A creative mind? Having both eyes set on the film viewer and through the lens of the camera, cinematographer Paul Özgür knows how to establish a winning film. With nominations and awards in his hands, he masters the manual craft of the film camera with precise technical skills while communicating visions with the director. During our chat with the Dutch artist we learned about his cinematography career, personal struggles and the workflow in the music video 'Shahmaran'.
How do you pick your favorite projects nowadays?
The most important aspect is the script and the subject matter. If it doesn’t resonate with me then I’m tempted to turn it down. I know from myself that when I don’t find the project interesting now – I will run into a problem when shooting. That's why the three most essential features for a project are: the director's vision, the way how storytelling is approached and how it resonates with my views.
How do you decide which of the commercials you are going to take on?
Filming commercials is a big commitment which comes with a big responsibility. I always look at the script. One tip is if you do it for the money, then I think you should stop. If the story or the brand is not interesting or doesn’t have the same vision as I do – I turn it down. Otherwise, I would waste over a month of my time. You have to believe in the projects you do.
Do you think that cinematography has become less of an art because of all the people entering the market to become a cinematographer?
No, cinematography has always been around - the changing factor now is the internet. It has opened up this platform where you can discover different styles of cinematographers quicker. That quote is actually also very related to: 'All cinematographers are the same'. I used to compare myself to other cinematographers but it’s pointless because I’m a different person, from a different country. I come from a small town in the south of Holland. My dad is Turkish, my mom is Dutch. All those things form me as a person and as an artist. When I look at a certain scene, I always have an interpretation with that in the back of my mind. Also, if you try to replicate a picture, you still put your own style and personality into it. A lot of young cinematographers get into the industry without having much life experience to be on big sets with the corresponding responsibilities, which might have an impact on them as an artist. To my viewpoint, it’s good to develop as an artist though.
How did your style evolve over the years?
I always had a certain taste and a certain vision. I’m very interested in nature – especially in the different look of sunlight across countries. What really changed in the last couple of years is that I became more interested in society and how we present our artistry to the world. It has an influence on the way I shoot but certainly not on what I create visually, nor does it affect my view. For me, cinematography is nothing more than just a pen and paper. You need to write words down to create a sentence and tell a story but what’s intriguing to me, is the vocabulary you use. As I get older and shoot more, I use a different vocabulary and adjust it to the project. Again, the technical aspect is important too because I have to keep up with technical innovations, but the more life experience I gain – the more I read scenes in a different way.
Talking about experience, what do you think are false beliefs – internal or external – in your personal career path as a cinematographer?
As I got more into the filming process I started to understand the roles. I also watched movies that I thought were very inspirational. I started making a list of cinematographers with movies they shot. Of all these movies, there was one in particular that inspired me to work internationally. It’s A Single Man by Tom Ford. I saw it in cinema, looked up Eduard Grau - the cinematographer - and kept track of his career path. As I was about to graduate from university, I didn’t feel ready to work as a cinematographer yet. So before I even graduated from my film school in Amsterdam, I decided to continue to study for two more years at a film school in England. Also, I kept track of where Eduard went. He had a big impact on my career.
Did you face any internal struggles or fears along the way?
Of course, all the time. I still have fears to be honest. For me, the biggest fear was to move to another culture and country. A fear that's still with me is that I don’t know if I’m good at what I’m going to do.
At film school, you have a protected environment. It's only until you go out into the real world, you'll experience that there are thousands of you doing the same job. My feeling of knowing to be on the right track, got confirmed for myself when my graduation film in Amsterdam got nominated for awards at big international film festivals. It’s funny because the more I shoot now, the more I get insecure about ‘doing the right thing.’ When you study, you don’t have any obligations. The more mature you get, the more you think about your time and projects, because deciding to take on a project can be a tricky thing. I recently turned down two movies because there was another movie that I wanted to do but then that movie fell through. All of the sudden I lost not only one project but three. That’s just what makes me insecure. There’s nothing wrong with it though – it’s part of life.
When you watch other films, do you look at the work of the DP’s or can you fully enjoy the story?
There are films that I can look at and see the story. On the other hand, I do find it very hard to not look at the lighting, the lensing, the angles and the cinematography as a whole. I try to focus on the story, but I always have to watch a movie twice. The first time, I look at it from a technical perspective and the second time, I experience it as a real movie.
Would you say you have a ‘go-to’ camera or do you always keep on track with the technological innovations?
If I shoot a digital project, it’s always the Alexa. Now we get more choices with ARRI’s Alexa LF, the mini and the SXT W but I feel like this large format era opens up a lot of possibilities for cinematography. In the end, it should always serve the project without drawing too much attention to the camera. I also enjoy shooting on film because of its texture and the handling. For some projects I can even shoot on 16 or 35mm.
Paul ÖzgürWhat I still struggle with: How can I make sure that my vision as a cinematographer gets projected onto the film until it's done?
How did you create the astonishing look in the scene of the man diving with his head into the water in the beginning and end of the film ‘Shahmaran’? What technique did you use?
From a technical perspective, visual effects - especially high speed - helped with the wrinkling water effect but during post-production, I was in constant contact with the VFX artists. I was generally very involved in the process because changes occurred or they wanted to know my opinion for a scene. That is not always the case. Sometimes you might have to let go of your vision in post-production because someone else picks it up and projects his vision on it, which is something I still struggle with. How can I make sure that my vision as a cinematographer gets projected onto the film until it is done?
Were there any challenges when filming exterior or interior for Sevdaliza?
Yes, the biggest challenge the director and me had was the transition from nature to this abstract concrete building because we still wanted this desert feel to continue. You can see a dried-up salt lake, where these men pull a boat and the world is gone with nothing left anymore – therefore we used the harsh sunlight. We knew that we would work with the shot where he looks at the house but we also had to remake some of the elements such as the bright light.
Many people say movies are dreams – that they are windows into lives and worlds that are not our own. What’s your interpretation on this?
I agree that with movies we create a world that doesn’t exist, but we also tell people's stories and give a vision on it. Actually media how we know it today got established from storytelling, but made this major shift after WW1 where people realized that you can use it as propaganda. Especially Sergei Eisenstein (Director) made people realize that film has an effect on their minds. In the end, it's our responsibility to be respectful but also the director's struggle to know that with every image that's created, it can have an impact on someone. I'm not only talking about the connection between an image and emotion of a person, but film can also transfer a political message or life vision. Nowadays, it's easier to send out propaganda than ever. So when you sell a product, you have a certain stand. It reminds me of the quote: 'A camera never lies' – I don’t agree. It lies constantly.
Paul ÖzgürYou have to feel the passion for your projects. Otherwise, people will see it on set, your mood will change while shooting and it won't be fun anymore.
Could you give three DIY tips that relate to low budget projects for newbies in the industry?
One tip when starting out is to choose projects which feel most important to you and your interests. Back then, I started making my own tracks with plastic tubes. But generally the audience will want to see your products because of their purpose – why you are shooting something. It has to touch them.
It's also important to find your own style. It’s good to see the work of other DP’s or director’s but you are a different individual with a different vision – don’t copy them.
The last tip I can give is that once you feel you do a certain job without having an interest in it, you should stop. You have to feel the passion for your projects. Otherwise, people will see it on set, your mood will change while shooting and it won’t be fun anymore.
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