Tim Sessler is a German director of photography and filmmaker based in New York. Tim’s been capturing visual poetry for over 10 years, utilizing sweeping camera movements and 4K resolution to make a feast for the eyes.
What first got you interested in cinematography?
After finishing high school, I didn’t really know what to do, and studying film and becoming a director seemed like an interesting path to take. I applied to the Film Academy in Germany, which meant I had to write and direct a 10 minute film for my application. I put everything into making it as good as it could be, but realized that the images weren’t really speaking to me, even though my DP, Fred Schirmer, was and is an extremely talented craftsman.
The only logical path forward was to take all the money I had, buy a Canon DSLR - a 7D as I couldn't afford the then popular 5D MK2 - and a vintage prime lens - a Nikon Nikkor ALS 50mm 1.2 - and start shooting as much as I could. This was what lead me to become a cinematographer. I started to experiment and try to capture images that made me feel something. Funnily enough, I never ended up going to film school. In the midst of applying, I met my (now) wife and decided to follow her back to the United States to see what life I could build there. Lucky for me, it has been a very inspiring and creative journey so far.
How have your seen your career evolve from when it started to now?
The two worlds couldn’t be any more polarized. In the very beginning, I shot two small personal projects that were discovered by my now good friend and director, Brandon Bloch of Magic Seed Co. He was the first person who offered me professional work shooting corporate videos and branded content. I shot a lot of doc-style work and later on more stylized projects with another dear friend and director, Michael Marantz of Already Alive. I was mostly working as a one-man band. Back then I had no support, no AC, gaffer or grip. I had to do it all and somehow I made it work.
Five years later, the tools, crew sizes and scopes of productions are much different. I sometimes have to pinch myself, as it feels like a dream. I’ve had many amazing opportunities in my short career - from shutting down a major highway to do a high-speed pass for a car commercial, to pulling off a practical car flip for an energy drink company, or doing wild moves in a helicopter over NYC and seeing a personal hero like Herbie Hancock perform in front of my moving images - it is absolutely unreal.
But, the commercial work is only one part of the equation. Continuing to further my own voice and make my own work is the foundation for everything. Creating my “visual poems” is what sustains me creatively and emotionally. One of my last projects, “Wolakota”, which had been a 4 1/2 year journey, is the perfect example of my personal work. I shot the majority of the project by myself with minimal to no support. Adding in the NYC aerials to the project took it to the next level and was able to bring to life the feeling that I was trying to capture. All that being said, I am very grateful for all the opportunities that I’ve experience and the wonderful journey I’m taking.
You’ve shot a lot of work with a lot of kick ass cars and high speed camera movement. What kind of preparation and obstacles go into shoots like that?
The car commercials that I’ve worked on have really experienced and buttoned up production teams. The main obstacle is usually how the shots can be executed safely and efficiently. On a recent shoot, we lost one of our main locations because we realized that it would be very difficult to control the traffic 100% and lock-ups would have taken too much time out of our day. On the other hand, well executed lock-ups can be a real blast. Once you have a safe playing field, it really comes down to the creative choices between the director and me.
Chasing a muscle car - shot super close up, in a wide angle - at +100mph over an empty highway can be extremely fun and thrilling. But, the majority of the work happens in the years leading up to it: having a sense of framing, movement, mastering sticks and wheels on remote heads. Usually, I only get a few takes to get the shot - if I mess it up, I lose the shot and have to move on with a shot that I might not be fully satisfied with - or worst case, even without it.
What gave you the idea for Streets?
I have always loved how colorful and diverse NYC is. Walking around pretty much any neighborhood on a sunny, beautiful summer day can be an absolutely incredible experience for all of the senses. There are so many things happening and so many little moments that you can usually only properly capture in still photography. Using the Phantom high speed camera and the Freefly TERO allowed me to capture both those small moments and make them feel as grand as they felt to me in the moment, as well as stylize them in terms of camera movement.
I always wanted the camera to pass by, just as a passenger that would pass by these little scenes that just happened to unfold right in front of them. Shooting at 1,000-1,500fps meant the camera had to be both up close to the subject and moving very fast. This usually means that I would need a high speed dolly setup. But we were shooting run’n’gun - walking around locations that were visually interesting (Bushwick, Brooklyn - Bridge Park, East Williamsburg - Washington Square Park, etc) and would just wait for people to pass by or set up little moments. Using the RC car with such instant acceleration, to get up to speeds close to 30mph, was critical to capture those moments.
What has been the most challenging shoot thus far into your career? Talk about how it was planned and what the end result looked like.
There have been a lot of challenges throughout my career - like getting caught in very uncomfortable situations on crazy travel jobs. But the most challenging shoots in a creative sense have been large night shoots. In 2018 I had the honor to DP a NOS Energy Drink campaign with the extremely talented director, Trevor Paperny. The gist of the spot was that a runner and a muscle car were charging each other on a long, straight road - almost a mile that we wanted to use for the approach. I was lucky to have Adam Chambers, one of the most talented gaffers in Los Angeles, to help polish everything as much as we could with the time and resources that we had.
We ended up using multiple condors - one with a 18K HMI in the far background as a hard backlight and then substituting with smaller HMIs as additional backlights as well as multiple Skypanel S360s overhead to give us enough exposure for the practical car flip. Running two, very long runs of Tube Of Death on either side of the street gave us the added atmosphere that we were looking for to make the entire setup more dreamy and ethereal.
What aspects of cinematography do you think help to tell such powerful stories like in Wolakota?
Wolakota was a very long and uncomfortably slow process. I went out to Pine Ridge multiple times over the years and could have cut a piece from every trip. Of course my cinematography was also changing and progressing, which is strange as I am intercutting footage that I shot in 2014 and from 2018. This project was especially difficult, as it was very close to my heart and I wanted to make sure that I could capture my feelings appropriately in this film. While being on Pine Ridge it was a very verite approach. I wanted to observe and learn as much as possible.
It took me a very long time to find the right voice for this piece. Shooting the Ektachrome Infrared Aerials in NYC in the fall of 2018 - which actually was an unrelated experimental test I did - ended up opening some doors. While this entire project was intended to be a B&W piece, having the colorful NYC aerials suddenly helped guide me and editor J.P. Damborgian into a new direction. To answer the question more directly: it is really two-fold. One - It is patient, intimate, traditional filmmaking and two - it is finding a larger element that can speak to the bigger emotional point of the piece.
Any advice for cinematographers just starting out?
Find your voice. Find out what moves you, what speaks to you and show others how you see the world around you. Try to shoot what you enjoy the most. It will show in the work. We all have to make some money and have to shoot things from time to time that hopefully nobody will ever see. But, it’s all in support of our passion: working towards a future where hopefully the majority our of time is filled with projects that we are extremely passionate about and excited to work on.
Also, gear. Don’t get too wrapped up in it. It is easy to make things look good with some fancy cinema camera and beautiful vintage anamorphic lens. I remember starting out and wishing that I’d have X, Y and Z tools - now I own most of them and to be quite frank: they haven’t made me a happier, more productive or more creative filmmaker. As boring as it sounds, just focusing on the craft will usually go a much longer way than focusing too much on the gear.
Any upcoming work you’d like for us to know about?
Absolutely! I’ve been meaning to work more with musician friends. There are a lot of ideas floating around - one project with the ultra-talented sound recordist and composer Bethan Kellough should hopefully be done very soon. The working title is “From Above” - named after Bethan’s track for the piece. Also on the commercial end of things, I recently shot a fun car commercial with director Ozan Biron, who I also shot ‘Last Viper’ with for Pennzoil. Stay tuned for this as well!