Moviemaking is a visual medium, and so many of the visuals are determined by the skill of a cinematographer. And who better knows how to become a cinematographer than a working cinematographer himself?

To answer this question, as well as others related to the art of cinematography, we’re going to turn to Emmy and Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Alex Buono.

In an interview with Film Riot, Alex helps us to better understand the do’s and don’ts of the position.

Alright, let’s get started!

Watch: Cinematography Advice from Alex Buono

Cinematography Advice from SNL Director of Photography Alex Buono

The first steps towards becoming a filmmaker for Alex Buono

From an early age, Alex Buono knew that making movies was something he was drawn to. “I wanted to be a moviemaker, even though I didn’t know what that meant yet,” he says.

What started out as making super 8 films with his friends, soon evolved into a full-blown passion. When it came time for college, Alex enrolled at USC film school. There, he excelled in many of his cinematography classes. After graduation, he spent years working as a camera assistant under such acclaimed cinematographers as Conrad Hall, Jack Green, Dean Cundey and John Schwartzman.

Soon, Alex was shooting award-winning films including Johnny Flynton and Green Street Hooligans. He also spent 17 years as the director of photography for Saturday Night Live.

As time went on though, a question Alex Buono kept getting was how necessary is film school in this day and age? With the abundance of information online, are formal cinematography courses a waste of time?

Best Cinematography Tips from Alex Buono - Portrait

The best cinematography requires more than just film school

“From a craft point-of-view, it’s probably less mandatory than it once was,” Alex says. However, Alex believes that cinematography classes help in two major ways. First, they build your professional network. Second, they help to understand how screenwriting affects camera shots.

To better promote these ideas, Alex started The Art of Visual Storytelling cinematography classes. In these seminars, Alex will break down a script. He will then create a shot liststoryboards and lighting plan. The hope is to provide students a comprehensive introduction to cinematography techniques. This includes both the craft, and the on set skills to build professional relationships.  

Alex wants a budding moviemaker to realize that craft is about more than just technical tools. For him, one needs to fully understand how image, story and working relationships create the project. 


Cinematography and on set productions

One of Alex’s fondest memories is watching the 1990 Academy Awards ceremony.

There, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa accepted a lifetime achievement Oscar.

Although the legendary moviemaker had made 27 films in 47 years, he still felt as if he was just scratching the surface of the medium.

“I wonder if I deserve this award, because I still don’t understand cinema,” Kurosawa said. “I really feel that I haven’t grasped its essence yet.”

This sentiment resonated with Alex, and it’s something he continues to think about often. “With filmmaking, you’re constantly figuring out this foreign language,” he says. 

Best Cinematography Tips from Alex Buono - Directing Styles

Alex Buono demonstration that the best cinematography is a result of communication on set. Cinema Sound

Because of the complexities of on set productions, Alex believes it’s vital to be honest and communicative with crew and actors. This objective starts with the director.

From Alex’s experience, every director is different when it comes to cinematography techniques. Some directors are not technical at all, and want the DP to handle every component of lighting and camera movement. Others are very much involved, and could almost act as a camera operator themselves.

Regardless of the preference, Alex says communication between DP and director is key to creating a strong visual style. But remember, always abide by the hierarchy of production. The director needs to be the leader on set. If you’re concerned about a decision, speak to the director in private.

Above all, do not undermine a director in front of the crew. If you make a habit of this behavior, Alex says, you’ll find it difficult to find future work.  


Cinematography techniques and visual subtext

For Alex, the best cinematography is not only about mastering a shot list. It’s about mastering story elements as well.  

Screenwriting is the foundation of moviemaking, Alex says. Without an understanding of storytelling, image design suffers.

This is where visual subtext comes in. Whether it’s costume or production design, each visual element should complement and enhance the themes of the narrative. 
Best Cinematography Tips from Alex Buono - Screenwriting

It is important for a moviemaker to understand screenwriting. Resource Magazine

Often, Alex will come across a young moviemaker who says, “Why does the visual style of my cinema heros resonate with an audience, but mine doesn’t?”

Sure, you may be using the tools you learned in film school. But, if those technical components are not addressing character emotion, then the presentation becomes hollow and lackluster. This is something that is often neglected when studying cinematography basics.

For Alex Buono, the best cinematography is about the subconscious. Certain images convey certain emotions. The trick is to discover what visual elements are going to influence an audience the most.

Yes, you can and should be familiar with color theory  and how it affects cinematography techniques. But there’s more to visual style than elaborate filmmaking tools. Although this is sometimes taken for granted, intuition is a valuable asset for on set productions.

Alex says, “At some point, the film takes over, and tells you what it wants to be. It’s like an actor finding their character.”

As a moviemaker, don’t be afraid to listen to your gut when determining a shot list. Some of the best cinematography is a result of instinct. By understanding the story and trusting your intuition, a richer visual style can emerge. 


The best cinematography requires patience

Director Robert Wise once said, “My three P’s: passion, patience, perseverance. You’ve got to do this to be a filmmaker.”

Alex is well-aware of the uphill battle an aspiring moviemaker faces. For years he had to take production assistant jobs that hardly paid the bills. A reality they don’t always promote in film school. When you’re scraping by year-after-year, and don’t see results, it’s easy to become discouraged.

But like Robert Wise, Alex knows that moviemaking is a game of endurance. If you can continue to tunnel your way into the industry, then chances are you’ll make it.  

Best Cinematography Tips from Alex Buono - Patience

Patience can’t always be taught in Film School. Cinema 5D

“You have to forgive your own insecurity and impatience,” Alex says. “You have to realize this is going to take a while. But if you last long enough, you’ll figure it out.”

Just because you don’t have a cinematography degree, doesn’t mean you can’t make it in the field. Alex reiterates the importance of networks, and encourages young filmmakers to find on set positions.

Yes, this is often going to be a production assistant. But it is vital to understanding the roles of an on set production, and meeting the people who can guide you towards the necessary opportunities.   

It may sound cliche, but there’s a reason the proverb “Patience is a virtue” has lasted for millennia.

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While putting on his cinematography classes, Alex is sometimes asked, “Aren’t you afraid of someone stealing your secrets?” To which he responds, “No, not at all. In fact, I encourage you to take my secrets.”

Like many artists, people often think of the moviemaker as a competitive individual. I need to have an advantage to outlast my peers and survive in the industry. But Alex understands moviemaking is a team effort. And it’s one’s generosity on set that solidifies relationships.

“I had the chance to learn from some amazing cinematographers,” Alex says. “They were so generous with their knowledge, and inspired me to someday try and do the same.”

Lucky for us, Alex has decided to use his years of experience to influence and motivate the next generation of storytellers.

Want to create a shot list like the best cinematographers? Sign up for StudioBinder and start building your project for free.

And if you want to learn more how visuals compliment screenwriting, check out our Movie Color Palettes video series!
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  • Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

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