By Edward Loupe
No one person makes a film. At the Film Division, Program Director Steven Ross, a cinematographer by trade, places great importance on the process of collaboration. He wants his students to acquire technical expertise, artistic confidence, and an ability to work with others in the creation of art. Steve thinks that “part of the challenge for me… is training and developing able-bodied camera people who can handle the job.”
The Film Division is familiar in the world of cinematography. Ross is prolific cinematographer with credits in documentaries, episodic television, features, and music videos stretching back twenty years. Edward Lachman, A.S.C., who has served as a cinematographer for Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes, and Todd Solondz on feature films, is an alumnus. The school takes pride in its pedigree, and welcomes students who want to dive into the craft of cinematography.
For Steve, cinematography is taught through repeated, increasingly complex hands-on training. In the first year (what the school calls “boot camp”), the students are commissioned to make a series of three short films – narrative and documentary – and perform all roles. Each student is tasked with writing and directing their own short films, as well as aiding the productions of other students. Juan Guerrero, a freelance Director of Photography in Ecuador and recent OU alum, says that for him, “one of the most important things was being able to be behind a lens so constantly. I had the opportunity to learn by doing, to find a voice… OU meant the beginning of an endless study of light that wouldn't have started without just shooting and shooting and shooting.”
The Film Division offers the increasingly rare opportunity to shoot films on real film. Every student gets the chance to shoot on 16mm black & white film in their first year. Doing this, they learn important practices in cinematography – how to measure light, create a good exposure, preserve exposed film, plan and execute shots, and do all this under the pressures of a film set. Another cinematographer and alumnus, Munich-based Sven Latzke, remembers shooting on film. “At that time, it was the go-to medium for quality, and I still think it trains you better to think strong about what and how much you want to shoot, about lighting to the eye and reading light ratios, than video where you can just look at a monitor.”
Steve believes that “light is a lifelong pursuit, and an art. So even in the first year, we’re starting to work with light.” With film, students have to come to terms with light in a way they do not with digital photography.
“It happens every year. A student comes in, maybe never even thought of it, but they get bit by the bug and become totally passionate about cinematography.” Those students who do get ‘bit by the bug’ will have more in-depth training in cinematography starting their second year.
Steve teaches a weekly cinematography workshop to the upperclassmen. He describes it as “designed to build craft, totally exercise-driven. We do analysis of existing films, but for the most part, from week to week to week it’s learning cameras, dolly-exercises, lighting etc.” Steve guides his students as shots are planned, gear is ordered, and shoots are completed. It is a weekly exercise in completing every step a cinematographer must take to make a film, and it builds a working confidence into the students’ bones. “The freedom to explore was accepted and nurtured. OU allowed students to have an individual exploration into filmmaking. I felt this as a cinematographer, where each project was sometimes vastly different from the next,” says Chris Lange, a New York -based Director of Photography and OU alum.
Starting their second year, the students will also be tasked with shooting larger-scale films for other students. These films (the ‘Second Year Film’ and the third-year ‘Thesis Film’,) are shot on RED cameras with professional lighting equipment, and under all the constraints felt by any professional shoot: budget, logistics, and time. Steve is committed to teaching through practice, “look, you’re not going to get this chance often - make films.”
Truly, the only way to learn to be a cinematographer is to learn on the job. Students at the OU Film Division are given the opportunity to practice. Steve teaches students to ask themselves, “what do I do with the camera? How should I move the camera? How do I manage light?” And then, “how do you get engaged with a director? In terms of camera, in terms of location, choosing angles. In many ways, you’re going to be responsible for part of delivering that day.” Steve remarks, “I tell students, in the real world you’re judged on how good your footage looks, and how fast you work.” It’s his intention to teach both.
Since Steve began teaching at OU, many alumni have found success in the world of cinematography – Juan Guerrero, Sven Latzke, Chris Lange, and John Veleta are all working freelance Directors of Photography in Ecuador, Germany, New York City, and Los Angeles respectively. Mark Shogren helped begin the University of Montana’s School of Media Arts. Their careers began through the education they gained and the collaborators they met at the Film Division. “OU was the perfect place to work on passion projects within the context of a core curriculum that prepares you to be able to adapt to whatever scenarios you face in your professional or personal career while also making the human connections that have lasted well beyond school,” says John Veleta.
Ultimately, the program teaches its cinematographers to trust their skills, and trust each other. “I definitely enjoyed being part of the creative community the most,” says Latzke. Veleta believes in the fundamentals taught in the program whatever the challenge, “What remains constant are the foundations you build on and the relationships you make. When you're on hour fourteen of a shoot, working in the cold or heat or rain, what really matters is relying on the team standing next to you.”