Interview with Vincent Laforet

Photograph by Dustin Snipes

Photograph by Dustin Snipes

Field Notes #80: Vincent Laforet, Director 

We chatted with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Vincent Laforet on the phone, discussing the importance of embracing technology in film, the role of a good soundtrack and how he overcomes demo love when working on a project.

We first met Vincent in 2014 when he was traveling through Portland on his Directing Motion Tour. However, his career far preceded the time we first shook hands. His work as a director, writer and producer has found him creating commercials for the likes of Apple, Nike, GE, CNN and Canon. His photography has landed him in publications including National Geographic, Vanity Fair and Sports Illustrated. Thanks to Vincent and his depth of knowledge as a filmmaking teacher, we can no longer watch films the same way. And, that's a good thing.

He recently released his project, AIR, where he took high-altitude, aerial photographs of cities at night around the world. The work is beautiful, stunning and released as an incredible book. The second edition of AIR is released into the world today and we highly recommend making this the next thing you look at.


M: Who are you and what do you do in the world?

VL: I've been a photojournalist, photographer and commercial photographer for 20+ years, and a filmmaker for about seven years. I've directed narratives, short films and commercials for a variety of clients, from small companies and startups all the way to Apple and GE. I try to keep busy, always integrating myself with new technologies, finding different ways to apply them to uses they were not exactly intended for. A good example would be back in 2008/2009, the Canon 5D MKII was released as a still camera, but I saw something very different in it -- which in turn, helped start the craziness of the DSLR phase of video history.

M: You were one of the leading figures of that movement, right?

VL: I happened to be the first guy to shoot anything with HDDSLR. So, it's part luck and part the ability to see what this thing could do. It opened up a lot of doors for a lot of people. Initially, the idea was met with a lot of resistance. But, like you can't keep a good man down, you can't keep a good technology down, no matter what you think -- it's going to do what it's going to do.

M: Would place yourself in the camp of embracing new technology in your craft?

VL: That has always been apart of my philosophy. Lately, I've been focusing a lot more on narrative and story. But, at the end of the day, what's gotten me where I am today -- whether it was DSLR's or the MoVI or doing this latest project called AIR where I shot at night from high altitude with aerial cameras -- there always tends to be a technological angle behind it.

© Vincent Laforet, Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles.

© Vincent Laforet, Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles.

© Vincent Laforet, Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles.

© Vincent Laforet, Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles.

© Vincent Laforet, Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles.

© Vincent Laforet, Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles.

M: Going back a little into your career, when did that crossroads in your use of DSLR technology take place?

VL: That crossroads started off with me borrowing the camera over the weekend from Canon. I wasn’t the intended person the camera was supposed to go to -- in other words it, was supposed to go out to four to five photographers. But...I begged my way into borrowing it over the weekend and I shot my first short ever — what I would call a bad cologne commercial. It was visually strong, used low light really well, and was all shot with a still lens in a still camera, which at the time was 10x cheaper than the next camera up. Large sensor, low light, etc. It got 2 million views within the first two weeks. This is during the time before social media was fully developed, and in 2008, it was a pretty big deal. [Released] through my blog. It kept shutting down servers. It was a really fun time.

M: What creates a compelling story?

VL: It's no secret. The single hardest part about narrative is the script, and it's all about finding the right script. It's a really hard thing to do. You can very easily find a lot of bad scripts. You can find pretty good scripts that need work. But, finding a completely polished script that's ready to shoot and that is also within your budget is very tough thing to do. I'll find some scripts where I think, "this is one of the best movies I've ever seen," but it's going to cost 50 million dollars to make. As a filmmaker today, you've got to be either part writer/director or more of a director/producer, and really bring people together with a variety of skills that can work together to get a film out there.

M: So, you're saying to start with a script first, and build everything from there?

VL: In my opinion, the script is the foundation of anything you do as a narrative storyteller. The biggest mistake you can make is starting with a weak foundation or a weak script because you're not going to have a solid base to rely on.

M: Have you ever seen a film with a good script that wasn't executed well?

VL: Nothing pops to mind. The opposite comes up a lot and is very visible. [laughs]

M: How do you feel the soundtrack caters to the role of movement in picture?

VL: When I was in my teens, I was very drawn to art -- I dabbled a little in architecture, drawing, painting, and music. I was a tenor soloist in the choir, a saxophonist and pianist growing up. Music has been a very big part of my life and one of the compliments that I have gotten from many people that I personally appreciate, is how much music plays a part in any of the commercials or shorts that I’ve directed. I think that sound and music are sometimes up to 50 percent of the experience of a movie. It's amazing how a good soundtrack can completely overtake or give a personality to a scene. If you doubt this, I suggest you watch your favorite scenes and push the mute button. You'll quickly realize how you're not at all into it in the same way -- that you're not feeling it in the same way. I think [the way] music ends up falling in the entire process of filmmaking is as the last layer, other than grading. That's where you really get to accentuate the different inflection points within a piece. It's amazing that music can either hide poor directing or acting, and mistakes you've made. It can elevate any strong content that you've made to an entirely new level. Imagine any Spielberg movie without John Williams. Imagine Jaws without a soundtrack. The music was a central character -- the music was the shark. That feeling that there might something in the dark.

On almost every short movie I've done, I've collaborated with an original composer. I try to save up enough money to set aside for an orchestra of some kind. It doesn't sound as good from a synthesizer. Music adds a layer of authenticity to what you're shooting. When you hear poorly composed music in a film, it can completely takes you out of a scene.

M: How do you feel music can be misused in film?

LV: I think just turn the TV on at 2:00am and watch those really bad television shows. Ask yourself, "Is it the acting? The script? The camera movement? The cutting? The music?" Generally speaking, when you feel the music isn't married with the content -- it's actually bothering you and not immersing you within the scene -- that's when you know there's an issue. As a filmmaker, you need to have a sense of rhythm, inflection, crescendos, decrescendos. [Know] the mood that a piece makes you feel, how that evolves and how you can marry that to screen. I often find existing music to work on an initial edit with -- sometimes even as early as storyboarding -- to use as a rhythmic or tone guide that helps set the pace and feel of a scene. In fact, I don't think I've ever edited anything without a base track. And if I’m lucky enough to get a chance to work with a talented composer and musicians to actually score a piece -- that can often be the final highlight of the entire process for me.

M: How do you move past "demo love"?

VL: Generally speaking, I think there are universal rhythms and transitions in music. So, even if you can't get the same piece as your demo, hopefully you can find or write something that has the same type of evolution within the piece. Filmmaking is about compromise, and working with what you're given. You have to be able to adapt and pivot with what comes up. You have to learn to accept that you might not get that specific track, and be open to finding something else. Or really fight to get the original piece, because if you don't get the right piece, it can truly hurt you. Another important element is being able to communicate with artists and composers in a common language to specify what you are looking to achieve when you’re lucky enough to compose something new -- or even when you’re looking to find an existing piece. Having a musical background has never hurt anyone.

M: What's coming up next for you?

VL: After so many years working on commercials and film, my next step is going back to narrative. I'm doing everything in my power to make a narrative of some kind — either in film, episodic or even VR.