Interview with cinematographer Denson Baker

What qualification did you study at Central and when did you finish?

I went straight from high school to Central TAFE and did a 3 year Diploma in Art & Design, majoring in film and television and graduating in 1996. The courses are run differently now at Central.  It is run more like a film school than an art school, which I think is excellent! It allows students to make earlier decisions on their chosen field within film & television, be it a cinematographer, director, producer, editor etc. It also better prepares the students for working in the industry.  It is teaching so much more than just how to make films.
What did you think of the facilities you recently saw at Central TAFE?

The facilities at Central TAFE are fantastic; I would say world class even.  The main production studio is very well equipped.  The post production facilities such as the edit suites and sound mixing rooms are just like what is being used in much of the Australian film and television industry.

I am also particularly impressed with the production value of the recent student films at Central TAFE. I think the standard of work is quite high.

I think it is fantastic that the students get to shoot projects on Super 16 film. Film is the international industry-standard format for feature films, as well most overseas television drama. It is rare for students to get the opportunity to work with film now that the digital formats are becoming more and more prevalent.  If you are able to shoot and work with film, then you will be able to work in any format that you come across out there.  It doesn’t work the other way around.

What I mean by this is that the principals of filmmaking are the same whichever format you shoot in.  However, shooting film requires a different approach, both technically and creatively.  These principles can be applied to shooting digital, but shooting film requires a greater understanding of lighting and exposure.

The digital equipment at Central TAFE is of a standard and quality that will enable the graduates to go out into the industry and understand pretty much the workings of any other piece of equipment they will come across. There is no reason why the quality of the student projects can’t match the high quality of professional projects because the equipment they are using is the same.

I am also particularly impressed with the production value of the recent student films at Central TAFE. I think that the standard of work is quite high.

What was the first break or job that was key to setting you on your way in your career?

I have had a number of breaks I guess and many of them lead onto one another. A series of fortunate events you might say, but if I was to think of one particular big break it was one night when I had just finished editing my new cinematography showreel. (A showreel is like a portfolio of work, a cut down of my best cinematography edited to music.)

Just as I had finished, an email came through to me that was forwarded by someone that I barely knew. The email said that a German production company was looking for an Australian cinematographer to shoot part of an international film that was to screen at the World Expo in Hanover, Germany and they wanted to see showreels.

I went to the post office the next morning and sent mine off express mail. I received a phone call only days later confirming that I had the job.  I was flown to Melbourne and I worked with a full professional crew on what was my first major job.

The people I met on that project liked my work so much that I got a call a month later and they flew me to Frankfurt to shoot some commercials. I eventually returned to Australia with a new and improved showreel.  Having international work on the reel raised my profile further and got me bigger and better jobs and an agent and I was away…

A case of the right timing I guess!

What qualities do you think are needed in order to make a career in the creative industries?

The quality that I admire in successful creative professionals is the ability to take pride in one’s own work.  Whatever your creative pursuit, I think that if you are doing work that you really enjoy and that you take great pride in, then you’re lucky enough to have one of the best jobs in the world.

I also think that challenging oneself by working outside of your comfort zone is important and realising that to succeed you have to be consistent, positive and work really hard.

Whichever creative field you are in, it is going to be a hard slog to get your career underway. With creative careers you are judged on your body of work and your track record. The first thing one needs to do is create a portfolio, or in my case a showreel, and then prepare yourself for criticism and knock backs, never giving up and use those knock backs as incentive to work harder and set your standards higher.

I also think it is important to do ‘passion projects’ that allow you to experiment with ideas or further your experience. By passion projects, I mean ones that you do for the love of it and not the pay. I shot a lot of ‘freebies’ to get my showreel up to scratch and to get experience before I started getting paid for my art.

Also it’s important to work on your network of contacts.  You never know when that person you might consider as a rival might actually be the one to pass some work your way or introduce you to new collaborators. The film industry is too small to make enemies.  We should be like a support network and learn from each other in order to continually make better projects.

For you, what are the ‘must see’ benchmark films in terms of either outstanding or pioneering cinematography?
Well for starters the cinematography on the recent Australian feature films The Black Balloon and the soon to be released The Waiting City are quite outstanding. Ha!

No, seriously, some of my favourite and most influential films in terms of cinematography are not the ones with the big crane shots or the world’s longest steadicam shot, but the ones that create a real mood and atmosphere.  Films that convey emotion to an audience and help to communicate the subtext of a story by saying more about the characters than dialogue alone ever could.

I think the most influential films for me would be anything directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, Benjamin Button) for his use of mood, atmosphere and cinematic techniques of storytelling.

Also, classics such as Citizen Cane. It took me a while to realise why it is considered the best film ever made. The use of deep focus in this film is not just a technical achievement, but also a storytelling one.

I also really liked The Constant Gardener and Babel. They are both quite rough and hand held at times, but very beautiful and you really felt like you were ‘inside’ the movie.

That is what I was trying to create on the most recent film that I shot, The Waiting City.

I want the audience to feel like they were there in Kolkata, India with the characters, to feel it, smell it and taste it.

You can see Denson’s latest work and current showreel at http://densonbaker.com/HOME.html

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