Interview with Filmmaker, Dylan Isbell

Field Notes interview #86: Dylan Isbell, Director of Photography

We chat with Brooklyn-based Director of Photography, Dylan Isbell, about his beautiful editorial pieces with TIME Magazine and the importance of always having a clear narrative at the front and center of every project.


"Stock up on canned food, keep going, take risks and try to relax."

These are wise words of advice from the talented Director of Photography, Producer and Director, Dylan Isbell, when asked about what he would tell a filmmaker just starting out in their career. There's proof in this mantra when looking back over Isbell's celebrated career. His engaging work with TIME Magazine has brought about vivid stories and portraits of our connected lives in society. Isbell's impeccable work provides snapshots into the inner details of our every day lives, and weaves a larger narrative of our society. Watch and learn more about Dylan's way of working, dispelling common misconceptions about his craft and what music motivates him. Enjoy.

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

Dylan Isbell: My name is Dylan Isbell and I am a freelance Director of Photography first and foremost, but I also direct and produce. I currently reside in Brooklyn, New York.

M: Why film over every other form of art?

DI: Good question. I believe at a young age I had a difficult time explaining the emotions and thoughts that came rushing into my mind; therefore, I needed some medium to help explain and express myself adequately.  For me, that happened to be photography and film. Plus, I appreciate good storytelling -- and in film, when all the moving pieces come together, you can tell one hell of a story. 

M: What was your first film about?

DI: My first film was about the rise of Barack Obama when he ran for president the first time. I was in college, and a fellow classmate and I were, like most, taken aback by all of the energy for him. So, we set out to make a short doc about the campaign. We encountered some really interesting characters and the tone was there, but school ended and we went on our own ways, and thus, the project ended.

M: What's a common misconception of your profession?

DI: That it’s sexy or profound all the time. A lot of the time you aren’t working on that one poignant project. You do a lot of work that, in candor, isn’t worth discussing. But, the high points of this profession are amazing. 

M: What role do you see music in film?

DI: Personally, I love music to no end. It is a part of my daily routine and life. I see music as being an intrinsic part of filmmaking. The story has to be there, of course, but just as light shapes mood, music does as well, which in turn, charges and pushes the narrative even further. Take, for example, the movie Sicario. The score in that movie matched and heightened the intensity of the film, no doubt.

M: How do you know when a story is fully told in film?

DI: Honestly, I don’t know if a story is ever fully told. There are so many facets to consider and there are so many pieces that get cut out. I believe in characters. If you can make me care about the characters, or completely detest them, then you’re on to something. But, the story obviously needs some arcs and those arcs have to pay off at some point, too. Then again, the devil’s advocate in me says a good movie can also leave you feeling incomplete, wanting more. So, again, I don’t know if a story is ever fully told.

M: What was the last album you listened to?

DI: Oh, I listen to a bunch of stuff at once. Short list: Lightn' Hopkins, Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool, Kevin Morby's Singing Saw, Andrew Bird's Are You Serious, Charles Bradley's Changes, Timber Timbre's Hot Dreams, and James Blake's The Colour in Anything.

M: How do you feel film has changed over the last 10 years?

DI: It has changed a lot and keeps changing. There are so many things I could talk about, but since I’m usually staring down the barrel of camera, I would say the advancement in image quality. The upgrade in sensors and subsequent dynamic range has been amazing. Being able to hold highlights and get information in the blacks makes me, as a camera guy, very happy. That being said, I do feel toys/gear has taken a front seat to storytelling. I know a lot of people love and are obsessed with all the new toys that come out. I get excited, too, but now the toys seem to come out every other month, so a culture of “I have to have it!” is starting to take rise. Honestly, you can tell an amazing story with one cam and a tripod. 

M: If you were writing a letter to a young filmmaker, what would the first sentence be?

DI: Stock up on canned food, keep going, take risks, and try to relax.

M: What's coming up?

I’m in the process of pitching a few series ideas to some media companies, as well as staying on the freelance grind and taking care of my 9-month-old son, Henry.