NYFA: Would you mind telling us about your background and what drew you to a career in cinematography? What was your film education like?
Mike Williamson: My love of cinema began in high school, where I was lucky enough to have a humanities class where I got to see many of the classic silent films like Metropolis and The Passion of Joan of Arc. I connected with the incredible images in those films, and that is probably where I realized that a film could be a work of art. I continued by studying film history at the University of Michigan; again I was fortunate enough to be in a good program that required us to make films as well as study them. I was drawn to the camera, and I discovered that I had a talent for telling stories visually. After shooting a number of short films, I moved out to Los Angeles to study cinematography at the American Film Institute. I felt it was important to find a good program in Los Angeles, and I knew that meeting people at school would help me transition to a new city and give me the contacts I’d need when I started working professionally.
NYFA: In addition to learning the technical demands of cameras and lighting and gaining hands-on on-set experience, what else do you feel is essential to one’s cinematography education? Do you think cinematography students benefit from gaining a solid foundation in the different facets of filmmaking, such as directing, writing, editing, etc.?
MW: You want to feel confident in the fundamentals of camera and lighting because that’s the basis for you to be able to say, “I can make this movie.” Once you’re confident in your skills, it’s about your ability to work with everyone else on set and how you handle your relationships. If you have an idea for a great shot, how do you pitch that to the director? If a crew member makes a mistake on set, how do you handle that? The better you understand everyone else’s job, the more successful you’ll be in a major creative position such as cinematographer. Being a cinematographer puts you in a leadership role, and I think you need the experience of managing people on smaller projects before anyone is going to hire you to do it on a larger project. These are the things that you get to learn in film school that give you an advantage over someone who has only worked in entry-level crew positions.
NYFA: Of everything you teach as an instructor of cinematography, is there one essential lesson you try to impart to each aspiring cinematographer?
MW: I tell students that their understanding of the story and their emotional connection to the characters will have a huge impact on how they shoot their films. While it’s important to have a solid plan for how to shoot each scene, you need to be engaged in the scene creatively and emotionally, or the photography will suffer. Spending time understanding the script and thinking about the characters is enormously helpful in creating shots that will engage the audience and pull them into the film.
NYFA: You’ve served in a multitude of positions throughout your career, from electrician to gaffer to director of photography. How important is it for aspiring cinematographers to be well-rounded across numerous departments?
MW: Every day that you’re on set, you will learn something (if you’re paying attention). Working as an electrician, I got to see how different DP’s would light a scene, set up shots, talk with the director, interact with the crew, and so on. As a gaffer, I got a much deeper understanding of lighting and how to execute specific ideas. Sometimes you’ll see a lighting set-up that you want to use in your own work; sometimes, you’ll see someone accidentally insult their director without realizing what they’ve done, so you’re exposed to both good and bad examples. I’ve taken something from each experience, and I’m particularly grateful that I don’t have to make all the mistakes that I’ve seen other DPs make. I’d also add that being able to work in different crew positions was very valuable early in my career because it allowed me to make a living in the film business straight out of film school. Having a good cinematography education prepared me to work as an electrician, dolly grip, gaffer, and so on. Those jobs kept me in the business so that I could be there when the cinematography jobs came up.
NYFA: What has been a highlight for you in your career as a cinematographer?
MW: Anytime that you get to see one of your films playing to an audience in a theater, it’s always exciting, particularly if it’s a premiere. It sounds simple, but I still get a rush out of it. Having a feature film that I shot premiere at Sundance was a big milestone for me. Shooting 30 Days of Night: Dust to Dust was particularly challenging, and I’m proud of the quality of photography that we were able to achieve on a very tough schedule.
NYFA: What advice do you give students in terms of finding work after completing their program or workshop at NYFA? What do you think is the most crucial professional skill one can develop to realize their goals in the industry?
MW: I tell students that their first jobs after school will most likely come from their fellow classmates, so it’s important to be there as a crew member and support them when they’re shooting their projects. We also encourage students to collaborate with directors in the filmmaking program; you need to take advantage of all your opportunities to build your network. As a cinematographer, you need to be meeting directors and producers; the goal is to have a number of people who trust you to shoot their projects and will call you when they get that first big job. You want to be someone that people like to work with, so your attitude on set is critical.
NYFA: How does serving as the DP on a television show—in your case, 30 Days of Night: Dust to Dust—differ from working on a short or feature film?
MW: The challenge with a TV series is that you’re trying to achieve the same photographic quality as a feature, but the schedules are usually much tighter. There are so many great things happening in television these days; aside from great scripts, we’re seeing cinematography that’s much more daring and bold than what would have been acceptable on TV five years ago. So as a DP, it’s an exciting time to be working in TV, but you have to be prepared for a very demanding set of circumstances. To succeed on this kind of schedule, you need a number of skills. You have to be able to pre-visualize your lighting and create lighting diagrams so that your crew can pre-light large sets, you need to plan coverage that incorporates multiple cameras, and you need to manage a large crew (and possibly multiple shooting units). The more complex the shoot, the more it will test your planning skills as well as your photographic abilities.
NYFA: Having worked on a wide range of productions, what is the one constant you’ve found in how one should conduct his or herself on set?
MW: Regardless of what anyone else is doing or the attitude that they bring to the set, you need to do your best work every day. Your level of commitment can’t be dependent on anyone else; you need to be professional and invested in the work no matter what.
NYFA: How do you help students to develop their unique cinematographic voice? How did you develop your own?
MW: Like most people, I started to develop my own voice by studying and imitating the work of cinematographers that I admired. I think it’s important to study different examples of great filmmaking, it helps you to develop your own taste, and it broadens your idea of what’s possible. From there, you try to emulate the work that you admire: you recreate a particular shot, you try to figure out how someone lit a particular scene, you try to capture a certain moment the way that they did. Oddly enough, when you copy something, you end up seeing the differences between your scene and the one you’re emulating. Invariably the two will be different, and you’ll have made the scene your own in some way. As you do this and the tools and techniques become more familiar to you, then they become part of your arsenal, and you can use them in new ways.
NYFA: Do you have any parting words of advice for students and aspiring cinematographers?
Keep shooting! Being a cinematographer is an amazing job, and it takes time to master all the skills that you need to make beautiful images. Be patient with yourself and shoot everything you can!
Mike Williamson is the Associate Chair of Cinematography at the New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus.