Andy Rydzewski: Vital lessons translated into images

Andy Rydzewski

Andy is a quirky photography director. When some people talk about the pace of a television production, he highlights the importance of meditation. When discussing his experience, he underlines the value of his mistakes and continued learning by quoting Jerry Seinfield.

 

His path does not involve taking root, although he especially values people who have been with him in different stages. Throughout his career he has explored humorous formats for digital platforms such as ‘Funny or Die’; he has created numerous episodes for ‘Go90’ productions; he has flown to Albania to take over ambitious comedy ‘Skanderberg’; and he has recently found important recognition with ‘PEN15’, broadcast on Hulu.

We do not know what his next venture will be, but we are sure it will be exciting if we consider his history to date…

 

We’ve know from other conversations that you have lived a fascinating life, and that those experiences ended up creatively defining you. How much of your work as cinematographer is defined by your vital experiences and how much by your cinema education and references?
When I was in film school I heard a piece of advice Akira Kurosawa once gave to aspiring filmmakers: “Read a lot and live an interesting life.” For whatever reason, that stuck with me. While my reading habits still need work, I’ve always tried to prioritize new experiences and adventures. This adventure-seeking may have delayed the start of my film career, but I think it was worth it. It shaped who I am as a person, so it follows that it influenced who I am as a filmmaker.

Whether speaking about my film education or my overall approach to life, curiosity is an important pillar. I worry that too much comfort leads to stagnation, so I try to stay curious and keep myself hungry in whatever way I can. I want to learn and experiment and push myself. This is something I look for in my collaborators, too, particularly directors. Sam Zvibleman is a director I’ve work with a lot; he and I push each other quite a bit. We are both ambitious and strive to think creatively about making bold choices that enhance and support the emotion of a particular scene, story or character. That kind of approach gets my heart pumping and helps make the long hours and months worthwhile.

Film school brought many lessons, but one of the biggest was: Having an opportunity to fail. At the time I didn’t see it that way, of course. When I made mistakes on short films- be they mine or someone else’s- it felt tragic. In hindsight, I realize that failing is an important and inevitable part of filmmaking. Being able to fail without huge repercussions (mistakenly deleting footage for a paying client, for example) is a key element to growing as a filmmaker. Mistakes are extremely valuable because they help you learn at an accelerated pace. I recently heard Jerry Seinfeld say that, “pain is knowledge rushing in.” The older I get, the more true that seems to be.

 

You got started in the business on webseries such as ‘Beats Per Mnet’; later, you worked on ‘The Earliest Show’ for Funny or Die. What did you learned from these experiences? What was it like working with (I guess) these limited resources? Did you bring this experience to the latest features you’ve worked on?
Smaller scale jobs have been an extremely important part of my development and continue to be. I still shoot shorts when I can, especially if I see something creatively stimulating in it, be it the visual approach, an interesting director, strange location, etc. In general, limited resources force you into a state of creativity. You can’t throw money at your problems, so you start to think outside the box. I’ve used white t-shirts and cardboard covered with aluminum foil as bounce cards. I’ve taped table cloths to walls for negative fill and placed cameras on scraps of cardboard to create the poorest of poor man’s dolly movement. Necessity is the mother of invention and low budget shoots will teach you wonderful tricks.

Also, being around different sorts of talent is immeasurably valuable. You not only learn how other people work, but how you work. I learned very early on that I am not interested in people who yell and that being combative is not a strength of mine. The way I react now to various personalities is colored by my years of dealing with all manner of people. Experience, hours logged on set, is something you just can’t cheat.

 

Afterwards, you were part of several series that were screened on the now discontinued platform Go90. How did this stage of your life developed? We guess these shows were made with more resources. Were you able to evolve your cinematographic skills thanks to technology?
In 2017 I shot 32 episodes of half-hour TV, all for Go90. It is one of the most important years of my career. I shot a thriller, comedy and mockumentary, so I was able to develop and flex different creative muscles and lighting approaches. It was the first time I was given resources like Fisher dollies and larger output lights to work with. It was also the first time I worked with multiple directors on a single series and I had to learn how to keep the visual language of a show consistent, even when the directors were rotating in and out. In a lot of ways, that year was an entirely new education in film.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Go90 for me was what I learned about coverage. Shooting that many episodes meant that I had the opportunity to film literally hundreds of scenes. I think it actually approached one thousand scenes in that one year. In addition, I worked a lot with a director named Charles Hood on 12 of those 32 episodes. Charles is perhaps the most dedicated director I know when it comes to coverage. He is extremely thoughtful when it comes to the craft of blocking and camera choreography. He wants to make creative decisions on set, not in the editing room so it is important to him that scenes develop within shots and are not broken up by constant edits. Charles taught me to be more thoughtful about how scenes and sequences are put together and now it is one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking. The way scenes are covered affects the mood and tone similarly to lighting and color design.

The other big takeaway from that experience was about life balance and the importance of keeping my mind and body up to the task. By the end of the year, I was running on fumes. I was scared I burned myself out very early in my career. Now I pay extremely close attention to my sleep and diet when I am on longer shoots. Film production is physically and mentally punishing and I want to make sure I’m prepared. I have strict rules about what I eat, how much caffeine I drink and how much I sleep. The goal is to be able to perform at a high level when it’s Day 35, hour 15 and I’m working in the cold rain at 3am.

 

Andy Rydzewski

Copyright PEN15.

 

Also, if IMDB isn’t kidding us, you were involved in the Albanian comedy Skanderberg. How was the experience? Did you notice a big difference from working in America from a technological perspective?
I have been lucky enough to work in Europe a handful of times and I hope to do so much more in the future. The Albania show was a unique one, though. Our lack of resources on that show was extreme. We had no c-stands. It got to the point that we were using literal toothpicks to hold together backdrops. We had exactly three HMIs and when one bulb burnt out, that was it. We then had two. It was an extremely ambitious show, though. Our writer (Koloreto Cukali) and director (Adam Pray) didn’t let our budget limitations limit their imagination, so we swung for the fences every day. We built huge sets and set out to make the best looking TV show in Albanian history. I’d like to think we succeeded.

The two most important lessons I learned on that job were:

1) Meditation. I was so stressed the first two weeks of that job that I almost had a nervous breakdown. Luckily, my director, who had experience working in Albania, helped me slow down and learn to let go of certain expectations. Most importantly, he got me meditating. I started meditating every mday before arriving on set and haven’t stopped since. It has become one of the most important filmmaking tools I have. I cannot recommend the habit strongly enough.

2) Communication. I was working with many people who did not speak English and I didn’t speak a word of Albanian. I had previously worked in Barcelona where the language barrier was similar, but this was much more extreme. I learned to communicate with smiles, gestures and sounds. I started to describe quality of light with hand gestures and mouthed sound effects. It was hilarious to observe, but also encouraging, as it actually worked. It taught me the value of non-verbal communication, which has helped me in both life and work since then.

 

Whether they are webseries or VOD platforms formats, you’re close to shows linked to television. What do you like the most about working on these shows? Do you prefer this to feature films?
I grew up very focused on feature films, but over the last decade, TV has really stepped up, both in terms of quantity, as well as quality. When I was first pursuing film, I was always drawn to independent films. These small films have become more difficulty to pursue, financially. I once heard Ed Burns say something about TV and independent film that helped shift my perspective on both. To paraphrase, he said, “Independent film has moved to TV. That’s where the writing is. That’s where the characters are.” This golden age of television is an extension of the independent films of the 90s that I loved so much. The filmmaking – cinematography in particular – has gotten so exciting in TV. There aren’t the aesthetic limits on television the way there used to be. I’m grateful that I am often allowed to experiment and push the boundaries of the look of a show.

 

Some people agree that VOD platforms have brought unprecedented creative freedom to television. What do you think about this?
One of the most thrilling things to me about television right now is how bold it is making people. We are seeing filmmaking techniques that we never would have seen ten years ago. Filmmakers are not only being allowed to explore and push their styles, but they are encouraged to do so. In order for things to stand out now, shows are leaning into stylistic choices whereas a decade ago, they were often being watered down out of fear of being “too weird.” Another aspect that is wonderful is that more filmmakers are working now because there is more work out in the world. We are seeing more filmmaking voices and, slowly but surely, more diverse voices. This is not only exciting, but imperative for the growth of our medium and craft.

 

How would you define your cinematographic style?
Hopefully my style changes from project to project and is inspired entirely by the story and creative voices behind it. That said, I have noticed a trait in my work that comes up again and again: Wabi Sabi. This is a Japanese term that, loosely translated, means “finding the beauty in the flaws.” As camera sensors become cleaner and sharper, I find myself constantly battling them. I am using vintage lenses, filtration, higher ISO values to beat up the image a bit. There are exceptions to this, but often when I see overly clean images or perfect camera movements, it feels fake to me, as though I can see the artifice of filmmaking behind it. Something about a dirtier image feels more true to me. The flaws make it feel real. Imperfections somehow feel honest to me.

 

Andy Rydzewski

 

What’s your approach to technology? What are your favorite gadgets on set?
This is difficult to answer because there have been so many advancements in filmmaking technology over the past decade; the low light sensitivity of camera sensors boggles the mind. RGBW LED lights are suddenly quite common and their output continues to rise. The color and depth information being captured by our cameras gives a whole new world of control in post. Camera bodies themselves are becoming smaller and lighter and can be used in ways we never imagined. The list goes on and on.

With all that said, the tool I probably love the most is in the world of wireless follow focus and monitoring. Monitors and focus peaking have become so good that focus pulling is now a mixture of using one’s eye, as well as marks. Actors now have more freedom to alter their performances and are less constricted, while camera operators have more freedom to improvise and adjust. It is not a methodology for every scene or every project, but it allows for happy accidents and a constantly living, changing shot. Each take can be a bit more alive. My 1st AC, Bryant Marcontel, and I have worked together for thousands of hours. We’ve learned one another’s rhythms and habits. If I see something I want to chase as we are rolling, I can lean into it and trust that he will be able to maintain focus on what is relevant to the moment. It’s a lovely way to work, though it makes life a bit more challenging for my AC’s. Sorry, guys! I love you.

 

We love how PEN15 is defined as a “cringe comedy”, even though it is accurate! We can say that this was a big step for you in terms of acknowledgement. What was requested for the show from DP’s perspective and what did you contribute?
I am extremely thankful for PEN15. It certainly brought me some recognition, which is important only in that it has given me more opportunities and opened more doors. As far as the show itself, the mantra from the creators was, “Real, not beautiful.” They felt the same way I do: If the show looks too pretty or perfect, it won’t feel honest. This is a show that strives to be honest about the awkward years of growing up. First loves, feeling like you don’t fit in, puberty, etc. None of those things felt beautiful to any of us as we were growing up, so we wanted to reflect that in the visual approach. For us, that manifested itself in a number of ways: Minimal camera movement, getting rid of beauty lights, shooting at a higher ISO to add noise into the image. We also filtered everything and added a bit of grain in post. If it’s about the messiness of growing up, we wanted the palette itself to reflect that.

 

What was the camera + lenses package?
We shot with two Alexa Minis on both seasons, but our lens packages changed from season one to season two. In season one, we shot primarily with the Fujinon 19-90 and also used some Cooke S4 primes on our B Cam. In season two we wanted to quietly mature the look. We shot on a mixture of Zeiss Super Speeds and Ultra Primes. Another major shift was our lighting. In season one, we lit with HMIs for our window/ sun work, but all LEDs for close ups and the like. In season two, I wanted to shift out entire lighting package to tungsten. I am very happy with what it did to our actors’ skin tones and skin texture. The subtle differences between light sources was a great way to quietly alter the feel and texture of our show between seasons.

 

Everything in the show is so early 00s, aesthetically speaking. How did photography help recreate this feeling?
I’ve touched on some of this already with filtration and “dirtying” our image, but I will add that we had a mantra. When we were unsure about the look or feel of a scene- from lighting to performance- one of the creators (Sam, Maya or Anna) would inevitably ask, “How would they do this in Welcome to the Dollhouse?” That film by Todd Solondz was always our touchstone. It’s a mid-nineties, low budget, independent film that was the dominant influence on PEN15. It was our compass when we felt lost. It is a film that uses minimalism and naturalism to great effect. That was our North Star.

 

We’d also like to know more about your approach to lightning. We’ve seen a naturalistic + intimal approach to several scenes, but we don’t know if this is a preference or a circumstance. Can you tell us more about this?
I love lighting and am always looking to improve and expand. Each project brings different aesthetic needs and challenges, so I try not to have one dominant approach. For PEN15, naturalism was the goal from the start. In season two we let mood dictate light more than we did in season one, but it was always subtle. Season two has very specific pops of red and blue that we never would have added in season one, but we felt it fit the characters’ journeys. This type of visual expression interests me a great deal. Using color to enhance a character’s state is something I am finding myself more and more drawn to.

It is also important to note, performance is always key to any project and on this project that was particularly true. We worked really hard to give actors space to work and even avoided marks when we could. It was challenging for our G&E team, as well as our camera team, but it felt worth it. Having lead actresses who love to improvise, as well as a cast of young actors meant we needed to be constantly flexible. That led us to lighting through windows and from above as often as we could so actors weren’t trapped by lights a grip equipment. I’ve been leaning more and more toward simpler lighting setups so we can move quickly and get some of the gear out of our way. But “simple” never means less important. Quality of light is often where I start my creative work.

 

What’s next for you? Will you stay close to TV series or will you move on to feature films?
In 2020 I was attached to several projects, but the pandemic changed all that very suddenly. As we move into 2021 there are a number of projects I have lined up, but I have learned not to assume anything will happen until I’m on set, shooting the first shot. My main excitement for 2021 is that, after four years of shooting almost exclusively TV, I now have several feature films on the schedule. I’m excited to get back to features and see how it compares to the pace of TV. My main hope is that I can explore shots and sequences that linger and develop slowly. In TV the pace needs to be adjustable in the editing room, which means you need to shoot more coverage and make sure show runners, producers, editors and directors have the ability to speed up or slow down various scenes. In features there is a bit more freedom to let shots and scenes play out. I am eager to push myself toward patience in the way we (the director and I) design shots and sequences. Ultimately, though, after a year of being stuck at home, I’m mostly just excited to get back on set.

I hope to work in Europe again this year or next. Working overseas feels like I am given fresh eyes. Seeing the difference in light quality in Barcelona versus Albania versus southern California is inspiring. The texture of the streets, the variation in facial structures and skin tones… These are some of the things I hope to explore in 2021 and I beyond.

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