ONFILM Interview: David Boyd, ASC

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

“I think a lot about how best to interpret a screenplay visually. Pushing and shoving through this creative process, alongside the director, a film starts to become its own thing. I view myself as its protector in its infancy, and when it really gets rolling I get out of its way. Risk-taking is central to good work. I'm visually succeeding if I'm somewhat uncomfortable throughout production—it keeps me sharp. I'll use any tool I can get my hands on to photograph a story well, and deny myself all the others. And I believe the utmost emotion and connection a cinematographer can create with an audience comes with shooting on film. It represents the first and most important leap into a story's visual interpretation. It is the means by which an image crawls up out of the mud and becomes symbolic. It is the very instrument that engages an audience. Shooting, printing and projecting on film tells the story best.”

David Boyd, ASC’s credits include the television series The Walking Dead, Men of a Certain Age, Friday Night Lights, Without a Trace, and Deadwood, for which he received an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nomination. His feature credits include 12 Rounds, Full Count, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, Get Low, and the forthcoming Joyful Noise.

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

Q: How have movies changed since you first became enthralled by them?
Boyd: I will always most admire several films made during the 1970s; Klute, Papillon, Network, Jeremiah Johnson, The Candidate, The Godfather(s), The Paper Chase, Three Days of the Condor, Apocalypse Now, The French Connection. …You can show them to someone in the newer audiences of today and they still love them and understand why they are important. They get it. On the other hand, the mainstream movies that are being made today are geared toward an assumed audience, which I think is unfortunate. In general I find it harder to emotionally connect to those films. Instead of aiming movies at a certain audience, I think we should just make wonderful movies, and see what comes of that.


Q: How did you first become interested in cinematography?
Boyd: My dad was a 30 year Army man, so I grew up a lot overseas, moving every year and a half or so. …I went to five high schools. So my connection to my home country was going to the movies. On the post, it was something you could do anytime, wherever we were. I saw a lot of films. I think the first moment I realized there were people who made movies was in Paris, in the mid-1960s. I just happened past a film set on a street in Paris, riding in the back seat of a Peugeot 403 with no windshield. The film turned out to be Is Paris Burning?, written by Francis Coppola. It was rainy and overcast that day, and there were big arc lights and people in period uniforms, and it was mysterious beyond belief. I was in fourth grade, and it was then I realized that filmmaking existed, and there were people who did it as a way of life. I trace my interest in filmmaking back to that first image. In my teens we were stationed in South Korea, and I saw M*A*S*H down in the village theater with Korean subtitles. My god, it was about us! – Americans in Korea. That was almost a religious experience for me. My friends and I memorized every line. That’s where I saw the good side of being irreverent, and the idea that the status quo probably isn't the best reason to do anything. To this day when someone says “no,” I’m perfectly inclined to find some way to do it anyway, if it's the right thing to do. Seeing that film was liberating. It was probably the first time I heard truth out in the real world. If there’s any one reason why I’m in film, it’s because I think you can use it to get to something that actually means something, and people are free respond to it. You can put something out there and it goes into a whole society’s subconscious. Godard called it “truth at 24 frames per second.” That’s why those movies of the late 60s and early 70s are so fantastic. Those films are what got me into it.

Q: What steps did you take to train yourself?
Boyd: When he wasn't fighting a war my dad was always interested in photography and astronomy. My mom was a music teacher, so she taught school wherever we went. To her credit she dragged me to all the artistic events she could. My dad was shooting home movies and taking pictures. We usually had a darkroom set up wherever we went, and there was a darkroom on every Army post for everyone's use. So I was around photography and in the darkroom a lot. But when it came time for college I chose the University of California, San Diego. The first two years at Revelle College at UCSD are preparation for any major, and because I didn't know what I wanted to do really, I thought this would be good. I was required to take one humanities course, and because I was leaning toward the sciences I searched the catalog for the easiest way to satisfy this requirement. It was called Thursday Night at the Movies. The guy who taught that class, I still think about him daily when I’m shooting. He was a film director; a contemporary of Godard, his name was Jean-Pierre Gorin. He rarely wore shoes, he would handhold a little lavaliere microphone when he spoke and chain smoke cigarettes, and most of time he had a hand down his pants. I was mesmerized by the concepts and ideas he found interesting. It all seemed to be right on the money, and I understood it. Eventually I started spending more time with that class than any of my other classes.

Q: What was the next step?
Boyd: I called my folks and said I wanted to study film. To their credit there was only a short pause on the line and they said okay. I applied and somehow was accepted to the UCLA Film School, I think they only took 20 or so kids a year there and there were many more applicants than that. There were several teachers there who were also very distinct personalities, outsiders who became important to how I learned. One was Bill Adams, a go-to person who influenced me greatly. My cinematography professor was Frank Valert, who was classically trained at the Prague Film School. Most important to me was Ed Brokaw, who taught us applied filmmaking in the real world. It seemed to me he would have done anything to help us, to the point of breaking the law. He gave us the unvarnished truth about what life as a filmmaker would be like, and what it would take to make something that people would remember. He told us that we would hear “no” a bunch of times, and that we could choose whether to listen to it or not. I had been eyeing a beautiful old Technicolor Camera geared-head sitting in the corner of one of the soundstages, gathering dust. I asked if I could borrow it to practice on, they said no. So I stole it. I took it home and set it up in my little apartment, and using a paper towel tube as a viewfinder and a laundry basket as a camera, I practiced panning and tilting for a good year and a half. When I felt I was good enough, I brought it back. Sad part was no one knew it had been gone! My mentor Ed Brokaw had told me that Francis Coppola had done the same thing with a Moviola editing machine!

Q: You graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 1978. How did you make the transition to professional work?
Boyd: I had crewed on a lot of student films at UCLA, and by graduation I met enough working people to be asked to work on the camera crews of non-union feature films. I worked on Nick Von Sternberg's and Virgil Harper's camera crews, and then with Mac Ahlberg, who took me to Rome in the mid-1980s for a few years of work. That was fantastic -- all narrative, two hours, some horror movies, some whimsical comedies – all kinds of stuff. It was quite a crucible from a camera standpoint. There was no money and no time, but somehow, once in a while, some beautiful things happened. I also got to meet Fellini, Rotunno and DiPalma. Later, when I got into the union I realized I was head and shoulders above most folks in my category because they weren’t used to working that quickly. The non-union films of that time were a great training ground. At the same time, I also photographed a lot of 16mm documentaries for PBS and others. I had an Éclair ACLII camera with a couple good zooms and a set of fast primes (I still have that camera). I could travel with four cases. That took me around the world – the South Pole even – and put me in places where I had very little equipment but still had to come up with something nice. I’d grown up overseas, and in among other cultures, so I was at home. Picking up and travelling to the other side of the world was second nature. Even with a limited amount of equipment at your disposal it's amazing what you can do to make a special image!

Q: When did you join the union?
Boyd: I got into the International Cinematographers Guild in 1989 as a camera operator. I worked as an operator until 1998. I did some features; Kiss the Girls, Primal Fear, and a lot of episodic television. There were a lot of TV movies being done at that time also. I worked a lot with Jim Glennon (ASC), whom I completely adored and learned so much from, not only technically but the many ways to get along with people, how to accomplish things with a group. One day I was operating a handheld shot, and I was shoving in past minimum focus. He pushed me up against the wall and said, “Listen, don’t ever put your focus puller at risk like that. Learn what the limit is and don’t go past it.” At the time I was surprised at his reaction, but since then I’ve been thankful that he cared enough to jam his knowledge into my brain. Jim always kept things light, he understood everyone’s point of view, but was still firm enough to get what he knew he needed camera-wise. I enjoyed working with many other cinematographers; Paul Elliot, Aaron Schneider, ASC Michael Chapman, ASC, Robert Elswit, ASC, Frank Byers, ASC, Elliot Davis, Greg Gardiner, Jeff Jur, ASC Dean Semler, ASC Jerzy Zielinski, ASC. I learned wonderful things from all of them, mostly that there are an infinite number of ways to do anything and that there's no wrong way. There is, however, only one appropriate way, and it's the cinematographer's task to find it.

Q: How did you transition to director of photography?
Boyd: I rerated to director of photography in 1998. I had just operated the Buddy Faro pilot, which Aaron Schneider had shot and Charlie Haid, a fantastic human being, had directed. Aaron was by then already interested in directing and was inclined not to shoot the series, and Charlie thought I'd be a good choice instead. So I shot 12 episodes. That was my first crack at shooting in the union. I had been very happy operating, and at the time I didn’t really have a driving desire to shoot. I told Charlie at the time that he was making a big mistake. As is his way, he didn't listen. I was hooked and I never went back, and I owe that break to Charlie Haid.

Q: Do you approach a feature film and a television project differently?
Boyd: I don’t think so, I find myself thinking about the same things. I have also directed a lot of episodes of television, and I find myself thinking even then, in that capacity, about the same thing – how best to elicit an emotional response from an audience, and how best to tell the story visually. That’s how it is. I’ve shot features that went at a 'television' pace, and I’ve shot features that went at a 'feature' pace. I've shot TV movies that went at a 'feature' pace. Get Low is a feature that was done in 22 days, at a television pace. 12 Rounds was done in 50 days. The only differences in my photographic approach comes from knowing how much time I have to accomplish a certain amount of work, and what resources I can draw on to best tell that story visually with the amount of time and equipment that I have. That is the first step. The second step is, given that, what is the smart thing to do to convey the story emotionally? Let’s find a way to do that somehow, even if we don’t have a lot of time and gear. You get taken down a road that you might not have gone down with a lot of resources. Sometimes you find something that is pretty wonderful. Sometimes, even when I have every piece of equipment imaginable available to me, the most effective approach is to use the least amount of it. I’ve known cinematographers whose work was much better with no resources. They had to rely on basic visual storytelling. That has been a lesson to me. All the equipment, all the trucks, all the people can be a hindrance sometimes. It comes down to a camera and some film, and telling a story.

Q: There is so much emphasis on technology in the public dialog about cinematography. Is that a distraction from the real job? Has technology changed the way you work?
Boyd: From a photographic standpoint, I don’t feel that it has changed a lot, even with the arrival of digital cameras. The way I approach things is the same. The technology has made my life easier in terms of prep and in terms of post. Editors surely have seen the benefits of the newer technologies. But I naturally gravitate to the older technology. I'll always love film because it takes the best first step into another dimension. Digital cameras haven't developed a soul yet. I actually have a genuine love for a Panaflex. It’s not just that I know it so well. It’s that I think stories get told better when the most thought is put into how to tell that story. I think when we force ourselves to go through the process – the thinking and the feeling and the worry and the concern – the film actually has a much better chance of being something special, something worthy, something important. If the focus is on making everything easy, I question whether or not the stories being told are important enough to warrant getting produced.

Q: Can you give an example?
Boyd: Let’s take digital intermediate. DI is a great, fantastic tool. I have no regrets whatsoever that things have gone that way. Yet when I see a movie that I know has heavy DI, I feel cheated. It feels like the correct amount of work didn’t go into determining the best way to tell the story visually. Most of the time when I'm timing a DI I'm telling myself ‘don’t 'fix it,’ let it be, don't affect the look to the point where it's no longer capable of being believed." I still love the idea of photochemical print. I still think, more often than not, it's the correct way to go. That route feels real to me, there’s nothing fake about it. I believe to my core that when you don’t cheat, when you’re doing it for real, and when you put that totally believable thing in front of people, they will react. It's still the best way to tell the story visually.

Q: What’s your take on digital cameras?
Boyd: Digital cinema is a logical response to certain realities, and it's here to stay. Producers would like a less expensive way of doing things. And if they are not interested in the emotional impact of what they are putting out, then it doesn’t really matter to them what it looks like. It's interesting to me that big-name actors have begun to stipulate in their contracts that they want to be photographed on film. That said, digital cameras are here now, and they'll only get better. They are another tool in our arsenal. I would photograph a movie with the backup camera of a car, or a flipcam, or a cell phone, if that's the idea and the concept and that is what's going to tell the story the best. But I do believe that the maximum emotion and connection you can get with an audience comes by shooting film and printing on film and putting it in front of them as an interpretation of reality rather than something as close to reality as possible. A perfect reproduction of reality is not an engaging concept for me. When it looks too real, and too clean, then there’s no room left for visual interpretation.

Q: Where do you find inspiration?
Boyd: I find myself drawn to the films that I’ve seen and know and love and respect, films that I know were successful at finding the right concept and putting across the appropriate emotion most accurately. How did they do it? I try to learn how. I look at them and study them and see how they did it. In a general sense, I think all cinematographers are aware of the great people who contributed to the art before them, and the trails they blazed. It had to have been so much more difficult to accomplish a look then than it is now! I try to honor what all those people did decades ago. Think of Fred Koenekamp (ASC) and Papillon. ... When I saw that film, that thing knocked me out, hit me right through the heart. How did he do it? What was he contending with? It is a brilliant piece of work, visually fantastic. It comes back to the idea that those films have heft, and weight. They mean something universal. They had to do with the times in which they were made. To me, they really encapsulate what is great about cinema.

Q: What part does risk-taking play in your work, if any?
Boyd: Risk is everything. Without risk you have junk. Seems to me the connection between art and risk-taking is inviolable. Sometimes the very way to arrive at something beautifully appropriate is to photograph it knowing that four-fifths of dailies are going to be crap. If you don't get fired for it folks will realize that the one-fifth that isn't crap is gorgeous. You have to be hanging out the window going fast, or you’re not doing your job. You have to throw it out there. The beauty of film is that it is inherently risky. You roll the dice, and you try to harness it and make it go your way. It’s only when you risk something that it has the possibility of looking great. I like being uncomfortable about what I’m doing somehow. And when all that you've done in prep falls into place in the last couple seconds before first take, that’s the best. I’m working with a director now who is very locked down. I’m trying every day to shake him up. If we follow the plans and the storyboards perfectly, we’ll end up with something not worth looking at. I’m trying to convince him that we need to go find his movie every day. Way beyond our little plans, we should see what the day feels like, and then get after it.