Interview conducted by Kelcie Des Jardins
Tips for Aspiring Cinematographers from Anna Foerster, ASC
• It’s easy to get hijacked by technical novelties and it’s good to stay up to date with the fast developing technical stuff. But don’t let that dictate your choices.
• Stay physically in shape. Somehow those 16 hour days will seem less of a marathon.
• Most importantly, every choice should be story driven. Who steps in the light? Who stays in the shadows? When do we not see in someone’s eyes? When does the camera move? What lens? It’s all story driven and often depends on blocking. This is where the collaboration between director and DP becomes really meaningful.
StudentFilmmakers Magazine: How did you start working with films, and why cinematography?
Anna Foerster, ASC: It is not so glamorous, but quite a funny story. Back in Germany, I grew up in an old house with a large garden and when I was 15 or 16, a friend of the family, who had been my babysitter, was shooting his student film in our garden. I was absolutely intrigued by the whole process. But several things stood out above all. The camera, the lights, and all the gear. And the DP. He explained to me what his job was and how he used the lights and the sun to tell a story. I was hooked. So in a very pragmatic way I started researching and found out that I needed to be an AC first before becoming a DP. It didn’t even cross my mind that there were almost zero female DPs at that time. So I told my parents that I wanted to quit school and become an AC. Leaving school was not an option, but my parents took my very passionate decision seriously. They started writing me ‘sick notes’ while I was working as clapper loader on student films. So, ‘why cinematography?’ It’s a bit like love at first sight. There was nothing rational about this decision.
StudentFilmmakers Magazine: Do you have any favorite cameras?
Anna Foerster, ASC: I used to love the old Mitchell Mark 4 camera and the Photo-Sonics highspeed cameras back when I was shooting miniatures and motion control. It was the mechanics that fascinated me. The sound of precision gears, even the smell. It’s almost like being nostalgic about a vintage car. The last two movies I shot with the Alexa, and right now I would consider this my favorite camera. Besides being a very user-friendly camera, I really like the way it captures color. This isn’t something you can necessarily pinpoint in numbers and graphs, it’s a very subjective thing. But this doesn’t mean that I will automatically shoot the next film on the Alexa. It is a great advantage to be comfortable with a specific camera but this shouldn’t be driving the decision of which camera to use. I don’t think anyone should get emotionally attached to a specific camera. In the end it’s a tool and we have to choose the right tool for each job. Simple as that.
StudentFilmmakers Magazine: Are there any cameras you would like to work with in the future?
Anna Foerster, ASC: Yes, a camera that can go from, let’s say, 50 ASA to 3200ASA without changing its characteristics and latitude, so you don’t need to use extensive ND filters.
StudentFilmmakers Magazine: In your opinion, what do you think is the biggest challenge cinematographers face today?
Anna Foerster, ASC: I think by now producers and directors have realized that shooting digital doesn’t mean you don’t need time and equipment to light. That misconception has already changed and hopefully explaining this is no longer a challenge for DPs. The fact that ‘film is cheap’ now allows us to shoot and shoot and shoot. Our responsibility is to still make sure that what we shoot is meaningful. It’s not the quantity that counts.
However, the biggest challenge now, in my opinion, is keeping control of the look through post. The DI process and the integration of VFX. Even on a big studio production the DP doesn’t get paid to sit through DI. This is where the final decisions are being made and it is our responsibility to be there for that. But often DPs can’t give it the full attention because of schedules or simply because they can’t afford it.
StudentFilmmakers Magazine: How do you feel about working with digital, and what are some of the pros and cons?
Anna Foerster, ASC: I used to be one of those strident defenders of film. I couldn’t see how, on an aesthetic level, digital could ever replace film, or even come close to it until I worked the first time digitally with the prototype of the Alexa on the movie “Anonymous”. With the launch of the Red and the Alexa, I saw that this was the beginning of the digital era. I also realized that it’s wrong to think about digital replacing film. I believe it’s a new canvas and it’s a new time but I don’t think the goal is to make digital look like film. The goal is to take the digital format and push its boundaries to its limit in the same way people have done for over a century with film. One huge advantage and disadvantage, at the same time, is that with a good and properly calibrated monitor, you can get a really tight impression of what you are capturing. This can be very comforting especially if you are pushing the limits a bit. The disadvantage however, is that everybody, including the craft service person, can look at the monitor. Suddenly everybody is a specialist in lighting and composition. This has greatly ‘demystified’ the role of the DP. Before I had shot with digital, I had a conversation with Dean Semler, who had become a pioneer by shooting big movies on the Genesis. I asked him how digital has changed his life. He laughed and said, “It’s better for my heart”. That’s so true. You are not sitting in dailies and nervously looking at a sheet with the printerlights in your sweaty hands before the dailies get projected, wondering if you pushed it too far the day before. Hoping that the timer got your urgent message about the last scene, etc.
Another great advantage is that you can shoot longer takes or a few takes back to back. This is sometimes really helpful to keep the momentum going for the actors. And it’s surprising how fast a reset happens when the camera is rolling. However this can create huge amounts of footage the editor needs to sort through. And keep in mind if you are shooting four takes back to back and it’s a handheld shot or a Steadicam shot – make sure you don’t break the operator!