Michael Belcher is a director of photography based in New York City specializing in Commercial, Narrative and Music Video content. Throughout his career Michael has shot for clients and artists including Nike, Vogue, and Danny Brown.
How did your cinematography career begin?
I’d say my path into the industry has been pretty straight forward. When I was a teenager, I loved movies and was deeply influenced by them. I dreamed of a career in filmmaking, but I didn’t know how to get involved. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and most of the people in my community were laborers. My Mom was a nurse and my Dad was a mailman. We didn’t know any professional artists, so it was a difficult career to imagine. I ended up going to film school at Ithaca College, and afterwards I moved to New York City and did a lot of free PA work that I found on craigslist.com and mandy.com. It was tricky to make ends meet those first two years, and I have to say, during my time as a PA, I worked in some truly unreasonable, unsafe, and inhumane conditions (love and respect to the PA). But, I was thrilled to be learning about and participating in actual filmmaking.
Before long, I felt a pull towards image-making, and I tried to get closer to the camera. I asked AC’s if I could intern for free, and soon I was working as a camera assistant, but only briefly... because I realized I needed to learn lighting. So, I volunteered my way into the lighting department and learned the lighting gear and lighting principles and eventually worked as a Gaffer for a few years. Lighting is my favorite thing. This is where I found the confidence to shoot. I bought a Canon 7D DSLR, which had just been released, and I started to DP tiny projects on the side. Things grew from there, and I definitely still feel like I’m only scratching the surface of this craft.
What are your favorite projects to shoot: Commercial, narrative, or music video?
In my experience, the categories of commercial, narrative, and music video are not mutually exclusive. They often overlap and blur and live inside one another. I usually think about projects on a spectrum of meaningfulness or usefulness. I ask myself, "Is this project helpful to anyone? Who is it serving? Does it need to be made?" Some commercials are very meaningful, and some narratives are not very meaningful. It’s a case-by-case kind of thing, and of course, my favorite projects are the ones that are the most meaningful, or at least have meaningful intentions. In some cases, it’s not entirely clear, but there’s always at least a feeling of certain intentions.
I should also say that even if a project feels a bit frivolous, I still value it tremendously, because it is an opportunity to practice and learn. Literally every day on set has taught me something, and that’s a principle I hold close. It’s easy to lose enthusiasm if the work isn’t outwardly inspiring, or if the production is not well organized, or if someone makes a mistake and it affects my ability to perform. But, I learned early on that if I don’t bring my best to every project, then it’s hard to bring my best to any project. So, I just try to bring the heat every time and thank my lucky stars I get to be around these people and in these locations and participating in this medium.
Was there a particular project that ended up being a turning point in your career? If so, which one and why?
Looking back, I think shooting the music video for Danny Brown’s “Grown Up” was a turning point. There was no budget, we had a small but talented crew, and everyone worked for free and still brought their A-game.
The director (Greg Brunkalla) originally asked Scott Sans to DP the video, but Scott was just beginning to operate steadicam (he’s a stone cold pro now). Since he wanted to focus on his operating, he offered me the opportunity to DP. This was a big deal for me. I originally met Scott and Greg years earlier on a travel job when I was hired as their driver and runner! But, they gave me opportunities to grow with them. A few years after that first project, I worked as Scott’s camera assistant, and a few years after that I was his Gaffer on a number of jobs. I’m still so so grateful for this kind of generosity. In many ways, it’s the only way to advance. It was definitely a watershed moment for me when they invited me to DP the video.
You are represented right now by Partos. How has representation helped your career?
In my experience, having representation is super helpful, for many reasons. Generally speaking, I think having an agency adds legitimacy and visibility, which opens doors to new collaborators. My agents at Partos also help me decide between projects and keep perspective on the long view of my career. It’s also wonderful to have a team for paperwork support. They help negotiate my rates, support me with protective contracts, keep track of invoices, organize my calendar, etc. To me, these are the annoying things, the only things that feel like work when it comes to filmmaking. They help streamline the logistics so I can put more energy into what shows up on screen. That makes me incredibly happy!
We see that you’ve directed some projects. How do you like directing vs. shooting?
It has been good for me to step into the directing role a number of times. I always learn a lot. I think having that level of control over the image and the edit has allowed me to experiment with a few things and discover new ideas for storytelling. Walking in the director’s shoes a little bit helps me anticipate the needs of the directors I work with when I’m playing my usual DP role. So, it’s fun and informative, but I prefer being a DP.
A lot of your work has fantastic, vibrant colors. Do you often work with the same colorist? How important do you see a DP to colorist relationship?
Coloring is definitely extremely important to me. It’s a very enjoyable and rewarding process when you have a skilled artist with a great eye and great communication skills operating the coloring software. It’s hard to overestimate the power of this step in the image-making process. Our work on set can be changed so dramatically. It can be polished or destroyed, and I’ve seen it go both ways. I’m working towards building closer relationships with a few colorists, but I often don’t get to choose where the coloring is done. As a result, I’ve worked with a bunch of different colorists with different levels of artistry. And there have been times when I’m not even invited to the coloring sessions. It’s something I have had to fight to be a part of, which has been frustrating, but I think the tides are turning.
What has been your favorite project to shoot thus far into your career?
That’s a hard question. I have many favorites. But, I’ll mention two that come to mind...
Several years ago I did a music video with director Anthony Dickenson for Jon Hopkins’ “Breathe this Air” that I’m really proud of. Anthony’s treatment was so beautiful and human and full of interesting symbolism, I wanted to make a feature film out of it. He found this unique forest in Romania for us to shoot in. The local Romanian production, casting, and crew support was perfect. It was in the early days for drones, but we managed to get a quality rig, pilot, and operator locally. Anthony has amazing taste, and he is very diligent about the details. So, we got great stuff on the shoot day (there was only one!), and Anthony spent a lot of time refining the edit. It doesn’t always happen this way, but it’s wonderful to watch a rough cut and already feel the potential of the footage is being maximized.
More recently, I shot a short film called LOVE that was written and directed by James Gallagher. The script was very very good, full of heart and mystery, really investigating the human experience, and it was clearly a film that used the elements of the medium (movement, composition, the cut, etc) to tell the story. But, it was challenging to make because there were about 40 scenes, many of them very quick moments, within the 12 page script. It took a huge amount of prep to plot out the best sequencing of the scenes and find the transitions between them. It needed to be very precisely organized beforehand. It was a total joy. James rallied one of my all time favorite crews, and throughout the shoot, he stayed dedicated to the truth of the moment, scene by scene by scene, until we got it all. It was a great experience.
“Surrender” by Cash Cash was beautifully shot. Where was it shot? How did the concept for it come about?
Thanks very much. I’m really proud of some of the images we made on that one. We shot in an old mansion in Yonkers called Alder Manor that is commonly used for shooting. Once you see the place, you recognize that many projects use it as a location. The concept was basically a bunch of sexy scenes, all mixed and matched, but there was also a rough story arch planned around the artists (three young men) chasing after three versions of the same girl throughout the grounds of the Manor. I think it’s important to be honest when the order of the day is mostly beauty and intrigue. It’s a certain kind of tradition, and while it’s not the pinnacle of the form, there is still value there. We make the most of it. We try new things. We get a little better at the craft. And it can be a lot of fun. I’m happy the video caught your attention.
How would you like to see your career evolve over the next 10 years?
I’m working towards shooting more narrative feature films. As I mentioned, I’d like to contribute to meaningful stories. There are many untold stories and many new ways to use the medium to better tell them. I believe cinema, like all the arts, is deeply connected to human evolution, and I feel responsible, beyond the need to make a living, to dig more deeply into the human experience and to be honest about what’s there. In that way, the stakes can feel quite high, and I want to acknowledge that.
I don’t know what it will look like for me to have these intentions 10 years from now. My assumption is that I will be a very different person by then. But, in any event, I have a huge amount of optimism and excitement about the future of cinema, and my plan is to be involved.
Are there any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
I’d like to mention two projects that are very recent. First is a pair of short documentaries I shot that were just released by Very Ape (director Sean Dunne and producer Cass Greener). In their words, the films are “humble contributions to psychedelic cinema.” One is called SWEET NOTHING and documents a young woman taking LSD, and the other is called JOSHUA TREE and documents a mother and daughter taking psilocybin mushrooms together. This was a very meaningful project for everyone involved. Personally, I discovered psychedelics later in life, and now they are important allies in my efforts to be healthy and cultivate insight. So, when Sean and Cass brought the project to me, I was nervous about bringing a camera into such a special space. But, I trusted them as filmmakers and as friends to honor the sacred nature of these substances and experiences. We paired down the crew to simply director, producer, sound person, and me. We shot 99% on one lens, a 35mm Zeiss Super Speed Mk3. It was so energizing to strip down the filmmaking machine and just dance with the moment. I’m really proud of the work, and I think Sean and Cass (along with ace editor Kathy Gatto) handled the edits with so much class and reverence. You can find them at www.veryape.tv.
Second is a music video that I recently shot for Amanda Palmer that was directed by Noemie Lafrance. I’ve been thinking about it every day since. The song is raw and emotional, and it addresses the sexual assault and harassment of women. We had a cast of about a dozen female dancers and about twenty five female-identifying extras. We shot a lot of intimate and vulnerable moments, much of which played as direct address to camera. The women involved were incredibly candid and powerful. Again, the meaning and relevance of the work was very clear to everyone involved, so the energy was strong. For me, though, there was an added challenge of participating as a straight white American male. I was very insecure about my place on the shoot. During prep, the director and I discussed the implications of my presence, and although she reassured me, I'm still not sure I belonged there. It’s an interesting situation, because this is the work I want to be doing most of all - the tough stuff, the messy intimate subject matter that’s most relevant to me and my family and my community. But, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. For this video, perhaps I should have stepped down and recommended a female DP. I’m still sitting with that, and I’m honestly still trying to understand my place in the larger dialogue around gender and racial unity. But, even though it’s uncomfortable, and I’m not entirely sure what to do, this is where I want to spend more time, where my personal and professional lives meet.