Reference Material From the Vaults

J. Crew catalogs always have remarkably sophisticated color palettes. Even those I don’t care for I have to admit are well designed. And at the end of every section there is always a photo of a stack of folded clothes that is a perfect color swatch for the collection. Photographer unknown.

It always baffles me when people talk about the cinematographer’s job in terms of cameras. In my mind the essence of the work lies not in the tools, but in creative leadership: the ability to take the raw idea for a project, grow its potential, define its goals, develop its visual architecture, and assemble a team that can execute it with the time and resources available. The most important aspect of this process isn’t production, but all the research that goes into figuring out what exactly the director and producer want, and then helping them take that vision to the next level. At its essence, creating strong motion picture work is fundamentally a design challenge.

I continuously collect reference material to help with this process. Photographs, magazine ads, paintings, films, poems, quotes, pieces of music––there are no parameters on what can be included. The goal is not to collect only images that I like, of course, but rather examples of well-executed styles from across the spectrum. When the objective is to create an experience for the viewer, an image-based vocabulary is often the easiest way to communicate about the project. I like waiting for doctor appointments because it gives me a chance to plunder the stacks of magazines in the lobby for material (I have an entire three-ring binder dedicated to images that use lens flare). Interestingly, the most impressive material in the collection is usually in hardcopy.

Some samples, in color, from the vaults:

A still from Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” shot by the late great Nestor Almendros. It’s always a bit tricky showing the client reference images from one of the most well-photographed films in history, but Almendros’ work is too important for me to ignore. His twilight work in particular is unmatched.

Composition, contrast, and color that create feelings of emptiness and vacancy on so many levels. From photographer Nich Hance McElroy.

Superb quiet energy from photographer Chikara Umihara. Films with this kind of tranquil but powerful tempo are an art form unto themselves.

From a Vogue spread by renowned fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier. Images like these are far more complex than they first appear, and their success photographically requires the help of a skilled production designer (and costumer). In my experience, the effect is difficult to fully achieve outside of large-format photography. A formidable challenge for the cinematographer.

Color that evokes nostalgia from photographer Maria Sardari.

Seductive colors and chiarascuro by photographer Guerorgui Pinkhassov. Images like these remind us how horrific most American television lighting really is.

A polaroid by the brilliant Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky.

From photographer Marvi Lakar.

Superb use of contrast, both in lighting and composition. From the New York Times. Photographer unknown.

Provenance unknown.