Janusz Kaminski’s Advice to Aspiring Cinematographers
Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is known for his long-time collaboration with Steven Spielberg, that started on Schindler’s List and propelled him into the masters club. In 2009, Kaminski was a guest of honor at the Berlinale Talent Campus, just like Matthew Libatique and Philippe Le Sourd.
During over an hour, Kaminski talks about his work, mostly with Spielberg but not only. And of course, when the time came to let the audience ask questions, one of the first one was: “What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer?”
And here is Kaminski’s answer:
“The suggestion is to tell stories. If you have a video camera do it on video camera, if you have a still camera, do it with a still camera but give yourself a limit. “Ok, I have 15 frames, I’m gonna tell a story, whatever that story is, from the beginning, to the middle to the end.”
And I think there has to be some kind of progression, just like when you write a script. You have a beginning where you establish the characters, then you build up the tension. You have to do that, there’s just no other way. You’ve got to learn how to make traditional filmmaking, just like when you play music, you’ve got to learn how to play classical music before you go into free jazz.
Julian Schnabel is an amazing painter, he can paint a portrait that looks like me, same with Picasso. They ended up being somewhere else with their Art. Same with filmmaking you know, particularly with cinematography, you’ve got to learn the stuff that are part of your tools. You’ve got to learn how to expose film and how to keep it focused. To some degree, you’ve almost succeeded if you got that, if you got an entire movie that’s lit well and sharp, you’re almost a cinematographer. But then you learn there’s more to it, right. (…)
But primarily it’s the story. The 15 frames, or 5 frames 25 frames… I want to tell a story. Just walk around with a camera and just take pictures. And then look at those pictures and try to analyze: “Why did I take this picture?” Which picture you like and which one you don’t? And try to understand what drives you to take particular images, what makes you to dress a certain way in the morning you know. That tells us who you are, you know.
And then there are conditions. You’re not going to go dressed like that for a job interview in a bank, right? So there are certain social conventions you have to follow, same with movies, we follow some conventions when we make movies. It’s very individual.
I think the biggest thing for a cinematographer is to have the ability to read the script and find the story in it, and then digest the story and project the images through your own experiences. That’s an art form.
Now if you keep it focus and bright, and you can see everything, you’re not a cinematographer, you’re a technician. But what happens when you go too bright, so you can barely see the image? You probably will get fired, but you’ll learn something very interesting. The image is very powerful when you’re on that border and it’s just disappearing.
So you start looking for stories that allow you to have those images, not just the sharp and bright images. The storytelling is very important.“
What I particularly enjoyed in this answer is what Kaminski connects behind the ‘cinematographer’ title. You need to know the technique, you need to know yourself, and you need to find stories that will let you take risks and use your voice. It’s a triangle between tools, inner knowledge and outer expression, and I love that.
I also love that he mentions the ultimate creative paradox: you will get fired for overexposing a shot, but you need to do it to understand the creative possibilities available for you to be more than a technician.
On the bright side, nowadays, you can do plenty of testing on your own before getting on a set.
You can watch the full masterclass below thanks to cinematographos