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Pierre Gill: The Canadian Cinematographer

By Murtaza Ali Khan

At the 49th International Film Festival of India (IFFI), the most informative and comprehensive masterclass was delivered by noted Canadian cinematographer Pierre Gill who is known for his work on films like Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Polytechnique, Outlander, and Casanova. The masterclass was aptly titled “Poetry in Motion”. Pierre Gill, who has twice won the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Award, is equally active in film as well as television. Some of the best known television series shot by him include Hitler: The Rise of Evil, The Borgias, and Shut Eye. Delineating the distinction between his work in film and television, Gill explained, “While I really prefer to work for cinema, I believe that television productions these days too have become very high quality. The difference is simple. When you are working for cinema you open one book and you go from one end to the other but when you are working for television you are going to have many magazines. It’s so much fun to do a movie because you have time to think about the minutest of the details such as tone, character detailing and pacing, etc. even at the scene level but in television you have no choice but to start shooting at one point because you hardly have time.”

The Canadian cinematographer has also shot many independent movies other than the big-budget Hollywood ventures. “I love to do small projects and I also love to work on huge productions because it allows me to balance things in my life. A small project is always magic but it can get really hard because of the lack of budget and resources. It can get really exhausting at times. The big project, on the other hand, is a big gift. You have toys and it’s exciting but it is also like a big machine and then you lose the art sometimes. Now, I come from a small place like Montreal and I am really privileged to be able to work on both small as well as big projects,” rejoiced Gill. On Blade Runner 2049, Pierre’s crew was around 150 people and immediately after that he worked on a TV Series with just four crew members wherein we was shooting 12 pages a day for 60 days. Gill added, “So I can do both and it’s very important for me. I never look at a project for money. What’s important for me is whether a project is interesting and whether it’s feasible. By feasible I mean whether it’s realistic to shoot what’s desired within the budget that’s offered.  Maybe you can do it when you are young but you cannot do this for a long time because working on film is so exhausting. The hours are so long that you have to find a way at one point to balance.”

In a career spanning well over two decades Pierre Gill has worked with a wide range of filmmakers. Recounted his experiences of working with different filmmakers, he said, “They are all different. Some directors are just actor oriented. So they will ask you: ‘what’s the shot?’ While working with such a director you, as a cinematographer, have to basically do the storyline, which I can do and in fact love to do. Some filmmakers have a good vision and have a good idea about cinematography and so the cinematographer will chip in a lot and together they will try to create some synergy. And then you have a third kind like Ridley Scott type of director who has a thorough understanding of everything and their ideas about the shots are crystal clear which for a cinematographer is also an interesting proposition because when the filmmakers themselves are real masters are at it you know that you are going to create great shots all the time and also you are going to learn new stuff.” Pierre believes that working with all the three kinds of directors is fine as long as the director acknowledges what kind of director he/she is. “Sometimes an actor oriented director thinks he/she is very good visually when that’s not the case and then it gets very frustrating for the director of photography because you know deep down that the shot is not very good,” explained Gill.

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As a cinematographer it is easy to forget about the larger picture but Pierre Gill believes that it is always better to think of oneself as a filmmaker and not just a cinematographer. “If you follow a rather wholesome approach then you can actually help the filmmaker translate his/her ideas visually. I like to see myself as a filmmaker and not just a director of photography. For me lighting is not the most important thing, the shot is. Of course, lighting and lensing are important but it is more about how you want to tell your story using all the tools at your disposal because just a beautiful looking movie but with no good story is of little cinematic value,” asserted Gill.

An accomplished cinematographer within his own right, Pierre Gill served as the Second Unit Director of Photography on his fellow Canadian Denis Villeneuve’s Hollywood blockbuster Blade Runner 2049. “First of all, the opportunity of working on the next Blade Runner was really a no-brainer. Second of all, I am open to learning. I am good but I also understand and appreciate that there are masters out there are way better than me. Working with a master like Roger Deakins I actually learnt a lot of new stuff which hopefully I would be able to use in my upcoming projects. I also gave things that I knew as it’s about collective leaning. Here I must also tell you that doing second unit can be a lot of fun. Since you are working on a different schedule, you have a lot of time to do just a few shots. So, it’s really a different ball-game altogether because of the complexities involved and the freedom you have to experiment with stuff,” revealed Gill.

The modern technological advancements have greatly impacted the role of a cinematographer. Today, a lot of the times the cinematographers are actually shooting with green screens and all the effects that we see are actually added much later during the post production. “Of course, our job has become easier but no matter what the VFX guys tell you if you don’t shoot it right it becomes a major problem in the post. Sometimes just to get a very minor right they have to tweak so much of work in the post such as doing double keying or triply keying or something else and so it’s more time and resources in the post. That’s why I like to do it the right way during the shoot itself even though I know that I don’t want to do it perfectly. So in order to be thorough about the shot I always ask them about the effect and tell them to show me some concept art because I want to light the actor to what’s it’s going to be. I push them to make sure they really do have a clear vision. For example, if I know that there is going to be a big ball of fire I will put a big back light on the actor and that’s way better than doing from the scratch in the post. The challenge in the post is to make things look perfect and not everybody is able to do that. Therefore, cinematography still has a big role to play in translating the director’s vision,” summed up Gill.

Murtaza Ali Khan is an independent film critic based out of Delhi, India. He is the editor-in-chief of A Potpourri of Vestiges and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. He has also contributed to The HinduThe QuintWittyfeed, etc. He is on the guest panel for live discussions on the television channel News X. He is Films Editor at Café Dissensus.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Revisiting the Partition of India”, edited by Kamayani Kumar, University of Delhi, India.

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