ONFILM Interview: Petra Korner

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Petra _Korner.jpg
Petra Korner - Photo by D. Kirkland

"I have learned to always trust my instincts. In the end, cinematography - like any other art form - very much comes down to a matter of taste and the personal experiences you intuitively bring to your work. You have to be genuine and deliver your very unique visual interpretation of the story arc. The trust of a director gives you the freedom to make bold, visual choices. Great films resonate with us for a long time. Some films make us re-evaluate our lives and others give us a good laugh when we need one. I like creating atmospheric images for the story to unfold in, as a means of transporting the audience and giving wings to their imagination. I hope that in my lifetime I get to contribute to films that impact people; whether it is by granting them access to a world they didn't know, or by changing the way they look at the world around them."

Petra Korner was born and raised in Vienna, Austria. She studied filmmaking at New York University, FAMU Prague and the American Film Institute. She has lived in New York, Prague, Paris, London, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires. Her credits include The Wackness, Burgua dii Ebo (The Wind and The Water), The Informers, and Wes Craven's 25/8. In 2009, she received the Women In Film Kodak Vision Award for Cinematography.

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

by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised, and did you have family or friends who influenced your interest in photography and/or motion pictures?
ANSWER: I was born and raised in Vienna, Austria. My father was probably my biggest influence. Besides being an excellent still photographer, he is a huge art and antiques collector. There was not one inch of empty wall to be found in our house. Growing up in Vienna, where you bump into art everywhere you turn, was certainly part of it, too … although Austria is pretty removed from any kind of film industry. Not much has happened since The Third Man was produced there in 1949. Another thing that had a tremendous influence on me was the fact that my parents were, and are to this day, adventurous travelers. They used to disappear for months at a time, and return home laden with Super8 footage and hundreds of rolls of (still) film. Some of my favorite childhood memories take me back to our darkened kitchen, where my father spent countless nights editing Super 8 films documenting their travels to the remote corners of the world. I remember looking over his shoulder as wondrous landscapes passed by and natives of ancient civilizations stared into his lens. I remember the soothing sound of the film running through the Moviola, and the chemical smell of hot-splicing.

QUESTION: What type of work did your parents do?
ANSWER: My mother never worked. My father has a double PhD. He used to work in politics in the Austrian parliament, and later in the ministry of economy. He almost worked himself to death. Finally he quit politics, took a few years off, and then opened a real estate company in Vienna. He really should have gone into the arts, where his true passion lies. He would have been a wonderful artist, but he never had the luxury to pursue what interested him. But, he made very sure that his children had the privilege of going into professions that we feel passionate about, and that are not just a job.

QUESTION: We understand that you spent some time in Southern France when you were a teenager.
ANSWER: I lived with a French host family for a few years. I went to high school in the southwest region of les Landes, in Dax. Later I went back to France to live in Paris for two and a half years.

QUESTION: Were you a movie fan, and if so, what films influenced you and why?
ANSWER: Of course, I was a movie fan … more like a fanatic. When I like a film, I go to see it a dozen times or more in the theater. I can watch it over and over and over again. As a teenager, I was a big fan of experimental and avant-garde films … and when it came to narrative, I looked for films by Bertolucci, Godard and Hitchcock. But a lot of very different films touched me. I would go and see anything, except for maybe the Hollywood blockbusters, which I used to have a prejudice against. … Now, I quite enjoy them! Particular films that stirred my soul and certainly had a big influence on me include Bergman's Persona, which I found haunting and beautiful, Chris Marker's La Jetée, which is just ingenious all around, and Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, a film that makes my heart ache with love for the cinema. I cry every single time I see it. Later on, films that really hit me in a powerful way were Farinelli and Il Castrato by Gerard Corbiau, and, in terms of cinematography Snow Falling on Cedars, shot by Robert Richardson (ASC). Both of those films made such an impact on me that I couldn't speak to anyone for about a week.

QUESTION: Were you a still photographer or a movie hobbyist? If your answers are yes, tell us why and how you got started, and what types of pictures you took and/or movies you shot?
ANSWER: I remember snooping around my father's cameras, which I wasn't allowed to touch because I was infamous for breaking everything. Plus, I grew up being taught that women shouldn't go near anything technical. Eventually, my father caved in and gave me one of his old still cameras, a Pentax Spotmatic, with a set of very nice prime lenses. Although I was a photography buff, and my room was plastered with photographs - mostly black-and-white abstract portraits - somehow taking stills never completely satisfied me. I could never live up to my father in that regard. He takes amazing stills. Also, I felt that photography was a medium in which you mostly document, whereas I was interested in creating a whole other reality of pure fiction. I eventually got my own Super 8 camera and a bunch of Tri-X film. I made strange and dark experimental films that really made no sense. I would shoot through different fabrics or warped surfaces towards light sources, add a dramatic music score, and assign a deeper meaning that only I could understand. It took a while until I learned how to use the magic of images to tell stories that other people could understand and relate to. And that this rendered the images all the more powerful.

QUESTION: When and why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
ANSWER: When I was 16, I went to a Godard retrospective in Vienna. I was on fire. I wanted to revolutionize the cinema like he did.

QUESTION: We understand that you studied filmmaking at NYU. When and why did you decide to focus on cinematography?ANSWER: During my first semester at NYU, I was supposed to write, direct and produce a short film, and recruit classmates to be the crew. When I had to pick a cinematographer to shoot my film, I was devastated. Letting go of the camera was unimaginable to me. Letting go of the script or directing the actors, however was not so hard. After pleading with the faculty, I was allowed to shoot my own short film. The shortcomings were obvious. The film made no sense whatsoever, and I remember the poor actors feeling very neglected. When this became a pattern, two faculty members took me aside and said, 'Petra, you shoot these beautiful images. Have you ever though about becoming a cinematographer?' I listened and enrolled in a cinematography class. My first day in that class, I knew I had found my true calling. I felt like someone had opened the door to paradise.

QUESTION: We have two more questions about your experiences at NYU. Were there members of the faculty who influenced you? If so, are there any memories that you can share?ANSWER: The head of the cinematography department was a Russian cinematographer named Arnold Basov. He would draw different lighting scenarios on the blackboard, usually involving a miserable, drunk Russian man. He would say - and he was known for never using articles - "There is interior gloomy room, where Russian man sit with bottle of vodka, staring at door, because wife is out with other man. So where you put light?" I also remember him yelling at me and others a lot. He was very passionate about cinematography. That rubbed off on all his students.

QUESTION: Did you meet people at film school whom you later worked with on future projects?ANSWER: I haven't really gotten to work with people whom I met at NYU, although I'm still in touch with a lot of them. Most of them are just starting to break into features in different parts of the world.

QUESTION: We understand that you received the Nestor Almendros Award for cinematography at NYU. Tell us about that project.
ANSWER: It was actually my thesis film called Two Pieces. It was a drama about two sisters and the sacrifices they made for each other. We shot on Super 16 film. I lit very simply with small sources and China balls. I recently stumbled across a print of that film, and I have to say, although my lighting certainly has evolved a lot, the composition is something that I would be proud of today.

QUESTION: Were you familiar with Nestor Almendros and his work as a documentary and narrative film cinematographer? Did winning that award in his name encourage and/or inspire you?
ANSWER: Yes. I was certainly knew his work, especially the films he shot with Truffaut and Rohmer, and two of his Hollywood movies, which are amongst my all-time favorites, Days of Heaven and Sophie's Choice. I'm very sad I never got to meet him. I felt that Nestor Almendros' name on the award came with a great responsibility to aim for something extraordinary in my field.

QUESTION: You went on to graduate school at AFI. How did that experience influence you?
ANSWER: Almost every teacher at AFI influenced me. The cinematography department was amazing. We had lighting seminars with great cinematographers. Bill Dill was the head of the department at the time. I have to give him credit for so much. He taught us invaluable lessons about humility, work ethics and fighting for first-class images.

QUESTION: You won a Brooklyn Film Festival award for Shards, which also won an HBO best short film award. What was the genesis of this project?
ANSWER: Shards was my thesis film at AFI. We shot it in 35 mm anamorphic format. It was a good script with a great director. I experimented with a bleach bypass process on the negative, and some cross processed reversal stock.

QUESTION: We understand that you went back to France for a while.ANSWER: I went to live in Paris for about two and a half years after NYU. I made a living working as a camera assistant. At the same time I also shot music videos and a large number of short films to build my reel. When I moved back to the U.S., I switched (from camera) over to the electric and grip departments.

QUESTION: What was your first long form film credit?
ANSWER: A Mexican film called Minotauro that I shot in Yucatan, Mexico in 2004. It was a truly independent film, shot in Super 16 format. Minotauro is an epic story with elements of magic-realism and drama. I experimented a lot and am proud of how it came out.

QUESTION: Share a few memories about The Wackness which won the Audience award at Sundance.ANSWER: The Wackness was a fantastic experience with my AFI colleague Jon Levine, who wrote the script and directed the film. It was a medium-budget independent film, with a script that attracted a great cast and crew. Working with Jon is always intense and wonderful. He expects you to be available and passionate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He would call me at 4 a.m. on our day off, bouncing some new ideas off me. We watched a lot of movies together, and although we have very different film backgrounds, we somehow complemented each other. We pulled all-nighter after all-nighter shot listing the entire movie, and then we'd throw it all out the window because we had a better idea. Filmmaking is a pure passion for him. We had a blast. He trusted me 100 percent, and gave me the freedom to make brave visual choices. I think the film came out really well. I'm looking forward to our next project together.

QUESTION: That same year your film Burgua dii Ebo (The Wind and the Water) was nominated for the Grand Jury prize at Sundance. How did you happen to shoot a foreign language film in Panama? What was it like shooting that film and what did that experience teach you?ANSWER: I actually shot Burgua dii Ebo more than a year earlier. The director was a Ph.D. candidate at MIT, who had gone off to live with a tribe of Kuna Indians. She wanted to make a film telling their story. It was very intriguing to me, and although I had traveled a lot in Central America, I was not familiar with the Kunas. It was a true adventure. I spent many months in Panama. Filming with what was really a rookie crew we had to train. In Kuna Yala, we lived as part of the tribe, partly in huts with locals, and sometimes in tents. We shot in remote areas of the archipelago where we were the first non-Kunas allowed to set foot with very special permission from the highest chiefs. I could write a book about the strange stories from this shoot. On one island, we were shut down by the council of elders in the middle of a night shoot. After long negotiations, we were allowed to finish on the condition that we leave our generator and our shovel with them after we finished.

QUESTION: Last year you shot The Collectables, which won the student DGA award. Tell us how you met the director and why you shot her short film?
ANSWER: It was a thesis film for a UCLA grad student. I actually shot it about four years ago, but the director just finished it last year.
I actually shot another DGA Award-winning film for a UCLA student that year. It was called Warrior Queen, and we shot it Ghana, Africa.

QUESTION: The Informers must have been an interesting and unique experience. For starters, you were working with an incredibly talented cast. What was that experience like?ANSWER: I loved the script. It was oddly dark and depressing. The cast was great indeed. The energy that radiates from a great actor is something very special, and when you have a handful on the set it's inspiring to say the least. At first, I was nervous thinking whether I had to beauty-light these actresses, but then I decided that they deserved to be photographed in a more raw and dramatic way that was right for the story rather than with glowing complexions and the perfect amount of fill light. Our initial intentions for the look was a contrasty, dark and desaturated approach which we got by using a fairly strong percentage of the ACE partial silver retention process that is offered by Deluxe labs. When we screened the first day's ACE dailies at Deluxe, there was a moment of excruciating silence after the lights came back on. Then, the director turned around and said, 'Petra, that is exactly how I had envisioned for the look of this film.' Unfortunately, I wasn't there for the DI because I was working on another movie. Lesson learned. From now on I will not start another movie if it interferes with the DI of a previous one. That's how important our presence is in that room.

QUESTION: Did you make some other interesting and creative uses of film technology, including double and triple exposures, and handcrank the camera in some scenes?
ANSWER: That was for a party scene in the opening part of the film. It was meant to reflect the drugged-out state of mind of the party-goers in that era. I also projected flames onto the actors' faces with a 16 mm projector. That was very efficient and worked great for the effect the director wanted. There were also a few happy accidents.

QUESTION: Conrad Hall (ASC) was famous for using the words happy accident while discussing memorable imagery.
ANSWER: Conrad Hall was a true genius, and I'm glad I have at least that tiny little something in common. I will give you a simple example of a happy accident. The gaffer is aiming a light, and it accidently hits another part of the set at just the right angle. You have to tell him to stop right there, because it looks amazing. Sometimes the actors do something completely different than they did in the initial blocking, and stumble in and out of their light. This happened quite a bit on The Informers, and it worked for the story. Those were happy accidents. If an actor seeks darkness, maybe it's a better decision to silhouette him at that moment of the story, rather than forcing him into that perfect rim light and contrast ratio. Other happy accidents were flares that added magic to shots. Sometimes, I don't get the time, manpower or equipment to pre-light a location the way I initially planned and have to whip out an alternative plan on the spot that turns out to be better. I would call that a happy accident, too.

QUESTION: From your perspective as a cinematographer, what are the differences between images captured on film and digital video?
ANSWER: They are different mediums. Video is electronic rather than organic. Film is also much better at holding highlights and reproducing true blacks. I haven't seen any video that looks remotely like film. Why take a medium and try to manipulate it to make it look like something else? Unfortunately, some people are blinded by the latest technological hype. I feel like there has been so much HD propaganda out there that it's our responsibility to tell producers, directors and the upcoming generations of young cinematographers that all they need to do is look at the two mediums side by side and make an informed decision. The comparison speaks for itself. It doesn't take a cinematographer's eye to see and feel the shortcomings of the electronic capture medium.

My agents used to be terrified when I told them I wasn't interested in taking films shooting HD. Now they respect this. As long as there is a significant difference between the two mediums, I stand by my decision. And seeing how every year new and improved film stocks with unparalleled latitude and richness hit the market, I don't have to be afraid for this to happen in my lifetime.

QUESTION: You sound passionate about that.
ANSWER: I passionately love my job, which is why I care so very much about preserving our standards for image quality for cinema. We shouldn't have to be afraid to move backwards in this regard. We should rather concentrate on evolving in the art form; in terms of storytelling.

QUESTION: Is there a rule book for what's the right visual grammar?
ANSWER: There is no rule book. I have learned to always trust my instincts. In the end, cinematography - like any other art form - very much comes down to a matter of taste and the personal experiences you intuitively bring to your work. You have to be genuine and deliver your very unique visual interpretation of the story arc. The trust of a director gives you the freedom to make bold visual choices. For example, I don't believe that you always have to see both eyes of every actor. There are times when it feels right to let parts of images fall off into darkness, especially when you want to augment a sense of suspense. There are also times when a profile or even a semi-profile of a face can be more powerful than a full frontal shot.

QUESTION: We understand that you recently shot 25/8 with Wes Craven. Can you give us a brief description of what this film is about, and what it was like working with a veteran director like Wes Craven?
ANSWER: Wes is a certain kind of genius. I have a lot of admiration for him. He has the imagination of a 6 year old, the energy of a teenager, and the wisdom and experience of an old man. I have never met anyone before who can pull more all-nighters than me. Working with him taught me a lot.

The film (25/8) was a tough one. We shot endlessly long nights in the freezing cold, tick infested woods in Connecticut, and the script kept changing. That kept all of us on our toes, and forced us to adapt quickly. I made mistakes, but learning from them made me better at lighting night exteriors.

QUESTION: This is an unfair question. If you could travel to the past and work with a director whose films inspired you, who would it be?
ANSWER: Michelangelo Antonioni. He was a genius. Collaborating with him would be a dream come true. … The Red Desert especially, but all of his films impressed me. He never hesitated to do extreme things that surprised audiences, but they were always right for the stories.

QUESTION: This an even more unfair question. How about naming a cinematographer from the past who inspired you?
ANSWER: Arthur Miller (ASC) and Gregg Toland (ASC). Their black-and-white films are as powerful today as they were 60 and 70 years ago.

QUESTION: Are you optimistic about the future of the cinema?
ANSWER: How could I not be? The cinema will continue to be important for generations to come. I hope that in my lifetime I get to contribute to films that impact people. Stories get bolder as restrictions are loosened, and new film technology enables us to pretty much put anything we can dream of onto the screen.

QUESTION: What role does filmmaking play in our world? Is it pure entertainment or something more than that?
ANSWER: There is no way it is pure entertainment. Films change the world. They impact people to the point of changing them, or changing the way they look at the world around them. Some films make us re-evaluate our lives and others give us a good laugh when we need one. Great films resonate with us for a long time. We work in the dream factory! How amazing is that?