Nate Hurtsellers is a Cinematographer based in Los Angeles and New York. He’s only been shooting since 2014, but since then he’s worked with The New York Times, 21 Pilots, and his latest feature, Saint Frances, premiered to critical acclaim and accolades at SXSW.
When did your Journey into cinematography first begin?
I think it begins so far back I can’t fully say. My grandfather was a huge cinephile. I remember visiting him as a kid and leafing through his copies of Sight and Sound or going to the Biograph Theatre in Chicago to watch movies. He had so much reverence for cinema that I came to see it as almost magical. As I grew up, I maintained a fascination with movies, watching them whenever I could and making short projects with neighborhood friends. But I didn’t really see film as a viable career choice. The vast quality difference between the films I was making with friends and the films I saw on screen was something I never imagined could be overcome.
Then I found photography, which became the creative entry point I needed. Just carrying a camera focuses your eye on the world and the exchanges around you. I was enamored by the ability to channel my point of view and have it rendered as a tangible thing on film. I’d finally found a creative foothold and thought that maybe the authorship I found in photography was something I could translate to filmmaking.
Shortly after, I attended NYU. I majored in Comparative Religions at the behest of my parents, but the proximity to the Tisch film program allowed me to start getting on set and learning all I could about film and cinematography. After graduation, I spent a few years working in Atlanta as an electrician on movies and tv, then in 2012 I enrolled in the American Film Institute.
What was the biggest turning point from your earlier work into the artist you are today?
I don’t know if there’s been a turning point yet, necessarily. I think there are a lot of little moments along the way where I’ve recalibrated or gotten very lucky. But I’m still waiting for that big moment, if there ever really is one… You hope that you do a little-indie-that-could, something that becomes a turning point and opens up new doors. But I definitely think I’m still in that early-work phase, trying to figure things out.
When did you start working for the New York Times? What’s the biggest challenge with shooting documentaries?
Right out of AFI I did a project called “The Bull Rider”. Joris Debeij had a documentary he wanted to do, and I was eager for the opportunity to shoot. But I’d never watched docs and didn’t really want to shoot them. At the time I was just interested in movies. But I guess that helped. I so much didn’t want to shoot a documentary that we approached it as if it wasn’t. We shot-listed, we talked thematically. I said, “let’s shoot it like a Western! the Searchers. Let’s set this guy here, light him up, and shoot him like...he’s in a John Ford movie". We were really interested in intentionality. We didn't want to make a follow doc. We brought in steadicam (the incredible Jarrett Morgan). We rented a few small lights and we did our best to give the images some sort of resonance. And I think the work stands out because of that stubbornness, that sort of push to make the images specific.
Honestly, at the time I didn’t realize how important working in the doc space would be. It’s an incredible place to learn. Your resources are so limited that you’re forcibly exposed to the magic of simplicity. So much of making narrative is trying to make something feel real. Playing in doc form you attune yourself to reality. You put a lens on actual lives and spaces. I highly recommend it.
How did your connection with shooting 21 Pilots come about? What’s it been like working with them?
Andrew Donoho (director) and I have been friends for years. We met when he was still in high school and I was a freshman in college. As we both started to move towards careers in film we collaborated on everything we could. We made short films and tiny projects here and there including some ultra low budget music videos. Eventually Andrew started getting bigger and bigger music videos, and we just sort of grew together into more professional work. We’d made enough passion projects together that we carried that torch. Our schedules didn’t always align, but fortunately I was free when the first Twenty One Pilots video, Heathens, came around. And we just kept running with them, eventually traveling to Iceland and Ukraine, which was a whole lot of fun.
Tyler and Josh from Twenty One Pilots are incredible. Very kind and collaborative creators. Very involved and eager to make something great together. It never feels like they’re showing up just to do their thing and bounce. They operate with a lot of joy and an incredible work ethic. Definitely some of the most impressive artists I’ve gotten to work with.
What made you jump to feature films with “Snatchers” and “Saint Frances”? What were the difficulties there?
Features have always been the dream. When I was a kid I had a camcorder and ran around making movies with friends. Whether we were playing with some genre of comedy or action, we were always emulating narrative features. I was never playing around trying to make a commercial or a music video. I don’t think it ever entered my mind. So I guess in a way I’ve always been trying to work in the narrative space. But professionally I don’t think I’ve really made a jump out of commercial/music videos yet. Features don’t pay the bills for me at the moment, so they have to exist in-between commercials and other paying work.
There’s definitely a different set of challenges in feature work. For one, I usually find myself working with much fewer resources. So you have to learn to work with less crew and gear. At the same time you’re trying to build continuity both within scenes and across the whole picture. But I think most importantly your storytelling has to be more acute. There’s a lot of forgiveness in commercials and music videos. The short form pretty much allows you to throw out certain storytelling conventions like empathetic engagement. I don’t think that’s true for all short form; some of the best commercials and music videos are great because they manage to tell elegant stories. But in general, short form is style heavy and story thin. In movies, the audience is more wary. They’re sitting down for 90 minutes or more and they don’t want to waste their time or their emotions. You have to build empathy quickly. A lot of that comes from great writing, but the camera is intimately involved as well. So that becomes your most important job. You’ve got to situate the audience in the narrative in the right way. You gotta show them the story.
What do you look for when you’re trying to create an image for the camera? Is there any specific criteria or is it just something you have to feel?
You block a scene and you think “okay, where’s the light coming from? Can I get the director to put the actors close to that light source?” It’s also going “how can I get some depth, where can I hide lights, how can I compose interestingly, etc” Those are the things that happen on set. But the formulation of an image is a thing that you try to be building towards way before then. You read the script and you start to build ideas. You get the broad strokes about what you think you want to do. You talk it through with the director, and begin to carve it down to specifics - These are the tools, let’s limit our toolbox, and you start to build a restrictive palate of how your movie can look. Then you get to set and you have to manifest it with the day’s complications - that’s where so much becomes reactive. You’ve established a visual dogma and you react within that ideology as much as you can. You find inspiration from little happy accidents or you find solutions to unforeseen obstacles, but you filter it through the language you’ve decided on for that particular film.
Where do you go/what do you do to get inspired?
I read “On Writing” by Stephen King a few years ago, and though he’s talking about writing for literature, one of the most important takeaways is that you have to be ingesting story all the time. I realized I needed to do more, that story is my job. So I started watching even more films, reading more books. It’s part of building a subconscious vocabulary of “story”.
I also like to run. It forces me to be inside my head, sit with myself. Ideas come a lot quicker for me that way. I’m usually running around DTLA or whatever production city I’m in thinking about lighting.
What’s one piece of advice you have for upcoming DPs?
Live cheaply so you can afford to do things that won’t be able to pay you, or pay you well. I don’t know if it’s the best piece of advice, but it’s the one that’s made the biggest difference for me. Almost every project I’m proud of was something that was either pro bono or extremely low-paying. You have to leave yourself open for those things. Otherwise, you’re working to sustain a lifestyle, rather than honing your craft.
I wouldn’t want to encourage upcoming DP’s not to value themselves, but there’s a difference between valuing your rate and finding value in the creativity and authorship that comes from working outside the industry standard. When there’s no money at stake, the risk is lower, and you’re able to take greater chances.
Any upcoming work you want us to know about?
There are a few projects happening that I’m pretty excited about. Next week I start principal photography on Kris Swanberg’s new movie I Used to Go Here, starring Gillian Jacobs and Jemaine Clement. After that it looks like I’ll be joining Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan, the SAINT FRANCES team, for a little indie in San Francisco or maybe a 70’s style Thriller in Kentucky. Plus Joris Debeij and I are slowly putting together the next thing. But we’ll see. You never know what’s gonna take off. Lots of possibilities though.