Q&As

Q&A With NYFA Cinematography Graduate Naeem Seirafi on Joining The International Cinematographers Guild and His Advice for Incoming Students

Iranian-born Naeem Seirafi got his first taste of being on set when he was 19 years old and quickly began to realize that the world of cinema was where he belonged. His most recent work as director of photography includes In This Gray Place and 1st Born starring Val Kilmer and Denise Richards. Seirafi attended the NYFA’s inaugural MFA Cinematography class in 2011 and has since joined the International Cinematographers Guild (IASTE Local 600).

NYFA had the opportunity to catch up with the cinematography alum to joining the International Cinematographers Guild, his advice to incoming students, and what work is really like behind the camera.

Prime DNA Lens Test with Naeem Seirafi

New York Film Academy (NYFA): First, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what brought you to New York Film Academy?

Naeem Seirafi (NS): I was born in Iran, and I’m currently a US Citizen. I went to engineering school in Iran while I was establishing a name as a set photographer in the Iranian cinema. My first professional set experience was in 2003 when I did my first feature film as a set photographer at the age of 19. In 2010 when I came to the US, I knew it was time for a bigger challenge. I started looking up film schools in LA immediately after my arrival. I was looking for a program that was focused on cinematography and had the most hands-on experience. New York Film Academy became my top choice, and I’m really happy about the decision I made.

NYFA: Why have you decided to focus on cinematography?

NS: My dad is a photographer, and as a kid, I always had the privilege of playing with his cameras, lenses, and unlimited rolls of 35mm film. There was always something unique about taking a picture, making sure to get all the technical aspects right, and at the same time try to tell a story in one frame. When I was 18, I started my professional career as a set photographer. A couple of years later, the director I was working with on his feature film, asked me to start thinking about making a career switch to cinematography. He mentioned that he liked my compositions, choices of lenses, color grading, and framings better than what his cinematographer was doing at the time. I knew it wasn’t an easy task but I also knew that it’s not impossible. My goal was to finish engineering school and make this switch after I arrive in the United States.

NYFA: How did your career change after joining the IATSE Local 600 guild?

NS: From the moment I started my career as a cinematographer, I realized that I need to belong to a bigger family of filmmakers who have been doing this for decades. By joining ICG (International Cinematographers Guild), I’m now assured that I can have a future in the film industry. The rights, wages, health plans, overtime rules, and any other musts that can go missing in film productions, are always there. I also knew that in order to be able to accept offers from an IATSE affiliated project, I need to be an active member. In general, it’s always good to have a union behind you. 

Val Kilmer (Left) and Naeem Seirafi (Right) on the set of “1st Born”

NYFA: Can you tell us about the features you’ve DP’d on?

NS: In 2019, two of my feature films got released on major VOD networks. One is called In This Gray Place, a drama suspense genre that was shot in one location. Aleksander Ristic, Rudi Womack (my fellow NYFA alumni), and I decided to make a feature film in a garage which we used to build our main set, a bathroom. We’ve worked on multiple projects together, and I’m glad our latest collaboration worked out really well.

My other feature film is called 1st Born, starring the iconic actor Val Kilmer, with Robert Knepper, Tom Berenger, Denise Richards, and Taylor Cole. It’s a fun comedy project we shot here in LA. This movie also was shot mostly in sound stages with limited shooting days. 


NYFA: How is your process different when shooting a feature vs shooting a short film?

NS: No one would think this but sometimes shooting a short film is more challenging than shooting a feature film. When shooting a short film, you’re supposed to tell a story in a way shorter timeline compared to a feature film. Other than that, you might have limited equipment, crew, number of days, and even access to the locations you’re using. I’ve shot 24 short films so far, and I really enjoyed working on every single one of them. At the end of the day, it’s all about who you are collaborating with.

On the other side, when shooting a feature film, you have more time to visualize what’s written in the screenplay. By the time I finish reading the script for the first time, I’ve already shot it once in my head by visualizing it scene by scene. That’s also when I know if I would want to work on the project or not. As a cinematographer, I’m looking for projects that are challenging, and I can bring more dynamics, visuals, and creativity to the table. A bigger and more professional crew would certainly ease the process of making a feature film. Unfortunately, I had to turn down two projects last year.

Phil LaMarr and Naeem Seirafi on set for “Diamond Dayze”

NYFA: What other projects are you working on or do you plan to work on?

NS: At the moment I’m in the late development stages of 2 feature films. One is called My Favorite Season and it was my first ever large-format movie. It was shot on Alexa 65 and Prime DNA lenses, and the same package will be used for the feature version.

My second project is called The Bishop’s Man. It’s a drama based on the best-selling novel, and that is as much information as I can give at the moment. 

NYFA: What did you learn at NYFA that you apply directly to your work?

NS: Almost everything I needed to start my career as a cinematographer, I learned at NYFA. Thanks to Michael Pessah who was running the cinematography program at the time, we were able to practice and learn a lot of basics, and techniques, especially on 35mm film. There is a lot that you can learn in film school, that you may not be able to learn on a film set. There is no margin for mistakes and errors on a real film set, especially if you’re the head of your department. At the end of the day, it’s all up to the students, to decide how much and what they want to get out of the film school. Learning is a never-ending process in our careers.

NYFA: What advice would you give to students just starting out at NYFA

NS: As I said, it all depends on the student to make the most out of the program they’re attending. You can learn from every single moment and person while at school, even your classmates. NYFA is a big nationwide and worldwide family. They should take advantage of this opportunity. While you’re a student, there are a lot of open doors, resources, equipment, and people who are willing to help you. Even a lot of rental houses, studios, and post-production companies would help you as a student to make your movie. I’m sure you’re going to miss all that once you are out of school.

New York Film Academy would like to thank NYFA alum Naeem Seirafi for taking the time to share more about his career, what life is like behind the camera, and for sharing advice to incoming students and creatives alike.

Q&A with New York Film Academy Australia Alum Leroy Button

New York Film Academy Australia alum Leroy Button started his professional career even before graduating the Filmmaking program in 2018. He’s worked on several professional commercials and television shows as well as multiple blockbusters, including Aquaman, Fast & Furious 9, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold.

Button has found a niche in state-of-the-art drone cinematography, but has had a passion for all aspects of filmmaking since he was a child. His first (but not his last) success was his award-winning short film Sense, made while he was still in high school.

Leroy Button

NYFA Australia alum Leroy Button

New York Film Academy spoke with NYFA Australia Filmmaking alum Leroy Button about Sense, his work on multimillion dollar film sets, and the best advice he’s learned from both school and his fellow crewmembers:

New York Film Academy (NYFA): First, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what brought you to New York Film Academy Australia?

Leroy Button (LB): I’m 21 years old and hail from Cairns, a small city in Far North Queensland, Australia. The origins of my interest in the industry really started as soon as I was brought into the world,—well, that’s at least what my dad claims as he recorded my birth on his brand new Hi8 camera. I’ve always had an interest in cameras, acting, and entertaining people—my dad was a frustrated filmmaker and he always had the latest digital camcorder, film camera, DSLR… you name it he had it, so naturally I was either in front of a camera or behind it as I grew up. We were always avid film goers, with Dad, my older brother, and myself always attending the latest blockbuster release—if it involved spies, sci-fi, superheroes, or a car chase we were there.

I really enjoyed all of my primary and secondary school years, I wasn’t really a math or science guy, I just loved working with my hands making things and was considered by my teachers to be very artistic. Throughout high school I fell absolutely in love with movie making and film class, which was part of my curriculum from Year 9 at Cairns State High. 

My film teachers, Mr. Clyde Williams and Ms. Greta Evangelista, said that I had an eye for filmmaking and perhaps I should pursue it as a career. My teachers encouraged me to enter my films into film festivals and that ultimately brought me to what jump-started my career—my first short film, Sense. I entered Sense into the Understory Film Festival, which is a local festival in Cairns that had a student film category. I entered that film not knowing the freight train of success I was going to receive from it. 

On the night of the film festival, Sense won three awards—Best Student Film, Runner Up, Best Film, and the Audience Choice Award. To cap off a lovely evening, I also won $1000 prize money (of course I spent that on film equipment right away) and was filled with a feeling of elation that propelled me into pursuing a career in the film industry… With Sense winning the Understory Audience Choice Award, this led to its inclusion in another festival—winning the KickArts Curator Award, Cell Art Space Energy Exhibition Award, Creative Generation Award, and later ‘Best Sense Film’ at the Stuffit Film Festival. Because of the Creative Generation Award, Sense was put on display at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane where it was shown on a screen loop for six months for the 2017 student exhibition.

These awards opened the doors at a number of universities and film academies and certainly helped secure my position at the New York Film Academy Australia, where I started my Diploma in Filmmaking. At NYFA Australia I continued to pursue my craft and the feeling of recognition and success that I craved. I shot both good films that won me more awards and some pretty questionable film—films I hope are never seen again, haha. I was loving every moment. I really started to hone my skills as a cinematographer and learned how to manage my own business by filming weddings, corporate videos, and promo events.

Leroy Button Sense

NYFA: What have you learned at NYFA Australia that you apply to your work today?

LB: I’d say the biggest thing that the New York Film Academy Australia taught me was that networking was everything.

For one of our cinematography lectures, we had the choice of going to Panavision Queensland at Village Roadshow Studios. I knew that this was an opportunity to mingle with the people who work with the biggest and best of what the Australian Film Industry has to offer. So I was there with bells on. It happened to be the one day I actually packed my lunch box and brought it with me—and that ultimately allowed me to stay behind whilst the rest of the class went out to get a feed during the break. So here I am, one-on-one with the manager of Panavision Queensland, Pat Auge. I had the opportunity to ask him anything I wanted to know. What do I need to do to get into the industry? This question, amongst many others, was asked in hopes of figuring out what I was going to do after I completed my diploma.

All I wanted to do was get on set and work on a major motion picture. Pat answered every single one of my questions, and told me “it’s all about who you know.” In addition to that, the biggest thing I learned from the New York Film Academy Australia was that networking is very important—this is an industry where who you know goes a very long way.

Pat contacted me the following week and said that he was impressed by my attitude, eagerness, and professionalism towards him and wanting to get into the industry. He asked if I would be interested in doing some work experience with them and initially got me in for three days—I was incredibly dedicated while there, as has always been my work ethic, drilled into me by family, and this lead to an offer of part-time work while studying at the Academy. 

During this time, Aquaman was filming at Village Roadshow Studios and the camera department contacted Panavision asking if they knew of anyone that could help out on set. They put my name forward and I jumped straight into the camera department on one of Australia’s biggest feature films. Frankly, I was scared and crazy nervous but also really excited.

Leroy Button

NYFA: Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing and what your responsibilities have been on the sets of films like Aquaman, as well as Dora the Explorer, Fast & Furious, and others?

LB: I kept my cool with my head down and bum up. They had me camera assisting, splintering with second and third unit, slating scenes with Nicole Kidman and her stunties, on location at Hastings point for the lighthouse scenes—it was wild, some of the most unforgettable weeks of my life. I turned into a sponge metaphorically (and sometimes physically, thanks rain machines), absorbing as much information and technique as possible from the camera department. At the end of each day we wrapped and I felt like I could sleep for a week. Long hours, hard, stressful work—but I loved it. I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

I continued to juggle work for Panavision, Event Cinemas, and studying at NYFA Australia and I resigned from the Cinemas pretty soon after as I was asked to start working 5 days a week 9-5 at Panavision. Now that leads me to working for XM2—work after Aquaman slowly dried up, I was getting on commercial jobs and the odd TV show here and there as a 2nd AC, but things weren’t looking too good…

One weekend I was returning some film equipment I had borrowed from Panavision to shoot a music video when Panavision called asking how far away I was. They told me that there were two gentlemen at the office right now and they wanted to talk to me—Stephen Oh and Aidan Kelly, the CEO and COO of XM2. I rushed into the studios knowing exactly who these guys were and well, Panavision opened another door for me. XM2 were looking for a young gun to join the team and manage their new office on the Gold Coast. I was pretty shocked. They asked if I wanted to help out on Dora the Explorer and there was no hesitation in my mind. I had just landed one of the coolest job opportunities that the industry has to offer.

A little background for you—XM2 specialises in aerial cinematography, lidar scanning, and VFX—catering to the major motion picture industry. As the only drone operator in the world with complete design, manufacture, build, and operational capabilities, XM2 can adapt and incorporate custom payloads onto aerial and ground-based platforms, creating constant advancements in performance and capability.

XM2 CEO Stephen Oh

XM2 CEO, Stephen Oh

The team is comprised of pilots, camera operators, engineers, and creatives allowing for a unique service environment, taking care of all aspects of the operation. Constant technological developments combined with a deep understanding of on-set work-flow creates a highly-skilled, precise, and efficient unit that is able to produce any creative vision. We continue to demonstrate the ability to operate in the most technically, logistically, and environmentally demanding locations around the world. This is achieved while applying thorough risk mitigation and a safety-first culture that meets and exceeds international standards. I don’t want to toot my own horn but… yeah, a pretty cool job. 

I completed those days with them on Dora, worked my ass off, and must have impressed them because they now have me working full time managing our Gold Coast office here in Queensland. I get to travel extensively between our other bases around the globe helping on productions wherever they may be. Two of our teams and I have just returned home from Georgia in Europe, Thailand, and Scotland after finishing principal photography on Fast & Furious 9 and the next James Bond film, No Time to Die. I am literally living the dream and I couldn’t be happier with what I have achieved at my age.

On our latest project, Fast and Furious 9, I was a drone technician on second unit while also managing our custom VFX array head. We developed the “MANTA” stabilised remote head to hold three Alexa Minis in a toe-in position to achieve 220 degrees of stich-able horizontal angle. This rig ultimately became my pride and joy as I worked on Fast 9. Due to the shooting schedule I had to pull it apart and put it back together half a dozen times. The VFX department could use this rig to reframe shots, recreate reflections, and project the surrounding environments onto blue/green screens in studio sound stages. I was working one on one with the VFX supervisor, while camera operating this platform from an ATAV for the off-road portions of the film. 

I was also on splinter unit where I was camera operating our smaller drone. Those shots were my first shots on a feature film—a pretty awesome accomplishment. This was all thanks to my boss and mentor, Stephen Oh, for trusting my skills as a camera operator. Thanks to XM2 I get to travel the world doing what I love, working on major motion pictures.

These are the productions I have recently worked on (not in any particular order):

  • Aquaman (Feature Film) (2nd AC, Truck Loader)
  • Fast and Furious 9 (Feature Film) (Drone Technician, Drone Camera Op, VFX Array Op, and Technician)
  • Dora the Explorer (Feature Film) (2nd AC, Drone Technician)
  • Westworld Season 3 (HBO TV Series – Airing) (Drone Technician)
  • Godzilla Vs Kong (Feature Film – Post-production) (2nd AC)
  • Monster Problems (Feature Film – Post-production) (2nd AC)
  • Bloody Hell (Feature Film – Post-production) (Drone Technician & Drone  Camera Op)
  • Reef Break (TV Series – Airing) (Drone Camera Op)
  • At Last (Chinese/ Australia Co-Production) (2nd AC)
  • The End (TV Mini-Series – Post-production) (2nd AC)
  • Leaving Neverland (HBO Documentary) (Drone Technician)
  • QANTAS 2020 International Commercial (Post Production) (Drone 
  • Camera Op)
  • Halifax Retribution (TV Series – Post Production) (Drone Camera Op)
  • Hyundai VENUE, USA TVC (Drone Technician, BTS)
  • KIA Telluride, USA TVC (Drone Technician, BTS)

leroy button jane

NYFA: What are some of the biggest differences you’ve noticed working on a blockbuster film set as opposed to an indie or student film set? What are some of the similarities?

LB: The biggest differences I’ve found between blockbuster features and indie/student films is obviously the budget.

Being on big sets is an interesting experience. It’s fascinating and truly unbelievable how big some of the sets are and the lengths people go to get the shot how they want it—or how they compromise to achieve it another way. These crew members are truly professionals of their respected craft. Watching hundreds of people work for a common goal of completing the shot list for the day is like working in this complicated factory of cooperation, task mitigation, and frantic timed execution. 

Everyone has a role and that role is important in one way or another. There are literally hundreds of different jobs on set and they all matter and keep the production flowing. The PA that stays back to make the production coordinator a coffee might have just kept him/her awake an extra hour to recheck the SFX budget so they can afford to blow up an extra car the next day, which allows the director extra freedom with the cut and the rest of the crew get to see an extra explosion—thumbs up all round. 

Every role on set matters and they all affect the flow of production—no matter the size. The men and women on big sets usually have many, many years of on-set experience and this really shows when there’s half an hour left in the shooting day and there are still five shots to get—as you can imagine, someone like me stepping in with the “big boys” was very daunting and quite nerve-racking. I learned pretty quickly to present yourself professionally, act older than you seem and keep your head down, mouth shut, and ‘bum-up’ as is always a good idea when trying to fit in and impress the varying crew.

The cool thing with crew on major feature films is that oftentimes once the working week had finished, a lot of the crew would split into their respected friend groups and shoot passion projects, music videos, or short films—a lot of the time asking anyone and everyone if they would be free to help out. In an industry where a good word and who you know goes a long way, these opportunities are sometimes just as good as the production you may be on. Yes, you might only get paid in pizza, but you might just get a chance at focus pulling or helping with lighting or branch out from your usual role to try something different. These guerrilla style films are a great way to make new friends and test your abilities, learn new skills, and have a good laugh outside of the pressure that big productions put on you.

On the other hand, the biggest similarity between big and small budget productions is passion. The passion for filmmaking is always there whether it’s a low-budget indie or a multimillion-dollar action flick. One of the things I love about working in the film industry is the on-set etiquette. No matter the production, people are generally more than happy to lend a helping hand and impart some of their knowledge on to you. A lot of what I’ve learned about on-set lingo and practices has been through conversation between setups or while on lunch. The more time you spend in those environments with those varying levels of experience, the more you’ll learn.

Leroy Button

NYFA: What other projects are you working on or do you plan to work on, personal or otherwise?

LB: Unfortunately, I can’t say what I’m working on with XM2 at the moment; however, I’m currently writing a sequel to one of my short films I shot while at NYFA Australia. It’s being filmed with a bunch of fellow NYFA Australia graduates and alumni.

NYFA: What advice would you give to students just starting out at NYFA Australia?

LB: The best advice I could give to students starting out at NYFA Australia would be to get your films into film festivals. No matter how good or bad that film is, get it into a festival circuit and put your name on it. The more people that see your film, the more contacts you’re connecting with—people talk and word spreads; if it’s positive, then you’ll become known and people will start calling you, it’s that simple. 

Absorb as much as you can. Do research online and ask questions (even the stupid ones) because at the end of the day you’ll either be none-the-wiser or know exactly what you’re talking about. Finally, keep creating, every single time your camera is rolling you’re learning something new—nine times out of ten it’s because you did something wrong—learn from that and you’ll become a better filmmaker.

Things to remember and be ready to answer:

  • Never “burn your bridges.” It’s a big industry, and everyone talks.
  • What is your attitude?
  • How are you different from the guy next to you?
  • And why should they get you on set?

NYFA: Anything I missed you’d like to speak on? 

LB: The film industry is a brutal beast – it can be so incredibly hard on you one day, yet so very rewarding the next—it’s not for the faint-hearted. With short films and personal projects, I learned pretty quickly that you can’t impress everyone. I decided to stop trying to impress others and began simply trying to impress myself and this worked out pretty well for me. I am very humbled with the opportunities that I have been given and I thank everyone for the part they have played in my story. Never forget to thank those who got you to where you are.

New York Film Academy thanks NYFA Australia alum Leroy Button for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his burgeoning career on-set, and wishes him the best of luck moving forward!

A Q&A With New York Film Academy Cinematography Instructor Matt Kohnen

New York Film Academy Cinematography Instructor Matt Kohnen has been making movies since the mid 1990s. As an independent filmmaker, he’s seen the best and the worst of what the industry has to offer. His films can be seen all over the world thanks to Amazon Prime Video.

Here, he speaks with NYFA Correspondent Joelle Smith about his passion for film, his favorite classes to teach, and how he creates movies on an indie budget.

Matthew Kohnen Directors Reel 2018 from Matt Kohnen on Vimeo.

NYFA: When did you first know you were in love with cinema?

Kohnen: It was a gradual process. I’ve always loved movies. More than film, I loved stories. I devoured books. I got into theatre in high school and I stuck with it through undergrad, but I quickly realized I was not a good actor. So, I turned to writing and directing. In the late ‘90s, the indie film scene was hitting its stride, and I liked that atmosphere of creative risk. I haven’t looked back since.

NYFA: What kinds of stories did you start off wanting to tell?

Kohnen: I like stories with a touch of the fantastic to them. I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, or any work that goes beyond our current understanding of reality. Not because of the escapism — I like sci-fi because it allows us to take society, and its current trajectory, to the extreme.

I still write science-fiction, but the reality of indie filmmaking is that the price point is usually too far out of reach. My brother, Sean, and I have been working on telling small stories with big emotional impact.

NYFA: When did you decide to become a director and why did you choose this career path?

Kohnen: It’s hard to say there’s a “decisive moment,” per se. It’s not like when you apply to college. I never chose this particular path. It was a gradual thing. I became a director because, at UC Irvine, where I earned my undergrad in theater, the best roles were reserved for grad students and current faculty members.

I had to hustle and tell my own stories if I wanted to get something done. I found it very empowering. So, I kept at it. Learning that hustle turned out to be a great thing.

If you don’t get pulled into the studio orbit, which is very rare and hard to do, then you have to do it yourself — otherwise, you won’t do it at all. Most of my choices were less deliberate and more about finding a way into the industry. You just have to take the plunge, scary as it is.

NYFA: Your films Aaah! Zombies!! and The Funeral Guest center on death, and how such an event can bring people together. What is it about the theme of life after death that inspires you?

Kohnen: Funny, I’ve never heard my two features linked in that way. Not sure it’s the “death” issue that links them to me as much as it is the “outsider” parts. Both films feature the perspectives of people who are on the outside of something, looking in.

In Aaah! Zombies!!, the theme of life and death that inspired me was a funny idea that Sean and I had about subverting the classic horror genre. But as we wrote, the script took on a life of its own. The story became more about the characters who were dissatisfied with their current lives in some way. The humorous irony of it was this incident, in most zombie movies, would have been the “end” of the story. Instead, this incident sparked the “beginning” of our story because we stayed with their POV. It took death for them to begin living.

I like to look at perspectives that are outside what we are normally given. The perspectives we do not expect to see are often much more interesting; to see that something that is considered a monster can, in fact, be as human as anyone else. What connects these two films is the bond formed between characters.

In The Funeral Guest, the main character is on the outside of life, looking in on others. She doesn’t have a life of her own. Funerals are the place where the emotions and love and connection that she craves are on full display. Again, it takes the tragedy of someone else’s loss, and her being mistaken for someone that she’s not, to allow her to forge a true connection.  

NYFA: Tell us about your latest project.

Kohnen: Currently, I’m in the writing phase of a couple new scripts. One of the scripts we will be producing ourselves on a very-low-budget. The other script has a different path. I’m trying to launch that project with a larger production company. I’m not really in a place to talk much about either of those projects right now.

The Funeral Guest is available on Amazon and Amazon Prime, now. Go get it!

NYFA: What was the most challenging aspect of making this film?

Kohnen: Both of my features have had relatively low budgets. Cost presents a challenge all its own.

For Aaah! Zombies!!, it was more of an FX-driven piece, but it also took place at night. For three weeks we were vampires, staying up all night. (Get it? Vampires? Because we were working on a zombie film?) After that, Sean and I said we’d slap whichever one of us wrote “EXT.  NIGHT” in a script ever again. A pact we promptly broke, of course.

Overall, the issue facing most low-budget films is that they require every single person to be on top of their game. There’s no money to paper over mistakes. There isn’t any time to “find it” on set. Indie sets will shoot as many as five or six pages per day.

Trying to stay creative and focused, while still allowing for the play and flexibility that is required to make it all good, is probably the hardest part.

NYFA: What is your favorite thing about teaching at NYFA?

Kohnen: I love working with my students. People who come to NYFA have prepared to commit to this field. They love film. Many students arrive having already experimented with making their own films. When they make a breakthrough, I love seeing their eyes open and that “ah-ha” moment spread across their face, when they figure out what had been missing from their creative toolbox. Watching their art move up another level is extremely rewarding.

I also love that NYFA is international. Every day I watch students from vastly different worlds interact. Our students are bonded by their passion for film.

One of my favorite outcomes of the intersectional interaction that takes place at NYFA occurred when Co-Instructor Nick Sivakumaran and I, on one of our early Cinematography Practicum shoots, sat a kid from the middle of nowhere Montana next to a young woman from India. These are two people who would never have met in any other iteration of the world. They wound up married. They still are. I love that.

NYFA: What’s your favorite class to teach at NYFA?

Kohnen: Second Semester Cinematography in the MFA program is my favorite class to teach. It’s great because the students have received a good base from semester one. When they arrive in Second Semester Cinematography, we start introducing students to the dolly, advanced lighting, and camera. I love seeing them rise to the challenge.

NYFA: Is there a piece of advice you give your students as they head toward graduation?

Kohnen: Keep your eyes focused on the horizon, and put one foot in front of the other, every day. Even if it’s only one step, have goals, and know that as hard as it may seem, good work will always be recognized. Good luck!

Ready to learn more about Cinematography? Check out our Cinematography School offerings at the New York Film Academy.

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Christopher Nolan & Wally Pfister: The Best Cinematography Duo in Modern Cinema?

Make no mistake about it – Christopher Nolan is an exceptional writer who has the uncanny ability to bring innovative ideas to a plot while at the same time never straying from established storytelling conventions.

Christopher Nolan movies

This balance – and knowing precisely when to push boundaries and when to stay within them – have resulted in a near-flawless filmography over the past fifteen years. His only real box-office and critical bomb was this year’s Transcendence, on which he only acted as a producer rather than a screenwriter.

But it could be argued that Christopher Nolan’s finished movies would look a lot more paint-by-numbers if it wasn’t for how stunningly beautiful they’re always packaged.

And for that, Nolan has one man to thank.

Wally Pfister NYFA

Wally Pfister: DP Extraordinaire

Like many of the industry’s most gifted professionals, Pfister started out young. He’d already discovered a passion for cinematography at the age of just 11, having become enthralled watching a lighting crew work on scenes for a movie being shot in his neighborhood.

Shortly after high school, he began turning his passion into a paying career, working as a production assistant for a news channel in Maryland. But it was to be a stretch of fifteen years shooting PSAs, doing odd grip and electrician work, and working on PBS documentaries before he was to form a partnership that would change the face of Hollywood.

When Wally Met Chris

In 1998, Pfister was working long into the night on a movie with a tiny budget. Feeling restless and looking for a change in career pace, he began leafing through a script that was doing the rounds on set. The other crew members and DP couldn’t see any value or merit in the choppy, confusing narrative; Pfister, however, was blown away.

Memento Wally Pfister

That screenplay was to be Memento.

By chance, Christopher Nolan had heard of Wally’s prior work and was interested in meeting him – but it was a one shot-chance with a finite window of opportunity. Pfister walked off set, caught the first plane from Alabama to Los Angeles and made it back in the same day to continue working.

“I hadn’t slept in 36 hours. I was a mess. I was rambling. Obviously, I was impressed by how intelligent Chris was. I was a little intimidated meeting him,” Pfister told The Daily Beast. “So I left there going, “Oh, well, that would have been great.”

But as fate would have it, not only did Nolan hire Pfister for the job of Director of Photography, but the quirky independent movie went on to great critical and commercial success, arguably thanks to Wally’s stylistic handling of the source material.

What Wally Brought to Chris

Following Memento, Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister went on to even greater heights and many of the most defining moments in the duo’s shared filmography came from Wally.

Wally Pfister Dark Knight joker
The scene with Batman standing on the Sears Tower at dusk, overlooking the city? That was Pfister. The shot outside the Parisienne cafe in Inception where the city folds in on itself? Also Pfister.

But as well as bringing his own visual elements to the table, one of the biggest reasons behind the success of the Nolan/Pfister partnership is that they’re in lock-step with each other. Nolan dreams up a scene involving an anti-gravity hotel corridor, and Pfister works out how to achieve it; Pfister pitches a visual involving a command module docking with a rapidly spinning spaceship, and Nolan writes it into the script.

What Chris and Wally Share

The other ingredient for success is that they both share a similar ethos when it comes to filmmaking. While it is Nolan that is famed for hating digital effects, 3D shooting and an over-reliance on CGI, it was Wally who helped him nurture this passion and turn it from a restriction to a benefit.

This even goes right down to how the pair utilize lighting, with Pfister stating: “Before you can know how to place a light, you have to understand natural light. You don’t need technology to have a good eye and an appreciation of the beauty of natural light. Go buy a book on Carvaggio or any of the Dutch Masters. To me, that’s beautiful lighting and it’s all natural and from 500 years ago.”

Pfister-director

And the reason that Nolan and Pfister appears to pioneer the craft of filmmaking is because it is; the two came to iMax filming together for their work on the Dark Knight trilogy, and had to problem solve and figure it out together at a time when nobody else knew how.

What Wally Teaches Cinematography Students

In a hugely popular talk and Q&A session given at the New York Film Academy, Pfister had this closing advice to offer students at the cinematography school: “You have to take risks. That’s what will make your career last longer. You have to fight to get your vision on the screen (but not fight with your director).”

Never a truer word spoken.