Christopher Doyle: Breaking Down His Unique and Magical Cinematography
Christopher Doyle is one of the most talented and successful cinematographers in the Asian cinema industry. He was born on the 2nd of May, 1952 in Australia but has lived most of his life in Asia.
Christopher Doyle has won over sixty awards and thirty nominations all over the world. He has worked on over fifty Chinese language films and over 20 movies in other languages. Amongst his numerous movies are; Ashes of Time (1994), Fallen Angels(1995), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (released in 2004).
Before joining the film industry, Christopher Doyle was engaged at some point in his life as a dredger in India, herding cows in an Israeli kibbutz, and as a traditional doctor in Thailand.
After he was named Du Kefeng (meaning “like the wind”) by his University Professor in the late 70’s, he then moved to Taiwan. He was among the founders of the Lanling Theatre Workshop. Doyle also created a television series called Travelling Images. Edward Yang was inspired by his work and gave him his first debut, “That day on the beach” which was recorded in 1981.
After that movie, he shot another movie in France, “Claire Devers’ Noir et Blanc” in 1986. He then returned to Hong Kong to shoot another movie “Soul”. People began to notice his talent and he became widely popular.
Christopher Doyle’s collaboration with Wong Kar-Wai in the movie “Days of being Wild” (1991) was his first popular movie and these two people have ever since had a long professional relationship. He also worked on one of Wong’s movies “Ashes of Time” and Chungking Express (1994) which gave him international recognition. Christopher Doyle also worked with other people like Stanley Kwan in “Red Rose White Rose” (1994) and Sylvia Chang in “Mary from Beijing” (1992). He also worked with Chen Kaige in the movie “Temptress Moon” (1996). In 1997 he collaborated again with Wong on “Happy Together” (1997). He started getting more jobs and was hired to shoot for Gus Van Sant in the movie “Psycho” (1998). He worked on Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights (1999).
At the same time, he did his first directing work on the movie, “Away with Words”. Doyle received some compliments and he also had a lot of critics attack him describing it as self-indulgent.
He went on to work with Wong again on “In the Mood for Love” and another movie “Made” with Jon Favreau. Other movies were Hero, The Quiet American, Eros, etc. and then in 2006 he worked with M. Night Shyamalan on “Lady in the Water”.
Christopher Doyle’s Methods on Cinematography:
Initially, Christopher had challenges with insufficient funds and small spaces which could have affected his camera work. He was able to manage this problem by taking advantage of the little he had to give the best shots. He made use of neon lights and was able to separate some pockets of light to create mood lights for actors.
There was a time when he worked with Wong and they didn’t have a script. The only tools they had were the actors and locations. They had to work with what was on the director’s mind. Despite this, Christopher Doyle used this opportunity to create great shots.
After he became popular and had funds, he discovered that there were new methods of shooting which he was not familiar with and he had to adjust from his usual style of shooting. This did not stop him as he was able to give good shots for the movies Psycho (the remake), Lady in the Water, etc.
Christopher Doyle’s shots are mostly done on film. He uses Fuji, Kodak films and sometimes Agfa. He carries along Zeiss and Cooke primes as well as Angenieux Optimo for his movie shootings.
The ratio and formats of his shots are strictly on the instructions given by the director. Christopher has used digital cameras for his shoots and even the Red Camera.
While shooting movies, Christopher Doyle experiments to get different focus. He has tried using slow motions, moving a camera in rhythm, using his camera to create blurry images, using color filters, achieving close up images, creating blackouts, etc.
Christopher Doyle uses his camera lenses to achieve close-ups, tiny spaces, and different camera angles. He experiments in order to achieve unique effects when capturing images. He has made use of Promist, Black Promist filters and other types of filters to create highlights and smoother skin tones. It was said that in one of his movie shoots, he fastened a cushion to his abdomen to enable him to rest his elbows for stability and speed.
Christopher Doyle is known to be a direct and honest person when it comes to cinematography. He is unique in his own ways and incredibly talented. He changes his style all the time and keeps improving.
In recent interviews when asked to give other new cinematographers advice, all he said was “just do it, in today’s world, there is no excuse not to”.
According to Christopher Doyle, the role of a cinematographer is to act as a link between the audience and the camera. He is of the opinion that there are three people in a cinema i.e. the person in front of the camera, the audience and the cinematographer.
Christopher Doyle works with his friends and he believes in keeping a lasting relationship just like he had with Wong Kar-wai. He has many other artists that he maintains contact with. According to him, it doesn’t make sense having to spend over six months or even years working on a movie with a person you do not share the same vision with.
Doyle described a movie making experience as one where people come together with a great idea that is written down but beyond their imagination. To him, it is an astonishing experience when the camera is able to capture the persons and space. Christopher Doyle sends a message to the audience by giving them a visual experience. He captures the moment and tells the story like it has never been heard before.
He has used green moonlights in many of his films, unlike many others who use blue moonlights. When asked he said that the blue moonlight is a thing of the past when people used oil-lamp floodlights. He described the moon as green because you cannot find a blue moon in Venice or in the Pacific. He believes in observing the visual effects of things and sharing it with the audience.
Christopher Doyle said that upcoming filmmakers may have not so good cameras with bad resolutions and little money but if they fail to deliver a good job because of these minor issues, they would miss out on the point of making a good movie. According to him, people should not be complaining about problems but instead finding solutions. He advised new cinematographers not to try and imitate people’s work but to be able to distinguish themselves. He admitted that he was not trained in any art school and he was just given a camera which he worked with and he assumed the role.
At interviews, he described himself as an eclectic person and he loves his passion for filmmaking. Christopher Doyle believes he can never have a family life because he is always busy making films. He described a time when he lost his father who died at age 90 and he wasn’t there when he died because he was busy filming somewhere else.
Christopher Doyle knows how to use his camera and that is what he is good at. He has admitted that even when he has had a bottle of whiskey and is unable to communicate, he is still able to operate his camera perfectly. He doesn’t need any directions on how to get from point to point because he is will to share his ideas with the audience and never for once wants to be misinterpreted.
Christopher Doyle is definitely an inspiration to many new cinematographers. He is a pure artist and visualizes things through his lenses to give the best shots for any movie he is contracted to do. He never had any formal training in cinematography but yet he is one of the best in the world today.
If cameras and lighting are your thing, I’d suggest you take a listen to these knowledge filled podcasts.
- Werner Herzog’s Filmmaking MasterClass
- Filmmaking Hacks: Filmmaking Master Course
- Directing Actors Film Workshop
- USC Film School’s ONLY Online Course: Directing the Actor
- Film Lighting MasterClass
- Recording Sound for Indie Film
- The Art of Micro-Budget Filmmaking
- Cinematography MasterClass
- Film Festival Hacks: Submit Like a Pro
- Self-Distributing Your Film Online
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