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Our Two Favorite Cinematographers Speak - Part 2

Christopher Doyle is an Australian-born cinematographer who has lived and worked throughout Asia for more than two decades. He is most renowned for his eight-film collaboration with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai.
01 September 2009, 12:00am

Images courtesy of Christopher Doyle

Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, Chungking Express,

In the Mood for Love

Dù KŠ Fēng



The Limits of Control

Vice: Hi Chris. You’re in Shanghai right now?

Christopher Doyle:

What are you working on?

You’re known for being a very spontaneous presence on the sets of the films that you shoot, and for working without scripts on the films of Wong Kar-wai.

Like the legend of Michelangelo seeing David within the marble.

That’s not the way most Hollywood cinematographers would talk about their work. It’s so refreshing to hear it spoken of this way.

It’s a bit like jazz, kind of improvisation-oriented?

On all those great films directed by Wong Kar-wai, you also worked with William Chang as both the production designer and editor. Given the amount of footage you and Wong Kar-wai would shoot without a script on a film like In the Mood for Love, it seems like the hardest job was up to the poor editor. He had to piece it all together.


Happy Together (1997)

But it helps that William Chang the production designer was on set with you and Wong Kar-wai. He would contribute to the story and have a great sense of it going into the edit room as William Chang the editor.

And Maggie Cheung on the stairs in In the Mood for Love is definitely a memorable image. Before picking up a camera, you traveled and lived around the world. What compelled you to do that?

In my traditional film school, I was taught that narrative filmmaking has to be scripted and scheduled and budgeted right down to the minute and dollar. For example, there’s a screenwriting formula where a 30-page script equals roughly 30 minutes of screen time.


Crouching Tiger


You came around to filmmaking in your 30s. Had you at least done photography before that, during your many travels?

Chungking Express

I wonder how you were able not only to pick up cinematography so quickly but also to make such unique and beautiful images.

You work a lot in Asia or in China and then go to Europe or come to the United States to shoot too. You’re still moving around quite a bit.

When you went back to Australia to make Rabbit-Proof Fence, did you have the eyes of a foreigner after spending so much time in Asia?

Last Life in the Universe (2003)

I like the saturated colors and textures in a lot of your films. How much of that is drawn out of working with the film lab and how much is based on the way you shoot?

So it’s in the film before it gets to the lab.

In the Mood for Love

You were a consultant on the Hong Kong film Internal Affairs, which was remade into The Departed by Martin Scorsese. It’s not a totally recent trend, but there have been a lot of remakes going on in American cinema.

People say America is going through the fall-of-the-Roman-Empire phase. I was at the cinema just the other day, and in the lobby there were posters for upcoming films and they did all seem to be about the end of the world, like 2012, which is an apocalypse movie. I saw the Harry Potter poster, which looked very scary, and the GI Joe poster and Transformers 2 poster. These films that are coming out, they’re franchises and they seem to be pretty fixated on the end of humanity.

Asian cinema has grown a lot in the last 10 to 15 years.

Happy Together (1997)

I watched Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, which you shot, the other night. It fits in many ways with some of his other recent films such as Elephant and Last Days. I also think it fits with some of the films you’ve made with Wong Kar-wai as well, with this kind of fractured chronology and, I guess you could say, meditative style.

Gerry, Elephant,

Last Days

Paranoid Park

You’re able to build a new kind of process with each director, but do you ever find it hard not to use one of your old tricks or techniques?

And some people must look to work with you just to try and get a re-creation of your work on an earlier film.

You have worked with a lot of first-time directors. In fact, some films were able to get made because your name was attached.

There’s talk everywhere now that film is dying and video will soon be all there is. How are you responding to the change in technology in filmmaking?

The Limits of Control

For the non-film nerds out there, a DI is a digital intermediate, in which the footage is rendered through a film-to-video conversion process and can then be manipulated using digital techniques. Sorry to interrupt…

Chungking Express (1994)

Right. One thing that’s certainly good about the shift to video is that it’s easier for amateurs to make and distribute their movies now.

You mention the challenge that TV made to cinema. The internet is now kind of doing that to TV. But I guess the internet is challenging everything, really.

American Idols

With high-definition video, there is the ability for clarity with a very clean, crisp look to it.

Do you feel pressured to try shooting with the new RED camera? Everyone is saying, “This camera is amazing. It’s the future.”

Has it been hard for you to work on larger-budget, studio-type pictures?


Lady in the Water

It’s a movie-by-movie thing for you.

Liberty Heights

Hey, he might read this and give you a call, so you never know.