Kai Saul is a Director of Photography based in Los Angeles, California. Having his roots and undergrad in music, Kai has had a unique path in cinematography and has been freelancing for the past 5 years. Since then, he has already worked with some of the biggest names in music, such as Lady Gaga, Metallica, Dillon Francis, and Noah Cyrus.
How did you first get into cinematography?
I had always been interested in photography and films when I was young, but I actually went to school for music and I received my bachelor's degree in composition and classical violin performance. In my junior year, I had a roommate who was a film studies major and he asked if I could score some of his class projects. So that led me to seeing a little bit behind the scenes of what they were doing in the film department, and I found it really interesting. Because the program was so small, I was able to come out and be a crew member on set. At that time, students were shooting a lot of 16mm, and that's what got me really hooked. I started playing around with cameras and I took a few film classes. I took a course in 16mm black & white filmmaking, a photography course, and little bit of film theory. I instantly found that there were a lot of parallels between playing music and being a filmmaker. The part of music I enjoyed the most was playing with other people in quartets or in bands, and it's very similar to the collaborative process of filmmaking—working really hard to execute a singular vision that everybody has to be onboard with and believe in creatively and artistically. For me, the camera translated very naturally as another instrument to learn, just as I learned how to play the violin, the piano, the guitar, and the bass. I didn't really know how else to approach it. I just thought of it as a tool that I could use to express myself visually instead of aurally with music, and it went from there.
Most of your work is music videos. Has your music background influenced the type of work you choose?
Yeah. I think music videos were a really natural place for me to start because I already understood rhythm, pacing, phrasing, mood, and tone. I love music of all genres and types. I was composing electroacoustic music at Dartmouth, but I was also playing classical, blues, rock, metal, and jazz. To me, shooting music videos is a kind of way to stay involved with music without pursuing a career as a professional musician.
What route did you take to become a DP, the AC route or G/E route? Or Did you even take one of these routes?
I went to graduate film school to study cinematography after finishing my undergrad, and that's where I started learning all the different positions on set like gripping and camera assisting. I definitely gravitated towards camera assisting because it's what I was more familiar with. While I was getting a grasp on AC'ing, I met a cinematographer who became a mentor to me, Denis Maloney, ASC. He brought me on a couple of features while I was still in school. On the first one, I was the 2nd AC on 16mm for five weeks. That was my first experience being on a professional set without students, working for a great DP, and studying his lighting. So from there I did a lot more operating and AC'ing throughout school. But when I graduated, I decided that I was just going to shoot. I liked what I had learned about those other positions but just felt that for me to progress as a DP and find my voice, I needed to pursue that full time, sink or swim. So it was kind of black and white for me. I didn't give myself an out. I didn't take any operating, gaffing, or AC jobs. I just threw myself into it.
How did you learn how to light?
I think lighting is one of the most beautiful parts of the cinematography process because there is no one right way of doing it. It's very personal and everybody lights differently. The first real exposure to lighting I had was working under Denis, and watching the way he lit kind of blew my mind because when you're in school, you're taught these lighting concepts that are lifted from a textbook. But three-point lighting is not going to get you through 90% of situations, let alone be appropriate for what the moment calls for. I studied what he was doing, and it was probably the first time I really saw somebody bounce light or make a book light, and I didn't even know what that was at the time. But I saw the quality of light he was getting with these techniques that no one was teaching us in school. Watching him light was a turning point for me, and to this day I still use many of those techniques.
When/how did you join APA Agency and how has that been? How was it getting work before joining APA?
It was a very hard slow start, which I think a lot of DPs can relate to, and I was taking anything and everything I could. I was hustling like crazy to survive while also trying to build a reel. Very slowly my reel got better, and there came a point where I knew I wanted to find representation to help get my work out there. Someone was kind enough to connect me with Michael Kirschner, who is now my agent, and we got a conversation going about my work and what I was looking for. He and APA were really responsive to where I was in my career, the kind of guidance I was looking for, and the types of jobs that I was hoping to get.
You’ve recently shot music videos for some pretty big names, what was it like working with artists like Noah Cyrus, Dillon Francis, and Lady Gaga?
On Noah's video, the director, Chris Sims, was someone whose work I loved and had been following for some time. It all starts with the director and he had a great vision for Noah's video, which was very run-and-gun and performance-based. The video for Dillon Francis was narrative-based, though, so they were completely different. Dillon wasn't in his video for more than a single shot, but he was on set and was a lot of fun to work with. Noah is a very different kind of artist, but it was exciting because the video was for her debut single, and she had a lot of her own ideas as well. She was incredibly easy to work with. As for Gaga, I’ve worked with her several times now, and she's one of my favorite artists to collaborate with because she's the most dedicated, passionate person on the set. She's essentially directing her own work. She's the creative director of her entire image, her whole brand, down to basically paying for the videos herself so that she can have complete creative control. It’s very inspiring to work with somebody like that, but who is also very collaborative and selfless and wants to hear your ideas to make the project as good as possible.
Do you have any project in particular that you are most proud of?
I think that video is one of them [Lady Gaga's “Million Reasons”]. It was an incredibly difficult project because she decided to make that video around midnight on a Thursday to shoot it on Friday. So there was quite literally no concept, no crew, no equipment, no locations, and no talent—besides her. Nothing. We pulled that video together in a span of 12 hours and then shot for 24 hours. And I didn't even know that we were making a music video until we started shooting and talking about what scenes we could create. On one hand that's really exciting, but also I'm a big believer in pre-production and planning. So for me that was a really unusual set of circumstances that completely got me out of my comfort zone. But we managed to get through it and piece together a video that was very well-received, and I'm proud of that. But it was a wild experience. It was very difficult to get a full crew including two camera units, cranes, Steadicam, picture cars, and all of her people out to the desert the next morning and be shooting something coherent.
Where do you see your career heading? Leaning more towards music videos? Narrative work?
I certainly want to shoot features, but commercials and music videos are a great way to be working all the time, learn a huge amount of different techniques, and meet a lot of different directors, producers, and crew. Commercials can be very challenging and creative and are also a great way to make a living between narrative projects. Certainly when I start doing features, I'm not going to be at the level where I can just survive off of doing just them. And most DPs can't. Even big, established narrative DPs still shoot ads between features. They pay the bills and provide you some financial stability, and then you can take the narrative work that fulfills you creatively and artistically. Having that balance is really important.
What has been the most complicated set to light? And why?
Recently, one of the hardest things to light was ironically actually very simple, at least in concept. I was lighting a huge night exterior for a Jaguar commercial. There were a lot of unknowns in terms of the logistics of lighting because we were out on a closed-course racetrack in the middle of the night and had to light a huge area and work extremely quickly, in part because it was around the summer solstice. So it came down to how to light it most efficiently, and whatever we decided on the scout was what we were committing to. And I think those are the situations that can be the most intimidating because there is no leeway to alter the game plan once you start shooting. I decided to light the track with a Bebee light, which is an array of HMIs on a crane, which is then mounted on the back of a truck. It's a nearly 100K light you can place at enormous distances from the subject, but it's very big, slow, and difficult to move around, especially on uneven terrain like off road in the desert. So the scout became a conversation about where we could safely place the truck, how much throw we could get from it, and what my stop was going to be a quarter mile away. And a lot of these are total unknowns until you strike the light and start finessing it. We were also shooting a car which had to be photographed under specific aesthetic guidelines from the client. So I would say that was both one of the most simple sets to light because there was one light, but also the hardest because it meant committing to a placement that we could not change on the day without destroying our schedule.
If you were to choose your own look/aesthetic, what would it be and why?
I think it's a look that combines crafted, story-based decisions with the breathing room to capture moments that can only happen in situations that aren't totally controlled. I think the Noah Cyrus video is a good example. There are moments that are totally off the cuff, running and gunning and finding the light, but there are also moments where we we've lit them carefully. I'm really interested in the unexpected and happy accidents. I think if you over-plan, over-light, and are too controlling of every lighting situation, you miss out on some really beautiful moments or a connection to the actor and a performance that might only be able to happen under circumstances that allow for it. I love to roll when the actor or the artist isn't aware. I like putting myself in situations where you can find moments that feel really honest. And for me the greatest excitement is witnessing a performance that feels authentic and moving, and I want my images to capture that same feeling. I also take a lot of inspiration from nature.
I think it's no secret that most of the greatest photographers and painters throughout time have been influenced by natural light, and cinematography takes it a step further because we can't just wait for the perfect moment or the right light. We have to be willing to adapt and create fictional images. But even when I'm lighting artificially, I love and strive for moments that still feel like they could have been lit by natural or available light.
What is your favorite camera to shoot on?
These days I use the Alexa, or some form of the Alexa like the Mini or the Amira, on 95% of projects. Although I haven't shot RED in a long time, the new Panavision DXL uses a RED 8K sensor that I'm very excited about and tested recently, and I think it could be really interesting. But I'm very comfortable with the look of the Alexa.
What is your favorite lens/set of lenses to shoot on?
I have a really long-term relationship with Panavision, and I try to run all my camera packages through them. I love Panavision lenses and they're obviously a special place because their lenses can't be rented anywhere else in the world. What they're able to do in-house with their existing lenses is pretty remarkable. If there's a lens that I like certain characteristics of, for example, if I like the sharpness and neutral color rendition of a Primo but I feel it's too contrasty for a certain project, they can take the lens apart and modify the coatings on the elements to lift the blacks, or soften the overall appearance while retaining the qualities that I do like. That's something that I think very few other rental houses in the world can offer. Vintage Panavision anamorphics in particular are my absolute favorite lenses to shoot on.
Any upcoming and exciting work you would like us to know about?
I'm going to be shooting a short film with a director that I just absolutely love and who is a great friend of mine. It's an extremely creative project, and we will have the support of Panavision to try some experimental stuff. So I'm really excited to see how that unfolds.