Ziyi Zhang
Ziyi Zhang in Memoirs of a Geisha.

When you walk onto a set you have to be able to think on your feet and find a way to make it work.

Shooting commercials gives you more freedom to wait for scripts that you can get excited about. When you commit to doing a movie it’s two or three months or maybe six months of your life. I’ve just spent almost 10 months on Miami Vice. It makes a huge impact on your life. I really feel that if you have doubts about a script, chances are that there aren’t going to be any miracles that make it more interesting on the set. If I’m reading a script, and talking myself into wanting to do it, I know I’m better off just letting it pass by. Commercials give me that freedom.

Making [Chicago] was kind of a dance where everyone had a part, including the operator, focus puller and the whole crew. We were all anticipating and moving with the dancers. I came to think of the music as dialogue.

As a documentarian, you’re in a situation where you’re observing events and hopefully not manipulating them. You walk into a room or any environment and you have to decide whether you are going to try to move the people or are you going to find a position for the camera and be as unobtrusive as possible. That experience can be extremely useful for a cinematographer. It helps you learn to observe light, how it falls when it comes through windows and how it plays on faces. That can help you decide how to recreate those environments.

Shooting is mostly a process of discovery… It’s a little tricky when you’re dealing with period subject matter [as in Memoirs of a Geisha], because if you haven’t discussed it prior to shooting it’s not going to be there. You don’t just happen upon 17th century exteriors of Kyoto in Southern California. You have to design and build it.

Happy accidents are more frequent on the set when there is a lot of preparation and the cinematographer and director have a strong sense of the visual language of the film.

To say that the cinematographer’s role is merely to create the image is naive. We communicate a director’s vision and integrate it with our own. It is a collaboration that extends beyond just the frame. However protecting the cinematographer’s intended look and approach is also important, and he or she must be involved throughout the DI phase.

[Digital technology] is a different tool, so you do some things differently. It can record images at night at incredibly low levels of light. The trick is augmenting that light as seamlessly as possible. You have to be careful, because it’s very unforgiving. Just a bit too much light on a face relative to the background and it looks artificial.