Cinematography of “Frank and Lola” – interview with Eric Koretz

November 16th, 2017

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Eric Koretz. In this interview he talks about the evolution of digital hardware and software tools at his disposal, the changing landscape of the art of storytelling, working on commercials, minimizing disruptions on set, and how film compares to other art forms. The second half of the interview is about Eric’s work on the recently released “Frank and Lola”, a noir romance of desire, infidelity and jealousy starring Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Eric: My name is Eric Koretz and I’m a cinematographer.

I graduated from the communications design program at Syracuse University. I had a design company in school doing graphic design and motion graphics. I moved to Los Angeles after graduating and continued doing the design work. After a year of doing that I realized that I hated it, and that I wanted to do film. So I shut everything down and started PA’ing on music videos and commercials. That was back around 2001.

I also did a lot of still photography, but at that time I didn’t know that I wanted to be a cinematographer. I didn’t even know what it really was. I was more interested in directing and writing, and that’s how I started. I applied to the American Film Institute for cinematography, because I naively thought that I would just learn the camera work, while keeping to do directing and writing. My portfolio was pretty strange – photography and those hybrid projects.

When I got in, everybody else had so many years of experience and it was a steep learning curve for me. But as it went along, I realized that cinematography was all I wanted to do. AFI was a great experience. I learned a lot there from the classes but also from the guest DP’s that would come in to teach, and also from the other students.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: Would you say that the industry’s transition to digital opened up the field and democratized it in a sense? It takes not that much money to get a reasonably good equipment these days.

Eric: When I was in college, those 3-chip CCD digital cameras started coming out, and they changed everything. I started using those for my hybrid projects, and they were great. But I still learned film, and I was shooting video and editing on A/B rollers. AfterEffects and Final Cut were just coming out, but that’s what you had before for editing. You would take two video-tape decks, and cut between them by rolling back and forth. That’s what I learned in college before those software packages came out.

I shot film in under-grad, and I also shot film in grad school. That’s when the first big digital cameras started appearing, with the first “Star Wars” prequel using Sony 900. And after graduating AFI that’s when 5D came out. I bought it mostly for stills, and then fell in love with the video aspect of it. And it changed everything, because you could just go out and have this beautiful quality without paying that much money for the more expensive gear. That opened up a whole new world.

I did a lot of 5D cinematography right when it first started off. I was sort of on the forefront of shooting with 5D, and I think it really helped. The normal process when you get out of school is to crew and work your way up, but I was shooting all the time. I did a lot of documentaries and smaller commercial projects, and started to build from there.

Kirill: Do you miss those days, or the physicality of film as medium?

Eric: I was always trying the next new thing in terms of digital. I love the immediacy of digital. I love to be able to manipulate the image and see what you’re doing live on set. I have absolutely no nostalgia for film, and that’s different from a lot of other DPs [directors of photography]. I love what you get with the new digital cameras. I don’t miss film at all.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: If you look at how the technology is changing in your field, do you think there’s a lot of revolutionary steps ahead of us, or is it more about incremental evolution? Is it close to reach the maximum potential of technology at this particular phase?

Eric: The steps are definitely incrementally smaller. The main camera people are using now is Alexa Mini, which is mostly because of its size and the media that it uses. However it’s an “under-spec’d” camera. The max resolution is 3.4K, but you have to shoot open gate raw to achieve that. People have been using this camera for the last two years, while there are other cameras from RED, Sony and Panasonic that have 4K+ resolution.

It’s really about the color science, and how accurate and natural you get the colors. That’s what I’m mostly interested in seeing improved. Alexa does it beautifully, and all the other companies are improving. That’s why I still use the Alexa. I love the color science.

The push for resolution only matters in terms of how you’re viewing it. Most consumer TVs that are coming out now with decent to best specs are 4K, so it’s only natural for the cameras to progress to be 4K to match that. And the projectors that come out to be used in movie theaters are all 4K. It only makes sense to have the resolution of what your final output is going to be.

Kirill: What about the artistic side of it? Does it mean anything to jump from 4K to 6K, for example?

Eric: Artistically, I don’t think it matters. It’s more about the colors and the color science, to me anyway. I’m not against more resolution. Most DPs don’t like it when you re-frame after the fact, but it gives you the ability to sometimes shoot one size and then crop in or move it around. But it doesn’t really matter to me.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: Going back to the immediacy of digital that you mentioned earlier, how does it feel to have so many eyes that can see what the camera sees on the set right away on all those digital monitors?

Eric: I never worked in a time period where you would shoot, and then see the printed dailies the day after. We did some of that at school, but I can’t speak to the nostalgia of that. But there is something lost.

I just finished a film called “Siberia” which we did in Canada and Saint Petersburg, Russia. On my previous films they would just be sending the dailies to our iPads, and I hate that. You’re shooting a movie for the big screen, and seeing the dailies on that small screen is almost useless. You’re not seeing how it’s meant to be seen. You’re watching a tiny version of what you should watch. You’re missing the intricacies of the performance and the camera work. You should be watching it all blown up like they used to do back in the day.

So I bought a 4K projector and a large screen, and put that screen up on a wall in my apartment. It took up the entire side of the apartment it was so large, and I put the projector over the sink. That allowed us to watch dailies blown-up. Productions don’t budget for that anymore unless it’s a very big film. And it’s helpful, because you really see your work.

That’s definitely a lost art. When everything is immediate, everything is getting smaller. Those dailies on the iPad screen are a casualty of the digital age, for sure. You have to fight to see things like that again, bigger and projected.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: When you’re talking about things been seen the way they were meant to, are you talking about you and the crew, or me as a viewer? Because there are so many smaller screens in our lives, phones, tablets, those tiny screens in the back seat of a car or on a flight where people watch their entertainment.

Eric: Maybe that’s a nostalgic thing as well. When you’re shooting a movie, your intent is to shoot for the movie theater, unless it’s stated otherwise. You want to translate everything you’re seeing to the big screen. There’s a lot of subtlety that is lost when you see it on a smaller screen. Sometimes it changes the meaning of what is portrayed, and the shots can change massively between a big screen and a small screen.

Movies are watched in all the different ways now, but you have to shoot for the original intent – the big screen. Hopefully that translates down to the smaller screens after the fact.

Kirill: Do you feel that it’s harder to have a film that is noticed by the audiences? There are all the big tentpole productions that tend to err on the safe side of things, a lot of mid-budget drama that has migrated to episodic and streaming formats, and so many more indie productions in the last few years. Sometimes those productions don’t even get a chance to be shown in the movie theaters outside of the very few big markets such as LA or NY.

Eric: And if you’re watching at home, the TVs are getting bigger and bigger. Most movies do not make it to the theaters, and even when they do, a lot of people are not seeing it in the theaters. That’s fine as long as it gets seen afterwards at home.

When you’re shooting, you have to be honest with yourself about what the intent of it is. That’s usually out of everyone’s control. It gets bought or it doesn’t. And the same goes for the distribution deals which is so far beyond my control as a cinematographer. As a cinematographer, you’re assuming that you’re shooting for the big screen unless it’s stated otherwise.

If you look at Amazon or Netflix, there’s all these shows that they are pumping out. There’s so much content out there. In terms of choosing a project, you want to choose something that is interesting to you and the audience, something that tells a story beautifully. Don’t sign up to the cookie-cutter stuff [laughs] that can be prevalent out there.

Kirill: Do you think it’s a gamble sometimes? There are so many moving parts involved in making a movie happen.

Eric: It’s always a gamble. You look at the people that are behind making it – the producers and the director. You ask yourself if you believe in their vision and in how it’s going to be made. You see what the bones of the movie are. That’s very important. And then you just hope [laughs].

The first film that I was ever going to do was about $5M budget. We had prepped in LA for about two months, and it was ready to go. And then it got canceled the day before we were supposed to start shooting. All the gear had been checked out, the trucks were ready to roll, and they just pulled the plug for a few different reasons. You never know.

My last movie almost got canceled, and the one before it almost got canceled. It’s a rollercoaster ride, and you never know what is going to happen.

Kirill: From what you’re saying, it’s a miracle if a production gets completed.

Eric: Absolutely. You pick any movie, and you ask yourself “How the hell did that get made?” You see really amazing scripts that can’t get financing, and it’s really arbitrary. They’re looking at foreign sales, the cost of bringing in a certain actor and how much money they think they’d be making off of that, or a sales agent that says that a certain movie will never sell overseas. It’s all about where the money comes from, and who is going to put it in. If they think that it’s marketable and that they’re going to make that money back, it gets made.

Kirill: I like to think about it as being the intersection of art, technology and money. It must be frustrating when the financial side of things interferes with the desire to tell that story, when you have to fight for that story to be told.

Eric: I would tell you that the money part always interferes with telling a story. There’s never enough, or they don’t want to spend it on a certain thing. It’s always an issue, and you have to creatively work around that at all times. It’s never not going be an issue, no matter what the budget of the film is. More money, more problems. But sometimes the limitations create better art, because your solutions have to be creative.

Film is an artistic form, but it’s also a commercial form. Very often, those things combine for either problems or solutions.

Kirill: Does it get easier as you go from production to production to best use that money that you have? Do you have an opportunity to fall back to how you’ve already solved similar problems in the past?

Eric: I’m not sure that “easier” is the right word, but you learn your lessons over and over again. You learn what to look out for and who to look out for. You learn to see what people mean when they use certain words. It’s like any job – the more experience you have, the more you know how to work within the system to get what you need.

Kirill: If we’re talking about the work you’re doing on commercials, would you say that the overriding directive is the client’s need to tell a certain story within a very short amount of time? How would you compare that structure with what you have on a feature set?

Eric: People that work in commercials are generally very different from people that work in features, and they both treat each other’s world as an alien thing.

What I love about commercials is that a lot of time you can try out different creative techniques. You can try new gear and new lights, and work with a different crew. There are a lot of experiments that I’m trying on commercials and then take with me to a movie afterwards.

The prep for a movie is all about the story, and how I can get those images to evoke what the characters are trying to feel and what the underlying story is trying to tell. On commercials, a lot of it is purely visual. It’s more about how the look or the movement can tell the story of what we’re trying to sell. One is selling story, and the other is selling product. I love however when the commercial becomes a pure story telling piece though.

Kirill: Sometimes I feel that a commercial doesn’t have to tell a cohesive story as long as it’s memorable. It might be just a collection of images, but as long as it gets into my head and “guides” me to make that purchase, it was a job well done.

Eric: That’s an interesting point. I personally love the commercials that are on the storytelling side of it. I’m definitely a visualist, and I love strong visual images. But I’m not a fan of an image that is beautiful just for the sake of it. I love when it’s a cohesive story, even when it’s a commercial, where it adds up to mean something in terms of the overall piece.

That’s how it translates to movies for me. Movies are all about the story, what the characters are evoking, and how it’s moving the audience. I try and do the same thing with commercials when I can. Sometimes it really is just the visual part of it.

There’s only that much time that you have on a commercial. Sometimes it has to be evocative and it has to do it quickly. That’s really what it’s all about. Make it pop, say what it needs to say in a quick period of time. So you have to really boil it down to the essence. Movies can be drawn out, and you can take more time to get that visual and tell that story.

There are all these magazines that just show commercial after commercial. I don’t really even watch other commercials, because I don’t want to copy something else. I want it come out naturally so my influences are elsewhere. Obviously, if the director shows me something, I’ll watch that. But I want it to come out of what I do and what the story is, as opposed to what I’ve seen in a hundred other commercials that are copying each other.

Kirill: What about seeing the overall trends and styles?

Eric: I try not to do that. I feel that when I come with my own style, from what I pull from life, photography, videos and movies, that I create something different. I’m not really interested in a race to one-up someone else’s style.

Kirill: The last question before “Frank and Lola” is about what people think that you do and what you actually do. What’s the most common misconception that people have about your field when you introduce yourself?

Eric: Most people in LA know, because everyone’s around someone in the industry here. When I travel or go back home to Boston, and people ask me what I do, they don’t usually know what a cinematographer does. When I say that I’m a director of photography, they ask if I hold the camera.

I explain that I’m responsible for everything you see, and that I’m the photographer of the picture. I might not be physically doing everything in the movie, but I’m responsible for the look. When you say that, people generally understand what it is. And if they’re interested, I’ll tell them everything about what the day-to-day is on set. A lot of people are interested in how it’s different from being a director, and how you work with a director. Most people outside of the industry have no idea how crazy set life is, and what goes on, especially the hours and how you have no life while you’re working [laughs].

Kirill: But it’s also the depth of what you do to find the right visual language to tell that story.

Eric: When they ask about it, most people don’t think about that point. They’re interested in the physicality of it. But if they are interested, I do talk about working with the story, the meaning of shots, how lighting can change the mood and other things. I love it when people ask about it. I’m happy to talk.

It took a while to explain to my parents what I do [laughs].

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: How did “Frank and Lola” start for you? What attracted you in that story?

Eric: One of the producers, John Baker, had produced a documentary I did called “Dragonslayer”. They were shooting in Las Vegas, and they asked me if I wanted to go. I met Matthew Ross the director, and we hit it off right away. We had a very similar background in what we loved in movies. He loved a lot of European films, like Claire Denis and Jacques Audiard, and a lot of noir films. We both had a predilection to the avante guard darker stories.

He sent me the script, and then we met and talked about it. We felt like we hit it off right away. That’s important when you meet the director. It’s important to be on the same page in terms of what you think the look and feel of the film is going to be, and what the meaning is.

And I loved the story. It was noir-ish, but it was real. The relationships are real, but not just something traditional. I loved a lot of elements about it.

Kirill: I keep on hearing about the importance of being on the same wavelength with the director, but is there any danger of hive-mind, if you will, where it’s too similar and people don’t challenge each other?

Eric: It’s not to say that if you have the same ideas or the same point of view, that you can’t challenge each other. There are definitely moments where you have different viewpoints.

But the core of what you’re trying to do has to be similar. Otherwise you’re making two different things. You have to understand what you’re trying to do with the film, and you have to understand what you want it to be about, and what the feel of it needs to be. If you’re too far off on that, it’s going to be an in cohesive movie, at least in my experience.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: What happens during the prep as you take those dry words of the script and start discussing the visuals of the key sequences and places?

Eric: My process usually starts with the lookbook and the research for it. We look at hundreds of films, photographers and images. We start gathering what we like and what we think is the look and the feel of the film in terms of lighting, composition, camera movement and story. We gather the images and build this big lookbook. It ends up being 70-100 pages.

You do character study, think about how you want the locations to feel, talk about the lighting, the color and the mood. That all goes into the lookbook. That lookbook is the culmination of all the prep work. That’s the work that you do in prep.

Once you have that down, you do tests for lighting and composition, if you have time. On “Frank and Lola” we went to each location that we had beforehand. We knew what we were going to shoot, and we went with actor stand-ins. We pre-shot how we thought each scene was going to go, so we had very detailed storyboards of how we wanted it to look and work.

That was very helpful. When you get to set and you have those storyboards, it gives you the backbone of what you want to do, even if the actors change some things. When actors do something different, you go off script and change it based off of something that is better for the story. But it’s good to have that in your back pocket so you know where it can go.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: Specifically on this movie, and in general in your other work, there are scenes that are intimate – physically or emotionally. What do you do to minimize the disruption that the equipment and the crew bring to the set? How do you make the actors believe that you’re not there at all?

Eric: I try and keep a very calm set, even when everything’s going crazy around us. It really is all about the actors, and you want them to be incredibly comfortable. What they do is amazing. They have to perform with all this craziness going around them. The camera is in their face, and lights are all around and on them. I really try and minimize that for the actors when I can.

I try to set up the lights coming from the outside and places that won’t be in the actors’ way. I love light coming through a window or mounted high. I try to not have anything on the floor within the actors’ vision, so that it will make them think it’s the environment they are supposed to be performing in, and not a movie set. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but I really try to make them as comfortable as possible.

Once they are on set, I try to be respectful that they are in character, and not say or do anything that gets them out of character in any way.

Kirill: As one of the key people on set, does your job involve instilling some kind of order in that chaos?

Eric: That’s a very good point. Directors have so much that they are responsible for, and sometimes they lose their mind a little bit. You always need to be their rock, and to be that for everyone on set, really. You need to be calm at all times, and I think that’s maybe one of the things I’m known for.

As a DP, I think you have to be the calmest one on set. Everything revolves around that. Keep it light and playful, but at the same time serious so that you can tell the story in the right way. Even when the director or the producers are going nuts around you, you have to be the one that is keeping things rooted. Someone’s got to do it [laughs].

Kirill: “Frank and Lola” has two main locations, Vegas and Paris. How much visual difference did you want to introduce between the two to make sure that I as a viewer know where the particular scene is, without doing establishing shots all the time?

Eric: Everything in Vegas was locked off and composed, while in Paris there’s more movement with Steadicam and dolly. And then there was a slight shift in colors between the two in terms of the warmth. Those were subtle changes, and hopefully they showed the difference.

Kirill: And there was also the slowing down of the pace when Michael’s character is in Paris (except for the night club), without the disruption and the chaos that Imogen’s character brings into his life.

Eric: It becomes slower and more methodical. At that point he’s planning his next moves and how far he is going to go.

Kirill: How hard is it to find the balance between doing different visuals in the same story and not taking it too far?

Eric: It’s all part of the prep. You decide how far you want to go in telling the story in terms of what the changes are. We went hand-held for the fight instead of keeping it locked off. We changed the shutter speed, and it all depends on how far you want to go using the film language to change the emotion. The story changes and sometimes you don’t just want it to happen in front of the camera. It’s always a balance.

We chose to be more subtle in “Frank and Lola”, because we didn’t want to spoon-feed the puppy, as my gaffer John Buckley says. I prefer more subtle differences, but it changes based on the picture.

Kirill: How much of the intended visual look do you try and capture in camera, as opposed to color grading in post which doesn’t necessarily involve the cinematographer?

Eric: We had a standard LUT, which is a Look-Up Table that encodes the colors within the camera or on the digital intermediate, and how those colors are manipulated when you see them on the screen while you’re shooting. I had a flat table, and lit it how I wanted to light. The color changes in post were subtle, and it was more about accentuating what we already had.

I don’t usually change something completely in post. I try to do it in lighting as much as I can, and then accentuate and improve it in post. I’ve done a lot of color correction, and I know what I can do in post on movies. On “Siberia” we had a very truncated shooting schedule, and we were not allowed to do any overtime. I had to let a lot of things go lighting-wise because I knew that I could change things in post. But on “Frank and Lola” we knew what we were doing and we were so precise, so we pretty much lit it how we wanted. We just made it a little bit sweeter and better in post.

There’s so much you can do in post now, which is why shooting raw is important. You can change the color temperature, and you have all the image data that you need for color correction. I always try and shoot raw whenever I can.

Kirill: How would you compare film to other art forms as far as how it is experienced? There’s not as much physicality and tangibility as in other forms such as painting or sculpture, apart from this shiny disk that you can hold in your hand and say “This is what I did.”

Eric: It does make it temporal in a way, except that all our lives are on screens now. It’s always accessible, and it’s always there. I come from a digital background, be it graphic design or photography, and physicality wasn’t part of that life. I don’t have the fleeting nostalgia of having to touch something in terms of my film work, but maybe that’s why there are these great artists building video installations, like Doug Aitken and Bill Viola.

By nature, it doesn’t exist. It’s on your screen. I have a BluRay player, but even that now feels somewhat antiquated. Everything is just a download nowadays. Physicality will probably be completely eliminated within the next few years. It’s an interesting thought, but it doesn’t bother me.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: Now that some time has passed since you’ve finished working on “Frank and Lola”, what stays with you?

Eric: It all sticks with you. Making movies can be a very painful experience [laughs]. It’s long hours, and you’re in a foreign place for a long period of time, away from home. Being on a movie set is crazy. Everyone’s away from home, everyone is working long hours, and memorable stuff happens.

It always stays with you, and you always build on that experience. You take it to your next film, and the next film is even crazier or more memorable. It’s such a hard experience, and it never leaves you.

Kirill: Do you think it takes a certain mindset to survive and thrive in such an atmosphere?

Eric: Every day is something different and super intense. It’s always changing, and it’s really hard. You’re working long hours, and you have to be very dedicated to what you’re doing. Unless you’re doing a TV show that’s on same stage, it’s never monotonous or repetitive. It definitely takes a certain mentality to love the film world.

But I don’t think I can do it any other way. I can’t do the same thing over and over again. I get bored, and I need that variety and challenge. I thrive off of that.

On the sets of “Frank and Lola”. Courtesy of Eric Koretz.

Kirill: And all those foreign places, if you remove the long hours, can be pretty exciting.

Eric: Right, but not with the long hours or staying in a hotel for that period of time.

Kirill: If you look back at people who were with you during your studies at the AFI, how many stayed and how many left the field?

Eric: In terms of the cinematography department, I think pretty much everyone is working in the field in some way. But it’s a very tough business to stay with and get work. You do because you love it, and there’s really no other option.

Kirill: That brings me to my last question, as you were mostly talking about the negative sides of the business in your last couple of answers. On the personal level, what makes you stay in the field despite everything that you’ve mentioned?

Eric: Maybe I like that craziness [laughs].

I’ve always loved photography. I’ve always loved imagery and creating something for the audience through image, motion or design. That’s what keeps me going. As we are shooting, seeing what comes up on the screen gets me excited. What more can you ask for than that?

Kirill: Is there such a point in time that the collective we are going to run out of interesting stories to tell?

Eric: They’ve been telling that since the beginning of humankind. Until we destroy this planet, as long as humanity evolves, so will storytelling. Of course the end of the planet feels like it could be coming sooner than later. So maybe we will run out soon? I’ll put my camera down then.

And here I’d like to thank Eric Koretz for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had on the art and craft of cinematography and on what went into creating the worlds of “Frank and Lola”, and for sharing the supporting materials for the interview. You can find more from Eric on Twitter and Instagram.

“Frank and Lola” is out now on BluRay and other physical and digital formats. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series. Stay tuned for more interviews in the near future!