Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, a Vancouver transplant by way of Norway, has been on the TIFF circuit for several years. A graduate of Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Loeb recently visited Toronto for the premiere of Yellowhead—his new short film with director Kevan Funk—and to participate in the TIFF Talent Lab. He took some time to chat with OTM about the preparation and precision that goes into his cinematography work.
Photography by Tara Bartolini
LAUREN PINCENTE: You completed cinematography on Yellowhead, which was a selected short at TIFF this year. How did you become involved in the project?
BENJAMIN LOEB: Yellowhead was a project [frequent collaborator] Kevan Funk and I had talked about for a while. My involvement was never really a question—it usually isn’t when it comes to collaborating with him.
We wanted to shoot a project based on what’s happening around the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline, as well as the oil industry in and around Fort McMurray. Kevan received a small arts grant and we figured we could make this film happen if we just did it in the most minimalistic way possible. We stuffed our cast and crew—consisting of Kevan, our lead actor Paul McGillion, firstt Assistant Cinematographer Anna MacDonald and sound guy Vidar Grande—in a Suburban for nine days and drove from Fort McMurray to Vancouver with just an outline of the film. Everything came together on the road.
LP: You actually did double duty at the festival, participating in the TIFF Talent Lab.
BL: Kevan and I have collaborated since my second year of university at ECUAD and I photographed his 2012 TIFF Talent Lab submission. It’s been four years since we met and thus far we’ve collaborated on eight short films. He writes and directs, and I shoot. [Because of our previous work], I was asked to submit for the 2013 TIFF Talent Lab. Destroyer, our submission to the RBC Emerging Filmmakers Competition at TIFF, is our latest collaboration and is also a short form teaser for a feature we have in pre-production.
LP: What are you thinking when you begin shooting?
BL: Keeping things authentic. I am there to serve the story. I never let the commotion of filmmaking take away from what is actually being created. Have the set clear so I can move freely with the actors. I like it when not everything is tied down. When things sometimes can just happen. Those unplanned moments that just work can be absolutely amazing.
LP: How do you plan each frame?
BL: I try to be on par with the director, creatively and conceptually. On productions where we would storyboard, or productions where the director has a specific vision, every single detail is carefully set up. On shoots that are looser, it’s more about setting up the scene in a way it needs to unfold. I have a very solid idea of what has to come out of it and where I need to be for certain beats. Most of my planning goes into understanding the project and making sure [the director and I] are on the same page.
LP: Where do you give credit for having flourished in the tough (and very small) Canadian film industry?
BL: I took a chance and moved to Vancouver in 2007 to attend ECUAD and sometime after my second year, my conceptual tastes changed and I began to develop my own style. That was where my career started. Emily Carr was an amazing place for this to happen and it is where I met my closest collaborators Kevan Funk and Ken Tsui. They shaped my taste in film because they are human dictionaries when it comes to film theory. They’ve challenged me throughout my years.
Being in class three or four days a week, I had tons of time to work—and that’s exactly what I did. We would develop our own projects, apply for grants… [we] just started shooting. It is a pretty hard way to learn—you make some serious mistakes—but you just have to be sure not to repeat them.
LP: You’re a bit of a nomad and your shooting style indicates comfort in strange, new places. How does traveling and living in a new city every few years inspire you?
BL: I have a multicultural background. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. My dad is American/Canadian and my mom is Norwegian/Latvian. Since then I have lived in Norway, Latvia, Vancouver and New York, but what inspired me is when I get to experience new places. Seeing textures, colors, and people all influences me. When I travel, I get excited about the mundane things, the way light hits a wall, for example. There is something about being able to capture the dull or ordinary in a very beautiful way.
LP: At the end of the day, why do you do it?
BL: Nothing beats being able to go in depth into a story and develop something bigger. That’s where my true passion lies.