Michael Ballhaus, ASC is an indisputable cinematography great.
As a key collaborator for directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols and Robert Redford, the German lensman has shot some of the most striking, memorable images to ever be put to screen. His credits, which stretch back to the early 1970s with Fassbinder’s Whity, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Fox and His Friends, include such classics as Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006), James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News (1987), Steve Kloves’ The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) and Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give (2003). In 2009, Ballhaus also directed a feature documentary, In Berlin, with Ciro Cappelari.
Here, Ballhaus shares 10 pieces of wisdom he’s picked up over his storied career. – MM Editors
1. You never stop learning. I’m still learning every day, on every picture.
2. Every face is different. Your lighting depends on the parts that the actors are playing and the environments.
3. An actor has to be totally relaxed to open up his heart to the audience. I try to provide that atmosphere.
4. I still think that being a conductor must be the second most wonderful job in the world. Working with music all your life would be fantastic. I was born with a love for music.
5. I was a very bad assistant, because I was much more interested in finding the right images. I always told the director what I would do if I was directing, and he didn’t like that very much.
6. I learned a lot about the importance of rhythm from Rainer Werner Fassbinder. We made our movies with about 20 people, including the actors, a camera assistant, sound guy, makeup person, script supervisor, producer, gaffer and grip. That taught me a lot about the importance of teamwork.
7. When I was 17 or 18, I had my first encounter with movies when I visited a set where Max Ophüls, who was a friend of my parents, was directing Lola Montès. I was there for about a week and it was a revelation for me. The cinematographer was Christian Matras from France, who didn’t speak German. He was working with a gaffer from Bavaria who didn’t speak a word of French. I watched them work together and communicate. It was like magic.
8. I always ask my gaffer, key grip and operator for their opinions and ideas. They want to be part of the creative process, and I love that feeling. I always encourage people on my crew to tell me if they have a better idea.
9. New technology can make it easier to do some things. The new master prime lenses from Zeiss and ARRI open up to T1.3, and the new films are incredible. You can underexpose Kodak VISION2 5218 500T film one—or even two—stops, and it is still not too grainy. When you combine that with the new lenses, you can record anything you can see with your eyes on the darkest night.
10. [When I first came to the U.S. from Germany] I looked at composition and other things a little differently. John Sayles’ Baby It’s You was the first time I used a Steadicam. We also had a crane. We didn’t have budgets for those technologies in Germany. It opened a new world. MM