Film Industry TipsInterviews with Industry

Nicolas Karakatsanis, Cinematographer of I, Tonya & More

An established photographer before he made his name as a cinematographer, Nicholas Karakatsanis has unquestionably created an impressive portfolio of work for himself.

Securing international presence with Michaël R. Roskam’s Oscar-nominated drama “Bullhead,” Karaktansis is one of the most sought after cinematographers within the industry today.

Interview by Lauren Macaree

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in cinematography and how did you go about making it a reality?

I never actually had the idea of becoming a DOP. It accidentally happened because of helping out friends who were studying at film school. After having done a couple of short films on video, a teacher at the film school saw the work I did. He then asked me if I would shoot his commercial on 35mm, which I had never done before, but I accepted the offer being honest about it, and he agreed to put a professional crew around me. Suddenly I had done short films and commercials, and my brother, who was a director at the time, advised me to go for it and become a ‘real’ DOP.

Is there a specific film that sparked your interest in cinematography?

I’ve always been a big fan of Seven by David Fincher. It’s still one of my favorite films. Very much like Klute, which I guess they based their photography on. It’s an aesthetic that is still very much contemporary looking, and I think it will stay relevant for many years to come.

What is your favourite genre of film to shoot, is this different from your favourite genre to watch?

I don’t specifically have a favourite genre. As long as the script is good and original. I always hope that the script will feed me with interesting ideas for the visual side of it.

How do you choose your projects?

Script, script, script, script,… Second place the director. The script is really the key to everything. It can still fail afterwards, but you can not make a bad script into a great movie…unfortunately.

I will also make sure I’m not duplicating things that I’ve done before. I always thrive to come up with new things for myself.

You have an extensive list of notable credits for cinematography, such as The Loft, Triple 9 and Bullhead, to name a few. Was there something in particular that drew you to any of these projects?

Each film had it’s own reason at that specific time to be shot. In general I will be on the look out to make sure that the script is actually interesting and has a cinematographic value. Lots of scripts are copies of films you’ve already seen, or are just a 2 hour version of some kind of tv format.

I really try to work on scripts that have an original view on a specific story.

Another significant credit is the recent, and very deservingly nominated ‘I, Tonya”. How did you first get involved with this project?

I, Tonya was a script I got through my agent. At first I wasn’t interested in reading it because I didn’t know if I was the right person to care about ice skating, or a very american story that maybe wouldn’t translate well into something more universal.

After 3 weeks of my agent pushing me to read it, I was surprised by the script and immediately loved it. I had like 5 minutes of thinking if I was really seeing myself shooting these ice skating scenes.

The budget was very challenging, so I just hoped we would be able to shoot properly, and not in a ‘tv ‘ way.

I then met up with Craig the director. We had never previously worked together but we both have a heavy background in commercials. So to a point I think we both new what was possible technically.

It was the first time that I had shot a feature without ever having shot something else before with a director. From day one we clicked in a very natural way. Craig was very supportive of any ideas involving the cinematography, but also some script changes that I suggested. He was the best person to direct this movie. I think it’s my best film experience in the states. Thanks Craig!!!

How challenging was this project to shoot? (In relation the the previous question)

Very much a big challenge!

The schedule was very tight, and we were also just hoping that all the ice skating would work without any technical glitches. We had to mainly figure out the on ice skating stuff. Craig really wanted to be with Margot on the ice. We didn’t want to shoot everything from the side with long lenses. I had suggested Dana Morris, a great Steadicam operator. Dana saved the day when he mentioned he could be doing all we wanted, because he apparently was a great ice skater. He suggested to do everything hand held on the ice. We then tested one of the sequences that Craig had storyboarded. Dana’s tests proved to us that that was the way to go.

The other challenge was the fact that I, Tonya was budgeted for digital. Craig and I wanted to shoot it on film because it made way more sense as it was a period film. The colours and grain of the Kodak film stock were exactly how I saw the film. We actually had to fight the producers over it, and I had to guarantee to them that we were not going to endanger the super tight schedule.

I told them we shot more than a hundred years on film, so why would it be suddenly impossible to make it work?! They eventually went for it, and we rocked very hard!!!!! I was litterally running around with my gaffer, Jon McGinty, to prep and light sets. I loved it!! I really wanted give Craig and the actors as much time as possible so that they could perform combortably. I guess we succeeded in that sense.

From your personal experience, does it take you any time to adjust to projects that are quite different from each other, or do you simply complete one film, figure out your next approach, and go on from there?

I’m pretty flexible. I actually love to change things up, but always still considering the script and it’s story. I also think I don’t care anymore if things are pretty or not. I care about the correct way and shots to tell the story.

I’m starting to hate magic hour shots. Whenever I see them, I know 90% of the time, it’s because the director has no ideas. It’s pretty but it doesn’t say anything. Too many directors are just gathering Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram, just stuffing them all together, hoping it will look good. That’s a music video, not a feature film.

Can you think of a shot throughout your career that was particularly challenging but afterwards very satisfy- ing when you completed it?

I shot a film a couple of years ago called VIOLET, directed by Bas Devos. The last shot of the film was a big challenge to make it work. We shot it on 65mm 8perf. I had to buy the camera myself because we couldn’t find a 4:3 native format camera in the rental.

We had to start the shot inside a house and start moving out of it, going down the yard, onto the streets, and keep on moving while the sun was coming up. We generated an enormous mist bank that had to start at a very precise time. It took 2 days to prep and shoot the 8minute shot. We did 4 takes, and used the last one I think…Still happy about it.

What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable projects you have worked on?

I, Tonya and Un Ange. (Un Ange is not yet released).

Both were very challenging in terms of the technique. I guess to a certain level, every film has to be challenging technically and story telling wise. As a DP you really need to know how to tell the story, you’re like a gate keeper. Directors sometimes loose their view on things, but together we have to work out the shots in a sense that the story is protected.

I don’t like to do the shot listing, but it’s very much adamant. Together with a director, we often change the scenes because we discover flaws in the writing. It’s like finessing the script in a technical related way. You have to be sure you will be able to shoot the scenes with the time and budget you have. If not, you have to adapt it.

What do you think the biggest surprise about the role of a cinematographer would be to an outsider?

The psychological role you have towards the crew and the director. Your mood really makes the set a nightmare or a pleasure. I’m very much aware of this. A movie set is a very high pressure environment, so keeping everybody positive is very important. You need the full capacity of your crew at all time. Put your ego on the side and just show the best version of who you are every day, every hour, and every minute.

If someone wants to pursue a career as a cinematographer, how would you recommend they go about it?

If that’s really the thing you wanna pursue, then just do it. Don’t waste your time being a grip, spark, or whatever assistant.

Don’t waste your time learning, learn as a DP and make mistakes as a DP. The more you can shoot as a DP, the faster your ‘thing’ will be seen, and maybe, if people like it, they’ll ask you to shoot their stuff.

What would your top three tips for aspiring cinematographers be?

  • Don’t look at other films to get inspired.
  • Let the script inspire you. If it doesn’t, then you shouldn’t shoot it.
  • Don’t copy other films/scenes, it’s easy and boring.

What are the biggest mistakes you notice cinematographers make at the start of their career if any?

They invest in a lot of gear and become rental companies.

If this is the case then i’m afraid you’re not interested in cinematography, you’re just a gear head.

If there is one thing you personally think would make the film industry better today, what would it be?

I’ve been realizing lately that a lot of people are saying that streaming platforms like Netflix are making TV as good as cinema films. I think the difference between TV and cinema has never been bigger, and should actually separate itself even more.

Cinema always had a front line function. Cinema has and should experiment freely. TV will always be a ‘light’ version of what a film did already in the past.

TV will always be waiting to see what’s accepted by a bigger audience and needs cinema to challenge that frontier. In that sense, cinema is were people might get surprised and challenged. TV will always be richer and a more conservative version.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of bad films that are made for the bigger screen, like all the superhero movies. They’re just boring TV series with a lot more attention to effects and no attention to story telling.

Thank you for your time!