started to happen again, after the romantic Spike Jonze thing, it was AG Rojas and Abteen and younger dudes making really interesting stuff. And some were shooting film, like Evan, and some were shooting digital. The common denominator between the two was not forcing a look, but actually just using what existed and making that the look itself.

Daniel: This style versus content debate has gotten to a point where all the content is sort of the same. It’s now about the language, rather than the technical side. Rather than the idea of what it could look and feel like, it’s about what does it say?

Bobby: Six years ago, when Alexa and Red started becoming a little more prevalent, it was the low-con, old lens thing. I was like, “We’re gonna make this look old with vintage lenses and take the curse off digital!” Everyone does that because it does look really good, but I think you can give the same tools to each of us, and we can all make it look good, in very different ways. Ultimately, what’s going to matter is the content.

Maya: As cinematographers, I feel like our body of work becomes the art.

A still from Closet Monster, shot by Bobby Shore and directed by Stephen Dunn

A lot of you have beautiful collaborations with your directors. There’s the idea of the form becoming the content, but also the collaboration becoming the content. Evan, I’m such a fan of your work with Emily Kai Bock, how do you think a collaboration between a DP and a director can work, ideally?

Evan: That’s the thing that bothers me the most about filmmaking: how to make a collaboration work, what makes a collaboration work. Especially if you’re talking about music videos, like the stuff that Emily and I do. A lot of it is the writing. If you’re going to shoot a scene that’s a girl backlit by one single source (like a sodium vapour lamp in the middle of a forest) it’s probably going to look pretty cool. I take no credit for that image because it was the image that Emily wrote and I just put the camera there.

Maya: I feel like the director has to be your muse for the duration. They have to inspire you to do your best work because of who they are.

Catherine: It’s never going to be the same experience twice. Every director has a new way of collaborating, and that’s a hard thing, realizing that you have to be fluid in that. You can't just say, “This thing worked, why isn't it working this time?” It's going to be new with each person.

Daniel: We become very good people readers. It really is within five minutes whether you know if you can work with someone on a long-term basis.

Stuart: I literally just met a guy. I emailed him to set up the job. I called, nothing. Showed up on the day, he had spent no time meeting anyone, and instantly I knew the job was going to be terrible. Because he just didn’t care, there was no connection.

Catherine: I was thinking about it this morning... What is this “new cinematographer” thing? What comes back to me is a certain demeanor, or sense of calmness, or collaboration, that in old-school sets wasn’t always there.

Evan: They were the auteur with the magic eye who could see with the light meter and would say, “Fuck off, let me do my thing.”

Daniel: The sense I get from more traditional cinematographers is that there’s a certain magicianship they’ve lost with the switch to digital. Because everyone can see — the monitor’s right there, they know if it looks good. It takes the mystery away. I’m not a super verbal person, especially after a 10-hour day. It’s a totally different kind of communication when you can point the camera at something and say, “Look. Good?”

Ellen Page in Patricia Rozema's feature film Into The Forest, shot by Daniel Grant

Even the fact that there’s an app where you can frame up with any kind of lens you want, just on your phone, and that’s something a director can do.

Jared: I always used to think that trust was the main thing. It was just varying scales of how much you were being trusted to do your work. The longer I spend shooting things, the more I realize that you have to set your ego aside, because it isn’t just trust — you need feedback.

Ben: The best collaborations I’ve had, especially with Kevan Funk, is where I can take him aside and be like, “Hey man, this scene is shit.” If a director is smart and picks the right person, they get so much back. We’re not just there to make pretty pictures.

Evan: Perhaps it’s a more boring discussion, but one thing that people never talk about is how good we have to be at email. I feel like I can’t live without my phone. It is actually a huge problem for me in my personal life because I always need to be near internet. I find producers expect a response immediately, especially on a bigger job, especially on commercials. Just yesterday, flying here, it was only a four-hour flight, but the internet didn’t work on my plane and it was a nightmare. When I landed, I had 50 emails because I’m prepping a job for next week and I had missed calls. The producer was angry, they were upset. There’s no respect for our personal lives anymore. If it’s four in the morning, answer your email. It really is that they need a response, now.

Becky: Next to the job, meaning the lighting, the camera, is putting our personalities aside. Because we are the melting pot of everybody. Everybody else can have a conniption — but we can’t. I will always be myself and I have my process, but my personality is secondary to everybody else’s. You end up in quite a political position sometimes between directors and producers and your crew. You’re working through all these levels, and you have to be solid.

Catherine: If I’m going to work on something now, I’m at this point where I have to love it. I am not always putting my personality aside now, I need to express exactly what I want. Because otherwise, this will be another one of those projects I’m bummed out about where I was stepped over.

Evan: I was just ranting to a friend about how I would love to be everyone’s best friend on set. You can be really close with the director but if it’s a night shoot and it’s the 14th hour of the day and you’re disagreeing about something, it can seem like the end of the world. The reality is that they hired you because they saw something in your work. I’m kind of paraphrasing (cinematographer) Bradford Young, but he said something that I loved about bringing your own baggage to set, and how powerful that actually is. Sometimes if you’re shy and demure and you’re not expressing what you really think, you’re actually doing the project a disservice.

Daniel: Well, in an ideal situation, you’re translating what a director is bringing you into your language as a DP. The times that I’ve worked with a director where everybody’s been really happy with the result, is when they’ve felt like they’ve had their vision reflected back to them. It has this element to it where it’s been translated into another language.

Jared: I have a question. Being able to go on Vimeo and see video after video, so many of them shot well and competently and with interesting content… Does anyone else have this sense of ennui just by the fact that your tools are being used more? Because it’s so difficult to be able to create images that are strong and poignant. Am I alone in that?

Peter: I would like to end up doing something that isn’t just in the regular bag of tricks that I’ve amassed and that I’ve been influenced by, every single day. I’m actively trying not to look at Vimeo.

Stuart: I find that the best stuff is where I can sit down with a director. You know, “here is my idea, here is the backstory, this is what the idea means.” If the idea is super good, it just naturally gives you the vision.

Maya: That’s a documentary thing too, just constantly being open to surprises, and not necessarily designing stuff from scratch. Just last night, there was a crew member standing in the light and I really liked the weird shadows it was making, so we put him back there.

Catherine: Happy accidents, you gotta be able to roll with the happy accidents.

Is the idea of traditional coverage is getting phased out?

Bobby: As far as TV goes, I think The Knick is the only one that has eschewed traditional coverage. I tried watching Mr. Robot because someone said it was really good, and it was literally TV coverage done with a 25-millimeter lens for close-ups.

Catherine: I think people are adjusting to what certain genres should look like. I’ve done a lot of comedy. When I first started, everything had to look exactly the same with very standard coverage, very high-key lighting. Now, it can be handheld, there can be mood in the lighting that might actually make it funnier because it feels real.

Do you relate to Canadian cinema? How much does that factor into how you’re navigating your careers?

Ben: I'm speaking maybe as the least Canadian person here, but it feels like Canadian cinema is chopped up into these very specific grids. Having lived in Vancouver for nine years, there is such a lack of personality. It's literally just content being pushed out.

Bobby: Outside of Quebec, Canadian films tend to follow more of an American model. You don't have the resources to do that, ever. Even if you're trying to make an American-style indie, you're dealing with Telefilm and Sodec and you have to hire a certain amount of Canadian actors. You're just fucked and you can't make a movie the way you want to make it. All the best films come out of Quebec because it feels way more auteur-driven.

Jared: I don't think there was a single Canadian film that excited me about shooting until i started seeing Goin’ Down the Road and Mon Oncle Antoine.

Catherine: What about Fubar?

Jared: Fubar and Trailer Park Boys, that's just picking up the camera and using super-limited resources to do interesting visual storytelling. That’s something Canada has always done well, but has never been comfortable with.

Evan: But what about distribution? I can’t really connect to myself as a Canadian filmmaker because I don’t know where to watch Canadian content.

Bobby: I think that goes back to a system that doesn't actually believe in its filmmakers. You look at the way Telefilm is set up, every single feature that is made is only going to be in theatres for a week or two.

Evan: Or on Air Canada Jazz or Rouge.

Catherine: That is literally where I watch all my Canadian films, on the plane! And it's terrible because you’re like, “I saw your work, it looks really good on the tiniest screen ever!”

Bobby: Do you feel like Hello Destroyer is a Canadian film? Yeah, it's about hockey and you live in Vancouver and Kevin is Canadian. But do you do feel like you made a Canadian movie, or just a movie?

Ben: Well, if I thought my film was a Canadian movie, I'd be really depressed. But it’s the most Canadian film you could make.

Evan: I feel like there's a side of Canada that I haven't seen that is really exciting. I watched this documentary on VICE about the fentanyl crisis in Calgary. It was just these homeless people on the streets of Calgary, in the outskirts of the city. That time of winter when all the grass is dead and everything is burnt and brown, and there's all the dirt on the ground, and it snowed once and there's gravel everywhere. You don’t really see that look, but it's a very Canadian, beautiful thing.

Maya: And location-specific. Sleeping Giant was one of my favourite films last year. It's specific to Thunder Bay, but the themes are relatable to people all over the world.

Evan: On the flip side of that, don’t you think that directors feel pressure to play patsy to the granting organizations? I would feel so much safer applying for a grant if my film was about Alberta. Instead of, “I want to go to Miami.” I don’t see those movies being made.

Ben: It’s very easy to know what the people who do control the money want to actually see. So, it's a matter of taking ideas that you think are sellable and making them your own.

Bobby: I guess, from a bigger standpoint, we’re criticising a system that gives people money to make art. Taking a step back, I think you should always have a critical eye towards anyone that's giving you money to make art because maybe there’s an agenda there.

Many of you have shot “Toronto” movies with The Husband, Molly Maxwell, Below Her Mouth and nirvanna the band the show. There’s that idea of a film that’s “a love letter to Toronto.” But is there a way to show Toronto as it really is?

Jared: Toronto is such a fascinating city, and as many love letters have been made, I don't feel like I've seen a single movie that speaks to my experience of it. The moment you're out of the city, it's gorgeous. The cities for the most part are actually quite ugly, and I see so much work where they are finding the one street that looks idyllic.

Catherine: Obviously, it’s project-based, but I like the excitement of trying to find the ugly parts.

Jared: Toronto has all these weird ass back alleys that are filled with garbage that you never get to see. They are such a part of the character and the fabric of the city.

Maya: One of my favourite-looking Toronto films shot was Scott Pilgrim because it's shot with that foreign eye. I’m working with Americans right now, and the little pockets they find…

Catherine: There’s that Vancouver thing of “Vancouver can be anywhere in the world!”

Peter: I liked Enemy, they shot that here.

Maya: They shot it in Mississauga, no less.

Bobby: They made Toronto look the way it really is — fucking ugly.

Maya: Growing up in the ‘90s watching Canadian shows, there was that insecurity. Everything was oversaturated and everyone had a backlight, even if they were against a wall. As if to say, “We have lights!”

How do you feel about shooting on film versus digital?

Maya: People talk about what a tragedy it is that students don't get to learn on film. Of course all of us love film, but I see so much creative visual storytelling straight out of film school because they're experimenting more. They're not so concerned about getting an exposure and getting the right coverage. They're playing with the shots.

Evan: You just made me think of something that keeps me up at night. I've been very spoiled only shooting short-form things like music videos. I've never had the chance to shoot a feature, although I'd love to. I'm a little terrified because I know I will want to shoot on film… Those little fuck-ups can be so beautiful and the best thing about film, but are also the hardest thing to do consistently. To do that in a two-minute music video is easy and it's forgiving. That doesn't exist in narrative.

Bobby: You’d be surprised. The amount of times you do something that you think didn't work, and then you're watching a cut. And this shot you thought you'd fucked up and were ready to go home and have a 20 minute sit-down shower about, all of a sudden it's in the last shot of the movie, and you’re like, “Holy fuck! That really worked!”

Evan: It's almost like the best thing you can do is surround yourself with people that will allow you be yourself, and have a crew that understands. Maybe you want to take five minutes to look through the viewfinder and figure it out, and they know to respect that.

Catherine: That’s the weird thing about being a cinematographer. I finished film school and was like, “I want to be a cinematographer... what do I do? What is the pathway?” I wish that someone had just told me that there is no one way for this to happen.

Maya: Your body of work will dictate your trajectory. That’s why it's important to pick wisely, because there will be a direct cause-and-effect that will lead to your next project.

Is there anything aesthetically that you are obsessed with right now?

Jared: It's got a lot to do with the show that I'm working on, but throwing out the exposure and white balance to intentionally ramp up the realism for a scene. So, going from inside to outside and leaving the improper balance, or using the tools that are now ingrained in “bad shooting” to the advantage of the storytelling. People are seeing more lo-fi media than they are seeing high-fi media. Suddenly, all these lo-fi tools are at your disposal, all the things that media does improperly that you can use. You can really trick people into feeling more involved in the story because they recognize the same thing their iPhone did.

Becky: I've been shooting with directors who really enjoy Mr. Robot. I want to start hugging people with different aspect ratios. I've always loved putting a corner of a room in a frame, but now let's lose the corners and get right in there and hug.

A still from Bruce McDonald's Weirdos, shot by Becky Parsons

Evan: There can be an insecurity about borrowing heavily from somebody else's work, but there's a power to it. Even if it's just in the back of your head, it can embolden you on set to do it yourself.

Bobby: I used to work a lot with this director in LA and he’d give me a mixtape and he’d be like, “Make it feel like this.” I’d sit there and read the script and listen to the mixtape over and over. It was so liberating to think: what does this song look like?

Catherine: We have to revolve it around the story. We can't just be like, “I want to try this cool thing, I'm going to make it happen in this project!” When I approach a movie, I want to go through the emotion of the whole script before we talk about anything stylistic.

Peter: Even if you freak out and forget everything, at least you prepared yourself and know the script, so you'll have your intuition to guide you.

Evan: You can say, “A tracking shot in a Tarkovsky movie is beautiful.” Well yeah, he stayed on it for eight minutes. It’s not an incredible tracking shot, but for that scene, it worked.

Stuart: It’s like in Hunger when they're in that room.

Bobby: Did you ever listen to why Steve McQueen wanted to shoot the scene like that? His whole thing was that people don’t pay attention in movies anymore. He wanted to hold on a two-shot and not have subtitles, so people would actually have to pick up this thick Irish brogue. It had to do with listening, not watching.

Evan: I probably would have been so compelled to do a really slow push-in. But they had to lock off that camera. It probably felt wrong on the day, but it was the right choice.

At TIFF this year, there has been a concentrated effort to have more female and minority filmmakers. It's so tokenistic, just to look at the people in the room. But when you think of a DP, you think of a tall, white guy. So how do maybe women behind the camera, or people of colour change the gaze of a film?

Maya: I didn't think about how I was entering a male-dominated field. I just thought that assimilation was the answer. The older I get, the more I realize how every aspect of your life defines who you are. Your experience of gender influences your worldview, so why wouldn't that influence how you shoot something, perceive a scene, or interpret a script?

Catherine: It’s crazy because we get the same projects all the time that just “want a female DP.” And you’re like, “But why?” I feel like men are not coming to me anymore and it’s all women. It’s all, “This is a female-based thing, we want an all-female crew.” I don’t want to do that. I want to work with people.

Maya: I did a feature at the festival that was an all-female crew, but that was a process-driven decision. It wasn’t to sell or promote the film — although that’s what it's become — but it was very much for the comfort of the actors. When it has nothing to do with the content, that is suspicious.

Stuart: In terms of being Black (Laughter)... My name is Stuart Campbell, right? So I’ll meet somebody and they’ll be like, “Oh hi!” Because I have the whitest, most Scottish-sounding name. I think it’s just nice that I get work, for work. I haven’t gotten anything yet where they wanted my take on it as Black person, or anything.

Catherine: I hate talking about it, but at the same time, I’m in a position where I can talk. People need to be aware that the image of the DP as this older white guy needs to go away. When I first started, I was like “Okay, I’ll just be one of the dudes.” As time goes on, it was like, “No, I’m actually just going to be me because that is what makes me valuable.” And that’s the gaze thing, I guess. What we are as people.

Jared: I think it will change as more women enter the industry. It’s very tough to seed change from the top, you can do little initiatives. The more that you see writers and directors that are female, the whole industry will slowly grow up.

Bobby: My parents got divorced when I was super young and I was raised by my mum and her girlfriend and I just feel more comfortable around women than I do guys. I was so terrified of this female pilot director because she’s done such good shit, and within the first half hour of the first day of prep, it was like “No, this is easy.” It’s great. I often find that when guys are the head producers, ego comes into play so much more.

Maya: I often feel bad for a lot of my male DP friends because they’re up against each other in this weird, territorial way.

Ben: Secretly, I hate you. I want you to fail so badly. (Laughs)

Catherine: That was actually one the most freeing moments of my career… To realize, I don’t dislike any of these people. What’s so strong is to actually become friends and have these conversations. Like, when I reached out to Bobby and he was so helpful. I wasn’t like, “Damn, I’ve lost another job to Bobby Shore!”

Bobby: I just feel like I could reach out to anyone in this room and be like, “Hey, I need to do this thing and I’ve never done it before and I know you’ve done it, what do I do?”

Maya: We were talking to people in their sixties, like older CSC (Canadian Society of Cinematographers) people, and it was a secretive atmosphere. Everyone was hoarding information. That’s a generational thing that’s changing.

Daniel: There’s a comfort in thinking, “Oh, I only have to compete with other older white males.” I remember seeing the ICFC (International Collective of Female Cinematographers) on Facebook, and I was looking at the list and realized, “Wow, there are a lot of really talented people on here.” It was intimidating. You can see where the instinct comes to keep it insular.

Evan: I feel like the thing that we get judged the most on is our speed. I can only really speak from the commercial world, but I find people just want you to be quick. Overtime is so expensive. Sometimes, the director doesn’t even care. More and more, a producer, or even a sound guy will be like, “Why don’t you just put a Kino there and you’ll be done. Just finish the job.” The critique I hear most about DPs is, “Oh you worked with so-and-so, he’s amazing!” “No, he’s fucking slow.”

Maya: When people complain about how slow somebody is what they’re saying is that they don’t appreciate how much that person cares. It’s twisted.

I think we should have this conversation every seven years like Seven Up!. There is a changing of the guard. I want to know what kind of work you’d like to make next.

Ben: I feel like that answer changes every year.

Bobby: Every month, almost. Ultimately, I want to work on things that are meaningful to me, that I can emotionally engage with. Sometimes that might be an art project, or a big-budget studio picture. It's subjective.

Peter: I feel like maybe I should diversify what I’m doing, so I’m not just killing myself with film 24 hours a day. I’m applying for a grant for a photo project and I’m stoked to do that.

Jared: What I hope is that Canada moves away from some of that template shooting. It’s exciting to see the way that people are reaching out, and I hope that we can continue taking more and more risks. I hope that the opportunity is there for every project to be bold and different and that people set some lofty goals and stick to them. So, you don’t get stuck doing five boring features for every interesting one, you try to do five interesting features instead. The people in this room whose work I know, that is what they’re good at.