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Wisdom: Sol Negrin on Teaching Cinematography

Veteran cinematographer Sol Negrin, ASC understands the challenges of bringing cinematography from the set to the classroom.

Now a professor at New York’s Five Towns College, Negrin’s six-decade-long career—during which he worked on projects like Coming to America and Superman—led to him being handed the 2010 President’s Award by the American Society of Cinematographers and, earlier this year, the Society of Camera Operators’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Not one to hoard his knowledge, Negrin shares his tricks for the best ways to teach—and learn—cinematography.

Einstein once said that, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” But when it comes to teaching the art of moviemaking, that task might be easier said than done, as reading textbooks and analyzing films cannot truly prepare a student for the realities of a film set. In no discipline is a hands-on education more important than cinematography. Sure, an instructor can lecture aspiring DPs all day long about what goes into lighting a scene or the many ways to move a camera, but without getting their hands on some real equipment, it’s nearly impossible for the next generation of cinematographers to translate theory to technique.

Rebecca Pahle (MM): How much can someone learn about cinematography by just studying films? How do you balance more “academic” methods with giving students hands-on experience?

Sol Negrin (SN): One can learn a great deal by studying and observing the direction, lighting, visual compositions and camera movements of various films and how they translate the script to benefit the picture. “Academic” books on filmmaking, in my opinion, only give you some basics on the technical aspects of how to make a film. It’s the hands-on of knowing the available cameras, lenses, film stocks and different techniques that I believe to be most important.

From time to time, I do invite guest lecturers, such as directors of photography, who will discuss how they lit their particular films. In addition, I arrange occasional field trips to rental houses so the students can see which film and digital cameras are available to them. Also scheduled are trips to laboratories, post-production facilities, etc. I teach third-year students advanced cinematography, which prepares them for their thesis projects as part of their graduation requirement.

MM: You’ve been teaching cinematography for a little over two decades now, and since you began it’s become much easier for people to gain access to a camera and just shoot. Have you noticed any change in the students you teach today, as compared to those you met when you were starting out?

SN: Yes, it’s easier—up to a point—to get a camera. You can shoot with a DSLR camera with available light, which may or may not be appropriate. Working with digital cameras [gives you] the advantage of seeing your footage immediately. However, you must still have the capability to know and understand what the production process is all about. I’m assuming [that] starting to shoot with a consumer video camera is no different than when Super8 or 16mm cameras were in vogue.

MM: Are there any common mistakes students tend to make when they’re just beginning to learn cinematography? Or any preconceived notions they have about the craft?

SN: They all make mistakes; the usual ones are exposure, focus, bad camera movement and lighting. These are just a few, but there are many others, too numerous to list here.

There is a disciplined procedure in filmmaking, and it should be followed… from the technical aspects to the etiquette required during a shoot. Certainly, [students] have to be disabused of the idea that there are “secrets.” As the great director of photography Harry Stradling, Sr. (A Streetcar Named Desire, My Fair Lady), who was one of my mentors, said to me: “There are no secrets in the craft.” I worked on five films with him, both as an assistant cameraman and as a camera operator. He also said, “Ask questions and I’ll give you the answers.” Being conscientious and having talent is what one needs. There is no particular style a cameraperson works in. Each picture dictates its own look.

MM: You’ve stated that it’s very important for a cinematographer to keep up-to-date with emerging technologies. As technology changes so rapidly, can remaining on the cutting-edge be a challenge as a teacher?

SN: Yes and no… Being a member of the ASC, with its Technology Committee, is a big advantage in keeping me informed and abreast of the rapid changes. However, even I sometimes have difficulty keeping up with all the emerging technology. But here on the east coast our union, the International Cinematographers Guild, keeps us informed of various seminars by the various camera manufacturers such as Sony, ARRI, Panasonic and Panavision. The rental houses do the same… Whatever pertinent information I obtain, I will share with my students.

MM: What are the five quick tips you’d offer to an aspiring cinematographer?

SN: 1. Study. 2. Be Attentive. 3. Observe. 4. Listen. 5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. MM

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