Christopher Doyle is both reverential and contrary.
After three decades, Doyle’s body of work is famously distinct, characterized by images that are lush, kinetic and highly textural—never sterile. Something of an unofficial residence at Camerimage, the annual cinematography gathering in Poland that takes place every November, the renowned DP of Hero and frequent collaborator of Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, 2046) hosted a workshop for eager acolytes, as well as a screening of his documentary Hong Kong Trilogy, at the 2015 edition.
Doyle was eager to challenge dogma, galvanized by the energy of young filmmakers who flocked to the festival. The rock-star cinematographer was as much in his element holding court with Oscar-winning colleagues as with wide-eyed pupils. When asked why he loves Camerimage, he said, “The lack of hierarchy is really important. People come up to you, like first-time filmmakers; you have a sense of community. At something like Cannes, for example, it’s like, ‘And who are you? Why aren’t you wearing a tuxedo?’ Here, it’s, ‘Why aren’t you drunk yet?’”
More seriously, he continues: “The festival’s about saying ‘Hey, let’s get together; let’s get off our asses and create a new engagement between cinematography, between image-making, between the way in which an idea is shared and who it is engaged with.'”
The Sydney-born, Melbourne-raised filmmaker, who now works primarily in Chinese-language cinema, has a lot to say about the manner in which cinematographers—and by extension, all moviemakers—should live and practice their art. The overriding theme: Keep looking for inspiration, keep engaging with new technology, and keep working. This, as Doyle says, is an obligation to cinema.
John Albrecht, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): First, of all, I’d like to ask you some questions about your approach.
Christopher Doyle (CD): First of all, I say, “Hello baby, what’s your phone number?” [laughs]
MM: What guides your instincts about how to approach coverage? Are you looking at a character’s point of view, or maybe how you like to shoot a location?
CD: OK, number one—as I said to Barry Levinson many years ago—if you need coverage, you don’t know what you’re doing. Barry and I had a lot of fun with that idea. I did a film, Magic Magic, in Chile—I work in many, many different working environments, and I’m usually the one who is not from that place. I don’t take a crew, and usually work in places they couldn’t afford people, even from Hong Kong, so I’m always the odd man out.
I’m working in Chile and the gaffer asked me, “So what’s the first shot?” I said, “They’re all the first shot.” There’s no first, second or third shot. Let’s engage with the space. Let’s celebrate the environment. Let’s respond to the location, and then find how we shoot it, find the engagement between the camera and the actors—what I call the “dance,” between the camera and the actors.
Neil Jordan asked me once, “How come all your films look so different?” I don’t think they look different, ’cause to me it’s just a journey. It’s just a process through hopefully making [something] a bit better than I did last time. Since it’s me working with different people in different locations, to me the location is always the instigator, it’s the energy, it’s the… in Chinese, they say it’s the “chi.” It’s almost like feng shui.
So when you walk into a room… for example, I look over there at that wall [indicates a wall in the room] and it’s kind of interesting how the gray [shadow] is falling away because the lights are looking down. And I will remember that. Because I work very often with low-budget films, people with no ability [to change the location]–you can’t change the Louvre, for example. You can’t relight some spaces, so through the process of all the films I’ve made, you get used to responding to the space. So the location to me is probably the biggest stylistic motivator, or generator. Then you try to put things together as a bigger picture. The process of actually preparing for the film is what creates the style of the film, and that’s usually based on choosing locations that you respond to for some reason, and usually it’s because the light in the space itself is already interesting, then your job is to amplify it.
To me this way is more organic. It is a process that embraces the ideas of the film and tries to give them a visual form, and embraces the budget restraints of the film and makes it work as best as you can. If you don’t have the logistics, the dynamics will be a mess. I prepare a film as thoroughly as I can, look at the locations as early as possible. I try to see locations during the script-writing period, because then I can say, “Hey, what if we did…” What if it says, “It was a dark cold street with 7,000 people running down it?” I say, “Well, we’re in Asia and there’s no dark, cold streets. You can get 7,000 people, but what are we going to do?”
Come in as early as possible on a film in a preparation state—then interaction is more concrete. Because most scripts are written by some person alone in a room imagining stuff, and the real world is not like that. We prepare as early as possible and then we get all the ideas as coherent as possible. We have locations that we think will work, and then you throw it all away, and you make the film. As long as you know what your intent is, then the changes in weather, or the abilities of the actors, or some breakdown of camera equipment, isn’t a big deal. “OK, so it’s not raining… so why don’t we just make the sound of rain and shoot in this direction?” Or the actor is drunk, so, we just shoot the other actor. That’s the great pleasure of this journey that I’ve taken: The experience accumulates, and life experience accumulates, in a way that you become more confident to engage with whatever material you have in a more organic, global, complete way. So all that other stuff just falls into place.
MM: You talk about the dance of camera movement. Do you operate on most of your films?
CD: I operate 103 percent of my films.
MM: It’s important to you to be a part of it?
CD: Well, I started early enough that there were no monitors. Basically you had to have an engagement, and you had to be confident enough to assure the director that what you said you were doing you were actually doing. Secondly, the spaces in which we work—especially in Asia—they’re always confined. On In The Mood For Love, there wasn’t even space for a tripod in many locations, because they were real locations. Like I said, real locations inform the film. And thirdly, because we have to work fast, because we are usually on lower budgets. I have done many films, recently, shot in five days. My own film Hong Kong Trilogy, we shot in 10 days. The dynamics of how I work are, “I don’t have the time to explain to you what I want. And secondly, you’re not me.”
CD: Take the construction of a Panavision camera—it’s made for a studio. It’s not made for people to carry around. That’s why ARRI was such a great breakthrough, because they realized it has to be organic, that it has to be light enough to put on your shoulder, etc., etc. And then you have the [bits and pieces], which I have no idea how to use. That implies that the cinema is removed, is objective. That’s what Panavision is about, to me. That’s what the geared tripod head is to me. That’s what all these technocranes are to me. They’re looking for precision, looking for remove, looking for distance, and for objectivity, then pretending that the close-up conveys all the emotion. That doesn’t work for me. The dance with the actor conveys all the emotion, and the imperfections of that dance… that’s what life is about. That’s the great loss between digital and film. Film has the imperfections built into it, and now people are trying to correct the imperfections in a digital way, so now it just looks like digital TV. That’s the danger.
I think the big thing is this dance, and I think this dance is conceptual but it’s also physical. For me, to be as close to the actors as possible is the most engaging way to share. And I usually say there’s only three people in cinema: One is the person in front of the camera, the third is the audience, and the second is the camera operator. So why would I give that over to somebody else? It is such an honor, and it’s such a privilege. It’s so important that the energy and the intent and the sincerity and the trust that an actor gives to me, as a cameraperson, is conveyed to the audience. So why would you make a remove from that? ‘Cause if you do that, in 99 percent of cases, as we have seen in most films, it becomes fake. It becomes “acting,” as opposed to emoting. It becomes “movie,” as opposed to cinema. To be as close as possible to what’s happening is what’s important. And also to move fast, to be effective and confident enough to say to a director or to the actors, “Yes, we’ve got it,” and then move on. It becomes a mixture of all those things.
MM: Do new digital cameras bring you closer to the actors, despite other compromises?
CD: The danger is having video monitors and all that stuff, and people overthink things. You see it in fashion photography or commercials—everybody has an opinion. Sorry, I don’t think film is a democracy. I think film is a dictatorship. It has to be. It has to be like an army; it has to function like an army, it has to function like a ship does. I used to be a merchant marine. You have to have a captain and a commander and the crew, and then you don’t crash into the rocks. Having so many opinions, that’s the danger of what’s happened to cinema in general. It’s by committee now. We can’t have cinema by committee. Otherwise it’s just McDonald’s and Starbucks; it’s Fast and Furious 65; it’s Harry Potter-ing around. Humming and hawing.
The digital process becomes more cumbersome, because you have to have cables, etc., whereas [with film] you just take up the camera and you shoot it and you download the film. It’s just one person—I can run around, I can run up and down the stairs with my stuff. Things were freer when film was just film. Now you have to lay cables and you have to connect things, and in many cases have a tent for the director—like, holy shit.
But this is the good thing about what is happening: Another aspect of digital filmmaking is the GoPro, and everybody’s camera, everybody’s phone and all this stuff. Even a small camera can make pictures of projectionable quality. So to me that’s the great liberator. We have to fill in the space between YouTube and the Harry Potter-ing around. We have an obligation to cinema and to cinematography, especially. Why do I dare to ask for money to make a film? Some kid can do it straight out of film school for nothing. Why do I dare to do it? These are all great questions. It keeps you awake at night, it keeps you hungry, it keeps you energized, it keeps you young. At my age, it’s either cinema or girls. [laughs]
MM: Because so much of your career has been on film, when you are working on a digital project, do you use LUTs? Do you look at camera profiles and do you read histograms? Or rely on your eye and your taste?
CD: I never believed it, back in the old days, when Nestor Almendros would say, “I don’t need a light meter,” but its true, actually. The whole journey as a cinematographer is training your eye. The first film I ever made was on Kodachrome 40, in Taiwan, and I’d never held a camera in my life before and everything looked fantastic. All the exteriors looked fantastic, all these colors, and the sky was blue and the clouds were white and the rice fields were so green and the houses—the brick and the thatch—everything was so beautiful… and the interiors were completely black [laughs]. I didn’t understand. There wasn’t enough light. So the whole journey for me, 30 years long, has been to train my eye to respond to how the camera sees things. Now, how you do that? Do it in your own way. I mean, Anthony Dodd Mantle does it in a very different way than I do. Some people with a more scientific background do it in a very different than I do. It’s a fantastic journey ’cause it is never-ending; we are doing it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Yeah the digital camera sees things differently. Respond to that, ’cause you have no choice. I work as often as possible with young people who are more exposed to digital, because most people now are looking at a digital image at least 12 hours every day. Everybody is on their phone all day long, so their experience is totally different from my own. It’s a great engagement to learn from them, and they see things in a different way. That’s the role of a cinematographer, you know. We’re commander, we’re not master.
Many young film people don’t understand the color theory—which is bullshit, by the way, but that’s another question. They don’t understand sensitometry, which is how light responds, you know, like different wavelengths. They don’t understand the theory of light or color. You can understand it and then discard it, that’s another thing. But if I take out a light meter on set, in many cases people say, “What’s that?” because they’re used to trusting the machinery. But if the machinery breaks down then you’re fucked. You gotta trust your eye and you have to teach your eye to see in a way that is effective. That’s what I think cinematography, the technical aspect of cinematography, is about. You have to be true to what you think works for you and what you wish to share with other people. There’s a balance in these two things.