I’m a firm believer in personal development throughout one’s life. Don’t let yourself get stagnant. Challenge yourself to take on projects that stretch your abilities.
—Michael Slovis, Cinematographer and Television Director
Michael Slovis is an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer and television director. He began his career as director of photography for independent films in New York. In 1995, he photographed the Sundance Film Festival film hit Party Girl, followed by other independent films, direct-to-DVD movies and pilots. He returned from Europe after 9/11 to stay closer to home and family, transitioning to television with the series Ed on NBC. In 2007, he completed two-and-a-half years as director of photography on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, for which he won the 2006 Emmy Award for outstanding cinematography and was nominated again in 2007. Michael has photographed the pilot for ABC’s Castle, Fringe on Fox, Royal Pains for USA Network, Rubicon for AMC, and Running Wilde for Fox. He moved to AMC in 2008, to shoot five seasons of Breaking Bad, which earned him five Emmy nominations. In 2014, Michael directed two episodes of the 2015 season of Game of Thrones (GOT). Air date: May 12, 2015 on HBO –9PM.
Slovis began taking pictures as a teenager, leading to a single photograph that helped earn him admission to RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences. After graduating from RIT, he later studied cinematography at New York University, and began working as a gaffer on motion pictures, commercials and in television. In 2010, he became a member of the American Society of Cinematographers.
BFA in Photographic Illustration from College of Imaging Arts & Science (1976)
- What led you to choose RIT?
I was lucky enough to be selected by RIT. I remember being somewhat surprised because I wasn’t exactly a model candidate for higher education. I didn’t “test” well in high school, and I had developed a somewhat reclusive reputation at school due to spending most of my time at home in a makeshift darkroom. I was totally preoccupied with photography. In my junior year of high school, I entered a photo in the New Jersey State Teen Arts festival. I was picked as a finalist, which resulted in a letter arriving from RIT that explained the virtues of the school, and invited me to attend. As a budding photographer, this was a dream come true: RIT was already top of my list of colleges to apply for, and I hadn’t even begun to apply for any of them! With its proximity to Kodak, RIT was easily among the top three colleges nationally for anyone who wanted to pursue an undergraduate degree in photography. So, without any hesitation, I started in the fall of 1972.
- Tell us about your experience at RIT
RIT instantly made a big impression on me: the first thing we received upon arriving at school was a large box filled with printing paper, film, calculators, books, photographs and all kinds of stuff that made you salivate. It was the greatest gift you could give a kid who wanted to dedicate his life to being an artist and photographer. RIT was a mecca of visual arts, with colleges named after George Eastman, and a wide variety of other visual arts in addition to photography. Geographically, RIT was in the middle of a hotbed of creativity, with Xerox and Zeiss close by. It had the creative vibe of New York Soho — except it was up in the snow belt.
Although I started at RIT fully intending to focus on classic photography, I was quickly persuaded by a prescient professor to instead focus on cinematography. This was perhaps because much of my photography told stories — I was inspired by the classic visual storytelling of the great photographers of the time such as Alfred Eisenstaedt. It was clear that my style really didn’t fit well with what I’d likely be assigned to do in commercial photography. So I took a filmmaking 101 course. Well, truth be told, my first film was absolutely terrible, but the experience of making it lit a torch inside me.
- How did RIT prepare you for your professional career?
The education at RIT was incredibly rigorous. I think one of the greatest benefits of the program was that it grounded us with essentials skills, even though at the time we had no idea we’d ever need some of these esoteric principles of photography. If there’s one thing you’d get out of an RIT degree in photography, it was a deep and comprehensive understanding of the underlying science—for example, optics, chemistry and sensitometry—that converts photons into an artistic visual medium. This knowledge forged my technique and provided the basis for making creative decisions that defined my style in both photography and cinematography. So there’s no question in my mind that RIT laid the foundation on which I’ve built my entire career.
The practical value of these skills became clear to me early on. One of the first films I shot was a small film called Party Girl. We didn’t have the budget to shoot 35mm so I instead opted for Super 16—the low-budget alternative to the 35mm format that was preferred for theatrical release. When I took the film to DuArt labs for processing, I could talk fluently with the technicians about light curves, film sensitivity, and the ideal development approach. The DuArt technician was stunned that I could read the D-logE light curve for the film, and collaborate with him technically to optimize the process for blow-up to 35mm.
These are skills that I use every day in my professional life, and they are now so engrained in my technique I can completely focus on telling the story— in the same way that a pianist or ballerina develops the muscle memory to apply technical skills to render artistic expression. I owe all this mental muscle memory to my rigorous training at RIT.
- What keeps your inner flame burning?
This question fascinates me. Those who know me well, know that I never had a choice in the selection of my career path. Concerned about my financial prospects, my parents pleaded with me to not pursue photography. But I felt I wasn’t suited to any other pursuit because photography had been my passion since I was eight years old. This passion fuels an inner flame that enables me to keep going, even though I’m my harshest critic. I’m not a perfectionist by any means, but I think many artists wrestle with a basic insecurity about whether they’re measuring up — mainly because you’re always judged by your last job.
- Do these technical skills still have relevance in today's digital-centric world?
They certainly do, but let me offer two life events that affected me and that I think illustrate this. After I graduated RIT, while in my early twenties, my grandmother decided to close her dry-cleaning business. I desperately wanted to document this life-changing event on film, but I couldn’t find any way to finance it. It was a huge lost opportunity that still bugs me, because finances got in the way of creativity. The second example is more recent: a friend wanted to make a film about a Philippine caregiver who was looking after his father as he suffered through the final phases of dementia. All he had to shoot it was a regular 8 mm video camera — in today’s terms, that’s like shooting with a hand-cranked camera from the Silent Era. Anyway, that didn’t stop him. That movie was ultimately bought by PBS and broadcast on their network — not on its technical merits but because every frame made you cry.
My point is that today’s young filmmakers have such an advantage because they have easy access to amazing tools. If I’d had an iPhone or indeed any digital camera, I could have shot that documentary about my grandmother. Kids today are growing up with a fantastic movie camera and still camera in their back pocket. So why aren’t more of their digital stories on PBS? It’s all about the art of telling a story: skill of selecting the story you want to tell, and telling it in an emotionally compelling way. Again, RIT had a major influence on developing that skill within me.
- What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
When I speak at events in front of young people, I urge them to get the technical stuff down and become fluent in the science of photography, and to take other courses that will unlock their storytelling potential. Learn what underpins a great story in terms of structure. Read a lot. Expand your knowledge beyond the written word into music, because this can be an important brush in your artist’s toolbox as you paint that story. Take courses in communications and creative writing. Most of all, live a life full of rich experiences to develop a vocabulary that enables you to describe your feelings and express them to others.
I’m a firm believer in personal development throughout one’s life. Don’t let yourself get stagnant, and challenge yourself to take on projects that stretch your abilities. If film is what you love, then you need to become totally literate in this art. Watch all the great movies. Never stop reading. Experience life. But most of all, you need to develop the courage to have a point of view. Yes, technique is essential but you need to be immersed in what it means to be a human being in order to tell great stories. Experience life and tell us what you see!