Stuart Graham is a commercial cinematographer based out of London, England. He has been shooting for 16 years and is most known for his car commercials for Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi.
How did you get into the commercial cinematography world?
I started as a runner then moved on to be a studio manager, PA, 2nd AC, 1st AC and camera operator. It was tough at first, but I made the jump to DOP and eventually I started to get regular work. My contacts were all in TVC’s & not really in Features or documentaries so commercials was a natural world to work in.
How do you think your work has evolved over the course of your career? Do you see things in a different eye now then when you started?
I see things more confidently for sure. I also see things at greater ISO’s than ever before as our camera’s can easily shoot at 3200 ISO with small sources. Whereas previously when I was shooting on film, 500 ISO and small sources could create a very muddy image which was not always appropriate for the scene. My agents, Cosmic and Artistry have massively helped increase my choice of which jobs to cherry pick, something which I found tough when I had no representation 7 years ago.
You’ve done quite a few car commercials. What’s the process like shooting a car commercial as opposed to other commercials? Is there a big difference?
Shooting cars can be and generally is a great experience for me. The challenge is often the colour of car you’re given as that’s something I have zero input with... It’s often some marketing number that states it’s a white car or an electric orange model etc, and neither are often appropriate colours for the film. There are also tight schedules where we have to shoot shots of the car at a not so ideal time of the day for the light. This is a painful reality to accept on a daily basis too.
How do you shoot work that has VFX or CGI in it? Is there a different lighting and shooting process you find yourself using?
Post production is a DOP’s best friend! I always work closely with the post production representative or in their absence I work to the notes we made during the post meeting. If you mess up their plate shots & requests then you can bet the CGI in the final edit will be poor and thus I will look bad too. I think I’m a geek at heart as I secretly really like the process of delivering plate shots to enable something in CGI to be created that we couldn’t achieve ‘in camera.'
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much an ‘in camera FX’ DOP and have developed or helped develop many pieces of equipment and techniques to achieve weird and wonderful shots.
What has been your most challenging commercial to shoot and why?
Really hard to pick one...often the biggest challenge is that the budget doesn’t match the true cost of the idea. Financial challenges aside, it’s often the physical challenges like temperatures that make it a tough challenge to focus. Earlier this year I shot HUAWEI spot in Northern China with the director Marc Schoelermann and one location was -18 C!
A few years ago I shot the new VW golf out in the Palm desert with the director Steve Downer. It was 52 degrees Celsius on a jet black race track. In 2003 I shot a BBC promotional film for their TV series ‘The Hustle.' Ironically this ‘one shot’ film was made up of 126 plate shots! At the time the post production company M.P.C said it was the most complex ‘shot’ they’d ever done.
I believe we need a challenge to push our minds into thinking of new ways, better ways and the diamond ‘different’ ways of shooting a subject.
Your work has a beautiful aesthetic to it. How often do you work with the same directors? Do you also work closely with colorists?
Thanks! I have made some dear friends who are directors and try so hard to be available for them. But it’s truly impossible to always be there for them, I’m lucky they just keep asking for me.
I do have my favorite colourists, in no particular order: Aline Sequin, Mark Horobin, Mark Gethin, Jean-Clement Soret, Moncho Sanchez-Gomez...oddly ALL work or have worked at M.P.C London.
You take stills as well, do you find yourself shooting stills mainly in your freetime? Do you find that taking stills influence your cinematography choices as well?
I take stills almost everyday, I also enjoy not shooting stills and just watching an event rather than capturing it. I do find stills are more influential to me than any movie, music video or commercial. My agents don’t understand why I don’t look at directors or other DOP’s work unless I’m asked to. For me I prefer to find inspiration from stills...be it a shot from the 1930’s, Instagram, a coffee table book or something I saw in the BJP (British Journal of Photography) - a magazine I’ve subscribed to for over 30 years.
A friend, director and DOP Peter Thwaites who I assisted as a 2nd and 1st AC said to me, “you never watched or took in what I did as DOP, but when you shoot for me your approach is what I would have done only you do it quicker and generally get there first time.”
I think what I’m trying to say is not watching DOP or Directors reels just works for me.
The film “Indonesia” is beautiful. What were your technical choices for shooting? (camera, lens, rig)
Thanks! we took cameras (RED WEAPON) on the Tech Scout and shot a few scenes then. It was a mixture of Anamorphic glass and fast full frame Canon primes mainly shot from my Easy Rig. The director, Jan Wentz had a basic idea that was to capture as much as we could of Indonesia and the people of Indonesia. We shot a lot of footage, time lapses, faces and a wide variety of terrain/ landscapes using drones, sliders, boxes, Easy Rig, hand held, cranes, dolly, pick up trucks, boats and a motorbike! All sounds very grand but it was only me and a great but small local camera crew including two young AC / DP’s Gue Ipul & Bella Panggabean who helped shoot and operate some shots too, so thanks to them are also due.