Freeze Frame: Peter Simonite
Cinematographer Peter Simonite is a master at executing other people's visions, which is why the 60 productions to his credit vary in style, from music videos for Spoon to animated features like A Scanner Darkly and charged live action like The Tree of Life.
You may not have heard of Peter Simonite, but you know his work. Taking on nearly every job in the photography, cinematography, and camera operation departments for film, television, and commercials, Simonite’s enormous body of work ranges from Star Trek: Generations to Friday Night Lights the television series to music videos for Spoon and Explosions in the Sky. With more than 60 productions to his credit, including four which were recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival, the Austin, Texas resident is known for the diversity of his portfolio—just compare the look of The Tree of Life to the semi-animated feature, A Scanner Darkly—as well as his ability to seamlessly move between photography roles.
Long before he was hobnobbing with directors like Terrence Malick and Richard Linklater, Simonite was slowly learning photo techniques from his mother, an artist and photography teacher at Trinity University in San Antonio. After graduating with a degree in film from the University of Texas in 1994, Simonite immediately immersed himself in Austin’s burgeoning cinematic scene, starting out as a film loader for any production that came through town. The following year, Simonite was loading film for The Good Old Boys, a TV movie shot in West Texas. It was also the directorial debut of actor Tommy Lee Jones.
Get In Media: For that project, you actually lived in a Pizza Hut and slept on the floor.
Peter Simonite: Yeah … I was so excited because, just like anybody else graduating from college looking for a job, and I got this job loading film … They didn’t have accommodations for me, and the production office was in the back of a Pizza Hut out there … my friends at the production office basically set me up with, like, a little prayer candle and a sleeping bag, and I stayed out there. It was great. It was really good. I drove out there in a hail-damaged Honda Civic and went to work, and I loved it. I got a really mean farmer’s tan. One thing leads to another. You start working in that line of work, and you fall in love with the craft of it, and you meet a lot of people, and you sort of stay at it. I think just having a love for what you do is a really good way to live, so I’m lucky.
GIM: What is your process like when you approach a project?
PS: … It varies so much from project to project depending on the people that are working on it. Like, each production has such different demands. It’s a real collaborative art form so, you know, as a cinematographer, you have to clearly define responsibilities. You’re trying to make it look good and block the scenes in a way that’s sensible and be responsible for keeping things on time and on budget and also making it look pretty. A lot of that is working with people around you—the crew, the director, the producer—just finding that sweet spot where you can help move everyone forward in the right direction. I just found it to be a real collaborative art form for me … I get excited about other people’s ideas so, you know, it’s a really fun craft to have, and I love working with light. That’s something I get to do all day.
GIM: For your portion of that collaboration, where do you start?
PS: … I usually start by asking the directors what they envision. Sometimes, a director will present references or storyboards or maybe talk about movies that they like. Depending on the director, they may be more or less specific about what they’re envisioning, or it may just be more of a feeling that they’re going after. I try to make it my job to really listen to the director and what they pictured for any given project, and I start with that. Then, of course, I bring kind of my background and work and the practicality of things, as well as my interest in fine art and photography, and I sort of bounce ideas back and forth with the director until we arrive at kind of a concept.
I like to sort of start with a concept of what the thing is supposed to look and feel like, then we talk about the locations and the blocking … I do my best to sort of deliver what I imagine the director wants. Sometimes, you really hit the mark, and sometimes, when you go all the way, you find that you’re learning, or they help guide you towards the look and feel of it, or you may be up against, you may see something spectacular on the day you get to a place, and the light’s just right over here, and you go, “Oh look, look, look, let’s go over here and shoot this!”
… I kind of make it my job to really interpret what I hear the director saying what they want or the themes that are called to mind from the script sometimes can give me inspiration for how to interpret that with the light or with the color or the movement. Sometimes, I write a little treatment of what it should look like based on the themes, the ideas, before I go in and meet with the director, so I usually try and come with an idea or a plan of what I think it is based on the script, but I’m prepared to throw all that away if the director has a different idea … .
GIM: When you scope out a location, what are you looking for?
PS: … First of all, it has to make sense for the script, and then I try to think about the practical things, like: where does the light land naturally, and am I working with what the sun gives us or against it? Hopefully, the location gives you an interesting light or an interesting look to begin with. That means you’re starting from a better place, and there’s less work to do, and I think that makes it easier for everyone. Then, you work with the production advisor and the director, and you kind of hone in on what would make it as good as it can be. I guess when I’m looking at locations, I look for realities of the script or is it serving the story … .
GIM: You’ve worked on a number of animated projects as well as live action. How does the photography work on an animated piece stack up to a live action?
PS: Say, like Scanner Darkly? That was really cool. For those particular projects, the idea was to shoot them and then rotoscope afterwards. A team of animators would go in and take the footage that we shot. It gets edited and put together just like a regular film would, but maybe there’s less demand of the lighting, because you know they’re going to be drawn over. You can kind of fudge a little bit on the background if you know that there’s something that shouldn’t be there, because they can just draw it off. Maybe you approach it with the idea in mind of “Wouldn’t this look cool if this was animated?”
GIM: With a project like Skateland, there’s an emphasis in that film of making it look like it was shot in a different decade while using modern equipment. Is that kind of project easier or more difficult than filming a modern-day project?
PS: I think it’s more difficult for the art department … There were challenges in creating the world of the movie. There was so much work to do with the hair and the sets and the wardrobe, but at the same time, I think it was really fun for everyone because we all just really got into trying to make it as authentic as possible, filling every frame with something that looked real or what we believed to be real in our experience of that period. I don’t know that it was harder. It just was maybe more rewarding in a way. There’s something really gratifying if you can create that illusion and make it seem real. People seem to enjoy that, too. There’s a lot of nostalgia in it … .
GIM: How do you pick the projects that you work on?
PS: … I always tend to gravitate toward projects that I identify with emotionally, the movies that I would want to see. I think it helps a lot. It’s a lot easier to make a movie that you want to see or a project that you want to see, so I tend to gravitate toward the ones that excite me the most as an audience member. And, sometimes for the people, the chance to work with someone that you’re excited about.
GIM: You’ve basically worked in every photography-centric job in film. Is there a specific role that you prefer above others?
PS: No. To be totally honest, I’ve enjoyed every part of filmmaking. I enjoyed being a loader. I enjoyed being a focus puller [also called a first assistant camera]. I always enjoy operating … When you’re in a team of creative people, it can be really inspiring and consuming. It’s a demanding job. It takes a lot of hours and a lot of patience. It can take over your life. For instance, right now I’m in India for a couple weeks, and it’s a lot of work but because I love it, because I enjoy what I’m doing, I really take a lot of pleasure in the people that I’m around and the work that we’re creating. I like all of it.
GIM: What do you advise for someone who wants to move into your profession?
PS: … whatever it is that you like to do, whether it’s directing or shooting or writing or whatever it is that your interest is, just do it as much as possible. Whatever it is, just dive right into it and make as many things as possible and collaborate with as many people as possible. Just keep making things and learning.
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