Sharpshooter: Slumdog shooter
Barrie Smith talks with cinematographer Stefan Ciupek whose career spans everything from TV drama to work on Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours
Barrie Smith talks with cinematographer Stefan Ciupek whose career spans everything from TV drama to work on Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours.
Name: Stefan Ciupek
Family: I'm married.
Languages: German, English, Polish, Russian
Occupation: Cinematographer, but I have worked a long time in many different fields of film production and post. I have also been a colourist and digital camera supervisor for many years.
Where did you grow up?
First in a village in East Germany, when the wall was still in existence. At the age of 10 we escaped to live in Wroclaw, Poland. Three years later we arrived at our final destination, West Berlin.
And where do you live today?
In Berlin, the district is Friedrichshain, the former East Berlin. So I returned!
What education have you had? Special training in camera work?
I studied Media Design in Berlin, but mostly I would consider myself an autodidact. I wanted to know about all steps of filmmaking, so I learned dramaturgy, editing, sound design, lighting, post production workflows, grading and directing. But I always knew that I wanted to work as a DOP and have a very wide knowledge basis.
What was your first shooting job?
Many years ago, in 1996, I shot a very experimental arts video called Rhythm Control. It was quite psychedelic, even by today's standards as it had 25 cuts per second. Only recently I found out that back then it won a prize at the Oberhausen International Festival.
I've just finish grading/post production for my latest two feature films. The first one is In Embryo a dark, psychological arthouse drama that we shot some time ago in Los Angeles. The second one is the thriller The Dark side of the Moon, that I shot last year together with fellow cinematographer Felix Cramer in Luxembourg.
Have you been busy?
Very much so! I keep moving between on set work as a DOP and supervising grading. Then I work every now and then as a colourist. Sometimes I give lectures and masterclasses and share my experiences with students and young filmmakers.
Do you enjoy running those workshops?
Yes! It's a great opportunity to share my experiences with students and young filmmakers. I learn a lot from them as well, as they have so many new ideas and different approaches.
Do you travel much in Europe?
Yes, but more often around the world. I've been busy in North/South America, South Africa, Russia and India.
What types of productions are you mostly shooting?
Many feature films, mostly for cinema and some TV films, covering a big budget range from small independent films, to big international productions. plus few documentaries and commercials.
I'm mostly interested in feature films with good scripts and interesting stories to tell. I think I have a tendency towards arthouse drama stories, but wouldn't mind shooting a big commercial project.
Whenever I get hold of 35mm footage, I really envy the beauty of its texture, colour depth and “look” which is magically just there!
What was your role on Slumdog Millionaire?
I had quite a few, different assignments on this film: B-camera operator, digital camera supervisor and later post production consultant.
For many years I had a very close collaboration and friendship with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. We always found and sometimes developed new cameras and technologies for his challenging projects. For Slumdog Millionaire we had to come up with something revolutionary, that hadn't been seen before. Anthony needed an extremely small, ergonomic digital cinema camera that was able to match 35mm footage in scope on the big screen. Back in 2007 that was a huge challenge!
What equipment are you currently using?
I keep swapping, depending on the projects I shoot. For cinema I mostly use my own Red Dragon camera as the main camera. With TV films, I mostly lean towards the Alexa. But I often mix formats and use everything that shoots in a decent quality. For low light stuff I like using the Canon C-series cameras and the Sony A7s. When I need something really small, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema camera is my choice. It keeps changing, so I never lock myself into one camera.
These days I don´t edit anymore. If I need to review some footage quickly I use DaVinci Resolve and edit it together on the timeline. I like Premiere Pro and the possibilities of editing most native RAW formats in 4K.
Other gear you have access to?
I usually get nearly everything I need for my projects. For grading I usually work with big post houses that have either Nucoda Filmmaster or Baselight. On the camera side, I either use my own gear, being the Red Dragon Camera, a set of compact primes and a very nice T1.8/18-35mm Pl mount zoom by GI Optics. I also use the Pocket Cinema Camera with a Nikon mount Speed Booster and a few old prime and zoom lenses.
What’s your equipment "wish list"?
I was thinking of upgrading to the Red Weapon camera (though I really hate that military name!). I'm also looking for a gimbal and some decent high quality prime lenses, covering the full format of the sensor. I really like the Leica Summilux and Summicrons.
In what direction could DSLR gear be improved for video work?
Better ergonomics for shooting. It's not fun to use a stills camera with awkward shoulder rigs for handheld work. And better viewfinder and monitor solutions for these. Also less compressed recording in 2K / 4K internally with at least 10-bit Log or Raw recording. Since I love to grade my footage, I always notice the shortcomings from highly compressed 8-bit footage.
Would you still like to work with film?
I would love to, if the opportunity came back. Whenever I get hold of 35mm footage, I really envy the beauty of its texture, colour depth and “look” which is magically just there!
What useful piece of gear do you wish someone might make?
A smart wireless, high-quality video assist system that works reliably! And maybe one device that gives me control of most important camera parameters and the histogram. In the 21st century, that should be possible!
Best thing about your job?
To be constantly learning from the challenges each new project gives me. And to work closely with a director and a team on the vision of the film.
Worst thing about your job?
Never really knowing if the next film's funding is coming through.
Hairiest/scariest assignments and why?
Both Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours had some scary moments!
On Slumdog it was shooting the train sequence with the kids on top of the train. To sit on a fast moving train with three cameras, hanging on to some rope which is just held by the stunt guy felt a bit on the edge. On 127 Hours it was rappelling down a 120 feet vertical drop to quickly get a shot. Before that I had never climbed anything higher than a bar chair!
How much 16:9 do you shoot?
Most of my feature films have been in shot in 'scope. But I shot a quite a bit in 16:9 for TV.
What country would you most like to shoot in?
Since I've already shot on most continents, it's not so much about the country anymore. It's more about the right places for the film. I like things to be authentic, so shooting at the right places and not having to cheat the location at all times. As an experience, I would love to make a film in China.