The art and craft of cinematography – interview with Amy Bench

July 12th, 2022

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Amy Bench who  recently finished working on three independent films Mama Bears, Shouting Down Midnight, and Lover, Beloved, all of which were featured in the 2022 SXSW Festival. In this interview she talks about the art and craft of cinematography, the transition of the industry from film to digital, the ways people connect to stories, and working on documentaries.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Amy: I always loved images as a child. I loved to make art and take photos when I was young, and after I graduated from school with my engineering degree, I got a job at the film company Eastman Kodak. I worked there for a few years and got a taste of what it was like to work on the technical side. After a while, I decided that I was more drawn to the creative side, so I left that job, but while I was there I learned a lot about imaging science, the technical side of making images on film and digital, and how images are captured on sensors. At that time Kodak was heavily interested in quickly transitioning into the digital space, which was something that they were reluctant to do for a long time – because film is such a money maker as an expendable medium.

So I ended up going to film school at the University of Texas in Austin for filmmaking, and even at that time, I didn’t realize I wanted to be a cinematographer. I always wanted to be behind the camera, and while I was at Kodak, I knew that this is the part that I liked. I like helping to shape the imagery as a tool for storytelling. While I was there, I worked on as many projects as I could, including directing my own films.

Then I moved to New York and worked for Maysles Cinema, a documentary production company started by Albert Maysles and his brother David. I worked for them for a few years, and that was the start of my career. It was a long journey, but once I started working in cinematography, that’s where I stayed.

Kirill: Is there such a thing for you still as the magic of moviegoing experience, or do struggle a bit to separate your enjoyment as a viewer from your knowledge of how it’s done?

Amy: There is a bit of magic, but it’s probably more difficult than your average viewer to get pulled into the story. I am always looking at the lighting and the cinematography to try to see what they might have done to do particular shots. I hate to say it, but it definitely is a different experience now that I work in the industry.

Kirill: Do you think that the debate on film vs digital has been settled? Is there still space to have this debate, or has it been settled by the financial side of it, and by forces outside of the artistic preferences?

Amy: Certainly the financial side was the biggest driver. Once you have your hands on the digital equipment, it’s quite cheap to produce and you’re freer to shoot more than you are with film. With film, you have physical limitations in terms of needing to order enough film stock and having the budget up front, whereas digital is so much more accessible.

I don’t think it’ll ever be settled. It’s the same with acrylic vs oil painting. Some people are still going to choose to use oil paints even though they’re much more expensive and take a lot more time. The medium is dependent on the story as well as the budget. For instance, I take still photos outside of my work as a cinematographer and I shoot on film, and maybe that’s where the magic comes in. I do love the magic of image-making, and there’s something about film that feels more magical to me.

The still camera that I’m using doesn’t have a digital back or anything, and so it’s the magic of getting your film processed and seeing what comes back. You might have a pretty good idea if you’re using a light meter, and you have experience with looking at exposure, but there’s still something about film that is a surprise. It makes the process fun and enjoyable.

I don’t get to do it so much anymore in movie-making. I did shoot film in graduate school because we had access to 35mm and 16mm cameras, and honestly, some of those are still some of my favorite things, especially the 35mm that I shot. There’s just something so intangibly gorgeous about it. Digital has come a long way in the last 10-15 years, and you can do a lot in color grading. Working with film required choosing a film stock that has a certain characteristic, and that gave you a lot of the look right away. With digital, you’re typically shooting flat and you don’t have to commit right away with the approach.

From a financial standpoint, shooting on film may not always make sense, but from an artistic standpoint, it could be the best solution.

Cinematography of “Shouting Down Midnight” by Amy Bench.

Kirill: If I look at it from my own perspective as a viewer, do you think that the aesthetic aspect of it almost disappear on smaller screens like tablets or phones, and most viewers will only be able to tell the difference in a movie theater?

Amy: That’s a tough question to answer. The larger the screen, the more resolution you’re going to have, and the more focus on the grain or lack of grain you’re going to notice.

Sometimes shooting film can also influence how you actually shoot, what kind of coverage you get, how many takes you do, what kind of angles you get, and what kind of risks you take. I don’t know that it’s something that a viewer will necessarily think about when they’re watching it, but they’re certainly going to have an impact. You can look at some of the impressionist painters, and how they would paint the same scene over and over, and use different colors or paint the same scene at different times of the day. The viewer may not know exactly what the situation was, what time of day, or what month of the year it was, but each painting elicits a different emotional response.

Our job is to emotionally impact people. You choose your film stock, your digital camera, your lenses, or your lighting, and those are some of the tools that we use to do that.

Ten years ago people were looking to figure out if it was film or digital, but I don’t know that people are really thinking as much that way anymore – probably because most things are filmed on digital [laughs]. I think the question should be whether people are responding to the film. Are the visuals helping to further that vision of the director? Do you elicit that emotional response from your audience?

Kirill: Do you worry about how the audience is going to connect to the way you choose to convey that story, that scene, that emotion?

Amy: I work a lot in documentary, but it also applies to when I work in narrative. When I’m filming, if I’m having an emotional response, then I know that other people will. It’s true that I’m right there at that time at that moment, but there is something very intangible about people’s responses to a situation. A lot depends upon the talent or the character in your film and their performance, but it’s also where I am as a camera person in relation to them. Am I being respectful of their space, or is this time to get closer and allow others to experience their vulnerability?

In addition to all the planning that went into the shots and the scenes, it’s also about me responding in the moment to how close or far away I get, and how much coverage we need. I honestly don’t worry if the audience is going to respond in the way that I intend them to, because I have this feeling that this is a strong moment. Sometimes I do worry about how it will go through the editing phase, and how those multiple takes will be combined together to move the story along. But otherwise, it’s more of the excitement of being in the moment and responding. I’m grateful that I get to witness amazing moments.

Kirill: At this intersection of art and technology, of finding the artistic expression to convey a certain emotion and knowing how to capture that technically, do you think one is more important than the other?

Amy: You have to have both, and you need to know when to control the impulses of one versus the other. Certainly, in narrative filmmaking, there can be a lot more pre-production, a lot more technology on set, and a lot more people to help you pull off those technological things. In documentary, you have less support and usually less technology, but a documentary film can be equally impactful – if not more so than a narrative on the same topic.

In both cases, be it a documentary or a narrative, once you have the tools at your disposal, you have to forget the technology and focus on the artistry.

Coming up as a cinematographer, it’s important to understand all of the technical decisions that you’re making, and understand the best way to use the technology that you have. That’s where the technological know-how comes in. It’s about being able to best utilize the tools that you have. You may not have the newest camera but you can operate it as a way to perform almost as well by the scenes that you film. You may have a camera that doesn’t have quite the same latitude as another camera, so you might adjust your lighting or the scene that you’re in so that the camera’s deficiencies don’t show.

I think both are essential. If you’re super technical and you have the best gear, I definitely don’t think that that on its own makes a great cinematographer. And if you’re a passionate artist, you still need to learn how to use the tools in the best way. They definitely go hand in hand, but once you’re on set, you have to let the artistry come forward.

Kirill: Do you feel that your field has lost control over how viewers watch it with this variety of screens in our lives? Have you made you peace with it?

Amy: There’s definitely a loss of control. As filmmakers, we all hope that people will get the theatrical experience because that is certainly the most immersive and that is what we all aspire to have. We aspire to have an audience that is completely absorbed into the story.

But at the same time, depending on the content, it’s certainly totally fine to watch it on Instagram or Youtube, or the airplane. When people are watching a movie on an airplane, they know that there are all kinds of other things going on, but they’re also grateful for the experience to get lost in another world because they’re trying to kill time.

It’s great that there’s this plethora of ways to ingest media. Going to the movies during Covid was certainly difficult, so being able to stream things on Netflix or Hulu or what have you is really helpful. We all love the magic of the movie theater, but at the same time, it’s great that people can access media from a variety of platforms.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as enough time to accomplish what you wanted to accomplish, or do you always find yourself fighting against these constraints on set?

Amy: I would imagine most filmmakers would like to have more time. There’s a big thing that we’re constantly fighting against, and it is doing more for less, be it less time or less money. But at the same time, it makes you creative. Whenever you have to do something faster or cheaper than you might have liked to do, you come up with creative solutions.

Kirill: Necessity is the mother of invention.

Amy: That’s true. Having more time for lighting setups or for scouting a location before you get to a documentary set can certainly help the image, but if you go visit the location of someone you’re about to film in a documentary, they’re going to naturally start talking to you. Sometimes it’s good to just get in there [laughs] and start filming as soon as you can. There are certain benefits to being able to work quickly and not have time, especially in documentaries.

I like getting to know people in front of the camera as I’m getting to know them behind the camera, instead of spending a lot of time setting up, and then the magic is gone.

Cinematography of “Shouting Down Midnight” by Amy Bench.

Kirill: You talked earlier about moving in and out of that person’s space. Do you find, especially on documentaries, that you want to become invisible, to have that person almost forget that your camera is in there?

Amy: One of the most important things about being a documentary cinematographer is creating a comfortable environment for the people in front of the camera, and that usually means not having a big crew. I don’t have an enormous camera, and I will sometimes shoot with an Easyrig that helps stabilize and hold the camera for longer periods of time. Sometimes we’ll change lenses. Sometimes I’ll go around and open and close blinds and change light bulbs. I’ll do subtle things, but never in a hurry, always in a conversational way so that the people in front of the camera feel comfortable – like you’re not there to take something away from them. You’re just there to help participate in what they’re experiencing.

I’m in the room with them, and I just happen to have a camera. It’s not about becoming invisible, but rather about making the presence of the camera feel comfortable to them – so that it almost disappears but not quite.

Kirill: How often do you find yourself wanting to jump into the conversation and becoming part of that story? Is it hard to stop yourself from doing that?

Amy: It is hard because in those moments you have to think whether my response going to help the film, or whether it is going to make the talent in front of the camera more comfortable. If it’s something where I can just nod or shake my head, I always do that. Or maybe it’s a rhetorical question that they ask me, and I don’t feel like a response is totally needed, I might smile or do something to remind them that I’m filming.

But sometimes I do respond because they are real people and you’re a real person. I usually take a breath before doing that so that there is a cut point if needed, or they can edit my voice out so that I’m not speaking on top of them. I’m very cognizant of my voice and not wanting to interrupt them. There are definitely times where you need to respond, and you’ll hear that in movies sometimes [laughs], either the director’s question or answer to a subject, and sometimes you don’t hear anything. It’s definitely part of making the person feel comfortable and not feeling like they’re on display for other people.

I do think it’s really important to have a relationship with them and not pretend like you’re not there.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite color?

Amy: I don’t think so. For me it’s the light itself. The hardest scenario for me to be in is in a room with no windows. I love natural light and the way it hits on colors, and it doesn’t matter which color it is. It might be on the rim of someone’s face or on their hair. I love using natural light, whether it’s in documentary or fiction film, and I’m always thinking about lighting because I do want colors to appear rich no matter what the subject matter is. I like the vibrancy of color to shine through. So I do think about color in general rather than a specific color when it comes to that.

Also, if I’m setting up an interview or we’re shooting a scene in a narrative film, I’m always looking at what the background looks like. It might be a set or on location, and I look at the background and the objects in the background. Do they represent the person or the situation in an honest way? Part of the things that I do as a documentary cinematographer is a little production design, using the elements of somebody’s home, for example, and rearranging just a few things so that they do appear on the screen.

When I was in grad school, I was a teaching assistant and my professor Steve Collins gave a lecture on production design to his film students. One of the things he said was that if it is in the room but not in front of the camera, then nobody’s going to know it’s there. I’m always thinking about that when I’m framing up an interview – if we have time to move objects before we film a scene.

I also look at color. I want to make sure that it’s not completely monochromatic in certain situations, or that certain colors don’t draw your eye away from the subject. Red is a tricky color. I’m not opposed to having red, but if there’s something red in the background, there should probably be something red in the foreground too. You want the audiences to focus on what you want them to focus on.

Cinematography of “Mama Bears” by Amy Bench.

Kirill: Do you feel that there are more storytelling opportunities compared to 5-10 years ago, or perhaps they shifted to different formats and mediums?

Amy: There’s probably the same amount of stories to be told, but more platforms to tell them on. There’s more content being made today than ever, as we have broadcast TV, cable TV, streaming services, and social media. There’s content being generated for all of those things, including social media where people are creating their own content.

The type of films that are made and can be made are a reflection of what is acceptable in society, or what people are pushing to change in society. We’re seeing a lot more films by and about women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and people from outside of the United States. The type of content that we’re seeing is getting a lot more diverse in the last five years.

Kirill: Does it come maybe with the downside that it is harder to find an audience, harder to connect and get noticed?

Amy: You said that necessity is the mother of invention, so the more competitive a field is, the harder you work. I’ve been doing this long enough to have an intuition about when something is working or not. I have to choose the projects that I work on, and I want to work on things that I think are going to both be meaningful and have an audience. You also want to have a good connection with the director and the team that’s producing it.

If you’re just looking at it statistically, it’s much harder to succeed. But if you’re also looking at it artistically, the great thing about being a human being is that we have more than numbers to look at. We have experience and intuition and knowing what’s popular in the world or what’s on people’s minds, and knowing if something is going to be impactful. Those are the skills that you also develop as a filmmaker and as a human being through time that allows what you make to still be seen despite there being so much more content out there.

I also direct short films. For me as a creator, my bandwidth is such that I can make a short film, but I’m not quite in a space where I want to be directing features right now on top of everything else that I’m doing. So for comparison, while you might have had around 4,000 applications for a certain film festival when I was in grad school, today that number is around 7,200. It’s the experience of working in the industry, knowing what people respond to, and knowing how to shape a story that’s really the most important part.

Even though there’s a lot more content makers, not everybody is at the same level in their journey of storytelling. The strength of your storytelling is a big component. It’s about how what you’re trying to say is going to resonate with people.

Kirill: You mentioned the diversity of creators and storytellers, and audiences that are looking for such stories. Do you find yourself happy that such audiences are growing? Do you find yourself more drawn into that area of storytelling?

Amy: I’m certainly happy that there’s more diversity. As a female cinematographer, people will generally think of me for female-forward stories. I’ve done female stories, I’ve done LGBTQ stories, and I certainly love to participate in those stories. The films that I direct are largely led by women, because I think we need more female stories out there. So I’m certainly thrilled that that’s the case.

Kirill: Feels like we’ve come a long way from even as recently as 2008 when “Milk” with Sean Penn was a bit controversial in some places as a big feature film about a non-straight character.

Amy: It’s really important to have diversity in media, because a lot of us absorb media and are influenced by the images that we see on screen. So the more diverse that the media is that’s out there, the more accepting of diverse viewpoints and diverse cultural backgrounds people are going to be. It can only be beneficial to have more diverse media.

Kirill: Do you feel that it will still take time to move the needle, that it might take closer to a whole generation until these stories will have a more noticeable impact on a larger scale?

Amy: I don’t know if I can point to just the media or just stories that we’re seeing in movies and on TV, but even in my lifetime we’ve already seen gay marriage go from something that seemed another generation away to almost feeling like overnight it’s accepted. It’s hard to say how long it’s going to take to keep moving the needle, but we have to keep going after it.

People are moved so deeply by films and television. They get to experience vicariously the lives of others. Maybe they don’t know a trans person. Maybe they don’t have that many LGBTQ+ people in their lives. But if they see a film with a character like Milk and the sacrifices that he made to try to create a more equal society for gay people in San Francisco and beyond, that can resonate with people. There’s always going to be resistance to change. Certain parts of the country sure move pretty quickly on some viewpoints, and it make take more time for other places in US and globally.

It’s all going to happen at different times. The fact that media exists, and that people can go to libraries and read books about people that are like themselves is only going to help.

On the sets of “Lover, Beloved”.

Kirill: Speaking of change, do you think this pandemic will have long lasting changes on the industry?

Amy: One less obvious thing that is coming out of it is that people, in general, are deciding what’s important to them, and a lot of people in the film industry are starting to speak up on the toll that filmmaking has on their family life. People for the first time were off of work for a few months or a year, depending on where they lived and what type of work they did, and they are starting to see what they were missing out on.

The pandemic has given film workers a bit more of rebalancing their priorities. There are Instagram profiles where people share their experiences in the industry, and people are sharing in ways that they didn’t. It used to be that you just don’t complain. It’s such a competitive industry, and you don’t want to not get hired because you’re unhappy with the treatment or the hours. But people are being more open about speaking out about hours, about pay, about diversity. I think those things are going to be lasting.

In terms of set protocols and things like that, I don’t know how much is going to be lasting. There are certain productions where I still have to take Covid tests, and I don’t know how long that’s going to go on. Maybe for budgetary reasons, these Zoom calls will continue where the director doesn’t show up, but they are calling in. Just like other business areas have learned how to work remotely, so did ours. That will stick around, maybe not to such a large extent but definitely it’s a budgetary and availability consideration. It’s a lot easier to call in than to fly somewhere.

But I think the biggest change is an awareness of the industry and people’s willingness to ask for what they want.

Kirill: What are your thoughts about the exhibition business? Movie theaters are still in business, but I’m not sure if we ever will go back to these huge back-to-back blockbuster weekends.

Amy: That’s been in decline for who knows how long now. Maybe started around the time when Netflix came out and you could order DVDs to be delivered to your mailbox and not have to go to the theater. Going to a movie theater is expensive. It’s a budgetary issue, and it’s also a convenience issue. I think people are going to watch more and more things at home.

But just like everything else, after the pandemic has been winding down, hopefully for good, people are excited to get out again and see people and have human connection and experience the movies. I was just at SXSW, and the theaters were full. They weren’t quite 2019 levels, and some people are worried about going out, and people are still getting sick, but I think movie theaters will stick around. People are going to still want to see certain films in theaters because there’s nothing quite like it.

Kirill: Do you ever think what would you be doing if you were born let’s say in the 1600s?

Amy: I would probably be a farmer [laughs]. I would probably either be doing a job outside or with my hands. But maybe I would stay up late at night and paint or something. Or maybe a school teacher.

Kirill: If you could go back to the early days of starting in this field, and give yourself an advice to not worry about X, what that X would be?

Amy: Worry is my middle name [laughs]. It’s hard not to be anxious nowadays.

Early on, I told myself to work on projects that meant something to me, because it was my second career. My first career was in engineering, and even though it paid well, it wasn’t fulfilling to me. I realized that I wanted to make sure that every day that I spent working, I was doing something that I cared about passionately. I think I’ve been very good about working on projects that are meaningful to me.

So I would tell myself that it’s OK to do that, that it would all work out if I take that path. I was hesitant to switch careers because I spent so much time in school. I was in school for five years, and then I worked for three years, and you don’t know how it’s going to work out. I was not hesitant to quit my job, but I didn’t know if it was going to work out. There’s not really a defined career path for working in the film industry. A lot of it is hard work, and the connections and relationships that you make with people.

I would have told myself to not worry about where the work would come from, and focus on creating meaningful relationships with people that I was going to school with, and to not take on too many projects at one time so that you can focus just on the matter at hand. I think I’ve largely been doing that, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing it without anxiety that I should be doing something else too.

On the sets of “Lover, Beloved”.

And here I’d like to thank Amy Bench for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, as well as Maddy Myer for making this interview happen. If you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.