Rolls With It

Meet the New Wave / Suzanne Smith

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Rolls With It

Meet the New Wave / Suzanne Smith

Filmography (so far): Samsara (2017, in post), Guardians (2017, in post), Sunset Rose (2015), Corinthian (2014)

When did you discover you wanted to be a cinematographer?

My granddad had an incredible collection of cameras, which I remember playing with from a young age – standard 8mm and Super 8mm (Yashica) cine cameras, numerous film stills cameras, and a Panasonic that recorded onto small cassettes that you’d then put into a VHS adapter so your films would play on the television. I was completely fascinated by it all. When I realised I could do a job working with them, it was all I wanted to do. I wanted to be a camera operator and later learned about the role of the cinematographer during my studies at university.

Where did you train?

I began working for a camera rental company for several years where I learned about camera, grip and lighting equipment, then I went freelance as an assistant and progressed from there. I’ve always studied outside of work and still do –attending courses and seminars with cinematographers as often as possible.

What are your favourite films?

The Illusionist (2006, dir. Neil Burger, DP Dick Pope BSC) – such a stunning film, period done beautifully, but without losing the harsh realism of the time.

Gone With The Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming, DPs Lee Garmes/Ernest Haller) – the use of colour is incredible, particularly the scene where Scarlett surveys the empty crop fields. The barren purple landscape will forever stick in my mind.

Skyfall (2012, dir. Sam Mendes, DP Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC) – I love the depth Daniel Craig brings to the character of Bond. I particularly liked how this film examined his dark side. The cinematography depicted this beautifully.

Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve, DP Bradford Young ASC) – I thought this film was absolutely stunning and effortlessly riveting from start to finish.

What’s the best advice you were ever given?

“Shoot, shoot and shoot. Just keep shooting as much as you can.” Fabian Wagner BSC ASC. A documentary cameraman also once said to me, “Always shoot into the light.”

Stills from <em>Sunset Rose</em> (2015)
Stills from Sunset Rose (2015)
Stills from <em>Sunset Rose</em> (2015)
Stills from Sunset Rose (2015)

Who are your DP/industry heroes?

Vittorio Storaro AIC ASC – his work on The Conformist (1970) and Apocalypse Now (1979) had a huge impact and taught me to really look for that connection with the energy of a story and its characters.

Natasha Braier ADF – for her wonderfully vivid work on Neon Demon (2016). I’m a huge fan of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films and loved the striking images she created for this picture.

Fabian Wagner BSC ASC – who has generously given me advice throughout my career. His stunning work on Sherlock: A Scandal In Belgravia and Game Of Thrones is inspiring.

Patty Jenkins – because Wonder Woman (2017, DP Matthew Jensen ASC) was incredible. A just and noble superhero movie was exactly what we all needed to disappear into in this turbulent political climate.

Roger Deakins CBE BSC OBE – I really admire his work on Skyfall (2012), Sicario (2015) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), to name just a few.

What’s the worst knock-back/rejection you ever had?

I applied to the NFTS and was rejected after my interview. I thought that was it, but I just went on to take a different path.

What have been your best & worst moments on set?

Best: on a very low-budget short with a funeral scene, which I was told would be a small chapel. When we turned up for the recce it was really quite a big church! I had to work out a more elaborate lighting plan with little time and no budget, but we pulled it off and I felt very pleased with what we achieved.

Worst: when I was an assistant on a horror film, doing the board and then realising I had no-where to run before the special effects kicked-off. I got drowned in a fountain of fake blood, and spent the day cold, wet and very red.

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"My granddad had an incredible collection of cameras, which I remember playing with from a young age... I was completely fascinated by it all. When I realised I could do a job working with them, it's all I wanted to do."

- Suzanne Smith

What was the biggest challenge on your latest production?

I recently shot a short on 35mm called Spotlight On Me that is an artistic film

about the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The director wanted the camera to break through a cloud of smoke and track in towards one of the characters against a black background. The shot also had to last for six minutes. We had to find a way to contain the smoke to get the effect. We went for quite a heavy-duty indoor smoke provided by Artem, and built a wall of poly with black drape around it to hold the smoke back for long enough to do the move. I was on-edge for a few days until the rushes came back, but thankfully it all worked.

Away from work, what are your greatest passions?

Running, snowboarding and visiting art galleries.

What one piece of kit could you not live without?

The Artemis and Sunseeker iPhone apps.

Which films are you most proud of to date?

My first feature Guardians, because it was an incredible challenge. I’m also proud of Samsara, a short that we recently wrapped about Buddhism. I loved the concept behind the script and I hope it will translate well in the finished film.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever shot in?

An old courthouse in Wimbledon, which has a jail underneath and stairs that lead up to the docks. The cells have a horribly eerie atmosphere, with etchings on the walls carved by the prisoners. It looks really great on camera though.

What’s the hardest shot/thing you’ve had to light/frame?

A scene in Guardians that had seven actors in a small kitchen performing an action sequence. The walls were painted dark green and dark red, and the cabinets were white gloss. We shot with two cameras and it was a tight schedule, so it was quite tricky to control the contrast and keep it looking consistent.

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Tell us your hidden talent/party trick?

I can rollerblade on ramps – pretty embarrassing actually.

In the entire history of filmmaking, which film would you love to have shot?

Gandhi (1882, dir. Richard Attenborough, DPs Billy Williams OBE BSC/Ronnie Taylor BSC).

What are your current top albums?

Gomez – Bring It On; Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs; The Smiths (self titled); OK Go, Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky.

Tell us your greatest extravagance?

My motorbike.

Give us three adjectives that best describe you and your approach to cinematography?

Prepared. Spontaneous. Instinctive.

If you weren’t a DP, what job would you be doing now?

I wanted to join the RAF. I also like the idea of being a chef, as it combines being technical and creative like cinematography.