Cinematography of "Voir" by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

Cinematography of “Voir” – interview with Martim Vian

January 12th, 2022
Cinematography of "Voir" by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Martim Vian. In this interview he talks about the art and craft of cinematography, the transition of the industry from film to digital, his love of storytelling, and the impact of the ongoing pandemic on his industry. Around these topics and more, Martim dives deep into his work on “Voir”, a series of visual essays celebrating cinema.

Martim Vian (left) on set.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and why you wanted to be a part of this field.

Martim: I grew up in Lisbon, Portugal and I have wanted to make movies since I was a kid. I used to say that I wanted to be an animator for Walt Disney because those movies moved me and I wanted to be a part of that process.

As I grew up, that evolved. The movies I was watching started to change, and we started getting these little behind-the-scenes featurettes of big Hollywood productions on cable TV in Portugal. I would record them on VHS and rewind back to whenever the lights or the cameras were in shot because I was fascinated by how it was all done and why they looked so different from the things I could do at home with my Hi8 camera. My interest was shifting into the technical side of filmmaking before I even knew that there was a job called the cinematographer.

As I got older, this dream of being a filmmaker started becoming a little more real, and I enrolled in the National Film School in Portugal. One of the disciplines you could pick was cinematography, so I did. What I loved about it was the marriage between the artistic side of it – the ideas, the storytelling – and the craft – having to be in command of the tools to do it. And that blend really fits the way my brain works. So, that’s how I got into the field of cinematography.

Kirill: Now that you’re in the industry and you know how it works on the inside, does it diminish your enjoyment when you watch a story in a movie theater as that audience member?

Martim: A good movie or a good TV episode will always transport you into the story and the characters. The cinematography is something that I’m obviously particularly interested in when I watch something, but there are movies that I finish and realize I didn’t pay any attention to how it was made – and that’s a good sign. It means the movie transported me to where it needed to.

At the same time, a lot of what brought me into movies and that interest in the technical side makes me particularly interested in this side of filmmaking. So it’s a mix.

There are moments, especially with streaming, where I might rewind something because I want to understand how they did it. That’s where your job kicks in and you become aware of something that’s being done. This happens in a way that I don’t think would if I was a regular viewer, but a good project will always supersede that. And those are the movies that I really enjoy watching, because first and foremost I’m a film lover.

Cinematography of “Voir” by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: Where do you fall on this spectrum between film and digital as the medium? Would you consider yourself a fully digital citizen of your industry?

Martim: I shoot mostly in digital these days. And most of my professional career as a cinematographer has been digital. I was lucky to work on film in my years in Portugal, both as a student as well as a camera assistant – which I did for five years. So I was lucky to have that experience with film before moving into the digital world.
Digital is in many ways easier to use, and it’s more economical as well. And honestly, most projects simply aren’t able to afford film these days. I love both formats. They both have a place in filmmaking. I don’t think the format has to determine the quality of a movie or series in any way.

I also think they’re just tools. The important thing is to tell a story, to create characters, to move the audience. There was a debate of film versus digital a few years ago, but now I see them as two tools. You pick between two sets of lenses, you pick between different ways you can light a scene, the same way you can pick between film and digital. They’re tools in the box.

And cinematographers, directors, and producers are there to decide where to allocate their resources, where to invest their time and budget, all to better serve the story.

Kirill: Going back to what you said that you love being at this intersection of art and technology, do you place more importance on one of them, or is it a balance between the two?

Martim: It is a balance, but in the end, the technical side needs to be there to serve the artistic side. I have a technical brain, so I enjoy that side a lot, but anything you do at the technical level should serve a purpose for the story. You don’t want your choices to ever feel gratuitous. As far as how they compare to each other, it varies. It varies from moment to moment, from project to project, and from DP to DP.

On one hand the technical side is more quantitative. It’s easier to talk about, to address, to learn, to teach, because it’s math and physics. It’s these things that you can describe to other people. I want a light at this height, at this distance, with this quality – they’re physical characteristics. But the other side of filmmaking is much harder to define and to communicate. It’s also the one that creates a reaction in people.

It’s a balancing act, and the balance itself shifts depending on where you are. Even within the same project there might be a scene where you want to create a space for the actors to perform and not be bogged down by the technical side of filmmaking, so you might design that scene in a way that is technically less complex. You might put all the lights outside the set, for example, so that they can move around freely in that space. And then in the same movie you might have a fight sequence, and those are usually done by shooting little bits of action that only work from a specific angle, and then come together in the edit to make it feel like this thing is happening in sequence when it really isn’t. So, with a scene like that you have to be technical. I find that it depends on the movie, or the scene or the people you’re working with, and what you are trying to achieve. One requires the other. You always need both. It’s just a matter of which one you lean on at that particular moment.

Cinematography of “Voir” by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: The narrator of the first episode of “Voir” tells a story about “Jaws” and how many times she watched it over the course of that one summer. Was there such a movie for you when you were growing up, a movie that you watched dozens of times?

Martim: My brother and I would watch the same three VHS tapes over and over. They were “The NeverEnding Story”, “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom” and “The Explorers”, so I watched those movies hundreds of times. I didn’t even speak English at the time yet, and I knew them by heart. When I rewatch “The NeverEnding Story” now, I have this almost Pavlovian response to the lines, because they are all etched in my memory from watching it so often. They have a special place in my heart because I watched them so many times as a kid.

Then later in life, the movie that I come back to a lot is the original “Funny Games” by Michael Haneke. We were talking earlier about watching movies as a filmmaker, and no matter how many times I watch “Funny Games”, it always sucks me into what’s happening. I always forget that I’m watching a movie. I just watch it and it creates the same effect on me every time I watch it. I’ve been trying to figure out how he does it and I can’t, because every time I watch it I am once again drawn into the story.

Kirill: Your portfolio spans multiple production types, from features to shorts, from documentaries to music videos, and more. Do you find that sometimes the lines between these different types of productions blur a bit?

Martim: I do, especially because the people who work in those fields move back and forth between those genres a lot – the same way that I do. Your career takes you in certain directions, but for me it’s always interesting to try different genres, to do a little bit of everything, to not stagnate or repeat myself. And I think that’s the case for a lot of filmmakers.

That overlap is one reason why different genres can attract all kinds of filmmakers. There’s another side to it now, especially in the commercial genre. It used to play on TV and you would watch them in passing, but now they live online and can be played over and over. In some sense, they are 30 seconds or minute-long short films. So there’s a desire on the part of commercial filmmakers to do work that is really good – that is not just a way to serve a product, but also a way to showcase who you are as a filmmaker.

Cinematography of “Voir” by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: Is it sometimes overwhelming to keep track of all the advancements in the technology part of it, the cameras, the lenses, the lights, etc?

Martim: I wouldn’t say overwhelming because it’s something that I’m very interested in. Some people might want to read the sports section of the newspaper; I like reading the technical articles and magazines [laughs].

There is a lot of info out there all the time. If I’m trying to solve a specific problem for a project, like achieving a shot that needs to work a certain way, then I will go look for the right tool to do it. That’s when I do a deep dive into the technical side of things. Otherwise I read it more as a curiosity, and that comes naturally to me.

So I wouldn’t say it ever gets overwhelming, but there is a lot of choice in terms of equipment and how do you choose if you don’t know what you need? First you need to know what you are trying to achieve, and then that plethora of options becomes a good thing – if you have the time to figure out which one is going to better serve you.

Kirill: Getting closer to “Voir”, how did you join it?

Martim: I did a phone interview with the director David Prior, and we actually talked about those VHS movies that I had at home as a kid. David is a cinephile, and he has all this knowledge about film that spans the world and the decades. We really connected over the movies that I grew up with and the work of Steven Spielberg specifically, whom the first episode “The Summer of the Shark” is paying homage to.

Kirill: Did you know how different each episode was going to be, stylistically?

Martim: I did know that that was going to be the format of the show – that each episode was going to take on a different shape and that they were all going to be different. That was part of the appeal for me. But you never really know how things are going to turn out until they’re done, and my participation in each episode varies dramatically. Cinematographer Alfonso Chin did a lot of great work for the series as well.

Cinematography of “Voir” by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: Was there a particular episode that you enjoyed working on more than others?

Martim: I enjoyed doing all my episodes. We did spend a lot of time on “The Summer of the Shark”, as we were creating a whole narrative from scratch. We were trying to find a balance between being inspired by Jaws, but still make it a story about Sasha Stone and her childhood. It was an interesting challenge to mix those two worlds in a way that felt natural. We wanted the viewer to be watching her story, but to also have all these nods to the movie that she is talking about.

It was interesting to figure out how to pay homage to it without just creating a copy, and also ways to reference the time period whilst still bringing it into the 21st century in some way.

We wanted it to feel like you were watching something that was done now with a bit of a throwback to that era of filmmaking.

Kirill: I loved the transition where the two girls are sitting at the beach in daylight, and then in a few seconds it morphs into them sitting in the same chairs in a drive-in theater at night. What went into planning and executing that sequence?

Martim: It was definitely one of the most challenging shots in the episode. We did it all in camera, there’s no visual effects at all in that shot.

We shot the beach sequence first, and we knew that that shot was coming. So, we had to recreate a little bit of the beach at the parking lot of this drive-in theater, and create a lighting transition as the camera moves to go from a day exterior to a night exterior. It’s a challenging thing to do. Creating a day exterior with artificial light in a way that feels naturalistic is one of the biggest difficulties for a cinematographer, because everyone knows what that looks like. As a filmmaker, I like work that is invisible. You don’t want to call attention to yourself. You want the audience to be looking at the story and the characters.

So to me, it was important to achieve that effect in a realistic way, and that took a lot of resources from my whole lighting and grip department to achieve. Gaffer Ted Rysz and key Grip Lev Abrahamiam did a fantastic job. The art department recreated the beach in the drive-in, which you see from the top down, and as the camera moves, the sand disappears by force of the framing, and a new background of the drive-in appears. At the same time, all the lighting that we had done to make it look like a day exterior at the beach fades away, and all the lighting of the drive-in fades up – all of that happens seamlessly in one shot.

Cinematography of “Voir” by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: Do you want the audience, or maybe some viewers at least, to be thinking of these details?

Martim: I want to make a great movie or a great episode of TV, or whatever genre that production is. To me, that means all the parts coming together and creating something that I alone could never do.

So in that sense, the cinematography can only be a part. It can’t take more space than all these other things. Obviously I want people to enjoy my work, but as a filmmaker I’m always looking to create or to recreate moments and experiences that are human and that people can relate to. The most important thing for me is to achieve a result that is believable, and that can mean a lot of different things.

Believable doesn’t always mean naturalistic, necessarily. Believable just means that whoever is watching it doesn’t get stuck on what I’m doing. I don’t want the viewer to get pulled away from everything else that’s happening to look at what I’m doing. That’s my normal approach to work. I’m always trying to help create a world where these characters can exist. What comes after when people watch it is always a surprise. You never know how a project is going to turn out like. You’re inside looking out while making it, and it’s also hard to look at your work when it’s done. It’s hard for me to be a regular viewer on the projects that I work on. I remember exactly where the camera was, where the lights were, where I was when we were shooting that scene.

When you’re making a project, you can’t be thinking about what people are going to think about your work. You have to work from the script and have that guide your decisions. There’s an infinite amount of things you can do when you start a project, and you need to create these guardrails. You need to focus on the important things that you want to convey. You do that with a director and all the other departments. You create these broad strokes that are going to guide your decision making, and those tend to be about story and character, and not the visuals per se.

You don’t want your choices ever to feel gratuitous, and the way to do that is to ground them in the story, the screenplay, and the vision that the director has.

Kirill: Going back to “The Summer of the Shark” episode, did you find yourself wishing for a bit more screen time to tell that story?

Martim: Netflix didn’t restrict the running time of the episodes, so each episode has a different run time, and that was decided upon based on the screenplay, on what was shot and how it was edited. The runtime that this episode has I believe came naturally during the edit.

It’s a great story. It’s just a glimpse into this emotional memory that Sasha Stone has of that summer, so it’s a poetic approach to a moment in time. I think it works well as a short piece. It has this fleeting quality the way that any good memory does.

Cinematography of “Voir” by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: How was it to be in a movie theater shooting a show about movies?

Martim: It was great. From the beginning David Prior said that he didn’t want to do a typical interview with the guests where they read their essay for each episode. He wanted to be more suggestive rather than descriptive.

So the goal with those sequences was to create something a little more poetic, that also helped structure the series and focus on this theme of love for cinema, which is one of the driving forces of the show. As a cinematographer, I wanted to help convey that feeling you get when you’re in a movie theater, and the lights go down, and you have this experience for a couple of hours.

Kirill: There was this period of time, maybe late last year, or maybe early this year, where I felt like movie theaters as a business might not survive this global pandemic. Are you happy to see movie theaters slowly reopening to the general public around the world?

Martim: Yes, absolutely. It’s great to have access to all the streaming content on your phone and on your TV, but nothing beats the experience of being in a movie theater. I grew up with that experience, and I would never want to lose that.

I’m excited that movie theaters are reopening and that so many filmmakers are really focusing on that experience of watching a movie in theaters. A lot more movies are shot on IMAX now, for example, which was not the case 10-20 years ago. It’s a little bit like when television was competing with movies and Hollywood had to create ways to bring people back into theaters. The anamorphic format was one of the outcomes from that effort. In some way, we’re reliving that and filmmakers are trying to make movies that give you a different experience in a movie theater. As a filmmaker, that’s something that I like seeing.

Kirill: How do you see productions moving forward in this new world. The virus is not going away, but maybe it’s getting to a more manageable state.

Martim: As filmmakers, we’re always going to try to make movies. There were obstacles before, and there are always going to be obstacles in any project. The pandemic almost brought the whole industry to a halt for a while, and it was scary to see and to live through.

But our job as filmmakers is to solve problems. That’s what we do constantly, even on an hourly basis. So I’m happy that the industry is finding safe ways to keep working, even though we’re living through this now. And the more time goes by, the more it becomes apparent that this might stay around us for longer than we thought. As filmmakers, but also as a society, we’re all learning how to cope with it, how to live with it and adapt.

Cinematography of “Voir” by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: What do you think will be the impact on the storytelling part of it? “Alone Together” is your next project, and it does bring elements of the pandemic and the shutdown into its story. But otherwise, I’m not seeing a lot movies or TV shows even acknowledging the presence of this pandemic. Maybe it’s the escapism part of it where viewers do not want to see such stories, at least not yet?

Martim: I think we’re going to start seeing a lot of movies that are about or set during the pandemic. The last 12 months were difficult for any project, so the movies that will reflect this era are maybe not out yet. But I think this will be a moment in time that will be reflected in movies a lot.

And at the same time, we’re in the entertainment industry. People are still isolating at home, and there’s a desire to escape and see a world that we miss and that we long for where this pandemic isn’t around us. That might be one of the reasons why we aren’t seeing too many of those stories yet, because maybe we’re not ready for them as we’re still living through it. I think they’re coming though. I think in 20 years we’ll still be making movies that are set in this time.

Kirill: Do you find it difficult to talk about what you do for a living with somebody who is not in your field?

Martim: I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but you have to pick what side of your job you want to describe, because there’s a lot of facets to what we do as cinematographers.

I tend to say that we help tell the story that the director wants to tell through lighting and camera. That’s not a very technical description, but it helps people understand the broad strokes of what we do. I can get more technical by getting into the daily tasks and explaining how the look of a film is achieved by collaborating departments but what I try to focus on when I talk about my job is that it’s a form of storytelling. That’s always the end goal.

Kirill: Do you ever think what would have happened if you were born 500 years ago, well before cinema existed? What would you be doing to put food on the table?

Martim: Architecture is something that I would be very interested in. I also love cooking. It’s funny because I find that both of those disciplines have a technical side, but also an artistic side to them the way that cinematography does. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to them.

You don’t want the building to crumble, and you don’t want the food to taste poorly. But you’re also trying to create an experience for the “audience”.

Cinematography of “Voir” by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: With the knowledge that you have now of what it is to be in this industry, would you be still making the same choice of going into it 15-20 years ago?

Martim: Absolutely, I don’t think I ever truly considered another career. For me there was this sort of inevitability to my choice. I am very lucky to work in a field that I am truly passionate about. But I’ve also learned that passion for what you do does not mean it’s not hard work.

It’s hard work. It’s demanding on our schedules and our health. People who work in film tend to pour themselves into the projects they’re working on, and that is taxing not just for yourself, but also to those around you. I think there’s starting to be this desire to change how movies are made, and to let filmmakers have a schedule that’s a little closer to normal life. I find that really important, but I’m not sure that will ever happen fully. Our schedules are sporadic. You might be working on a project for several months, and then you do very little the following month. That’s just become the pace of my life, and I think I would have trouble adapting to a five-day week schedule for the rest of my life.

It’s a demanding industry. But most people who decide to embark on it and to stay on it, do it because they love it. And probably because we can’t see ourselves doing anything else.

Kirill: What do you remember when you look back?

Martim: I look back fondly at every project that I’ve ever worked on. Every project has its difficulties, and they help you focus on the important things that you’re trying to achieve. They help you make decisions. And in the end, you have something to show for it, and you always learn something in the process.

You can look back at your work from 10 years ago and realize how you’ve changed and how you do things differently. But that work is part of a process that you’ve been going through, and it doesn’t exist in a void. One project leads to another and that leads to another, and that’s how you refine your work. They are all part of this. The music videos I started shooting when I came out of film school helped me discover a way to light things quickly because I had to be quick. And that has helped me tremendously in my career even to this today.

Every project that you work on has a way of teaching you something you didn’t know you had to learn. It might be difficult. In the moment, you might feel like you have all of these walls to climb and all these obstacles that are blocking you. But, it’s by facing them that you become a better filmmaker and the next time you encounter that obstacle, you know exactly what to do.

Cinematography of “Voir” by Martim Vian. Courtesy of Netflix.

And here I’d like to thank Martim Vian for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and Nathalie Retana for making this interview happen. “Voir” is available for streaming on Netflix. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.