Saturday 23 January 2021

Home - In Conversation - The Man Behind the Camera: An Interview with Soroush Alizadeh

24Frames: Films are stories told through pictures, and cinematographers are the ones who provide us the lens to enter a film’s world. In an interview with Soroush Alizadeh, Iranian cinematographer, we discuss his views on the experiences and responsibilities of a DOP and the importance of his relation to the film, director, and other crew members. Soroush has recently been nominated in the EnergaCamerimage International Film Festival 2020 in the Student Etudes Competition Section for the cinematography of the film “White Winged Horse,” directed by Mahyar Mandegar.



1. How long have you been a cinematographer?


It’s been 8 years since I started working in this field, both as an AC and a DOP. It started at the beginning of my studies at the university that I and another classmate of mine worked as an AC on a project and I enjoyed it a lot and decided to continue. I worked as an assistant to Majid Yazdani for about two years and after that, I received projects of my own. I have done short films up to this moment; however, I’ve had several offers to work on feature films but chose not to take them, except for a recent one that I might accept to work on if I am still in Iran by the time of its shooting.



2. What is the career perspective for cinematography like in Iran?


I think wherever you are, first of all, it depends on you to create opportunities, but here, normally, as you get into the business and with a bit of help from the connections you make, depending on whether you want to work on short films or feature, you can slowly make your way as a cinematographer, and when you do, the income is quite decent and not involving too much trouble. This is my personal opinion, but I believe you seldom run into a film that actually has something to say, a film that is “Artistic” since that’s what most people who study cinema want to reach eventually; this is mostly the case in feature films. In short films, there are more such opportunities, and people who choose to stay in short film industry often are more successful when it comes to treating filmmaking as a form of art. To participate in feature film industry you usually have to put aside at least parts of your values and principles, which I don’t appreciate and I find the overall work atmosphere, both financially and intellectually rather indecent. Many industries here are tangled with various forms of corruption and cinema is no exception to this. Although if you are concerned with your financial gain, the perspective is much brighter, but most of the results are lower in terms of the quality you offer to the audience; this is why when you look at the works of many feature film cinematographers in the past decade, you realize there’s not one film that could mesmerize you with its technical skills, or even its content, since their main concerns are non-cinematic, and consequently, the highly talented ones who work on short films but refuse to change their views, are not allowed in this arena. In my opinion, short film and feature film are different mediums and it is not necessarily that short film is a bridge to feature filmmaking; it is definitely a good exercise if feature film cinematography is what you plan to do in the end, but it is no less valuable or professional in nature.



3. Does studying cinematography help with future job opportunities?


Cinematography is essentially a field that takes a long while until you develop the expertise to be able to present a standard, basic product and to know how to work a camera; it is only after this stage that you will get a sense of relief and will be able to add your inputs on how you can help the script and the film as a whole and do what you are supposed to do, which is visual storytelling. So you need years of practice until you get to the point where you don’t accept projects only based on your technical gain from them, but (also) other factors they bring to the table. Usually, film students are more exposed to these practice opportunities and additionally, your whole studies are related to the subject and you’ll have a better knowledge of theories, as well as other significant components of filmmaking; thus it is one of the best entries to the field and probably most of the people who work in cinematography have taken this path or have passed an equivalent phase to it, and I do recommend it to those who want to pursue cinematography.



4. How early do you normally get involved with the production of the films? What’s your ideal way of pre-production like?


To me, aside from the routine procedures that are done in pre-production, the more I’m invested in the film and the more challenging I find it, I like to spend more time with the director and not necessarily in professional settings and discussing the film; but also to some extent socializing with them to get a better understanding of the details they care about and the things that annoy them, even if it’s something as simple as the placement of a coffee mug on a table. What I like to do when I start a project is to read the script without any presumptions and try to gather as much data about it as I can in the first sessions with the director. Based on the data, then, I try to visualize the universe that the film aims to create. In the period between reading the script and shooting, I watch movies that I think have more or less a similar mood to them, and take a few of them as my sources of inspiration for when it’s my turn to come up with shots that serve the film best. It’s also fruitful to watch some of these movies with the director. Another thing I do is to play around with the shots and trying to combine them with what I already know of the script, and determine which emotion(s) each sequence is trying to communicate, or whether or not there is an emotional aspect to it. I ask myself many times: how is each sequence trying to affect the audience? Discussing this with the director helps you deliver better results. I don’t accept projects in which I’m contacted last minute, because there is a difference in what you do as a DOP, compared to when the director only wants you to be a mere camera operator who shoots exactly and only what he/she wants. Many great DOPs actually don’t have excellent technical proficiency of their assistants since their job is not wholly being a cameraman. I believe it’s not necessarily that the DOP is superior to his assistant, but they make a team in which every individual has a specific task to fulfill and each task has its importance.



5. How well are genres integrated into our cinematography in short or feature films?


I see many films that have a clear genre and usually, the cinematography in those films tries its best to apply that specific genre’s standards to it, however, they don’t always succeed. I generally don’t think we have much variety in the genre in our films, especially in feature films. We are all rather uneducated when it comes to genre in Iran, both in filmmaking and cinematography, and the attempts to create genres visually are not delicately done, so as a result, it doesn’t sit well with the audience. There are some instances of successful utilization of genre, but these are mainly the times when the director has spent a lot of time speculating on what he/she is trying to do and present and has chosen the best way possible to do it. It’s important to practice a lot before going on set to know the flaws of your approach before the final product. Personally, I am truly interested in working with genres such as horror or fantasy that are not the typical social drama. Genre puts you in a framework with certain rules and even breaking those rules can be as significant as applying them in the first place, which I find quite stimulating. Good results come from spending time thinking about what you want to do, why, and how you plan to do it at each step. This goes both for directing and cinematography, but a lot of times people don’t understand their own decisions well enough and that’s why the final products are not as good as they’re hoped to be.



6. What are the differences between shooting documentary and fiction films?


Shooting a documentary is indeed a strange and rewarding experience and not only because of the cinematic lessons you learn; it helps you know yourself better, especially when it’s not just a simple interview with a shopkeeper, but when you spend days in someone’s life. The element of surprise is a key factor as the events that take place in front of your eyes cannot be replaced or re-enacted, it’s your only chance to capture those moments; your placement compared to your subject, your angle of shooting, or how close or far you are from them, all contribute to how the documentary is going to be perceived. As for technicalities, it is also a very different experience from fiction films, since you always have to be on-call to move, to change strategies, and more importantly, not to waste the momentary opportunities you are presented to. You should be lucky if something happens twice while shooting a documentary and most likely the second time is still going be different in one way or another. In documentaries, it is almost as if your eye is the camera, and this can help in one’s experiences with fiction films. You might come upon a story that resembles something you witnessed while shooting a documentary, so by putting the two images together, you can recreate those feelings more naturally. I’ve only worked on 4 or 5 documentaries but it’s such a pure experience and I think of it as a middle ground for cinema and life itself.




7. How high do you think a director’s knowledge in cinematography should be?


I think it isn’t necessary for the directors to know everything on a camera menu, or to be able to design specific lightings for every scene, but without a doubt there should be a mutual language between the director and the DOP, meaning when the DOP is explaining whether a frame needs a soft light or a backlight on the subject, the director should at least be familiar with these terms and what they imply in practice. I’ve come across filmmakers, even well-known ones, who end up having no idea what their DOP is talking about, and I find this really sad because it means there’s a lack of basic cinematic knowledge which has further implications on the quality of the film that is going to be produced. This basic knowledge doesn’t require deep studies on technicalities, but simply observing and engaging with what the cinematography team is doing on a few projects suffices for them to understand what can or cannot be done with a limited budget, and how they should adjust their expectations from the DOP accordingly. It can also help filmmakers realize which DOPs have the eligibility and creativity to put their ideas into action and are better to work with, considering the conditions of production.



8. Which factors help a cinematographer in his/her storytelling?


One thing that I do in pre-production which I’ve found helpful is that I unconsciously try to find similarities between the script, characters’ storylines, and my own life. I try to see whether or not I’ve lived what they’re supposed to experience, or at least put myself in their shoes to get a better understanding of their logic and emotions. I invest a lot of mental energy in this stage, because like what I said earlier about shooting documentaries, sometimes there’s a light or a specific point of view that will always remind you of a certain memory or a feeling. Even if there’s no project involved when something worth remembering is happening to me or around me, I tend to pay attention to the environment, my surroundings, and the mood that’s flowing at that time; I try to keep the lights, the composition of the space and sounds and ambiances somewhere in my mind. When reading a script, if it isn’t anything too strange to you, you can manage to pull these fragments of memories out of your brain and apply them to what it –the script- requires. This, of course, isn’t a rule or a necessity but I think the results of going through this process can be quite interesting both for the cinematographer and the film. You have to realize, though, as someone in their twenties or even thirties, you have limited experiences and what you are asked to do for a film might be something that you can’t resonate with personally, so in my opinion, one of the best ways to expand your views is by reading novels and books, listening to storytelling podcasts, or even narratives of different people and generally getting tangled in the stories. The descriptions and images you get from all these various mediums can again help you get an idea of what the characters have felt in different situations, and add to your overall input on the films. What you do as a cinematographer is basically to present a visual translation of experiences of your own, or others, and this translation should happen in your mind before anything else. The more you practice giving a better and more detailed representation, the more prepared you are to connect the dots in the stories and see what’s missing or what needs to be added while shooting.



9. How much and in what ways do you think looking at and analyzing good photographs can help a cinematographer?


There’s a common saying about the work of cinematographers, that what they create is a sum of all the movies and pictures they have ever seen, and this is distinct from plain copying of the images. I think this is true, and oftentimes when you think you’ve done your job uniquely, it is most likely a result of your own experiences mixed with different shots from all the related movies that have affected you unconsciously. It’s the same process with photographs; the lights, the compositions, or for instance the look in the eyes when you’re looking at a portrait, all affect how you perform as a cinematographer, even if you don’t exactly know how. When you look at a photo analytically, you think about why each element is placed where it is, or why specific colors are used, and the feelings associated with all of the aforementioned. As a DOP, as you acknowledge which atmosphere you have to create, you reverse this path by figuring out which factors assist your goal. In this regard, paintings are helpful as well, with the added element of imagination, which can be very useful, specifically when it comes to creating an atmosphere in genre.




10. What are your criteria to choose the cameras you work with?


It completely depends on the requirements of the film, because when you have sufficient general knowledge of using cameras, you understand the differences between the textures each camera produces. Thus you can decide which camera is a better match based on the tone of the film. Another factor is considering what your physical condition is bound to be like while shooting; therefore whether or not there’s a lot of movement or unusual angles involved, can determine which camera is better suited. Although, I think what matters more, is not the camera body itself, but the lenses that are used. The majority of effects you get are the results of a combination of the lens and the sensor. I try to apply a variety in the lenses I choose to work with, rather than insisting on using a specific camera. Many times the images you need to create can be made with a less expensive camera, so there’s no need to stick to the wrong belief that more expensive cameras are always better. And finally, speaking of costs, the film budget is one of the major determinants of which camera to work with.



11. How is your relationship with other crew members, especially the set designer?


As a DOP, after the director, the set designer and the costume designer, respectively, are the most influential members of your work, so I try to be in contact with them constantly to make sure we get the best results possible; however, there should be a mutual understanding on the importance of this collaboration. Even when you receive an award for cinematography, it is partially owed to the set and costume designer because they are the ones who shape the frames and it’s not just about the lights or the lens, but the whole harmony of colors and forms contribute greatly to creating the perfect balance. Hence brainstorming with these two is crucial because the final result will be a synthesis of all the ideas that each of these members adds. The dynamic of this relationship differs based on who you are working with, as some people give you more details of the color palette they prefer to work with or the props they plan to use, but others simply ask what you need and will adapt to that. When there are disagreements between what you think is best to do as the cinematographer, and that of the set designer or costume designer, it’s essential to explain the reasons why you suggest another approach since all members enter the project with their unique vision about the film. Although you should always be aware of the boundaries to prevent stepping too much into another’s territory and to keep in mind that eventually, this collaboration should be for the better of the film.


Interviewed by Parnian Gharehsoory


Click here to read Soroush’s notes on the cinematography of “White Winged Horse,” along with some stills from the film.

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