Q & A with Nicola Marsh, Festival Winning Cinematographer

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Nicola Marsh:  This year the feature documentary that Nicola lensed - "Twenty Feet From Stardom" - won the Oscar for Best Documentary from the Academy Awards and opened the Sundance Film Festival. On the narrative side, she shot the breakout horror movie Smiley, which played theatrically across the US in 2012. She has been nominated for an Emmy for her work on "Troubadours – The Carol King/James Taylor Story." In addition to this she also shot two documentaries for "Cameron Crowe: PearlJam20" (premiering at the Toronto Film Festival) and "The Union" (premiered at Tribeca).

Prior to that she shot the narrative feature "Eye of The Hurricane", starring Melanie Lynskey and Campbell Scott. She also shot the award winning documentary "Burn - A year on the front lines of the Detroit Fire Department", which won the Tribeca Audience Award in 2012. Her work has taken her around the world and she has shot in Nigeria, Argentina, Peru, Chile, England and the US. 

Nicola grew up in London, England. She first moved to the US to work as a news camerawoman for NBC. She holds an MFA in cinematography from The University of Southern California. She now lives in Los Angeles. In addition to her American passport, she holds a German passport, but has a good sense of humor. She is repped by Innovative Artists.

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Please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I moved to America (from London) is 2000; ostensibly to go snowboarding. I landed a job as an overnight editor at a NBC station in San Francisco. I spent my nights editing, and my days sucking up to the news-camera guys trying to learn their trade. I got my big break when I had to shoot a live-shot with Willie Mayes (who I had never heard of). I shot most of it out of focus, as my back focus was out on my camera, but that was another thing I had never heard of. I kept plugging at it, and in two years I was on staff as a news-camera woman. After another year of backbreaking work, I decided to take my craft to the next level. I applied to several film-schools and ended up at USC.

How did you 'break-in' to cinematography?

It wasn't so much of a break-in, as an imperceptibly slow crawl. Sometimes, I still feel like I'm breaking in. I got all of my early paid jobs from either USC alums, or USC teachers. Of course I shot a million music videos and shorts for random people off Craigslist or other dubious internet postings. The first two years after graduation I was ridiculously poor. There was a brief moment when I considering doing a porno (shooting one), but decided that traveling to Big Bear with a bunch of strangers in the adult industry was probably not going to end well.

It really was a slow grind. You chip away at it, and eventually you turn around and you realize you are making decent money in your chosen field, working with people you like, and you have the ability to turn down projects you don't like the look of. That's having broken in for me I guess.

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How do you approach a new script?

For narrative work (I also shoot a lot of documentaries, that don't have scripts): I just try and visualize it while I'm reading. This is harder work than it sounds. And you can't do the whole script in one or even two sittings. Read a scene and really close your eyes and try and clearly see the images in your head. Work out who I'm looking at, who I'm interested in, and how to visualize the emotional story. 

How do you work with your director?

LISTEN TO THEM. A lot of directors are new to the job, and they don't always speak in the most visual language. But my job is to encode what they are saying into a visual structure. So when they say things like:  I love this scene, I want it to be really playful, and dreamy. You have to try and work out what that means.

What do you do when you disagree with your director?

I normally try and persuade them over to my point of view. If they aren't budging I defer to them. Try to avoid conflict at all costs, it's not worth it and not good for your career. If your director is making really bad decisions, the movie is probably going to be terrible anyway, so there is no point in ruining your reputation over it. If you start to bump heads with the director, all the other department heads (producers, production designers, etc) will likely consider you a bit 'difficult', even if they also think the director is incompetent. Plus the director will slag you off all over town after the project is done. Some directors are more generous with autonomy than others, and I enjoy working with them more.

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What do you do when you have to make a creative versus budget decision?

There really isn't a decision to be made. The budget always wins. I push as hard as I can to get the things I want. And I wait until a producer tells me definitely-absolutely-no-way-can-you-have-that. And then I go behind their back to the director to see if they have any leverage. Then sometimes I've even put in some of my own money (for a set of anamorphic lenses recently on the movie Preservation). And then if I get the no-way spiel again, I give up.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Being entirely engaged in work, that absorbs me intellectually, physically and socially. I love coming home spent and happy.

What major lessons have you learned while on the job?

Losing your temper makes you look like an amateur. You can assert yourself very firmly without losing your temper. I used to think that getting angry was cool or something, but now I realize it just makes you look flustered and not in control. It takes a lot more confidence to have a direct calm conversation with someone who is frustrating you, than it does to just mouth off at them. Sadly I work almost exclusively with men in my department, and once in while you do get a real macho dude with a huge ego. The show I'm currently working (I inherited the crew from the previous DP) has a camera team made up 10 guys. It can be a little intimidating to assert yourself. There are definitely guys out there who love women and are really sweet to their girlfriends, but they really don't like having a woman as a boss. In my experience though, the one thing a macho guy can't stand, is a direct conversation about feelings. So I often have the 'I'm feeling like you are not loving working for me' conversation, which tends to nips things in the bud.

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What piece of advice do you wish someone gave you when you first started?

Follow money and influence. It's very rare that someone with no industry contacts and no access to financial backing makes something very successful. Most people who 'suddenly' make it big, are either being mentored by someone who is already big, or have been chipping away at it for a decade. It was very tempting for me to work on passion projects where I was the most experienced person in the room and everyone thought I was amazing; but actually working for people who had a lot more experience than me (and who didn't give me much creative input) got me further. It's an earning your stripes process.

Also it takes forever to make a living in this industry so don't feel bad about it, if you still struggling with bills 5 years after graduation.

My mantra is also some mangled Einstein quote, which goes something like 'it's not the strongest or the smartest species that survive, but the most adaptive'. I really embrace this principle in my work. I shoot features, documentaries and reality shows. Sometimes I feel bad about it, when I talk to some DPs who are just so completely immersed in one particular field. I feel like they know a lot more than me, in the subject at hand. But I really think by crossing all these disciplines I mix up my shooting style to adapt to whatever the situation merits and I like that about the way I work. Plus this industry is so crazy and unstable it's comforting to have more than one feather in my cap. 

Do you have any fun projects in production or about to be released?

A feature I just shot (Preservation) is about to premiere at Tribeca. I'm currently shooting season 2, of Below Deck, which is a docu-drama on Bravo, about the crew of a luxury yacht. I'm in the Caribbean, and will be here for another 6 weeks, so there are obviously worse places to be stuck shooting.

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