ONFILM Interview: Haris Zambarloukos, BSC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Haris Zambarloukos, BSC - Photo by D. Kirkland

“I see filmmaking as a study of the human condition. The elements that you use to translate the human condition into a visual form, and the clarity of your choices when doing so, define you as a cinematographer. Cinematography is the result of a process. Sometimes something that goes wrong can liberate your mind and open you up to another way of creating an image. My art school training taught me that underexposure and overexposure are textures that can be used in the service of storytelling. I’ve always been more interested in the artistic aspects of what we do. Empirical comparisons between film and digital capture are in no way representative of the emotional differences. The face is the most interesting photographic subject, and film has a more pleasing portraiture range. When I watch filmed images, I feel like a certain veil that exists with other formats disappears, and in a way, I’m peeking into the human soul.”

Haris Zambarloukos grew up in Cyprus and studied filmmaking at Central St. Martin’s College of Art & Design in London and at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Before beginning his professional career, he interned with Conrad Hall, ASC. In addition to commercials and music videos, his resume includes Enduring Love, Venus, Death Defying Acts, and Mamma Mia!, as well as Sleuth and Thor, both directed by Kenneth Branagh.

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

A Conversation with Haris Zambarloukos , BSC

Question: Where did you grow up?
Zambarloukos: In Nicosia, Cyprus.

Q: Did your family background affect your eventual interest in cinematography?
Zambarloukos: No, my parents were not visual people. My father was an engineer. Artistry doesn’t run deep in my family. But my parents were hugely supportive of and interested in my having an enjoyable childhood. I was good at drawing from an early age, or at least I loved doing it. The response they were getting from the school was, “He really loves this, A for trying.” Recreating an image I had in my mind is something I’ve been doing as long as I can remember. It’s an early childhood memory. At that point it was recreating an image on paper.

Q: How did evolve as you grew up?
Zambarloukos: As I got older, it became a serious obsession with me. I had an excellent art teacher who worked with me at the school, but apart from that I would go to his studio and get extra tuition just to be able to hang out in the afternoons. His name is Nikos Kouroushis. He is an eminent Cypriot, one of the best contemporary Cypriot artists, and he had a big, big influence on me early on.

Q: What did you learn from him?
Zambarloukos: He had this fantastic approach to drawing out the natural inclination people have within art. He saw that I was particularly interested in dealing with light and shadow in paintings and drawings, and most of the exercises he had me do were related to light and shadow. This was way before I had any interest in photography. Eventually, however, I started getting interested in still photography. At age 12, I began using my neighbor’s darkroom. We were at the same school, and we ran the photography society there. We also had a darkroom at school, and we would sometimes skip other lessons and go print photos.

Q: What was the next step?
Zambarloukos: By the time I was 18, I had fully convinced myself that I wanted to study fine art painting. The light and shadow elements, the photography elements, seemed to be already ingrained in me. At the same time, when you’re a kid, you don’t really know about the rest of your life. I was also good at math and physics and chemistry, and these things have turned out to be very useful in cinematography. But my teacher said, “Listen, if you want to be serious about painting and art, the place to go is Central St. Martin’s College of Art & Design in London. And that is where I went.

Q: What are your recollections of that period? What led from fine art to filmmaking?
Zambarloukos: One of the great things about the English university system is that they don’t expect someone at age 18 to know what part of fine art they want to study. You have to do a foundation course, where you try everything – a bit of theater, sculpture, design, film, etc. – in a regimented way. And that is where I tried film for the first time. They started off by showing us two films: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Un chien Andalou. And that is when I saw that cinema could be something more than TV shows, and the normal films I had seen, and that maybe cinema could be something closer to the fine art I had aspired to. And in a way, I found my calling card. I made my first film in that program, and I applied to the fine art film department.

Q: Describe your training there. What stays with you today?
Zambarloukos: St. Martins is a very different film school. The influences we had were Len Lye, Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren. Luis Buñuel, and Robert Bresson. That’s where they drove us, and they were very happy with us using film purely as a fine art form. But at the same time, they had a lot of practical things that were very useful. They had a contact printer, for example. We’d print and develop our own film. They were very much aware that you need to know the paints and the paintbrushes you use, even in film. So I got fairly grounded in the basics of cinematography. At the same time, I would go off and do assisting jobs and things like that. The first assistant job I had was on Two Suns in the Sky, a Greek film that was shot in Cyprus. I was 19 years old, on my summer holiday back home. When I got back to St. Martins, I was just a little more comfortable with the camera than everyone else. So I tried to shoot as many director’s films and I could. I’m sure that helped me perfect my cinematography as much as I could. Directors spent a good portion of their time trying to write, finance or organize a film. I spent a year shooting six short films. So I quickly built up experience and a body of work.

Q: Did you turn your back on painting?
Zambarloukos: Yes. I pretty much stopped drawing and painting the minute I found I could use a motion picture camera. And I don’t have a reason for it. The things that drew me into painting were the same things that drew me into film. I was really interested in a scene, and telling a story, and sequential art. I read a quote from Orson Welles when I was a student, and to me, he really nailed it. He said, “The most interesting thing in the world to photograph is the human face.” That is kind of how I approached fine art, and it’s how I approach filmmaking. No matter what the situation in terms of mood or time of day or location, within that context it is still the human face that draws the audience in. It could be a totally silhouetted human face, but it draws you in.

Q: Your next step was the decision to attend American Film Institute in Los Angeles. What was your thought process?
Zambarloukos: I definitely wanted to do a post-graduate program that was specifically about cinematography. I also wanted to learn a more narrative, and a slightly more American, form of filmmaking. I applied to USC, UCLA, NYU, and AFI. I decided I would visit them as well. In the meantime, Hugh Whittaker from Panavision said that when I left St. Martins, I should spend some time at Shepperton Studios. He told me I could deliver things to the set, and if I got a paid gig, I could just go off and take it. The film that was shooting was Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein. It’s ironic considering that I have now shot two films for Ken. So I would go to the set, and stay near the camera, and watch Roger Pratt light.

Q: What other adventures did you have around this time?
Zambarloukos: Well, I did a few commercials and a few short films. I did a documentary where we drove from New York to Guatemala and back up through Texas to LA. It was sponsored by Doc Martens boots. We took 50 pairs of shoes, and drove around putting people in the shoes, getting releases, and photographing them. This became an ad campaign. After that, I saw my folks in Cyprus for a bit, and then came to Los Angeles and AFI. This was in 1994.

Q: What was your experience at AFI like? Did it complement your fine art education?
Zambarloukos: I had a fantastic experience at AFI. I love AFI. It was a really intense and productive environment. It was more narrative-based, as opposed to purely image-based, and that appealed to me. At St. Martins, we were supposed to be creating evocative and compelling images. At AFI, we were taught to serve the narrative and the story. You put those two together, and it pretty much defines what a cinematographer does.

Q: Who were your mentors during this period?
Zambarloukos: My teachers at AFI were Steven Larner, Bill Dill, and Robert Primes. They were all great. Every day there was someone new and great coming. But my favorite DP through all of this was Conrad Hall. I kind of obsessed over him in a funny way, and I wanted to intern for him. AFI told me to write a letter, and said that they would post it to him. I wrote letters, but I kept throwing them in the trash and trying again. Meanwhile, my classmate Hamlet Sarkissian was preparing a script called Camera Obscura. Hamlet’s teacher was Leslie Stevens, a creator of The Outer Limits TV show, and a friend of Conrad’s who had offered him his first job. Hamlet told Leslie that all I did was talk about Conrad. A meeting was arranged. We discussed Camera Obscura, and he invited me to the set. I became his trainee, and our relationship progressed into a friendship. He was very instrumental. I could show him things, and we’d go see movies together. That’s how it all began. After AFI ended, I attended another amazing film school, which was being Conrad Hall’s intern.

Q: What lessons did he impart?
Zambarloukos: I talk to a lot of people who knew Connie, and they all say the say thing: We just really miss him. He is such an uncompromising voice in cinematography. He always said you are only as good as your worst shot. Apart from the wonderful memories and inspiration, it’s the idea that when I finished a film, ultimately he was going to watch it. He always made me want to do my best. He was never intimidating. It was purely about the relentless pursuit of perfection. He was such a great example of how a person can be kind and gentle, and also a success. I was constantly reminded that true artistry and excellence come from generosity and kindness. Conrad embodied that. And he was a free spirit, which is why his images are unique. He never let go, never rested on his laurels.

Q: After Camera Obscura, you shot Mr. In-Between for Paul Sarossy. Tell us about that experience.
Zambarloukos: I went back to London, and I took Camera Obscura to the Camerimage festival in Poland. There I met Paul Sarossy, a wonderful cinematographer, who got a low budget film to direct in England. He had seen Camera Obscura at the festival, and he offered me the job. I started at a time when you could make low budget films in 35 mm, for under a million dollars, and they had a chance at distribution. I feel like that is almost impossible now. We made contact prints, we did bleach bypass, we tried lenses out. We were given a small package and we made the most of it. I don’t think a lot of young cinematographers have those opportunities anymore. I kept on going, and a couple more came. Enduring Love came up, and I got the job, and that has made a huge difference.

Q: You’ve made films with at least three directors who came from the theater: Roger Michell (Enduring Love, Venus), Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!), and Kenneth Branagh (Sleuth, Thor). What’s behind that?
Zambarloukos: There is a certain way of working and a certain thought process that is actor-oriented. There’s heavy prep, and it’s very prompt. 8 am is call time, and at 8 pm it goes dark. Very timeline-oriented, very performance-led shoot. Not to say it’s not visual and creative. But again there’s the idea that the human face in the most interesting thing to photograph. That is the kind of film path that happens to me.

Q: I once read where you quoted James Joyce as saying that mistakes are the portal to discovery. Can you elaborate?
Zambarloukos: You are used to a certain way of creating an image. To some extent you build a set of tools and techniques you use to create an image. All of a sudden something goes wrong. A technical flaw occurs or an accident happens that gives you a glimpse into another way of creating a shot or an image. And these things can open you up, I think. That’s where you have to liberate your mind a little bit. All those things that we are taught are great images. . . you can’t make those things happen, you have to let them happen. And sometimes it takes viewing a mistake and seeing it as a virtue to discover.

Q: In another quote, you said you are inspired by the wit and gestures of actors.
Zambarloukos: I think that comes back to viewing filmmaking as a study of the human condition. I enjoy sitting in a café watching people and how they talk and gesture, reading the story without hearing the words. And I think that fed my need early on to recreate that in a sketch or in a painting. In cinematography, you ask which angle is going to be that one angle that shows their gestures, and reveals something inside that person. That’s kind of how I see composition. What is the best seat in the house to observe this? In terms of wit, I was referring to Peter O’Toole on Venus. He was really an inspiration. He could recite the entire works of Shakespeare, and every play or film he’d ever been in. It occurred to me that people like that are so inspired by words and what they mean, over a whole lifetime, that they ponder on them and live them and relive them and reassess them at all times. And that made me think that cinematographers should be doing the same thing with images – constantly assessing and re-evaluating the images we’ve made. Because there are a recurring themes – you always have to do a mid-shot of a mother talking to her daughter. That will come up throughout your career, the same way that certain words and emotions that will always have to expressed by actors. I think it’s important for cinematographers to keep thinking about these things and how they can be reinterpreted with new layers and new contexts.

Q: Does your background in experimental and avant-garde filmmaking – your study of Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren – have a noticeable effect on your work today?
Zambarloukos: Definitely. You are talking to someone who was taught that sticking a moth’s wing on piece of celluloid and projecting it is a viable image. And that definitely inspired me to find unique ways composing and lighting. Underexposing is a texture – it’s not a mistake. So is overexposure. I think those fine art filmmaking years are useful in looking for layers and textures in images, not just light and shadow. And not just stories and portraiture, however much I love them. All those thing can coexist. You have to gauge all those things when you choose to make a film.

Q: You are an advocate for the anamorphic format. Why?
Zambarloukos: I believe that 5201 film stock, slightly overexposed, in the anamorphic format, can get close to the quality of 65 mm. It has a certain unprecedented clarity in my opinion. Also, I think anamorphic photography makes a landscape of the human face. It creates an uneven playing field for you to use in describing human emotions on the face. The characteristics on the upper left side and the lower right side of the frame are completely different. That is something that doesn’t exist in spherical. And it can happen naturally, without you even trying. I’m not talking about the composition. I talking about the way it blends the skin tone or heightens wrinkles, or draws you into the actor’s eyes. It’s subtle, but it’s another layer you can add to your portraiture. I love playing with shift and tilt lenses, but they are a bit too extreme. The older and more imperfect anamorphic lenses are, the more character they have. It’s subtle enough that you are not imposing something on the audience. You are gently steering them to look at a person or situation or emotion in a certain way.

Q: What is your take on digital capture?
Zambarloukos: To my eye, film has a more pleasing portraiture range, with better flesh tones, than digital capture. The choice of format is a story tool. If you want someone to look like a mythological Norse god, as we did in Thor, you want to in some way idealize them. And to me, with the edge-out-of-focus and flaring that anamorphic brings, and the latitude and softness and flattering look of film, this make-believe world is more believable. There’s quite a bit of artifice in the movie anyway – it’s set in a mythological time. So where you can bring reality into it, you want to do that. Unconsciously, digital feels a little distant, and we couldn’t afford that with this movie. When I watch something that was captured digitally, I am initially pleased with it. As the shot progresses, though, I personally feel that there is a barrier between me and the screen. I don’t think it’s very inviting. It’s almost alike a certain veil exists. When I watch things captured on film, that veil disappears. In some way, it feels like I’m peeking into the human soul a bit more, or at least an illusion of that. It’s very hard to describe. It’s not mumbo jumbo or voodoo, but it’s also not science either. It is a human relationship we have to the medium. Empirical comparisons between digital and film are in no way representative of the emotional comparison between digital and film.