Follow The Light with Teodoro Maniaci
New York City, New York
Teodoro Maniaci as my uncle made me believe I could work in the film industry. He has a keen eye as a cinematographer on the independent film scene with The Tao of Steve my favorite film he worked on. I hope one day his dream of helming a Sci-Fi rocker film will become a reality.
CCB: Do you remember your first experience watching films?
TM: I remember seeing this arty Italian movie with my sister Maria. It was a weird movie set during the war. One town wanted to save all the wine they had made, sealing it up in a cave. One scene up by a mountain there were naked bodies. I remember that pretty vividly. I must have been six or seven. I wasn’t old enough to understand it that well. Then I remember seeing the movie Oliver as a kid, the one with Oliver Reed. I remember being really moved when Oliver wanted more food and they wouldn’t give him food. Thinking, oh that’s so harsh. Those were my first memories of movies.
CCB: At which point did you notice that films were more than entertainment to you?
TM: Probably in high school. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a movie I was dying to see. I remember that having an incredible impact on me because that was a movie that dealt with ideas of the universe, humans, computers, and what are we. It coincided with my interest in literature which was also delving into the bigger questions, ideas.
CCB: What takes you from that point to wanting to work in the industry?
TM: I went to college, (at Tufts) studied literature. I’d actually taken some classes in filmmaking, but mostly making arty super-eight animations. I’d taken some Cinema Studies classes like Italian film, studied films about Fellini and Cocteau. Those were great, I really enjoyed those. I was basically an English major and studied theater, also doing some music stuff. When I was in college I played with a West African drum group. By the end of Undergrad I was interested in combining all those interests in theater, literature, movies. Somehow cinema combined all those elements. It had choreography as well as images. The choice to make films was combining all these artistic interests.
CCB: As soon as you graduated from Tufts you decided to go to NYU?
TM: I was thinking about continuing to take Graduate studies in English and applied to NYU and got into that program. By the time I graduated I was much more interested in exploring filmmaking. There was a course offered in the summer at NYU, an intensive six week workshop where you make three films and work on other people’s films. It was similar in structure to the New York Film Academy now. You work with three people. You rotate who does sound or camera etcetera on each others projects. I made all these weird films.
CCB: Your films are weird now.
TM: (Laughs) Experimental films, people going through a million doors and never finding what they want. Waking up from dreams but never really waking up.
CCB: Was there a reason you chose NYU specifically? Did you want to come back to New York? (Teodoro was raised on Long Island.)
TM: I wanted to come back to New York. At that time there weren’t many films schools. It was either that or California film schools which were making mainstream Hollywood movies. I was interested in art films from Europe, such as Fellini, Fassbinder, Wim Wenders. People in New York were making really odd, interesting films. NYU had a reputation for being more arty or independent which are still the types of films I like to work on. All the interesting filmmakers came out of NYU, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Scorsese.
CCB: When you left film school what had you learned?
TM: What was great about NYU was having a group of peers that were interested in the same thing that you were. All wanted to be filmmakers, had varying opinions. You made stuff and you would screen it for them. It was like this captive audience that was forced to watch different generations of edits of your films. You would get immediate feedback, various opinions. Everyone’s reaction is valid in some way. Having to analyze what is problematic about a film and make suggestions. It’s a lot of trials and errors not only on your films but watching other people’s films. You learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t work. You build up a community of people who theoretically all end up working in film. There are still people I keep in touch with. Career-wise it created a good network of film.
CCB: At what point did you become interested in cinematography?
TM: At NYU everyone worked on everybody’s films so when you weren’t directing your own film you worked as a crew person on other people’s films. Some people found they liked doing sound, lighting. I always found I liked operating and shooting films for other people so I just started doing that. People trusted me with it. I had some facility for it, some talent.
It’s a great thing because as a cinematographer you get to do a lot of the work a director does and enjoy a lot of the creative decision making, thought processes. I’ve always described it as being the uncle. It’s great being a cinematographer because you don’t actually have to raise the kids, but you can take them out and have fun with them, then send them back to the parents to put through college. It is very difficult being a director. You spend several years writing a script, getting it financed. Then there’s production, spending all this time getting it out into the world, publicizing and promoting it. You spend several years of your life on one project. As a cinematographer you work a couple of months, you step away. You get to enjoy all the benefits and the creative fun. You can move right on to something else. It doesn’t take as much commitment.
CCB: Can you explain in simple terms what a cinematographer does?
TM: There is a story that is written in words. There’s the task of converting words into pictures and figuring out what the pictures are that will tell the story. Those pictures have to be selected wisely just like the words are. Great writing is made up of very carefully chosen words and punctuation. Shots have that same impact, choosing the right shot that is a period, instead of an exclamation point or a question mark. How do you choose those?
It’s a little more abstract coming up with that. Shots have a feeling or an emotional quality to them. One of the big tasks of a cinematographer is working with the director to translate words into pictures in advance of shooting. You do storyboards and shot lists. You work with the director on the tone of the film and mood. Things like camera movement, composition, style. There are a lot of things that go into that. Is it handheld or is it rough? Is it very elegant? Is it beautifully lit or is it raw feeling? There are stylistic choices.
CCB: You help filter the images?
TM: Filter or talk about the aesthetics of the film, what the style of the film is going to be like. Mean Streets is a very different film than Waterboy. There are very different choices being made, the energy, the colors, the framing that all happens before you stand on set. Then when you are actually filming my responsibilities are getting the shots, maintaining all the stylistic choices we made, the camera movement, lighting, working with the actors getting them in the frame that makes sense. You are telling the story through the pictures.
Everything that you see when you watch a movie is filtered through the cinematographer, every choice, every window, every object that is in the frame. What kinds of colors? There’s a huge crew involved in executing that as well as the director.
CCB: Are you actually taking the pictures or is that the camera operator?
TM: On a lot of films I’ve worked on because they are smaller, independent films I’ve operated the camera. That’s not always the case. I do actually like operating the camera, something about being the uncle that we talked about earlier. If the project is very difficult and fast moving it can be great to have a camera operator. You can multi-task easier.
CCB: Is it fair comparing what you do to that of a photographer?
TM: Yeah, it’s all the same skills. A still photographer sets up the lighting, deals with the subject. Still photographers are usually the director and the camera operator. They are in charge of all the stylistic decisions. They are usually known for their style or brand of photography whether Richard Avedon or Dave LaChappelle. Filmmaking in general is much more of a collaborative process.
CCB: Can you have your own style as a cinematographer or does it depend on what is needed for each project?
TM: It’s collaborative and you work on different films. The style and the choices, it’s really about adapting to the project. There might be some people who hire cinematographers because they do one sort of thing like they shoot romantic comedies. That’s something that I’ve tried not to do with my career because I’m interested in so many different things.
CCB: Once you’ve established the themes with the director, what is the next most important thing? Can you talk about the lighting aspect of it?
TM: We’ll rehearse the scene and see if it’s working. As a cinematographer you have to deal with physical bodies in space and they move around. You may see it one way in pre-production. Something may come up as better. When you are on set working with actors things change. How can we capture this the way it works best in the scene? Lighting serves a lot of different purposes. It can set up a mood. It has a lot of impact on how the actors look, if they look beautiful or ugly by the way you position the camera, high or low.
CCB: How did you set out to make a career?
(Teodoro worked as a freelance proofreader for law firms as he attempted to get his career started initially.)
TM: It took years and years to establish myself as a cinematographer. Trying to find work as a cinematographer is a slow, difficult process. The main thing to do is try to do good work when you do work. Hopefully people will see that. It’s a lot of word of mouth. One person will work with you, enjoy that, think you did a good job and tell someone else about you. Slowly you establish a reputation, people know who you are. You put together samples of your work, your portfolio or reel. Then you send that out trying to get more work. Eventually maybe you get an agent. You have to be fairly established before you get to that stage.You have to be working before you can get people to find work for you. It’s really reputation.
CCB: You really have to be your own advocate.
TM: The more you network, go to parties, try to meet people the more work you generate.
CCB: Have any advice on how to become a cinematographer?
TM: It’s hard because there are many different paths depending on goals. I went to film school and was shooting things there so when I came out of film school I had a reel. I knew people from film school who were trying to work. There was some structure already in place for me to utilize.
Another approach is to try being a PA. (Production Assistant) Figure out what you want to be from there and then getting in the camera department and be a camera PA. Try to be an AC (Assistant Camera) on a project. When you meet people try to get to know them. A lot of it is about being assertive, making yourself useful so that they want to hire you. If you make someone’s life easier they are more likely to want to hire you. It takes a certain amount of drive and determination to meet that goal. You have to be willing to be beaten down.
Go out and shoot as much as you can. You probably won’t get paid. Work on some student films, put together a portfolio. The more work you do, the more work you will get. It’s an opportunity to get your self seen.
CCB: Can you speak about the grunt factor?
TM: You say I will do this job and it will be really ugly and difficult, but it may lead to something else so I will do it. In a lot of ways I haven’t done that. I usually try and pick jobs that I want to work on because it’s really hard work, crazy hours, stressful. Balancing dynamics between people and logistic. To be able to come everyday for months it has to be something that I am really behind. It’s the creative side that keeps me going.
CCB: Are there certain ways that you prepare for films?
TM: Watching films with the directors to talk about style and to establish a common language about what we like and don’t like for a particular project. It’s a very useful process using those films as references to establish tone, style. It’s difficult to talk about things in the abstract. I see something as a dark moody cool scene. What that means to me, you might be conjuring up something different. What does cool mean, or the color? A picture is worth a thousand words kind of thing.
In terms of shots watching a film you are seeing all the choices that are being made. Oh, I really like the lighting of the scene but I think the framing is really awful. I just wanted you to look at this one aspect of it. You can talk about many different aspects of film very quickly. Or even sound you can sometimes conjure up images. It gets you all talking the same language. It is your responsibility to talk with the director, establish everything and then communicate it to everybody else on the crew.
CCB: Have you had any mentors in your career?
TM: One of the people who had a huge influence on me was my first year film school teacher Roberta Hodes, who worked on a lot of big films. She was a script supervisor on a lot of Elia Kazan pictures like On the Waterfront. Her tough as nails approach was useful. She was smart. I learned a lot from her. You have to buckle down. You can’t be apologizing. You have to do what you have to do. She was all about the work. She understood what made good work. She was very passionate about films.
CCB: What makes a quality cinematographer?
TM: Somebody who can tell a story with pictures. I think one of my skills is that I can translate a story into pictures pretty effectively. I don’t know what that is? I think some people have an ability to pre-visualize.
CCB: Something innate? But, you can get better at it?
TM: You can get better at it. To me a lot of it is instinctive. I don’t always understand why things are interesting. Later you can analyze why it all makes sense. It’s a hard question. Like saying what makes a good writer? Also it’s someone who understands lighting. There is a lot of logistical or technical stuff. You are like a bit of an alchemist. It’s someone who can organize and manage things well. There’s also a political side to it, about being diplomatic and dealing with people. It’s weird there’s a creative side, a technical side, and a personal side.
CCB: Has your work improved since you started?
TM: Definitely. You learn a lot of shortcuts. Working with people, how to go about choosing the shots. Learning stuff about lighting, it’s kind of a difficult concept to understand. What is light? The way people look in light. If you think about lighting as water that you had to project on people you’d have hoses everywhere. Is it a sprinkle or a full on hose spray of water? You’d have all these hoses that’d you send water to and all the hose heads are different. We’ll have a little sprinkle from the front, the back. The people in the background have to be really hosed down. You have these instruments that are projecting photons at people and you have to figure out how they work.
CCB: What’s the most difficult part of the job?
TM: It’s definitely long hours and hard work, but that’s not actually that bad. (A typical day runs about twelve hours, can go up to sixteen hours) The hardest part is the personal dynamics that go on. Making sure everyone is satisfied, (occasionally) dealing with difficult people.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job?
TM: The thing that surprises most people is that there is only one camera on a scene. You set up a wide shot, you do the scene. You do a close-up and then you turn the camera around. They think its all magic or it happens really quickly. While you set these things up and you repeat them over and over.
CCB: What has been the coolest thing about the job?
TM: You really get to go to unusual places and explore. I was just in Taiwan. I’ve been to Slovenia and London. You are searching out really unusual locations to shoot in like a coal mine in a mountain in Slovenia. It’s never the same. Every project is different. You never know what the parameters are. You have to like that to make it one of the great things about the job. Some people don’t like never knowing where they are going to end up.
CCB: Is it a conscious decision to work on independent films?
TM: It’s just where I am. To some extent that’s what I’m interested in. They are making more the kinds of films that I like to see.
CCB: Is the “independent” film tag a bit of a misnomer since many studios have stakes in them?
TM: The official definition of independent was a film that is independently financed and doesn’t really have distribution in place. It’s getting made and people try and sell it after the fact. Now it has come to mean smaller, arty type of film.
Check out Teodoro's reel here: https://vimeo.com/maniaci