“When I Shoot Film Today The Set Seems to Move Faster”: DP Nancy Schreiber on Moving from Film to Digital Throughout Her Career
When director of photography Nancy Schreiber receives the Presidents Award at the 31st annual ASC Awards this Saturday, she’ll make history as the first woman to be honored with the award. It’s an appropriate – some might say overdue – recognition of an innovator who has consistently broken new ground in the fields of documentary, narrative features, and television. An early proponent of digital technology (she won the cinematography prize at Sundance in 2004 for her mini-DV work on November), Schreiber is also a fierce advocate for celluloid who creates stunning, expressive images regardless of the format. Her range is second to none – a look at her IMDB page reveals credits in every genre across a wide array of budgets and styles – and she’s a master when it comes to finding the right visual language for any given subject. On the eve of her American Society of Cinematographers honor, I asked her to reflect on her career.
Filmmaker: When and how did you learn you would be receiving the ASC Presidents Award?
Nancy Schreiber: ASC President Kees Van Ostrum sent an email and left me a message on my cell asking me to get in touch with him – I figured he needed my assistance on some project. We finally connected, and I just about fell over when he told me I had been selected to receive the Presidents Award. I try to serve the ASC as much as time allows in between projects, helping up and coming craftspeople and that kind of thing, so the honor means a lot. I’m so humbled by the recognition from my peers.
Filmmaker: How did you first become interested in film in general and cinematography in particular?
Schreiber: I saw quite a few movies from an early age – all the Hollywood films as well as foreign films at arthouses. I owe it to my older brother and sister who let me tag along. I grew up in Detroit, where I spent a lot of time in museums. My mother was a docent, and my high school was known for its fine arts program, so I had a lot of appreciation for visual arts that morphed into a love of photography – recently I found old black and white negatives from when I snuck into the inner city and shot the aftermath of the riots. I was also a summer exchange student in Holland and spent days in the Rijksmuseum dazzled by the light created by the Dutch masters.
I went to college at the University of Michigan, where I ran an alternative movie theatre for the Ann Arbor Film Cooperative. Michigan didn’t have a film school, so my film education was programming films by the masters: Truffaut, Godard, Renoir, Resnais, De Sica, Wajda, and on and on. Oddly, the only time we sold out were Bergman and Marx Brothers movies.
Filmmaker: So if they didn’t have a film school, what was your degree in?
Schreiber: Psychology, which I often joke has helped me through the years in dealing with all of the personalities in our industry. (laughs) Anyway, when I graduated from the University of Michigan, I followed my boyfriend at the time to New York, and when he returned to Ann Arbor for law school, I stayed there. I couldn’t get enough of the city; I just thrived on the energy. I took a crash film course taught by Jim Pasternak, who really inspired me to pursue this crazy wonderful world of film. I started at the bottom and came up through the electric department. My mentor was a legendary New York gaffer, Bobby V (Bob Vercruse), who was one of the first to hire me as an electrician and a best boy. Bobby gaffed most of the independent features that came through New York, as well as numerous commercials. He also owned a lighting and grip company called Filmtrucks and was such a supporter when I started to shoot, loaning me lights.
Filmmaker: Did you have any other mentors?
Schreiber: My other mentor was a documentary director and director of photography named Mark Obenhaus. We spent months on the road doing a television documentary series where we almost lived with various families throughout the U.S. for weeks at a time.
I would light the houses so that Mark could shoot 360 degrees. Mark was very generous with his 16mm camera when I started to shoot. I started off photographing shorts for Columbia film students, since they had no cinematography department, unlike NYU.
Filmmaker: Was it difficult to make that transition to becoming a director of photography yourself?
Schreiber: I had a successful career gaffing commercials and documentaries, but I did face obstacles once I started to pursue cinematography. The women shooting at the time were all filming documentaries or news, and I wanted to shoot narrative as I had a lighting and art background – but I decided it made sense for me to make my own documentary to show that I could shoot handheld. The film, Possum Living, was quite successful; it was written up in The New York Times and chosen for New Directors/New Films. Yet although I directed and photographed a few films after that, it was not easy to pursue both directing and shooting in those days; I had such a passion for telling stories with the camera, light and lenses that I decided to focus solely on cinematography.
Filmmaker: I first became aware of your work when I saw Visions of Light, which was a terrific documentary. How did you get that job? Was there any kind of intimidation factor lighting cinematographers with major reputations whose work I imagine you had seen and enjoyed?
Schreiber: Visions of Light had already been shooting when I came aboard; evidently they hadn’t been able to find the right match when it came to the cinematographer. It was shot in early HD, which was just beginning to become a viable medium. As I had been open to any new technology coming down the pike, and as I knew how to shoot video to make it look more filmic, I got the job. I admit I was a little intimidated having the opportunity to meet and film my idols, but the HD was so cumbersome and required so much light that I was too busy to be worried about what these masters might think about the way I was lighting and filming them. I remember being a nervous wreck when I set up to film Storaro, but I’m happy with the way the interview looked, and it was amazing to hear first hand such fascinating stories from him and the likes of John Alonzo about Chinatown and Billy Fraker about Rosemary’s Baby. All in all, I was in awe of these great artists, but the recorders and monitors were in a truck in those days, and only a few of the cinematographers came in to look.
Filmmaker: As you mentioned, you’ve always been an early adopter of new technologies, and you won an award at Sundance for your work on November, which was shot on Panasonic mini-DV cameras. What led to the decision to shoot that movie in that particular format?
Schreiber: November was part of IN-DIG-ENT’s slate of films, which had previously been shot in the PAL format, mostly on Sony’s PD150. IN-DIG-ENT had joined forces with the Independent Film Channel to produce films with A-list actors for $150,000 for production and $150,000 for post. When the director, Greg Harrison, asked me to shoot the film, Panasonic had just come out with a 24p mini-DV camera, the DVX100, and the choice was clear. The challenge was, of course, the 1/3 inch chip; the pleasure was being able to take the $2,500 camera to scouts and determine some “looks.” It’s funny to think that I baked in such extreme color back then – deep blue, green, warm-orange – for the different parts of the film. Today we don’t bake in color – we want as much latitude as possible. And today we have the luxury of working with LEDs for deep, saturated colors, instead of using gels and tricking white balances on the camera as I did on the DVX100. The horror was having to sit though the premiere at Sundance in the Eccles Theater, seeing the film projected on an enormous screen. The DV was so soft when projected. But I guess the jury got it and I was the only one uncomfortably squirming in my seat. IN-DI-GENT was a great model for indie films. We all made a hundred dollars a day, no matter if you were a P.A. or D.P. or gaffer. But we all got back end and I still receive small deferral checks. That has to be a first!
Filmmaker: In general, what factors go into your selection of format and camera? Do you have a preference between celluloid and digital, or is it project specific?
Schreiber: Sometimes it comes down to budget, but hopefully it’s a decision made between the director and myself as to what best fits the story. With a new lab opening in New York, I’m sure we will see even more productions originating in celluloid, as there has been an upswing in the last few years. Film is not dead. I just heard that Kodak is opening or taking over eight film labs worldwide.
If the movie is a gritty urban drama, the director and I may opt for Super-16, or if it’s a period film, 35mm may be the perfect choice. On American Gun, for example, the director and I chose Super-16 to give the film an immediacy and intimacy. There were three parts, each having a different color palette and style: Marcia Gay Harden’s section about her relationship with her son ran cool. With Forest Whitaker playing a high school teacher in Chicago, I remember I purchased the last of the 800 ASA stock Kodak ever made, and pushed the grain even further. With the Donald Sutherland section, our palette was rich and warm. I did as much as I could on set and in camera. Today, working with full spectrum color LEDs I could have saved production a lot of the money on gels.
I photographed two other three-part films that varied in style, one being November, where, as mentioned, I baked in the color. And one, The Nines, directed by John August, used three different formats: Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis each played different characters in the three parts, with one being filmed in 35mm, one in Super-16 and one shot digitally to mimic a reality show.
Filmmaker: How about aspect ratio and lenses?
Schreiber: Aspect ratio is also project specific. Sometimes the anamorphic frame is perfect for films where I have large vistas. However, I have shot widescreen on films that are mostly interior, particularly with ensemble casts where we want the action to play within the frame. Sometimes we want to see ornate ceilings of certain locations, and 1.85 or 4×3 may be appropriate. As for lenses, we have an unbelievable array to choose from today, from super sharp, contrasty modern lenses to the more gentle “vintage” lenses that pair well with digital.
Filmmaker: What do you see as the pros and cons of the ascendance of digital cinematography?
Schreiber: Let’s start with the pros. It has improved dramatically since I started shooting HD on Visions of Light and mini-DV on November. In particular, the ISOs are faster than film, which is a plus when lighting and shooting night exteriors. But there are many cons. With the proliferation of monitors on the set, there can be too many voices. With film, the monitor was merely a reference to see framing and performance, and everyone knew that the film would not look like the monitor. Today, the monitor has become the “god,” and too many opinions may come into play. Also, there’s a lot of handheld camerawork today in film and television – and in fiction, not just documentaries. The ergonomics of the digital cameras have been less than great, while film cameras have always been well balanced, fitting nicely on our shoulders. Finally in the last couple years, the digital cameras are becoming better balanced. However, most cameras today have become quite heavy due to all the accessories desired. Everything has wireless transmission – for sound, for the proliferation of monitors being fed, and with ACs preferring to pull focus remotely.
I do know that when I shoot film today the set seems to move faster. We can just pick up a camera and go! DPs were trusted in the film era, and maybe there was a mystique about what we did, as many in production weren’t quite sure how it would look until dailies. That’s the other practice that I wish would come back: communal dailies where we all come together, instead of people watching alone on their laptops and iPads.
When digital started making inroads, some people worried that cinematographers would become obsolete, since supposedly one did not have to light digital! Now the worry has extended to the VR world, but I do believe it will have its niche and we’ll still be working in tried and true ways. There are always crazes, such as 3D, which has come and gone several times over the years.
Filmmaker: Do you have go-to tools that you really on more frequently than others?
Schreiber: I still like to use a light meter even when shooting digital. And I’m using more and more LED lights these days. They have gotten quite stable across the color spectrum in the last few years, and I like that I we are trying to be more “green” in our practices. It saves so much electricity and keeps sets from becoming overly hot. I still use tungsten Fresnels and HMIs .
Filmmaker: In addition to your film work you’re a very accomplished television cinematographer – in fact, you shot episodes of one of my favorite series of last year, The Family. What are the differences between shooting features and shooting TV?
Schreiber: I often like to shoot small independent films where I am supporting the very personal vision of the director, and those schedules are tight, to say the least – it’s something they have in common with television. But there are differences, of course. The director on a television show has many bosses and a style that has already been established when he or she comes aboard, whereas on a film, we are in the service of the director’s vision. Our hours are often shorter on indie movies, as we cannot afford the overtime for the actors, and on television I have a larger crew and many more toys: cranes, special lenses, and lights that are hard to afford on a small film. I also like to operate, which I do on small films, but on series, with the pace of making each day and choreographing two cameras, I seldom operate – as it is important to be near the director. I try not to spend a lot of time in A DIT tent, except to create some looks. But usually I have already established LUTs in advance of production.
Filmmaker: How has the role of the cinematographer changed since you began working in the industry?
Schreiber: When I started, Kodak came out with a new stock almost yearly and it was like getting another color in the crayon box. We would test and decide what stocks were appropriate for the film – or sometimes a Fuji stock might be perfect. When shooting 35mm, we had a choice between Panavision or Arri, and some went for Moviecam, and in 16mm it was Aaton or Arri. Today we sometimes lose the power to choose the camera, as some producers have bought their own and expect you to use them. Recently certain networks have mandated 4k, even though they are streaming services, so the Alexa is not allowed to be used. As we are shooting raw or log these days, so much can be done in post that determining which camera you use has almost become a moot point in terms of how the finished film looks. No matter if it’s film or digital, I still test before principal photography – lenses, filters, various looks.
Other changes in this era of digital finishes relate to the digital intermediate. Back when they cut negative and only had RGB printer lights, cinematographers would work with a film timer for a few hours on a given day, spread over a few weeks, so those timing services were included in our production salary. In recent years, we have had to fight to get paid for color timing, since we spend days and weeks grading in the DI suite. Finally, due to agents’ insistence, cinematographers usually are granted at least half-day rates for DI timing. Another arena that has changed today is in the visual effects area. So many films are effects heavy, and cinematographers need to work to stay involved, protecting our visuals when it comes to VFX and staying in close communication with the visual effects team.
Filmmaker: What kinds of challenges keep you interested or excited about filmmaking?
Schreiber: When I start a film or a show, it always feels like the first time. I ask myself, “How can I make a difference? How can I best tell the story visually to get across the proper emotion?” Too much emphasis has been placed on the technology; I strongly believe that it is what is in your head and heart that matters, not how many pixels, how many Ks or what camera or light you used. I never get tired of finding new ways of expressing emotion on screen or of being challenged by great directors who make me stretch beyond my comfort zone. I often joke that I hope to drop dead on the set when I’m 100. I can’t imagine anything else I would have rather pursued in my life. I feel really blessed.