Interview with Robert Richardson, ASC
Interview by Yuri Neyman, ASC
“Open Eyes and an Open Mind” An Interview with Robert Richardson, ASC By Yuri Neyman, ASC
Q) What training/education did you receive to become a cinematographer?
Robert Richardson, ASC: Wild Strawberries, Seventh Seal, Persona, Hour of the Wolf - these were my first teachers.
I initially attended the University of Vermont to study oceanography and geology - a poorly formed and forced concept fortunately for me never realized - but after watching a university film series of Ingmar Bergman’s work I decided that I was walking the wrong road and moved myself out of science and into the arts - I decided to shift to the study of film, working mostly in theory with Frank Manchel - a brilliant and inspirational teacher - hence began my first wanderings with film.
The following year I took off from school and worked as a manager at a local cinema on Cape Cod and in that year created two animated films based on live action footage - at the same time I applied to a series of film schools for the approaching year - UCLA, USC, NYU, RISD - I decided upon acceptance from RISD to attend as a major in film there - the experience was immensely successful - I had superb teachers in all disciplines from narrative film to documentary to experimental - upon closing in on my last year I decided to continue into film and felt that a masters program would best improve my chances of success in the industry - I was unsure of what direction to take, meaning would I direct or shoot and the American Film Institute, where i eventually applied to and attended, required I define a discipline - I made the decision to focus upon cinematography.
Q) You’ve been able to work at a high level for nearly 30 years now, what major trends have you noticed over your career in Cinematography as not only the technology has evolved, but the way audiences consume images and comprehend visual storytelling has also evolved?
Robert Richardson, ASC: 30 years? appears far less to my child like sensibilities. What major trends - when I was at AFI, George Folsey was the cinematography teacher - his method harkened back to hard lighting and studio work - superb teacher, stunning work - outside of school my relationship to film was stamped by a naturalistic approach - Wexler, Zsigmond, Almendros, Kovacs, Hall, Nykvist, Willis, etc... were all making generous moves out of the studio perspective - so early learning experiences were mixed - which in the end is of course the very finest opportunity - I did not qualify one as better than another - I absorbed to the best of my capabilities - to study Toland, James Wong Howe, Cardiff, Coutard, Francis, Young, Cortez...is indeed special - and this was what George Folsey was teaching.
But back to trends - away from artificial lighting to natural or what natural light is perceived - more documentary in style - which has once again found birth - with digital we have moved away from a perspective of specific lensing and lighting - smaller screens are used for viewing finished projects - monitors to evaluate lighting while filming - meters disappearing - what the end result is I do not know but I look forward to - as well as to step in high speed - 120 fps - or 60 fps - so much to delve deeper into - I could go on and on with this but I think you would all be bored - but one point I would like to press - never say never - continue with open eyes and mind.
Q) When you work on a film with extensive visual effects, such as Hugo, how is that process different for you compared to more “Traditional” films as the Cinematographer?
Robert Richardson, ASC: Initially I did not approach Hugo differently - the visual effects I hoped would support the stage design and the vision of Marty - the lighting and vfx would not be more than attempting to add extensions to sets etc...but as we moved deeper into the project a greater number of visual effects were required and I worked closely with Marty to find the best way to create sequences with Rob Legato - so the method was not vastly different as Rob attempted to work closely with providing cooperation with Marty’s initial perspective - for me it was an intense and extremely beautiful experience - we were all learning from square one due to being in 3D with two cameras - massive shift - our color was built as we moved - taken away from film into a digital realm - sublime - Rob was a warrior.
Q) What is your collaboration like with a Visual Effects Supervisor when it comes to designing shots, or lighting scenes, in the computer?
Robert Richardson, ASC: Hugo is the greatest example of this in my career and in this case Marty would provide a design and Rob would then pre-vis - then the three of us would look at the shots in a crude form and attempt to improve - changes eventually were made by Marty as his mind saw fit - but in my mind the greater the collaboration the finer the results between VFX and cinematographer - if I had my way on large VFX films I would attempt to work often with the supervisor to help design the lighting prior so that we are better in sync when the moment of shooting takes place.
Q) You work on The Hateful Eight shot in 70mm is well documented at this point, but when you look back on that experience, what will you remember most about that opportunity to shoot on such an iconic format?
Robert Richardson, ASC: I was blessed - Quentin provided the opportunity and all involved from Panavision to Tarantino stood behind the process - once in a lifetime experience - the film is one gigantic wave that we were allowed to surf - the obstacles were staggering but we were one unit all fully behind Quentin.
Q) On the subject of film, where do you see the future of film going? Do you believe it will continue to be a viable format for filmmakers in the next 5, 10, 20 years?
Robert Richardson, ASC: I am hopeful that film will remain with us for 20 years but unless the stocks improve in speed and the costs reduce I do see issues - the chemical nature of film requires trained technicians that are rapidly fading due to lack of work - but in the next series of years with Netflix and other companies requiring 4k film is a very viable option for high level scanning - that will shift - progress will be made but what Netflix is asking is just the beginning - it's absurd to think otherwise.
Q) What technical invention(s) has affected the profession mostly? How did it affect you creatively?
Robert Richardson, ASC: I have found that with the advent of digital cameras with ASA’s 1000 or higher and climbing a shift in the manner I light has taken place - I am reducing the size of lights - creating more pockets of negative to absorb random light and shaping in that manner - I still strongly believe that films need to be shaped through lighting, composition etc… just as they are written, directed, edited etc… there are some pockets in this industry that believe because of the higher asa one does not need to light and that whatever is within an environment will work - that may be the case if this is the direction that both the director and the cinematographer wish to take the look of the the film but if not then one should continue to refine with shot selection, lighting and composition.
Q) What are your criteria in lens selection?
Robert Richardson, ASC: I am open to all lenses - I do not have a strict criteria - I believe the lenses should provide a look that the director and cinematographer desire for the project - if that be a heavy reliance upon zooms then I will work with zoom lenses - if that be vintage glass such as with Quentin on Hateful Eight then vintage glass it is - currently I am shooting with Ben Affleck and we decided to shoot with the new Arri Alexa 65 camera but to use Panavision vintage 65 lenses - we wanted older glass - in a number of commercials that I have shot we slipped back to early Zeiss glass or pulled from Panavision C Series anamorphic lenses and extracted the image from the center - as I said I am open - the project defines.
Q) What is so special to work with Quentin Tarantino? How it is different from your work with other directors like Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese?
Robert Richardson, ASC: Each of the directors you have listed are of the highest caliber in respect to their creativity - each has distinct characteristics - what makes it special to work with Quentin, Oliver or Martin is that they have the very finest minds and eyes and all have an undeniable grasp of the language of cinema as well as the rich diversity of the history of cinema.
Q) You are well known for the creative use of the back light. What attracts you to it?
Robert Richardson, ASC: If you are referencing back light out doors the reason I am attracted to it is that weather is not predictable and backlight more easily blends with cloudy conditions beyond which frontal light if high as it often is in California creates shadows where the eyes are difficult to read - aesthetically that is not pleasing to me - if you are asking about backlight inside a location or set I am mixed on back light - there are times I want the separation and there are times I do not - I have no fast rule in that respect.
Q) What makes an ideal director for a Cinematographer?
Robert Richardson, ASC: What makes an ideal director for a d.p. - quite an interesting question - a director of vision who has no fear of risk - whose mind bends but is strong when the storms are at their highest.
Q) What filmmaker/DOP has influenced you mostly?
Robert Richardson, ASC: Bernardo Bertolluci and Vittorio Storaro, Max Ophuls and Christian Madras, Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist, Michael Powell and Jack Cardiff, David Lean and Freddie Young to name a few.
Q) How you would describe the difference in style between your films in the beginning of your career and now?
Robert Richardson, ASC: I have grown wiser and more versatile so fewer outright errors are made but in all of the films i have been involved with I still have no desire to view the work once finished for I continually sense the weaknesses - I have little capability for accepting my mistakes - I see them clearly all too clearly and they drive me to push harder to not repeat.
Q) If not a cinematographer what would you be?
Robert Richardson, ASC: I would have loved to be musically inclined - I am thinking more of rock and roll - there are days I wish I could write, sing and play a guitar with great brilliance.
Q) When you receive a script - what do you do first?
Robert Richardson, ASC: When I receive a script I read it without thinking of images - the words are vital - I honor them - honor the narrative - then after meeting with the director and hearing that perspective I read the script again and try to visualize what was described to me from their minds.
Q) What is the key to success?
Robert Richardson, ASC: There is no one key - there are many keys all of which I do not know but in my life the most important key if I would use that word (key) is, intuition - knowing when to make a decision as the world turns - to recognize signs - then there is talent - an innate talent that must be nourished and allowed to grow - one must have respect and be humble enough to hear with clarity - to hear is a vital notion - that ability to listen to others and not to make decisions without deliberation and there is of course the factor of luck - luck is a massive key to success.
Q) When you were a child/teenager what film made the strongest impression on you?
Robert Richardson, ASC: There was not only one film there are a number - 2001, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Seventh Seal, Lawrence of Arabia, The Conformist, 8 1/2, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Breathless, Earrings of Madame de, Jaws, Mean Streets, Apu Trilogy, Sunset Blvd., Rashomon, Battle of Algiers, Paths of Glory, Grand Illusion, The Blood of a Poet...
Q) What sparked your interest in Photography? Cinematography??
Robert Richardson, ASC: Photographers such as Callahan, Frank, White, Weston, Adams, Capa, Arbus, Man Ray - their work and many others were tremendously influential in forming my eye and hence my interest
Q) What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Robert Richardson, ASC: What you write you can erase, what you capture on film you can not.