Channel 4 – Making Movies

Roger Eaton


Roger Eaton trained as a stills photographer with the likes of Lord Snowdon and Eve Arnold. He shot Naomi Campbell, Claudia Shiffer and co for Vogue. Having reached the top of his profession, Roger succumbed to the seduction of the moving image and began shooting documentaries and commercials before making cinema proper. Short films include the award-winning drama The Booth and Un Certain Disregard with Catherine Deneuve. He has worked with the Pope, The Chippendales and Diana, Princess of Wales. The feature Lava, a splice of Ealing comedy and Notting Hill carnival, is released in August 2001.


Who is the cinematographer?

The person chiefly responsible for what you see on screen in terms of photography. This includes lighting, camerawork and the execution of the look or visual style.


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What is the relationship between cinematographer and director?

A collaboration, the object of which is to enhance the cinematic art and craft within the boundaries of the director’s vision. They work together to find the best way of telling the story visually. Some directors have more idea of what they are looking for visually and others will be more “hands-off”, trusting the cinematographer to add to his vision.


To what extent do you as cinematographer decide how a scene is to be shot?

This depends on the director. Sometimes he or she has a very strong idea; sometimes he or she looks for more input. Some directors require more input in pre-production planning whist others prefer to throw away preconceived plans after the action has been blocked on the set.


Other factors which influence how much input the cinematographer has are: the director’s level of experience; time; the sort of scene to be shot; performance; and budget.


To what extent do you as cinematographer decide on the visual style a film is to have?

Again this varies. Sometimes a cinematographer is employed for a particular style that he has produced before or on his general approach. Other times he can play more of a technical role. It depends on whether he has been booked for his artistic approach, his technical ability or his general balanced outlook with all factors. Some productions are ruled very heavily by executives and studios; others have much more freedom to be genuinely creative.


Does the cinematographer operate the camera or is that a separate role?

It is a personal, budgetary and flexible decision to use an operator or not. Larger budget films generally tend to use a separate operator more than on smaller independent films. The general rule is if the cinematographer has the time and space to also operate he usually prefers to do this.


Do you think it’s possible to make video look like film?

Generally no. Video tends to be flatter and more electronic whereas film has a more organic texture. This has a considerable amount to do with different optics but also the physical nature of the two tools. Similar comparisons could be between a Stradivarius violin and an electric violin, or between digital sound and the older valve or analogue systems. If film is digitised for multi special effects plate work there would generally be less difference to Hi Definition video used in the same way. If the subject is a single camera drama sequence, the different feels tend to stand out a lot more. Theatrical projection enhances this difference whereas it will be more hidden on a small, bad TV set.


How do you see the role of the cinematographer changing with the digital revolution?

Very hard to tell. Much depends on the integrity of the producers and the discretion of the audience. If the art and craft of cinema is noticed and cared about then cinematographers have a lot to say, do and express. If the general attitude is one of fashion and the latest gimmick, bad TV and expensive home movies will become the future. The art and craft of cinematography has a lot more to do with how we will see images than the tools used. Will the cinematographer have the opportunity or the will to deal with the digital revolution? Will compromise become our yardstick? Or will the new tools become better than the old ones?


Do you find storyboards useful or restrictive?

They are useful in complicated action or SFX sequences and can be a good way for filmmakers to communicate and focus. It is often very useful to do them and then throw them away if better shots can be found. Again it depends on the production and the approach of the director as well as the budget in terms of how much serendipity can be afforded in terms of time, stock and creative improvisation. Some subjects need to have more control applied and some need more freedom and space.


Talk us through the process of lighting one of the scenes you have shot?

I like to see a blocking of the action on the set before I start. I distil the mood of the scene dictated by the drama in the context of the subtext of the light. I try my best to see with my eyes, use my intuition and use all my experience before I engage any craft or technique. This makes the technical side much easier and faster as I know exactly where I am going. The next steps are organic and certain at the same time. I decide on the source or key lights or light. I then build from here with the other lights, which I set roughly in position. I then do some tweaking of the lights if necessary. I take in and incorporate good accidental observations. I do a final check with the actors and do fine adjustments if necessary. I start with the widest shot. I bring lights in for the close-ups. I look very carefully at the faces of the actors to enhance the dramatic mood to check if I am getting what I want.


What is depth of field and how is it used?

The physical distance that the lens holds its subject ‘in focus’ on a 90º plane to the direction that the camera is pointing, outside this distance or depth of field everything is ‘out of focus’. Narrow depth of field tends to isolate objects or actions thus concentrating the viewer’s eye on what you want him/her to see. Deep focus invites the viewer to look around more and make up his/her mind on what to notice or see.


What are some of the considerations involved in a night shoot?

What colour is the source of the light? How much darkness do you want to show? What quantity and quality should the light be in order to enhance the screenplay action to the required dramatic level? How dark is the night and what actions do we have to see? The feel and mood of the rest of the film…


How important is grading for the cinematographer?

Paramount. Film these days has so much information in it that it is imperative to show the right amount of information in the right way. This has been planned before the cinematographer exposes the emulsion. For the cinematographer his vision should be expressed as he intended for the end result. How important is it for a chef to season his cooking? Usually the cinematographer has a more informed overview of the look of the film than anyone else particularly in terms of technical fine-tuning.


Do you attempt to capture the look of the film during the shoot or during postproduction?

Ideally during the shoot. This is not always possible, particularly when dealing with SFX.


What advice would you give anyone wanting to become a cinematographer?

Think twice and, if you have to, be prepared to give total commitment. Ask yourself why do you want to become a cinematographer.


Are there any books that you would recommend on cinematography?

It’s not about books. But…

Cinematography Screencraft By Peter Ettedgui

Masters of Light by Dennis Schaefer & Larry Salvato

Story by Robert McKee

Directing – Film Techniques & Aesthetics The Keepers of Light by William Crawford, Morgan and Morgan

The Negative by Ansel Adams, New York Graphic Society


Which films would you recommend in terms of their cinematography?

Night of the Hunter, The Conformist, Citizen Kane, The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen, The Piano, Chinatown, Psycho, Jules et Jim, The Godfather, Touch of Evil, North by Northwest, Natural Born Killers, Seven, A Matter of Life and Death and Apocalypse Now.