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Arts & Entertainment

Working With Your Cinematographer

Mira Nair

Lesson time 18:24 min

Mira says that the best cinematographers she has worked with are “poets of light.” Learn how to find the right cinematographer for your film and work together to design a cinematic style.

Mira Nair
Teaches Independent Filmmaking
The Oscar-nominated director teaches her methods for directing powerful performances, maximizing budgets, and bringing authentic stories to life.
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The set is the time for all communication should have happened-- weeks ago. Everything that as a director I can impart to my cinematographer, to my production designer, to my costume designer, and in many cases even to the actor. So oftentimes, the prep for a film is more demanding and more rigorous and more stressful than the shooting itself. Sometimes on the set, what you achieve, you don't even know. In Monsoon Wedding, we did not have the money to process the film while we shot it, which is quite risky. But we just didn't have the money. And we would ship the negative out to the labs in New York while shooting. But because we were shooting so much per day and we had done so much pre-blocking and choreography and we had prepared ourselves to achieve so much per day without losing visual inventiveness, and because everyone was in a state of preparedness and readiness to give me that on a daily basis, we might have shot like I don't know, eight pages a day, like television is, but without hoping to make it too ordinary. What I discovered in the editing room a month later when I saw everything was this incredible sense of energy in the frame, everything, because I think we had just managed to imbue the actors with such a state of readiness for who they were playing that they actually felt a part of this family, that the camera really felt like a fly on the wall. Everything worked with a great sense of speed and energy and life-ness, like lightness and life-ness both, that what I inherited was a kind of magic in the energy of the scenes that I actually did not know I had achieved at all. I thought that type of energy maybe you construct by editing, you construct by the pace and rhythm. But actually inherent in these ensemble-like long take shots that we had, there was this energy that was palpable. You cannot know everything on a set, or even how to make a film. That's part of the joy of it. It's full of its own kind of secrets. And it's just that any amount of preparedness makes the task much easier when you're on set, because you're not worrying about things you shouldn't be thinking about. You're worrying only about what you're creating right at that moment. And nothing duplicates the creation of a moment that feels like life. [MUSIC PLAYING] About 15 years into directing movies, I was no longer that young to be wrecked by making a movie and then starting again after the shooting was over. I discovered, actually, the first film that I did this was Monsoon Wedding where since I practice yoga and yoga keeps me very strong and gives me elasticity both physically, but also most importantly, mentally, and it gives me the entrance into some sort-- it gives me the possibility of some state of equilibrium, which you really do need to when you're making a film or when you're making anything. I decided to have a senior yoga instructor in the Iyengar tradition, which is what I come from, which is a very classic Yogic tradit...

Harness the power of your roots

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mira Nair approaches directing with the “heart of a poet and the skin of an elephant,” spurred by rejection and fighting to bring uncompromising stories to film. In the Golden Lion-winning director’s MasterClass, learn to make a big impact on a small budget in film production, evoke the best from actors and nonactors, and protect your creative vision so you tell the story that can only come from you.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Mira has a beautiful way of speaking, and understands the important balance of artistry and technical skill. Very informative and enjoyable!

I am just starting my journey into writing and making films. This was my first class and introduction. I appreciated Mira Nair's insight, genius, direction and candor.

"Films under the guise of entertainment should open windows in your heart." "Nothing is more powerful than seeing yourself represented onscreen." Love

It has given me a deeper insight as to what direction is all about.



Really enjoyed this MC. But the lesson kept freezing, and it was really annoying. Also, her Workbook should be really useful, as it appears to have interactive links- but the hyperlinks don't work: can you fix that please? She is a great teacher. Thanks

Melissa S.

Really interesting lesson...have loved this whole master class...thank you Mira!

T. S.

Great course! I'm enjoying all of the information. I would love to hear how to get your independent film budgeted. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Graeme R.

I would love to hear or read the experience of her cinematographers working on the films Mira has mentioned. I am interested in how much she micromanages, whatever she might say about it. She seems extremely hands-on.

R.G. R.

Helpful and sensitive insights into the relationship between director and cinematographer . . . insights that are apparent in the wonderful work she has done


Surrendering to the cinematographer when it comes to lighting, is probably the best idea. As a director I always make sure I trust that people will bring their skills to the task. You can tell that Mira has so much experience in indie film-making as she can talk about all aspects of making a movie with a limited budget.

Mia S.

"When I have settled on a cinematographer, what we do is, of course, set out to look at locations together; it's very, very key, the cinematographer, the designer and the director. And when we find the locations, then the cinematographer and myself set out to carve out real time, away from the hullabaloo of the crew, to design the shots. We design a scene - let's say it would have 18 setups by the end of it; and we both know very well that the day may come when we are shooting this that 18 setups are just not possible. So how do you go in there knowing the building blocks of the scene in the 18 setups, and how do you consolidate the 18 into 9, so that every beat gets covered, but in the most exciting way possible and the time that you might have. I have never had the luxury of extra time or extra money, and yet I have a visual ambition - I am not going to be satisfied with what I call 'joining the dots' filmmaking - you know, 'got this coverage, got that coverage, you're done.' I almost never work like that. Some scenes require that kind of traditional coverage but what excites me about making cinema is not doing that - is finding another way that is fluid, that is about the story. 'Monsoon Wedding' was from the get-go created to have a handheld look - not a jagged, kinetic, dizzying handheld, but just a sense of the quality of - the breath, a pulsating life quality, where the camera is not always fluid, but is not still, is not on a tripod - it's a very different quality to have that type of handheld look. We decided because it was an ensemble, several people at once - also budget being so critical; we had a low budget, we wanted to keep it experimental, do a lot of work every day but not have a series of 18 setups to do each day, but to fluidly connect them through the handheld method. And Declan's handheld work is absolutely extraordinary, and I really love how he moves the camera. So knowing that style, we used it to the max in 'Monsoon Wedding.' In that film, for instance, we blocked all the setups. We blocked everything before we started shooting, because we had so much to do in so little time that I wanted all the actors - who were often non-actors mixed with actors - to know their place in it; to know how to always be in the moment. Because the camera could accidentally land on them without them knowing it.

Mia S.

"I talk with them; the first thing I do is sort of talk about the visual sensibility that I come from, that I bring to it; of course, my films are there to speak for it, but I usually share visual materials, like a look book, or images of the time, perhaps, that I might be filming, and so on. But then I, of course, share the script, and the conversation that I have with the cinematographer about the script is very telling, very revealing, of how they might want to see it, without necessarily knowing how I see it. But that is the foundation of the conversation, and if I feel a great sense of affinity, and sometimes excitement, about how they could, say, speak of a scene or how they could evoke a scene; and if it's in sync with something that strikes in me, it's exciting. But on the other hand, I've also really worked with the same people over several films, so we then keep growing this fantastic shorthand. That really helps you when you're in the trenches, eight weeks down in the shoot - you're working 15-hour days, it's not easy, sometimes. How do you share that energy, in the trenches? Can you keep each other going on? And of course, getting the work done in an exciting way - never in a compromised way. That's key. When it comes to lighting, I usually surrender to the cinematographer, and ask the person to take the idea and run with it. I am not really in control of the lighting as much, except when I have a very clear visual idea of what I exactly want with the light. In the scene of 'Salaam Bombay' where the young girl, Manju, whose mother works as a prostitute, is servicing a client, and she's being asked to sit outside while the man is inside with her mother. I obviously - the whole film is really shot on the eye-level of a child, and we are on the level of Manju, who's sitting in the terrace outside. And it is this wonderful nightlight of shadow and moving light that comes from cars going by down below, that Sandi Sissel created for this scene which brought to that scene the sort of seesaw in a child's heart - the sort of light and shadow of being near your mother but not being able to reach her or knowing - or maybe not knowing- what's going on in there; but something that is keeping you away from the mother you love, and she is a child and she's supposed to just wait there - play jacks, play something. It's the light that helps inform us of the seesaw of her condition. That light was influenced by my childhood in memory of growing up, being in a bedroom in Orissa, my parents out for dinner, and when they would drive in with the headlights of their cars coming into the driveway, the way the light would swing around the room while I lay there was something I always remembered. Some scenes I will evoke that kind of light and I will ask the cinematographer, 'This, I think, would help evoke this mood of the scene.' But normally, I really - that's what I love about the cinematographers that I work with; it is that they are poets of light; we share that sensibility, and then they run away with it, and create the light."

Mia S.

"Cinematographers are the gorgeous right hand and left hand and eyes of a director. First, I am inspired a lot by what cinematographers do. So it's their work, normally, that propels me to find them - and I was lucky enough (again, in my earliest years) of making films to, you know, find Declan Quinn, a cinematographer with whom I have collaborated for six, seven movies; Fred Elms, who's an extraordinary cinematographer, who shot - even as early as the Cassavetes movies and David Lynch movies, and then shot 'The Namesake' with me. And so on. Cinematographers, firstly, must take my own visual ideas much further. In my world, I like to work with cinematographers who are worldly, who are aware of the world beyond just what they live in and know; I often take cinematographers into worlds that are foreign to them - Calcutta, India; Delhi, wherever. In 'Reluctant Fundamentalist' we shot all over the world. They must be at home in other places, and they must have a great humility and actually, love for other worlds. But mostly what I look for in a cinematographer is an aesthetic, a visual - to be 'a poet of light' is how I like to put it. I also want to work with people who value really the sacredness of the frame, who really take it as seriously as I do. And normally cinematographers of course do. I am also someone who is hands-on, I am with him or her, the cinematographer, shoulder to shoulder. The frame is vital, which is why I don't use - somehow - the Steadicam as much, or I don't use day-players in the camera zone, because they do not come from the fabric of what we are trying to make. They just come and go. So it's important for me, even in second-unit, cinematographers - anyone who is capturing the image for the film I am making - must be part of the nucleus and the team who create the vision of the film from the get-go. When I'm looking for the right cinematographer for the film I'm about to make, I'm first of course drawn by the quality of work that I might have seen of a cinematographer versus another - and I'm hungry for that, I'm greedy for that. I look at films, I look at things people do, and I'll never forget what an image might evoke in me, just the same way I do about a performance of an actor. But I remember, and then I try to find them."

A fellow student

This lesson is an exceptional insight into not only the power of a cinematographer but the power of cinematography.Recently I have lacked the necessary awareness of how different visual techniques can evoke very powerful emotions among the audience just as dialogue and other less subtle aspects of film.This lesson is an excellent wake up call to treasure your cinematographer and convey information visually rather then exposition dialogue. Light, framing and lenses are all profound resources so treasure that.Regardless on your budget use all possible tools at your disposal to "conduct the audience."