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Interview: Cinematographer Martin Ahlgren

Martin Ahlgren has been making movies since he was a teenager in Sweden with a Hi8 video camera and friends willing to be splattered in ketchup. After studying cinematography at School of Visual Arts in New York he got his start shooting commercials and music videos around the world, for artists like Kanye West, Rolling Stones and Beyoncé. Lately he has returned to longer form storytelling with independent features and television shows, such as House of Cards and Daredevil, and is currently shooting a new show for Netflix based on the cyberpunk novel Altered Carbon. He lives in New York with his Singaporean wife, American son, Canadian daughter, and a Rottweiler mutt from the Bronx.

What made you want to be a cinematographer?

Although I flirted briefly with attending The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (KTH) in an attempt to attain a more traditional education, I had already determined to become a filmmaker. As I took film courses and continued to make films, I realized that what interested me the most was working with the visuals. When I moved to New York to attend film school, I made a conscious decision to focus specifically on cinematography and that choice focused my path very quickly as I immediately signed on to shoot other students’ films instead of my own. I realized that I enjoyed the collaboration between director and cinematographer and the combined creativity coming out of that partnership.

What inspires you?

As a cinematographer a big part of our job is re-creating a natural lighting situation in an artificial way. On location it’s rarely possible to wait for the exact right time of day or to finish a scene fast enough for the light to stay consistent, and in the studio you’re starting from scratch, building the light entirely with artificial sources. As such, mother nature is our greatest inspiration. I think most cinematographers spend a lot of time studying how light works around us, adding little ideas to our mental libraries of lighting possibilities. Sometimes it’s observing how the light appears to us subjectively. What does it feel like when you’re in a forest lit entirely by moonlight, or in a car driving through a dark landscape? How can that be created in a way that can be captured by cameras? Natural light has a complexity to it that can be lost when you’re using traditional film lights. Light coming in through a window might for instance take on the subtle color tones of the blue sky and the green grass outside of the house, and this nuance can make all the difference when you’re trying to make artificial light look real.

That doesn’t mean that I always strive for naturalism. It can be quite fun to create strong stylistic lighting and camera work, and inspiration may come from other visual sources like photography or painting. At other times it’s a technical breakthrough that guides the way. For instance, when a camera came out a couple of years ago that could shoot video in extremely low light, someone made a short film lit entirely by moon light.

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You have shot countless commercials, as well as a lot of music videos. How much of a creative input do the artists themselves demand, and is it harder to get your vision through the bigger the production gets?

Today all music videos productions have become small. While there was a time back around the year 2000 when music videos routinely hit a million dollars, today even big artists have very modest budgets. When I shot a platinum selling artist a few years ago she was financing the production herself and we had a small crew and just a few props to put in front of the camera. Our main set was shooting her in front of a black background in a small studio. I think the total budget for the video was perhaps $40,000, a fraction of what it would have been 10 years earlier. Music videos can still be interesting and in some ways the pressure can be less now that there’s less money involved. Videos have become more about realizing a smart concept and less about relying on the big glam of videos of the past. However, in the end you’re still making a commercial for the artist, and they will always stay involved and be part of the creative process, so it’s rarely just a lone filmmaker’s vision. The problem is that four minutes is still an awfully long time for a single visual concept or idea and most videos today fail to stay interesting for that long. I haven't shot music videos in a while but I keep my eyes and mind open. It’s still a great way for a young talented filmmaker to be seen.

You shot season 3 of “House of cards”, a great series on Netflix. I know you made some changes regarding light and shooting style, in that season. Can you tell me more about that?

When I got hired to shoot House of Cards I really wanted to push myself and do the best blocking - basically the choreography between actors and camera - that I had ever done. I wanted the camera to be able to be placed wherever seemed best, with whatever lens seemed most suitable, and to move wherever the action took it. That meant keeping lighting gear out of shot of wide lenses that sometimes swung around a full 180 degrees in one shot. At the same time I felt that there was a tremendous legacy in terms of the lighting of that show that I was a huge fan of, and that I wanted to live up to and possibly expand on. Luckily I was able to start over from scratch almost entirely. The producers had struck a deal on the lighting package for the first two seasons only, and for the third it had all been stripped out and was up for renegotiation. Therefore I could pick exactly the tools I wanted. In addition, the majority of sets were new to the season, like the White House residency and Cross Hall, which were being built as I started work.

I devised a system of skirts made out of Ultra Bounce fabric that were hung from the ceilings and could be adjusted quickly from ladders, that we lit up with theatrical spot lights. The bounce from these lights created a soft yet directional quality to the light that gave shape to the rooms and actors, yet was also quick and flexible to adjust as the shots developed. We even took this system to many of the locations we went to, either taping the fabric directly to ceilings or, if there was a drop grid ceiling, by using magnets. In addition, we would use lighting tools on the floor, often pushing through double layers of muslin fabric to get the softest type of light, and these could also move quickly and adjust if a shot expanded in scope. The rest of the lighting was done outside of the set, through the windows. Basically our lighting approach allowed the cameras to find the best angles possible and to move freely with the actors. I’m very proud of the camera work in that season.

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What’s next for you?

My last project, the new Netflix series Altered Carbon, has taken 11 months and it moved my whole family to Vancouver. While it’s been a good experience both personally and professionally, I look forward to getting back to New York and perhaps do some shorter projects in the near future. I would love to do an indie if one with a great script came along.

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What’s your advice to your younger self?

Go experience life. Travel the world, stay curious and never stop learning. Experience all that it is to be human. Follow your dreams.

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