Eric Steelberg - Photo by D. Kirkland
"Film has been a part of my life since I can remember. I went to a lot of movies while I was growing up and remember getting lost in the imagery and stories. My parents bought me a plastic camera at a young age. I just loved looking through the lens and taking pictures. In high school I helped create a film class. My friends wanted to be writers, directors and producers so I became the cinematographer by default, and it came natural to me. At 15, I shot my first short film for friends taking a summer production workshop at the University of Southern California, and can remember the emotion and magic when we projected the first roll of 16 mm black-and-white film. … This is a collaborative endeavor. You listen, discuss, and work together to execute your vision. Cinematography is developing a recipe of compositions and lighting to set the appropriate tone for each scene while being as elegant and transparent as possible. Beauty is born out of that. The decisions I make about using different lenses, film stocks, and lighting are all part of the visual grammar of filmmaking. Every DP expresses it differently and there is no right or wrong. That's what makes it an art."
Eric Steelberg is in the dawn of his career. In addition to many award-winning short films and commercials, his recent cinema credits include Juno, (500) Days of Summer, Up In the Air and the upcoming release of Going The Distance.
[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A CONVERSATION WITH ERIC STEELBERG
by Bob Fisher
QUESTION: Tell us where you were born and raised?STEELBERG: I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles.
QUESTION: What did your mother and father do?
STEELBERG: My father was a trial lawyer. My mother was a homemaker.
QUESTION: Did they take you to movie theaters when you were young? STEELBERG: They enjoyed movies. The first movie they took me to see was Star Wars at a drive-in theater when I was a newborn. I went to a lot of movies while I was growing up. Either I rode my bike to the theater if I was going by myself, or my mom would drop off some of my friends and I. Going to see movies was one of my favorite things. I remember getting lost in the imagery and stories.
QUESTION: Were there photography buffs in your family?STEELBERG: I wouldn't say they were photography buffs. They took good pictures of the family and during vacations. They also appreciated photography. There were stacks of National Geographic magazines on shelves in our house. I remember looking at them for hours and hours. I was always fascinated by the photography. Those pictures and watching National Geographic documentaries on television was what really sparked my interest in photography.
QUESTION: Did you take pictures?
STEELBERG: I did. My parents bought me a Fisher Price plastic camera. I just loved looking through the lens and taking pictures. I took pictures of everything around the house. When I was older, sometimes I developed black-and-white film in the bathroom. My mother wasn't happy with me pouring chemicals down the drain of the bathroom sink!
QUESTION: Did you have any formal training at that point in your life?
STEELBERG: I took photography classes in both junior high and high school. I took pictures of landscapes. I didn't have the confidence to ask people to pose for pictures.
QUESTION: When did you shoot your first motion picture film?
STEELBERG: Early into high school, some friends and I started a film class. There were six of us. Some of the school parents had been documentary filmmakers and donated an Éclair NPR 16 mm camera, Nagra recorder and a flatbed Moviola editor for us to use. It was a real gift shooting and editing on film with that camera gear. We also had boxes of Super 8 cameras, editors, and projectors. I was very excited to be able to learn on film…digital video wasn't around yet.
QUESTION: Did the parents who were filmmakers mentor your club?
STEELBERG: Not really, but they arranged for other people to come in and talk with us. I have very fond memories of Haskell Wexler (ASC) and his operator…I think it may have been Scott Sakamoto…coming in and speaking with us. Haskell brought his Moviecam camera. He spent an afternoon talking about movies and cinematography. This was a religious experience for me and instrumental in becoming the resident camera geek.
QUESTION: How did Haskell deal with a bunch of high school kids?
STEELBERG: Haskell was very gracious with his time and sharing of his knowledge. He was also very funny. I remember him telling a lot of jokes that were totally beyond us at the time. We were just high school kids. I think he loved that we were shooting black-and-white and color Super 8 and 16 mm film in high school.
QUESTION: Who else from the world of filmmakers spoke with your film class?
STEELBERG: The year after, Robert Wise came to our school. We watched The Day The Earth Stood Still and had dinner with him in our library. It was kind of amusing how many parents and teachers showed up. When I heard he was coming, I dug into his body of work and fought to sit next to him at dinner. I think I asked too many questions including, 'What did the negative look like when you edited Citizen Kane?' He was courteous and patient. I think he enjoyed having high school students appreciate his work.
QUESTION: Did you realize that you were visiting with future legends?
STEELBERG: It was a pretty awesome experience being exposed to Haskell Wexler and Robert Wise in high school. What treasured memories! But it wasn't until I got older and into my career that I fully appreciated how lucky I was.
QUESTION: Did you study work by other cinematographers?
STEELBERG: Visions of Light came out around the same time that we started the film club. Our teacher brought it in. That was my introduction to many cinematographers. Then, we watched clips from some of their films and their movies. At one point I decided to have a Vilmos Zsigmond (ASC) and Laszlo Kovacs (ASC) marathon by watching a lot of their movies on laser discs…listening to the commentaries and watching the behind the scenes films. That was a phenomenal education for me. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know about them and their films.
QUESTION: What did you think you wanted to do when you grew up?
STEELBERG: I felt that I had a knack for photography, but I didn't have a plan.
QUESTION: What did you do after graduating from high school?
STEELBERG: I applied to every film school that I had I heard about. I decided to go to Santa Monica College and try to transfer to UCLA Film School during my junior year. I took still photography courses, but I never finished or transferred to the college. I started shooting short films and got pick-up jobs on no-budget movies after two years.
QUESTION: How did you become the designated cinematographer?
STEELBERG: I became the cameraman by default. All my friends wanted to be writers, directors and producers. I was the only one who had a light meter and wanted to shoot and would take responsibility for exposing the film properly. It came natural to me.
QUESTION: How did you get started shooting short films for friends? STEELBERG: I shot my first short film for a friend when I was 15. He was taking a summer production workshop at the University of Southern California (USC). When I said I didn't know how to use an Arriflex camera, they gave me a book on cinematography and a manual for the camera, and told me to figure it out. It was a black-and-white 16 mm film. Later, when I was at my friend's house, we threaded the first roll of film that we shot onto a projector in his living room and turned it on. It was just like magic! It was an unbelievable and emotional experience. It's hard to describe the feeling. It seduced me. I felt, I've got to do this again.
QUESTION: What was the name of that short film?
STEELBERG: It was called The Quiz. It was supposed to be a two minute, black-and-white silent film. My friend didn't finish it on time, so he failed that class. We wanted to finish the film, so we borrowed the negative from USC and took it to the lab to make a work print. We were supposed to return the negative, but we put some paper in the can to weigh it down and turned that in. Then, we cut the negative into an eight minute film.
QUESTION: What were the next steps on your career path?
STEELBERG: I reconnected with Jason Reitman, whom I had met in high school, through a friend. Jason was a student at USC. He wanted me to be a focus puller for a short film that he was going to make. Later, he asked me to be the cinematographer for some reshoots for parts of that film.
QUESTION: What was the first film that you shot for him?
STEELBERG: It was H@, a 35mm short film for the FX network. Right after that, we collaborated on In God We Trust, a film that won awards at many festivals and got a lot of attention at Sundance in 2000. When Jason became a commercial director, I started shooting spots for him. I got an agent and started shooting commercials for other directors, too. I continued to shoot short films as well, which kind of snowballed into opportunities to shoot features.
QUESTION: Were there cinematographers whose work you have followed?
STEELBERG: The first time I was impressed by cinematography was when I watched films shot by Caleb Deschanel, including The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff and The Natural, when I was 6 or 7 years old. I saw Empire of the Sun when I was 10. Something about Allen Daviau's cinematography really affected me and it remains my favorite film.
QUESTION: Have you told Allen or Caleb how they influenced you?
STEELBERG: Caleb's daughter, Zooey, was the female lead in (500) Days of Summer which was released last year. She sent me an email after the premiere saying that her father loved the movie and wanted to meet me. After that, I got a wonderful email from Caleb saying how much he enjoyed the movie and my work.
QUESTION: How did you breakthrough into mainstream filmmaking?
STEELBERG: I had shot a really small feature called Quinceañera that premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2006. It was made for about $300,000 on a really short schedule. That film won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. Jason Reitman had done a movie called Thank You for Smoking, which also premiered at Sundance in 2006. When Jason decided to do Juno next, he got the script to me and said, 'I'd really like you to do this movie with me.'
QUESTION: How did you prepare for Juno?
STEELBERG: It was very informal. We spent a lot of time at Jason's house, looking at photo books and talking about the shifting emotional tone of the movie. We also watched five or six films together, scouted locations and took still photos with stand-ins at various angles to get ideas for covering shots. We used those photos to create a storyboard.
QUESTION: Juno was popular with the public and critics. It won an Oscar and three other nominations and various other awards. What did that do for your career?
STEELBERG: I started getting more scripts even before Juno came out. Afterwards, I think I got every comedy script with teenaged characters. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely did not mind having people send me those scripts!
QUESTION: How do you decide that you want to shoot a film? It's a big commitment.
STEELBERG: That's not an easy question to answer. It's a lot of things, including the story, the director, the characters and whether I feel that I can contribute something unique.
QUESTION: How did you come to work on (500) Days of Summer?
STEELBERG: One of the producers of Juno sent me the script. Then, Marc Webb (director) and I had a couple of conversations on the phone, because I was finishing shooting another movie and wasn't available to meet in person. We saw eye to eye in those conversations. He hired me over the phone before we met.
QUESTION: What was it in the script that appealed to you?
STEELBERG: I felt it took a different and interesting approach to a romantic comedy genre film. Marc also had ideas for telling the story visually that appealed to me.
QUESTION: How did the two of you prepare to translate the words in the script into a story on film?
STEELBERG: I was very impressed with Marc's knowledge of cinema history. We watched many films together. Instead of saying, 'Doesn't that shot look amazing,' Marc would comment on how the lighting worked for characters at different moments in stories.
Cinematography is developing a recipe of compositions and lighting to set the appropriate tone for each scene while being as elegant and transparent as possible. A kind of beauty is born out of that.
QUESTION: Please share some memories about your experiences shooting that film.
STEELBERG: It was unexpectedly more challenging than we had anticipated.
QUESTION: What made it more challenging?
STEELBERG: We had a very ambitious schedule shooting all practical locations in downtown Los Angeles.
QUESTION: There are no landscapes or other big backgrounds in this film, so why did you and Marc decide to shoot it in Super 35 format in widescreen aspect ratio?STEELBERG: Much of the story unfolds with the two main characters in the frame. The widescreen aspect ratio allowed us to come in tighter to emphasize their togetherness, while also allowing ups to create more physical space between them, as was called for in some scenes. We also isolated one of them in the frame when their relationship wasn't working…the way you can isolate a character in widescreen can be very powerful.
QUESTION: What was your next feature film project?
STEELBERG: Jason told me about the book that Up in the Air is based on about eight years before we actually shot it. He began working on the script before Juno. Once Juno was released, he told me that it was going to be our next film. I read the book about a year before the script arrived in the mail, six months before we started shooting. I thought it was great. We produced Up in the Air in five cities in just 50 days.
QUESTION: What were your first impressions when you read the script?
STEELBERG: When I read the book, it was hard to imagine how it could be turned into a movie. I thought it was gutsy making a movie that didn't have a typical Hollywood happy ending. Jason treated unemployment in a sensitive and respectful way. I felt it was a relevant story for the times.
QUESTION: Does Jason direct from a video village?STEELBERG: He'll watch takes at the video village, but he generally prefers to be near the actors, and frequently sat by the camera with a little remote handheld monitor.
QUESTION: George Clooney played a corporate executive whose job was flying around the world to fire people. You shot at practical locations in five cities and shot some real people in a few cities. How did you make those people feel comfortable?
STEELBERG: We hid the camera behind a wall of black fabric with a hole in it for the lens with very subtle lighting that wasn't hot or distracting. We didn't want people to feel intimidated or self-conscious. Jason wanted to stage it like we were making a documentary about people losing jobs. We filmed scenes with the actors later.
QUESTION: Did you have any documentary experience?
STEELBERG: I have only shot one feature length documentary.
QUESTION: You also shot a film called Going the Distance. Tell us about it.
STEELBERG: It's a romantic comedy directed by Nanette Burstein with Drew Barrymore in a leading role as a character who is involved in a long distance romance.
QUESTION: Did you approach shooting a romantic comedy differently than a drama? STEELBERG: I approached it like every other film. I read the script, talked with Nanette and watched the actors rehearse. Then, I covered and lit each scene in ways that created the right tone for that part of the story.
QUESTION: How much time did you have to shoot Going the Distance? STEELBERG: We had about 45 days.
QUESTION: Was it all filmed at practical locations or were there sets?
STEELBERG: It was almost all locations in and around New York City. One location was a house that seemed a little too opulent, so we worked with the production designer to add a few walls to make the space smaller. I had conversations with the production designer about colors we wanted to avoid, and how white the walls on a set should be.
QUESTION: Why was having the right white tone important?
STEELBERG: It was about the luminance of the white tone, which helped to determine how bright or dark the background was. We spoke about who the characters were, what they did, and the emotional content of the scenes. All of those details influenced the film stocks and lenses I used, and the color temperatures of the light. I was shooting with (KODAK VISION3) 5219. It's a 500T film that I exposed at 400 to get a slightly denser negative. We shot around 750,000 feet of film in 45 days.
QUESTION: You have spoken about films produced in 1.85:1 and Super 35 formats. Have you had an opportunity to shoot a film with anamorphic lenses?STEELBERG: Not on a feature film. I am looking forward to doing that, but I have shot commercials and short films with anamorphic lenses.
QUESTION: Why were commercials filmed with anamorphic lenses?STEELBERG: The characteristics of the lenses and the images are different than spherical lenses. It's a different look even if it's going to be cropped to 1.85:1.
QUESTION: Give us an example of a commercial that you shot in anamorphic format.
STEELBERG: I shot a public service announcement at night with a minimal budget. We shot almost the whole thing with an anamorphic zoom lens, because the director wanted a widescreen aspect ratio with shallow depth of field. The subject was underage drinking. We show teenage actors around Los Angeles at night while they were trying to buy alcohol. We shot in bars and liquor stores where they were turned away.
The decisions I make about using different lenses, film stocks, and lighting are all part of the visual grammar of filmmaking. Every DP expresses it differently and there is no right or wrong. That's what makes it an art.
QUESTION: One of the fascinating things about filmmaking is that it is such a collaborative form of storytelling. What are your feelings about that?
STEELBERG: This is a collaborative endeavor. You listen, discuss, and work together to execute your vision. I am teaming up with so many people when I work on a film, including every member of my crew. We are all working together to make and implement decisions that are the right for the movie.
QUESTION: This is a totally unfair question, but we will ask it anyhow. If you could go back in history and collaborate with a director who would it be?
STEELBERG: You're right. That's unfair, but Billy Wilder comes to mind. That's probably because I recently saw The Apartment a couple times. I think it's a perfect movie from every perspective, including production design, acting, cinematography and everything else. I have also seen Lawrence of Arabia many times. I can only imagine how great it would be to have the experience of shooting a large format film with magnificent landscapes and a story that lends itself to that. The cinematography by Freddie Young got as much attention as Peter O'Toole and the other actors. I believe cinematography should be seamless and blend into the story, but there are exceptions with certain pictures. Gregg Toland's cinematography with Orson Welles in Citizen Kane is also memorable. They were making great movies while doing new things to create images that supported the story.
QUESTION: Do you take your children to movies like you did in your youth?STEELBERG: My sons are still really young, but I've taken them to a few movies.