Cinematographer Profile: Luis Perez
Posted by Doug Klinger on November 15, 2012 in Interviews
Starting as an on-set photographer with Hype Williams back in 1994, cinematographer Luis Perez has worked in the music video industry for almost 20-years. While some of the videos he worked on in the 90s can be pointed to as establishing many of hip-hops most classic images, many of his videos from today, such as Yonkers by Tyler, The Creator, can be credited as reinvigorating interest in the art form of music videos. We talked to Luis about how the music video industry has changed in 20 years, and whether or not that change is starting to reverse.
Doug: You got your start in music videos as an on set photographer for Hype Williams, after working as a photographer for places like Bad Boy and The Source. Was the transition over into working with Hype a calculated move to try to get into music videos, or just a step in the process as an artist?
Luis: I would say it was more a step in the process. My background is fine art, so it was never a part of necessarily an angle. I knew I was going to be in some kind of entertainment business because of the people I was surrounded with, like The Source and other magazines. Doing all of that stuff lead me into the direction of music, and visuals were a part of that. The whole Hype situation was weird to me because I was teaching at the time, and some of the students that I taught during a Saturday program at my college went to Tisch, whish is where Hype was doing a workshop. And he got the kids together to do a "making of" type of video. They ended up calling me to just be their photographer at the time. I met with Hype, Hype saw my work, and pretty much that was it. He just said "I want you on all my sets." That's how the relationship really started, and it's been a blossoming situation ever since. He gave me my first opportunity to shoot on set. That allowed me to lock into the idea that I can make this transition and it wouldn't be difficult. I didn't get into it in the usual way, which is through electrical, or being grip, or AD, or PA. I was always a visual person as a photographer coming it, so for me it wasn't that difficult.
Doug: Not only that, but the first person you worked with is among the most well known directors out there.
Luis: The highest of the high. And at the time, this is '95. '94-'95. This is when videos were beginning to become that thing. On top of that, the money was really there. I saw it. I was blessed enough to see it at it's highest level. As far as the money, the people, the music. For me, it was such an amazing experience, and the concept not only visually, but music wise it was pretty hardcore. Seeing all these artists, especially in New York, it was Biggie, Busta, Wu-Tang, definitely insane.
Doug: So, did you literally witness the change in everything? Could you basically watch the money and everything drop off in real time?
Luis: Absolutely. We all were sitting around going, "wow, this is incredible." I'm on set of Big Pimpin and were spending all this money, everyone is having a great time. It was such a slap in the face, a body slam of a situation, because the bottom just dropped out. All of a sudden, the same artists weren't having the same money. At the same time, an influx of new directors were coming in because no one was willing to pay what they were paying before. Because of that transition, for a while there was a real drain of creative energy. The industry wasn't doing anything based on what the music was doing, because the music wasn't doing well. With Napster and all this stuff happening, money was getting fashioned out, and creatively the directors weren't really changing anything, they all wanted to do things that have already been done 5-6 years before that. Even now, I think there is still a little bit of a hangover of trying to recreate that feeling that happened 15-20 years ago, and it's just impossible because the money is not there and the music and sensibilities are different. There are moments where someone will say "man, this feels like," but the money isn't there so there is nothing tangible there to say "yes, we're back!" It's a different feel now, it's a really different feeling.
Doug: Does if feel like it's turning around, or is it still really different?
Luis: There is optimism, I'm very optimistic. The medium itself is a good petri dish if you're creative enough, and want the label to let you do things, and have an artist that allows some of that to happen, you have a great opportunity to do some really amazing shit. But, those are variables. It all depends on them giving you the leeway to do things that they might not be used to, or using that money or time effectively so that you can have a creative outcome that isn't trying to copy 1994. Some artists are there, and some artists are not, because of the nature of the politics. That's part of what I've noticed, seeing it from back then to now, there is still a want and a need to become bigger than life. But the money isn't there so it takes not only wrangling egos and politics, but creative impulses. There is a small pocket of individuals that are doing some really cool stuff, and a small pocket of artists that are given the creative opportunity to push some of those boundaries. But the straight answer is no, I don't think it's changed much, but I'm still optimistic that is going to develop. I do this because I love what I do. I love to be able to not only create, to be at the front lines of creating new, exciting shit. I'm not here to say, "you havent done a video for someone yet, we can't work together." If you have a good idea, fuck it, let's go, let's do it. I'm not here to rehash the past, though. The past happened, and I was a witness to all of that crazy shit already. I don't want to sound like I'm some old fogey or something, but I've been around and I'm still excited about it, and that's the difference. I'm still excited about putting video to music. The music video is an amazing forum as a filmmaker to create something that you haven't seen before.
Doug: I'm curious then, as someone who has worked primarily in music videos and has seen a lot of success in them, is working in the music video industry a sustainable career option?
Luis: That's something that I wrestle with everyday. That's a realistic question. There are days that are great, there are times that you're doing work back to back and you're on a run, and you have an opportunity to stack some money and save some money. You see yourself a lot more stable than you were 6 months prior. I don't recommend it as a place that you're going to rich and driving around in a Porsche. Only a select few are able to garner that type of income and can demand the budget to allow someone to make $40 grand off a video. Most budgets are just nowhere near that. There are a few guys that are doing it, but it's still hard. It's still hard to have it be a sustainable career.
Doug: So then film, TV, commercials is that where the path leads?
Luis: The path is really to find a balance. There are plenty of opportunities, but there are also plenty of obstacles in the way. As a music video cinematographer, a director, whatever, the path is not as easy as it was before. A lot of agencies used to look at these videos as their farm systems, looking for the next exciting thing. It doesn't feel that way anymore. A lot of people are hesitant to let people that do this for a living jump into the commercial world because it's a different sensibility, its different politics. But, if you have the right people around you, if you have the right push, you can easily transition. For me personally, it's been a balance. Trying to find a way into that system, and getting out of the idea that this is what I'm going to do forever. I think it's important as the creative to branch out early.
Doug: Do you find your role as a DP changes depending on who you're working with? For example, when you work with Tyler, The Creator, or Wolf Haley as hes credited when directing, do you take on additional responsibilities because he's spending part of his time in front of the camera?
Luis: I wouldn't say its that black and white, there is a grey area in there. My relationship with Wolf has always been collaborative. A lot of the times, we do have these incredible brainstorming sessions where he has a set idea of what he wants or where he wants to go, and at the end of the day as the director that invaluable. It's never a situation where we don't know what we're doing. It's more of his personality that makes it feel semi-chaotic at times. It's not necessarily making sure of anything, it's more like lets live in the moment and create with this amazing energy that he always brings to the table. There are times where he says, "make sure we get this, this, and this" while he's being the artist. He's very specific about it. "I want to make sure I'm captured in this angle." It never feels like an extra burden at all, it's just part of the process and collaborative energy that we've established in our relationship. It's never feels like anything extra, it's still me as the DP getting what the director needs.
Doug: So any difference that exist there is the same that would exist between any two directors?
Luis: Yeah, it doesn't matter who they are. You could put whatever name you want to put in there from my resume, it's always going to be different.
Doug: Do you find that you're being brought into each project at a similar point regardless of who the director is?
Luis: It depends. Sometimes it's very early in the process, sometimes it's in the middle, and sometimes it's very late. For instance, I just did this PSA with the director Rob Cohen, who has an extensive history and career, and I was brought in literally almost 4 days before we had to shoot, and there still weren't things that werent ironed out. When we got to set, things miraculously came together. Working with him was amazing because with him being this established director, you feel an instant comfort because you know he knows exactly what he wants. He understand what we need to do and he's able to manage the chaos in a way that makes it a lot easier to do your job. Sometimes I am in at the beginning of things, I'm at the inception, sometimes I'm even there before the treatment. Working with Taj for instance for Swizz Beats in France, we literally had no idea what we were doing. By the time we landed, it was still chaotic, but him and I sat and we basically hacked it out, so that it had some cohesiveness and story arc that allowed us to do what we needed to do. That's another moment that you're happy that you're working with someone that has enough experience, and has a set idea in their head, to where you can do your job and progress and make the project as clean as possible. Not every time works out like that, though. I'm not going to talk about the super bad times.
cinematographer profile, luis perez
Doug Klinger is the co-founder/content director of IMVDb and watches more music videos than anyone on earth. You can find him on twitter at @doug_klinger.
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