Vanja Černjul • Cinematographer
"Even though I'd love to shoot on film more, I’m running out of arguments to use it"
- The Croatian cinematographer, who has worked for the most of his career in the US, gave a masterclass at the Zagreb Film Festival, after which we sat for a talk
Vanja Černjul is a Croatian cinematographer who has worked for the most of his career in the US on indie films, television, streaming services (on projects including Marco Polo and The Deuce) and in Hollywood (most notably on the big hit Crazy Rich Asians). As the main competition jury member at the Zagreb Film Festival, he also gave a masterclass as a part of the industry programme, after which we sat for a talk.
You are a cinematographer who's worked on different types of productions, mainly in the US but also in Croatia. Did you notice any differences regarding the way the work is done?
Vanja Černjul: There are many, many differences of course, not only shooting in Croatia vs. the US, but also in Europe vs. the US. To begin with, films are financed in a different way which necessarily creates different approaches to the way films are produced. One of the reasons why I sometimes come back to work in Croatia is that I like to put myself in a different environment in order to challenge myself to come up with different solutions to similar problems and reinvent myself as a cinematographer in the process. To force myself to stay creative, if you will. If you work all the time in the same system, you tend to rely on similar solutions and start repeating yourself. Another reason is that I have many close friends here who are filmmakers and I enjoy working with them. Many of them I know from my student days.
There are also differences between the way films are made in Croatia and the way they are made in most other European countries. European filmmakers put the emphasis on pre-production and the collaboration of key creatives during that part of the process. That's how they manage to use all the resources wisely and create amazing production value for much less money than their US counterparts. This time to talk, reflect and find creative solutions to production problems is cut shorter and shorter every year in the US. That's why when you see an American movie production in action, we come with 30 trucks, we take 2 city blocks just to park them because we have to be ready for anything. In Croatia, pre-production as a time for director's creative partners to prepare barely exists. I am not sure why this is the case.
You are now working on four streaming platforms, and you also work on television series which are pretty big productions. Is everything set up and prepared for you as a cinematographer?
No, not at all. These days everybody has an amazing screen in their home, so the quality of work, especially sound and visuals, has to be at the level of projects made for the theatre. That technological progress in the way people consume content has forced a change in how these projects are done, and even the type of people involved. In the past 10 years major film directors like Martin Scorsese or David Fincher have moved into streaming because only a film director with his team of film creatives knew how to elevate these projects to the quality previously only seen in cinemas. That was one of the major factors that caused this change in the quality of programmes. The role of the director of photography in designing the visual identity of a show is now more important than ever.
The other thing that has been revolutionary or evolutionary in the last 10-20 years is the digitalisation of filming itself. Does it make it any easier now, when everything is shot digitally?
The transition was very difficult for me initially because I was educated on film capture and I love shooting on film stock. The choice of film vs. digital wasn't driven by us filmmakers and film professionals initially and had nothing to do with the creative choices or even with the technology, there were legal reasons.
The main difference for me wasn't image quality but the approach to the process of creating the image. When you shot something on film you had to wait until tomorrow morning for it to be processed and see what you got. You were creating the photographic image in the three dimensional space and you had to imagine in your mind what the image would look like. You wouldn't know until tomorrow if you nailed it or not. With digital it's a completely different process, you can immediately see the results, and you're basically looking at the two dimensional image on a monitor, and the process is more like graphic design. Once I made the transition and the technology improved, I accepted digital as my capture medium of choice. Even though I'd love to shoot on film more, I'm running out of arguments to use it.
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