In a crowded market of Directors of Photography(DP), Daniel Ehimen stands alone.
Daniel Ehimen has lensed some of the most visually stunning commercials and films in the mainstream. These include titles like Countdown, Coming From Insanity, When Love Happens Again and others. His directorial credits include films like Sergeant Tutu and In The Name of Love. Also an assured colourist, Daniel Ehimen has shown a predilection for sharing knowledge freely on social media and is slowly gathering a following.
Filmkaku sat down with him to discuss his work, his approach to cinematography, cameras and every other thing.
FilmKaku: How did you get into shooting films?
Daniel Ehimen: I was fascinated with cameras as a child. I’m one of those kids that had “still” cameras growing up. My dad gave me a Yashica or Kodak still camera when I was in secondary school and I used them to take cool pictures of my classmates on graduation day and other school events. But I dropped it when I got into the University of Benin as I developed an interest in sound engineering and started working at church concerts, doing events and working on albums.
When I came out of school, I knew I wasn’t going to do anything related to the course I studied — Biochemistry. I considered getting into sound engineering and production full time but I wasn’t too sure I wanted to be lugging speakers around. Those boxes are darn heavy and then the sheer size of the workload was discouraging. I wanted something that was less work and more pay. So I just went back to doing photography. This time, a bit more specialized. I’m talking beauty and fashion photography and I did that for a while.
Soon enough, I started having that itch to go beyond single frames to multiple frames. That’s where and how it all started. I went to film school where, to be honest, I was fed with useless yarn, basic at best. They just taught us the film language and how to communicate it. The rest of it was learnt on the job, with real clients and real situations.
Also did a few courses and, more importantly, the school of YouTube where we all go to (laughs)
FK: I’m sure you did lessons at the Shane Hurlbut inner circle?
DE: Oh yes. In fact, I reached out to him before he started the inner circle. I had seen his work on Need for Speed which he shot on C500 Mark. I reached out to him on LinkedIn, asking to be a mentee. Funny enough, he replied and asked me if I was in the US. I said no, and he then said he was putting together a mentorship thing and I could join that, and that’s how it started with Shane, way before the inner circle was created.
FK: What do aspiring filmmakers need to do to be successful DP’s in Nigeria?
DE: I will simply tell them to create, don’t wait. Instead of waiting around for a company to hire you, go out and do something that will make a company hire you. Just create, step by step and stop worrying about being the best at that stage. You can’t make anything good yet at that stage.
People worry too much about doing shitty stuff but you have to accept that your first attempts are going to be shitty. People will always say things about your work. But move on, because you’re at that moment better than the guy who has all the Martin Scorsese ideas and Roger Corman camera moves in his head but has got nothing done.
Nobody is going to give you a chance except they’ve seen something small you’ve created. The more you create, the better you get. And sometimes it’s just you the big players are looking for: That new angle you’re bringing on their project, the rawness of your talent. On that level, you cannot fail.
For example, Rachel Morrison lensed Black Panther but she came from a small indie film called Fruitvale Station with Ryan Coogler. Who would have thought? From a minimalist Fruitvale to the big picture, Black Panther where she had access to all the tools she needed and could really shine.
You can only hone that unique voice when you start out small. When your time comes, that voice is going to be refined into something bigger than you ever expected. So, go make something.
FK: How do you spot a great DP?
DE: Well, the DP is responsible for creating the world the story lives in, in collaboration with the director and production designer. But one thing I recognise right away from a great DP is the unique perspective he’s bringing to fore. How does he or she see the world? Most of that comes from their origin point, how this person recalls things they must have seen, and this is mostly informed by visual libraries that have been ingested growing and experiencing projects.
I look for people bringing fresh perspectives to the occasion, not simply about being crazy or eccentric with ideas, but how they humanize story elements and how they can draw that attention from audiences to create unique experiences. This is difficult to do; to be unique and also serve the story. Its easy to get clean footage, just throw up lights, teal and blue luts. But to really get an emotional reaction, that takes skill and it’s a continuous learning process.
Bradford Young once said every cinematographer has baggage issues they are trying to unpack, making each project a process in self discovery. What is the image about? What does it say about us? This is what should inform your signature.
We know Michael Bay for shooting great, frenetic action films, we know Spielberg for deeply humanistic storytelling, we know Christopher Nolan for playing with linear and nonlinearity in his films, we know David Fincher for his exploration of dark themes, we know Bradford Young for exploring the limits of darkness. Everyone has a unique baggage they are trying to unpack. Some people have gotten there, some people are still going there.
These are the elements I look for in a DP.
FK: Who’s your biggest artistic influence?
DE: When I started, I was influenced heavily by Shane Hurlbut, he pointed me in the right direction. But as soon as I grasped the language, I realized that my work couldn’t be about mimicking Shane Hurlbut but finding my own process.
So every time I get a project now, my first step is to understand the visual landscape of the screenplay and go into research and checking photographs on Pinterest, where I basically live. Then I begin to create a look book. This is what collectively influences my approach from project to project.
Frankly, I pick a lot from everywhere. But you know, most of what others live by is inspiration from their environment and their process. For example, I see how Bradford Young imbues his frames with a lot of story and politics and culture. This really helped when I was doing my own research on how to light and expose black skin tones properly. It’s important to do this because our visual representation is as important as the stories themselves. I’m still discovering my own voice and I keep studying the work of people who have gone before me to see what I can learn.
In the end, finding my own voice has been a key thing.
FK: On the choosing cameras for film look?
DE: You can’t leave that look to the camera, Steve Yedlin (The Last Jedi, Knives Out), says this all the time. Cameras are simply data collection devices. No camera has a look. Cameras are like buckets and there are different sizes of buckets to fetch “data”, but you can’t say only one bucket can fetch ” data”
Cinematographers have to move beyond arguing about cameras to choosing whatever camera works for their budgets. It’s about creative intent and not brand allegiance.
If you take 6 different cameras and shoot say a green leaf, you’ll get the same green leaf, but it’s just that each camera has different colour sciences that translates the data into a look and that look isn’t tied to a camera. Shane Hurlbut shot some aspects of Need for Speed with a canon 7d but who noticed?
Certain tools actually have some advantages but the general debate is moot, because things are so good right now with different camera bodies. Use whatever camera you have to make your film. We’re in the business of storytelling, so let your camera and lens choices help you and not deter you. You have to be true to yourself and perfect your workflow.
DPs have to perfect their workflows as they acquire these camera codecs from different cameras. This is how I have been able to use different cameras on the same projects and get the same look. It becomes easier when you understand your workflow.
FK: What’s your lighting guide?
DE: Adapt and Overcome is my mantra to lighting. I don’t have a general lighting guide, so I’m not bound by systems like three point lighting. Most of what I do is motivated by the project. What works in the specific story world and what are the rules of this world. That’s what decides the kind of lighting tools I use. So details like camera angles, lenses, dynamic and static shots, all depend on the context of the story for me.
FK: What are your thoughts on other cinematic elements from camera movements , lens choices and camera resolution debates?
DE: The camera is a bucket that acquires data that is then interpreted by a workflow process. In my opinion, I feel what’s in front of the camera box is more important than what’s behind the camera box. This is not to deemphasize cameras, lenses and their comparative pros and cons. Some of them come with elements we consider “cinematic”.
I generally try to avoid conversations about shooting on 2k, 4k or 8k. I understand a lot of people think they need 8k right now (laughs) That school of thought needs to get updated with some research. They need to consider the law of diminishing returns: Can you perceive the quality you’re paying a premium for?
For example, let’s look at the mobile phone industry. In the beginning, it was about being portable, durable and able to make calls. Then text messaging functionalities were added, and then the internet also, all varied upgrades on the ultimate goal of connecting people. After that era, it’s been the latent changes that we are being overcharged for.
Same thing with camera resolution, there was a time it was all about SD, then HD and then 35mm, which was projected at 2.8k. And then 4k and 8k. But all these are not as important as dynamic range and colour fidelity. These are the things will do more to increase the quality of the picture.
I believe If you want the “film” look, you should shoot on film, just stop trying to make your digital intermediate look like film. The best you can do is to make it cinematic. You can also design your workflow to borrow elements from the film era, like the grains and stock. That’s okay too.
Check out Daniel Ehimen’s latest lighting tutorial here