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'Selma' cinematographer Bradford Young accidentally fell into filmmaking, and fell in love with it

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and OnStar. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Some of the most insightful conversations come in the most casual settings. On The Ride we catch up with today's top personalities in technology and entertainment on their way to work, running errands, or checking out a new show. Along the way, we field questions sent live from The Verge readers via a tablet connected to the OnStar 4G LTE built-in Wi-Fi® hotspot.

When Bradford Young started college, he didn't know what to study. Luckily, he stumbled upon a group of film students. Young was drawn to the camaraderie of the set and captivated by the role a cinematographer plays in filmmaking. It's a role that defines what the film ultimately looks like, the colors and lighting and framing. You've seen Young's work in hits like Selma and A Most Violent Year.

Hi Bradford. Psyched to be talking to you today. Where are we heading?

Bradford Young: We're heading to a camera rental house.

We have Verge readers that are actually sending me questions right now and one of them is asking here, "What is your earliest experience in film?"

BY: My earliest experience in film is my second or first week at film school, actually in college. I didn't know what I wanted to do in school and I was just trying to find my way, trying to link up with other young folks which is essentially the School of Communications. I ran across the office, looked through a door, saw a bunch of young folks hanging out. It sounded like they were talking about something I understood, but when I walked in I realized that they were talking about things that I knew nothing about.

Turned out they were all film students and the more I hung out with them the more I realized how smart, creative, and how interesting these young people were. Somebody asked me "What are you studying," and I said, "I'm not sure. I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do." They said, "Hey, listen, we're going to be doing a little student shoot this weekend. If you want to stop by, you should come by." I went by and we ended up in the aqueduct of the school and we were there shooting a science fiction film. Just watching everybody independently do their thing but, all for a common goal and just having fun, and that intense comeradery you experience on a film set. At 17-18 it meant a lot to me. That's my first experience on a film set.

Sounds like a cool location at that school.

BY: Yeah. It was crazy. We definitely weren't supposed to be in there. Weekends following we ended up there and we definitely got kicked out. That's what filmmaking is about right? You try to take yourself to places you haven't been before to get the right shot or the right space for the perfect emotional trajectory. It was great. It was fun.

That's one of the best parts about it. I love that Robert Altman quote, "Film is a chance to live many lives." What format of film did you first use?

BY: Super 8 was the first format and it was a group. In school you get assigned these group projects and your intro is called Intro to Media Production and we were required to do, obviously not sync sound, but, a black and white, Super 8, non sync sound, MOS project on Super 8. Then the following semester you ended up on 16 but first was Super 8.

You got the pistol grip and everything?

BY: The pistol grip. Yup. They were these little Canon Super 8 cameras. It was crazy. At that time there was no digital, there was no video technology that would have been good enough or anybody knew how to use. It was all about film, which was sort of tried and true. Super 8 was my first.

Were you doing anything before college, messing around with friends at school?

BY: No, man. Growing up I didn't even know what filmmaking was. I didn't really care. I mean I cared about movies, but the only reason I cared about movies was how most people cared about movies. I liked watching them. They entertained us but, I didn't care about movies in that way. There was nobody in my community that I knew with a Super 8 camera. My grandparents had tons of Super 8 footage in the basemen that nobody ever watched then one day we all watched it. I don't remember what happened to it.

I didn't grow up in the kind of community where people were capturing life that way. There were plenty of still photographers around and there were plenty of writers and there were sculpture artists and there were painters. People with Super 8 cameras or any sort of image capturing devices, I didn't grow up in a world like that. Again, I really didn't even discover what filmmaking was until I turned 18 and went away to college. Before that, we'd all as a family go see the newest and latest Spike Lee film, but other than that, it was just like, "Okay, Goonies is on." You watch Goonies and then you go home. For me, I hadn't demystified filmmaking and certainly in my community the filmmaking process hadn't been demystified.

The veil hadn't been drawn?

BY: Drawn. Exactly. It still seemed like this far away thing that only people in Hollywood did.

Do you ever wish you could go back to not knowing all the magic behind movies when you watch them?

BY: Yeah and I try to. I do wish I could go back to day one and be mystified by what's happening in front of me. I think that's my lens only as a technician or an artist working in the medium. The filmmaking process is so organic, it's still growing, it's alive, that there is still plenty of opportunities now. Many movies blow me away and still remind me how innocent and naive one can feel when they're bearing witness to story. It's one of the perfect ancient art forms, not filmmaking, but storytelling. I do wish in many ways I could return back to that naivety. There's still time. There's still space for that.

I love that your hopeful for that because I'm always just like, "All right, it's over. There's no chance."

BY: Nah, man. As much as I am appalled and have such a contentious relationship with storytelling structure, especially as it's manifested in filmmaking space. The world is filled with ancient, old, tried and true, cultural storytelling models that we have not been able to explore in film. I think we haven't exhausted storytelling. As long as we know there are a billion more ways of telling stories I think there will always be space to be mystified by what we see on screen.


You're also interested in story in a sense, so how does cinematography tie into that storytelling?

BY: I think it's a really good question and I think it's something that is sort of a work in progress for me. It's just such a good question. I think cinematography is important and I think it's really why we do what we do in terms of filmmaking. We can be directors and storytellers, but we can do that outside of filmmaking. The thing that makes filmmaking different from other art forms is that filmmaking is about seeing. It's about the illusion of time through moving frames so cinematography is a crucial element to that.

What makes cinematography so important to storytelling within the confines of the filmmaking process is that it's the one element in the process that allows us to see ourselves. Stories are all about us seeing ourselves. It's about us expressing our deep concerns, fear, love, and joy for life and there's nothing more refreshing and more heartfelt than seeing a child in 24 frames per second or a child at 48 frames per second or a child at 1,000 frames per second.

For us, we have the opportunity to map not only human reality but the reality of all living things through frames and we're able to slow down time and map time in a very special way. Our brains can't do that but, a film camera can do that. A still camera can't even do that. It captures one moment which is it's own special way of seeing the world. Filmmakers, were able to capture in multiple frames and allows us dig into what I consider the human soul. It's special. It's a special tool to use in storytelling. I think it's critical. It's not only for us as filmmakers because we have to actually see something in order for it to be filmed but, I think it's critical in human development. It allows us to empathize and sympathize with living things in a way that you wouldn't be able to do if you just saw things through the human eye.

Completely agree. Speaking of time though, how often do you consider editing while you're shooting?

BY: I'm always conscious of editing. That's been sort of my pedagogy around filmmaking. My mentor and teacher and professor would always say, "In order to be a good cinematographer, you have to be a good editor." That's one of the many things I have to balance as a cinematographer. When a director says to me, "Hey look man, I need like one bit. I think we're missing something." They're not asking me as their friend, which hopefully we are, but they're also asking me as their collaborator who should have some understanding on how to organize images. I'm always thinking about editing.

In the process I don't have any fear saying to a director, "You know what, it was good as a oner and we probably shouldn't have any more angles on this." Again, it's all connected to story. Sometimes we can over tell the story and we can cheapen the experience because we've covered from so many angles. I feel very confident that if I wasn't a cinematographer I might have been an editor. I just like the idea of organizing images. It goes back to what I was saying before about storytelling structure. We're free, we're storytellers, we don't have to adhere to a three act structure. We don't have to adhere to any of that, we can play with time. I'm very aware of and very conscious of that and I think it's one of the skills that I have is that I can make I think some pretty good suggestions on how to organize images.

How would you describe the role of cinematographer?

A cinematographer's job is to see things that nobody else is seeing within the confines of the space in which we construct scenarios. Seeing is supposed to be our gift, right? That's why we call ourselves cinematographers or somebody else calls us cinematographers, but seeing is not enough, right? That doesn't clearly — I don't think enough delineate who we are, who a cinematographer is, or what a cinematographer is versus what a painter is. A painter sees as well.

When I say seeing I guess in some ways we have to be able to see things in motion. We have to be able to take that little snippet of time where something moves from one side of reality to the other side of reality and understand why it's important to capture it in shadow or in a particular way within shadow. I think it's our job to see things moving. I think it's our job to respect other people's ways of seeing as well. I think when you get down to the ethical level of what we do, I think it's also our job to be clear and mindful of representation. We have a lot, we care, but, I think seeing is key. Seeing in motion and understanding once we see in motion what that motion represents I think is the key part of what we do.

You shot some very low budget films back in the day when you first started and these films are much bigger budget. How does what you learned from those low budget films apply to the much larger budget films that you're shooting today?

BY: Right. More doesn't mean more [laughs] and less is always more. That's the lesson. Just because they're bigger, doesn't mean it's bigger and because they're smaller, doesn't mean they're small. The small films always have more character and that's just the way it is. That's because we all have to work at a certain level and we have to respect meager resources, which is great. That struggle generates, I think, real interesting art. When you have all the toys, it's important to have those toys and play with them, but it can get in the way of the process.

I think what low budget films have taught me is to choose those toys only when they're needed. Never be distracted by what they can do, know specifically what you want it to do. Do that and move on. We still at the end of the day we fly the cranes high, we bring the camera down from above into somebody's face that's beautiful but we still got to put our feet on the ground and get that much closer to them. When the camera's on our shoulder or on our tripod, nothing more classic and nothing more important than those calculated small things that we learn on low budget films.

Specifically with Selma, how you start the march scene with the technocranes and then you move into the handheld, I think that applies perfectly to what you're saying right now. The big toys and then the little more grounded.

BY: Exactly. I'm glad you saw that. For Selma it's extremely important because you want to make sure that you're giving the audience a perspective on Dr. King that we might not necessarily would have had the chance to experience. That camera on the shoulder, in the crowd, a part of the cadre. Not an observer of history, but an actual participant in history making. It was important for that film.

Absolutely and trust me, it was felt.

BY: Thank you.

All right man, it looks like we are here. Listen it was really, really good talking to you. Thanks man. Thanks for everything.

BY: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and OnStar. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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