Cinematography: The Best Lighting School Is Nature

How to build your career as a cinematographer, from experimentation to representation.

“You have a vast variety of lenses, cameras, film stocks, and settings at your disposal to strike just the right emotion, one image at a time.”

Lights Film School had the opportunity to chat with cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser about a few of his projects.

Matthias has worked on dozens of projects, from features to shorts to music videos and commercials, collaborating with some of the biggest names in the game. He has an incredible amount of experience to share!

Before we jump in, let’s watch the music video for Raphael Saadiq’s song, “Stone Rollin”, which Matthias shot.

Here it is:

First of all, Matthias, can you tell us how you got involved as the cinematographer?

Raphael Saadiq’s “Stone Rollin” came my way in January 2011 via my US agent, Gregg Dallesandro, who had followed Director Dori Oskowitz’s work for a bit and liked the idea of him and I working together. It was the first project of the year and had quite a challenged budget since it was one of the later singles to be released from Raphael’s then newly-released album.

I noticed you’re represented in the US by Sheldon Prosnit Agency and in Europe by Cosmic Agency Paris. Can you tell me how these agencies assist you as a cinematographer?

Producers and directors send a request to the agency looking for a DP [Director of Photography] for a certain project. If my agent feels that it would be a good fit, he recommends me and sends my reel their way. Every agent usually puts a variety of cinematographers up for the same job. That’s perfectly healthy and important to give the directors choices.

If there’s interest, then all parties need to agree on the DP. The rate and working days will be set in a contract.

Although it has been very busy for me in the last three years, I still have a vivid picture of how it was building myself as a cinematographer. It was very tough in the beginning.

An important lesson I learned in the first years starting out is that YOU are your best agent. A positive attitude and being easy to work with have a massive impact on how your career will shape up. Be social and network but don’t force it at any time.

At the end of the day, it’s your work that needs to speak for itself.

Well said. With the democratizing of technology, the world of cinematography has become more and more competitive. Are there certain things budding cinematographers can do to help their chances of finding representation?

Agents are always on the lookout. You can find them at film festivals/commercial and music video industry screenings. Do good work, show your work, and they will come knocking.

It’s not always that straightforward, of course, and it certainly helps as well to have an “in” through a signed cinematographer or connected producer you know. However, every cinematographer needs to put in the work and mature on their own first.

A great festival for cinematographers of all levels is Camerimage in Poland. I’ve had the privilege of going twice, and the level of talent at the festival is truly humbling.

At what point do you feel a cinematographer is ready for agency representation?

Every cinematographer must find their own voice within the medium first. It’s important to approach every project with a certain fearlessness and authenticity.

It’s good to try things and imitate, but always light and expose the way it feels right to you personally on a gut instinct level. It’s a great thing to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. What’s a happy accident on the previous project could be your main visual language for the following shoot and so on.

Once you have found your personal style as a cinematographer and your work is on par with or better than what’s out there, you’re ready for representation. This is the way I did it, but of course, everyone has their personal way, process, and truth.

I got signed very early on. Perhaps I wasn’t 100% ready for representation, but my agent Gregg Dallesandro had faith in me. On paper, I was a DP right out of film school, which created a false sense in me of “having made it”, yet created a sense of disillusionment when I found myself pretty much unemployed for quite a long time.

It was a very important time of personal growth, however, since these were the years where I really found who I was behind the camera. Every little shoot I could hustle up taught me something. For example, I realized early on that digital cameras (at the time it was the Panasonic HVX200) were pretty much like a film stock. You had to take it and make it your own. Switch cameras for different looks and get to know them all really well.

Beautiful. Many filmmakers out there would love to make cinematography, and more specifically shooting music videos, their full-time job. The world of cinematography fascinates them. Playing with lights, learning how to move the camera, and framing a shot is both challenging and rewarding. Why not try to make cinematography the “thing” you do full-time, right?

However, during a recent panel discussion at the SoHo Short Film Festival, most music video agency spokespeople claimed that even their represented music video directors don’t make a full-time living from music videos alone. The budgets simply aren’t there, so most directors and cinematographers must find work in other forms of media as well.

Has this been your experience? If you wanted to, could you make music video cinematography your full-time living?

It took about three years for me to work full-time on music videos and make a humble living. Two years later, I managed to break into commercials and make a good living.

Music videos are an excellent way to experiment and find your voice. You get to experiment with most tools and toys. You learn to work very fast and with very little for maximum impact.

I think it is possible to make a good living with videos only, but in the end, it wasn’t for me to do videos only. The music, artists, and videos I enjoyed shooting never had enough budget to really pay a decent rate. These projects were gold for the reel but certainly not for my wallet. I know DPs who make a good living in music videos, but they usually shoot bigger pop or rap artists and do a ton of them.

Good agents will always work hard to get you noticed on all levels. Once the ball gets rolling and a DP starts working with a certain director repeatedly, their job has paid off, and that’s the point at which both you and the agent start to really benefit. It should always be a healthy and symbiotic relationship. Therefore, it is important to be honest with your agent at all times and speak your mind. The more they get to know you as a person and artist, the better they will be at finding you the collaborators you want.

Wise words. Circling back to “Stone Rollin”, what camera and lenses did you use for the shoot?

It was an interesting time in terms of technology. By the end of 2010, I was ready to transition into commercials, which wasn’t only financially motivated but also had to do with my personal reluctance to shoot on a DSLR. I shot a good amount of videos on DSLRs but never fully enjoyed the experience. I think there’s a good reason why both Still and Motion Picture Cameras exist.

Arri donated their brand new Alexa to the production. It was my first time filming with it. My first goal was to find a look with this camera that I could call my own. I wasn’t interested in creating a sterile “test footage” music video piece. A few hours before the shoot, I shot quick tests on set, going through various ISO settings to see how the texture (grain/noise) would effect the feel of the image and how the highlights would hold up.

I was impressed, to say the least. The “noise” of that camera had a strong resemblance to film grain, which I love, and the highlights held up particularly well in the higher ISO settings. I parked the camera at ISO 1600 and didn’t change it for the entire project. As a matter of fact, 1600 is still my favorite ISO setting for 90% of projects.

While 1600 retains a bit more detail in the highlights compared to 800, it really is a very personal choice. It’s not for everyone, but I do like the textured look more than what I feel is a more plastic-looking, clean, digital look.

The label and director at the time felt that a second camera was necessary to capture additional BRoll moments. I rarely like the idea of a second camera especially when it is an inferior one. In our case, we had a Canon 7D, which at the time was one of the unfortunate workhorses of the music video world.

If you look closely, you’ll be able to pick out the 7D footage. It’s very noisy and doesn’t resolve nearly as well as the Alexa considering the ultra low light levels.

The lenses I used were Cooke S2 Speed Panchros. These vintage Cookes are lightweight, lower contrast, and add a wonderful color tone and soft quality to the image. The pictures are still sharp but not overly so. Essentially a step closer to mimicking the look and feel of film.

From "Stone Rollin"

From “Stone Rollin”

Did you use any other filters or camera add-ons?

I decided early on to use a 1/8 Ultra-Con filter throughout the entire shoot. It was an experiment based on intuition at the time. The glass lifts the blacks ever so slightly and therefore creates a more velvety image with slightly lower contrast.

Going more low-con in front of the lens also allows me to light more contrasty in many ways. In some ways like working on film. The ultra-con became my weapon of choice for many videos and commercials to come.

Furthermore, I wanted to play with different diffusion, so I changed between 1/8th classic soft, Glimmer 1. Most of the Alexa footage ended up being the ultra-con only because adding additional diffusion to many of the male performers looked too soft for my taste.

Experimentation is always key for me. Some things I did on “Stone Rollin” I still do, others I wouldn’t do anymore. However, it was worth trying them or I wouldn’t have ever known!

Overall I just really loved the song, which for me is the most important decision-making factor when it comes to a music video. Dori put together a great treatment, and after discussing each other’s ideas on the phone, I had a sense that we could shoot something really visual with lots of energy.

I forget who said it, but a cinematographer once stated, “I’d forgo the fully equipped lighting trucks for one light and a good location any day”.

As a cinematographer, how do you approach the location?

The first step for us was finding the right location. Dori wanted to show me the one we ended up choosing first off and see if we could make it work. He was worried about a few things, and for good reason. I loved that space but also saw potential challenges.

Generally, some of the things to look out for are available light. Existing textures and colors within the space. The amount of space. This location was fairly long but narrow.

In that sense, the space wasn’t perfect, but the first and last thing when making any decision is listening to your gut feeling, and so we went for it. The reflective white tile on the wall worried us at first but ended up working really well as a key element of the art direction.

Some lights take up lots of room, obviously, so we went with small practical fixtures, a PAR can rig on the ceiling which you can see in the video on a couple of occasions, and a small fluorescent overhead light combined with a KinoFlo on a menace arm.

I had a gaffer and key grip I had not worked with before, but our communication and ideas went hand-in-hand. We went for a mixed color temp (tungsten and cool white fluorescent), minimal lighting approach with most of the light coming from the ceiling.

With limited resources at our disposal, we tried to make the best of it using a small lighting package, some atmosphere, and a really good art director who delivered a beautiful color palette with all the furniture and practicals working in perfect harmony with the existing space.

If the environment you’re filming is already looking great, the lighting will make it all that much better. When you have to film ugly – and not the good kind of ugly – then even the best lighting will make it bearable at best, but never great.

Let’s start from scratch on the “Stone Rollin” shoot. Before you even step on set, I assume you know who your team will be. I sense a beautiful synergy between this video’s different departments – you were given a really nice “stage” on which to shoot, and the production design, art direction, wardrobe, hair, and makeup departments all did a great job with it.

For example, I noticed some beautiful architectural backgrounds, like at 00:59 (nice lines behind the drummer and bricks creating a pattern), 01:03 (leading lines up the stairs), and 01:30 (the pattern of the speakers behind Raphael Saadiq). You even see it in places like 01:32, where the visuals behind the women create an irregular pattern.

Of course, some of these details exist natively in the environment, but others were added by the different departments. How closely does the cinematography department work with these other departments to ensure that you have strong visuals and backgrounds against which to shoot?

A great production designer and art director are absolutely key for the image. Same goes for costumes. It really is a team effort, and I can only encourage any up and coming cinematographer to be as involved as possible with all departments when it comes to color and texture.

From a technical standpoint, I try to keep the light levels as low as possible. On digital, I pretty much underexpose always, since these chips read so much into the shadows. That way I maintain more highlight detail, and the overall feel is more gritty and filmic, which I personally like. It’s a fine line, however, and it takes lots of care.

From "Stone Rollin"

From “Stone Rollin”

“Movement” is one of the macro elements of cinematography, and I’d love to hear how you approach choreography of camera. Your camera is moving all of the time in “Stone Rollin”. Sometimes you’re moving quickly; other times you punch in for a Closeup, like at 02:10.

Have you edited before? How did you know you were giving the editor footage that would stitch together so nicely? Is it part of a cinematographer’s job to understand editing?

I never edited professionally, but going way back in time, I started to get involved with tape-to-tape editing when I was sixteen, having just started to experiment with a small JVC VHS-C camera as a hobby. I went into early non-linear editing shortly thereafter and cut people’s holiday and wedding videos for money. In 2001, Final Cut 1.3.5 was the game changer, and editing became a hobby of mine through film school. I still edit my own reels and little projects here and there.

I think knowing the editing process helps a lot in being able to make the right choices on set quickly and to be able to give the director and editor what they need and so much more.

Once we get what we have to have for a specific setup, I often run wild for a take or two and cover action, scene, or performance totally freely and get all kinds of extra moments and Closeups that were not storyboarded. That way, I can give the editor more options, and it also satisfies my personal urge for artistic expression. Especially in commercials, sticking to storyboarded moments only can be very frustrating and limiting. Some of the best moments you can’t board.

I’ve always had tremendous appreciation for musicians. In particular percussionists. A beat triggers an emotion while a sequence of beats can tell a story. Editing is just like that. In film, the images are the beats. As a cinematographer, you have a vast variety of lenses, cameras, film stocks, and settings at your disposal to strike just the right emotion one image at a time. Editing a sequence will tell the story. Not sure if this makes sense, but it kind of makes sense to me.

From reading the director’s treatment for “Stone Rollin”, I knew from the get-go that I had to be as free as possible with the camera. I wanted to dance with the performers.

I usually enjoy a mix of everything. Handheld, mounts/rigs, lock-offs, dollies, and slider moves. I like when you can’t quite put your finger on the method, and the camera feels effortless and minimalist. I went handheld for about 80 percent on this video. Really stripping down the camera to the bare essentials lets me react and anticipate all kinds of nuances in the track. My operating usually gets better the more I hear and learn the subtleties in the music and performance.

We decided to utilize the Steadicam for straight push-ins, but particularly for cycling around Asia, the lead girl. I felt that her movements and sensuality lent themselves perfectly to a circling camera.

I’m very blessed with excellent focus pullers who can adjust in a split second to whatever erratic move will come next.

These days, a remote follow focus is always on set, but I still prefer a manual follow focus. Sometimes I reach in and pull my own focus mid-take. Especially on music videos. I’m not doing this because I think I can do better than my 1st AC, but rather because it adds another level of artistic control at times when things shouldn’t be sharp, or when they should be racked into focus in a subtle way, etc.

On most projects – including “Stone Rollin” – I use diopters on Closeups. A Diopter +1 is usually just the right amount of subtle edge distortion and added close focus to the lens. I like getting really close to people’s faces and float handheld with them while trying to maintain focus right on the eyeball. I always enjoyed that direct connection with the artists, and I think it makes for some good impact visually at times.

Atmosphere and lighting go hand-in-hand for me. I feel it makes everything more natural and relatable.

In nature as well as interiors, you have a different atmosphere all the time, which in turn makes for a certain mood. Different weather conditions, light in different countries and continents, a variety of street lights on a clear night, fog or rain. Smokey interiors, an open window next to the ocean and a setting sun… The varieties are endless, and the best lighting school is nature.

A hazer is one of my essentials. In particular, the DF-50 is always on my truck on almost every project. A little haze gives the lighting more texture and softens the image in a three dimensional way. I often do the same for the outdoors as well. Painters use atmosphere of perspective to create depth on a flat canvas. I like slightly hazing up the background to do the same for moving images. On Raphael Saadiq, I used quite a lot of haze since I wanted to create the feeling of a smokey jazz club and take away the view of the back wall to create the fantasy of a bigger space.

Beautiful, Matthias. Now let’s take a moment to watch another project you were hired on as cinematographer: “Possession” (starring Scarlett Kapella, directed by Paul Minor):

There’s so much about the cinematography I love. For example, the visual contrast between the two worlds is startling and effective. Katie Malia’s choreography fits the piece perfectly, and the sound design is extremely evocative. You had quite a bit to play with, here!

What I love most, though, is the overall gritty feel… It seems to me there’s a very intentional grainy element added. What camera and lenses did you use to achieve this effect?

“Possession” was a passion project for Paul Minor and myself. We were both quite tired at the time of having our work influenced by people with limited and in some cases no artistic integrity. We came up with a humble budget out-of-pocket and set a few parameters for the shoot. Here were some of the main ones:

  • Shoot on 35mm.
  • Shoot for one day only.
  • Use available light or a maximum of one light which can be powered by a battery.

Paul and I discussed general aesthetic preferences we had for the project, and a few days later, he came back with a script. Our model friend Scarlett Kapella came on board, who’s obviously a talented dancer. Katie Malia, who’s friends with Paul and with whom we’ve worked on a few videos before, came up with the brilliant choreography. Paul composed the music on some of his vintage synths.

Since all funds went to buying film short ends and processing, I decided not to bug any of my friends and do all camera assisting myself. Looking back, that sure was a big mistake. I ended up loading the film out of the back of my car, carrying the camera and cases to location, pulling my own focus, changing filtration, etc. All basic stuff, of course, but I chose an Arri 35-III, which is quite the un-ergonomical camera, and all gear weighs a ton.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up food poisoning between the day and night segment of the shoot, so I was throwing up and running to the toilet a lot during the shoot. All the street scenes at night downtown were done with available light except for the 1x1 litepanel. Once all film was in the can and processed, we got really lucky. Marshall Plante at Ntropic in LA agreed to help out and color the film.

Marshall did an incredible job. All daylight stock was 5207 250D Kodak Vision3, and the night exteriors were 5219 500T Kodak Vision3. The film seemed almost too slick and clean at first, even though we pushed all night exteriors by one stop. Marshall showed us a process in telecine where you tell the machine that it’s looking at reversal film, not negative, which brought a whole new starting point in terms of the color spectrum as well as added a significant amount of grain to the image. We loved the look.

You can do so much digitally nowadays, but originating on film gives you so many options in-camera as well as post. I definitely love shooting film whenever possible.

A year later, Paul and I did a follow-up project together with Treats! magazine. We also shot on 35mm with big favors from Panavision Hollywood. This time we had two nights, a small but real crew, a couple more lights, and a few more toys. Overall, though, it was very similar to “Possession”, but we had learned from our mistakes.

Here it is:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights with us, Matthias! I say “thank you” on behalf of all of our blog readers and film students, who very often let us know how much they appreciate this degree of openness and depth.

All the best with your future projects!

For more from Matthias, visit his website.

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