ONFILM Interview: Henner Hofmann, ASC, AMC

Published on website: January 02, 2012
Categories: ONFILM
Henner Hofmann, ASC, AMC. Photo by Douglas Kirkland

“My father was a sculptor and my mother was a painter and stained glass artist. I got ideas about using light, shadows and space to tell stories from their art.  I have a style and a way of shooting. It begins with the script, director and cast. If you have a story that is worth telling, you can figure out how to create the right images within the limits of the budget and without compromising the look. Every cinematographer does it differently like a painter choosing the right brushes and paints or different cooks making the same dish with different tastes. One of the fascinating things about being a cinematographer is that there is something new every day.” 

Henner Hofmann began his career shooting documentaries about indigenous nations in Mexico. He subsequently won a Silver Ariel Award (the Mexican equivalent of an Academy Award®) for La Leyenda de una Máscara (The Legend of the Mask) in 1991 and was nominated for Juego Limpio in 1997. Hofmann recently shot the independent features Moe and Gallowwalker. He is also founder and former president of the Association of Mexican Cinematographers (AMC).
 [All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.] 

A Conversation with Henner Hofmann, ASC, AMC

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?

HOFMANN: I was born in Mexico City in July of 1950. My parents were both artists. My father was a sculptor and my mother was a painter and stained glass artist.

QUESTION: That must have been an interesting home for a future cinematographer.

HOFMANN: Yes, they influenced how I think and see the world.

QUESTION: That’s very interesting.

HOFMANN: I enrolled at the university in Mexico City in 1967 planning to study architecture.

QUESTION: Why did you want to be an architect?

HOFMANN: I think it was because architects work with space and that felt natural to me. My father believed that you can integrate culture into construction. You can see his sculptures on display in banks and other buildings in downtown Mexico City.

I also got ideas about lighting and space from my mother’s stained glass art.

QUESTION: Why and when did you get interested in filmmaking?

HOFMANN: When I was 18 years old, some of my friends were shooting films. That got my interest, because I was already involved in still photography and graphic arts.

I went to CUEC (Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematograficos) in Mexico. And now I teach seminars there and at the CCC (Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica).

QUESTION: When and how did you get interested in still photography?

HOFMANN: My father took still pictures all the time. He had a small darkroom at home. He showed me how to use a camera, process and print film.

QUESTION: How old were you when you started?

HOFMANN: I was six or seven years old. My father was originally from Germany. He used photography to explore Mexican culture through the eye of the lens.

QUESTION: When did he move to Mexico from Germany?

HOFMANN: It’s a very strange story. He was visiting New York City in 1938 when he was invited to see Mexico by some artists. It was just going to be a visit, but he fell in love with the country. In 1941, at the start of the Second World War, Mexico declared war against Germany, Japan and Italy. My father was put in a camp where they kept all the German citizens who were in the country. The camp was at a place high in the mountains where the government was sure the Germans would feel comfortable because it was cool. He got a permit to visit Mexico City on weekends. They organize an anti-fascist organization and a newspaper Frei Deutschland … it’s a long story.

QUESTION: Where was your mother from?

HOFMANN: My mother was born in Paris, but her father had emigrated from France to Mexico at the turn of the 20th century. He had business in Mexico.

QUESTION: You told us how you got interested in photography. How about movies?

HOFMANN: I have been a movie fan all my life. My father was also a fanatic about films. I have memories of seeing movies from around the world. I remember The Red Balloon, a fantasy movie from France, when I was about six years old. It’s a movie about a red balloon that follows this boy around the streets of Paris. I also watched a lot of American and European movies as well as films made in Mexico.

QUESTION: What other films made an impression on you early in your life?

HOFMANN: Die Brücke (The Bridge) was a German movie made in 1959. It was about a group of kids dressed up in Nazi uniforms who were ordered to defend a bridge in Germany during the last days of World War II. It’s a very dramatic movie that made a deep impression about the horrors of war. I also remember seeing Italian movies, including The Bicycle Thief that was directed by Vittorio De Sica. Movies were an interesting connection between Mexico and Europe and still is very strong.

QUESTION: What were you using to take still pictures?

HOFMANN: I had my own Kodak Brownie camera. My father was using a Rolleiflex that I inherited when I got older. Then, Kodak came out with the little Instamatic camera. I loved the idea of shooting with the flash on the camera. That was fascinating for me. I experimented with the effects of using front flash light…Mexico is closer to the equator. There is sunlight at a 90-degree angle in the summer, is like a top bright flash.

QUESTION: It sounds like visual grammar has unique accents in different cultures.

HOFMANN: Yes, Italian cinematographers have grown up seeing art from the 16th century with soft light on their faces. The light in Spain is harder. Murillo and El Greco use a harder light. Consequently you can see that signature in their films. We are all influenced by the light we see in our daily lives.

QUESTION: We have another question about your early experiences with still photography. Looking back now, what did you learn from processing film and making prints of your own pictures in your father’s darkroom?

HOFMANN: One day, I was curious and put my nose very close to the bottle of chemicals that was used to process the negative and took a deep breath. I was paralyzed for about 30 seconds with extreme pain inside my nose. That was a scary lesson. I also learned not to put the light on in the darkroom while I was processing film.

QUESTION: Those were useful lessons. Were there others?

HOFMANN: The other thing I learned is how you can use photography to create new realities and capture them on film forever. I also learned that you need to be alert, listen to the people in front of the lens and watch everything around them. Still photography taught me to look at the light; I see through the lens and judge what it feels like.

QUESTION: You aren’t the only cinematographer who started out at architecture school.

HOFMANN: It’s very common. I also have friends who are actors and actresses who started out studying architecture. I think it’s an affinity for light and space.

QUESTION: How did you transition from studying architecture to filmmaking?

HOFMANN: I met some guys who were doing a documentary about the 1968 political movement in Mexico. I was very excited to see what they were doing. I told them that I would love to work on a documentary with them one day and film images in motion. They told me to enroll at the film school at the same university where I was already studying. I enrolled in 1969 and went to both schools for two years. I studied architecture in the mornings and filmmaking in the afternoons. Actually, it was very useful to learn how to design spaces in the morning and light them in the afternoon. They are different parts of the same thing.      

QUESTION: Were there people at film school who influenced you?

HOFMANN: Yes, definitely. I was very lucky because I had extraordinary teachers. My cinematography teacher was Milosh Trenka, who came to Mexico from the Czech Republic. We had heavyweight filmmakers in all departments, including actors, writers and directors as well as cinematographers. We were privileged to have Gabriel Figueroa and John Huston teach us for a seminar, Alex Phillips Sr., Luis Buñuel, Jean Claude Carrière, Budd Boetticher, who wrote the story that was turned into a script for Two Mules for Sister Sara, taught for two years.

QUESTION: Gabriel Figueroa won one of the first ASC International Achievement Awards for cinematography in 1995. You were obviously being taught by masters. Did you consider other career paths while you were at school, such as producing or directing?

HOFMANN: I knew from the first day of film school that I wanted to create images that told stories. When I’m shooting, the camera is like part of my body.

QUESTION: What did you do when you got out of film school?

HOFMANN: When I finished film school, I started working immediately. The government in Mexico was producing documentaries about the life and festivities of indigenous nations in Mexico. I spent four years travelling all over the country shooting in 16 mm format with CP 16 and Eclair NPR cameras on black-and-white film and color. I was also shooting 35 mm independent movies produced by the university with a group of friends. In 1974, four of us bought a state-of-the-art ARRI BL camera with lenses, filters and four magazines for something like $40-45,000.

QUESTION: What happened with the independent films that you shot?

HOFMANN: They were shown in Mexico, but it was hard to get distribution for small independent movies. Our films went to festivals in Mexico and other places like Pesaro and Mannheim. We won an award at the Cannes Festival in 1977.

QUESTION: When and how did you get to work on bigger budget films?

HOFMANN: I couldn’t work on bigger films for 15 years, because the union wasn’t taking in new members. I finally got into the union as a camera operator in 1988. I was working on both American and Mexican films. I learned a lot because I was working on crews with some wonderful cinematographers, including Tony Imi, Hiro Narita and Jeff Kimball. I also worked with Robbie Greenberg on Free Willy for scenes filmed in Mexico. We became very good friends.

QUESTION:  When and how did you get to shoot mainstream movies in Mexico?

HOFMANN: In 1991, I shot a movie called La Leyenda de una Máscara which is now considered the beginning of the new wave in Mexican cinema with a natural look.

QUESTION: You won your first Silver Ariel Award for cinematography on that project. That is the equivalent of an Oscar in the United States. What happened next?

HOFMANN: During the early 1990s, I was working regularly on Mexican films and shooting second unit for American and European films. There is a deep pool of talented filmmakers in Mexico and a tradition that goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Filmmakers in Mexico were producing silent movies around 1905 or 1906.

QUESTION: Your were one of the founders and president of the Association of Mexican Cinematographers in 1992, along with Gabriel Figueroa, AMC and Jorge Stahl, AMC, Jose Ortiz Ramos, AMC, who were among your early mentors when you were a student. Tell us about that.  

HOFMANN: Filmmaking has been part of our culture for more than 100 years, and cinematographers have always played an important role. AMC is an association where cinematographers meet, discuss ideas and reach out to the next generation.

QUESTION: Where do you live now?

HOFMANN: I live in Los Angeles and also keep a home in Mexico City. I have been involved with the film school at the university for more than 20 years. When I am not working on a picture, you can often find me at the school teaching and organizing seminars and extensive workshops with the help of our friends at Kodak Mexico.

QUESTION: Give us an example of an extensive workshop.

HOFMANN: Every two years, I conduct a 35 mm film seminar for about 20 students. We have 35 mm cameras, lighting and grip equipment, and professional grips and electricians advise the students. During our last workshop, our students shot around 20,000 feet of Kodak film. The students gain experience shooting film and seeing dailies with the guidance of professionals using all the tools, including different types of filters to create looks. It’s my way of helping the next generation.

QUESTION: How about a specific example of what you do at these workshops?

HOFMANN: Before the last workshop, I was prepping a very interesting independent movie called Moe that we shot in Los Angeles. I took my assistant cameraman and all the gear to Mexico City where we were conducting a workshop for students. We shot tests using different lighting, lenses, films and filters during the workshop. That was a lesson for the students in how to prepare to shoot a film.

QUESTION: Tell us about Moe.

HOFMANN: It’s a fantastic project. José Luis Valenzuela is the director. He is the artistic director of the Latino Theater Company in Los Angeles, and a drama professor at UCLA when he isn’t directing movies. The script was written by his wife, Evelina Fernandez, who is one of the stars. She is a well-known actress in Mexico. It is a very low-budget film that we shot in 35 mm format in four-and-a-half weeks in Los Angeles.

QUESTION: Is this film based on a true story?

HOFMANN: No. The movie is an adaption of a play that Evelina wrote that was produced by the Latino Theater Company. A main character is played by Sal Lopez, who has starred in many American movies.

QUESTION: Was this film produced on sets or at practical locations?

HOFMANN: It was filmed at practical locations in downtown buildings that still look like they did during the 1980s. We also got cars from the ‘80s. We had a lot of support from the city and the community, including restaurants which fed the cast and crew. Part of my job was to figure out how to use lighting and the camera within the spaces where we were shooting to tell the story. There is no formula. Every picture is different.

QUESTION: You said this is a 35 mm production. What format did you choose?

HOFMANN: We chose to compose Moe in 1.85:1(aspect ratio) because it felt right for the period and for how we want the audience to see the characters in an intimate way. The human point of view is 1.85:1. That’s how we see the real world every day of our lives. I just finished another movie that was produced in 2.40:1 (aspect ratio), because it was the right decision for that film. On Moe, the 1.85:1 format allowed me to frame very tight close-ups which can be more intimate. Most of the time I was lighting with just a couple of small HMIs. Sometimes we let characters disappear into shadows.

QUESTION: What motivates decisions like that?

HOFMANN: It always begins with the script and conversations with the director.

QUESTION: Were you shooting with one or multiple cameras?

HOFMANN: We were shooting with a single camera. There was no need or no room at our locations for another camera. We rehearsed, discussed what we wanted to do, planned coverage, and worked nine to 10 hours a day. The preparation that we did during rehearsals saved a lot of money and time, and we stayed true to the vision that we had. I don’t have a style or a way of shooting. I am open to shooting in any way that works for the story. What I am interested in is working with a good story and cast that are committed to the project. There are two kinds of filmmaking. There are artistic films and mass entertainment. If you have a story that is worth telling, I believe you can figure out how to produce it within the limitations imposed by budgets without compromising.

QUESTION: What will happen in postproduction? Will you do optical or D.I. (digital intermediate) timing, and was that a financial or aesthetic decision?

HOFMANN: It will be traditional optical postproduction. We knew the look we wanted, and the feelings we want to evoke. There is no need for digital manipulation.

QUESTION: Are you optimistic about the future?

HOFMANN: I’m very optimistic about both the future of the cinema and traditional filmmaking despite the noise and confusion about technology changing things. These days, anyone can buy a consumer camera, edit the images with a computer and make a film just like anyone can go to a store, buy paint, brushes and a canvas. Those are tools you can learn with, but they don’t make you an artist. 

QUESTION: You recently worked on another film called Gallowwalker.

HOFMANN: Gallowwalker is an independent adventure movie that is still in postproduction. We spent five months shooting that movie in Africa. Wesley Snipes is in the leading role and the director is Andrew Goth. He wants to make a movie that is as close as possible to the Spaghetti Western aesthetic created by Sergio Leone. Panavision modified two 35 mm cameras which enabled us to shoot in two-perforation Techniscope format like Sergio Leone and other Italian filmmakers did during the 1960s.

QUESTION: What was it like shooting two-perf film in 35 mm format?

HOFMANN: It was an exciting experience and natural looking. You have the advantage of shooting twice as long without changing magazines while composing in 2.4:1(aspect ratio). We could shoot 10-minute scenes without stopping to reload.

QUESTION: Where was it shot?

HOFMANN: Originally, the director went to Spain looking for the same types of backgrounds that Sergio Leone used for his Spaghetti Western, but there are now thousands of houses in places that use to be desert. We also scouted locations in Mexico and New Mexico in the United States. We found beautiful mountains in New Mexico, but we have all seen them in many Western movies. We wanted a desert location that people haven’t seen before. We found what he had envisioned in Namibia.

QUESTION: How did that happen?

HOFMANN: I received a phone call from Andrew Goth one day. He said, Henner you need to come right away, because I found our desert. It took me about 30 hours to get there, because there were no direct flights. After I arrived and looked around, I immediately agreed that it was a fascinating location. Namibia is a very interesting country with no pollution in the air, because the main industry is fishing. You can see for miles and miles and miles and miles. It’s a pristine location that could be the old West.

QUESTION: Is this a realistic or surrealistic story?

HOFMANN: It’s unique in that it is a Western horror movie. Wesley plays a gunman whose victims come back from the dead. There is a complex theme about justice and racism that is very tricky that makes a statement about the character of the Old West.

QUESTION: What was it like shooting in Namibia?

HOFMANN: The film commission in Namibia was open and helpful. There have mainly been European commercials shot there. I know of one other picture, 10,000 BC. We brought crew from England, South Africa and my focus puller was from Los Angeles.

QUESTION: What do you do about a film lab when you are shooting in Namibia?

HOFMANN: We flew the film to Technicolor in London. I stayed in touch with the timer by telephone, and we got dailies every four or five days. The lab was very consistent, so I felt confident that everything was OK. I was using different lenses and film stocks depending on the scenes like a painter choosing the right brushes and paints. Sometimes at night I used high-speed T1.3 lenses with a 200-degree shutter angle and (KODAK VISION2) 5218 film pushed one stop. That combination gave us beautiful, natural-looking, clear images at night. Every cinematographer approaches situations like that differently. It’s like different cooks preparing the recipe with different tastes.

QUESTION: That kind of ties in with what you were saying in the beginning of this conversation about painting being as a gift not something you learn in a textbook.

HOFMANN: You learn from your own experiences and by watching other people. I had a great second unit cinematographer in Namibia. Vincent Cox, ASC is a British cinematographer who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is in his 70s, so he has been around, but even he was surprised by looks we were getting over-exposing the film.

QUESTION: What were some of the other interesting challenges?

HOFMANN: Wesley has a very dark complexion. I used a little bounce light and overexposed everybody around him and the skin tones were beautiful. It was like painting with light on faces. One of the fascinating things about being a cinematographer is that it is like going to school and learning something new every day.