Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

Three Tips To Help You Create Your Style


If you want to stand out amongst the ever growing pool of cinematographers & DP's, it is important to begin to define your style, or your "look."  Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to defining your style. It will take lots of time and lots of hard work. I've been doing this since 1998, and I think I'm only now beginning to own my style and know how I like to work. However, if you follow these three steps, you'll be well on your way to defining your own style. And, maybe with a bit of luck, you'll be able to define your own style faster than I have.


1. View A Lot Of Visual Content
Inspiration is as essential to the creative process as the artist is. This is why it is key to view as much visual content as possible. I have carefully chosen the term "visual content." If you limit yourself to only watching movies or TV shows, you will be missing out on a wealth of inspiration and potential learning.

In addition to viewing movies & TV Shows, go to the art museum and look at paintings, photographs, and sculptures. Go to your local library and thumb through art history books and magazines. The principles of light, form, shape, line, tone, color, and contrast are present in every visual medium. By broadening your viewing consumption beyond movies and TV, you'll be able to experience a wider palette of visual art to draw from in your own work. I challenge you to draw from all of the visual arts for your inspirtation.

Don't limit yourself to current content only- look back throughout history. As you look back, you'll be able to get a better sense of where we in the creative community have come from, and what trends have happened in the past that have lead to where we are now. If you limit yourself to just what is popular today, you'll miss out on a rich visual history that could help inspire your work today. And you will continue to create derivative work that is based off of current trends.

As you view content, ask yourself these questions: What do I like about what I see? What don't I like about what I see? What draws me to the content? Is this something that I want to implement in my own work?


2. Implement What You See
As you find inspiring content, do your best to reverse engineer it and create it yourself. If you are anything like me, then the only real way to figure out your style is to try it on for size. Reading about how something was done, or just reverse engineering how it was done, is a good academic exercise, but the real learning comes when you put it into practice.

As you put your lighting plans into action, you'll gain a new understanding of how light behaves, what it takes to implement a particular lighting style, and how small modifications to that setup can have a big impact on the results. Experience is the real teacher.

For me, the physicality of the lighting plan, or what it takes to actually implement and how it affects production, is just as important as the results are. If I LOVE the results, but the lighting setup restricts my operating, or it takes too long to achieve (meaning I have to cut shots from the days work) then I use that as a learning experience. I go back to the drawing board and research other potential ways of getting there.


For example, over the years I have learned that I like big soft sources as my key light. And I like to only have one key light that wraps around the talent, and avoid the use of a fill light all together. (If I use a fill light, then I'll place it on the key side and use it to wrap the key around even further). There are many ways to create a big soft source. I could do any of the following: use two frames of diffusion, use a book light, use kino flows, use china balls, shoot light through muslin, or use a large bounce card. All of these approaches yield slightly different results, and all have different footprints on set. It is up to me to determine which will work best, and which look I favor. (My current favorite is to use two frames of diffusion: an inner 4x4 frame with 1/2 Grid, and and outer 6x6 frame with Full Grid).

If you are looking for a place to start, I have several behind the scenes videos, as well as various lighting diagrams from productions that I've shot. Take what you like, and throw the rest of it out. Remember there is no single "correct" way to light. It is about the results that end up on screen, and figuring out what works for your style.

As you implement various lighting styles and approaches, ask yourself these questions: What do I like about this approach? How is it affecting the production on set as well as the results on screen? What would I change about it? Is this an approach I want to continue to refine or should I find another approach?
Ryan's Stock Footage
3. Ruthlessly Evaluate What You Produce
My wife will readily confirm that I am a very harsh critic of my own work. About 1-2 weeks after I have shot something, I am no longer satisfied with it. At that point, all of the little things that I could have done better stand out to me. I see how I should have flagged off that corner, how the key to fill ratio wasn't quite where I wanted it, how a highlight is too strong, or the angle of light wasn't 100% where I wanted it, or how I didn't nail the end frame of that camera move.

I honestly tear my work apart so that I can improve and raise the quality of work for the next production. While it is easy to fall back on the 1,000 different excuses for why something turned out the way it did (schedules, budgets, etc.), excuses are not acceptable. They may have had an impact on how things turned out, but next time around I have to factor that in and not allow it to shape what ends up on screen.

I will also take my reel, and the content I create, and put it up against the work of some of my favorite cinematographers like Conrad Hall, Roger Deakins, & Wally Pfister. I do this not because I want my work to parrot theirs, but because by doing so I have a clear idea of what I need to improve, and where I have fallen short. It is a great way to keep myself humble. Anytime I see true artists at work, I am reminded of how far I have to go in my career- I still have a TON to learn.

If you are really gutsy, and have thick skin, then I encourage you to take your work to someone you trust and have them evaluate your work, openly and honestly. By having another trusted colleague (someone with more experience and history than you) evaluate your work, you can gain a lot of insight in how to improve. I continue to do this throughout my career, but it means being willing to be open enough to receive open criticism.

As you ruthlessly tear your work apart, ask yourself these questions: What worked well? What didn't work well? Why did it end up that way? What could have been done to change the results?

These are the three steps that I have repeated throughout my career to explore and define my own style. What have you done to define yours? Do you have any helpful hints you can share?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!

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