Stephen Murphy - Cinematographer

I catch up with acclaimed Cinematographer Stephen Murphy to gain an insight in to his work and his inspiration. Stephen who’s award winning work is featured in international publications joins me in discussing his approach and his experiences working as a Cinematographer in London.

Growing up in Ireland, has the landscape or your upbringing affected the way you work both aesthetically and as a practitioner?

I’m certainly always conscious of Landscape. I grew up with mountains on one side of me and the ocean on the other so my environment has certainly been an influence, even if just subconsciously. Interestingly enough I think it’s had as much of an influence on how I perceive urban landscapes, viewing the Cities I’ve visited with a slightly different viewpoint.

Can you remember what sparked your journey in to cinematography?

I grew up painting & drawing comics and building models as a hobby. For a long time I wanted to draw comics professionally but that seemed like an unattainable career at that point in Dublin. I loved Film, particularly fantasy and sci-fi, and I used to love watching shows like Movie Magic, where you’d get an insight into different aspects of practical visual FX (miniatures, prosthetics, matte paintings etc) so initially that’s what I gravitated towards. I started training as a Prosthetic make up artist in college in Ireland and part of that course was basic 35mm B&W photography and printing. That opened my eyes to how light and shadow and composition worked. When I realised that there was someone photographing movies and that the Cinematographer was to a film what a comic book artist was to comics I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Your work often makes fantastic use of colour. Do you intentionally achieve a lot of this practically? Would you say your approach to colour quite considered?

I always prefer to achieve colour, or lack of colour, in camera. I want my rushes to look as close to the final graded image as possible, so I prefer not to rely on the DI to create a look – I use the DI to finesse, which is exactly what it excels at. Colour can be a very powerful tool, particularly when you use colour to create contrast. I don’t always use saturated colours, but I do want to control whatever colour palette I’m using. If I can get the images looking 90% of the way towards a finished look in camera, then I can use the grading time I have more efficiently for finesse. It also means the Director, the producers, the editor etc all know what the mood of the film is just from the dailies, and I find that far more productive for everyone.

..Resolution itself is one of the least important factors in most of my decision making..How a sensor renders colour, particularly skin-tones, is more important to me..

Some argue that HD and sharpness can render too much presence and diminish the sense of drama. What aspects of optics and resolution sharpness matter to you? How do you feel about not always trying to present ultra sharp HD images?

I am absolutely not interested in presenting ultra sharp images, unless ultra sharp images is the creative look that suits the story and thats rarely the case. I’d rather shoot with glass that has some interesting character. Excessive sharpness is really not that interesting to me.

Resolution itself is one of the least important factors in most of my decision making. What I am interested in is the dynamic range that usually comes from high resolution sensors. How a sensor renders colour, particularly skin-tones, is more important to me then extra “K’s”, I think Arri have proved that with the Alexa.

For many jobs I’d rather have the colour rendition and the lower resolution of Super 16mm then ultra sharp 8k red images.

You often work extensively with anamorphics, what characteristics do you look for in your lens choice to define the look you want to achieve?

Like I said I’m primarily looking for character in a lens, and how the character of the lens will combine with the stock or sensor I’m planning to use, and/or the lighting style I’ll be using. There’s also practicalities to consider, like how the lenses are for pulling focus, or how heavy they are if I’m shooting handheld or STEADICAM etc. but primarily, I’m looking for character. One of the benefits of using Panavision is their massive inventory of glass, all of which has character, and all of which need to meet certain technical parameters regarding sharpness and resolving power to earn the Panavision logo.

You have worked a lot with Tiffen and had a lot of experience using almost every type of filtration. What filtration has proved interesting or fundamental to the way you work?

Like lenses, I choose my filtration based on the particular needs of the job at hand, so I’m always changing what I’m shooting with. Glass filters are a fantastic way of helping you to create an individual look in camera, and Tiffen have an incredible range of filters to choose from. I use diffusion on almost every digital job I shoot, to help give the image some texture. I liken it to choosing a watercolour paper or a photo paper with some tooth. I’m also quite fond of using full colour filters, like an under painting, to tint the image towards the spectrum I want to shoot in, or to expose through the filter, leaving a residue of colour just in the shadows.

Does DI matter to you in terms of control of the final look? Do you enjoy being present with colourists and has this become a part of your creative process?

Colour timing has always been important – wether thats achieved via photo-chemical means or through the DI is a technicality. Colour timing is the final part of the photography of the image, and therefore it’s VITAL that the Cinematographer is present to finish his work. Like I said I primarily use my grade time to finesse the images rather then to create any looks but I consider the relationship I have with my colourists to be very similar to how I work with my Gaffer on set – they are both very important collaborators. I usually work with a brilliant Colourist at Smoke and Mirrors called Dan Moran.

How have your experiences differed from shooting film to working with grading software? Has the increased level of control enhanced image in digital cinema or do you feel it sometimes comes at the cost of production resources?

I still get to shoot film from time to time which is nice because it’s still the best medium available to us, particularly 35mm anamorphic. I approach shooting digital the same way as shooting film. I shoot for the look in camera. I also grade digitally the same way I’d grade photochemically, creating most of the look in camera, and then carefully timing for a consistent density. The benefit of the DI is that I can take full advantage of using power windows.

Are there any current trends in cinema which you love and hate?

With so many films using multiple handheld cameras for coverage I really feel we’re loosing the art of careful blocking and staging and it’d be a shame if that kind of considered in camera editing disappeared. I also think there’s an over reliance on CGI.

What and who inspires you creatively?

In film there’s a whole slew of Cinematographers, old and young, that I’m always envious of; Janusz Kaminski, Robert Richardson, Greig Fraser, and lost masters like Harris Savides and Gordon Willis. I love directors like Spielberg and McTiernan, particularly because of their ability to block complex masters and edit in camera. And I’m a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s films and how he makes them.

I still read a lot, play video games, paint, sculpt and draw and I look at a lot of speed painting and concept art – that’s very inspiring.

As the quality of low cost digital cameras makes it more affordable for people to start out in production on an DIY level. do you see this as a positive entry point to the industry or undermining a more traditional approach?

Actually I don’t really see it as a positive thing. I don’t think YouTube has meant we have more variety of talent I think it just means we’re seeing more low quality content in higher definition. I still think the best way to learn your craft is to start out on the floor of a set and work through the ranks but i appreciate that may not suit everyone.

..I want them to talk about the emotional qualities of the script so that I can interpret that through lighting and composition..

From a cinematographers point of view, what makes the process easier or harder when trying to work together with a director.

The best thing a Director can do for me is to give me a creative framework to work within and then empower me to bring all of my skill and experience to the project. The worst thing a Director can do is try to micro manage me by telling me how to shoot or light something.

The best direction I can get from a Director is if they can tell me what their film is about, and how they want the film to feel. They don’t need to be able to talk to me about lenses or shots – they can if they like but they don’t need to. I want them to talk about the emotional qualities of the script so that I can interpret that through lighting and composition. I’ve read the script, so I know what’s going on, I know what the story is, but what I want from the director is a guide as to what parts of the story they’d like to emphasise, what’s the sub text, how do we want to reveal that and the story and the characters to the audience in a visual way? Each collaboration is different; some directors are very comfortable blocking shots, others aren’t and need me to do that for them. Either way is fine but what’s important is that I’m given enough freedom to interpret the visual style of the film through light and shadow, colour and composition, otherwise the Director isn’t going to be getting the most value out of our collaboration.

Do you have any thoughts on the impact that frame rate and shutter speed have on a perceptive level for the audience?

In terms of cinema projection rates I’ve seen a small amount of HFR work projected and it wasn’t to my tastes so I hope to avoid that in my work if I can.

With budgets getting squeezed up in a lot of areas of production, in what direction do you see the future of cinematography moving?

There’s no question budgets are getting squeezed below the line, especially in terms of BTL wages, and that has a bigger effect on the quality of the final film more so then having less money for lights or sets or locations etc. I’d like to think that trend will reverse itself at some point soon.

Working across Promos, Commercials & Drama do you enjoy working on longer format projects, or does the more liberal image driven side of promos still appeal to you?

There’s pro’s and con’s to both long and short form work, both creatively and practically, but in an ideal world I’d like to strike a balance between shooting maybe 2 features/dramas a year and commercials/promos the rest of the year.

To what degree to you pre-plan shoots, do you ever use lighting plots or do you enjoy thinking on your feet?

It all depends on the shoot, the locations, the schedule, the budget etc. Thinking on your feet is what good Cinematographers do best and I enjoy working that way but certain jobs require extensive pre-lighting and that’s usually helped by lighting plots. I’ve been using a software called Lighting Designer that’s been helpful to design plots, but sometimes a pencil and a piece of paper work just fine too.

As computing advances, game production is allowing aesthetic development to shift from the hands of programmers to games artists. With games approaching a increasing level of visual sophistication, do you see a potential convergence for cinematographers within this medium?

Definitely. Pixar and Dreamworks have been using Cinematographers like Roger Deakins and the late Harris Savides to consult on their visual design, with great results. I think the more video games try to emulate film eventually someone’s going to start bringing in Cinematographers on a regular basis to work with the game artists to design a games photography and presentation. It’s something I’d LOVE to do. I’m a big gamer, have been for many years, and I’ve been playing around with software like Painter and Zbrush for several years for my own illustrations so I’d feel quite comfortable working in a video game environment and collaborating with their artists.

Whats the most valuable piece of advice you have been given or have learned in your experience behind the camera?

There’s been a lot of good advice but the key I’ve found is to have a good work ethic and a tough skin.

As a cinematographer what technical issues seem to be of continual frustration?

I still feel we haven’t got a digital camera that is the equal of Film so it’s frustrating seeing the industry pushing us away from having that choice.

If you were handed the budget today, what type of project would you personally love to create?

I’d love to shoot an old school western in 35mm anamorphic and I’d love to shoot a movie like Labyrinth or the Dark Crystal using a large cast of animatronics and puppets.

Find out more..

Take a look at some more of Stephen Murphy’s work at his website:

Also on his site check out Stephen’s ‘DOP documents’ which give his in-depth studies of the work of legendary cinematographers.

Stephen is based in London and is represented by Rob Little at Dinedor Management.