Learning From The Best
Alex Buono is an accomplished cinematographer who’s been working with the Saturday Night Live Film Unit for 15 years. He’s here to share with us his wisdom in the industry and give us advice on how to get started. He’s also on a Visual Storytelling Workshop Tour across the U.S., so if you like what you’ve read here, then be sure to check it out!
How did you get your start?
My start was really as a film student, taking advantage of the fact that some of your filmmaking heroes are willing to help you. As a student, I wrote a letter to a cinematographer I really liked, and we opened up this dialogue where I could ask him for help. When I graduated, he asked me, “Well what are you doing now? Do you want to come and be an intern on my new movie?” and that movie was called Twister. That became my first job in the film business. I was able turn that internship into a few years of working as a camera assistant on big Hollywood movies, and while I was doing that, I was taking everything that I was learning and shooting my own short films and music videos on the weekend.
You can get the internship, but can blow it if you don’t establish that you’re a hardworking person. It’s funny because years later, I was producing a documentary called “Bigger, Stronger, Faster,” and brought in these USC film student interns assuming they would be smart and hardworking, but they were the worst. They were the worst because there was this sense of entitlement that, “Oh, I shouldn’t have to be an intern…” Then we got a group of interns off of Craigslist, and we found this girl that had just moved to California from Kansas.
She turned out to be amazing; she was so hardworking, and she had such a great attitude. She might not have known as much as a USC film student because she didn’t go to film school, but we ended up hiring her full time. This is a story about understanding when you’re just starting out, your attitude is really what matters. Establishing that you’re a fun person to be around, that you have a great attitude, that you’re not going to be a pain in the ass – that’s more important than establishing what an incredible cinematographer you are.
The thing to understand about film school is, to some degree, it’s not really about learning how to make films. Yeah, you’re going to learn some technical stuff, but you can learn the same stuff making your own films. The cost of film school is hard to justify when you can take that money and make a bunch of films. But not a lot of people are motivated enough to do that. I think it’s important to know that about yourself, ask yourself, “Am I the kind of person that needs a deadline? Am I the kind of person who needs to be given an assignment?” and there’s no shame in that; there are a lot of people who work well that way.
The most valuable thing you get out of film school is that network, that connection to a whole bunch of other like-minded people. If you do go to film school, don’t be that guy who buries himself in his closet and makes private little animations that you don’t want to show anybody. You don’t need to go to film school for that. If you’re there, get involved, go to mixers, meet people, be social, because that’s really the most valuable thing about film school.
You shoot a variety of film genres on SNL, how do you prepare for that?”
It happens too quickly because you get a script on Wednesday night or Thursday morning, and you’ve got to be shooting it the next day. I spent a lot of time trying to be aware and plugged into pop culture, watching television shows and classic movies, and just being film literate. I have a lot of friends who work in the industry but they don’t watch movies, or they don’t watch television. If you have no idea what’s happening right now in filmmaking culture, then that’s not to your advantage.
But a lot of it is just picking a few examples, picking frames that show the epitome of what that genre feels like, and narrowing it down to the visual components. One of the bigger lessons I’m going to be going over in the workshop is how to do that. How to identify and break down a visual style. What’s the color palette like? What kind of lens do you think they shot it on? How are they moving the camera? What’s the quality of the light? What’s the color temperature? As soon as you start having these parameters to break down, and then you start understanding the signature of the style.
We did the Wes Anderson horror movie spoof trailer, basically just a horror movie in the Wed Anderson style. If you’ve watched even one Wed Anderson movie, then you can see that he’s into very flat compositions, symmetrical compositions, he likes to move the camera in very flat space, and he likes a very limited color palette. And when you do that, then your film is going to feel very Wes Anderson-y.
How do you find inspiration from other cinematographers?
Watching films that are great are always inspiring to me. I also think it’s important to be aware that films that have gorgeous cinematography, but the film itself doesn’t really work, I feel like that’s a sign that the cinematography doesn’t work. On a shot by shot basis, a film can look gorgeous, but the overall film can be a train wreck. I feel like that’s a failure of a film, and a failure of the filmmaker. Conversely, when you watch a film that totally works, it’s firing on all cylinders, it effects you emotionally, and yet there’s nothing incredibly special about the cinematography. I think that’s a phenomenal achievement. If you as a cinematographer understand the story enough, and you know well enough to get out of the way, then you’re doing the best job you can be doing.
A good example of that from last year is the movie Whiplash. Where it’s such a phenomenally powerful film, it works on so many levels. You look at the cinematography, and it’s nice, but there’s nothing mind-blowing about it. But I regard that as being phenomenal cinematography because that cinematographer knew exactly how to help that director tell the story in a powerful way. That cinematographer didn’t go in and try to do fancy shots and cost the director time. That film was made on a 19-day schedule, and the cinematographer could have gone in there and just ruin it by taking way too long to light his shots and trying to do too many fancy things. And suddenly those incredible performances don’t happen because the actors don’t have the time, or the director didn’t get that third take that he needed because the cinematographer took too long to light the scene.
A huge part of being a great cinematographer is understanding the parameters of the film that you’re working on. You can be a great cinematographer simply by understanding that if you don’t have a big budget, then you shouldn’t be shooting on the most expensive camera in the world. You shouldn’t be trying to get a huge grip and electric team on a movie that doesn’t have that much money. One of the biggest piece of advice I have for cinematographers, especially when the budget is low, is to not suck up all of the funds at the expense of other departments. If you agree to play ball with the rest of the team and allow the art department to show up with a gorgeous set, you turn on your bounce light, and it’ll look beautiful.
Learn more with Alex Buono!
Alex is currently on a workshop tour teaching Visual Storytelling across the country. If you’re interested in learning more about cinematography and what it takes to become a great filmmaker, then be sure to check it out here. If you plan on attending the Irvine workshop on August 14th, then let I’ll see you there!