Sy Turnbull is a director of photography based in London. Throughout his career, Sy has shot various projects, from music videos to commercial work for clients such as the Royal Navy.
How did you interest in cinematography begin?
Really naively. I was more interested in photography when I was younger actually. I did a year’s course in college, and I was terrible. I really had no idea what I was doing, and no-one really talked us through the technical process. I took some time off from college and came across cinematography through watching movies. I had no idea what it entailed though. But, I applied to a film course through my university, shot on film, and have been passionate about it ever since. I never picked up a motion camera until then.
How did you learn to light? Did you go to film school, have a mentor, or just learn from experience?
I had a couple of great teachers in film school that ran the cinematography department. I initially learned from them, but honestly still didn’t know what I was doing. It was a slow process for me, but the majority of my learning was from doing small projects and learning on the spot; lighting in the moment, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
I also learned a lot of lighting techniques camera assisting and reading The American Cinematographer. Getting on sets as an assistant and watching how DPs bounce light and use other techniques really opened my eyes into the lighting world.
What would you say are your favorite projects to work on? Narrative, commercial, or music video?
I predominantly work commercials, and like to do 4-5 music videos a year. I started out shooting music videos, they provided me the most opportunity in the realm of work I wanted to achieve. I lean toward projects that are narrative, and anything that is factual as well. I like documentaries, but always see myself shooting in a commercial or cinematic way. My aesthetic is very in-line with the work I did for the Royal Navy: real people, in a real environment. More work like that would be a dream job for me.
“Let It All Go” is a gorgeous and unique video. How was the project conceptualized? Was most of it shot in-camera, green screen, CGI, or a combination of all?
My involvement in the project was super last minute. I got the call for the job on a Friday, and I traveled up to Scotland to film on Tuesday. There was little to no planning until we got there and saw the locations. We had a chat with the whole production crew beforehand, and we ultimately decided to shoot the whole thing clean and manipulate the look in post. No green-screen was involved, it was all shot on location. We ran into to multiple problems on the day of the shoot too. From being bombarded by a biblical amount of flies around sunset, to the follow focus motor giving out, it was a hectic day. Thankfully, the director Sing had a clear vision of the project, and the final product we are all pleased with.
You have some beautiful black and white work. Is there a different process shooting knowing the cut will be in B&W? Does your perspective of lighting and shadows change? Do you have more exposure room?
That project from the get-go was always planned to be black and white. We shot the whole thing in color though to be converted in post. Most of my exposure was set using false color in camera. We had a tight schedule with not a lot of time, so that was the easiest and safest bet.
I did use deliberate choices on set though knowing it will be in B&W. Lighting with harder light to get harder shapes, and using different colored gels on lights to change the look.
So far, what has been your most difficult project to light?
Lighting is such a steep learning curve, and every project brings a unique set of challenges. What I feel is most difficult for cinematographers is that you are often put in a certain situation that you’ve never been in before and expect to light. So you are using the knowledge and experience you have accumulated over the years to light, but the truth is, there’s still a little bit of guessing and it can be scary. For me, getting night exteriors to look good is always a challenge.
At the end of your career, what’s the biggest thing you would want to have accomplished?
I would like to make a feature film that I’m proud of and with the style I want to shoot. It’s hard being a cinematographer sometimes because you get projects presented to you that are great career-wise, but not necessarily in-line with the style you are passionate about. I do get those projects sometimes, but my ultimate goal would be to shoot a feature film that’s completely in-line my taste. Working with great directors definitely helps too. There’s a few I really click with, and the whole process becomes a lot easier working with them.
If you had to pick a favorite set of lenses to shoot on, what would it be and why?
I predominately like to shoot on anamorphic lenses. I feel like they have more character than spherical glass. I like how they bend and warp the images and have their own look. Within the range of anamorphic glass, it really comes down to a per project basis. Sometimes, I like the cleanness of the Zeiss Master Prime Anamorphics, or going with something a little different like the HAWK anamorphics.
Do you have a particular project you are most proud of?
The Royal Navy video is most in-line with my taste. It was sort of a dream project for me: dream references and dream locations with real people. The director, Greg Hackett, was amazing too. He’s a real collaborator that knows what he wants, but is also so open to change. There were a lot of logistics that had to be changed, and he was so adaptable to it all. We also had a really supporting team throughout the shoot that made the process very enjoyable. It was a passion project. It felt like a film school set, but less pressure because we knew how well it was going to turn out.