Erik Sohlstrom is a director of photography based in Los Angeles, California. Over his 15 year career, he’s shot narrative, music video, and commercial projects for brands and artists such as Calvin Klein, Givenchy, and Nicki Minaj.
What started your journey into cinematography?
Growing up in Sweden, there was this TV-channel that emerged in the early to mid 90’s called Z-TV. A sort of rip off from MTV. Because this channel was so new and looking for its identity, it basically became a playground for the creative force in Stockholm. I was lucky to be part of that and ended up as an assistant in many different departments, mostly art department and costume department.. As I’ve always been interested in photography, I started to focus my energy towards the camera department. With determination, constant nagging and diligence, I got a foot into that world. That’s how it started.. I then went on from working as clapper loader to 2nd AC to 1st AC to camera operating and then one day, I decided I would only take on jobs as a cinematographer. My interest for photography, the art world and movies probably comes from having a mother that always took me to all the major art museums and opera houses on all our travels when being a kid. So I thank you, mom!
Was there a specific project you’d say that pushed you the furthest as an artist?
All the longer and narrative works I’ve done. Shooting commercials is great and inspiring in many ways and usually there are many challenges that pushes you as an artist when doing them. Either ones you create for yourself or ones within the production as a whole. But when shooting longer formats you really need to push and challenge yourself.
It’s just the scope of it all. Being part of a massive workforce that has to run as smooth as possible for many consecutive days and/or months. A huge part of being a cinematographer is leadership and management. And then there’s just so much more of a creative freedom on those projects. I also love to work closely with the production designer and costume designer, which you only do to a certain extent on commercials due to the brief length of those projects.
You are currently represented by Gersh. How has that relationship helped your career? What was life like before representation?
Being represented by Gersh has helped me open up the US market a lot more than what it used to be before I was signed to them. I also have my European agent, The Talent Group, that I’ve been signed to for many years.
For me, having an agent is invaluable. First for those obvious reasons, having someone with such a wast network in the business, having someone protecting you and all that.
But, what’s also been important and a priority to me is to be represented by someone that understands you and knows where you want to be and where you want to be heading. Someone that you can have open and honest conversations with. Someone that you see as your friend.
Sometimes, working as a DP, can be quite lonely. You’re basically a one person business. So, it’s nice to have someone to talk to that understands your job, the business and who you are. I’ve been lucky to have that with both Marie Perry at Gersh and Pontus Ronn at The Talent Group.
But obviously to get signed by an agent you have to be able to show your work and what you’re capable of. You need a reel. Before I had an agent I was constantly chasing projects to shoot. Finding people to collaborate with. Working for free or very little pay just to build that reel. The cliché ‘you can’t wait for it to happen and you can’t expect that someone else will make it happen for you’ is true. That actually goes either if you have an agent or not.
For “The Leave the World Behind”, did you use a little more spontaneity when shooting, or is there still the same kind of planning that goes into narrative and commercial work?
A lot more spontaneity. I mean there is still a lot of planning that goes into a project like that, but since you never really know what is going to happen until it happens, you have to be ready and stand by for everything and anything. You’re constantly in different and new locations and every situation is different and you quickly have to figure out how to use them to your advantage.
The approach to the project was to shoot as much as possible and then the story would unfold in editing. Then, of course, when shooting the actual show, we had to plan it thoroughly as this needed to be such a big collaboration between our production, the tour production, the venue and so forth. If I can remember it correctly, I think we had 8 cameras and three nights to shoot the show. For each night we changed the positions of every camera to get as many angles as possible.
“Midnight Sun” has an amazing color palette and camera work. What were some of the biggest challenges on the shoot?
Biggest challenge was keeping continuity. We basically shoot all of the series in a mining town in the north part of Sweden. Other than that we had two weeks in Stockholm, one week in Paris and a couple of days in Morocco.
In those parts of Sweden the weather changes can be very drastic during the day. But also, the seasons are extremely short (except winter). The whole story of the series takes place during a couple of summer weeks. We started shooting up there in the middle of June and at that time it’s intense spring up there. The greens are really intense in their colours. By end of August the leaves started to turn yellowish. September was all yellow and red. And on our last week up there, which was first week of October, we got snow.
Where did the idea for the Pepsi Black commercial come from? Do you compose and light differently knowing the product will be in B&W?
Christian Larson, the director of Pepsi ‘Black’, reached out to me and asked if I wanted to join him to Johannesburg and do a job that payed tribute to all black sheep in the world, the ones that dare to be their proud self, the ones that dare to think differently and progressively.
I couldn’t say no to that.
Depending on the job and what I’m trying to achieve, I treat shooting B&W differently. Maybe not so much in lighting. It’s more what colours to use in the frame which then becomes a collaboration with production design and costume design.
Then on jobs like Pepsi ‘Black' for instance, which is based more on a collage and a montage of different scenarios, I can walk into a location and depending on the colours of the place, try to convince the director that it would look better in B&W.
What is some advice you have for upcoming cinematographers? Anything you wish you would have known when you first started?
Work hard… bet you never heard that advice before. But there’s actually no way around it.
Work hard, love what you do, be nice to everyone you meet, be inspired and never get too comfortable. There are so many talented cinematographers today, so you have to be shooting and practising as much as you can. Learn the craft as a whole (technically and artistically) and find what appeals you visually. Find collaborations. Pay attention to light around you, what it does and how it changes. Master your social and communicational skills. And take chances. With lighting, framings, projects, whatever. But most importantly... have fun. There’s no sense of doing this if you don’t. Advice to myself when I started out - Don’t worry so much..
Any upcoming work you’d like for us to know about? What’s the next five years looking like for you?
At the moment I’m prepping a new series that starts shooting in Prague in a couple of weeks, called “Shadowplay”. Story takes place in Berlin 1946. One year after World War II. We have a great cast from both the US and Germany. And once again I’ll be shooting all eight episodes, which is definitely a challenge but an adventurous one. Schedule-wise we are approaching this as one long feature instead of shooting one episode at a time or splitting it up in two blocks. Which means keeping all 8 episodes in your head at all times. Preparation is key.
So that’s basically what the next 5 months are looking like for me. The next 5 years I don’t know that much about as I’m trying not to think and plan too much for the future. I know it sounds cheesy, but I’ve realized that being in the present is what gives me the most pleasure.