Cinematographers live or die by light. There are two big guns in their arsenal: choice of camera and choice of lighting rigs. How they manipulate and capture both natural and man-made light affects the look, and hence, mood of an entire film. Closely related to the art of still photography, cinematographers also have to deal with time and movement. These added dimensions make their choices all the more critical. Since 1997, Terry Stacey has been a director of photography on major motion pictures with stunningly effective, understated and natural-looking lighting.
In the early 1980’s Stacey graduated from the University of Manchester in England and moved to New York City. “These were the halcyon days,” he says, laughing. He worked as a musician and photographer at The Collective for the Living Cinema. He also shot and edited Super 8 short films and got involved in the nascent music video scene. “There was a huge Super 8 scene, which is a great way to experiment. I learned so much doing that,” he explains.
Arming himself with a 16mm Bolex, Stacey headed to South America and made his own documentaries. “It was all done with available light,” he says. He later made his own films and documentaries in India, Iceland, and England. “I put together a show reel with footage of work I’d done for friends’ bands. That actually got me a job on a really low-budget documentary shooting in Brazil. It was almost a dream. The director responded to my work because of my work in natural light. That documentary got me more work.”
One job led to another, and soon he was in Los Angeles, shooting music videos until he returned to New York to enter the independent film scene. “I was there again at the perfect time in the nineties when the IFC was pumping out great films out of great scripts for just one million dollars.”
Regarding his style of cinematography, Stacey points to his origins. “My roots are in documentaries, so I tend to see things in a more naturalistic way. Things are slightly enhanced, but a naturalistic romanticism is how I see the world,” he chuckles. “To me, the best stuff looks like it wasn’t lit.” He has given his signature natural lighting-look to films as diverse as the groundbreaking American Splendor, The Nanny Diaries and In Her Shoes. In television, he’s shot Dexter, Sex in the City, and a hauntingly sparse, brilliantly-lit extended promo for The Sopranos, among others.
Much of what Stacey does is artful subterfuge. Stacey’s latest film to be released is Dear John, starring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried. Shot in Charleston, South Carolina. “We had to do a lot of scenes that took place in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, and Saudi Arabia, and we shot it all in South Carolina.” Stacey says. The production designers and crew specify and utilize props, but it’s Stacey’s job to match lighting from around the world.
Stacey is now prepping a film in Vancouver which is supposed to take place in Seattle. I’m with Cancer is a black comedy starring James McAvoy and Seth Rogen, and directed by Jonathan Levine. “To me, comedies often look too vivid, clean and over-lit. In this one we’re going to go for a softer, muted palette, and show a few more flaws in terms of framing, hand-held cameras, and let windows blow out. Just add some roughness to it so it feels a little more like life. Tattered.”
In behind the scenes photos taken on-set, Stacey is often shown holding a Sekonic L-608 Cine meter. “I use it all the time. I take it to bed with me,” he says, laughing. His meter of choice these days is a Sekonic L-758DR. “I have it hanging around my neck every day. I used to always carry two meters—a Sekonic and an old Minolta spot meter. I’d put one down, pick up the other, and I’d always lose one. It’s great to now have an incident and a spot meter all in one, and it’s incredibly accurate–that’s the amazing thing. It looks more delicate than it actually is. A lot of filmmaking is in the moment, and it’s great to have it there at all times, ready to go. All you need is a couple of seconds to double-check that reading.”
Stacey can be seen in the January 2010 issue of ICG, using a Sekonic L-608 meter. His career has been spent shaping light and making our entertainment look as real as possible. The the art of filmmaking is better for it. Terry Stacey is the master of beautiful, but not obvious lighting techniques. We’ll happily keep our eyes on what he does.
Written by Ron Egatz