ONFILM Interview: Christopher Baffa, ASC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Christopher Baffa, ASC - Photo by D. Kirkland

"I think the cinema is perhaps the most powerful art form, because it encompasses all of the other art forms in a unique way. It's a universal language with 24 images linked together to create each second of life. The cinematographer's role is to interpret those seconds, and translate the vision shared by producers, writers, and directors into moving images on the screen. This process of helping directors tell their stories is very satisfying for me. I believe that being a cinematographer is in your DNA. You have to be in synch with the emotional and psychological elements of a story. Like painters, cinematographers explore thoughts and feelings through composition, light and darkness, contrast and color, all in pursuit of an overall theme, expression, or ideology. Clearly, the choices we make about which films to use - our canvas - and how to expose them remains one of the greatest tools for communicating those themes."

Christopher Baffa, ASC is a University of Southern California film school alumnus who began his career lighting and shooting independent films produced by Roger Corman. A short list of his subsequent credits includes the feature film Running With Scissors, the pilot for The Closer, and the television series Popular, Nip/Tuck and Glee.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]


by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?BAFFA: I was born in Los Angeles and raised in the Palos Verdes area.

QUESTION: What did your parents do?BAFFA: My father was a superior court judge and my mother was a housewife. She was one of those June Cleaveresque, idyllic moms who baked, picked us up after school and fed us snacks. She dabbled in little careers, but I think she was always happiest being home. I had a wonderful childhood.

QUESTION: Were you a movie fan growing up? BAFFA: I've always been fascinated by movies, and the art form of cinema has always been special to me. One of my father's friends had his family's basement converted into a home theater with a 35 mm projection booth that he installed. I still have vivid memories of watching and listening to The Sound of Music and other films in that basement when I was 10 or 11 years old.

QUESTION: That must have been a special experience.BAFFA: It was a literal home theater. My father's friend found a theater that was going out of business. He bought the seats and had them reupholstered. The Sound of Music is still one of my favorite films today. I have travelled to Salzburg in Austria, where it was produced. During the tour I saw the Von Trapp mansion. I've seen The Sound of Music again recently. My wife and I are both huge fans. It's still relevant today. It takes you to a different world, and the cinematography is amazing.

QUESTION: Were you a photo hobbyist as a kid?BAFFA: My big love was art. I painted and drew a lot as a child. I would spend hours and hours painting and drawing. My father would make little sketches for me and I would color them in. Only one survived, actually, and I have it framed in my son's room. He was an amazing artist. That was a huge influence. I also remember going to museums and being amazed by the art I saw. There were four children in my family, and our parents encouraged all of us to do whatever made us happy. My father really wanted another lawyer in our family, but was very accepting of the fact that none of us went into law. He encouraged everybody to do what they loved. He also made 8 mm home movies which we watched together. Our family would go to Disneyland, and a week later we'd sit in our living room, Dad would thread this magical machine and Disneyland would come to life in full Kodachrome splendor.

QUESTION: Was that your introduction to filmmaking?BAFFA: It was a very powerful experience, yes. Those films are very precious to me today. When I was eight or nine years old, I began taking the 8 mm camera from my father and documenting events myself. Those were some of the first moving images of him, as he was always photographing us. I was able to do that because my dad encouraged me, and my mother and siblings weren't interested in competing for using the camera. I also became the projectionist for our home movie nights. We would shoot film and bring it to Long's Drugs for processing. About a week later, we would get it back. I would thread it in the projector. The magic happened when the film passed by the light in the projector, and we would relive the experience of visiting Disneyland and other places.

QUESTION: What did you think you wanted to do when you were grown up?BAFFA: I was interested in anthropology and archaeology, because I'm fascinated by the past and history, as well as interior design and architecture. I toyed with the idea of entering one of those fields.

QUESTION: Did you have any thoughts about becoming a filmmaker?BAFFA: I did, of course, but was intimidated by the film industry, because the chances of succeeding seemed rather daunting. There was about a six-month period when I was looking into doing other things. Then, one morning, I remember waking up and literally having a visceral feeling that filmmaking was my destiny. I enrolled in film school at USC with the intention of directing, but soon realized the role that cinematographers play and the contributions they make to the process of telling stories on film. One of my instructors told me that I shouldn't be a director, because my films didn't make sense, but they looked great! He encouraged me to concentrate on cinematography. I'm so grateful to him.

QUESTION: Is it possible to describe what a cinematographer does, or is it just something you feel?BAFFA: I think being a cinematographer is in your DNA. Helping directors tell their stories is very satisfying for me. You can describe the job capacity, but the instinctive and intuitive element is difficult to put into words. You have to be in synch with all the elements of a story, including the characters and plot, the background music, the emotional feelings being expressed by the actors, especially that which lies beneath the words in the script and the evolving tone. You have to translate all of that into images that use composition, movement, light, darkness, lenses and colors to tell stories. I was inspired by watching a lot of old films and studying what cinematographers did generations ago. I believe that's when I started to look at movies differently in terms of how the cinematography was helping to tell the story, and reinforcing the dramatic elements. To me, that is where the purity of what we do exists with respect to an ultimate.

QUESTION: Are there cinematographers whose work influenced you?BAFFA: Absolutely. I wouldn't be the cinematographer that I am without the work of literally every other cinematographer, as it is their work that constantly inspires me. Owen Roizman (ASC) has been a tremendous influence. I'm honored to call him a friend. He is a true artist. His work on films like The Exorcist was bold, and so appropriate in terms of what was happening in the drama and the story. Of course, I was also influenced by films shot by Conrad Hall (ASC) and Vittorio Storaro (ASC). Roger Deakins (ASC), Robert Richardson (ASC) and Emmanuel Lubezki (ASC) are amazing artists whose work I seek out, and study very closely. I love Allen Daviau (ASC), and he has been a wonderful inspiration, artistically and personally. I recently presented one of my idols, Philippe Rousselot (ASC) with an old copy of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer that I had, because his beautiful work in Henry and June was a definite impact upon my own style of lighting. Woody Omens (ASC) has been a wonderful friend and mentor to me. I shot a USC thesis film in 35 mm format for an old and dear friend, Adam Grossman. Woody was the faculty advisor on the project, and I learned a great deal from him. His guidance was, and still is, one of the things that I cherish the most in my career and life. Woody has always been there whenever I call him for advice. One time, while I was shooting second unit on a very low-budget film, I was supposed to do a time lapse shot in the desert. I called Woody for advice at 7 or 8 p.m., because we were scheduled to shoot at dawn the next morning. Woody was on the phone for over an hour. He asked me what the director wanted to see in the shot, the parameters, what equipment we had, and then he walked me and my assistant cameraman through filming the shots. Woody has been a mentor in the truest sense of the word. I was talking to him on the phone one day, and something that Allen Daviau (ASC) did in one of his films came up. I am a huge fan of Allen Daviau's cinematography. Woody said, call Allen and ask him how he did that shot. I said I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that. About 20 minutes after we finished our conversation, my phone rang and it was Allen Daviau! Woody had called and asked him to call me. I sat down at my desk with a pen and pad and took notes for two hours. That is a great example of Woody's enthusiastic commitment to helping young cinematographers.

QUESTION: How did you launch your career after completing your education at USC?BAFFA: I worked my way up through the ranks, starting as a set lighting electrician on film crews and eventually a chief lighting technician. All the while, I was shooting whatever I could here and there. It was an invaluable experience, as I can now look back and relate to what my crew are doing, knowing what the constraints are and the challenges they face. It is very helpful with respect to knowing what is and is not possible or worth pursuing.

QUESTION: How did you get your first jobs as an electrician and then gaffer?BAFFA: A lot of things happened through people whom I met at film school. There was a group of us that stuck together. We would hire each other, or we would recommend each other to cinematographers. I started working full-time as a cinematographer in 1994.

QUESTION: Didn't you work on Roger Corman films?BAFFA: I did. As a matter of fact that was where I got my start. Jon Aronson, a good friend from film school, who is a brilliant cinematographer, called and asked if I wanted to shoot second unit for him on a Roger Corman film. That got me into the Roger Corman world. I shot second unit on another film there, and finished a movie that someone had started. Then, in 1994, Mr. Corman gave me my first feature film credit as a first unit cinematographer. He had certain requirements, because we were making films that would be released to cinemas in Europe and on DVD or videocassettes here, but other than that he left you alone. We shot on film and saw projected film dailies. We shot in a low-budget environment, but he did it right. We took our films through the photochemical process all the way to release print. It was tremendously valuable training, because we were allowed to experiment and see it through on film. It was like as an extension of film school.

QUESTION: How long did you work on Roger Corman films?BAFFA: Approximately two years. It was a magical time, and truly on-the-job training. Mauro Fiore (ASC) was there at that time, and Janusz Kaminski was there just before I got there. Wally Pfister (ASC) was also there at the same time. I was a set lighting electrician on one of Wally's films. I remember that experience like it happened yesterday. I really enjoyed the way he worked - the passion. He was collaborative, but also steadfast on pursuing his vision. I remember thinking this guy is relentless. He's not going to give up until he sees lighting that feels right to him. That experience was an important lesson for me. You need to be relentless and never compromise your vision.

QUESTION: When and how did you become a Camera Guild cinematographer?BAFFA: After I had worked on quite a few Roger Corman films, I got a chance to shoot a film called Suicide Kings in 1997. It was a low-budget film, but higher budget than the films I had been working on. That was my first film as a member of the Camera Guild. It is one of my favorite films, and the experiencing of making it was very special. The director, Peter O'Fallon, was wonderfully creative, and I have fond memories of watching him speak with Christopher Walken about character issues.

QUESTION: When and how did you begin shooting television series?BAFFA: That was another interesting experience. I shot a few other films after Suicide Kings, and my feature film career was going well. Then I got a call from my agent about a television show called Popular (in 1999). My initial reaction was to say that I was not necessarily interested in television, not that it was a bad thing, I was just more artistically interested in the larger canvas that goes with feature filmmaking at that point. My agent asked me to do a favor, and go to the interview. They had shot the pilot, but wanted to reshoot half of it, and then have the cinematographer film their first season. My agent said the producers are pretty remarkable people. I said, 'Okay, if you guys feel that way, I'll go and meet them.' The producers included Michael Robin, Ryan Murphy and Greer Shephard. I now have a long history with all of them that has so positively shaped my career over the past decade. They were all at my wedding, and I truly value the friendship, as well as the professional collaboration, that I have with each of them. I am really glad I went to the meeting!

QUESTION: How about sharing some memories of that first experience with them?BAFFA: I was knocked out by these people. I could see what they were trying to do with the pilot. It was a teen comedy about kids in high school that also examined some real issues. It had heart. I called my agent while I was driving home from the interview and said, 'You guys are right. There is something special about these people!' My agent said, 'I'm glad you feel that way because they have already called and really want you to shoot the series.' That began an amazing adventure. Ryan Murphy is one of the producers I'm working with now on Glee.

QUESTION: You shot Ryan Murphy's Running with Scissors, a wonderful feature film in 2006. What do you recall about that collaboration?BAFFA: It was Ryan Murphy's first feature film. I'm grateful that he gave me that opportunity, and I am very proud of the film, and the way the film looks. It was a challenging project based on a fascinating, darkly introspective novel. The film's dramatic content and themes really appealed to me, and artistically, I feel it marked a huge jump for me. It told me I could dive into really serious, relevant subject matter, treat it properly with respect to enhancing and interpreting the emotion, and get it done on time and budget.

QUESTION: Tell us about some other projects where you collaborated with Mike Robin, Ryan Murphy and/or Greer Shepherd.BAFFA: I worked on Popular for two seasons after shooting the additional photography for the pilot. Between season one and two, I went up to Nova Scotia with Mike Robin to photograph an ABC pilot/movie of the week he was directing called Bailey's Mistake. That was tremendous fun, and a thrilling opportunity. I also shot the pilot for TNT's The Closer for Mike, and that was a really rewarding experience. We were finishing a season of Nip/Tuck, and Mike came to me and asked if I was exhausted. He said that he had a pilot he thought was really good, and I agreed, and so we did it. We were both exhausted, but really dove into the material and had a great time. I got a call from Ryan Murphy regarding the Nip/Tuck pilot. I read it and loved it. He was looking at directors at the time, but wanted me to photograph the piece, which I did in January 2003. After the pilot, I went on to photograph the six Nip/Tuck seasons that followed. Ryan also created and is producing Glee. I shot the pilot and the first season of that, and now the second season.

QUESTION: What are some of your memories about filming Nip/Tuck?BAFFA: Ryan sent me the script that he wrote and asked what I thought. I thought it was brilliant, of course. Ryan has this amazing insight in to the human condition. Ryan wanted me to shoot the pilot, but was looking at some pretty high-profile directors and a lot of them had their own cinematographers. I told him that even if I didn't shoot the pilot or series, I would watch it, because it's such a unique concept with a wonderfully complex and human script. A couple of weeks later, Ryan called and asked if I thought he could direct it. He was primarily a writer and producer who had only directed episodes of Popular. I told him that I honestly thought he was the best person, the only person, to direct the pilot, because it was his concept and was uniquely specific in terms of tone and what he was trying to say. The people at the FX Network loved the idea. I was honored to shoot that pilot. It was a great experience, because it was ground-breaking television. It went to a dark place without being nihilistic.

QUESTION: We need you to explain what that means in more detail.BAFFA: Ryan is interested in things that are happening under the surface. If you lift up a rock in a garden, the little bugs underneath it are more fascinating to Ryan than the garden itself. It's not necessarily the dark side of society that fascinates him, but rather it's the private sides of people's lives, that which lies the deepest within the human psyche. Again, I feel as though he truly has a unique and amazing ability to understand and examine intricacies of the human condition. Nip/Tuck provided a platform for exploring that. We explored some dark places involving relationships, and the examination of human interaction was fascinating.

QUESTION: Can you give us an example.BAFFA: The two surgeons who are the heart of Nip/Tuck had a dysfunctional relationship. Many times they were at each other's throats, but they couldn't leave each other, because there was that sort of a sibling fondness linking them even though they weren't related. The underlying theme was that their friendship overcame all obstacles in the form of personality conflicts. I remember a scene in the pilot with Joely Richardson and Dylan Walsh. They played a husband and wife, Julia and Dr. Sean McNamara. I had never seen anything like that scene on television before. It was real and raw. They were saying things that husbands and wives say in arguments that revealed their true feelings, and because of their extreme acting talent, it was literally uncomfortable to be on set that day, as it was so real and emotional to watch.

QUESTION: Was the camera on that show a spectator or an invisible character?BAFFA: It was both. The pilot episode was set in Miami. Ryan and I spoke about the looks of other shows set in Miami, including CSI: Miami and certainly Miami Vice. I asked Ryan if he wanted Miami to have a presence in the story like a character. He said he wanted a presence, but not to the degree that it was in Miami Vice and CSI: Miami. That isn't surprising, because the projects that I have shot with him are usually off the beaten path. He's interested in more esoteric storylines with complex, interesting characters, who are not predictable. As a result, we both agreed that the audience needed something to identify with, and that the visuals needed to provide an accessibility for the audience that the characters and circumstances might not provide. His vision for Nip/Tuck was for the visuals to be naturalistic and not overly stylized or overbearing. Sometimes the camera was like a character in the room, which we usually captured by handheld cameras for a realism and tension, but we did so with restraint. No excessive movement, but just a little energy. However, most of the time it was as though the camera was providing a window through which to view a world and its inhabitants in their private, emotional moments of life.

QUESTION: What production format was chosen to produce Nip/Tuck?BAFFA: Ryan insisted and I agreed that we produce Nip/Tuck in 35 mm film format. That was the obvious choice for the naturalistic look we both envisioned while shooting in some challenging environments. I'm proud of the work I did on Nip/Tuck, and I credit Ryan for fighting to keep the show on film.

QUESTION: What was next on your agenda after shooting those seasons of Nip/Tuck? BAFFA: Towards the end of the series, Ryan gave me a script and said, I'm writing, producing and creating music for the pilot of a new show. Let me know if you are interested in shooting the pilot. I read the script for the pilot episode of Glee on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. It couldn't have been more different than Nip/Tuck. The story is about a teacher and a high school glee club and their interactions. Afterwards, Ryan asked me to share my thoughts and feelings. I told him that I was intrigued by the use of music, the characters and their relationships and the dialog. I finished shooting my last episodes of Nip/Tuck and went on to shoot the pilot and first season of Glee.

QUESTION: The first season aired on the Fox network in the United States, England and Japan. It is certainly a different type of story than Nip/Tuck. What were your expectations?BAFFA: I expected it to be received favorably, but I had no idea that the reception from the public would be as enthusiastic as it has been. I love the combination of music and telling stories on film. When the right music is used correctly, it can really elevate the stories.

QUESTION: How is Glee produced, and why is it produced in that format?BAFFA: Glee is also produced on 35 mm film. Ryan wanted a natural look that helps the audience identify with the people in Glee. We also need the exposure latitude that film offers when we are shooting musical scenes on the stage. That's where the magic happens, where the lure of performing transports our characters. It is therefore critical for us to capture their emotions when they get on the stage performing in the glaring lights. It has to look and feel romantic, and have that aesthetic of film. Film gives us the ability to go from the normalcy of their regular existence to a heightened, stylized theatrical look with ease and efficiency.

QUESTION: Let's presume that you are talking directly to producers, directors, actors and all of the other people who cinematographers collaborate with while producing television shows and movies. What is the message that you would like to deliver to them? BAFFA: I'm passionate about making sure that cinematographers are part of the decision-making process when formats are chosen for producing motion pictures, television programs or anything else. I am not against digital capture mediums if that is what is right for the story you are trying to tell. I hear from other cinematographers that they were told the production format had already been chosen when they had their first meetings with producers and directors, and I feel that does not allow those productions to benefit from their cinematographer's expertise. I think it is troubling to leave the cinematographer out of such key decisions that affect both the look of a film and how it's produced. It's beyond comprehension to me, because the cinematographer's role is to take a vision from the producers, writers and directors and translate it into moving images on the screen. Cinematographers are not just artists, but professionals. We are immensely sensitive to the requirements of budget and time schedules. We have an overall responsibility to a production, which I feel we take incredibly seriously, and so that commitment and dedication needs to be, in turn, equally respected.

QUESTION: Have you experienced having someone tell you what format to shoot in? BAFFA: Not directly, no. I was brought on to a fairly large studio feature film that another cinematographer was originally going to shoot. They had five weeks of preproduction before I came onboard, and were planning to shoot with a specific digital camera. I didn't want to rock the boat. Then, I took a closer look at where and when we were going to shoot. One location was a night exterior at 8,000-foot-high altitude, anticipating zero degree temperatures. I told the producer, I don't want to be difficult, but I don't think it's a good idea to use that digital camera in that environment. Everyone shared my concerns, luckily, and so we switched to film.

QUESTION: What roll do you think narrative films play in the world today? BAFFA: I think films are the most powerful medium if not art form that has ever been created. It's also the most eclectic of all the art forms because film encompasses all of the art forms. A movie can take you to different places and times in the blink of an eye. It can have elements of literature with respect to characters and stories that are dramatic or funny or both. Films also integrate music which augments the words and performances. The cinematography can be an important aspect of the story-telling. Choices of colors, decisions about composition, light and shadows, contrast and how you use different lenses can greatly affect the emotional and psychological content of scenes, and a film as a whole.

QUESTION: What are your thoughts about moving images being a universal language? BAFFA: I gave a lecture at a film school last year entitled The Power of the Image. I started by asking people in the audience to think about the 1969 lunar landing, a cat, and the assassination of President Kennedy. The point was to illustrate that probably everyone saw their own cat, or Felix the cat, or Garfield or what have you. However, when it comes to the other events, it is safe to assume that everyone's mental imagery is shaped, or at least influenced by, the images that were taken by the astronauts on the surface of the moon and the Zapruder 8 mm Kodachrome film of the assassination of John Kennedy. In other words, these images have been ingrained within our psyche, and have created a strong cultural unity that we all share, at least with respect to how we view these events. That is amazing to me. Those images captured important moments in time forever. We'll never forget them. They are indelibly ingrained in our memory. Movies can do the same thing, regardless of language or culture. Some movies are pure entertainment, which is valid. I think it's a noble endeavor any time someone sets out to make a film. You can find merit in almost every film just like a painting. Cinema, at its best, evokes feelings about the story you are witnessing.

QUESTION: Can you site a few examples of films being more than entertainment?BAFFA: Everyone has their own examples of films which touched them. Dances with Wolves is a good example of a film that transported me to another world. I saw that film years ago. It was a long film, but it seemed like the time went by in five minutes. I walked out of the theater feeling as though I had been transformed. That film spoke to me about another time and place on a deep, emotional level. It was the same for me with Saving Private Ryan. I think younger people came out of the theater with a greater respect for their fathers and uncles who were veterans of World War II. Band of Brothers was a television mini-series which fits that description. I was riveted to the television set.

QUESTION: That's an interesting observation, because in addition to be smash hits at the box-office, both feature films your mention, Dances with Wolves and Saving Private Ryan, won a slew of Academy Awards®, including directing and cinematography. Dean Semler (ASC) and Kevin Costner won Oscars® for Dances with Wolves and Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski won for Saving Private Ryan. Those are good examples of the importance of collaboration. BAFFA: The relationship linking Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski is incredibly impressive in terms of the steady stream of great films they have collaborated on. It's a great testament to how a shared sensibility between a director and cinematographer can affect stories told on film. Schindler's List is another great example. A brilliant film, and one in which the photography played a crucial role. I applaud Mr. Kaminski's bravery, and loved how he went from the classical romantic lighting of 1930s and '40s Hollywood movies, where Oscar Schindler was wooing the Nazis in night clubs with backlit cigarette smoke, to the elegant and gorgeous contrast of the stark brutality of scenes that took place in the Auschwitz concentration camp. It was incredibly powerful having those contrasting images in the same film. That spoke to the power of cinema. Film is a universal language with 24 images linked together to create each second of life on the screen.

QUESTION: Do film students ask you for advice? BAFFA: Yes. I do a lot of seminars at schools. Woody Omens taught me that we all have an obligation to give something back to the people who mentored and encouraged us to give that support to the next generation. I tell them they have to be focused on what they want to achieve, and have a good old fashioned work ethic, because the competition is fierce. Relationships are especially important.