Eye-opener: Mike Simpson

Listen up future cinematographers. It takes more than an eye for design and technical know-how to make it says cinematographer Mike Simpson. To evolve with the times, think about boning up on your post-production skills.


Mike Simpson set out to study philosophy, but when he added a major in film and started working on student projects while studying at the University of Texas, Austin, he became fascinated with how light can radically change the visual artistry in a film. Today, Simpson is an award-winning cinematographer who’s worked on projects ranging from horror shorts to Rick Ross music videos to feature-length documentaries and films. Strings, a dramatic thriller, nabbed a Best Cinematography prize at the Long Island International Film Expo in 2011. Simpson’s work on the indie film The Taiwan Oyster not only helped the film earn a coveted slot in the narrative competition at the 2012 South By Southwest film festival, it also won critics over, including Variety senior film critic Peter Debruge who wrote, “The sheer beauty of Simpson’s frames often stands in direct contrast with the delirious indulgence on display.”

Three years ago, Simpson relocated from Texas to New York and has since focused more on commercial work including spots for Xbox, Nintendo, Maybelline, Dell, and Whole Foods. His newest project, Before You Know It, is a feature-length documentary directed by PJ Raval that chronicles the love lives of three gay senior citizens.

Get In Media: Let’s talk about The Taiwan Oyster. What were some of the challenges of filming on location in Taiwan?

Mike Simpson: Well, there are infinite challenges to shooting in Taiwan. There was obviously the language barrier and [Ang Lee was shooting Life of Pi in the same location], so there was very little equipment left for us. It’s a road movie, so we were moving around a lot. That was really challenging. The way we shot it all over locations is we just showed up and asked if we could film and everybody says yes, but it makes [things] a little bit hard. You can’t shut down streets or anything like that. You basically just show up and shoot and hope for the best. Pretty much every film I’ve shot had its challenges. Even on big commercials, the challenge might be, I don’t know, maybe just the agency wants to do like a hundred takes. In a huge-budget commercial, you might have five minutes to light the last shot because [the director] spent three hours on the first one. Every job has a different set of challenges.

GIM: As a cinematographer, when people see your work do you want them to recognize it as a distinctly Mike Simpson project or are you more interested in working with a director to create the look they want?

MS: There are definitely things that I think I do pretty consistently, whether it is commercial or narrative. I tend to prefer soft lighting and I have specific colors that I like to use, say, if it’s a streetlight look. I think those things are fairly consistent, but I try not to be too committed to my own look. I try to use the script as sort of the Bible or the law. Everything that I do, I try to have it be influenced by the script, whether it is the mood or the shots or the lighting or the camerawork. For me, that’s what really informs everything.

Especially in narrative stuff, the director and I always try to sit down and discuss everything. The director and I come up with all these references, usually reference photos or sometimes paintings or stills from other films. [We] actually get those printed out and put in a little book and we keep that book on set. It’s something that we can look at as we’re shooting and [ask], “Is this consistent with the look of the film or are we just doing this because we’re in a hurry?” I think that helps create a consistent look and style for the film.

GIM: What is your go-to equipment?

MS: I think it depends. I’ve been shooting a lot of fashion and beauty stuff and I’ve been using the Briese light [products] a lot. I think that’s great for beauty light, but I don’t think I’d ever really use that in a narrative film. In a narrative film, I tend to take HMIs [Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lamps] and soften them considerably. I’d bounce them through diffusion and the bigger the diffusion, the better. Ideally, I get a 4K HMI or maybe even a little bigger and I’ll bounce it into beadboard and then I’ll do the biggest possible grid diffusion that I can. Usually an eight-by or maybe even bigger. It all depends on what fits in the space. I use a lot of Kino Flos [fluorescent lights]. I don’t really like LED lighting, I just feel like it always looks kind of green.

GIM: You mentioned that you have go-to colors that you use. Would you mind going into what some of those are?

MS: A lot of times I’m trying to create the feeling of real streetlights. To me, there are two of them. There are the very orange ones and there are the very bluish-green ones. I tend to gravitate more towards the bluish-green. I just think that’s a prettier color. I use this gel called White Flame [green lighting filter] and I double that. Then I use a varying amount of CTB [Color Temperature Blue color correction gel] depending on if it’s a tungsten or daylight light that I am correcting. Double White Flame and then a lot of CTB give this really rich bluish-green color. I just think that’s really pretty, but sometimes I’ll even mix the two lights in the same scene so it’ll be that plus a very orange-amber color. Half CTB and Bastard Amber on a tungsten light will give a really pretty kind of ambery color to simulate the warmer streetlights. I’ll mix that with the cooler green streetlights. It may not be the official term, but I think of this of color contrast. Having a few different colored lights in the same scene. It really brings another layer of texture and creativity to the lighting. I always try to mix in, if I can, a couple colors. Even if it’s one colored streetlight, I’ll maybe bring in some just regular tungsten light or white light as if it’s coming from a storefront or something like that. I’m not a big fan of moonlight. I mean it hardly ever exists and it definitely never looks like it does in the movies. I try to shy away from lighting a scene with moonlight.

GIM: Do you have a say in post-production?

MS: It’s really important to me to be involved in post, especially color timing. I always feel like 80 percent of my job is done on set, but I can get the image looking 20 percent better in color timing. Confirming that I will be involved with color timing is something that I always make sure of before I shoot. I’d much rather address a problem on set, but it takes a lot longer to address it on set than in post. If I know that I’m involved in post, then I will just let it go and I’ll fix it in post. Sometimes each of these little problems I, save for color timing, added up can be an extra 30 minutes or hour on set.  Something like a small vignette can hide the corner of a light stand that is peaking out of a very elaborate lighting setup and it may take forever to get it all moved. But If I am not involved in timing, they rarely will be fixed.  If I am not sure if I will be involved, I take the time to fix it on set. That’s why I really have to make sure that I’m going to be involved in color timing and have someone tell me that for sure. Especially in commercials, you just never know. You definitely don’t want your work to look sloppy just because you try to save some time on set and never get to fix the problem later.

GIM: Where do you see cinematography headed in the next five years?

MS: Do you know who Chris Doyle is? A lot of people consider him one of the best living cinematographers. He was just interviewed recently and they asked him what he thought about Life of Pi. He basically called it an insult to cinematography because it won Best Cinematography. I wouldn’t be as extreme as him for sure. I mean I think that movie looked great, but some of the stuff he talks about is interesting because he basically talks about this idea, you know, if 90 percent of the image is being generated in post, the cinematographer definitely doesn’t have the influence that he used to.

Cinematographers in general are going to have to address that at some point very soon, whether or not we become involved in the CG design or at least the lighting and the design. Maybe our jobs just become, I don’t know, less important, which would be a real shame. I turned down this job not that long ago where the director wasn’t even going to be [on set]. He was going be in France. He was like, “Just shoot on the Epic [camera]. Keep everything in a medium shot and just do really flat lighting. I’ll do all the lighting in post and I’ll change the frame in post to get all the different shots.” I was like, “Why would I even do this job? There’s nothing for me to do.” That’s what really scares me. Composition is getting taken away and lighting is getting taken away. With cameras cranking out much higher resolutions than necessary, its becoming much more common in post take the liberty to reframe. “Oh it’s 5k and we only need 1080p, we can zoom in like 300%.” I get that sometimes you don’t have time on set to get everything, and that extra flexibility can be great, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same as putting on a new lens or getting closer. Many times I come into color timing and a bunch of my shots are awkwardly framed.  I wonder, why did I shoot it like that? Then I ask the colorist, and find out its been reframed.  At this point I know it’s going to happen sometimes. Now I just try to make sure that I do the actual reframing at least.

REALTED: Cinematographer Peter Simonite has worked with the likes of Terrence Malick and Richard Linklater, but he started out living in the back of a Pizza Hut and sleeping on the floor. 

GIM: How do you see cinematographers evolving to deal with that?

MS: I think it just might involve actually becoming involved in the post process more. I think there’s a lot of really awesome stuff that could be done in post and it gives the cinematographer a ton of freedom. I think that cinematographers need to fight their way into post and become involved in that stuff. A big-time cinematographer is going to be involved in post probably a lot more than me. I feel like the bigger your reputation the more you can muscle your way into that kind of stuff.

GIM: What advice do you have for people who want to move into cinematography?

MS: I think it’s awesome to go to school, meet people. Hopefully you’ll make relationships with people that you’ll shoot with for a long time. I’ve probably shot maybe a hundred commercials with people I’ve gone to school with. Making relationships is one of the most important things you can do.

To check out more of Mike’s work, head to www.mike-simpson.com.

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