Cinematography of "Spinning Gold" by Byron Werner, courtesy of Hero Entertainment.

Cinematography of “Spinning Gold” – interview with Byron Werner

March 30th, 2023
Cinematography of "Spinning Gold" by Byron Werner, courtesy of Hero Entertainment.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Byron Werner. In this interview, he talks about balancing the art and the craft of visual storytelling, the transition of the industry from film to digital, choosing his productions, and what he considers to be a successful project. Between all these and more, Byron dives deep into his work on “Spinning Gold” that is hitting theaters tomorrow.

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

Byron: My name is Byron Werner and I work as a director of photography. I work in feature films, commercials, music videos, as well as a background in documentary, sports, television and other facets of cinematography.

I went to a Catholic school with a little closed-circuit television system, and that’s how I got interested in capturing images. Some friends and I would go write and make stories, and I was more interested in shooting. Shortly after that I got a video camera and started making my own little movies, and it kept going until I was in college. I applied to a few film schools, and ended up settling on Chapman University which is a film school in Southern California.

Once I got to that school, I realized that cinematography was the path that I wanted to take of all the crafts, or all the different job options. So once I did that, I did my four years and I tried to shoot as much as I could. I shot a ton of short films. I even shot a couple feature films, and just tried to build a reel and shoot as much as I possibly could.

After finishing college and trying to get a job as an AC or electrician, I started shooting, and I would PA a little bit on the side. I worked for a company at that time called Rap Patrol where they would hire us to come in and wrap big music videos. We would go and pull cable and clean up as they were shooting, and it was the hardest work you can imagine [laughs] – but I made money and I got to see all these giant music videos and these crazy big productions being made. I learned a lot and made a few bucks, and then on the side was able to go shoot movies for other people as a DP and kind of learn that way.

Kirill: How did the transition from film to digital treat you? Probably you started in the film only world and now it’s predominantly digital.

Byron: I started in the film-only world. I used to shoot a lot of really small, low-budget movies. I’d say my first 15-20 movies were on film, either 16mm or 35mm. We didn’t have a lot of money to buy a lot of film, so maybe we would get 20,000 feet of 35mm at a ratio of 1.5 to 1, so you had to be very judicious of what you shot [laughs].

At the beginning I didn’t like that transition. Film was such an amazing medium, and there was just nothing that came close to it. There was Panasonic VariCam back in 2001 which shot 720, and you had the Sony F900s, there was DV cams and then various digital cameras. And none of them were good enough. And it was hard to be able to use a real cinema lens. There were all kinds of weird ways that you’d have to find an adapter to use cinema lenses. It wasn’t a great transition when it started, but since then it’s been excellent when all these amazing digital cinema cameras have come out. Now there are so many to choose from.

I love film. Would I shoot film again? Sure, probably like riding a bike, I could do it. But do I need to? No. I love digital, I love seeing it right there, I love what you get, I love the cameras. I’m a big Alexa fan, but also from time to time I shoot RED or Sony Venice or Blackmagic. These cameras are amazing these days, and I really like digital cameras. I’ll also say a thing that may sound crazy, but sometimes film grain bothers me now. When there’s a little bit that we put on the digital, it’s fine, but when it’s really grainy – I don’t know. It’s not the same as it used to be. I like a cleaner image for the most part.

Cinematography of “Spinning Gold” by Byron Werner, courtesy of Hero Entertainment.

Kirill: You straddle the boundary between the world of art and the technical world. Do you think that anybody can be taught the technical side of it, and do you think anybody can be taught to be a good or a great artist?

Byron: I would think you could teach the technical side to anybody. It’s just something that you have to wrap your head around. I understand technical things in cinematography better than I understand physical things like construction, for instance. I can go into a computer or into camera menus and figure something out. But if you ask me to build something, I can probably do it, but it’s going to take me longer and it’s not as innate to me to be able to figure out the angles and figure out how it’s going to be done. I don’t picture it the way I do it with cinematography. But probably, if I spent a lot of time building things and got more experience, then I would learn how to do it. So I imagine that anybody can learn the technical.

The artistic side is a really interesting question. I always felt like I have a natural ability to see framing. I always thought that anybody could do it, but then I watched some friends or people frame something and it doesn’t really work, or it’s weird, or they don’t get the aesthetic of what it should look like or what is interesting. You can teach that to somebody, but there’s certain people – and I hope that I’m one of them – that the actual framing and the artistry is something that’s inside you and comes naturally.

Kirill: On the other hand, is it possible to objectively say what is good art and what is not?

Byron: I see that side of it, and the thing about art is whatever is good art often changes. If you look at cinema in the 1970s or even before from the beginning of cinema, it was not art to have a flare, and now it’s art to have a flare. It wouldn’t be art to have a lot of headroom, and now it’s art to have a lot of headroom.

And who’s to say what is art. I think that there are certain things that when you try to frame something or look at something or light something, that’s going to speak to people. And there are certain things that aren’t. Whatever you do is going to be considered art as long as it has intention, and has the intent of what you’re trying to do, the story you’re trying to tell, whatever you’re trying to have come across. Something that’s art and amazing to one person, may be just craft to somebody else.

You can claim you’re an artist by making art. Now whether you’re a good artist, that’s totally subjective as you said. But if you’re doing it and you’re making art, whatever that is, as long as you feel like it’s art, as long as your intent is to make something that yourself or somebody else can enjoy, then you can call yourself an artist – or other people would call you an artist. But then again, who cares, it’s just a title. It’s just a name. It doesn’t even matter, as long as you’re doing what you’re doing. If you’re lucky enough, in our case, to make films, then that’s all that counts.

Cinematography of “Spinning Gold” by Byron Werner, courtesy of Hero Entertainment.

Kirill: Getting to “Spinning Gold”, what drew you to it? And also on a more general level, how do you see perhaps on a more philosophical level which productions you get to work on where your availability needs to match with the production availability at the exact moment in time?

Byron: To your second question about how it lines up and whether it’s meant to be or not, that is probably something for big budget movies. When you’re working on independent movies, oftentimes as a cinematographer, I may work with that director specifically, or because you like the script. So you may work with them basically for free for a year or two years, and you may develop it with them and throw ideas around. So then, by the time you shoot, you’re so involved in the project together that you make the schedule work for each other because you’re so entrenched in it. That’s what it takes to get the movie done on a smaller budget or an independent production. It’s more about the hard work than it is about the luck or being at the right place at the right time.

There are also a lot of projects that just pop up, where I may be on a commercial or music video or otherwise engaged, and then this movie comes up. Now whether you get to do it or not, I do believe that everything’s meant to be. If you’re meant to be on the project, then you’re going to be available. And if you’re not, then you probably weren’t meant to do it. There’s just so many different projects and opportunities that come up. It’s impossible to take absolutely everything. It’s a little bit of luck, a little bit of meant-to-be, a little bit of having the director of the producer wanting you bad enough that they can fudge it a little bit so that you end up being on the project because they can’t see it happening any other way.

Going to “Spinning Gold”, the director Tim Bogart and I worked on a movie together a few years ago. He was the producer and I was the director of photography, and when we finished, he gave me the script for this movie. I read it and I loved it. I’ve done mo its, and I’ve done a lot of music videos, and this was a great opportunity to shoot a great script and a great story, and to tell the origin story of so many great artists. It was an opportunity for me to take my experience doing movies and music, and combine them together. To me it was a dream come true to be able to do that, and to do that for a movie where every single song is something that not only I grew up with, but my parents grew up with and passed it down to me.

Tim gave me the script early on. He had done a lookbook early on, and then I went back and did my own lookbook. We compared ideas, we would meet for lunch, we would talk about it. We spent a lot of time, around two-three years before the movie got made talking about the movie, and figuring out how we were going to make the movie. It was pre-pre-production of a sorts.

You never know when that opportunity is going to be there for an independent movie. So once that opportunity was there, I ended up with about five months of prep, which is amazing for a small independent movie. Then we had 35 days total, which is not a long schedule. It was enough to make a good movie in my opinion, but you always want more time.

Cinematography of “Spinning Gold” by Byron Werner, courtesy of Hero Entertainment.

Kirill: How did you approach evolving the look from the ’50s to the ’60s to the ’70s, as the story jumps back and forth between these decades?

Byron: The idea always was that this movie was told from a camera and lighting standpoint from Neil’s memory and from his perspective. We wanted the audience to feel like he was telling you what he wanted to tell you and what he remembered. Some things he embellished, some things were true, some things were a little blurry because it was a long time ago or because there was drugs involved.

So the farther it goes back in the ’50s, it gets a little bit more desaturated, and there’s a little less color built into the production design. In post-production we gave the gum balls in the ’50s a little bit of a pop of color, and the same for the blood on his dad’s face. The idea was that it’s a little more muted as it’s so far in the past. But he remembers certain things. There are certain things in his head that pop, that he wants you to see.

As it moved into the ’60s, we added a little more saturation. It was a little more monochromatic. We had earth tones built into the production design, into the costume, into the lighting that had a little more of a warm feel to it. And then once you get into the ’70s, which is the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, we added more color in. That music brought more color that we tried to infuse into everything, from the production design to the costumes to the lighting. I think that served the story, what he was trying to tell us, what his memory would remember.

Kirill: Did you want any particular, more distinct look for when they moved to California?

Byron: There wasn’t a big different in look between New York and California. We were evolving the look from the ’50s into a different look of the ’60s and then into another look in the ’70s. This movie moves itself through the different decades, and the story interweaves a little bit until the timeline finally catches up – around the scene where they are on the rooftop and they find out that Donna Summer didn’t sell. If you added too much difference between New York and California, it may have just gotten a little too mushy, and it would have been a little too confusing because the story bounces around. So we try to keep it the different distinct looks, but not go too crazy so that it didn’t confuse people.

Cinematography of “Spinning Gold” by Byron Werner, courtesy of Hero Entertainment.

Kirill: Speaking of Donna Summer, there are these little glimpses that build towards the big flashy performance with all the lights, the mirrors and the sequins. How much time did you spend on that big sequence?

Byron: That took a lot of planning. It starts with the mirrors when he’s making Donna Summer from LaDonna Gaines, and then it pays off when she’s singing “Dim the Lights” on stage – and that starts behind the curtains before she goes on in the Hollywood Bowl with her daughter. There’s a lot of careful planning that goes into the movie in general, and there was a lot of technical planning that went into the mirror sequence.

Our production designer John El Manahi and set decorator Tricia Peck brought in that amazing curtain, and it looked beautiful. We were trying to give it something interesting that looked different from all the other performances. It was a happy accident, really. We were going to shoot this backstage sequence with her and her daughter, and we were going to do in a black void behind the scenes at the Hollywood Bowl. Then all of a sudden we had the spotlights on, and we were shooting through that sequin curtain. And the light just looked amazing and it was not intentional. We were back there and we saw that we needed to use this as the backlight to create that beautiful dappled light.

Then we were able to go right into her out on the stage, and use that same curtain and those cool reflective gold discs to also have Neil back there as he’s watching her. That was one of those film moments where it all came together and it was a great team effort, but it wasn’t necessarily intended to be exactly like that.

And yes, we do flash to her a lot at the beginning, because she’s the through line. He’s trying to figure out what is it about this song? He knows it’s a hit, but it’s not working, and they figure out it has to be longer. You see it at the Century Plaza party, and then you also see it when he sits down listening to her song, where everything turns red and he flashes forward. That was all planned to highlight the idea that Neil sees all the music, but he just doesn’t know exactly how to put it all together. He sees what these people are going to be. He can see the music, he can see that it’s going to be a hit, and that’s why he bets and he believes in it. Some of those devices were interesting and fun to play with.

Kirill: One thing you mentioned is that he’s narrating his own version of his own story, and that is something that took me a little bit of time to see. I remember back in late ’90s when VH1 started their “Behind the Music” series where artists talk about their own music and their own career. And here you probably wanted to elevate the visual look of it to be a bit beyond the documentary feel.

Byron: We struggled a bit with that idea. Where is he? Is he in some kind of space? Spoiler alert – he’s dead and he’s talking about his life. Is he in heaven? Is he somewhere else? Who knows. He’s your unreliable narrator telling you not exactly what happened, but what happened from his memory, from his perspective. He’s the ultimate showman showing you his version of what happened, which is going to be the highest highs and the lowest lows.

We settled on that it should be in his office, and that he’s going to tell the audience part of the story. But instead of looking into the camera, he’s looking off the camera a little bit as if he’s talking to an interviewer, or talking to somebody who’s there, whoever that person is. And slowly throughout the movie, he is telling bits and pieces, while he shows it to you – until the absolute last moment where he looks into the camera for the first time and tells you that he’s dead, and explains that he needed a little bit more time.

I hope that people appreciate that device, that he is the narrator, that he’s dead and he’s telling you this. He’s not a ghost. He’s wearing this white jacket, the windows are often blown out, everything’s a little angelic, and it’s nice because it teeters on a little bit of reality, and it teeters on a little bit of magical realism. Once you find out he’s dead, he teeters in the camera, he turns around, now he’s in a tux, he’s got different light on him, he goes into his little purgatory singing with Donna Summer. Why she’s there, I don’t know. But it’s interesting and it’s fun and she takes him into it, and pushes him into to heaven to rest in peace at the end.

I hope it works, because it’s a tricky thing to do. We didn’t want to hit anybody over the head with it too much, but we also wanted to have him be able to tell this story, and hopefully surprise the audience that is no longer alive.

Cinematography of “Spinning Gold” by Byron Werner, courtesy of Hero Entertainment.

Kirill: What would be your pitch for people to go and watch it on the big screen in a movie theater?

Byron: The reason to watch this movie on the big screen is because of the music. It sounds great, it has amazing music, it’s mixed in Dolby Atmos. But unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Rocketman” or “Respect”, you’re not talking about one artist. You’re talking about multiple artists. You get these great performances from these amazing artists who are singing these songs – and not only the songs that you’ve already heard, but their own versions of it. You’re getting something new, and it feels like a big screen movie because it sounds like a big screen movie. I hope the visuals hold up on the big screen for everybody, and they feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth. But the sound and the music is definitely going to hold up. It’s going to be an experience that you’re going to want to have.

I know people have their own great sound systems in their house and all that. But this is a movie that you can go to the theater, and you’re listening to songs that everybody knows, and you can sing along. It is a shared event. Music is something that brings people together. You could be with your spouse or your friends or whomever in a small environment, but in a theatrical environment it’s a communal experience. People can enjoy it together, and walk out and hopefully have something to talk about, and they certainly will be humming these tunes and bringing up their Spotify or Apple playlists.

Cinematography of “Spinning Gold” by Byron Werner, courtesy of Hero Entertainment.

Kirill: Stepping out of this movie for the last few questions. Now that Covid has been in our lives for about three years, do you see the industry almost getting back to what it used to be, or do you see big changes taking place going forward?

Byron: I don’t know how it’s going to be going forward. All I know is that when we made “Spinning Gold”, it was much easier than the movie I just finished. During “Spinning Gold” we all had to wear masks everywhere. Now, nobody has to wear masks in their personal life, but they have to wear them on set. So it’s a tough one. More people got Covid on my last movie than they did in the height of Covid when everybody was careful.

I hope we can find a way that keeps people safe and is responsible. And I hope that we can match whatever the world is doing, because it’s difficult to be so locked down on set, and then see everybody running around afterwards with their masks off, going to public transportation, going to their families. I don’t know what to expect, but I hope it’s something that can be consistent and be good for everybody. It’s really hard to make movies right now in this fashion. You don’t know what you’re getting and you think you’re safe, but then you’re not.

I just finished the movie in Europe, and we had a bunch more Covid cases than I’ve ever had. What I hope in life and what I hope in our industry is that maybe you don’t have to wear masks. But if you feel slightly sick, but you’re still able to come to work, that you feel comfortable putting on a mask and that people feel comfortable being around you with a mask. If we could get comfortable wearing masks and we don’t feel well, but we feel good enough to go to work, then I think everything can be much better. If people feel like it’s a stigma to wear a mask and they’re not going to stay home, then nothing’s going to get better, and we’re going to end up with the same position.

Kirill: What do you consider to be a successful project, a successful production?

Byron: A successful production is something that I can be proud of, something that I’m happy to show people. On the flip side, I always measure success by exhibition and eyeballs. I feel like people need to see your work. It goes back to your philosophical art question of what makes art. Is it art if nobody sees it? Is it art if you just do it? Sure, absolutely. But for me, it’s always been most successful when people get to see it.

I make art for myself, but film is a visual medium of storytelling, and I do it so that other people can enjoy the art and can enjoy what we do. I find it overall successful when there’s eyeballs on something I do, and people get to see it and enjoy it. I don’t make movies or anything so that ten people can watch it on YouTube or in a conference room somewhere. I try to make things so that it gets a wide audience. That’s always been my goal and my measure of success.

Cinematography of “Spinning Gold” by Byron Werner, courtesy of Hero Entertainment.

Kirill: What keeps you going and staying in the industry? I imagine the hours are long, and you might be away from family and friends for longer stretches of time than in most other professions, probably.

Byron: It’s true. I was just talking to my wife about this today. I was gone for six months on my last movie, and it’s quite stressful on the family, and you have to choose which projects you’re going to do.

What keeps me going? I lay in bed at night as a kid staring at the ceiling thinking about making movies. I love to make movies. I dreamt of making movies just like Neil Bogart in “Spinning Gold”. He’s a dreamer. He’s trying to help other artists, but he’s a dreamer himself. And so I like to think of myself as a dreamer too.

I’m not done. I certainly have not reached any pinnacle or where I would want to be in my career. I’m very happy. I’m very lucky. I feel so thankful that I get to do this as a profession. But I want to continue to do it, and I just love doing it. No matter how hard the hours are, no matter how hard the movie is, no matter how hard it is to be away from your family, I’m making movies. That’s the coolest job in the world. There’s a million other jobs. I could be digging ditches, and not to knock anybody else’s job, but there’s a lot of jobs I could be doing that aren’t fun. I always tell my kids that if you’re going to do something, find a job that is your hobby, because nothing’s going to make you happier than being able to do what you love. And I do what I love. My job is my hobby and that keeps me going every day.

I can’t do it any other way. I don’t know how to be somebody else, and I don’t know how to turn all that off. Could I do a corporate job or something for money, and turn it all off? Yes. But when it comes to making movies and other projects, I don’t have a choice but to put my whole heart into it. And because I love it so much – and I’m sure that could be a downfall – there’s also strength in that too. I don’t know any other way. I count my blessings and I’m thankful every day that I even have this opportunity.

Cinematography of “Spinning Gold” by Byron Werner, courtesy of Hero Entertainment.

And here I’d like to thank Byron Werner for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and Isabella Brock for making this interview happen. You can find Byron online on Instagram. “Spinning Gold” is coming to theaters 3/31. 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.