Helsingin elokuva-akatemian Elävän kuvan seura, 28.9.2015
“I don’t drink (alcohol) or use drugs, but I drink a lot of coffee and I make pretty pictures.”
The year is 1989. I am sweating under makeup right outside of the improvised room in a film studio. Bunch of other actors are slowly getting nervous. Tension is rising together with the temperature, while the DOP is going from one corner of the room to the other with the light meter and checking for the forty-fifth time whether every inch of the room is properly lit. “Bring me another ‘five’!” he shouts. “No way!” says someone behind my back “Is he really planning to do this all day?”. It has been two hours since we have all been ready with the makeup and in costumes and since the filming should have started. Now there are already seventeen lights in the room of nine square meters and the DOP is asking for another, looking oh so professional and versed… I wish I had a copy of that film just to be able to see whether it really ended up being a masterpiece of lighting. I don’t even remember the name of the film. But I remember really well the name of the director of photography…
Well, lighting is much more complex then we used to think – that is the lesson I learned on that fatal day (In fact, that shooting might have been the main reason why I ended up feeling more inclined to the theatre then to the movies). But just how much more complex, I was never able to anticipate before this Monday’s session with Lawrence Dolkart.
LA from LA
Lawrence was born in LA. Coincidence or not, his second name is Andrew, so he as well is often called LA. And he also has this audacious boldness and self-confidence that being born and raised in LA seams to be supplying people with. No place to look up to, I suppose…
Being from LA also provided him with the access to the film Industry.
His background has, in his own words, a lot of stories and different paths.
A “Punk-rock” kid, part of the generation that didn’t want the “real job”, always liked pictures, planned to study still photography, but then he decided that he hated school… “And then”, he says, “I just started working in film.”
So simple. Way too simple in fact. The word “just” in this sentence implies how unexciting Larry’s entrance into movies was. He wasn’t even dreaming about working in movies like many of us do. “Oh, just give me a chance! Give me what ever job! Let me just enter the circle!”
No, Larry didn’t start from some privileged position. I fact, he was just 16 at the time. He got the job as a production assistant and, with a lot of commitment, willingness to learn and not without some luck, he worked his way up. He learned how to use and also repair lighting equipment, then in his early twenties he started doing lighting and there – the passion was born. He ended up working for Rolf Kestermann, one of the best beauty cinematographers of all times according to Larry, who inspired him to look for a beauty in everything: “Everything can be beautiful, we just need to look for it.” And that is where Larry’s quest is conceived, passionate quest for beauty in everything and everyone.
“Huge weird driving thing”
The platitude “there is something special about everybody”, in Larry’s terms isn’t just a shabby phrase. In his vision, that something special, appears as a beauty. He want’s everyone to look beautiful and he is determined to find the right light under which that beauty shows. The right distance, the right angle, sharpness…
Yet, as he claims, he doesn’t need any particular light to make a beautiful picture. “Everybody can look beautiful and, if I just look for what is special in each individual, then I can find it.”
I wish I had a chance to work with the cinematographer who loved me so much as Larry loves his objects.
Most of his work in the US was “a film-based commercial stuff”. He worked in sport advertising, made music videos for popular singers and bands, a lot of people hired him to light women so he was shooting artists alike Sheryl Crow, Bjork, Jet… And he used to earn, he says, “six figures”. But he doesn’t care much for money. He’s got this “huge weird driving thing” to look for feelings, for special things, for story in everything, for geometry, composition, and for lighting in everything,
“I don’t know where it comes from, this philosophy” or things that create feelings
Even in his work as a director he considers himself much more of a visual storyteller. There is a lot of story in lighting and for Larry it is the most important part of story telling because it creates feelings. He believes that it is all about feelings and about making people feel something instead of telling them something. The most important part in his work is to find what makes him feel something, while his work doesn’t intend to induce necessarily the same feeling in the observer. It is subjective and Larry wants us to interpret it. The same visual, he asserts, can make people feel different things.
Larry considers each job like a puzzle, bring all elements together and try to make best possible things. He gravitates to most simple things. He reminds that the most famous painting in the world, Mona Lisa, is simple.
And he improvises when he is filming. He likes to have a good comprehension about the story, take all things into account and then improvise.
Cooperation with other artists in very important for Larry. He believes that more things he has to do himself takes away from what he likes to do and dose best. He likes people to have opinions, likes to hear suggestions and doesn’t believe in “no” things but in creating solutions.
“Do you love art or do you just own it”
Larry is frustrated by how the art is being objectified and commercialized nowadays. Beauty for beauty’s sake doesn’t exist any more. People are driven mostly by greed. Beauty is being poisoned in the world because we are so focused on money.
Larry said one thing that probably resonated in all of us. That, he added, is hard to explain to anyone who is not an artist. He said: I am gonna do this thing no matter what – whether I drive a Porsche or live on someone’s couch.
Well, having a luxury to do it is a privilege that we rarely appreciate while we are endowed with it and then some of us happen to lose it along the way. Yes, we can be really driven to do it, but the gratification that we get from realizing our passion doesn’t pay the rent or put food on our children’s plate.
It is a huge moral dilemma, dilemma that is poisoning life of too many artists and inhibits their potentials. And really, you either agree to get corrupted or you live like a begger – it is the truth for many.
But Larry likes to help people and he gets more creative with a low budget. Sounds familiar? Yea, I thought it would.
Now, Larry too recently decided that he won’t work for free any more. (By the way, isn’t it strange how quickly artists who are willing to work for free become popular among those who cannot or do not want to pay?)
I doubt that I was the only one in the room who could strongly relate to this aspect of Larry’s story. But I couldn’t help laughing with myself remembering how many times I made such resolution and then broke it thinking: “It’s better to do it for no money then not to do it for no money”. A “huge weird driving thing”, I suppose… Hope it works for him. Go Larry!
“Nobody walks in LA”
Anyhow, since he came to Finland Larry has not earned much, but he developed as a director. He started directing because “the local guys wouldn’t hire him to shoot” and he managed to produce some remarkable works few of which we got to watch. He is obsessed with music videos (and it shows in his work) among other reasons because freedom in making music videos artistically is limitless. And really, in contrast to neat and perfect industrial style visuals that we saw in commercials from US, his own artistic works speak entirely different language. Few music videos that we got to see showed us what someone with the skill and inventiveness can achieve with natural daylight and very scarce (or even without) additional lighting.
Also, since he came to Finland, he is walking the streets, which makes him notice things that he didn’t use to before. Things like color of the sky or the way the light comes trough the tram into someone’s eye. He is looking at life and how do “I” interact with life. He is practicing the eye – no earphones when he’s out, just looking for things around that are beautiful.
We got to take a peek into one other extremely interesting project that Larry is preoccupied with for some time already. He calls it “little worlds that live behind windows”. Namely, he is looking for the reflections in windows and the compositions that they create with what is behind the glass and then tries to get the right angle to catch it. Fascinating stuff, no doubt.
“What you can do with lights is endless” or “Try to do it yourself – I dare you!”
Larry is not afraid of revealing his secrets and tricks to others. “Nobody can claim that he invented something totally original. It is about knowing all this and inventing where to use it.”
And indeed, we got plenty of tips on lens choices, positions of the lights related to the object and positioning the object in a space to best utilize the light, he spoke about types of cameras, diffusion filters and coloring, ‘out of focus’, noise vs. grain… We also learned what authors and films are his favorite with the regard to lighting like Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick to name just a few.
For Larry it is all in camera, he doesn’t put much on post production and special effects. Once it’s in a cyber space you cannot catch 3D space. You can’t create the same distance there as if the light is very far away. The magic, he claims, happens before the box with the hole in it…
Are some, after all, more special then the others?
What makes Lawrence Dolkart so special? Is it the fact that he practices his passion daily? Is it a beauty that he looks for in everyone, or the feeling that he is so determined to find in every given situation? Or is it the fact that he replaced a comfortable life in LA with the life of a struggling artist in Finland?
He surely demonstrated how much it matters that one has a true passion for what they are doing. He really shared an incredible insight that he gained from decades of learning, practicing senses to improve perception and inventing. And he, in fact, gave us a lecture for free (so much for funny resolutions).
“Discussion continues in the bar” or – next time perhaps
In the end we all wanted to hear more. And see more of Larry’s works. But the time was up and he decided not to join the discussion in the bar. He was tired and hungry and his wife waited for him at home.
Why did Larry give up 4 figures a day to move to Helsinki? Was it for the new chapter in a quest for the feeling and a beauty in the world, looking for the colors of the Northern sky and worlds behind windows? Or an escape from something there that lost its charm and attractiveness? Or is it just… love? Larry readily gave answers to all other questions but this one he wasn’t willing to illuminate, leaving therefore one window closed and a sense of intrigue to what’s behind it.
Nonetheless, if you see a guy with tattoos, standing in a street for hours and making photos of the windows, it is probably Lawrence Dolkart.
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