Jake Scott: Cinematographer
While preparing my notes and questions for the interview of London-based international director of photography Jake Scott, I was hit with the dreaded blank page. It wasn’t that I couldn’t draw inspiration from his work: contrary to my own mind at the time, Jake Scott’s world is anything but empty. It was that I could draw too much: I was pulled into a multitude of different, but equally exciting, directions, and I didn’t know which way to turn. What to ask? Which subjects to broach? How to find the questions that would best pique the interest of the readers?
An insightful friend of mine then asked me what I, personally, wanted to know about Jake Scott. Why was I interviewing him in the first place? Was it because of the depths of his work? The subtleties of his character? My problem was, I wanted to know everything. Who was this talented director, beyond the person behind a resume so impressive it would make you question your own credentials? Who was he, not only as a photographer, or an artist but as a fellow human? What did he wish the world would see in him? What made him feel alive, beyond measure and reason?
Who was the man behind the camera?
This is what I wanted to know. But despite my already burning curiosity, I still needed a place to start. And where better to start than at the beginning?
So let us retrace the very first steps Jake Scott took as a d.o.p, and walk with him into his world of art.
TVL: Reflecting on your career to date, how has your on set process changed?
JC: Knowing what I know now, you can’t expect to have all the answers from the start. I used to rely on consistent relationships with a crew that I knew and trusted, but as my career has developed I’ve become much more at ease with parachuting into new shoots in foreign lands and galvanising the respect of a new crew and director.
The work of a director of photography involves more than merely freezing a movie to produce empty snapshots. Combining the vision of the movie director and the vision of the artist requires a clever dance between both points of view; one could even describe this relationship as symbiose, from which the actors' cues and emotions are given a visual quality and morphed into stills.
The movie director entrusts the director of photography with the world they are building; the director of photography is tasked with the mission to both convey the essence of the movie director's work, and to take said work to places the movie director would not have thought of on their own. The director of photography is handed the reins of this world, not with rigid, tightly closed hands, but with a gentle and flexible grip. Both directors are working hand in hand to create a visual environment through colors, framing, and lighting, and to build the film’s look through images, a product of a shared calling to tell a story.
Jack Scott provided us with some answers on how he finds this necessary balance within his work.
JC: Every partnership is different. The cinematographer and to a different extent all heads of department, have to discover what it is that the director wants to say with this piece of work, and then be adaptable in how best to support them. Directors do not come from one place or one school of thought, some may be very visual thinkers, others may be more focussed on performance, so the language and communication style must change to suit each individual. My primary role is to support the director and their vision, but having said that I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t contribute creatively. If I’m asked to take part in a shoot then it is because the director knows and values my work, and therefore is going to respect my judgment and taste.
TVL: Focusing for a moment on your work in advertising, in what way do you contribute to how brands tell stories, and how does it differ from a simple product like a phone, to an entire brand or an invisible product like a fragrance?
JC: I think it's important to respect the intelligence of the audience. I don’t like to overstate the message. Essentially we are telling a story, and my role is to facilitate that. The clearer the intention, the greater the impact. However, when there’s no visible product to place front and center then you can really be much more free to be surrealistic or impressionistic.
Advertising is no longer confined to a basic marketing strategy used to persuade its audience to buy a product. It is now about providing an experience through storytelling where the audience plays an active role. Photography is the art of writing with light. Images can be as compelling - if not more compelling - than words. Cleverly articulated images can be transformed into a story. This evolution gave rise to a field that is undoubtedly richer than ever before, but also more draining since it requires the artists to pour so much of themselves into their art in order to give it its shape. And when the lines between work and passion are blurred, artists may struggle to complete their work when passion didn't clock in that morning.
TVL: How do you approach going into a shoot with the foreknowledge that it won’t necessarily be a showreel piece?
JC: I am passionate about my profession. Although I don’t like to compromise, there are multiple reasons to choose to take on a project, it could be because I want to develop a relationship with the director, or that there are aspects to the job that is interesting outside of the whole.
While looking over Jake Scott’s portfolio, one collaboration, in particular, caught my eye: the one with London-based director and photographer Yoni Lappin. The ads for Adidas and the music video “Love$ick” have both a life of their own. And yet, both can be considered a sequel to the other. Here lies the beauty of being an artist: a job isn’t simply a succession of tasks you have to complete before moving on to the next one. What you do becomes who you are. Each project represents a part of yourself. Each piece of art you create adds up to form a bigger picture.
TVL: What are the benefits of an ongoing collaboration with a particular director?
JC: Working with Yoni has been one of my strongest collaborations. You develop a shorthand and you develop trust. This changes the pace at which you work and allows you to push the boundaries.
With the film, Quinn Thomas and in collaboration with Diesel, director, and visual artist Alex Turvey plunged us into a futuristic dystopian world that wouldn’t feel out of place in the seventh season of Black Mirror.
TVL: How much of what we see on screen is preconceived or developed on set during the shooting process?
JC: With Quinn Thomas, the project started life as a major brand-funded documentary. We essentially used this as an opportunity to subvert the brief and utilize the architecture of Seoul. Whether it is dystopian or not is open to interpretation. The casting of QT, an alien pop star/energy drinks CEO, birthed out of PC music. She became a meta alien. Like Scarlett Johansson in ‘Under The Skin’, QT had a very little back story and we used that to our advantage. With Diesel, that’s an interesting one. We designed a first-person POV camera system that I could wear and operate - Nicola Formichetti was so impressed with the sci-fi look of the rig that he ordered it be sent out on the runway. Essentially the production descended into chaos and what we put on screen is a genuine response to that.
TVL: Would you be interested in working alongside Alex Turvey to expand that world?
JC: Aspects from Quinn Thomas have certainly trickled down into a feature project that we have discussed, which is currently still in development.
Every choice a visual artist makes, no matter how minor it may seem, reveals something about who they are, who they were, and who they will be. Their work is a treasure map, a code to decipher with clues coming in the form of color palettes, typography, and composition. Picasso’s blue period was a way for him to deal with grief and the unbearable pain that comes with the loss of a friendship. We all lived through experiences that taught us valuable lessons - about ourselves, about life, and about the world that surrounds us - and shaped who we are today, as artists and as people.
TVL: What was such a defining moment for you?
JC: For me, as for many of us, the initial spark comes during childhood. When you see for the first time the beauty in something around you, and are later inspired to find a way to communicate it to others.
TVL: Has there been a story on the back of your mind lately? A story that you might be hoping to tell soon through your personal work?
JC: I love how my phone has really become my sketch pad. I find myself prototyping simple ideas for a shot that could help to tell a mood or a moment in a story. Many of these ideas will develop into something and find their way into my work.
TVL: What question do you wish someone would ask you? And what would be your answer?
JC: A great thing to be asked as a cinematographer would be how other mediums work with light. For example, there’s an 18th-century painter whose use of light seems peculiarly contemporary. Joseph Wright of Derby’s 'Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight’; it hangs at Kenwood House not far from me on Hampstead Heath and it never fails to stop me in my tracks as I pass by.
For every artist out there, life is a succession of those moments, snatched out of thin air and transformed into a mirror for the audience to see themselves in. Those moments are the ones that catch our attention, that make us freeze, that stop our hearts and start them again. And you, what stops you?
Interview conducted by Oumaïma Belouali