Some people enter into the movie business by accident, others by entitlement – through family connections or friends. Cinematographer David Boyd stumbled onto a movie set as a child and was given the greatest thrill of his young life: a chance to participate in the making of a movie. He remembered that thrill years later while sitting in a college movie appreciation class and he never looked back.
Cutting his teeth as a well-known cinematographer prepared Boyd for his most popular project, the AMC series The Walking Dead, which has him working both as cinematographer and director. Based on a long-running cult comic book series, AMC’s Zombie-Apocalypse The Walking Dead has won multiple Emmy and Saturn awards as well as breaking several Basic Cable Viewership Records. Season 3 premiers October 14, 2012.
Videomaker spoke with Boyd on the phone about how he got his start and where he plans to go next, and he offered some sage advice for those with stars in their eyes about being a cinematographer in today’s digital world.
Videomaker: What made you first think about getting into the cinematography business?
Boyd: Well, I think it happened early in my life. My dad was in the Army and we found ourselves in Paris, France for two years. We drove past a set of a French movie called Is Paris Burning? It was fascinating. It was a set, it was in the rain, it was a bunch of people dressed up in French army uniforms, and there were French partisans. So I skipped school and went back to visit the set. Surprisingly, the French guys didn’t kick me out or anything. Instead they said, “Can you grab that thing and bring it over here?” So here I was in the 4th grade dragging cables here and there, you know, and watching it happen. I saw the struggle and I think that never left me. Then I went off to college as a physics major at UC San Diego. My advisors told me that I needed an elective so I picked up the easiest one in the catalog. It was a film watching class called Thursday Night at the Movies. I said, “Perfect.” This class is only one day a week, lasts three hours, and I’ll get to see a movie and relax a little bit, then go back to my real studies. It was there that I got the bug. The class was taught by a French director by the name of Jean Luc Garande who had co-directed a movie with Goddard. He was from the French New Wave. The guy never wore shoes, never shaved, and would lecture with a burning cigarette. He was free. I’m not sure what he was doing there, but he talked about brilliant stuff so I thought it was great. I eventually found myself spending more time at that class than the other ones. So I called my folks up and said that I wanted to go to the UCLA film school. That’s how it happened.
Videomaker: Who are some of the cinematographers that have inspired you?
Boyd: You know, I have heroes but now I know them – which is the strangest thing in the universe. One of those heroes is Gordon Willis who I’ve always viewed as a heavy-weight. The guy did nothing but make wonderful images. His work included The Godfather, The Paper Chase, and Klute. There was no trifling with him. He did beautiful lasting work. Condrad Hall would be a close second. I couldn’t even list on two hands all the movies he did that I love and enjoy. His film, Road to Perdition, was the first film in which I actually stood up in the middle of the movie and asked the person behind me to be quiet. I’m really a very easy-going guy but that’s how much I respected his work. I mean the guy shot amazing pictures for 25 years. Owen Roizman is another one, he shot The French Connection. He’s just a strong guy. He’s actually sponsored me into the ASC. I consider him a good friend. I even get to call him from time to time to ask him, “What would you do here?”
Videomaker: What kind of equipment were you first using when you started doing cinematography?
Boyd: It was film (laughs). I started shooting documentaries and at the time 16mm was the chosen medium. I had to figure out ways to travel with a film camera and load them quickly when I was on a shoot. Now it seems like it would be fabulously easy compared to film. However I think those cameras are still some of the best ever made. The Eclair NPR was my workhorse. I later used an Eclair ACL2. I still have the ACL2 in my closet at home and drag it out sometimes. It was a great, great camera but there’s no way we would ever use it on anything nowadays. However, I still use some of the great lenses we had back then. Panavision lenses are the first on my list – in particular the E series anamorphic primes. Those things are the most beautiful lenses ever made. They’re beautiful and creamy. Now they have digital cameras that can use these lenses like the Epic and Arri.
Videomaker: What are some of the benefits and challenges you have found with the new digital video technology?
Boyd: I’ve seen nothing but upsides. I mean, I think digital is great. The idea that you can shoot footage and not have to pay for it is phenomenal. It puts movies into production that normally wouldn’t get into production. With this new technology, movie making becomes accessible to anybody. It gets hammered out by the people instead of just the elite. Now you can have people all over the world making movies. As a result, the community gets larger and more vibrant and everybody gets to share, see, look, and get excited about it. It’s the best thing that could happen to cinematography. However, it’s so easy to do that many cinematographers get lazy. They start shooting without precision. They’ll end up just flailing around for a while until they can hit the nail on the head. I think if someone can watch your film with the sound off and still know what’s going on, then you’ve accomplished something. That means you need to plan your shots and know what you need before you start shooting.
Videomaker: If you had to make a movie on a budget, what equipment would you end up using?
Boyd: Well, get a load of this: I just shot a documentary with my wife in the maximum security prison in Missouri using a Canon XL1. We have always loved the way it looks. For our situation, it was a perfect fit even though it’s older technology. However, if I needed to do something more formal or have it considered more legitimate, then I would probably use the Canon C300.
Videomaker: What are the key aspects that you look for when choosing to work with a director?
Boyd: I tend to enjoy working most with directors who have courage. What I do takes courage in that I have to defend every move I make and every concept I choose to believe in. If there’s somebody that I can partner up with who is also strong and can carry something all the way through to the end, then I’m all for that person. There’s a guy named Aaron Schneider who I work with quite a bit now. We worked on a film called Get Low with Bill Murray, Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek. We took that thing from beginning to end without listening to anybody. Sometimes that’s trouble (laughs) but 20 years from now we will have forgotten all of the fights and we’ll just have that film – so it’s worth it. I still consider that film some of my best work and I think Aaron considers it some of his best work too. Some people try to play it safe and try to please everybody which is a losing battle. You just end up with something that is more committee-based than a unique vision. So anytime he wants to do something, I tell him that I’m in because he’s got the guts to do what he wants to do. There’s another director called Peter Berg who I’ve also come to admire. He is really similar to Aaron Schneider in that he won’t listen to anyone. Giant, powerful people will tell him to do something and he’ll just say no (laughs). He told me on Friday Night Lights that he wasn’t going to go to the location scouts and he wasn’t going to go to any of the meetings because he wanted it to be his vision, not the studio’s.
Videomaker: What was the big break for you in the cinematography business?
Boyd: I started out doing documentaries and being on sets for small budget film crews. I would go back and forth between running a camera for a documentary and pulling focus for a feature film which put me eventually into the union after 10 years. When I was a camera operator, one director named Charlie Haid, who was an actor turned director, turned to me and said it’s time for you to start shooting. I said, “You’re out of your mind.” And he said, “No, no. On the next show, you’re my DP.” So I photographed that show for him and that was how it started. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had the burning desire to like get to some place. I’ve just gone where the universe has led me. People have said “you have to do this for me”, or “I’m putting you on this position now” and I usually say “You’re crazy” and they end up putting me there anyway.
Videomaker: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a cinematographer in Hollywood?
Boyd: I usually tell most people that they shouldn’t do it like I did, they should just shoot. If you want to be a cinematographer, you need to pick up a camera and shoot. There’s enough cheap and accessible equipment out there to make a movie. The more movies that you can make, the better. However, you want to make something that’s distinctive. I don’t think Hollywood has the movie business cornered, you can find distribution almost anywhere nowadays. Admittedly, getting distribution is hard but it’s no easier to get in Hollywood than it is in a place like Akron, Ohio.
Videomaker: What are directors looking for in cinematographers?
Boyd: Great producers are looking for you to put the pieces of the puzzle together correctly. They want everything and everyone to work together correctly so that the end result is beautiful. Other producers that aren’t so great will want someone who doesn’t cost much money, that doesn’t make mistakes photographically, and things like that. However, the great producer is looking to make something beautiful. When a great producer looks to hire me, they are looking for something great to happen photographically. They know that I’m bringing something creativity to the table.
Videomaker: Any other advice that you’d like to give?
Boyd: Well, as a DP, you have just enough power to get yourself into big trouble and not enough to get out. I go into every show now like a Kamikaze: I’m either going to burn out, or I’m going to succeed loudly. To be a great cinematographer, you have to drag people down some road that don’t know that they want to go down, but once they see the results they’ll thank you.
Boyd’s resume as cinematographer include the 2009 comedy, Get Low, starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray, as well as shooting 42 episodes of the 2002 TV series Without a Trace. Besides season 3 of The Walking Dead, a few of Boyd’s other projects soon to be released include Joyful Noise a comedy out this year starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, and two other movies he worked on that are currently in post production, Home Run due out this year, and Dark Skies, due out in 2013.