Interviews with Industry

Tim Ives, Cinematographer of Stranger Things and More

From ‘Stranger Things’ to “Mr. Robot’, Tim Ives has accumulated an impressive collection of work as a successful cinematographer. Lift-Off looked to him to find out his inspirations, hurdles he has faced and his advice for aspiring cinematographers.

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 knew when i was about 8 that visual storytelling was something i wanted to do. I remember shooting storyboard type stills with my Kodak x-15, of bugs in grass from a low perspective, where the grass looked like a forest, and then sequencing them to tell, what im sure was a quite abstract story. Much later i worked at a video store in Boston and shot corporate videos in an attempt to get in to some or any part of the industry. Then when a friend of a friend invited me to hang in NYC on the set of the guiding light for a week, I leapt at the opportunity and that experience gave me confidence and helped me to see a more direct path towards pursuing a career in film.

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

The first film that i remember transporting me to another place was George Roy Hills’ Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, photographed by Conrad Hall. To this day i feel like my 10 year old self every time i see it. But It was Jonathon Demmes early work and then Something Wild, Married to the mob as well as Martin Scorcese’s After Hours that inspired me to step things up and move to NYC (this coincided with that visit to The Guiding light!), which i then did in 1985 as a freelance Production Assistant.

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

I like drama with a good wit as well as a sense of the absurd or dark comedy as you can tell by the films listed above! But basically i like well told stories. This year i loved Mudbound and Blade Runner which were both quite emotional in different ways. Ok wait, Dunkirk and Shape of water were amazing too… so many great films!

How do you choose your projects?

I try to find stories that have redemption as a strong element and or something told from the pov of an underdog. Recognizing and seizing opportunity when it comes knocking, and being in the right place at the right time has helped that along.

Congratulations on the success of Stranger Things. How did you first become involved with the show?

Thank you. I received the script from my agent, Jasan Pagni and read it while taking a break at the beach and of course fell in love with it. It leapt off the page and i knew, given the chance, that i had to shoot it. ST was originally set in Montauk NY which i know very well so i was especially psyched to film it close to home. Then it changed to Hawkins Indiana and the shooting location to Atlanta. It is a long time to be away from my family but we all knew this was something special and they gave me their blessing.

What was the process like for creating the 80s look of the show?

I really wanted the show to not only look like the 80’s, but feel like it was made in 1980’s. So The Duffers and i watched & referenced many films that we loved including Stand by me, Firestarter, Close Encounters and of course E.T. I must have rewatched E.T 5 times and studied how Allen Daviau, one of my favorite cinematographers, lit and moved the camera. His work has been an inspiration to me. Also, The Duffers and I would shotlist every scene together, sometimes acting out the parts in order to determine what kind of movement would be best for the emotional impact of each scene.

Season 2 of the show premiered a few months ago and was received with outpours of praise, as deserved. The tone is much darker compared to season one, was this more of a challenge to capture?

The challenge was maybe greater than season 1 in that we now had a very large and devoted fan base that we did not wish to disappoint! I mean they know more about the legend of these characters and story than maybe we do and you do not want to be called out on something like a light flickering at the wrong time! But yes the brothers went darker with the script and encouraged me to do the same. There were times when i worried my lighting might be too dark but they were right there with smiles on their faces backing me up!

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

I would say its important to know how a film set runs… so, any way you can get on one is very helpful to being able to fit in and work well with others on a production. Then show and tell the AC’s and anyone in the camera department that you are passionate about camera and cinematography. Watch, ask questions, be helpful and learn without being a nudge! But absolutely pick their brains and then pick up a light meter, a Nikon FE or Pentax K1000 and do exposure testing on film at 1/50th a second. Find out what you like and are good at by doing. use your camera phone to practice movement and blocking.

What would your top three tips for aspiring cinematographers be?

Smile, be kind to everyone, and understand that everyone on the crew is trying to bring their best to the project, Thanks go a long way.

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

Over lighting, and allowing yourself to get rattled.

(Any other advice you would like to voice in order to help the next generation of cinematographers? or what is next for you?)

Always follow that inner voice inside you that is telling you what to do; what is right, and what might not feel so right. Sometimes that voice comes as a rumbly stomach too. Be generous and give back when you can. Have fun!