Inside Encounters #1- Profile: Roberto Shaefer ASC, AIC

Roberto Schaefer by Douglas Kirkland

Behind every great director stands a great cinematographer. A man who knows how to capture the light, how to put words into images. Roberto Schaefer is an expert on the subject. From his first experiments in art school to his latest feature film, The Host, he has built an impressive career and worked on major Hollywood projects.

Roberto Schaefer studied arts in college, where he majored in multimedia. At the time, multi-media referred mainly to installations and conceptual works. The student used films and still photography, and began playing with images. Truffaut, Godard, Bergman and Fellini were his first influences.

A few years later he was a freelancer in New York, where he shot news reports. He then decided to produce commercials, but soon realised that he preferred being behind the camera.

He left for Italy, where he stayed for ten years. This was where he would learn to be a cinematographer, working in Rome and Milan, shooting commercials and films. It was the mid-eighties, video was developing, and with it, new tools and visual effects. 16mm and 35mm were still favoured in the entertainment industry… but not for long.

When Schaefer moved back to the USA in 1992, he headed directly for Los Angeles. Music videos proved to be the ideal playground for trying out new techniques with total freedom. Technology was moving fast as we got closer to the 21st century. The cinematographer experimented, getting to work with U2, Pearl Jam, Stevie Wonder, Aaliyah, and many other renowned artists.

1995 was a turning point in his career: he worked on Loungers, an experimental low-budget film by German-Swiss filmmaker Marc Forster.The film was only screened in festivals, but it was the beginning of a long collaboration between the director and the cinematographer. Eight films would follow. Everything put together (2000) told the story of a couple facing the loss of their child. Schaefer got to work with British filmmaker Christopher Guest on the comedy Best in Show, and soon moved on to Forster’s new project Monster’s Ball (2001). The film showed Billy Bob Thornton’s racist prison guard falling in love with African American Halle Berry. Three years later, Finding Neverland was released: the story of J.M Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. This delicate tale, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, gained Roberto Schaefer a BAFTA nomination for best cinematography.

After Stay and Stranger Than Fiction, the winning Forster/Schaefer duo came back in 2007 with The Kite Runner, a film about friendship taking place in Afghanistan. But their masterstroke was still to come. In 2008 they shot Quantum of Solace, the twenty-second James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko and Mathieu Amalric. The project was a big challenge as many fans were waiting for Bond’s new adventures. The preparation took several weeks of watching the earlier films, as well as finding the ideal locations and choosing the right equipment. In the American system, the director of photography has a big responsibility as he decides on the light, but also on the frame and composition, along with the filmmaker. Forster and Schaefer worked hand in hand, trying together to find concrete ways to express the ideas hidden between the lines of the script. In front of their cameras, Bond became ruthless and the fights and chases were more realistic than ever.

Today, the multi-talented cinematographer seems unstoppable. He is a member of the ASC – The American Society of Cinematographers, one of the highest honours in the profession. He works for television (recently the comedy Family Tree), on commercials (one of them directed by Michael Mann!) and continues to appear in film credits next to Edward Norton (Leaves of Grass, 2009), Gerard Butler (Machine Gun Preacher, 2011) and Nicole Kidman and Matthew McConaughey (The Paperboy, 2012).

For thirty years now, Roberto Schaefer has witnessed many changes in cinematography. He has worked on 16mm, 35mm, mini-DV, Red… He has seen the film industry’s transition to digital. Numbers and zeros have replaced chemical prints, which means more comfort but less ‘happy accidents’, those little miracles that give you better results than what you expected.

Don’t miss The Films of Roberto Schaefer ASC, a special moment to talk with our guest about the magic of cinema, past and future.

By Lucile Bourliaud