ONFILM Interview: Larry Fong

Published on website: October 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Larry Fong. Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

"When I was a kid, I got a magic set for Christmas. In my teens I shot short films using my dad's Bell & Howell 8mm camera. For me, both magic and filmmaking give an amazing sense of wonder to the creator and viewer, one that takes us out of our everyday lives and transports us to a place of mystery. My passion for both of these disciplines has led to incredible experiences and friendships that I will never forget. But sometimes making things look effortless is not so easy. To me the biggest challenge in cinematography, like any illusion, is to make an elaborate and often difficult situation appear to be completely natural. Not only is skill and mastering of the craft necessary; one must get into the mind of the director to read his thoughts. Then you must interpret his dream, understand his vision, collaborate, improvise, and deliver. But as organic as the process may be, recording the image is not something I leave to chance. The color palette, latitude, grain, and contrast that are unique to film all contribute to the ultimate emotional response of the audience...and that's where the real magic is."


Larry Fong launched his career by shooting hundreds of commercials and award-winning music videos. His narrative credits include episodic television such as the pilot for Lost, which earned an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nomination, and the feature films 300, Watchmen, and the upcoming Sucker Punch.

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

A CONVERSATION WITH LARRY FONG

QUESTION: Can you tell us where you were born and raised?
FONG: I was born and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

QUESTION: Were you a photography hobbyist?
FONG: My dad had cameras that I played with all the time. He taught me about photography and after much pleading even set me up with a darkroom while I was in junior high school. I took over the laundry room where I processed film and had an enlarger for making prints. It was a magical experience. Almost like alchemy.

QUESTION: What were the typical subjects of your photography?
FONG: Occasionally I tried to be artsy. I went on to taking portraits of people, and then for some strange reason became interested in advertising photos in magazines. I remember wanting to take the perfect photo of a beer bottle or hamburger. I don't know why I was fascinated with those ads--maybe because for the first time I realized the amount of attention to detail and technical skill required to produce these images, that were usually taken for granted. Either way it was a premonition that someday I would be working in commercials and advertising.

QUESTION: When you say the technical challenge, do you mean mastering the craft so you could get the vision you saw in your mind onto film?
FONG: Exactly. Both still photography and cinematography are an interesting blend of art and craft. Pushing the envelope with creativity comes natural to some people, but you have to also learn the craft to be consistent and have the confidence to reliably get those ideas on film. Cinematography in particular requires intense discipline, probably because there's so much more at stake, for example, a company's million-dollar ad campaign, or a studio's 100 million dollar movie. That's pretty intimidating, and a lot of responsibility.

QUESTION: Don't cinematographers also have to master the art of collaboration with the various people you work with whether it's a commercial or a narrative film?FONG: True. That's also a challenge. Dozens of fellow crew people make up your team, and if you can't communicate what you want, it's frustrating to all involved. That's something you can't learn from a book. Luckily I've worked with amazing directors who do their homework and treat their crew with respect. I've tried to learn from that. The director is the captain of the ship and the dreamer of the dream. All the good ones appreciate the role that cinematographers play in helping them to achieve their dreams.

QUESTION: Isn't that one of the interesting things about being a cinematographer? You need an in-born talent for telling stories with moving images.
FONG: I'd like to think so but I'm not sure. I was never great at story telling or public speaking, but I recognized the power of the image. I drew, I painted, and I sculpted at a young age.

QUESTION: I want to ask another question about your childhood experiences. Did you just experiment with still photography, or did you also have access to a movie camera?
FONG: My dad had an old Bell & Howell 8mm movie camera. I shot my first little films with that camera when I was in my teens. On Kodachrome and Ektachrome film, I might add.

QUESTION: What kinds of home movies did you shoot?
FONG: I shot goofy movies with friends, with as much trick photography as we could think of. I experimented with stop-motion and other special effects. I built miniatures and made prosthetics. Bullet hits and explosions. I even did shots with glass paintings and rear-projection.

QUESTION: Were you also a movie fan?
FONG: Of course. Jaws made a big impression. My friends and I wanted to make a shark movie in the swimming pool, but we couldn't figure out how to do it. Steven Spielberg really influenced my feelings about wanting to become a filmmaker. I still remember how Close Encounters of the Third Kind transported me to another world. It was pure magic -even more than Star Wars for me. Stanley Kubrick was an even earlier influence. I remember my parents taking the kids to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. It was a long drive but it was worth it. I clearly recall watching the 70mm print projected on that huge screen with stereo sound...it just blew me away. I didn't understand the film at all...and I didn't care!

QUESTION: What did you think you were going to do when you were a grown up?
FONG: I wanted to be an artist in some way. It wasn't that I was super creative; it's just that I didn't have any marketable skills. After I got into photography, I was interested in that as a career but I had no idea of how to make it happen. I remember my dad saying that you need to have connections and know people, which was unfortunate because I was trapped in suburbia. But when I finally decided that I was going to do whatever it took to learn photography and film, my parents supported that decision. I told them that I wanted to study at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. They said they would help me get started but I would have to earn tuition money or get a scholarship.

QUESTION: What made you decide you wanted to study at Art Center?
FONG: Well, first I went to UCLA hoping to get into film school. Two years of undergraduate courses are necessary before you can apply for the film department. I applied before my third year and was utterly rejected. I was crushed. It was years before I started to concoct a different strategy to try again.
Art Center was part of that plan.

QUESTION: What lessons did you learn in the film program?
FONG: The most important thing I found out was that I wasn't meant to be a director. I did terribly in my directing classes and knew it. But lighting and the rest of cinematography felt natural. But mainly, we studied narrative filmmaking. That's what we spoke about everyday. We screened the classics, foreign films, the French New Wave, and talked late into the night about cinema and the future of film. We all dreamed about making our mark and wondered if we would even ever get that chance. Our teachers encouraged us to create a sample reel of work, including music videos and spec commercials that we could show to people in the industry upon graduation. This was radically different from other film schools where you're lucky to make one short film. My reel included pieces that were directed by Tarsem and Zack Snyder who were fellow students.

QUESTION: What did you do after graduating?
FONG: I cold called various production companies, arranged meetings, that sort of thing. I had an interesting reel to show so it wasn't too long before I started shooting music videos. Over the years I guess I shot dozens and dozens of music videos, and won some awards and recognition I suppose.

QUESTION: What did you learn from shooting music videos?
FONG: There are good music videos and bad music videos, but either way they often give you opportunities to experiment with different techniques and improvise. No limits. I really loved those times. We would get a crazy idea and run with it. The labels had no idea what we were doing and gave us free reign. Not any more!

QUESTION: How are commercials a different experience than music videos?FONG: Of course there are bigger budgets with commercials, but my contribution is a little more diluted. In the old music video days, I would stay up all night with directors searching photo and art books for inspiration, brainstorming and figuring out how to do something crazy and innovative. Sadly, with commercials these days, a cinematographer is often brought in at the last minute. That's too bad, because a location is often unworkable, or the coverage has already been decided. On a recent job though, I was lucky to be brought on weeks ahead of time and was even flown to New York for meetings. They really cared, and wanted me to bring something to the party and that made a difference.

QUESTION: Is that something that you can talk about?
FONG: It was a rebranding campaign for the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy). I was involved early on with the production designer, collaborating on the sets and the look of the project. It was a fantasy-based kind of theme--a group of people trek up a hill to a mysterious house where they find weird and wonderful things. There's a large atrium with strange characters and objects floating around and they discover dream-like, secret rooms. There is even a shot reminiscent of M.C. Escher.

QUESTION: Were you shooting on sets or was it an actual house?
FONG: We shot a few exteriors but it was mainly sets on a stage.

QUESTION: What was the production format?
FONG: We shot on 35mm film. There was never any question from the director or the agency. It was the only way to capture the rich and specific palette of colors and nuanced look that was envisioned. The feel, contrast and tones that are unique to film all contribute to the emotional response that you want, whether it's a music video, commercial, or movie.

QUESTION: You shot the two-hour pilot and seven episodes of the first season of Lost. You earned an American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement Awards nomination for that endeavor. Will you tell us about your experience on that project?
FONG: When I interviewed for Lost, I think it was a tough sell because I was known mostly for my TV commercial work and sometimes people aren't sure you can pull off long-form, narrative material. I can understand that. Luckily JJ Abrams fought for me, and I am eternally grateful. The truth is that when you shoot commercials, you get a lot of experience shooting in many styles and situations with many different directors, using all of the latest tools, all the time. You become extremely flexible and get good at thinking on your feet. The producers and directors want commercials that stand out visually and communicate much in a short amount of time. So it's a great training ground. Incidentally, we finished the pilot on schedule, under very difficult circumstances.

QUESTION: When did you get your first opportunity to shoot a studio film?FONG: Besides collaborating way back in film school, Zack Snyder and I worked together now and then on music videos and commercials. We did our respective things for many years--I shot a couple of small films, he shot a film, I shot Lost, and one day he told me about 300. I saw the classic themes inherent in the script, about sacrifice, about honor. But what really sold me was when Zack told me there was absolutely no point in making the film unless it was going to be a visual tour de force. That was obviously one of the highest priorities for him.

QUESTION: The movie 300 was about a battle in ancient Greece between the Spartans and an invading army from Persia. How did you prepare for that venture, which transported the audience 2,500 years back in time?
FONG: Even though we knew there would be extensive use of CGI and digital image manipulation, Zack and I still insisted on shooting film. It just made sense to us, especially to get the feel of another time and place, and to emulate the graphic novel with its beautiful, painterly look. We also weren't afraid of grain. Early on we shot many tests with wardrobe, make-up, set colors, and lighting. We used different stocks and pushed and pulled the film. We then took the film and stretched it and crushed it--figuratively--and put it through the magical VFX pipeline until we came up with something we liked. It was a long, involved process but I think we came up with a pretty good secret recipe that no one else has duplicated.

QUESTION: Where did you do the DI?
FONG: We did the DI at Company3 with (colorist) Stefan Sonnenfeld. Zack and I have worked with him for years, starting in the music video days, plus he does a lot of our commercials, so we all know each other both as friends and as filmmakers. Interestingly, Stefan had early aspirations of becoming a cinematographer. The three of us work pretty smoothly and efficiently together. What could be a stressful process is a relaxing, creative, and satisfying experience, which is good, because I think we spent hundreds of hours working on 300.

QUESTION: Did knowing there would be a DI effect how you shot the movie?
FONG: A lot of people think that timing a film digitally instead of optically means you can be lazy or that you can magically make a terrible image into a masterpiece. But all the tools in your arsenal must be taken into context and used wisely and properly at all stages. During preproduction, we did a lot of testing to find a look that felt right. It was the same with costume and production design and everything else. We started with a vision and finessed the look in the DI. Knowing certain things are possible later may help when you're backed into a corner while shooting, but your foundational use of light and shadow, and composition can't be 'fixed' later.

QUESTION: You worked on Watchmen after 300. Tell us about that.
FONG: Watchmen was based on the critically acclaimed graphic novel of the same name. Very intimidating because of the huge fan base it has acquired over the last twenty years. Our goal was to be as true as we could to the source material. We owed that much to the fans...even if the rest of the audience didn't get it or thought it was too long. My biggest challenge was to create interesting visuals that were true to the genre--and to portray the 1980s without seeming like a period piece or a parody. Watchmen was much more visually diverse than 300. It was also a logistical challenge-- we built and shot over 200 sets.

QUESTION: Okay, now we are going to ask you a hard question. If you could go back in time and pick out a director to work with, who would you pick and why?
FONG: That's easy: Stanley Kubrick. He was a great storyteller and a visual communicator. More than just filming people talking, Kubrick was a master of strong imagery interwoven with compelling stories. I'm sure his early days as a photographer had a lot to do with that. He has an incredible body of work which has stood the test of time. Whenever I see a Kubrick film again, I discover something new. Not just visually, but philosophically as well. Last year I spent a week watching every one of Kubrick's films, in order, from the beginning. It was like going to film school. I highly recommend it.

QUESTION: Do you have ambitions to play other roles in the collaborative process like directing, writing or producing?
FONG: There are many people who have moved up the ranks, whether a camera operator, or cinematographer, who want to be a director. Although I've had some opportunities, I'm quite happy being a cinematographer. I believe it is what I do best. I'd rather be a pretty okay DP than a mediocre director.