Oren Soffer is an Israeli cinematographer based in Los Angeles and New York. His work is known for its stylized realism. Throughout his career, Oren has shot for clients including Doritos, IBM, and Viacom.
How did your interest in cinematography come about?
As a kid, my two main interests were visual arts and movies. I was an ardent drawer as early as the age of 4, and my early childhood years were equally defined by obsessing over Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and plotting out Jurassic Park sequels with my friends. I went on to study painting and photography at a fine arts middle school and concurrently started playing around with video as well - at first just with home video cameras, and then with Mini DV. Eventually, I realized that these two defining interests - filmmaking and visual arts - intersected in the role of the cinematographer, and that pretty much sealed my fate!
Growing up in Israel and the US, how do you think Israeli filmmaking differs or is similar to US filmmaking?
I haven’t actually worked professionally in the Israeli film industry - I moved to the US to attend film school (at NYU) right after completing my mandatory military service, and began working in the US industry from there. That said, I definitely think there’s a difference in the filmmaking styles: Israeli filmmaking tends to follow the European model, and is more focused on character than it is on plot. From a logistical standpoint, Israeli film has a scrappy, indie feeling to it, which is very different from the consumerism that inevitably plays a part in the US industry. Finally, I think that Israeli filmmaking - like many other independent European, African and Asian filmmaking cultures - is inherently political, subversive, and often designed to make a statement about something. This cannot always be taken for granted in American filmmaking, but it’s certainly something that I personally feel very in tune with in my own filmmaking work, especially in the current political climate.
What were your early years like as a cinematographer straight out of school?
One thing is for certain, they weren’t very glamorous. I spent most of the time just hopping from random job to random job, and was assisting and operating for a few years out of school for friends and fellow DP’s, until I was able to fully focus on my own cinematography work and turn down other non-DP offers. Finding early cinematography work mostly involved disparate gigs from film school acquaintances, as well as trawling Mandy.com and Craigslist for random opportunities. I also taught cinematography at NYU for a couple of years for a little extra income. Mostly, those early years were spent trying to figure out my place in the industry and to really flesh out what my goals were for my career, and how to achieve those goals. In some ways, it still feels like I’m working on figuring that out.
You have shot quite a lot of narrative projects. Is your ultimate goal to shoot features?
Absolutely, yes. I’ve been a self-professed movie buff since childhood, certainly since well before I considered a career in filmmaking or even realized that was a serious option. I just love movies, and for the longest time all I’ve really wanted to do was to help make them. Since then, my horizons have broadened to see that there are many great opportunities for powerful storytelling in other formats - television, music videos, even in some commercials and branded shorts. I think these days, a well-rounded cinematography career involves a balance of a little bit of everything. But for me, narrative features are definitely the cornerstone of that balance. I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to shoot three so far, with a fourth coming up shooting later this year.
Was there a particular point in your career where you finally felt that you were creating images at an extremely high level?
The funny thing is, as you progress further and further into this career, the goalposts for what feels like high level imagery are constantly moving. I felt like I succeeded in creating high level images on some student projects when I was a senior in college; of course, nowadays I look back on the same images and am shocked at how coarse and unrefined they look. I feel confident in the imagery that I am making now on certain projects that allow myself and the director to really refine the imagery and flex our creative muscles, but I can only imagine that another 5 years from now, much of that imagery will feel just as unrefined as my student work feels for me now. Ultimately, I think this is a good thing - as artists, we must constantly be growing, evolving, honing and refining our taste and our skills, and pushing ourselves to try something new, something challenging, something scary. As much of a cliche as this is, I think that satisfaction is somewhat contradictory to artistry; and while confidence is important, embracing the unknown and always striving for more is just as important.
Is there a particular project you are most proud of thus far into your career?
That would probably be ‘Opera of Cruelty,’ a narrative short film that I shot a couple of years back that went on to be featured in American Cinematographer and win the Student Academy Award last year. The director, Max Fedore, is a true visionary, and he and I share much of the same aesthetic taste and values. The project was immensely challenging, but I think the entire team really knocked it out of the park. More than anything, I think the project represents a lot of what interests me as a DP and as a visual storyteller in general: darkness with a flair for drama, an eye for design, refined and stylized imagery that is still grounded in realism, and an embracing of the weird and the untraditional. The film itself defies categorization - it’s part dance film, part musical; not strictly speaking a narrative film but also not entirely devoid of one either. It lives in this sort of challenging middle ground that is wholly unique - and there’s nothing more exciting to me as an artist as playing in that middle ground. I’d also be remiss not to mention a pair of music videos that I shot for director Griffin Stoddard: ‘Good Hurt’ by Chappell Roan, and ‘Come Follow Me Down’ by George Taylor. Both also trade in the kind of gothic, refined imagery that I am personally quite drawn to, and I’m immensely proud of them as well.
If you had one piece of advice to give a young DP, what would it be and why?
The best piece of advice I can give is this: curate, curate, curate. As a DP, you are just as defined by what you choose NOT to share with the world as you are by what you do. These days, pretty much anyone can become a cinematographer: many (but not all) of the traditional barriers of entry have been removed, and filmmaking is democratized in a way it has never been before. But the new challenge then becomes: how do you stand out in a very crowded field of highly skilled, highly capable and highly talented individuals who are all familiar with the tools and able to create quality imagery?
The answer for me is that your personal identity as an artist becomes what separates you from 100 other girls or guys who can do the same thing as you. The question no longer becomes what are you capable of, but rather, what can you, specifically you, bring to this project that nobody else can? And the way to make that clear is to be selective about what you are putting out into the world. I see a lot of young DP’s out there with websites and reels that demonstrate a wide set of skills, a grasp of a variety of different visual styles and shooting techniques, familiarity with many different pieces of equipment, and so on. But what I don’t see is their unique voice coming through in that work. Demonstrating that you are a jack of all trades obfuscates your personal voice from coming through in your work - and in this crowded environment, I think that personal voice is more important than anything else.
Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
I have a short dance film coming out later this summer directed by the director of ‘Opera of Cruelty,’ Max Fedore; as well as the aforementioned feature film shooting this fall. Otherwise, I’ve got a few commercial and music video projects coming up that should be a lot of fun, and beyond that, excitement to see what the future may hold!