Eric Branco didn’t travel far to end up behind the camera. An actor-turned-cinematographer, he now wields his both-sides knowledge with unmatched precision. Here’s how he made the leap and how he makes his set a home for actors, as he did on the buzzed-about Alfre Woodard–starring film “Clemency.”
How would you describe your role?
It’s a cinematographer’s job to visually interpret the director’s vision. I think the director of the film is overall at the helm of the script, and I think it’s the cinematographer’s job to translate their ideas into something real and tangible, something that you can photograph.
How did you get into cinematography?
Through acting, surprisingly enough. I grew up in New York and always knew that I wanted to do something in the performing arts. The only avenue available was acting, so I ended up doing a lot of Off-Broadway plays as a kid, just to be surrounded by like-minded people. That kind of naturally evolved into wanting to be a filmmaker, but my intention was always to be a writer-director-actor. All of the filmmakers from New York that I respected were doing that: Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Ed Burns. I just assumed that was how you did it. But when I started making student films and shorts, I realized there was no one to hold the camera, and so I kind of fell back from in front of the camera and started holding the camera, and then I totally fell in love with photography and the moving image.
Would you recommend transitioning to cinematography as one path for actors?
Yeah, I think my biggest strength as a cinematographer—and the biggest thing I have to offer—is the fact that I am knowledgeable and comfortable with the actor’s process. I understand how cinematography can lend itself to a performance, rather than it being its own distinct universe happening concurrently, but separately, from the acting. I think the more you can do as an actor to understand what the people around you are doing, the more at ease you’ll be on any set.
Do you think learning behind-the-scenes skills is helpful for an actor’s craft in some way?
Yes, 100 percent. When I’m on a set, I would like to be able to do every job, if that makes sense. Now, I’m by no means a talented designer or sound mixer, but I have a base understanding of how it works. And I think that understanding strengthens my craft because, again, I’m working in tandem. We’re not working against each other. I think that applies to every job on a set, in acting or anything else.
And how do you work directly with actors on a set?
Something that I’ve been trying in my personal work—and I think this definitely comes from my time spent as an actor—is something I really tried to do with “Clemency”: create an environment that does not feel like a set. On “Clemency,” I usually didn’t have any lights in the room, it was shot pretty much entirely through windows, or everything was rigged overhead. So, when the actors walked onto the set, it was their space, not mine. Having that kind of lighting design gave the actors the ability to—if they wanted to change the blocking, if they wanted to stand up and cross the room in the middle of a scene, we could accommodate that very quickly without them having to go back to their trailers and us taking a half-hour to relight. A big part of what I try to do is make the actors feel like the set is theirs, like they’re in a safe space with the freedom to do their best work without having to navigate through a forest of equipment to get to their work.
When you’re shooting an actor, is their skill level usually pretty apparent?
Yeah. There are a few things happening with actors on film, and you need to know two things because you’re doing two things at once. You need to understand acting, but you also need to understand where the camera is, where the lights are, where your mark is, and that’s all very technical stuff that only comes from practice. That stuff is more apparent to me when I have someone like a child actor, or a lot of times I’ll work with, say, a musician who is acting for the first time. The actors I work with generally are all amazing performers. With some of the more technical aspects of film acting, it becomes clear pretty early on where people land on that scale, and then it’s my job to help them out with that. If it’s an actor who hasn’t really acted in film, I’m not going to light the set in such a way where they will be underlit if they’re a bit off their mark. There’s a good chance they’re going to miss that mark a couple times, so I’m not going to be shooting with a sliver of depth of field. I’m not going to confine the light to a certain space in the set. I want to do my best to help them.
Do you have any advice for actors who may be considering switching to a craft behind the camera?
What’s really nice and really special about being an actor is you can pretty quickly be on very large sets with people working at the top of their game. Obviously, you need to pay your dues, but you could be on a pretty massive TV show pretty early in your career and be surrounded by people who are operating at the top of their game. What I’ve generally found is that the people who work in film really love their craft and they’re passionate about their craft, and what’s nice about that is they are more than happy to do a deep dive with you if you just ask. Like, “What are you doing?” or, “Hey, why’d you put that there?” It’s nothing but exciting when someone wants to know more about what we do and why we do it. Actors are uniquely positioned to learn from the best.
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 26 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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