“Virtual reality has a potential we cannot yet imagine”
Eric Steelberg is an experienced cinematographer with a long career in filmmaking that started right out of high school. He grew up shooting in analog and that has given him a great respect for the old manners. Today, he is a professional who has shot in all possible formats with directors like Jason Reitman -friends since kids and wich Eric has a great cinematographic relationship-, Marc Webb, Richard Glatzer, or Wash Westmoreland.
We talked to him to find out how much technology influences his work, which camera sets and lenses he trusts the most, or what he thinks of revolutionary technologies such as HDR, virtual production or on-demand content consumption.
Who is Eric Steelberg and how did he enter the world of cinematography?
I grew up in Los Angeles and my parents were fond of still photography. As a teenager, I took still photography classes in high school and spent many hours in the darkroom. I’ve always been fascinated by film and dedicated most of my free time to watching it. I don’t remember doing much more than that. I was obsessed.
Some friends and I started a film class at our school and acquired film and video cameras of all kinds, from Super 8 to 16mm film and VHS. All my friends wanted to direct and produce, I was the only one interested in photography, so I was able to use all the cameras and shoot everyone’s projects. After high school, I applied to some of the more popular film schools, but they didn’t accept me. I decided to continue working in film on low budget projects, then commercials and finally feature films.
What was your progression like, where did you start and how did you get involved in bigger productions?
Once I had been working in commercials for a handful of years, and doing additional photography on small movies, I had an agent and a reel of work that was decent. These were the days of film, there was no such thing as shooting digital yet. There were fewer DPs working than there are today because the job was more inaccessible.
Once, I got a call from a producer who had seen a very very small movie I had made on a brand new Sony digital camera –this was about 2003- and she said she was producing a new movie in Los Angeles, also very small, and the two directors wanted to shoot it on the same new Sony digital camera, the F900. I read the script, it was wonderful and charming and I fell in love with it. We made that movie in 17 days and it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, 2006 edition. The film was called Quinceañera.
From there I got some attention and my director friend, Jason Reitman, who I met when we were fifteen and with whom I had done a lot of shorts and commercials; told me he had a script called Juno that he was really excited about and wanted to send me. The massive success of that film launched my career as it is now and it has never slowed down. Really, I’ve never sought out bigger productions; they’ve just ended up evolving into stories with bigger palettes.
Considering the beginning of your career and where you are now, what are the technological differences you have seen?
The undisputed difference is digital cinematography. It has been a double edge sword. We were promised faster and cheaper but we all know that is far from the truth in practice. Somehow, everything in camera is much more costly than it was when we were shooting film. Let me be clear though.
I love digital and my best work has been using digital cameras, but not because they were digital. A few years back I did a film called The front Runner and we went back to shooting on 35 mm. It resulted so fast. We did fewer takes and worked much faster.
I think with digital there is this thing where everyone on set is over my shoulder looking at an image which is very polished and looks finished. But because of that, everyone also feels like they can comment on every little detail including the light, focus, etc. It has become too democratic. With film you could see a low quality video that reproduced what the camera saw. That video was an approximation that did not have the same fidelity that we are used to now. As a result, everyone had to trust that the cinematographer was exposing correctly, that the operator was framing correctly, and that everything was in focus. They were trusted to do the job. Now, they are often second-guessed.
Most of the time, I welcome the input. I consider my job and my personality to be very collaborative. I never know where a great suggestion might come from and I encourage my crew to speak up if they have an idea. Some great shots have come from a dolly grip or an electrician with those kinds of ideas.
A cinematographer is prepared to work with any material. But there are always preferences. Of all the ones you have worked with, can you tell us which has been your favourite camera and lens choice and why?
I get asked this often and the truth is every project has its own perfect combination. It’s a recipe. The same perfect recipe for a meal on one holiday isn’t the same for another many months away. I think it’s a good analogy. With every film or show I start from scratch testing cameras and lenses to see what feels right for this new narrative.
I’m proud of my work on a movie called Labor Day; I think it may be one of my best. On that film I used the original RED Epic, Master Primes, Super Baltars, Fujinon Premier Zooms, and an old Cooke 20-60 mm zoom. And this was after much testing. It just seemed right blending those things and the result is great. But I have also never used that combination again, even though it was my favorite, because it was only perfect for that film.
All this being said, and this is where I start to be confusing, my last two projects, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Hawkeye have been photographed using the Alexa LF and Panavision anamorphic T Series lenses. I tested other combinations, but right now that recipe is what takes the best to me. I think I am also going to use it on my upcoming shoot. Panavision has always been my partner and enabled me to explore my visuals with unparalleled support.
Does Eric Steelberg have a personal style?
I don’t think so, but I have been told it’s naturalistic with flourishes… whatever that means!
You have worked on numerous occasions with Jason Reitman, has his personal vision influenced your work and vice versa?
We have enjoyed a very long and respectful relationship. Like I said before we met when we were teenagers and made many short films together which then led to commercials and feature films.
Ideas bounce off one another; we speak very intimately about our films and the visual approach we want to use. Ours a very complimentary relationship and there is freedom to pitch all ideas without judgement because we both want what is best. We challenge one another to get that result.
Given this relationship, does Eric Steelberg’s work change when you are not working hand in hand?
I have worked and, hopefully will continue to work, with many other talented directors who have their own incredible ideas and points of view. We all get hired based on our work with other people and I’m sure most of my interest has been from movies I’ve done with Jason.
I never want to think I’m reusing a “style” or a “look” from another film I have done. I would never do it if I were asked to do it because different narratives must involve different techniques. I hope my work changes from project to project with Jason, and without him. If it doesn’t I’m not growing and exploring the infinite ways I can tell stories.
Has Marvel’s Hawk Eye comic influenced the planning and production of the series?
We were very influenced by the graphic novel. In my first meeting with director Rhys Thomas he talked to me about the importance of referencing the visual elements of the comic. If you notice, there are shots in the series that are copied directly from the graphic novel series. It was very important to Rhys to respect and honor the wonderfully complex visual sensibility that he had.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in filming your part of Hawk Eye?
It was a very long schedule… 100 days with multiple crews and units, all filmed out of order. Trying to keep the visuals consistent when being shot out of order on such a large scale was very difficult, but we had a great team.
What equipment have you used to shoot your part of Hawk Eye?
The equipment was the same for the whole program: Arri Alexa LF cameras with Panavision T-series anamorphic lenses. We also used quite a bit of an Alexa Mini LF with DJI Ronin gimbals and MoSys remote heads. A RED Komodo was used for some stunt and VFX work.
How have you adapted your workflows to HDR?
I was lucky enough to be able to have two HDR monitors on set. However, I am not a fan of HDR, frankly. I think it is too good. What I mean is that I don’t know any cinematographers who want to see everything.
Our whole job is to use light and shadow to control and create what you see and what you don’t see. Suddenly, the marketing people come in and say, “Hey guys, now we can make everything visible above and below what’s being exposed.”
Sure there are some cases where it can benefit the shot, but in general I don’t like it. Shadows are supposed to be strong, highlights are supposed to disappear at one point. However, it looks like it’s here to stay.
What do you think of virtual production, will it change the job of a cinematographer, and what advantages and disadvantages do you see?
I think this is an exciting new technology that I will be dealing with in my future. It’s pretty amazing, but you also have to take into account a very specific set of parameters for it to be used to replace a location. It also requires an enormous amount of prep time, –many, many months- pre-lighting and blocking virtual environments. People are going to have to allow directors and cameramen to start their work months earlier than usual. I guess that’s the disadvantage: It will be needed extra time, money, and crew availability. The advantage is being able to shoot in places and locations that would otherwise be impossible. And also totally credible and seamless!
Nowadays, the amount of television and film content on offer is very large. Do you think it is easier nowadays to be a cinematographer? Do you think this offer will be maintained over time?
There are so many wonderful opportunities right now with the amount of varied content being produced for screens of all sizes. There has never been a better time to be a cinematographer and find work.
At the same time, because there are so many, it doesn’t seem as specialized as it used to be and that has made it difficult for people to stand out. The choice is very wide. There are lots of people doing amazing work who struggle to find good projects to work on.
All I can say is that if you love it, and you think you were born to do it, it’s worth the struggle because there’s no better feeling in the world than being in a theater, surrounded by hundreds of people, when the lights go down and your images appear on the screen. It’s something to aspire to and something that continues to drive me today: people’s common love of sharing stories.
Taking all these technologies in mind, what do you think will be the next technological revolution in the industry?
I think there is enormous potential in augmented and virtual reality in ways we cannot yet imagine. I don’t think it’s going to replace film or television, but it will be an additional complementary experience.u