Interview with Itay Gross

Itay Gross

Interview conducted by Christopher Maynard

Itay Gross is a cinematographer who has worked on films like Excision and Europa. While his films are varied in genre and style, they are always stunning to look at. Itay has an approach that never feels overpowering. He creates memorable images that service the story in profound ways.

Itay lives in Israel and (if you don’t keep up with current events) he has far more important things to think about than my silly questions. It was truly an honor for him to take time for this interview. He is a generous man who is an incredibly gifted artist.

Where are you from?

I am originally from Israel, born and raised in Tel Aviv.

What did your parents do for a living?

My parents are both dentists.  In fact, no one in my family is in the arts. It’s a voyage I took on by myself.

How did you discover film?

Narratives and stories have always intrigued me and seemed like the most fascinating method of depicting desires, visions and fantasies. When I was 16, I saw Blade Runner for the first time. Looking back, I realize that film introduced me to the art of cinematography and the world of visual storytelling. I was staring at the images, mesmerized by the way Ridley Scott and the Director of Photography, Jordan Cronenweth, had managed to depict this futuristic and postmodern world in such a real and vivid way. I could smell the acidic rain flooding the streets of the mutant city of Los Angeles through the colors projected from the old CRT television set. This significant experience made me see the power and influence of films, and the role of cinematography within the process of visual storytelling. I wanted to be able to bring these kinds of images to life myself, to be able to depict a story in such a vivid and unique way that people would be able to smell it, to feel warm or cold, to feel they were practically there themselves. When I look back at this now, I realize it was a defining moment in my life.

What cinematographers inspired you to pick up a camera?

Jordan Cronenweth
Blade Runner might be Cronenweth’s only film that I like, or love I should say. It changed my life. I saw the images and was mesmerized. All I wanted was to be able, one day, to create such images.

Sacha Vierni
Vierni, who shot most of Peter Greenaway’s films, always amazed me by managing to depict colors in such a vivid and convincing way. The color red in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is the reddest red I’ve ever seen.

Dick Pope
Pope, who shot all of Mike Leigh’s films, has always inspired me with his innovative ways of moving the camera and lighting night exteriors. Naked is, in my opinion, a whole film school of night exterior lighting.

Harris Sevides
Elephant, shot by Sevides, was one of the films that visually influenced me the most. The way he depicted loneliness, solitude, and sadness in that film is like nothing else, and I’m still studying it. His approach to the use of available light is something I’ll always take with me in my career.

Janus Kaminsky
A Hollywood icon. Beyond the unforgettable images he keeps on creating, shooting a film like Schindler’s List at the age of 34 and working with a director like Steven Spielberg ever since, is a career path I’ll always look up to.

Blade Runner is probably the first movie that got me to notice the camera; that shot composition and lighting can be as critical to storytelling as a script. Kaminsky is one of my favorites as well. He has been doing beautiful work for years. One film of his that I think people overlook of his is Funny People. I assume people don’t notice how stunning a film is when it stars Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen but the film is simply gorgeous. What was your first camera?

At the age of 13 I got my first super 8 Sony home video camera. I was fascinated with it and its endless capabilities (at the time). I started shooting everything with it, and discovering the meaning of a “frame” without any guidance or agenda, just a kid experiencing the magic created by colors, light and optics.

I had one of those Sony High 8 cameras. Me and my friends made dozens of unwatchable zombie/post apocalypse films in my parents back yard. I have a feeling the stuff you were shooting looked much better. Where did you go to school?

Undergrad: NYU Tisch School of the arts – BFA, Major: Film & TV, Minor: Art & Public Policy.
Graduated in 2006.
Grad: AFI – MFA in Cinematography.
Graduated in 2011.

Now I’d like to ask you a few questions about Excision. The look of the film is truly stunning. How much input did you have into the visual style and what did you shoot it on?

First, thank you.
We shot the film on 2 RED MX cameras, and a RED Epic for the high speed and steadicam shots. Richard Bates Jr. (the director) and I worked for nearly a year on the visual language and the style of the film. We watched many reference films together, within the genre and beyond, including paintings and photographs. We categorized the reference films by the visual elements – framing, color, camera movement, blood look/color. I’m a big believer in prep and preproduction, and so we worked closely together on a very precise shot list for a few months, trying to depict the film’s narrative in the most colorful, efficient and radical way and making sure we were telling the story properly. We built the language of the film together. It was a wonderful, efficient and thorough process of teamwork. Richard always came in with his initial ideas for every scene, and we took it together from there. The main theme of the film was to illustrate this vast contrast within this troubled teenager, who yearns for her mother’s approval and love.

We had rules for framing – we wanted to create a world of alienation and solitude for our main character Pauline. For this reason, most of our close ups are center punched with a 50mm lens. Very rarely, we would do an over-the-shoulder type of dialogue scene. We wanted the viewers to feel how disconnected from the world Pauline is.

We had rules for colors – Pauline’s real world is a bit de-saturated and muted, just like her life, faded and lonely. This is completely set apart from her dark fantasies and everything that goes on in her mind. We decided to go with a very unique and radical color pallet for the dream  sequences. The contrast between the turquoise of the set and the redness of the blood created a very different world from Pauline’s real world; this is where she is free.

The fantasy sequences in the film are beautiful and seem to be played for comedic effect early on but grow darker as the film continues. Was this the intended effect of the sequences?

Every dream sequence scene was shot and designed in order to create some form of surprise and elicit a measure of terror from the audience. We really wanted these scenes to be very different in every aspect from the rest of the film. The evolution of the dream sequences relies mainly on the narrative progress in Pauline’s life and mind. The intention was to pull the audience out of Pauline’s real world visually, so the look of these sequences is somewhat unified, but the content of these scenes reflects the progression within the story. I think they all have elements of dark comedy mixed with terror, but as the story progresses, and the audience is exposed more and more to Pauline’s personality, the atmosphere grows a bit more grim as we understand what Pauline is capable of.

It feels to me like the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality in the film give us insight to our protagonist’s mind, but also makes the viewer somewhat complicit with her actions. Because the viewer is made to feel sympathy for her, we ignore her thoughts and possible tendencies just like everyone else in the film. Did you have specific viewer reactions in mind
when you were shooting this film?

We definitely wanted to involve the audience in Pauline’s point of view, and thus, to earn the audience’s sympathy and trust for her, in spite of her troubled thoughts and actions. From the get go, we knew we weren’t making a “horror film” per se. I personally define the film as a “coming of age” story, with dark comedy and horror elements. When we shot the film, we had an idea of when people would laugh or be scared, and we definitely tried to be specific and clear with the feelings we wanted to stimulate in the audience in different scenes. For instance, in the final scene, we knew we wanted the audience to be horrified; it was intended as a climax, and so we worked carefully on every detail in the scene in order to provoke these emotions beyond a doubt.

The scene where Pauline is praying is simple but incredibly effective. How was that shot pulled off?

This shot was quite simple, actually, as you said. We shot it on location in her bedroom. The camera was high up on sticks, at a high angle, and AnnaLynne [McCord] was on her knees on the floor. We wanted to give the notion that this is an intimate moment between Pauline and her “God”. We decided on a somewhat God-like POV angle, and had Pauline looking straight to the camera. This, combined with her very sincere acting, created the authenticity and effectiveness of the shot, I think. In terms of colors, we wanted to create the feeling of a “home”, illustrated by a dimmed warm and soft bedside lamp, juxtaposed with a bit harsher and maybe even scarier blue moonlight coming from the window. Even though it’s not “realistic”, I think this contrast of color is a visualization of the conflicted morals in Pauline’s mind.

Do you prefer to work with digital or film?

I was part of the last generation of film students who shot mostly on film. In my undergrad studies at NYU, we shot most of our films on super 16mm. We even had 16mm Steenbeck editing suits where we cut films, literally, just like they used to. It’s a whole different world, learning the basics of filmmaking and cinematography using these tools. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to be able to explore, examine, and understand its superiority and fall in love with film, just before it started to vanish. In terms of colors, latitude and contrast I think film is still superior to digital. In that sense I’m a bit of an “old school” cinematographer. Yes, of course digital will get to the level of film in every aspect, but it’s not the same. There’s something in the grain of film that is just not the same in digital. I know it might sound very romantic and cheesy, but I think there’s nothing like getting film dailies back and screening them at the end of the day.

You shot a music video for Irit Dekel & Eldad Zitrin that was simply beautiful. The use of reflected light on glass was gorgeous it gave the video a simple but elegant quality that was very impressive. Did you know the group or the director beforehand?

Thank you very much.
I did not know the group beforehand, but the director, Roy Eventov, is a good friend of mine with whom I’ve worked on many projects.
It was a very interesting and challenging project. We shot 10 music videos in 5 days – meaning 2 videos a day (!). It was all based on simplicity – that was our agenda. We tried to extract the essence of every song and depict it in the most visual and efficient way. I learned a lot on this project about the power of simplicity in the art of visual storytelling. Sometimes less is much more.

You’ve shot science fiction, horror, commercials and music videos.  Do you have a specific genre of film that you would prefer to work in?

I just love telling stories using the visual language. No matter the genre, if the story appeals to me, I’d want to tell it using colors and light.

With Secular and Europa you were dealing with special effects heavy films. What is the difference between shooting practical and digital effects for a cinematographer? Are you involved with the design of the CGI elements?

Shooting real effects (special effects or SFX) on set is very different than shooting for CGI (visual effects or VFX). SFX means dealing with the effects from A to Z. In Excision, for instance, we had many scenes that involved blood and blood effects. The director, the SFX team and I worked together on creating these effects, in terms of blood color, blood shape and thickness and amount. We did a number of tests in order to understand what we wanted the blood to look like, as it plays an important role in the movie. Then, on set, you get to the real show, where everything has to fall in place together very precisely in order for the scene and the effect to work together. It’s a very “analog” work method, almost like film vs. digital, and I love it. Another film that relied mostly on effects on set is a new feature I shot that just came out in Israel, called Marzipan Flowers. In this film we did a very unique thing – the film is written as an ordinary narrative location film, but we shot all locations on a digital high end stills camera and then printed them out on huge Xerox papers (30ft by 9ft), in real scale to the actors, and thus created all the locations on black and white backgrounds, whether they were interiors or exteriors, day or night. The sets were built in front of the locations backgrounds, all in in one studio. It became a “one location production”, featuring about 20-30 locations. It came out wonderfully. Now those were some “real” on set effects.

The VFX elements like the ones we did in Europa or Sequlr Quarter #3 were all completely different undertakings. In these films it was all about the pre-production, The director, David Gidali (who directed and supervised the VFX for both films), the production designer and I had “pre-visualization” (pre vis) for every effect and element we wanted to bring in later on, meaning that we visually illustrated the scene with all of its elements, including the actors and set elements. We had to understand all of the effect’s features in order to fit it correctly within the scene, and/or on a modified green screen or green element it was going to appear on or replace.

It’s very delicate and precise work, as any mistake can affect an entire scene on set. It’s fascinating to see all the elements come together at the end and become a magical image on the screen.

Again I want to thank Itay for doing this interview. Please check out his work at ITAY GROSS | CINEMATOGRAPHER