Ryan Marie Helfant
Ryan Marie Helfant is a Director of Photography that works all around the globe. From a young age, he’s experimented with light and film, delivering amazing visuals for music videos and commercial work. Throughout his career, Ryan has shot for clients and artists such as Gucci, ID, and Solange.
What got you started in cinematography?
My interest in cinematography stems from my interest in light. I first made films with my best friend when I was twelve years old. He owned the camera so he didn’t really let me shoot with it. I ended up acting and directing with him instead. When I was at University, it became really important to express myself creatively. I made an autobiographical documentary, and while shooting, I realized that I didn’t love my imagery. I took a Cinematography course, and discovered that so much of that was because I didn’t understand light.
After graduating, I realized I wanted to learn how to see light and make light. I started working on film sets as a lighting technician and quickly rose to gaffer. There I had the opportunity to collaborate with some really talented cinematographers. I coupled that experience with educating myself at galleries and museums. I studied the light in photographs, films, sculptures, paintings, and read as much as I could. I began forming ideas about light and implementing them into my own work. I finally came to a point where I felt I had my own perspective and sensibility that I wanted to express through cinematography.
What project was the turning point for you to go from amatuer student to professional visual badass?
I think, for me, the evolution has been gradual. I can only really pinpoint a few defining moments. The first was learning how to control and cue all the lights on a film set with a touch of a button. There is so much wonder in watching light change. Being able to do it all myself was really empowering. It inspired in me so many creative ideas for lighting and made me realize that my options are infinite. It also enabled me to execute really involved ideas on small art films and passion projects.
I think the second defining moment was learning about the Light & Space Movement. Familiarizing myself with the artists responsible for it and their ideas about light and perception shifted the way that I see. It helped me develop a sensitivity toward light that really informs the images I make.
How did your professional relationship with Cara Stricker start?
I met Cara on Chloe x Halle’s visual album ‘The Kids Are Alright.’ When I first read the treatment and saw Cara’s work, I was so excited about potentially collaborating with her. I knew that both of our sensibilities would be stronger together. When it actually came to creating, there was an openness that made me feel that any idea I had would be embraced and built upon. I felt free and encouraged to be my most creative self. I’ve been so fortunate to have collaborated with her on several other projects since. It seems like our work only gets stronger with time. I really believe in her as an artist.
When do you shoot on film and when do you switch to digital?
I prefer to shoot on film unless the project’s concept necessitates that it is shot digitally. Vince Staples ‘Fun’ - where we recreated the Google Earth experience - is an example of a piece that had to be shot digitally for the storytelling to make sense.
When do you think the image has the most influence on the story?
I think in filmmaking, the image and the story are inextricably linked. The image’s influence on the story is constant and does not fluctuate. I think if one chooses to consider the image, that consideration will influence the story; likewise, if one chooses to not consider the image, that lack of consideration will influence the story. In both cases, the image is influencing the story equally. The difference being that if you consider the image, you are taking control of how you shape its influence.
What’s the most complicated shot in your career so far? What kind of prep went into it, and how did the end result compare to what you originally had in your head?
Every shot in the Vince Staples ‘Fun’ music video! I had to create a camera system that could drive up and down the street and capture panoramic still imagery and video simultaneously. Given the time of year and our location, the camera system had to be streamlined enough so we could shoot the whole video in six hours of available, direct sunlight. I considered many ideas, and after three days, I had come up with something that I knew would work.
After that, it was about spending time on Google Maps. I recorded different distortion effects that occur when navigating Google Street View and sent them to the visual effects team so they could integrate them to make sure the video’s texture and recreated user interface was photorealistic. I also spent time with my friend and director Calmatic location scouting, storyboarding, and blocking the camera and talent from our laptops. I think because of how good the idea, the prep, and the collaborators were, it was one of those rare pieces where what you have in your head at the beginning is what you see in the end.
“A-Z of Aaliyah” is a beautiful masterpiece. Talk about the creative process for you in that project from beginning to end.
The intention of ‘A-Z of Aaliyah’ was to show Aaliyah’s everlasting influence on culture. From a cinematic standpoint, Cara and I wanted to pay homage to her visual world by recontextualizing it through our own modern lens.
The first thing I did to prepare was study all of her music videos. The lighting, camera movement, format, color, and texture. I reached out to various directors and cinematographers who collaborated on them to see what I could discover regarding their approach. Cara and I pulled everything that we found interesting that would mesh well with our own imagemaking.
When it came to production, we really challenged ourselves to be as ambitious as possible. I tested 200+ filter combinations on 35mm and 16mm. We built 11 sets across 3 stages. We shot 26 setups over the course of two studio days and one location day with four company moves. We switched between jib, rickshaw, handheld, steadicam, remote head, car mount, dolly. Shooting was about having the right crew in the right place at the right time. And breathing. It was such an overwhelming responsibility and I think in the end, the film was truly a product of 100+ artists and technicians coming together and challenging ourselves to go further.
Where do you go/what do you do to get inspired?
Museums and galleries. I’m really inspired by American Minimalism and the Light & Space movement. The artists that shaped the ladder have really informed the way I see and understand light, color, and the world.
What’s one piece of advice you have for upcoming DPs?
Learn how to make light, learn how to see light, and develop a sensibility toward light that you can articulate to others. And don’t forget about texture, color, composition, movement, and storytelling.
Any upcoming work you want us to know about?
I’m really excited about Solange’s visual album ‘When I Get Home.’ I had the opportunity to be the Director of Photography on portions of 12 of the album’s tracks. It was a project that really required everyone to be present. For me, it was about forgetting all of my previous notions and expectations of what an image should or could be, and embracing exactly what it was meant to be. Solange has such a strong vision and is an amazing collaborator. I spent 15 days - seven shooting - over the course of three months rolling on 50,000’ of 35mm. Every foot of film has a beautiful story behind it. I am so happy that she asked me to shoot on this very powerful art piece.