ONFILM Interview: Stuart Dryburgh

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Stuart Dryburgh - Photo by D. Kirkland

“There is a perception that new technologies have made it easier to create moving images, but previous generations of cinematographers created some amazing motion pictures that anyone would be proud to shoot today. You have to master the craft, but the truth is that the ability to tell stories with artful images comes from inside. Films have always affected how we think and see the world. When students ask me for advice, I tell them that there is an element of luck and being in the right place at the right time. But, mainly it is perseverance, and being ready and able to create magic when an opportunity comes your way.”

Stuart Dryburgh earned an Oscar® nomination for The Piano. His credits include The Perez Family, Lone Star, The Portrait of a Lady, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Kate & Leopold, In My Father’s Den, The Painted Veil, Nim’s Island and the upcoming Amelia.


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

A Conversation with Stuart Dryburgh:
by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?

DRYBURGH: I was born in London in the United Kingdom. My family lived there until I was 9 years old. My father was an architect. He took a job in New Zealand. We went there by ship. When we landed, it was the first time my family saw the country.

QUESTION: Were you a movie fan while you were growing up?

DRYBURGH: Definitely, especially during my teens and early 20s. One of the local theaters showed foreign films. I remember seeing films by Truffaut, Antonioni and Fellini, and the American independent movies shot by the likes of Gordon Willis (ASC) and Vilmos Zsigmond (ASC). It was my window into the world, and a magical part of my life.

QUESTION: Were you also a photography hobbyist?

DRYBURGH: Yes. I was an amateur photographer. My father gave me my first camera when I was 8 years old. Later, when I was studying architecture at Auckland University, they taught us photography and encouraged us to use the darkroom. Photography became part of my life. In the final year of my degree we were required to submit a major project as a sub-thesis, usually a design project. As I had become interested in moviemaking, I decided that I wanted to make a 16 mm film. I had a book in one hand about how to make films all the time I was shooting. Two books actually – Lenny Lipton’s book on independent film production and the ASC handbook. The theme was about the energy crisis during the mid-1970s. It dealt with things that are relevant now. I used architecture to help tell the story. Whether it was successful or not is debatable, but it was a lot of fun to make. The teacher who was supervising me was a film enthusiast. Later, when the other professors were sitting around discussing their students’ work, one of them asked, ‘What has this got to do with architecture?’ Then he said, ‘I think this is what he really wants to do. Let’s give him a degree and get him out of here, so we don’t have to worry about him again.’

QUESTION: Was that when you decided to concentrate on film instead of architecture?

DRYBURGH: It must have been somewhere during that period. I was watching a lot of films and was definitely interested in the process. It was kind of a grand adventure. The film industry was also just getting started in the country.

QUESTION: Did you know you wanted to be a cinematographer?

DRYBURGH: No. I didn’t know that for a while. I’m not entirely sure when I figured that out. At first, I thought I wanted to be an editor. My student project was a very amateurish film. With the help of my friend who was a trainee editor and a very good book about editing, I managed to connect the pieces into something that was not a bad looking narrative film. I thought this was magical. I wanted to be an editor. Then, I saw where they worked. Typically, editors worked in a shabby, walk-up office over a dry cleaning business or thrift store, not in the best part of town. There was a piece of Duvetyn draped across the window and an old Steenbeck editing table with strips of film hanging from wooden racks. It is so different now in the digital age. Next, I had an opportunity to work in a P.A. position on a couple of New Zealand films. I ended up helping out in the lighting department. I became very interested in lighting. I was promoted to gaffer almost overnight, with on-the-job training provided by the cinematographers who taught me about lighting.

QUESTION: Who were some of the cinematographers?

DRYBURGH: Peter James (ASC, ACS) was a cinematographer whom I worked with early on, and later, I worked with Chris Menges (BSC) on the film Battletruck. This was happening during the early 1980s when New Zealand TV commercial producers often brought in Australian directors of photography who had more experience. A couple of New Zealand cinematographers, James Bartle and Alun Bollinger, were also very influential and taught me a lot. By the time I got to work with Chris Menges, I was starting to feel like I knew what I was doing. He was an extremely nice man, and we had a great time together. He taught me a lot; I watched him work and learned a lot about how he used windows to motivate lighting.

QUESTION: Looking back at that period, what lessons did you learn?

DRYBURGH: Looking back, I understand that I was privileged to be able to see how different cinematographers approached lighting and what choices they made. As a gaffer, I was at their right hand. If you pay attention, you can really learn. After a while, I got opportunities to light low-budget and no-budget films.

QUESTION: How did you find other work?

DRYBURGH: I went to the commercial directors whom I knew, told them I was just getting started as a director of photography, and asked if they would they give me little jobs.

QUESTION: How did they respond?

DRYBURGH: I was gradually accepted. People would say maybe he knows how to light, but can he frame a shot. It took three years for me to get a solid commercial career going in New Zealand. It was a great learning experience, because I was shooting something different every day with decent budgets and professional crews. I developed very good working relationships with some directors. I also shot some music videos, maybe a dozen or 15.

QUESTION: Who were some of the other filmmakers who influenced you?

DRYBURGH: Alison MacLean is a talented director whom I worked with on a short film called Kitchen Sink (in 1988). I met her when she was making a music video with a bunch of local musicians. It was a protest song against our national rugby team going to South Africa during the Apartheid years.

QUESTION: What do you remember about Kitchen Sink?

DRYBURGH: Alison was the director and Bridget Ikin was the producer. We were all friends working together on a black-and-white film with a scary theme. The story was Alison’s vision. The film won the Golden Palm Award at Cannes. It is still watched by students in film schools as an example of concise visual storytelling.

QUESTION: How did Kitchen Sink affect your career?

DRYBURGH: I think it was the first time I started to understand what it was to collaborate with a director. And, Kitchen Sink was the film that hooked me up with Jane Campion. Sweetie, her first feature film was released in Australia and New Zealand with Kitchen Sink as a short subject.

QUESTION: What was the first film that you did together?

DRYSBURGH: Our first film was An Angel at my Table (1990). It was based on an autobiography by Janet Frame. Janet Frame was born and raised in New Zealand in a large family. She was a quiet child who wanted to become a teacher. She was diagnosed as having a mental illness and spent eight years in an institution. After she was released, Janet went on to write a number of acclaimed novels. My approach to the cinematography was to track the changes in Janet’s life using color.

QUESTION: That sounds like it was an engaging experience. Your next film was The Piano, which was also directed by Jane Campion. What do you remember from that experience?

DRYBURGH: Holly Hunter plays a mute person who is sent from Scotland to New Zealand for an arranged marriage. She brings her prized possession, a piano. Since the main character doesn’t speak, Jane’s concept was that we would tell the story mainly in pictures. The story takes place mid-19th century New Zealand, in the back country.

QUESTION: How much time did you have to prepare for this film?

DRYBURGH: My first conversation with Jane happened about eight or nine months before we began production. We did some preliminary scouting and gradually got into a proper pre-production mode. It was great because we had time to really discuss what our aims were and how we were going to develop a visual palette for the film. I remember sitting around a table drawing storyboards and talking about the look. Jane wanted kind of an antique period look without resorting to sepia tones or soft filters. She wanted the audience to feel the ambience of the lush, green forest and pale, blue ocean. I believe it was Jane who found a book with still pictures from that period that were made on glass plates, called Autochromes. They were beautiful, but it was a very primitive way of producing color photographs. There were very finely milled batches of wheat germ with red, blue and yellow tones that were randomly coated on glass plates the way a painter would mix colors. When the plates were exposed and developed, the results would often be random-like with completely blue, yellow or magenta tones dominating the other colors. From this we came up with the idea of using color to create atmospheres for different locations. I shot a lot of tests with a still camera and color reversal film using different color filters to figure out how far we wanted to go. The beach had a particular look. The forest had a particular look. The area around the husband’s house had a particular look.

QUESTION: What was it like shooting The Piano?

DRYBURGH: It was extremely hard work, but we had a great team, including a really terrific crew and cast. We had a great time. It was a totally joyous experience.

QUESTION: You earned an Oscar® nomination for The Piano while you were still in the dawn of your career. How did that affect your career?

DRYBURGH: It was an enormous shot in the arm. It created opportunities for me to work on films and with directors in the United States and other parts of the world.

It was around this time that I worked with Mira Nair for the first time on The Perez Family in Florida.

QUESTION: How did that happen?

DRYBURGH: Mira contacted me after she saw An Angel at my Table. We were in pre-production in Miami when The Piano was released. The Perez Family is about a group of Cuban refugees. They pretend they are a family, because immigration officials are giving preferential treatment to families. It was an interesting story with a wonderful cast, including Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina and Anjelica Huston. It was a wonderful experience working with Mira Nair.

QUESTION: What came next?

DRYBURGH: My next film was Lone Star with John Sayles in 1995. That was produced in Texas. I did another film that year with Jane Campion, The Portrait of a Lady, produced in Australia, Italy, England and the United States. I also moved to the United States that year. I originally lived in Manhattan, but now call Brooklyn home.

QUESTION: We are going to ask you about a couple of other films and see if we can stir some memories. What do you remember about filming Portrait of a Lady?

DRYBURGH: We had a very straight forward, no-nonsense plan on how to shoot that film and pretty much executed it. I think it’s an outstanding film in many ways. Jane wanted to create a clean and modern look, even though it was set in the 19th century.

QUESTION: You shot a comedy called Bridget Jones’s Diary which earned Renee Zellweger an Oscar nomination. Can you share some thoughts about that film?

DRYBURGH: Maybe this will sound a little weird, but that was the film where I began to fully understand the relationship between cinematographers and producers. You have a responsibility as director of photography to the producer, in parallel with your creative relationship with the director. I had a very positive collaboration with Sharon Maguire, the director. But, the truth is that the role you play as a cinematographer is a lot more complex than simply working with the director to get the story they envisioned on film. We navigated through a difficult production schedule and stayed on time and on budget.

QUESTION: How about The Painted Veil?

DRYBURGH: Warner Bros. had a subsidiary in China, which was co-producing the film with a Chinese company, which was quite a unique adventure. I had never been to China before. I worked with Ji Jian Ming, who is a legendary gaffer in China. He doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Mandarin. We had an interpreter, but mostly we both understood what role lighting played and what we wanted to do. It was an incredibly good and easy relationship. We often didn’t need the translator. We would point and wave our arms, and we both knew exactly what the other one was talking about. I also had an opportunity to bring some excellent camera people from New Zealand whom I had worked with before, including a focus puller, dolly grip and camera operator. We spent five to six months working at the old Beijing Film Studios, on locations in Shanghai and in a rural area in Guangxi province. I loved the script, which was based on a W. Somerset Maugham story. There was also a great cast, including Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, and I had a very good relationship with (director) John Curran.

QUESTION: You recently shot another movie with Mira Nair at the helm.

DRYBURGH: The title is Amelia. It is the story of Amelia Earhart, a legendary pilot during the relatively early days of aviation. Her airplane mysteriously disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 on a flight that was supposed to take her around the world.

QUESTION: When did Mira Nair first talk to you about that film?

DRYBURGH: It actually came together very quickly. Another director left the film. Mira and (producer) Lydia (Dean Pilcher) signed onto the picture on a Friday; they called me the next Tuesday. Three days later we were scouting locations in Toronto and having our first conversation about the story.

QUESTION: What did you know about Amelia Earhart before that meeting?

DRYBURGH: I knew the broad brushstrokes about her being a pioneer woman aviator who disappeared on a flight around the world, but I didn’t know the details about her life.

QUESTION: Did you and Mira Nair have an early concept for a visual style?

DRYBURGH: At first, I guess we knew more about what we didn’t want to do. We had about 10 weeks from the point I came onto the film until we were shooting. Mira was still casting, the script was being re-written, we were scouting locations, and I was putting a crew together and arranging to get the equipment we needed in the places where we needed it. It took us the first couple of weeks of production to really discover the look. That’s something I would prefer to not do again, but we both had faith in each other, and trusted each other’s tastes, and the movie is coming together nicely.

QUESTION: Where were the locations?

DRYBURGH: We scouted locations, and shot the film in Toronto, Nova Scotia, and South Africa.

QUESTION: Tell us about the research about Amelia’s life.

DRYBURGH: We did a lot of research, and a lot more was done before we were on board. We had contemporary newsreels of Amelia, period photographs and books about her life and exploits. Amelia Earhart was a celebrity who financed her flying with product endorsements, by writing books and making speaking engagements.

QUESTION: Did you talk about a period look, and if so, what was decided?

DRYBURGH: We had a lot of discussions about whether or not the film called for a period look, and chose not to follow that route. We wanted it to feel modern. There are some scenes where we emulate 1930s newsreels, and may do some more in postproduction, but there is more than photochemistry involved. There was a distinct style of shooting in 1930s newsreels. For the bulk of the narrative, we elected to let the people, the landscapes and the period aircraft speak for themselves without overlaying any particular period look or technique.

QUESTION: Did you and Nair decide to produce Amelia in widescreen anamorphic or Super 35 format in 2.4:1aspect ratio or in 1.85:1format?

DRYBURGH: There was never any doubt that we were going to shoot Amelia in anamorphic. The shape of the aircraft and wings called for the use of a wide film format, and the story itself is epic. We knew we would be shooting spectacular landscapes, which we mostly filmed in Nova Scotia and South Africa. I have shot more films in Super 35 format, but anamorphic feels more cinematic, which is right for this story. We ended up using Hawk anamorphic lenses made in Germany, but supplied through Panavision Toronto.

QUESTION: Had you used the Hawk lenses before?

DRYBURGH: I had not, but Christopher Raucamp, my 1st AC suggested using Hawk lenses. Previous films I have shot in anamorphic format have been with Panavision lenses, but these were not available.

QUESTION: What film stocks were used?

DRYBURGH: I used (KODAK VISION2 250D) 5205 and (50D) 5201 for daylight scenes and (KODAK VISION3 500T) 5219 for night and darker interior scenes. The 5201 is a worthy successor to the 5245, an old favorite, and in the 5205 at last we have a great, medium-speed daylight film. I used this stock extensively on The Painted Veil, and on every project since.

QUESTION: We should have asked this before, but who plays Amelia Earhart?

DRYBURGH: Hilary Swank does a marvelous job, and she is in practically every scene. She gets really deep into the character.

QUESTION: Did you decide to shoot Amelia with a single camera or multiple cameras?

DRYBURGH: We mostly covered scenes with two cameras and occasionally three. I’ve become more and more comfortable using multiple cameras to cover dramatic scenes from different angles without compromising lighting. I think that is great for the actors and director and provided care is taken not to compromise the lighting and composition, you can achieve rich and varied coverage in a very short time.

QUESTION: What was the approach to framing and camera movement? Will the audience see this film subjectively, as though they are seeing things happen through a character’s eyes, or objectively as observers?

DRYBURGH: The camera is mostly objective, but we did want to stay close and connected to our heroine. To this end, we used Steadicam effectively to stay connected as she moved through streets and crowded rooms, and across airport tarmacs. The subjective shots are more about flying, POVs out aircraft windows and such.

QUESTION: Are there any aerial scenes?

DRYBURGH: Marc Wolff is a helicopter pilot who was trained by the U.S. military. He moved to England and became an aerial photography specialist. He was the aerial cinematographer coordinator on Amelia. There is a lot of magnificent aerial photography, including scenes that were shot in and around Southern Africa and over the Indian Ocean. I believe this footage will help explain what motivated Amelia and the joy she felt in flying.

QUESTION: Does the film cover her whole life, or just the period when she was flying?

DRYBURGH: It covers a huge chunk of her flying career from when she was recruited by George Putnam (who later became her husband) for a stunt where two men flew an aircraft across the North Atlantic Ocean with Amelia only a passenger. She did have a pilot’s license and was an aviator. It’s an interesting part of the story, because she really wanted to fly the plane herself. She might not have made it, because there were more failures than successes in those days. When she flew solo over the Atlantic Ocean a few years later, she was not only the first woman to do it, she was the first person to do it successfully since (Charles) Lindbergh, five years earlier. It took a lot of courage, and she was sometimes accused of being reckless and foolhardy.

QUESTION: Does the story go into her childhood and why she wanted to fly?

DRYBURGH: It touches on that. We have a little flashback sequence of her as a little girl riding a horse, galloping alongside an airfield while old airplanes are taking off.

QUESTION: Did you treat the negative differently, or will the flashback look be fine tuned in postproduction?

DRYBURGH: It doesn’t particularly need a different look, because it is obviously a flashback that stands on its own. It has its own particular beauty and unique feeling. The setting for that shot was a prairie that is not seen anywhere else in the film. When we cut to a scene of her flying over the ocean, the contrast is there.

QUESTION: How about postproduction?

DRYBURGH: We will be doing digital intermediate (D.I.) timing.

QUESTION: Why is a D.I. being done on Amelia?

DRYBURGH: We have a lot of visual effects, including composites and some 3-D modeled aircraft. I’ve come to really like the D.I. process as a way of finishing films, but if you want it to look like film at the end of the process, you need to approach it with a very light touch with the aid of a very skilled colorist. The grading potential is enormous, and that can be a problem, not an advantage if you go too far.

QUESTION: Is new technology changing the role that cinematographers play?

DRYBURGH: Not really. My generation of cinematographers is working with lighter cameras, faster, more forgiving film stocks and sharper, more flexible lenses, than were available to the previous generations. However, 30 years ago, and before even, they created some amazing motion pictures that anyone would be proud to shoot today.

QUESTION: How about perceptions that new technologies have made it easier for anyone to be an artful cinematographer?

DRYBURGH: There is a perception that it is now easier to create moving images, and in the case of pure image capture that is true. But the deeper truth is that you have to master the craft, and the ability to create artful images comes from inside you.

QUESTION: This is an unfair question, but do you think filmmaking plays a bigger role than pure entertainment? Does it also affect how we think about the world?

DRYBURGH: Films have always affected how we think and see the world. Hollywood has tended to market entertainment and European filmmakers talk about art films. There are also people in this country who are keen about making independent films that have points of view. I don’t think entertainment and artful filmmaking are mutually exclusive. The line between entertainment and art is pretty blurry.

QUESTION: How do you answer when new cinematographers ask for advice?

DRYBURGH: It depends on how specific the question is. Sometimes they ask me very technical questions about how to do certain things. I give them my best advice about how I do technical parts of the job. I am also asked questions about how to succeed at getting jobs. Like everything else there is an element of luck, and being in the right place at the right time. But, mainly it is perseverance, and being ready and able to create some magic when an opportunity comes your way.