An Interview with Roman Vasyanov
Roman Vasyanov is a cinematographer and has worked on acclaimed commercials and films including, Hipsters, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, The Wall, Thank You For Your Service, and Triple Frontier. He also frequently collaborates with David Ayer and has shot Ayer’s films, End of Watch, Fury, Suicide Squad, and Bright. I spoke with Roman about growing up in Moscow and studying under Vadim Yusov, his work on End of Watch and Fury, and his most challenging shot to complete.
Did you always think you would go into cinematography?
My Dad was a photographer. He worked during Soviet time in Russia and did some journalist photography and some portraits and some personal work. So I was kind of growing up around stills camera, and by luck in my house where I was living in Moscow one of our neighbours was actually a pretty decent Soviet cinematographer. When the time came to pick what I wanted to do I didn’t know at first and basically talking to him, actually through that person I discovered this kind of job even exists. Then I tried to pass exams twice to Moscow Film Institute and first time I didn’t get in and on the second time I was lucky and I got in. My teacher was Vadim Yusov, Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinematographer who did with him Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, and Solaris. Actually I think that was a big sort of destiny because he was a great master and a great teacher and he really taught us a lot of cinema first of all and to be very responsible and work hard. After that I was already in University because in Russia it’s about five years to learn cinematography. About year four or five I already started to do little jobs like music videos, some commercials, little by little. Then I had a break with my first feature, I think almost when I graduated because I won a prize as a student for cinematography in Russia. So that’s how I started.
Are there any particular films or cinematographers who inspired your work?
Absolutely. Definitely as I said, my teacher Vadim Yusov, who I think is one of the best cinematographers in the history of cinema. I know that Roger Deakins speaks by him very highly, and he loves his cinema, especially Ivan’s Childhood. I definitely cannot not mention Vittorio Stararo because I do think that movies like The Last Emperor, Apocalypse Now, and Sheltering Sky is a total visual masterpiece and his collaboration with Coppola, and more importantly, with Bernardo Bertolucci, starting with the brilliance of The Conformist is huge and I think his life and work really puts cinematography in art. I think when you watch The Last Emperor you understand how much the image itself tells the story, how much it brings to the table, how much it helps the audience experience the story, leaf through the story. So I think for me he is definitely super influential. For American cinematographers I like a lot, Harris Savides. I think he was a very, very talented cinematographer, never was nominated for the Oscar, got any prizes, but I think he really created a nineties look through his commercial and music video work and I advise highly everyone to watch his work with Mark Romanek and other different commercial directors and music video directors, just to see sort of a style of nineties. He’s definitely one of my top level choices.
You worked as cinematographer on End of Watch. Can you tell me more about this experience, and how the opportunity came about?
Well I did a musical in Russia called Hipsters, I think you can find some parts of it on YouTube. After that I got a call from UTA, United Television Agency, from my agent Pete Franciosa. He asked me if I would be keen and interested to come to Los Angeles and try to do some work here, and I said of course. One of the first interviews I got was actually an interview with David Ayer and about End of Watch. I read a script and when you’re a foreigner it’s usually kind of hard to read scripts because it’s not your language and you’re kind of dragging through them quite often. But a good script usually reads very well, even if just because you get engaged. End of Watch was definitely a great script. It was like 90 pages only and short, but at the same time extremely intense and full of action, full of character involvement, beautiful arches of characters. I immediately felt that it’s a movie I want to do.
Then I had a couple of meetings with David and we discussed the way we can shoot the movie and basically David wanted to be extremely docu-style, with you know POV, police cameras and we started to explore basically the smallest cameras on the market you can get. A decent image at that time was a silicon image 2K, super 16 censors, sized camera which we were mounting on our vests and shooting sometimes just with full HD consumer Sony camera as well. It was a lot of run and gun, but at the same time I think the style was very correct for the story and the movie was very high paced and intensely cut. One of the references I always considered was a movie, a beautiful Danish movie, called Celebration (Festen). The director was Thomas Vinterberg. It’s actually a brilliant movie. I highly advise everyone to watch and Anthony Dod Mantle was DP and it’s a great, great movie, so please have a look.
How did you prepare for Fury? Did you look at any other WW2 films before shooting?
As you can probably imagine, or know that when I was growing up in the Soviet Union and Soviet Union Russia was a big part. Fought with Nazis and Germans and of course over time culture inside of Russia developed a lot of literature and films about WW2. My grandfather was a tanker in a T34 tank during WW2, so growing up I watched a lot of war movies and they were very different from sort of a western world produced about WW2, where it was more like action driven movies. In Russia it was mostly more character driven movies. So you can watch for example, should be on HBO Max right now, The Cranes are Flying. It’s a Russian movie about WW2. It’s actually won a Palme D’or, in I think 1954, ’56. I might be mistaken. You can look it up. Mikhail Kalatozov, he also did later, Sergey Urusevsky was the cinematographer on the masterpiece, Soy Cuba. You guys should definitely check out their works. At least three movies, The Cranes Are Flying, Soy Cuba and The Unsent Letter, maybe can find on Criterion Collection or just on YouTube.
Also very interesting director, was Aleksei German, who did a couple of wartime movies, beautiful wartime movies. It was literally about the human drama first of all, and there was a hell of inspiration, a lot of long lens photography. Everything was shot a little bit from the distance, where you obscure the war instead of be in the middle of it. Actually it’s another way to tell stories because yes it’s nice sometimes to be handheld and be running around, but also sometimes it’s more interesting to step back and show the audience the brutality of the war from the side a little bit.
So I tried to basically combine all these techniques in Fury and most importantly was figuring out how to shoot inside of a tank, how to shoot on tank. It was a lot of work with camera stabilisation because tanks provide high frequency and it’s really hard for any stabilisation device and you had to stabilise it because the frequencies are so high when the tank jerks on the track and turns. It’s a crazy vibration and it’s a super high frequency vibration. It’s hard to kind of explain you should try it and see it on a tractor. Try to turn on the road you will feel like every bone in your body just starts shaking. So it was a lot of work with that and mainly I shot the movie very simple with lighting, very consistent with overcast. Sometimes we had to sit down and wait for clouds. Sometimes I had to wait for like 30 or 40 minutes, but I shot that movie very grey and sort of mono-chromatic in a way and I think figuring out the shooting of inside the tank was the most important part, just because it was set built on a gimbal onstage. So we had to light it for day and for night. Every little piece of set was moveable, it was actually almost like a pizza box sort of idea where you can just slice one part and slice the other part and just put the lens there. Usually when you work in such tight spaces and you try to recreate these models on stage you try not to build anything bigger than 30% because otherwise you start feeling it and also you always try to put lens, not the camera body, but the front of the lens in the position where you will put the camera in the real tank. So the other way in the real tank you will be able because your bag or your battery pack won’t let you, but the lens should not basically be further away than the wall of that set because otherwise you feel that you’re cheating. So if you shoot in like planes or submarines and whatever small tight spaces just be aware of that and try to put your physical front of your lens where the wall was when you moved it, it helps. Keep it real.
So Fury was hella work. We really tried to be a documentarian as possible and I tried to maximise natural source of lighting. I barely did any lighting, usually was very soft and something further away and some just eye lights and a lot of negative, not much lighting at all.
Which camera did you use to shoot the film, and do you have a preferred camera/kit?
I try to work on film as much as I can. Not because I’m a crazy man, but I do feel that film still brings sort of sensitivity to the image which I like. Also I like the way the set gets organised with film because with digital sometimes it can be quite cured, sometimes the director will just want to keep rolling and rolling and film gives you that disciplinary to take one, take two. You do rehearsals. You do blocking. You really are aware of how expensive it is to run the film so everybody is super focused and that’s the way I like to make the movies, but these days unfortunately even the labs are still a big question of whether they’ll exist in another five or ten years. Hopefully they will, but it’s getting harder and harder. If film is not there I usually shoot Alexa, or right now I really like Sony Venice. I think it’s a great camera, especially with realtor extension which gives you ability to have super small camera where you can put anywhere. It was developed by Claudio Miranda for Top Gun 2, so they can mount those cameras on the side of fighting jets in a cockpit basically. I like the camera lot, especially with some vintage good glasses it really works and native ISO is 2500 and NDs are built in so it gets really handy, especially if you on the time run as usually. Colour space I still think that Alexa is better, but I think Sony is the first camera which can compete and in some cases can be the preferable choice over Alexa. Check out the camera guys, it’s not like a commercial or anything but just sharing with you what I feel is good now.
Can you think of a shot throughout your career that was particularly challenging to complete?
Let me think. I quite like on every movie to create some very difficultly achieved shots. I think it’s nice sometimes to really play with camera because I think that camera language and composition sometimes goes ahead, not sometimes actually, almost always before lighting. So I think you should first understand what are your framings and then you’ll figure out your lighting, not the other way around. Also with lighting you guys should watch out where your shadows will be first and your highlights will find itself. So when you know where your shadow is, what kind of a shot you want of the face, where you want your shadows, you’ll immediately know where to put a light. If you start thinking about where to put light, you might put too much light. Usually good lighting is lighting with a few lights.
On Fury it was a pretty difficult shot, the last shot when we're actually travelling up with the camera from the edge of the tank and going all the way up and up and see how many dead people are around. For that we actually bought a construction crane and my beautiful, great key grip, Kevin Fraser built a system of ropes where we actually mount a Libra stabilisation head, we measure and everything. We put a little mortar for the ropes and we did it and I think it was up in the air around 150 or 200 feet, something really, really high. It was pretty high in order to get, not with super wide lens, but with like 40 anamorphic, get a nice, nice shot.
Also in Bright, I know it’s not the best movie, but there is an interesting motion control shot with live slow-motion and live shooting when Will Smith turns around and is shooting orcs. You can find that shot on YouTube. It was made will bolt camera, so check it out. And if you guys have any questions about any shots I’ve done just email and I’ll answer in audio if it’s short, or of course just write it.
You can find Roman's website here: https://www.romanvasyanov.com/