“As cinematographers, we are creators of visual narratives, sculpting depth within a two-dimensional frame. I use my understanding of fine art and architecture to create intimate spaces where scenes and emotions can play out, where stories can be told and experienced through the unique relationship of the viewer’s gaze into the cinema screen. To me, it’s really about the emotional impact of the image when you look at it. I find that film has an amazing capacity to communicate with a human being. Content interests me more than technique. As an artist you can reach a deeper part of yourself if you’re not preoccupied with the technical aspects. Film has that timeless quality which is appealing, because I want my images to last and to have enduring resonance.”
Jess Hall, BSC studied film at Central Saint Martins College for Arts and Design in London and New York University. His credits include numerous commercials and music videos, as well as the feature films The Spectacular Now, Creation, Hot Fuzz, Brideshead Revisited, Son of Rambo, Stander, and the forthcoming Transcendence.
A Conversation with Jess Hall, BSC
What were your first steps along the path to photography and cinematography?
Growing up in the late 1970s, we traveled a lot. My parents are both esteemed professors, and they often took us to galleries and museums. My sister and I resented it at the time, but I have a very vivid memory of seeing the Sistine Chapel for the first time. I was about 8 years old. I was incredibly moved by the beauty of the images, but also kind of curious about how they could have been executed. As a child, I was rarely without a pencil and a pad in my hands. I drew and I then painted, and that was just what I did. I was constantly in my own head and producing images. When we finished that trip, I remember quite clearly looking down from a historic village to an indigo ravine cleft into the Amalfi coast and saying to my parents, “One day I’m going to become an architect or a painter.”
As a cinematographer, I suppose I have become an architect, in a sense, sort of a sculptor of time or a painter of light. I see cinematography as creating depth within a two-dimensional frame or the writing of visual narratives. My interest in fine art, architecture and literature has continued and grown. I use all of these elements to help craft intimate spaces where scenes and emotions can play out, where stories can be told and experienced through the unique relationship of the viewer’s gaze into the cinema screen. I see my journey in cinematography as an extension of my life – I want to constantly extend my knowledge and capacities in the medium. If I feel that learning curve dropping off, I push myself to experiment in new ways and with new technology.
You mentioned your interest in how those images in the Sistine Chapel were achieved. Is there a connection there?
In many ways, cinematography is this blending of science and art. The great historical works of the Renaissance artists in some respects also represented this. They were not working in isolation but functioned within and pushed the technical, cultural and philosophical boundaries of their epoch. When Michelangelo, et. al., painted the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, they were dealing with some difficult realities, the absolute reality of a solid three dimensional space, an inverted image, and the politics of the church to name but a few. Leonardo Da Vinci was fascinated by geometry, physics and mechanics. Similarly, I think there is a sense of practicality that exists in a cinematographer that lives alongside the artistic. There is often a lot of problem solving and technical factors that you have to contend with. The goal is to keep that from becoming the main objective, to allow technique to support the idea and the artistic vision – and not the other way around. Real masters of any artistic medium are able to express themselves more fully, because the technique is not intruding. You want to become instinctual, and you can actually reach a deeper part of yourself if you’re not preoccupied with the technical aspects.
Are there other aspects of your life that influenced your career path?
The author Graham Greene says that the origin of a writer lies in his childhood. My father is Jamaican and my mother English – two very different small islands. I grew up experiencing two very different kinds of light. The equatorial light of The Caribbean is intense, powerful and high contrast. On the other hand, there was the soft, silver-gray light of northern Europe. Much of my work exists in the tension between these two sensibilities. I think growing up between two cultures put me in a position to interpret things in a certain way. You’re not fully in either culture and because of that you’re able to observe them in a slightly different way. It’s a sort of dual consciousness, and I think that state of in-between is the perfect place to become a natural observer. You do, I think, need to be an observer of sorts to be a good cinematographer. So when I started observing through the camera, it just felt to me like a natural place to be. In a way, it came to me as easily as talking or walking.
In a previous interview, you said, “I always take a lot of inspiration from the place that I’m in. The quality of the light, the atmosphere and the architecture all create the character within the film itself, and I like to use that.” Could you elaborate?
In many ways, I am a naturalist in terms of my photography. It’s always my starting point. I never really want to feel aware of artificial lighting. I think it takes you out of the experience as a viewer. I want the light to look absolutely natural. It might be spectacular, if the moment requires it, but I need for it to have a lot of integrity. I once read something about Conrad L. Hall (ASC) that he spent a lot of time sitting in locations. That is something I make a point of doing in my prep time. If I can get to a location on my own, and just spend some time there and sort of observe the light, it’s very valuable to me. In my photography, I’m not just replicating natural light, but drawing from it to create a mood that has authenticity for the place, but also is appropriate to the scene.
You shot Transcendence, Oscar®-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC, BSC’s debut as a director. Why was film important on that project?
I’ve shot all my features on film. It’s a format that I’m very comfortable with. Wally is extremely pro-film too. So it just seemed like the natural format. We wanted to shoot anamorphic. I wasn’t impressed enough by any digital camera, at that moment, to argue for it. I think it was really a chance not only to shoot film, but to follow through with a photochemical finish. I think the film palette is just something that both of us really connect with. He wanted to make something both naturalistic and also to some degree stylized. We wanted richness, a texture, a depth of color and naturalism that we knew film could give us.
Is there an example on Transcendence where the place inspired you that way?
Transcendence is an amazingly diverse film, visually. It’s a real location film. There are so many different looks, so many different locations. We shot in Los Angeles for four weeks and around eight weeks in New Mexico. New Mexico certainly has a very distinct quality. I have to say, I didn’t quite get it until I went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. I was kind of baffled by the quality of light and the infinite horizon. And then I went to the museum and I looked at her paintings. I obviously knew her flower paintings very well, but I didn’t know her landscapes. And when I saw her landscape paintings, I suddenly saw something in the New Mexico landscape which was very distinctive and amazing. She just captures the subtlety of the color palette and the form so beautifully that I was re-inspired to go out in 105 degrees in the desert and look for those subtleties – and I did find them. So that was one place that definitely had a real impact on me.
But, overall, the film was very much about creating different looks for these different environments. The contrast between the organic and the synthetic was something that I got hold of as a major theme within the script, the source of its dramatic tension. I really wanted certain locations to have a quality that was not sterile. I didn’t want it to be a sort of sci-fi/techno movie that felt sterile, because it’s a story rooted in human emotions. Therefore, I wanted it to be a technological movie that was grounded in a very real world. Most of the concepts within the film are ideas that are currently very close to the zeitgeist of contemporary technological development and thinking. We worked very hard at creating this rich sense of location and used a great diversity of environments, from completely white sets to very dark interiors.
Tell about the decision to go with a full photochemical finish on Transcendence.
I haven’t done that for a long time. Digital intermediate, when it first came out, was an exciting tool that I was happy to get a hold of. It seemed like an opportunity at the time and I’ve always used DIs and enjoyed them. But I have been increasingly aware of subtle shifts that occur within that process, and I have been dissatisfied with some results. So I grabbed the opportunity when Wally suggested it. I just thought it was a great chance to use this more traditional technology and to do something very pure.
Are filmmakers too focused on technology sometimes?
The digital formats change so regularly that you are, in a sense, playing catch-up, which is fine if you’re getting the result you need. I’m not in any way anti-digital. But I think ultimately what interests me is content and not technique for technique’s sake. So I’m not really impressed by a camera that claims to have however much resolution. I think there is something that’s very solid about a film camera. When you have some absolute, fixed elements there that are not going to shift, you can develop an incredible amount of control. To me, it’s really about the emotional impact of the image when you look at it. I find that film has an amazing capacity to communicate with a human being. There’s something very – for want of a better word – organic in the texture of it that I think is very appealing.
Looking long term, I want my images to last and I feel with digital capture it does change quite quickly, so things often tend to be connected with a look of a particular time. I find film to be more timeless, and that’s also appealing to me.
Conrad L. Hall, ASC said that the cinematographer’s job was to push the film until it began to fall apart in interesting ways.
That’s a very interesting point, and you see it as a hallmark of most of the great cinematographers. I think one problem with digital as opposed to film is that one format is only around for so long. We’re always catching up, in a way, trying to reach that state of technical mastery where it becomes intuitive. We talked about trying to lose the technique in order to transcend it. With digital, it often seems to be more about trying to catch up, execute technically, and streamline the process. By the time you’ve streamlined it, the next format has emerged. So you’re not really living with a medium long enough to master it, to start to push its boundaries. It’s like a great jazz musician who is fantastically technically astute. They know the ballad, and then it’s how they deviate from the ballad, how you deviate from the structure once you know the structure. But with a medium that is evolving very quickly, you don’t always have a chance to master the rules in a way that allows you to break them in interesting ways.