Chris Soos: Cinematic Alchemist

A Music Video Wire Interview by Wendell Scot Greene

“Passionate”, “subversive”, “innovative”, “artistic” and “honest”, are only a few of the adjectives that have been used to describe Director of Photography, Chris Soos.

Hailing from Canada, Soos attended film school at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto where he majored in Film Studies. He cut his teeth in the industry shooting music videos and commercials, developing a reputation for quality work that made him an in demand cinematographer.

The recipient of five Canadian Society of Cinematographers Awards for Best Music Video including a pair of trophies with director and creative soul mate Floria Sigismondi for their work on Tricky’s “She Makes Me Want to Die” and Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”, Soos has photographed music videos for No Doubt, Erykah Badu, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, David Bowie and Pink, and commercials for Target, Coca-Cola, BMW, and Sony, to name only a few.

The sci-fi thriller “1.0” which debut at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, marked his first feature film credit, and Soos’ cinematography was singled out for praise by several critics including The Hollywood Reporter, for his unique use of “…colors to solidly establish a mood of feverish paranoia.”

Wendell Scot Greene: You had a close family member who worked in the film business as a director and producer. Did that association better prepare you for entering film school?

Chris Soos: My uncle, Bob Schultz, with whom I have a special relationship introduced me, psychologically speaking, to the sound-stage/production company environment at a very early age in Toronto. Nepotism wasn’t directly in the mix, it was a combination of meeting ‘film types’ from the past through my uncle and being very comfortable with a sound-stage environment made me very strong psychologically going into film school.

I strolled into the film school thing with confidence and a bit of an attitude, kind of feeling of “me against the world” and “the odds are against me”, but I was in for the fight. I spent a year in Business school, traveled the world for a year, and now with my enrollment at Ryerson, I was ready to kick ass despite my uncle’s recommendation to get into dentistry.

WG: What was the film school experience like for you?

CS: Well the very first week in school they handed us 16mm Eyemo cameras. Wow, I was hooked. I had the added benefit of personally knowing some of the commercial DPs my Uncle had worked with in the past. Two guys in particular, Laszlo George and Gabor Tarko. I spoke to them regularly about everything.

I knew I wanted to shoot and the school gave me the freedom, but I also kept teaching myself. The environment also introduced me to a handful of committed filmmakers, we’re still friends, that’s the main thing you get out of school, friends.

WG: Were you concentrating on building your reel while still in school?

CS: I knew that from being around commercial production companies that coming into the market without a reel was suicide. So, I used the time in school to produce a DP show-reel. A show-reel with commercial stuff, music video stuff, narrative, the works, I even shot a 35mm commercial in my 2nd year just to have a quality looking job on a student reel. Armed with smart witty business cards, an actual reel with stuff worth showing, and an attitude straight out of business school, I knocked on doors with my perfectly formatted resume, and worked it, trying to “break-in”.

WG: What was their response?

CS: (Laughing)

“Wow, your stuff looks great, good luck! Door slam!”
“Wow, your stuff looks great, good luck!, Door slam!”
“Wow, your stuff looks great, good luck!, Door slam!”
“Wow, your stuff looks great, good luck!, Door slam!”

WG: Oh, man, over and over again, I feel your pain. So what did you do next?

CS: I told you film school was important, right? Well, I reconnected with a friend from Ryerson, named Jeff Renfroe [Director of the feature film “1.0”] who used his talents to weasel his way into a young music video company. I started gaffing and used the money to produce low budget music videos and hired myself to shoot them. They were played, got some attention, and the ball started to roll. After working with other music video directors and getting notoriety, I signed two years later with a commercial company to shoot ‘in-house’ as a full time staffed DP. I met everybody in the commercial industry working at that company and from there the rest just snowballed.

This experience was my 2nd film school. I learned to shoot fast, good, and cheap. The combination that’s impossible to break. That’s the secret.

WG: The time right after you finish film school is usually followed by a period of “paying dues” – doing PA work, camera assisting, trying to build contacts, and gain set experience. What did you learn from that experience that helped you later in your career?

CS: A lot of the experience I learned “paying dues” meant nothing, while other experiences, even though insignificant at the time, provided the building blocks for my own psychological make-up.

Paying your dues in the hard physical sense is important. You learn endurance regardless of your physical condition. This annoying “physical sandbag carrying period” is film army boot camp. You soon learn film is more like a circus, and decide whether this is the life for you or not. You do it because you love it. And it’s true, you have to love it, because there’s too much competition.. This “paying dues” moment also introduces you to a cross section of the sociological breakdown of the environment. Since you’re probably going to meet your soul mate and best friends doing this, you might as well like it.

Learning empathy is important, knowing what it’s like to be yelled at, or working until you drop, will probably affect the way you talk to people and work with groups of people on film crews in the future. All this said, now I know how to become a better human being, and profit from my experience as a PA when I’m working on set as a hot shot DP.

WG: And you were trying to shoot as much as possible as well, right?

CS: Yes, in fact, the best experience I’ve had ‘paying dues’ was shooting low budget stuff with creative control. This is when you get an opportunity to stand out as a filmmaker. Shooting creative lower budget projects, which have the potential of gaining recognition, is the key to being recognized by people with money. Money people give you power on set, that’s it really. The more experience you have, the stronger the chance of being hired for something else. The bigger the projects you shoot, the stronger your show-reel, and your career snowballs a little more.

WG: A few years ago you were quoted as saying that music videos were an exciting medium for me because it’s a “creative highway where music, fashion and painting meet and are transformed by each other.” Do you still feel that way? Or do you believe the medium of music videos has begun to feed off itself?

CS: Feed off itself, yeah sure, but life comes in waves, as soon as I get sick of the music video environment and feel the medium is being used essentially to buy up industry talent, some cool track comes out, you get the call for the job, you’re working with your favorite director, your crew’s available, Hurray!

The music video on it’s own is obviously a commercial to sell units. It does this through attitude, like a can of Diet Coke sells units by looking ‘cool’.

WG: I noticed you said “on it’s own”. So what, if anything, is needed to elevate it to an artform?

Well, what if a director has a dream or nightmare, and what if a DP has the same kind of feelings about the director’s thoughts? What if the director and DP all of a sudden really and truly get excited about each other’s ideas, what if these ideas once visualized in your head remind you of a photograph you once took, a place you visited, a painting you saw, a picture a relative showed you years ago, the inside cover on last month’s “Italian Vogue”, an installation you saw in New York, some camera trick you saw in a 1930’s film? The possibilities are endless.

Now, all of a sudden the band wants the creative team to have creative control, they like your ideas, and feel comfortable fusing music with your fashion sense, absorbing visual icons and subconscious creative moments that are essentially property of Director/DP, it’s a special relationship, and it’s art. It takes two to tango baby, and you can quote me on that. A successful commercial hit that’s huge and captained by a megalomaniac is the product of one person, but when you get a special fusion of not just the surrounding art forms, but of people connected without conversation, simpatico, a secret relationship between two people or more, that can’t simply be defined or repeated, you have art. It can happen, it’s not often, but occasionally it can happen.

The relationship I’m trying to describe and I’m getting very alchemistic on you right now,(laughs) happens more on music videos then commercials, so go figure. There’s no magic medium, no film, no genre, no decade, no fashion trend, no secret filter, no nothing. Nothing’s perfect, and so it shouldn’t be. Life’s unpredictable.

In any special relationship life grows, that’s why art is analogous to life, and why art is Real like life is Real. It’s a fingerprint, an echo. A reminder that the things that grow, also begin to die. I mean forget about predicting the individual or medium, but trends do exist, as soon as you accurately predict the death of the creative music video as an art project or art form, here it comes again, hopefully by someone different. Change is good, as long as he or she isn’t trying to take my job.

WG: You’ve collaborated with several directors on music videos and commercials but your best known for your creative partnership with Floria Sigismondi. What makes this relationship so special and your work together so striking?

CS: Something just clicks. We’re close friends and I think that’s most important, there’s a human relationship present. When we work, it’s totally professional. Sure, we goof around, but we both know, with a combined effort evident in our past working relationship, we produce an environment that’s artistic. It’s not visible in terms of the props, sets, make-up– that’s the theater. The real art shines in our working relationship. I have it with other directors and she has it with other DP’s, but the connection I have with Floria is unique, it’s unlike any other relationship I’ve had with another director.

When I work in different situations, and maybe I’m asked, perhaps not directly, to put on the “Floria vibe”–the implication being ‘that’s why we hired you’, it just doesn’t work. Like I said before, it takes two to tango. And that’s it, I don’t know how to duplicate the relationship or even explain it.

Sometimes it’s important not to think of what you’re doing, you just do it. When we’re working there’s a secret non verbal language we use, we find some abstract place in our heads, and play together, while the everybody else in the crew, spends their time catching up to the ideas that generally go back a forth and eventually magnetize into some form. I’ll still argue our process is the most significant work we’ll accomplish. You can’t duplicate that kind of stuff. No amount of money, no physical duplication of the environment can do it, because the initial excitement is lost. The excitement! That’s really what it’s all about! You get excited working towards something you think is great, free, artistic, you both connect visually, the positive art vibe just takes over the whole space, production office, stage, telecine, the mechanics of film is simply the medium to spread the pigment.

WG: You’ve have the reputation as a DP who loves to shape and contour the characteristics of a film stock in the lab and/or telecine to fit the specific needs of the video or commercial. What type of tailoring did you use on the Kodak 5218 500T to support [Director] Laurent Briet’s vision for the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Fortune’s Faded” video?

CS: I needed a sharp look under low light (i.e. practical lighting) for speed. We had a lot of set-ups that required the use of an EFX team for reference and tracking information, and I knew ahead from having had to rehearse the steadicam moves not to waste time lighting for a lower ASA since the floor space was valuable.

The new Vision stock is very sharp. The ‘toe’ sees deep into the shadows for low contrast flat pass work in post. The final look, inspired by Bill Henson’s photography, was dug into by Sean Coleman at Rushes, and the metallic lighting, aided by the new LED ring light, added to the effect. The rest was pretty much practical lighting with some added key, fill, and slashes here and there, nothing too complicated.

WG: I want to read you another quote:

“There are two things you do as a cinematographer — you add light, and you take light away. And the balance that you achieve is relative to everything inside of you” – Chris Soos

So based upon your statement would I be correct in saying that your approach to lighting is motivated by aesthetic considerations more than technical ones?

CS: Yes definitely. It’s just the way I am. Motivated light sources, technical lighting, and careful attention to consistent key to fill ratios, I find this stuff boring. I see the need for it, but it’s just a process that really doesn’t turn me on.

I think, basically I’m turning egocentric. My way is the best way, cause I think it looks the best. Sure I put a narrative or the whatever ‘product’ in context to my job, it has to fit into the big picture, the director’s vision, the vision of the job but it might be a vision, that maybe, nobody can see except me. It’s a weird position to be in. Sure, sometimes a director is a bit lost; even they don’t really know what your film will look like. In a way you have a clearer picture than anybody, you see the visual texture, the film beauty, you feel the synergy of light and sound before the rushes. When you reach this stage, play with the medium, it’s your right as a creative human being, and that’s why, I’d like to think, they’ve hired Chris Soos for a reason. I just like the idea of me being hired because of me, because of the respect for my work, lighting, attitude, my process is very much about myself, it’s for me to design and to be comfortable with.
My work is a different story, a selfless story, it’s very much about my environment, my environment is my focus puller, my gaffer, my key grip, my director, and everybody working hard.

WG: On Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter video you used grads [filters] to control the light from the Kino Flos used to light her. When did you start using this technique?

CS: I love grads. I’ve been using them since film school. I usually pull them out on static portrait stuff. Grads shape light. Cutting a large soft source with a blade [flag] looks different than a grad in-camera. It’s lighting, negative lighting.

WG: You recently photographed Pink’s “God is a DJ” music video. [Directed by Jake Scott] Was spontaneity the operative word to describe your approach to lighting that video?

CS: No, I think easy/trashy lighting would best describe it.

It was a run-and-gun Super-16 [Aaton] A-minima filmed music video, fast and light. Stick a light on top of the camera, shoot in real looking environments, glamorized up a bit, shot more documentary style with a couple flash glam elements. Sort of pop video meets Chris Doyle*.

[* Chris Doyle was the DP for Director Wong-Kong Wai’s “Chungking Express”, “Fallen Angels” and “In The Mood for Love”-]

WG: There are two opposing schools of thought: “Fix it in post” versus “do it in camera”. What’s your opinion?

CS: Do I think all shots traditionally done in-camera should stay in-camera? No.

Do I think all traditional post ‘fixes’ should stay, by film law, as a post thing, never to be tackled in-camera? Again my answer is No.

The issue of ‘capturing the images before you get to post’ defines the craft of cinematography to the cinematographer, not to the producer.

Producers like to save money, that’s their job. If it’s cheaper and easier, time wise, to shoot ‘in-camera’, then by all means, shoot in-camera. If it’s cheaper and easier to shoot plates and ‘fix it in post’, then by all means, fix it in post. End of story.

The job of the cinematographer, in context to doing what the director wants, should be working with all departments to make the shot look as good as possible. It’s all about the narrative/photographic comprehension of the scene in context to the big picture, something shared in a good relationship between Director and DP. So when the visual comprehension gets filtered down the hierarchy of all departments, and the numbers come-in, it’s up to the producer to OK any budget stressing decisions.

Playing the safe way out, in other words, choosing what’s cheapest doesn’t make for good movie making. With too many shots for post, particularly under the wrong kind of creative supervision, combined with the lack of time and/or money is a recipe for disaster.

WG: As DPs we’re often caught in the middle of the financial-creative tug-of-war. What’s the solution?

CS: It’s a balance like anything else, and it’s vital for DPs to fully understand the quality they’re buying into by agreeing to certain elements for a particular scene being shifted to post. For a DP to allow himself to be blindly dragged into bad decision-making is career suicide. The quest to save money blinds producers from the final image. All too often I’ve witnessed producers consoling their directors when certain shots obviously don’t look good, “Ah, looks great…People will never notice that tiny thing…oh, you’re a genius!” ass kissing shit like you’ve never heard, but at the end of the day if the shot compo sited either ‘in-camera’ or in post, looks like shit, you get to live with it for the rest of your life. Do you think producers live with this privilege?

WG: Not a chance. So what you’re telling me is that sometimes you have to be willing to fight for what you really believe in?

CS: You always have to fight. It’s your career. The industry is as independent and freelance as competitive so what job security is there? Actually, I figured out the secret, make sure your lighting, framing, attitude, creative relationship, are amazing. Then all the rest falls in place. Be a good cinematographer, not a good wing of the post FX team, not the producer’s ‘yes’ man, not so blind as to walk into visual barf both on camera or six months later, you’ll kill yourself. It’s simple and boils down to one thing:

IT’S GOTTA LOOK GOOD! IT’S GOTTA LOOK GOOD! IT’S GOTTA LOOK GOOD!

I guarantee, no matter how loud the screaming match, if the shot looks good, and you were correct in your opinion, no matter if the shot went to ‘post’ or stayed ‘in-camera’, you’ll be working again.

WG: Good to know. But obviously if you want to keep working as a cinematographer you’re going to have to face the reality of shooting FX laden videos and commercials. What’s your practical approach to shooting these types of projects?

CS: My formula for a FX heavy project is to construct at least 50% of the final composited scene in camera and to never allow a CGI image to occupy more than 10% of the frame. Anything bigger then 10% the amount of finesse work in post goes up exponentially when CGI objects look big. This especially applies on commercials since they don’t have six weeks in post to finesse CGI elements for each shot. The main thing overall is trying to maintain a photographic look.

WG: What are your thoughts on lighting and capturing images in HD?

CS: HD’s limited latitude scares me a bit since lighting is trickier, the highlights bleed, and shadows aren’t black enough. I would have the tendency to treat the HD medium, not as a replacement for photography, but as an information data-gathering machine. Therefore, to work fast with the medium, shoot everything as a flat pass, flat lighting, nothing original or edgy, and define the photo look later in telecine along with using plug-ins. The non-commitment process scares me, for one thing, it’s boring, and two, you’re relying on too many other people in post to define a ‘look’ that will define you as a cinematographer.

WG: What advice would you give aspiring DPs and Directors who want to break into music videos and commercials? What should they keep in mind when putting together their first show reel?

CS: My personal recommendation would be to always take a chance, be risky.

Put together a reel of extremely original, full of attitude, edgy, subtle/extreme images, something with unique camera movement. As long as its something interesting and different that catches the eye of someone at a production company, no matter how small the budget, no matter where it’s from, no matter what language, whatever the quality, 1/2 or Digi Beta– it doesn’t matter.. Production companies, directors, producers, are always looking for interesting people, not boring people. Boring people are a dime-a-dozen, particularly in Hollywood. What’s not interesting is a show reel full of boring dull commercials and generic music videos.

Proving you can light doesn’t mean shit. First of all, lighting is easy; it’s not rocket science. If good lighting and smooth camera work sparked interest in show reels, the industry masses would probably be populated by gaffers, they work harder than DPs anyway, but it’s not the case. Remember, lighting is easy and practice makes perfect, so breaking into the craft is simple. A basic digital camera and 35mm SLR, as well as all those how-to books out there, make it pretty easy to figure out the basics.

WG: Final question, what’s next for Chris Soos?

CS: I’m shooting a music video for “The Strokes” in New York with [Director] Jake Scott. I’m on hold for a bunch of projects after that. I don’t know, hopefully I’ll find an interesting film project by the end of the year. I’m looking for a good film so let me know if you hear anything. And thanks for the questions.


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