(Feature image still poster courtesy of Anton Corbijn)
Lift-Off caught up with Cinematographer Martin Ruhr to discuss his influences, career and his top tips for every Cinematographer.
Martin Ruhe is known for his work on Daniel Barber’s ‘Harry Brown’ and Anton Corbijn’s ‘ Control ‘ and ‘ The American’. Alongside his outstanding work on feature films he has worked on music videos for Depeche Mode, Cold Play, Herbert Groenemeyer and more. Ruhr is also known for his commercial work for BMW, Honda, Stella Artois and more. Martin’s demonstrates undeniable talent making his advice and story value able to any budding cinematographer.
I understand that you started out your career shooting promos and music videos for Herbert Groenemeyer but what attracted you to being a DOP initially?
I grew up in a small German town, with parents that had nothing to do with creative work. I first discovered the cinema for myself at 13 and fell in love with it. I began to work in order to pay for cinema tickets. When I finished school I decided to give it ago and wanted to become a director. The fastest way I found to educate myself in film was to complete a two year course to become a stately approved focus puller. I didn’t know at the time this course was made to provide the next generation of TV cameramen. However the one year practical experience required prior to the course was extremely valuable.
I moved away from the school in Berlin to London, eventually I found work as a runner at a camera rental leading me onto a motion control studio. During my weekends in London I would visit sets at any chance given. This was the very first time I became aware if the work of a cinematographer and instantly I knew that’s what I want to do. This has never changed since then. I guess all people looking in from the outside of film want to firstly be either a actor, director or producer as these are the people we hear the most about.
Currently what does your day-to-day consist of?
That changes very much. I just finished my first US tv show a couple of months ago and am now doing commercials again for a while. So either I am preparing for a commercial, reading treatments and or doing research or I am on a job which means I am shooting or preplighting.
I also have couple of screenplays to read, if like any of them I will then start a conversation with my agents, the director and producers. It is important for me to take into account my family when picking a project as for a recent TV show I worked on, I had to spend 5 months away from home. This is why I like to do commercials, music videos as well as long format because it is versatille and also it allows me to wait for the right movie.
What is your favourite thing about your job?
That you create something with a group of people. Once the job is done there is your work out there which has its own life. The best results are usually when everything comes together in the best way. Meaning you take a lot of decisions, you have a lot of circumstances to deal with from weather, schedule, budget over personality to creative choices.
This is my favourite thing as when it all works out and you sit in a cinema and you feel that people around you are moved the way you hoped that is so powerful and beautiful.
Who are your inspirations?
There are some great cinematographers whos work I admire. The obvious Roger Deakins, Chivo Lubezki, Greig Frazier and also Bradford Young. Then there’s photography. I learned a lot by working with Anton Corbijn. And then you can find always find inspiration when you look at any movie. I recently watched John Huston’s Moby Dick with my son and was amazed how beautifully it was shot (by Ozzy Morris) Sand that movie is over 60 years old.
What is your favorite film and why?
There are so many but if I had to pick one it would be Au Bout De Souffle the first movie by Jean Luc Godard. I just love that the director was unexperienced at the time , they were not provided with a huge budget and yet they found a new way of filming, basically by mistake. It was also Jean Paul Belmondos first movie and it captures its time so great.
What makes a film stand out to you?
When every element comes together in the strongest way stemming from a good story/script, a good performance from the actors and camera work that supports but doesn’t take over.
When a movie grabs me I often forget how things are done, because it does not matter to me too much. I am in the story. Only when I see it again I start registering those details. If it is a good one.
What has been the biggest hurdle you have faced in the industry and getting to where you are now?
Coming from a small town with no attachment to the movie industry to break into it and work internationally. The first hurdle was the confidence I had to find to go against everyone at home who presumed I was a bit crazy to even attempt to work in film.
The next hurdle was finding more working as a DOP after I had finished my studies and shot my first music video. I consistently visited productions in Hamburg with the same repetitive response of that I was talented but not experienced enough. Finding jobs was a challenge as my film school was exclusively camera students we weren’t provided with a showreel of any kind.
You are known to shot outstandingly moving work in monochrome such as Control and Depeche mode’s music videos, what would your tips be for DOP’s looking to shot in monochrome?
I do not know to be honest. When we started Control it was Anton’s choice to go black and white. He knew the band and had taken pictures of them in the 70s in b&w. So for me it was like ok, that’s what we do. I watched some b&w movies and liked best the work of Deakins on The Man Who Wasn’t There and the lightness of Au Bout De Souffle. But then we started prep and when I saw the locations in Nottingham and Manchester I knew I had to find my own way.
Also working with a photographer like Anton I wanted the film to feel like a movie by him. We decided to go not as grainy as his stills are but in terms of composition we were always working closely together.
Find the right language for each project might be my advice.
You have a wide collection of work and experience in feature films, commercials and music videos, which of these jobs has been your biggest accomplishment and which has been the most challenging?
Possibly the most challenging would be ‘Run All Night’ as shooting in New York can be tough. We had very little prep, shot on vintage anamorphic lenses on a movie that all takes place in one night and is mainly on location. We averaged over 30 set ups a night.
To win an ASC award was a great thing for a very little BBC movie called Page Eight , which was made on a small budget.
I think the movie with the longest life of it’s own probably is still Control. It is the only project I worked on which was only loved by the people who saw it. It is rare to receive positive feedback like that movie had. It was great to feel how deeply people were moved in its cinema premier. We had standing ovations in Cannes and I think Stephen Frears told Anton Corbijn that night he can stop making movies then because it would not get any better.
What’s your own preference – shooting on film or digital and why?
I love film.
But to be honest on my last projects I do not think that it was an option to go with film for logistical or budget reasons. My first digital movie was ‘Harry Brown’ in 2009 and the reason for filming it digital was for budget reason and we shot it on a Sony F35. Back then it was complicated, the camera was big and heavy and had it flaws. I did not like it.
By now digital has become so good that it is amazing because certain things are just faster digital. Like setting a look if you work with a good DIT on set.
However I recently shot a commercial on film and loved how people were focussed and took almost more care because not everyone was so certain how it would turn out. Shooting digital people look at small monitors and miss details which are seen later.
If someone wants to pursue a career as a DOP, how would you recommend they go about it?
I have not done it this way but if you are young find a good film school. You will get together with future directors and producers and you get to shoot stuff which you can show to people.
If that is not possible you have to find your way to shoot your own projects. There’s no formula to that. But I think with todays technology available it seems easier than ever to shoot something yourself. And when I say yourself I actually mean find people who you feel aim for the same thing. Find partners who you want to work with.
What are the biggest mistakes you notice beginners make?
I think the craft is so developed that you can now see so many films that look better than the average did in the 80s and 90s. But at the same time you don’t see that much which is moving and touching.
So I think one thing is to be brave, not to go with the way things are done usually. That’s why I sometimes like to watch old movies when making them was also a kind of poetic act, taking a point of view rather than doing what everybody does these days.
The other thing would be aware of your own attitude. Success might come fast and put you on top of things but to stay there you need people who choose to work with you. Being open and helpful can be a big help.
Finally do you have any other advice you would like to voice to help the next generation of DOP?
It might sound very general but find your own way, follow through and don’t give up. Not everybody is successful in this but it helps if you are happy with what you do yourself and then let the world respond to that. We cannot influence what movies are being offered to us but we can be there if there’s a chance.
To find out more about Martin Ruhr please visit his website http://ruhe.net/
Interviewed by April-Rae Hughes