Looking Through The Lens with Cinematographer Noah Rosenthal

5 03 2012

Talented Cinematographer Noah Rosenthal chatted with me about his journey into the wonderful world seen behind the lens.

Picture by Matthew Lillard.

1. Can you talk about growing up around the film industry and when did you first realize that you wanted to also get into the business?

At the time, growing up on film sets seemed pretty normal to me. It is one of those things that you don’t think about until you’re older, and only then realize that this isn’t a common experience. It was great as a kid to be around filmmaking, especially because my dad made me feel like such a part of it. I was able to watch what was going on in a pretty involved way, and I think that was really something special – hearing what was being said to the actors, getting to look through the camera and things like that. A lot of my early childhood was spent traveling when my dad was shooting out of town on location – so I remember having an early fondness for the “on location” experience, which I still have today. Growing up in Los Angeles was challenging at times, partly because it lacked a coherent community for a child but also due to seeing the ups and downs of my Dad’s career. I really enjoyed the creative production side of the business, but the chasing work and maintaining a career side was something that pushed me away from the industry for a while. During high school, I took a summer job working as a fly fishing guide on a guest ranch in Wyoming, which took me out of LA and drew my attention far away from the entertainment business.


It wasn’t until later at Middlebury College when I took an Intro to Video Production class as a fun elective and a break from my American Literature major, that I realized I might have missed my calling. On my first project for that class something clicked for me and I realized that not only did I like the process of visual storytelling, but I also might be pretty good at it!

  1. What were some of your fondest memories from being on set with your dad?

A lot of my early childhood was spent traveling with my dad when shooting out of town– which gave me an early fondness for the “on location” experience, which I still carry to this day. I mostly remember being fascinated with all the “toys” on set – especially the cranes they used back then where the camera operator and AC would “ride” on the end of them. I thought that was one of the coolest things ever! Being a curious kid on a film set, there is so much to observe and soak up. My dad liked to include me in the process and even let me contribute – some of his famous stories end with my 5 or 6-year-old self calling lenses or saying things like “You can’t judge performance through a monitor!” Looking back on that I’m sure the crew got a kick out of this knee-high little kid who thought he knew a thing or two beyond his years.

One of my fondest memories was in Key West on location for the film “Russkies.” I was 5 at the time and befriended the film’s young actors while hanging out during the shoot. I remember how much fun it was to feel included by those kids, especially the film’s star, Leaf Phoenix (now known better as Joaquin) who was incredibly friendly and just plain cool – I also had a huge crush on his sister Summer. So that movie was a pretty memorable one, especially because they had a submarine set and at the time I was obsessed with submarines.

  1. When did you first pick up the camera and what drew you to study cinematography?

I dabbled in a little bit of photography and video production in college, but like most people when they are first getting into film, I wanted to be a director. It most likely stemmed from my father’s being a director and all the years watching him work and been involved in his creative process.

I ended up taking half of my junior year at the University of Southern California where I took my first cinematography class, and after that there was no turning back – I was really hooked. I still remember a group project we did on the soundstage where they voted me into being the cinematographer for a war scene. I had a very basic understanding of lighting but figured out an imperfect lighting set-up that was basically a cross-key backlight, and then had multiple lights with orange gel rigged with dimmers to act as explosions. It was the first time I had free reign as a DP and coincidentally that type of cross key lighting setup is something I still like to come back to whenever appropriate. After college, I studied acting at The Beverly Hills Playhouse with thoughts of being a director.

When I later went to apply to The American Film Institute for grad school, my dad gave me the best advice I could ever had gotten. He said something that was effectively, “I know you want to go into Directing, but I think you should learn a craft at graduate school that will allow you to work more often and consistently. Plus you will really enjoy the Cinematography faculty there and your application is much stronger visually.” It was really the best decision that I could have made and his advice was dead on.

  1. A Los Angeles “native” heads off to Vermont, explain? Division III football – position and favorite NFL player of all-time?

It sounds crazy, right? Well, I was beyond ready to get out of Los Angeles to experience something different and through my summer job as a fly fishing guide I had met several people who were from the town of Middlebury and had gone to college there. They sang its praises, but beyond that it had several things that were very attractive to me at the time: a fantastic environmental policy program, rumors of good local fly fishing, a opportunity to continue playing football, a wonderful ceramics studio and two upper senior girls who I thought were total babes. It was a fantastic fit for me at the time and although I didn’t really know what path I was going to end up on, it ended up being a great educational experience where I was able to do a double major in American Literature and Film, made some lifelong friends. However after a few Vermont winters, I came running back to more temperate weather here in Southern California.

I only ended up playing two years of football at Middlebury, but I am so appreciative to have had the opportunity to extend my playing experience at least that long. I played a mix of offensive line in high school, but mostly was a pulling guard in college – though we did a lot of zone blocking compared to the amount of trap blocking I got to do in high school. In terms of favorite NFL player, I have to nostalgically throw that up to Joe Montana. I grew up a 49er Fan, and early on wanted to play quarterback before I found a position that suited me better for success.

  1. Can you describe The Beverly Hills Playhouse routine and acting education is all about?

The Beverly Hills Playhouse is primarily a scene study class. It brings together a variety of acting strategies tailored to each student in order to loose their impulse to “act” and instead learn to “behave”. We would pair up, prepare a scene to perform in front of the class, and get a critique from our instructors on the performance in order to develop the acting journey for each person. This provided me some insight on what the creative process is for someone who is performing in front of a camera – everything that it takes to get there and build a character, a scene, a performance. For me, it was an incredible experience because I was outside of my comfort zone being the focus in front of a large group of people. There is nothing quite like getting a critique on an acting performance, because it is extremely difficult to separate one’s self out of that performance. This experience opened me up to accepting constructive criticism in a positive way and get past that initial defensive instinct.

This prepared me for AFI where a tough and wonderful teacher named Bill Dill would breakdown and critique our visual storytelling to its elements and make us think about what we were trying to get across through them. I take a lot of the BHP acting approach when reading and breaking down a script while prepping a film. I like to figure out a way to communicate visually all the same things that actors are trying to do with their performances and highlight that through specific choices in composition, camera movement and lighting.

  1. What was it like while out at AFI?

I couldn’t have had a better place learn my craft, develop a community and actively train as a cinematographer. The first year as a Cinematographer there is actually a 7 day a week commitment, where you are on set for 4 days of the week and in class for 3, so it is total immersion. It was extremely competitive in a way that I think actually mimics the real industry, and prepares its Fellows for success by giving them practical real world experience. I think the AFI’s real strength is in the amount of talented Fellows that they select for a given class. We had so many talented people working together, pushing each other to do better work. Nowadays, if scheduling conflicts arise and I need to replace myself on a project, I have a large number of talented classmates that I can recommend whom I know will do a fabulous job. (I almost worry that they might be too good and I won’t get that next call because of what a great job they do!) One of my fondest memories was on my thesis called “{sanctuary}” when we were in a closed rehearsal to choreograph a love scene. As the blocking got into the more intimate moments there was a bit of a hitch, so I volunteered myself and my Key Grip to stand in for the actors to show them what the director and I were looking for. Without missing a beat he said, “Fine. But you’re the girl.” So I was the girl. It was a fun moment that completely diffused the tension and the scene itself came out quite nicely.

  1. You’ve jumped around genres with your cinematographer work. What drew you to the specific filmmakers you’ve worked with? Obviously what was it like shooting for you dad on Blink?

I am still early enough in my career where any project with a solid script is an opportunity explore visual styles and work with new people, so I’m not closed off to any particular genre. What draws me in most are people who understand that filmmaking is a collaborative process and that share my work ethic and expectations of professionalism. I come from a background of team sports, so I think I gravitate towards people who share that attitude, whether they are a producer hiring me or someone that I am hiring onto my crew, its important to work with people that understand that we are never greater than the sum of our parts.

Working with my dad has been an amazing experience, as Director and Cinematographer we have now done two Commercials, two Short Films and a Feature. Working with someone as seasoned as him is intimidating in a way, but is most certainly a blessing. I am always learning from him, but what I’ve come to realize is that he also continues to learn with each and every new project – reminding me how much of an evolving art form film it is. Don’t get me wrong, we do have times where we butt heads, but the fact that he and I are able to work together as a father and son and have fun doing it is a real testament to how much we really care about each other, the work, and the process.

  1. How did you and Josh Stolberg meet? Compared to a film like Occupied, you dealt with a ton more actors and situations, what were the main difficulties of shooting this type of assemble film? Did you have a favorite couple sequence to film? Gotta ask if my fellow Texan Alan Tudyck was a total fun character to have on set?

Josh and I actually met through an actor named Gregory Smith who was in a film my dad directed called “Nearing Grace.” Our first meeting was a lot of fun, and we started talking about some ways to approach photographing the different couples in the movie in ways that would help to define their relationships visually. Our process was to break down what was going on emotionally between each couple and make specific visual choices about framing, camera movement and lighting based on the progression of each of their relationships. It was exciting to find ways to support each couple’s relationship visually with very different and specific choices, while making sure it would all feel like the same movie. Though both were micro budget movies done on very tight schedules, “Occupied” was sort of the inverse of this film.

With “Occupied” we had a single location with two actors, whereas on “Conception” we had a different location every day and two different actors who only worked one day. Despite the normal challenges and the appearance of a large ensemble cast production, when you break it down, each scene was really only between two people, so it was pretty manageable – aside from the large page count of 9-14 pages a day. It’s interesting to see how Josh and his producers tailored a script to the limitations of the time and money available, something I wish more independent productions would do. I know it sounds cliché to say, but I enjoyed all of the challenges and opportunities with each couple. They were all so different, but such talented actors and well-written scenes that it made for a fun shoot. Plus, they all had sex! If I had to pick one, it would have to be the day we shot with Jonathan Silverman and his wife Jennifer Finnegan. About a week after I had signed on to do “Conception,” before the final couples were cast, I was at a little speakeasy bar downtown meeting some friends from “Blink” who were down from Vancouver when I ran into Jonathan whom I hadn’t seen since I was 16 or so when he was in a movie my dad directed called “Just a Little Harmless Sex.” Turns out, he was with his wife Jennifer, who just so happened to be there to meet up with the friends I was with. Over drinks we caught up and I spent a great time talking, about lighting, acting and the relationship between the two. The next afternoon I got a call from one of the producers who told me they had cast the final couple. Turns out it was Jonathan and Jennifer! Moments like that really make this great big city feel quite small. The pure randomness of that night and the fact that I knew Jonathan from what felt like another life made that day of shooting feel even more like working with family. The day with Gregory Smith and Julie Bowen was also a real hoot, because not only am I friends with Gregory, but also the majority of the camera operating was handed over to him and Julie to shoot their sex scene. It was a different type of experience for sure!

As for Alan, he had just done a film with my mentor David Geddes called “Tucker and Dale vs Evil” which I had seen at Sundance that year. So immediately we had something to talk about. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it wasn’t until I worked with him that I knew he was a Texan – I had always thought that he was British based on his work in “A Knight’s Tale” and “Death at a Funeral” – having fooled me on that, I think it goes without saying that he is a super talented actor. He was a ton of fun to work with, as was the entire cast of that movie.

  1. Occupied was dark and mysterious, what the heck made you use that style of shooting?  It was easily the most striking element of the film, what other fun lens or camera additions do you enjoy using? What camera do you prefer to shoot on? Film or Digital?

The swing and shift style of lens was a visual device that I was interesting in experimenting with even back to my time at The AFI, but I didn’t get to use a lens baby until the short film “Blink”. In that film the main character’s life was getting edited and he experienced fits when he was being “cut”, so we used it at a way to try and viscerally connect him to that happening. For “Occupied” it seemed like a good visual device in order to get into Sarah’s mind for her hallucinations. I think it worked really well in both applications, though implemented in two different styles. For “Blink” it was more about trying to get the feeling of his getting pulled out of his own existence and cut up with quick edits, whereas for “Occupied” we wanted to visually access the dreamlike state of these fits and linger in their disturbing ambiguity.

Mollie Binkley who directed “Occupied” really took to that idea, and combined with Liza’s performance and good sound design, it makes for some pretty haunting sequences. Another toy I enjoyed using in grad school was a hand crank camera and I’m always excited to get a chance to use a low angle prism for interesting shots that are nearly impossible to get any other way. For the most part, though, I find the inspiration for a visual approach to a movie from the script and talking with the director, so those toys really end up just being tools to execute the vision that derives from that collaboration on visual design.

I’m quite skeptical that I’ll have an opportunity to shoot on film in the future, a fact that makes me really sad. It’s a wonderful acquisition medium that’s hard to replicate because it is more organic than anything in the world of 1s and 0s. But I do think digital cameras have gotten to a point though where it is difficult for the audience to tell the difference and that had started to seal the fate of 35mm film. There are many digital cameras available in this day and age and realize that there are good applications for a each of them based on a project’s specific needs and constraints, but I would go on record to say that I have especially enjoyed the Arri Alexa, on which I have now shot two features.

  1. Zombies, heck yeah!! What fun choices did you make on Detention of the Dead? What genre of film is your favorite to watch?

“Detention of the Dead” was an exciting project due the tone and genre of the script and the film is a mix between something like “Shaun of the Dead” and a throwback to the 80’s – as it’s a pretty large homage to “The Breakfast Club.” I actually got the meeting with the director Alex Craig Mann (who is a teacher at The BHP) based off one of my favorite short films directed by young up and coming director Bill Whirity called “The MisInventions of Milo Weatherby” in which we really imbued the 80s Amblin visual style. So the 80’s tonal element was very important to the look of this film as well, so important that we ended up shooting on the exact same lenses that I used for “Milo” which we were an old set of Zeiss Standard Speed primes from that era of filmmaking. We had a lot of challenges to overcome due to the ambition of the script in regards to time and money, so Alex and I had to be realistic about what we could achieve in terms of specific visual design. It’s an ensemble movie with lots of blood and make-up effects (created by the extremely talented Dan Philips), so the scenes often needed extra time to prep and a lot of set ups to make sure we covered all the characters. However, we were able to create a neat lighting progression that takes the film from a high key 80’s comedy vibe at the beginning to one of more typical horror towards the end. It was a tough line to balance, but I think we did so successfully because it allows for some of the thrills but doesn’t drift too far away from some of the campy comedy aspects. We also juxtaposed a good amount of handheld work with our longer dolly shots. I think Alex did an excellent job grounding this re-invention of the Zombie Comedy with fun and solid performances from a talented group of young actors.”.

In terms of my personal favorite genre, I am drawn especially to dark comedies. I like things that have a dramatic framework, but aren’t so serious not to have a sense of humor. Movies by the Cohen Brothers and Alexander Payne are more my sensibility, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be the same person without “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” or film noir or screwball comedies of the b&w era.

SXSW Fat Kid Rules The World Questions :

  1. How did Matthew Lillard come into your world and what is Fat Kid Rules the World about? Did you read the book prior to shooting? What was it like working with Billy Campbell?

“Fat Kid Rules the World” was being developed with my dad’s production company, Whitewater Films, after Lillard brought it in as something for the company to possibly co-produce. I had read the script early on and enjoyed it – it is a story about an overweight outcast teenager who is befriended by another troubled teen of a different nature, who finds himself through a band that they form. Lillard initially, shot some scenes from the script with another cinematographer who was attached to the feature, so despite it being something that I might have been a good fit for, it wasn’t available to me at the time. However, when the project’s start date was pushed, the other cinematographer had already committed to another shoot that conflicted with the “Fat Kid Rules the World” shooting schedule. I was in Michigan at the time shooting “Detention of the Dead” so the first time Lillard and I talked about the script and my potential involvement was over Skype.

Unfortunately it was such a quick turnaround for me from “Detention of the Dead” to “Fat Kid Rules the World” that I didn’t have time to read the book. Lillard and I had met before and I had some strong points of view about the short version of the film, which lead to a really honest and interesting discussion about how I envisioned the story visually and where I thought we could take his initial concept further. It ended up being a really good fit, and I’m extremely proud of the work that we did, the film that it became, and Matt’s progression as a director through the process of shooting a first feature.

Billy Campbell was a real pro to work with and helped to add the needed balance of energy in the role of Mr. Billings. He actually wasn’t cast until we were already a week into shooting, so he jumped into a production that was already moving along but didn’t miss a beat. He had great chemistry with Jacob Wysocki and Matthew O’Leary, and was able to find the softer side to a character that is quite stern and complicated. My favorite scene in the movie with Billy is between him and Matt O’Leary when the boys are about to head off to a rock concert. He gives a nicely layered performance beyond what was strictly on the page, and it’s always great to see an actor and director find those intricacies.

  1. Austin is mere weeks away, what are you most excited about for the film? If you can catch any films in ATX, what would your top 3 list be?

I have had both short and feature films play at festivals all over the world, but this seems like the biggest platform in terms of premiere that I will have had. It is super exciting for “Fat Kid Rules the World” because I think it is a film that will garner a strong response. Its always a little nerve wracking when a movie is about to step out into the world, but I am proud of what we accomplished and I think the movie is a really unique and solid example of my work. I’m also quite excited to experience SXSW on the whole from movies to music to all of Austin, a city of which I am rather fond.

Unfortunately I haven’t gotten to fully digest the film line-up yet, but as of right now I will definitely be checking out “Eden” which also stars Matthew O’Leary from “Fat Kid Rules the World” and “Drones” and was coincidentally also produced up in Seattle by some AFI Alums. I also want to see the documentary “Gregory Crewdson: Breif Encounters” because I have found his work so inspiring and the movie “The Last Fall” to support a fellow AFI Cinematography Alum. And I will definitely be trying to check out the KCRW show where an LA band named HoneyHoney will be performing, as well as my favorite new artist of last year, British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka.

Noah’s website click, here.

Fat Kid Rules the World at SXSW.

Conception Film link and Facebook Page.

Detention of the Dead Facebook Page.




2 responses

2 04 2012
Exclusive Interview with Cinematographer Noah Rosenthal « Pearl Snap Discount

[…] caught up with DP Noah Rosenthal, by phone this time, about SXSW 2012 with Fat Kid Rules the World , working with the Alexa, and much much more. […]

12 04 2012
Noah M. Rosenthal – Cinematographer » Peal Snap Discount Interviews

[…] Written Interview: Looking Through the Lens with Cinematographer Noah Rosenthal […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: