David Rom, the cinematographer on series such as Grantchester, Harlots and Poldark, talks to Exit 6 Content Producer Kate Chedciala about his career, the shift from film to digital and the role short films place in the film industry.
I first met the cinematographer David Rom when we were both studying at Sheffield University. Back then he was training to become a Dr rather than a DOP. A decade later our paths crossed in the world of TV promos where I had the opportunity to shoot advertising and branding campaigns with him.
Since our uni days he had ditched the stethoscope for the steadicam and built up an impressive body of work including shorts such as Flea, features including About Time, and more recently, some pretty big budget TV shows such as The Wrong Mans, Humans, Poldark and Harlots.
The current lockdown has afforded him a rare moment of downtime from his busy filming schedules so I was able to catch up with him (virtually obviously)…
You had quite an unusual route into the world of cinematography. How did you make the leap from the world of medicine to film?
Yes, though I’d say a lot of people I know working in film have had similar winding paths. It’s not a job that’s particularly advertised at school, it’s something you have to be lucky enough to get the opportunity to experience. Shooting shorts on miniDV cameras with friends gave me an understanding of each speciality and helped direct me toward camera. It took a year of assisting in other people’s projects and a year at film school to really find my focus wanting to be a cinematographer.
Whose work inspired you to become a DOP?
I’ve always loved film. Like many people I was more familiar with director than the cinematographer. Directors like Tarantino, Coen brothers, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Spike Lee, David Lynch, Gus Van Sant, Aronofsky excited me and made me dig deeper into who was behind the lens.
Roger Deakins, Christopher Doyle, Lance Accord, Janusz Kaminski, Darius Khonji and Gordon Willis to name a few, became new heroes of mine. There are way too many white men on that list but women like Rachel Morrison, Ellen Kuras and Reed Morano have also hugely inspired me.
Did you know when you started which formats most appealed to you or was it a case of learning what you enjoyed as you went along?
I was film obsessed and worked tirelessly to push directors into using the format. At the time (the early 2000s), digital options were very inferior and it made such a difference when you shot on film. It pulled your work out above the mass of content that was being produced on video and it captured a magic, both in how one worked with it and the quality it imbued.
Watching cans of film being taken to the lab and waiting for the rushes the following day was a uniquely exciting and scary prospect. Digital cameras have now come so far. I work mostly on digital and while the crew’s jobs have changed more, I light and motivate the camera in a very similar way. Perhaps some magic has gone but the ability to see what is being captured and discuss with the director/art department etc makes for a less stressful time on set.
You have worked on some big budget TV series and films but have also worked on a lot of shorts. Apart from budgets what are the main differences on set?
The food! Joking apart they have a lot in common. Some people have the impression that on shorts you can shoot what they like and get away with little discipline. My experience has always been the opposite as a short has less time and money to shoot as much coverage or as many takes or to take over and control locations for long. Shorts give you more ability to take risks and learn and build creative relationships early in ones career, but I still enjoy that nowadays when I can find the time. Taking a small team and working on something personal can be very rewarding.
Bigger budget shows have money to be able to control so many more aspects of the aesthetic, which is exciting for a cinematographer. There is a more balanced approach to creative risk taking and normally testing time allows for planned happy accidents, rather than trying to work things out on set. There is usually way more people on set to manage and the job as a head of department becomes much more of a collaborator and team organiser.
You still like to work on shorts when your schedule allows. What appeals to you most about this format?
As I mentioned it’s the ability to work on a project that’s so personal and with few restrictions. Directors doing a short usually have a passion for the project and are very clear what they want to achieve. Smaller teams and shorter shooting durations make for a more nimble and flexible crew that isn’t exhausted after 10 weeks of filming. Setting a unique look for a show is one of the more rewarding parts of the job and shorts allow for this especially.
When working with a director on a project, what kind of communication and relationship do you find the most productive? Is there any advice you would give to new filmmakers on how to work with their DOP?
Every relationship is a little different but there are little things that have helped me when working with new directors. Sharing common visual references both for the project but also in general helps build a language between you and the director. Describing some visual ideas in words can be difficult so the sooner you can build up a short hand the easier.
Getting the feel of how much visual contribution the director wants also takes time. Finding a way to creatively contribute while not pushing things away from the director’s vision is something I try to balance. There are many ways of working and prep is a vital time to establish this. You can never have enough prep time with a director and this pays off many times over once the shoot starts.
What part of the role do you find most satisfying?
This can change depending on the job.
I love working with a director to find the visual language for the project. Working with the narrative and locations and setting a visual style is very rewarding. As is breaking those rules you make when it feels right. Understanding the script and having a common goal with the director helps realise this.
I don’t operate every show I shoot but it’s definitely part of the job I enjoy. It means I can respond in the moment with all the knowledge of prep with the director on my side.
Since you started in the industry, what changes have been most significant for your work? What areas do you think will be most interesting in the coming years?
For me it’s been saying goodbye to film and riding a bumpy path with digital. Now digital is so good I treat it like film in many ways. I don’t try and light for a camera but for an arresting image.
The other big change is the huge increase in production of high end TV. When I started out TV was looked down on for the visual opportunities and scale were much smaller. This has changed remarkably over recent years.
Is there any advice you would give to short film-makers on how they can make their work really stand out?
This is a tough one. There’s definitely no one way. I would say shoot lots and don’t be scared to experiment. Work on projects you like and ones you feel you can contribute on.
Don’t be scared to fail - most of us have made projects we are proud of as well as ones we would prefer people hadn’t seen!
Are you able to tell us about the projects you are working on at the moment or have just finished?
I’ve just shot the final episode of a show for AMC (Amazon in the UK) called Soul Mates. It’s a sci-fi anthology show where each episode was unique. I shot the last with the show runner and writer and it was a great experience in many ways. I’d shot a short with the director/writer 10yrs ago. Flash forward to today and he is an Emmy Award winning writer with producer credits including Stranger Things and Black Mirror. The fact he still asked me to shoot with him after all this time shows how special the relationships you can make on a short film and how they can grow into something bigger.
You can follow David on Twitter: @DavidRom_DOP
See more details about his work at his website.