Cinematographer Christian Haberkern's
Latest Short Premieres at Tribeca
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
We recently interviewed the creative team behind this year's branding campaign for the Tribeca Film Festival. Now we're catching up with a WNW Member whose latest project is an official selection in the festival. Meet Christian Haberkern, the cinematographer of short film I Heart NY. The film explores the life of Milton Glaser, the creator of the iconic I Heart NY symbol, and his struggle to find love for the city during a trying time. In our interview below, we talk to Christian about finding a creative home in New York himself, how his experiences in Design, Motion Graphics, and Visual Effects on films like Captain America prepared him for a career in Cinematography, and what he's proudest of both personally and professionally with I Heart NY.
The film is screening this Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Buy tickets here.
Tell us a bit about your creative background. Who is Christian and how did he get here?
There’s a chart floating around the internet somewhere that illustrates the path to success and it’s not linear. In fact, it’s a scribbled line that ends with an upward trajectory. I often reference that image as I work toward my creative goals to remind myself that it’s okay to take risks. When I graduated from SCAD in 2008 I had one goal in mind and that was to work with Kyle Cooper at Prologue films in LA. I must have emailed them a million times with no response. So I decided to tailor my portfolio based around their body of work. I only worked on projects that leaned toward their style. Fast forward a couple years and I was sitting in front of Kyle Cooper being offered a job. But by the time I reached that goal, I had developed new goals, so I turned the job down to pursue cinematography. As a creative, I always have a goal in mind and staying focused on achieving it is what drives me forward. That’s the core of how I got to where I am today.
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all your projects?
Every new project I work on feels so different from the last one, so each project requires a new creative approach. The more cinematography work I do, though, the more I love capturing the human spirit. I want to incorporate more personal stories into my work and capture the raw emotions that come with being human. When I approach a project I imagine the Terrence Malick film Tree Of Life or Ron Fricke’s Baraka. They have this transcendent feeling of capturing the beauty and tragedy of time passing, humanity and just watching life happen. I’m very moved by that and want that to come out more in my work.
What do you see as the turning point in your creative development and career?
The turning point in my career was when I moved to New York City from Georgia in 2012. In Georgia I was working in an office where there was a very low bar for creatives and I lost motivation for being a designer. I left Georgia and moved to Boston where I attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I thought I should become a pastor instead of a designer. But each day after class I would come back to my computer, open up Photoshop and start designing things. It is definitely in my blood to be an artist. After a semester at seminary I decided to move to NYC and pursue my dream of working with all the studios that I had learned about in Art School. It was all a giant risk for me to leave my job in Georgia and then leave my school in Boston, but the risk was worth it. NYC become a bootcamp for me as a young artist with loads of passion and large goals. I worked alongside insanely talented people who pushed me to get better and I asked tons of questions. I was very stressed out my first year in NYC because there was a lot of pressure to be better. Through failures on certain projects I learned how to be better on the next. Each project I worked on taught me something new about my creative calling and helped me narrow down my creative focus on who I wanted to become.
Now let's fast forward. First, congratulations on I Heart NY, which will be screening at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival. What’s this short film about and how did you come to serve as its cinematographer?
Thank you! The documentary examines the life of Milton Glaser, the creator of the iconic I Heart NY symbol, and his struggle to find love for the city during a trying time.
I used to work with Dress Code as a motion designer when I first started getting into cinematography. While I was sitting at a workstation making something animate, Andre Andreev, the director of I Heart NY, would walk in the door from some awesome shoot and I would see him tuning up his RED Epic camera and looking through the footage he just shot. I would ask him tons of questions about the camera and his films. Those moments were very inspiring to me and helped push me forward to one day shoot with Dress Code. A few years later I had built a cinematography portfolio that was focused around the streets of NYC. Andre approached me about I Heart NY and thought I’d be a great fit to capture the essence of the city. I was very thrilled about the opportunity to film something based around the famous I Heart NY logo and in the process collaborate with good friends.
Can you share some of the creative challenges and breakthroughs that came with the undertaking?
At first I was a bit nervous about approaching strangers on the streets of NYC and asking if I could film them. I consider myself to be more quiet and introverted and the amount of interaction I had to have with people on the street was a lot. It was part of the job description though, it’s what Andre expected of me as I went around the boroughs to film, so it had to be done. I was delighted by the end of the shoot to realize that I had effortlessly talked to so many people and absolutely no one was rude or angry at me for filming them. These total strangers had a very collaborative attitude and loved being a part of the film. I think that’s special and their spirit of generosity and goodwill shows through in the film. I was able to overcome some social anxiety in order to capture the humanity of the city and it led me to become a more socially confident person.
What about this film are you proudest of?
I am really proud to have collaborated with the insanely talented Andre Andreev and his studio Dress Code. Like I said above I used to work with Dress Code as a motion designer aspiring to also do cinematography. It was a great honor for me to be asked to film this project. I’m also very proud that I could capture NYC, a city I really love, and I feel very honored that I could incorporate my cinematography work with Milton Glazer’s experience growing up in and creating such an iconic logo for the city.
What are some creative lessons you learned on this project?
Having a good attitude, working alongside a great team of collaborators, and being patient and well-organized are the keys to success for any project. We had a small production crew of about five people working together for four days and started early in the morning until late into the night. Even with lack of sleep everyone had such an amazing attitude which made the project so much more fun and inspiring to work on. I’ve been on other shoots where someone has a terrible, non-collaborative attitude and it can be very distracting. Also, shooting street cinematography is challenging because you never know what you're going to get. I had to be very patient and wait for the action to happen. I would usually point the camera at something I thought would be interesting, hit record, and then just watch the timecode on the camera let minutes go by. Eventually something interesting would happen, but you have to wait for it.
Who are your biggest creative influences? Which cinematographers and films do you think reveal the most about the art of cinematography?
There are so many, where do I start? Neo-Noir films like 1982’s Blade Runner and 1967’s Le Samouraï are great for watching the color, composition and deliberate story-telling done with camera placement and movement. I’m a huge Spielberg fan and get chills when I notice how he packs a bigger story within each shot. I also love the new Blade Runner shot by Roger Deakins. I actually went through that film frame by frame and put grids over it so I could gain more insight into the composition and lighting. Dikayl Rimmasch is also a huge influence on my style. I spent some time with him when he lived in NYC and he would introduce me to these great films from the 60’s and 70’s and go into so much detail about who the DP was, who their girlfriend was at the time of the film and how that affected their shooting style versus other films they had previously shot with a different girlfriend, or if they were going blind which made the film have less depth of field than the last one they shot--it was great. He would also break down the different camera setups used in the 60s and 70s versus more modern camera setups and how that affects the overall style of the film. I think Dikayl is a genius and you can really see his influences come through in his style as a director.
You’ve also done title sequence design and visual effects work for feature films such as Captain America, RoboCop, Thor, and Transformers. How do your experiences in those spaces inform your cinematography? Or are they completely different processes?
Actually working on those films is what inspired me to become a cinematographer. The first one I worked on was Captain America and I noticed how good the footage looked, so I looked up what type of camera it was shot on and learned that they used a range of cameras from a $400 GoPro to a $60k camera. I started to realize that filmmaking was an attainable goal but I needed to start somewhere if I was going to work on larger scale projects. Since I was doing visual effects on Captain America and Robocop at the time, I wanted to make a short film that used visual effects as well as my own cinematography. I went out and bought a Canon 7D and over a weekend made my very first film, which received a Vimeo Staff Pick. The momentum from getting a staff pick pushed me to keep making short films and music videos, which eventually led to bigger projects.
What scares you most about making creativity your career?
I have a fear of being stagnant. I was raised in a place where the arts were not looked upon as a legitimate profession, and actually attended business school before studying art because I was pushed in that direction. I dislike the mentality that being creative is a character trait rather than something you work hard to achieve. I can’t rely on “being creative.” I have to hone my craft, push myself to get better, and surround myself with a positive community that propels its members forward. Thomas Edison said genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Maybe it’s a cheesy quote, but it inspires me. I try to get as many projects behind me as possible so I can apply what I learned on the next project. I’m afraid to take a break, to turn a project down, because I know doing the work will make me better.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
My grandfather had boxes of National Geographic magazines that I would spend hours upon hours looking through, studying the images of far off places, so naturally I wanted to be an explorer. I had no concept of film or photography back then, I just wanted to go on expeditions.
What do you do when Not Working?
I make music as Blood Tigers. I released my first EP in the fall and have a second EP coming out this summer. I get to work with my friends at Youtoocanwoo in Brooklyn, who coincidentally did the sound design on I HEART NY.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard or received that all creatives should hear?
When starting off as a cinematographer, I was fortunate to have Dikayl Rimmasch as my mentor. He taught me more about the art of filmmaking in one year than I could have learned over ten years if I were on my own. My advice is to find a mentor. Ask questions. Ask lots of questions. Never stop asking questions.
Who are some other WNW members whose work you admire and why?
This is tough because there are so many people that I want to mention.
Wesley Ebelhar - I’ve worked with him a few times over the years and every time I see him he has a huge smile on his face. He is one of the most genuine guys I’ve met around NYC. And his work is so killer. He’s a great illustrator and motion designer.
Chris Guyot - I mean read his 3 words on WNW. MEGA, CHILL, VIBES. Haha. This describes Chris perfectly. He’s such a cool dude to work with and he’s also an insanely talented illustrator and motion designer. Every time I’ve worked with Chris he knocks it out of the park.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I just returned from Hawaii where I was filming a documentary with my film collective, Latch & Key Film Co., and recently collaborated with Alan Williams at Imaginary Forces to film elements for a promo for National Geographic’s Genius series on Picasso. I enjoy what I do and the relationships that I make along the way are a huge part for me. I hope to keep collaborating with many more amazing people in 2018 and beyond!