Florian Hoffmeister

Florian Hoffmeister: “That’s the birthplace of the visual”

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Short Profile

Name: Florian Hoffmeister
DOB: 1970
Place of birth: Braunschweig, Germany
Occupation: Cinematographer

Mr. Hoffmeister, is beauty the ultimate goal for you as a cinematographer?

I think as a visual artist, you definitely have the an instinct to beautify, to touch it, and to make it into something, to stylize. But I’ve become really aware of what is it that I really want to do. My style and my approach can change from project to project, but any style that I choose hopefully gets forgotten by the time you see the film. That’s the goal. You’d never want to get in the way of the film. And hopefully, you've made the right choices, to transport the film with the right emotional intent.

Is it challenging to know when to pull back?

Sometimes it’s just a part of what the film requires. When I worked on Official Secrets with Gavin Hood, it started with Keira Knightley, who was playing a linguist and translator for the Government Communications Headquarters called Katharine Gun. Katharine is a blonde woman, she is a  real person, and obviously, Keira Knightley isn't blonde. Keira said, “Well, I'm not going to do blonde hair, I'm going to portray this character, but I'm just going to present it. I don't want to become Katherine.” That was the same thing we applied to the cinematography: we were simply presenting the story. And it definitely didn’t reach the levels of authenticity that I was able to reach with something like Tár. But maybe it was important to do that before in order to get to that place with Tár.

“All we wanted to do is to almost disappear behind the film...”

Why was authenticity something you were concerned with for a film like Tár?

Well, there's there are two ways that we see Lydia Tár. There’s her outward presentation, and then there's her private persona. When she is in presentational context, like in the first scene, where she speaks at the conference, or even the dinner with her benefactor with an audience of one, she had a strong key light, we wanted to make her shine in the best way that she wants to see herself. There was beautification in that sense. But there were a great many scenes, like with the orchestra, where it was very important not to romanticize her, scenes where you're just a fly on the wall and she has a moment of anxiety or she exposes her fragility. So those were the moments where we had to step away from the beautification, just try to convey another form of truth.

Apparently director Todd Field’s motto during the filming of Tár was “Don’t gild the lily.”

Right, and my corresponding sentiment was, “Don’t put a hat on a hat.” (Laughs) I’m flattered if the film looks unique or beautiful, but the goals actually were, as we’ve been talking about, authenticity, space, and immersiveness. Those were my paramount challenges on this. I loved that some people left the cinema thinking that Lydia Tár was a real person! Then I’ve done my job. All we wanted to do is to almost disappear behind the film.

What would be the opposite of that in filmmaking? What does it mean to gild the lily as a cinematographer?

One film where I did a lot is The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Davis. That was an interesting journey because Terence is significantly senior to me. When we shot the film, he was in his late sixties and by then, he’d kind of stopped watching films when I was born. His references were from a totally different era. But I really admire him, and working for him was really important for me in many ways. When he gave me that script, I was kind of leaning towards a bit of a kitchen sink realism, something almost bare. So my intuition was that we would understand the wartime hardships through the film, but he kept on saying, “Oh, no, we only had a single light bulb. But that single light bulb was the most beautiful light that I could ever imagine!” This is a whole different ballgame. This is a form of naturalism, not realism, where you really heightened the image.

And how did you handle that?

We shot with old lenses; this was one of the last features that I actually shot on celluloid. We put stockings on the back of the lens, which adds this almost cozy haze to everything… So, lighting wise, this film was almost romantic. I was fortunate enough that I grew up on celluloid, and in film school, we shot several films that way. Then we were transitioning to digital, and that was a time of great discovery. But I’ve always had great pleasure in trying to cook something up!

You once said that every shot has its own type of challenge: one that is a true challenge, and one that is a regular challenge. What’s the difference?

Well, for example, something that could be very challenging for the actor can often be very easy for the camera; for a highly emotional sequence, the camera could literally just be sitting on a set of sticks. And that's it, we don't even really operate the camera. And for the actor, it's the complete opposite, it might be a life and death situation. And then there's the stuff that's very simple for the actors, you know, maybe they just have to run for their life, but they only physically have to run. And that’s very complicated for the camera.

“I do think mine is a more holistic approach. I bring a lot of support towards the director, I would never consider myself a competing voice. There can only be one director on a film set.”

I’m sure both can also happen at once, too.

Right, and those are more rare! It requires a lot of understanding from all sides. So, yes, you’re right that I find everything challenging. There’s so many moving parts involved, so many people, but that's also what really made me fall in love with filmmaking. When the clapperboard goes clack, and 300 people get quiet to reach a single goal, you know… That's magic.

Do you think you have a leg up on American cinematographers in tackling those visual challenges? Apparently in Germany, all cinematographers also operate the camera, whereas that’s not strictly true in the United States.

Oh, I've never thought about that. It was just the way you grew up in film; if you wanted to light, you also had to operate. But I don't think that something is taken away from you when you don't do it, except maybe the fun of doing it. I do think mine is a more holistic approach, though, I know how films are being made. I bring a lot of support towards the director, I would never consider myself a competing voice. There can only be one director on a film set, but I do bring with me a lot of understanding of the process and none of the pressures. Maybe that’s part of the success.

What is it about being in this supporting role that speaks to you?

When I went to film school, I was thinking more about making films, I had no clear ambition to become a cinematographer. But when we shot our first little tiny shorts, and that mirror of what we were shooting flickered past, there was just magic, you know? So I absolutely love that, and I decided to change my direction. I remember thinking, “That’s the birthplace of the visual, that moment when everything pushes through that lens.”