It’s crazy to think that every time someone watches a video, they are actually seeing the story through the eyes of the cinematographer who orchestrates each shot. It’s a rewarding career, but not without its challenges. So how does one break into such a competitive and creative industry? What makes one stand out and drive one to be the best cinematographer one can be? I sat down with PäR M Ekberg, the cinematographer behind music videos such as Praying by Ke$ha and Beautiful Trauma by P!nk, as well as tour videos like Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour and Beyonce and Jay-Z’s On the Run Tour. With his resume also filled with shorts, features, and commercials, he is a force to be reckon with, and has great advice for aspiring filmmakers.
Interview conducted by: Katie Constantine
Edited by: Morgan Moore, Tiffany Chan, & Katie Constantine
Cover image provided by the artist
What inspired you to become a cinematographer?
As a kid, I got completely lost in the world of cinematic art. I had a bunch of silent (!) movie favorites: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy… they were my inspiration. As I grew up, I worked myself through all the classic movies, but my taste in cinema was broad, I enjoyed arty movies as well as commercial action and horror and everything in between. I think my early interest in the silent movies inspired the thought of telling stories by pictures, and I started shooting stills at an early age. I always enjoyed looking at beautiful or interesting images of all sorts… paintings, photographs, drawings, maps…. And I have always liked technical, electronic, and mechanical things. Movie making hardware is still fascinating… Cameras, lights, cranes and dollies….
You’ve amassed an incredibly diverse portfolio, taking on projects in film and television but also music videos. What draws you to a new project?
It is often a combination of things. I have a bunch of long term collaborators and directors that I love to work with. I like technical challenges. I like a lot of different musicians and artists. In some weird way, I also like the stress and strain that many times comes as part of the job when you are shooting. It doesn’t matter how much time you have or what the budget is, I always want to get the most out of the day, which often means I will keep running through the day, trying to cram everything that I want in there. A lot of times there is a combination of the factors above that comes into play when I decide to do a job or not. And I would probably do even more of them if there were more hours in the day or more days of the week..
Do you have a favorite project that you worked on? What made it your favorite?
There are so many to choose from… It would not be fair to pick one out, but I can give you a few examples from the many favorites:
The latest one is a video with P!nk, Beautiful Trauma, where we just had so much fun. The first time collaboration with the directors (The Golden Boys, RJ Durell, and JC Molina) was so inspiring. P!nk herself and the vibe on set were amazing, and I really like the final result.
I still love the Calvin Klein commercial I shot with Jonas Åkerlund. It was a crazy stressful last minute job where the sawdust was literally still floating mid air in the studio as we started to shoot. The set build was complicated, and the logistics and lighting were intricate. Doutzen Kroes and Charlie Hunnam were sparklingly good, and the whole thing is beautiful. Great commercial.
I have done a couple more things with Jonas Åkerlund that also stick in front of my memory: the On The Run Tour concert film with Beyoncé and Jay-Z was crazy difficult and crazy rewarding; the two features we did together, Small Apartments, a small quirky but really good feature that I am still proud of, [and] Lords of Chaos that is not out yet…That one will be really exciting to see again as it comes out. As I said, this is a few…many of the videos I have done with big artists have been a very special experience. I cannot mention them all, but none are forgotten.
Was there ever a time that you questioned your future in the industry? How did that resolve?
There have been times where I have felt like I have been stuck. Projects have not been able to take me forward, there was not enough development or inspiration within projects…things were not big or interesting enough…but there has always (so far) been a point in time where I have stopped, thought about it, and have been able to move myself into another perspective. Sometimes there is only so much you can do about the actual projects/jobs that are presented to you, and however hard you try you can probably just move them a little tiny bit closer to where you want them, but you can always move yourself a lot. I have been able to find ways to do things differently, I have been able to think about things differently, look at them in a new way, or feel about them differently…and I have always found myself being presented with different projects and new challenges after a period like that. Once you come to a point where everything around you is affecting you like a badly fitted shoe that is too small, you might want to see if there is something in you that is creating the difficulties rather than every- and anything else.
What inspires you to keep creating?
Everything good in life I guess…love, beauty, people, science, art, technology, stories, architecture, excitement, action…and a certain amount of drive to prove myself, over and over again….
What advice would you give to aspiring cinematographers?
Shoot stuff. You cannot beat hands-on experience. Cinematography itself is so, so hard. There are a million aspects of it. I can honestly say I still feel like a beginner sometimes. There is just a universe of stuff to learn, and you can never ever get to the bottom of that well of knowledge. And even if you did, the practical/social aspects of movie making would still make it hard to succeed every time…every time you shoot, you learn. Every time. And the beauty of this age is that anyone can pick up a camera and shoot something. If you can’t get on a “proper” movie set, make something up and shoot it. Shoot every day if you can. And when you are not shooting, watch stuff others’ shots and think of why you think it works or why it doesn’t.
You work with a lot of feminist music artists like P!nk and Beyonce. Are you drawn to the visuals their music creates and the messages they send out?
Of all the projects I do, the best ones are the ones which are backed by some sort of intellectual activity. Interesting things are rarely interesting by themselves, it is almost always the people or the thoughts behind it that makes it interesting and put the foundation down for interesting visuals. Drive to make a better world will inject projects with energy, no matter what the project itself might be.
How do you approach filming a project like Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour video vs. a project wholly contained on a set?
It is a whole different animal. Since I use multiple cameras and operators (TS 1989 was near 40), the most difficult part–once you have gone through the difficulties of finding space for, and placing the cameras and figuring out all the technical parts with cameras/grip/lighting– is to make every single operator (including crane, wirecam, dolly grips, and focus pullers) understand what exactly is supposed to be captured at every certain moment of the show. I will plan what every single camera will do through the whole show at every single moment. Once the show starts, it just has to work by itself.
How do you combine your vision with the vision of the director? Was there ever a time when you worked with someone who had a vision that clashed with yours? If so, how did you deal with it?
Normally it is not a problem to understand the mutual vision, even if the road there can be more or less bumpy. I always want to understand what the vision is, and I always want to be on the same page as the director. I have to be, if I am suppose to contribute with my knowledge and my ideas. If that is impossible, I am probably not on the right job, and I have not had that happen to me yet.
What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced so far in this industry?
The greatest challenge on a daily basis is always to fit the vision into the budget. The bigger, long term challenge is to keep reinventing yourself. The industry is constantly changing together with the visuals and production. It is never a static environment, and it takes brains and heart to stay in it. Experience comes by itself with time, but the energy to manage it is another story.
Do you have a favorite type of shoot to work on? Why?
I do love to shoot built sets on stage, because it is controllable, but location shooting has its perks, with natural lights and natural aging. Sets on stage give me a chance to light as I please, which is something I always enjoy. Commercials are often nice projects to work on. They are often properly funded and short and sweet. A lot of times there is room to create beautiful imagery. Music videos too, even if those are always challenging, with too small budgets and too little time. Features are a different animal, they tend to have a life of their own. They are exhausting like a marathon, and it is always a challenge to keep track of and develop the flow of the story visually and conceptually.
What does a typical day on set look like for you?
I am always on set early to eat breakfast, drink coffee, and talk to my crew. I start to organize my troops and get them up to speed. I try to give them as much information as possible, information that might have been updated since the tech scout, thoughts may have shifted–or I just want to talk to them. Going in well prepared [and] in a good mood together with my crew is something I always want to do. Once the shoot starts (after rig, lighting or other prep) I rarely have any breaks except lunch. If there is a break and I have to wait for something, there are always things to prepare, look at, or pick up. It is normally a race to the end of the day.
Was there a moment or a job you can point to and call it your big break? What did you have to do to get to that point?
Not really. It is more like a very tall ladder where there are plenty of small steps. Small breaks. I remember many moments where I have thought that I did an exceptionally good job, as well as moments where I thought about what I could have done to make things come out better. But it is a long race and sometimes I have been ahead, sometimes I have been behind.
Can you tell us about your creative process? Is it roughly the same for each project you work on?
I normally get a lot out of the first conversations with the director, reading a script or looking at (mood- or story-) boards. I would bounce ideas together with the director, and we would shape forms and ideas together. Once the project boils down into a manageable form, more ideas normally come into play and the project has to be adjusted accordingly. Sometimes we send references back and forth, but I try to be careful with that since images tend to stick pretty firmly into our consciousness. I find it better to talk about things. I want to think I am a good interpreter when it comes to visual ideas…I would say this part is similar between projects, even if the execution parts of the projects differ widely.
What do you think is the most important part of your creative process, especially when working on more abstract pieces like Ke$ha’s music video Praying?
A lot of the visuals in a video like “Praying” are built on the location/sets/narrative. We had a very limited time to shoot that video, and a lot of what we created there was in the moment. The fact that Kesha delivered so strongly and that my collaboration with her and Jonas worked so well is why the video is so good. We planned the sets together with production designer Emma Fairley, and Jonas had written all the ideas about what was supposed to happen where…A lot of what we shot was run and gun with very limited lighting.
Is this a career you always wanted to have? Did you ever picture yourself doing another type of creative work?
No, this is something I had in my blood for so long that I can barely think of anything else. I would love to be able to finish one of all the script ideas that keeps on popping up in my mind at some point…but that is more a fantasy than anything else.
For the aspiring cinematographers who are worried about fading into the background, what do you try to do in your work that you feel sets you apart from other cinematographers?
I try to alway pay attention. I have always practiced a principle that once you are on board, you take the ship all the way home. You don’t give up, whine, or complain about stuff that you can’t change. It is fine to state everything and anything you need or want before you go into production, but once you accept the terms you do your part. Never bail out. Whatever creative gift and experience I might have will be with me no matter what, but what I can change is my attitude and energy. I cannot honestly say this is a universal recipe for success, but I know it has helped me in my pursuit of bigger, better jobs.
How do you learn to trust your vision as a cinematographer?
Wow, that is a tough one. I know I will come to see the finished film, video or commercial or whatever, knowing all the efforts I put into it…and still…I know I will see stuff I would want to do differently if I did the same shot again…I know I will find the low point, the shot or moment I like the least, [but] I will also find the high point, the one shot I don’t want to be any different…I guess what I want to say is that I always try to drive that whole performance window forward and up. My best shot should be better, the worst one should be as close to the best one as possible…not easy, and all I trust is that I will constantly learn.
What is something you wish you knew when you were first starting out?
I would like to have known to be even more patient, calm, and concentrated. I would have want to fully understand where to put my attention. It is a complicated, social, stressful, and difficult job. Get rid of any unnecessary pride or attitude, and put that energy where it is needed. I think you have to be patient, respectful, open, smart, energetic, social, fair, stringent, clear, prepared, powerful, educated, and more in a good mix in order to be really good. Still working on it.
If you’re interested in learning more about Par M. Ekberg and his work, please visit his website here.