How one DSLR pioneer shoots for the big screen with a little camera

Horseshoe Bend, AZ (Vincent Laforet Horseshoe Bend Aerial 01)
Aerial, Horseshoe Bend, AZ

When it comes to the work of Vincent Laforet, the accolades speak for themselves. As an editorial photographer, he earned a shared Feature Photography Pulitzer Prize on assignment for the New York Times in 2002. And as a videographer primarily using DSLR equipment, he won gold, silver, and bronze awards in the Titanium category of the 2010 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. Laforet, who shot a short film entirely with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR, is often cited as the pioneer of DSLR filmmaking.

Even without the awards and recognition, Laforet’s work is frequently in the forefront as he talks about it willingly and eloquently on a regular basis, often via interviews and his blog. Far from being a creator who guards his visions close to the chest (except his first feature-length film that he’s preparing to shoot), Laforet is always working on the cutting-edge of technology – getting his hands on new cameras and equipment like the Freefly Movi camera rig, RED Epic, and Canon Cinema EOS – and sharing his experience through inside-look and how-to videos.

Technology aside, Laforet, who started his career as a journalist after graduating from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, insists that it is always about the art and the story, and that tech is simply a tool to get the job done more efficiently — the evolution of technology is simply about knocking down the barriers to one’s vision.

Picking the brain of one of the industry’s most talented photographers and videographers, we spoke with Laforet recently to talk about his hands-on experiences with the latest tech, return to his photography roots, and what truly drives him.

You come from a family of filmmakers, and now you’re about to direct your first feature-length film. What can you tell us about it?

I can speak in very wide generalities, because you know how Hollywood is. I would tell you the entire script if I could. Agents don’t like that, because they’re stupid. It’s a high-tech thriller that deals with social networking and augmented reality. It’s a very interesting series of events, which is the most I can tell. It’s definitely technology-driven, definitely relates to a lot of the things we’re going through these days in an original way. I’m purposefully being cryptic. I don’t want anyone else to write it and get it up before I do. [Laughs]

The film will determine the technology. It will be whatever is available in a year or so, when we’ll probably start production on it. I think a very important key concept here is the story determines the need for technology and the specific tools – it’s all story-driven. I think the [Freefly] Movi and the [RED] Epic are very likely tools to be used on this film. I can tell you one of the things people have not yet understood about the Movi is how not only it can do amazing long takes, long shots, it also is incredible at doing simple shots incredibly quickly. What’s amazing with the Movi is not just the complex shots but how fast you can do general coverage and how mobile you are. We shot a short film last week in New York City, and the entire team was just blown away with how fast we were going through shots and getting extremely good results. 

When you use these technical tools, what excites you? What’s frustrating?

It’s the creative possibilities. As I’ve gone from a photographer to being a [director of photography] to being a director, I’ve realized my role in this entire scheme of things as a filmmaker is to understand the technology – exploit it for what it can do – but focus on things that are not technology-driven, i.e., the script, acting, wardrobe, blocking, lighting, scoring, editing…you name it. What’s interesting with this technology is the ability – if you know how to use it – to work faster, make better shots, be more efficient and more creative.

Chrysler Lights, New York, NY (Vincent Laforet Chrysler Lights 04)
Chrysler Lights, New York, NY

There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing you can’t get a [piece of equipment] down to this location, that you can’t get the shot you’re dreaming of. So you look for technology that breaks those barriers, to execute the vision that you have in your mind. That’s the key goal, to focus on that vision and that craft. That gets lost a lot today in technology as we’re so focused on gear and what pieces of gear we’re supposed to use, as opposed to asking ourselves, “Why? How can that best serve the story?”

Did you always see this as the next step for you once you started shooting short films?

I wanted to make a film since I can remember. I come from a filmmaking background…my dad who brought me up was a director of photography at Premiere magazine in France (and) my biological dad directed the film Emmanuelle, which is one of the most popular French films…so I literally grew up on film sets. So it’s always been in my blood.

I had a choice to go to film school, but I chose journalism when I was 18. I wanted to document reality first and then go on to the la-la world, if you will. I’ve always known that was where my ultimate goal was. It’s a lifelong dream, and now that I’ve had a good amount of success as a photographer, my goal is to make one good film before I pass away.

But you’re also going back into still photography a bit with the fine art section on your website.

Exactly. I’m making a concerted effort to go back. I’ve got an 80-megapixel medium format body (Mamiya Leaf Credo 80). I love working with teams, but there’s also something to be said about going out by yourself – with one camera and a few lenses, and maybe a tripod – and doing everything quietly and on your own and at your own pace.

Lake Powell, AZ (Vincent Laforet Lake Powell Aerial 02)
Aerial, Lake Powell, AZ

[The site] is up now. We’re doing some more improvements before we make it really public. If you go to vincentlaforet.com or laforetvisuals.com, that will come up as one of the options. It’s a new interface for getting prints and stuff like that.

Do you see jumping back and forth between still photography and videography as something for everyone?

It’s two very different sets of skills. The prototypical journalist or photographer is more introverted and likes to work alone. They also like to be reactive – go out and take a camera and see what happens on the street or at an event, see how the light goes. Whereas filmmaking is about collaborating with people. It’s about preparation. It’s about pre-visualizing and making things happen. As opposed to being reactive, you’re very much proactive. The only commonalities are framing, composition, and lighting and color. It’s just not for everybody. That’s absolutely the case, in my opinion.

Rockefeller Center, New York, NY (Vincent Laforet Rockefeller Center Aerial 01)
Aerial, Rockefeller Center, New York, NY

I think I did two things that eased my transition from still to video/film production. The most important was moving from editorial to commercial photography jobs. That allowed me to adapt to working with clients, agencies, conference calls and pitches, treatments, larger crews, producers, and complex logistics and bigger budgets — each skill can be a very steep learning curve. Had I gone straight from editorial photography into video/film production, I think it would have been significantly more difficult. The most important skill you learn is you must have a vision of the end result of your work. As an editorial photographer, you go out looking for an image with a story in mind, or often in breaking news a bit of experience to rely on. As a filmmaker, you need to do a tremendous amount of thinking, research, reference material collection so that when it comes time to enter pre-production — no production — you can clearly communicate to all of the people you are working with (department heads) what it is that you are looking to accomplish together. A director looks like (s)he isn’t doing much on set because almost all of their work is done before they ever set foot on set. And that is a key lesson to learn and live by as one makes the transition into that world.

When you were working as a still photographer, it was the Canon EOS 5D Mark II that prompted you to start shooting motion. What is it, specifically, that excited you about working on video with DSLR cameras versus traditional video formats?

…The evolution of technology is simply about knocking down the barriers to one’s vision.

I couldn’t afford the traditional video formats. At the time, a good, quality digital film camera cost $250,000, or it cost you several thousands of dollars to shoot and process film. You have to go to film school and pretty much pay $250,000 for education to get a chance to shoot a few films during your tenure there. So this was the first readily available camera that I and pretty much everyone else got in their hands that gave them that filmic look. I had bought that first Panasonic camera a few years prior that shot 24 frames per second, and the sensor was just too small and the lens choices were incredibly limited, so I brought it back. This was the first camera that was just completely liberating. That’s why it’s had the explosion that it’s had, because people could use the lenses they have, it’s affordable, it’s small and light, and it’s incredibly sensitive to low light. It’s everything you need if you don’t have a budget.

From your experience with them so far, are there certain types of video shooting for which you think DSLR cameras are optimal?

No. I wouldn’t limit it that way. I think they can shoot just about anything. The only thing they don’t do is slow motion. Other than that, they can pretty much do anything you can imagine.

Anything in particular on the horizon you’re excited about?

The only thing that really interests me right now is the 6K Dragon from RED, because of the latitude that they’re claiming. They’re claiming 2.5-3 stops, even 4 latitude gain over their current sensor, which would effectively put the digital sensor at exceeding the latitude of film, and that’s groundbreaking. So if RED can pull that off, that ends the conversation about film versus digital right then and there. That actually excites me, to have a sensor for the first time in history actually exceed the latitude of film.

Coney Island, NY (Vincent Laforet Coney Island Aerial 04)
Aerial, Coney Island, NY

Vincent Laforet is a DGA Director & DP based out of Los Angeles known for his forward thinking approach to filmmaking and cutting edge use of technology. Vincent has been awarded the Platinum, Silver, and Bronze Cannes Lions for his directing work and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his photojournalism coverage of 9/11 overseas.

(Images © Vincent Laforet. All Rights Reserved.)

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