Renowned South African cinematographer Dewald Aukema tells Vinita Bhatia that while knowledge of composition, use of light and image editing is important for a cinematographer, choosing the right camera system is equally critical to be a competent cameraman
How were you introduced to the world of cameras?
As an eight-year old boy, I watched and helped my father shoot 8mm family films on a small Canon camera. Soon after, I started making my own short films with it. I used 8mm reversal film stock that was sent to America to be developed. It took weeks before you got it back. It was always very exciting to lace it on the projector for the first time and view your rushes and then plan how to edit it with a small rudimentary splicer. This process opened up an alternative visual world
that completely captured my imagination.It was not long before I began to explore still photography with my father’s old Voigtlander camera.
It is not often that people consider making their passion their career. Who encouraged you to become a professional cinematographer?
The seeds were planted very early by my father. He was the person who encouraged me to go to film school after I had finished my schooling and the 18 months of compulsory military service in South Africa. I was slightly waylaid by other interests before I finally went to film school in 1980. It was during the three years at film school that my love for cinematography blossomed. It was certainly my favourite subject, although I loved the whole experience of studying and mastering the complete film production process.
What prompted you to start a film production company when you were still a student in film school?
I started a film production company while in the third year at film school with my friend, Angus Gibson. We were soon commissioned to produce documentaries and dramas for the national broadcaster. It gave us the freedom to explore and learn in a unique way without the limitations of the traditional routes into filmmaking. It was exhilarating not to be weighed down by dogma and to approach any creative or technical challenge from a ‘left-field’ perspective.
“As a cinematographer, when you shoot documentaries, you are often the co-director,” – Dewald Aukema, cinematographer.
I have pursued this approach relentlessly throughout my career. This obviously is not to say you don’t need a sophisticated understanding of the history of cinema. That is what film school and one’s relentless passion for filmmaking nurtures.
Within six years of becoming a cinematographer, your film The Cry of Reason got an Oscar nomination for ‘Best Documentary’. Your documentary Classified People garnered lot of attention as well. What techniques did you use in these films to give a sun-kissed look to the characters’ skin?
It was quite exciting to get the Oscar nomination for The Cry of Reason, a film about anti-apartheid theologian Beyers Naude. Coming to Classified People, it was filmed whilst being under enormous pressure from the apartheid government’s security agencies, so most of the scenes were shot in secret. Natural light had to be used for the sake of security.
I wanted to give a sense of hope as well as despair to our characters in those dark days
of apartheid. So, we used lot of shadow play but also created the sunlight effect with battery lights when we felt it appropriate.
We employed high-speed primes that were not that good and they did present us with various focus problems.
A fair amount of your work during the 80s and 90s is centered on filming documentaries and drama, especially about the anti-apartheid theme. How did you use your cinematography skills to immerse the audience in the story’s often traumatic narrative? How does the right kind of a camera help in such situations?
I shot around 70 anti-apartheid films in the 80s and early 90s. I saw myself as a liberation fighter using a camera instead of arms. Back then, I was prepared to die for this liberation from the white minority rule in South Africa. It was important for the rest of the world to see what was going on so as to apply pressure on the illegitimate regime.
Most of these films were shot on the Aaton Super 16 LTR camera with Angenieux and Zeiss lenses; both zooms and primes. The Aaton, with its catlike shape that hugged your shoulder, was of great importance. It became an extension of your mind’s eye. The ability to operate the manual, iris, focus, and zoom smoothly with one hand at the same time was critical when you were contextualising the chaos in front of the camera.
You also needed an acute sense of guessing exposure. Most importantly, one needed a sensitive and gracious relationship with the characters since you were telling their stories. Obviously, dealing with the security branch was a different matter.
Do you have a technique when it comes to devising a visual scheme for a film’s shot?
As a cinematographer, when you shoot documentaries, you are often the co-director. On-the-spur-of-the-moment decisions about composition, use of light, and contextualising events that will cut together successfully in the editing room are often made as the narrative unfolds. So, sophisticated knowledge of directing and editing is required if you want to be a competent documentary cameraman.
On drama or feature film projects, your role reverts to being a slave to the preconceived narrative–the script. You work with the director during pre-production to devise a visual style that will support the overall and inner arcs of the script. You make decisions around the quality of light, colour, composition, movement, focal lengths of lenses and many more things. These are then pursued in a very disciplined way during principle photography. Ultimately, the story is king and everyone is there to serve it.
Throughout your career, which camera brands have you relied on most for capturing your intrinsic shooting style?
I have worked with various cameras, including Aaton Super 16 LTR and XTRs; Arriflex BL 16 and 35 and SR 16, 435, and 535s; many Panavision 35mm cameras; and Sony analogue and digital video cameras, all the way up to the 900R.
Since 2006, I have worked a lot with the RED ONE and EPIC DRAGON. Now I am looking forward to shooting with the WEAPON 8K camera, because I have seen how it works and expect great results from it.
I have also shot some commercials on Arri Alexas but not a lot. I prefer RED digital cameras for many reasons. They are small, modular, create RAW files within the camera, have higher resolution and huge dynamic range, great colour science, and interchangeable OLPFs.
A cinematographer’s visual interpretation should ideally encapsulate the moviemaker’s vision. How important a role does the camera system play in this scheme of things?
Creating a feature film is a huge task. As a cinematographer, you bring all your talent, experience, and skills to the entire process. Your entire career as a creative person depends on this.
Therefore, the camera system you choose is of huge importance. I prefer the RED digital camera system because it is the most versatile one currently available. It is also completely modular, so you can configure it for all your different requirements very quickly; from Steadicam to handheld to dolly. You obviously have to supply the talent and knowledge but your creative options are just that much greater within the RED ecosystem. People might argue and disagree about its merits until the sun sets. But, I have been doing this for 36 years and I am certainly not stopping anytime soon.
Looks like you are an ardent fan of RED cameras. What are the distinct advantages that this brand has over other camera systems available currently?
If you ask me, the resolution advantage is one of the major reasons; the image has a more film-like look. When you generate a 6K, or now an 8K, file and then scale it down to your 4K or 2K delivery requirement, there is an inherent sharpening of the image that takes place. No artificial sharpening is necessary. In most other digital systems, you have to introduce contrast enhancement of the edges to achieve an acceptable amount of sharpness. Also, the fact that you start your grading process from RAW means that you can, with much more range, create the density, gamma, and colour requirements that most cinematographers seek. It is more versatile. Correct image composition and the right use of light resides in the creative recesses of every successful cinematographer.