INTERVIEW - J. Connor Bjornson on shooting MORBUS (2020)
Updated: Jul 22, 2020
J. Connor Bjornson is an American-Canadian cinematographer based in Los Angeles. He earned his BFA from York University's film production program in Toronto and is currently a cinematography fellow at the American Film Institute Conservatory.
Q: You graduated from York University's Film Production program back in 2018. What are you up to now?
Connor: Right after graduating York I made the leap to Los Angeles to attend the American Film Institute. For nearly two years I’ve been fortunate to continue spending all my time thinking and learning about nothing but film. It has been such a humbling experience meeting so many talented and passionate people, and has proved to be a fantastic training ground in many ways. I’ve never been around so many cinematographers from day to day, not even at York. Constantly being in class with 25 other highly passionate and skilled cinematographers, all with their own perspectives, backgrounds and opinions, has taught me so much about myself. Even more than I realized before AFI, I’ve discovered just how true it is that there is never a “right” way to do anything. There is only YOUR way of telling stories, and no two cinematographers will do something the same way. I’ve learned to embrace and trust my gut instinct, and that there is always some truth to that instinct, as it’s something that comes from an emotional truth inside of you. And more often than not starting from that place of emotional truth is a more pure form of storytelling than anything anyone can teach you. Films should come from the heart, in one way or another, and I’ve learned over time just how important it is to stay true to that -- no matter the technical limitation, no matter the budget, and no matter what others might think of your work.
Q: Do you feel that your education at York University set you up for success at AFI?
Connor: York allowed me to grow and experiment in ways I never would have been able to outside film school, and I met some incredible people, forming lifelong friendships along the way. I wouldn’t go so far to say that York gave me all the skills I needed to successfully transition to AFI, but I also wouldn’t say AFI has given me all the skills required to become a successful cinematographer. There’s a certain personal discovery and personal learning that happens alongside the education I've had thus far. Whether it’s spending my free time watching movies, practicing photography or plotting out lighting plans for my next short, I feel the best way to take advantage of any education is to take a proactive role in your learning. York and AFI are both fantastic schools, and both provide fantastic equipment, lectures, advice, etc -- but without your own passion for the art form and a drive to tell stories, these schools could perhaps in a certain circumstance teach you nothing. It’s the classic “you only get out of it what you put in”. What I will say, most importantly, is that York provided me with a solid foundation and a platform to learn and grow alongside my peers. It allowed us to dream, to fail, and to make movies. There’s often this pressure to make the best film possible in film school, and just through the simple act of trying, you quickly discover your weaknesses. It’s through this process of experimenting, succeeding and failing that taught me the most about what works and what doesn’t.
Q: In our past collaborations we'd often speak in still frames from various movies. Is that something you find helpful in discovering the look of a project?
Yes, these kinds of references have always had a place in my prep for a film. I find it to be an incredibly effective way to communicate with the director, and is in particular a fantastic way to ask questions such as “What do you think of this? Do you see the film this way? Is this too dark?” Film being such a visual medium requires a visual form of communication. Everyone has surely heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”. This couldn’t be more true in this situation. It allows the director and I to generate the groundwork -- to gain a general sense of how the movie should feel and what sort of visual language we can use to influence the emotional journey of the audience. I will say though, that visual references are only helpful to a point. Once you have the groundwork laid out, you have to start getting to work on your own visual design. Since no two movies are alike, you can’t just copy your references and hope for the best -- you have to ask yourself the hard questions. What type of imagery will be most effective to tell our particular story? What overall look will support the themes of the film and what does each specific scene require to emotionally connect the audience to the film? Who’s POV are we identifying with at any particular moment? As a cinematographer you have to be prepared to ask these questions, even if the director has yet to discover the answers. Very importantly, the collaboration between the DP and the director must be an extremely collaborative environment. The more discussions you have about story, character, theme, etc, the better you’re able to visualize the film to the best of your ability.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to a young D.O.P or filmmaker about how they might be able to achieve a particular aesthetic on a budget?
I would say that you first must have a deep underlying understanding of the story you are trying to tell. Aesthetics, to me, must only be employed to service the story. It’s far too easy to simply make decisions based on what you think looks “cool”. This can lead you down a deep rabbit hole. My perspective is that our own personal taste for a certain aesthetic can undermine the film if not checked. It’s far too easy to be selfish and make choices based on what you personally happen to find attractive at that particular moment in your life, or even based on what is trending or popular at the moment. The important question I like to ask, is what does the story ask for? Removing your own personal tastes from the equation, what types of things can we do visually to evoke a certain feeling in the audience watching the film. It’s important to remember we make movies to hopefully cater to a large group of people, so you need to make sure you are considerate of how the audience might experience your choices. My advice would be start from the story first and ask yourself what will best inform the story regardless of tools or budget. Then from there, do whatever you must with the resources at hand to achieve that, to as fine a degree as possible. There are always compromises, no matter the budget, and the compromises you make must ultimately be in favour of story. As an example, with Morbus (2020), we knew moonlight would play an important role in evoking this mysterious and dangerous force of nature. We knew we wanted the sludge to embody a sort of omniscient, supernatural presence, and a cool blue moonlight seemed like a good way to do that. Moonlight, being from space, and spreading across the landscape in a way that is all encompassing, just felt right as a way to represent how we felt the black sludge should be portrayed. From there, I then had to make technical choices to figure out how to go about executing this idea. First of all, I knew the moonlight should come from a high vantage point to spread over as much of our set as possible, and this is no easy task on a shoe-string budget. We were extremely lucky to find a very tall hill about 350 feet from the set. By setting our M40 HMI on this hill, we were able to get just enough exposure and spread across the landscape to get the effect we needed.
Q: With Morbus, did you start with how you wanted the film to look in your head and try to make that happen, or did you think first about what you and your team could do and work from there?
The former. I feel it’s always best to work from the idea, then reverse engineer that into something attainable. Ironically, the latter almost feels like working backwards to me. Although some filmmakers may work successfully this way, I fear you risk missing out on some of the more core creative ideas that come from dreaming up the film in your head. It’s my feeling that if you go straight to thinking technically you lose out on the all so important phase of imagination, and the job just becomes soulless execution.
Q: What was the biggest cinematography-related challenge with Morbus? How did you overcome it?
This is a hard question because I often find many challenges in every project. One of the great joys of filmmaking is finding creative solutions to problems every day. If I had to pick one technical challenge though, I would say it exists within the forest scene when our heroes search for the woman in the woods. Lighting-wise, it was extremely difficult to recreate the high angle and far off moonlight we achieved in the rest of the film. The density of the trees often blocked our source so we couldn’t put the light too far away, and we didn’t have a simple solution to match the height we achieved with the hill in the other scenes. The result is what I think is a less realistic source, and if I had the chance to do it again I would rethink the setup from scratch. If we had the money, we could have had the light on a crane, but since we didn’t have that kind of budget I think a simple solution would have been to rig a large number of soft sources up in the trees to create toppy pools of light. This way we could have lit the space more evenly and realistically, and we could have even silhouetted the characters by carefully placing some in the background.
Q: Do you have any recommendations of cinematographers you think people should look up?
For good reason, Roger Deakins is one of the most well known cinematographers alive, and if you’ve never heard of his website I strongly recommend you head over to https://www.rogerdeakins.com/ and read through the forums. Another cinematographer, Steve Yedlin (frequent collaborator of Rian Johnson), is also very generous with his knowledge. If you’re at all interested in hearing Steve talk about colour science, LUTs, film emulation, or even hear him debunk common myths on things like resolution look no further than http://yedlin.net/.
Q: Where can people find your work/get in touch with you?
If you like, you can find some of my work and get in touch with me by visiting my website at https://jconnorbjornson.com/.