With our launch into film, we’re bringing you the best of the best, and asking them 4 questions: how did you get here, what do you do, what advice do you have, and how are you coping during this time. First up is Zak Mulligan, the cinematographer behind Sundance’s NEXT Innovator Award: We The Animals, and HBO’s The Outsider. In this new series spanning across all of our interviews, our aim is to illustrate a map of fashion, beauty, film, and music, giving you the insight you need to get to where you want to go.
This interview took place over email between Tate in Los Angeles and Zak Mulligan in New York
TVPS: How did you get to where you are today?
ZM: My father was an amateur photographer, so very early on, I was helping him build dark rooms and develop negatives. I was taken by the magic of the chemistry and the equipment. The mix of art and science has held my interest ever since. Photography continued to be my focus through college, and while I harbored a deep interest in cinema throughout, I wasn’t in a program that offered film courses. So I moved to New York City at the end of 2001 specifically to insert myself into the film community. I did a series of free internships and made friends with similar interests. It was around that time I convinced a student making a short film that I would be a good cinematographer simply because I knew how to expose film. While that was true, the added element of time quickly overwhelmed my limited skillset. I was instantly hooked and had to learn more.
Some months later, I co-founded a film making collective called Radius 5 Films. This group quickly grew from the core five people to included more than a dozen collaborators. We took turns directing our short film projects while crewing up on each other’s projects. This core group of collaborators became my close friends. Some of them are still working in the industry today, and we even work together once in a while.
As a DP, what is your role, and how does it vary?
The word Cinematography is derived from ancient Greek and means “movement” “writing” some people like to say it’s writing with light, and I think that’s a pretty decent description of what I do. I am responsible for creating the look and feel of the motion picture photography on a given project. I work closely with a director and interpret a script and the director’s intentions into images created by lighting and moving images. On a practical level, I am the head of three departments on set: lighting, grip, and camera. With the help of the crew in these departments, I frame, light, and photograph the shots that make up a film, TV show, commercial or documentary.
My role consists of three phases through a production. In pre-production, I am scouting locations, making shot lists, hiring crew, and planning the logistics of the production. This is the time I develop an approach for my look. I’m thinking about how I want the camera to move, how the lighting should look. These choices all come from story and character. I’m trying to visualize a character’s journey using the tools available to me.
During production, I am directing my crew to follow through on the creative choices made in pre-production. We block a scene with the actors and the director. Then my crew helps to light and frame the scene. Then we bring the actors back to set and shoot the scene. It’s a massive ballet of lighting technicians, hair and makeup artists, production assistants, the movement of the earth making the sunrise and set, the migration patterns of egrets. Seriously, I’ve had loud birds ruin takes for audio.
I return to a project near the end of post-production to work on the color correction. Normally in pre-production, I do lighting and color tests, and if I’m shooting digitally, I create a LUT that provides us with a color palette on the camera. In post, I sit with a colorist to further the look. I prefer to bake in most of my look on set when possible, but there are always things to fix or adjust. We are finalizing the look during this process. At this stage, the images we view in the color suite are the best the project will ever look like. Once it’s projected in a theater, streamed online or viewed on a mobile device, the colors, brightness, and contrast all shift in some unpredictable way. It’s never exactly the film that was made.
Every project is different, and roles can vary slightly, but the essence of what I do is the same. I am using a machine, a technology, to translate human emotions and stories into moving images that touch an audience in some way. While I don’t like to reinvent the process on every project, there are things that need to be flexible, depending on what outcome is needed. Documentaries are usually very small in terms of crew size and resources. This is where I am operating the camera myself and perhaps doing some verite work. Films can be tiny or giant, so it’s hard to say there’s a single way of working. If there are multiple cameras, I may work with camera operators, but usually, if I am doing a single camera, I like to operate the camera myself. TV is usually always multiple cameras, and the logistics can be complicated, so in these instances, I would have a large crew to oversee. The larger the scale, the more managerial my role can become. It’s important to remember the essential elements of story, lighting, and camera movement in these instances as there is a danger in getting lost at sea, just trying to steer the ship.
You're known for your versatility, how do you take your own style and apply it to documentaries, films, and TV shows. For someone looking to take a similar path, what advice would you give them for staying relevant in these different mediums?
I don’t believe this is possible. In fact, a cinematographer should run away from trying to put their own unique style on something. The style should come from the story, the character, and elements in the script. Of course, in practice, I am still me, no matter the project. The way I think, my tastes, and how I solve problems are all there always. Also, ideally, I am choosing the projects I want to work on. So even that initial choice of a project places it in the world of what I’m interested in visually. When people say my work has a particular aesthetic, I believe this is what they mean. It’s nothing I would ever do consciously.
The world has become a different place since we started this interview over email, so adding in one last question. Is there something you've been doing, or have done for yourself during this time that has made you feel good?
I’ve been catching up on a lot of reading. It’s been a wonderful escape from the daily grind of terrible news. I just finished reading Station Eleven, which is about a pandemic that kills 99 percent of the world’s population. Perhaps it’s odd to be drawn to a story like this right now, but I found comfort in the world of the story. It’s not a hopeless, desolate post-apocalyptic world like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Emily St. John Mandel creates a world where humans get to reset, to have a second chance to do better.