Cinematographer Profile: Steve Annis
Posted by Doug Klinger on February 5, 2013 in Interviews
For a cinematographer to put out consistently amazing work is a difficult task on it’s own. Shooting 100 videos in two years is crazy difficult. Getting nominated for the MVA for best cinematography four years in a row, that’s pretty much impossible. However, these are all things that cinematographer Steve Annis did since moving from focus puller to DP in 2009. We talked to Steve about working as a DP, switching from film to the RED, and being recognized for his cinematography by the MVAs.
Doug: I'd like to start generally with how you got in the position of being a cinematographer.
Steve: I graduated film school in 2000. I actually thought I was really shit DP. I didn’t think I had any talent for anything resembling a cinematographic gift - but I left with a passion for cameras. There was something about film cameras, and cameras in general, that basically I guess you can say turned me on. So I began focus pulling. I focus pulled for seven or eight years and I worked with some amazing DPs on commercials, music videos and TV dramas. I guess that was my learning curve, I was waiting subconsciously to learn and for the right moment. The right moment came with a director called Tom Haines, who is currently at Colonel Blimp. He got offered I think it was £2,000 to do a video called "Jenny Again" for a folk band called Tunng. We just put everything in it. The crew was like me, Tom, and a tiny camera team. All my contacts in the industry helped us save short ends of film stock. I begged the wonderful Craig Game (now at Panavison) for an SR3 and we went and shot a music video. I remember watching the rushes afterwards and thought to myself, "Maybe I'm OK at this thing. Maybe something else could happen," and that was it. That was like summer 2008. Then I think the next big moment was a White Denim video called “Shake Shake Shake.” That was for a very cool band from Texas. Again we shot that on 16mm. There was something about it that people appreciated and loved. In the early days I refused to shoot on anything but 16mm. But yeah, that’s how I got involved as DOP.
Doug: You refused to shoot on anything but 16mm, that isn't still the case, is it?
Steve: No, no. This was before the RED camera was invented. I think I did my first shoot with it around 2009. I did a music video for a really nice director called Blake Claridge for a band called The Chapman Family. This RED camera was in a box. This editor showed up as my DIT and we shot this thing. I thought "this is interesting, this image is quite refreshing and organic and soft. It's not at all harsh or pixelated like all these other video cameras - maybe this could be something unique." But before that, if you didn’t shoot on film, there was nothing. You really had to get your head together and get the film stock and get the cameras and know the camera. I spent eight years focus pulling, that taught me how to operate, load and focus pull all by myself. I remember doing the video for Doves, who were very sort of an acclaimed band from Manchester who did a lot of great music videos with some great directors. When I was asked to do it, I was quite thrilled. The budget was quite low and we had to shoot on film because the director was really insistent - lovely lady called China Moo-Young. We got this 16mm camera package and I was a one-man team. I loaded, I focused pulled, I operated, and I lifted all by myself. Then we travelled around Northern England shooting this thing.
Doug: Do you find that like now that with the RED and the introduction of these incredible digital cameras that you lose some of that stuff that you learn from back when you were shooting primarily on film?
Steve: I don’t think you lose any skills or ethos or any kind of brainwork - being a cinematographer on Alexa is by core the same as being a cinematographer on a 16mm or 35mm camera. But for me, I couldn’t go out with an Alexa or RED on my own into the wilderness and shoot confidently. You need a technical team to support you. But the 16mm camera is a simple analogue work device. That’s all it is. Its cogs and gears and ancient mechanisms that have been around for centuries, working to pull the film stock, to let that film stock pass a hole, expose that film stock and that’s all it is.
Doug: Since getting into being a DP and working in that level, you’ve worked with a lot of different directors. I'm curious is there a particular style or particular director that you prefer to work with or that you're interested in working with? Or is it more you're open to anything?
Steve: Yes, absolutely. There are times when I've been shooting a couple of hard core commercials, and I look at my diary and I’ll notice some music videos appear in there. I will purposefully say to my agent, “I'm doing these videos.” Music videos are escapism, they're refreshing - there is nothing better for me than sometimes shooting a performance video. It’s a nice thing. I'm not embarrassed to say I've done performance videos for bands like McFly, JLS, One Night Only. People would turn their nose up and go, “What are you doing?” I do it because there’s just something great about shooting a performance music video. At the same time the next level way above that is obviously shooting a narrative music video, and grabbing a decent narrative in a commercial and having the time and the freedom and the space to do it. To do it in a music video is a thrill and an honour. I clear everything in my diary to do that, the narrative stuff like Florence and The Machine and stuff I do with Vince Haycock for Calvin Harris.
Doug: When it comes to comparing music videos to commercials, directors who direct both seem to embrace the music video side of things a lot more. Mainly, because of like you said, the greater creative freedom. Is it the same as a DP to embrace the music video side of the things more?
Steve: I look back at my work - and I look back at the music videos especially - and I'm proud of the work and the effort that I've put in and the blood and the sweat. Most of the time, most of the jobs have not been paid. All the music videos I think I've done, that I'm recognized for, I did for pennies. It’s never bothered me. I do commercials to survive in this industry.
Doug: Are you able to find anything in the commercial jobs, outside of the fact that they help you survive in the industry? Is there a redeeming factor in those outside of that?
Steve: What's redeeming about making a commercial is the fact that you're learning. Some commercials are OK, some commercials have got that little thing. I shot a lot of music videos for a really good director called Ben Newman who is with Pulse Films, we did videos for Roots Manuva, Wretch 32, Example, Liam Bailey, DJ Fresh all sorts of stuff. He started shooting some very very big commercials for Adidas, Smart Car, Puma. We've taken that ethos into commercials and its thanks to Ben. It really depends but it’s so rare to do a good commercial, a truly, truly good commercial that will last. I think music videos have got so much more staying power than commercials. People remember music videos. I mean you look at all the directors that are considered gods, you know David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, all those guys, people don’t remember their commercials. They remember their music videos and I think that says it all.
Doug: What do you think is about it that makes it better? Do you think it is like a client that’s more willing to take risks?
Steve: No, I think it’s about the music combined with images BUT it's the music that lasts. I could be sitting in a lounge and I look at my shelf and suddenly I think I want to listen to Radiohead. I want to listen to that song from that album. I’ll put it on and it’s timeless. But people don’t sit and think, "Hey I want to look at that old commercial." Commercials are instant pieces of small film that no one really wants to watch. They invade our lives. BUT you choose to listen to music. It just so happens we’ve invented this moving medium of images to sell it. Some of them are corporate, all the Biebers and the Gagas are very corporate. But more music videos transcend artistic freedom than commercials. That’s why I remember them. The music, the ethos of music itself is what makes music videos last.
Doug: When it comes to doing those music videos you’ve been recognized for them by the MVAs. Four years in a row you were recognized by them. Often times these crew members - regardless what the award for music video is - if a video they worked on is nominated, any crew member is allowed to take credit for that. You're unique in that the awards you were nominated for were particularly for cinematography. I'm just curious where that ranks to you, that type of accolade. Is very important to you to get that achievement or is it just like an additional pat on the back that you get?
Steve: It’s weird. It’s become this norm four years running. I remember the first nomination I think it was for that Doves video for "Kingdom of Rust" that China Moo-Young directed. I was very, very affected. I literally gasped. I thought there is no way I'm good enough. This is nuts. Only my heroes were nominated. Kasper Tuxen, Tom Townend, Shawn Kim, André Chemetoff, and many many others
Doug: Are the MVA nominations something that you're looking for when the nominations are announced?
Steve: As each year has progressed, the shock of being nominated hasn’t diluted I can tell you that. It’s weird but you kind of know when you did something good. I remember in 2010, I think I did like 60 music videos. I was going crazy. It was almost like I've been released after eight years of focus pulling and people were letting me shoot things and I just went crazy. I remember looking back at the end of that year thinking, “These 2 or 3 have got a chance" and one of them was the Maccabees video that got nominated for "Empty Vessels." I love being nominated, it’s amazing. But I actually think I’ll never win. I don’t know why. I think I'm like maybe the Roger Deakins of music videos because he’s obviously never won an Oscar and he’s been nominated like nine times. Then you look at Tom Townend in 2011. I think he did one music video. It was Adele, "Rolling In The Deep", won the MVA for best cinematography. I think in 2011 I probably did like 40 music videos. Lots of them I thought were good enough to be nominated, even to win. It seems the winners always do fewer videos in a year. Look at say Kasper Tuxen, who won for his amazing video for Feist. I think he must have done one or two music videos that year. Same with André Chemetoff, he’s done a handful of videos. That one video he did for MIA swept the boards for cinematography. He got everything in 2012, the MTV awards, the winner seemed to be that kind of thing. I pumped so many music videos out and just said, “Choose something, please I beg you." I think 2013 will be different. I think I’m going to be a lot more selective - we’ll see.
Doug: Yes. The way you’ve said it, you said 60 in 2010 and 40 in 2011, that’s 100 music videos in two years. That’s crazy. Do you have to keep those located in the same place? Is half of the time have your time spent with your eye in view finder and the other half on an airplane? How are you able to manage that?
Steve: I think that was like before I sort of started to crack into America, it was mainly UK. I had an amazing crew, an amazing focus puller, loader, assistant, DIT, and grip to move my team. It was all communication through the mind with all my team. I had amazing support, places like Take Two who were rental companies. I would just literally cut and paste camera lists and lighting lists. I'd get the script, "I love it. I’ll do it. Here’s a camera package I think is suitable for this thing." I think the craziest week I had I did four music videos. I did four in a week and I remember me and my focus puller went on a march to find food and we were just like, "What are we doing? This is crazy." Then one of them actually at the end of the week wanted a reshoot day. It was five days of music videos on four separate videos. It was so important to do that, to speedily chase the theme. That’s what I was doing. Looking back, every one of those jobs I loved, some more than others, because they were all a challenge and you always learn things.
cinematographer profile, steve annis
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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