For Canadian cinematographer Colin Akoon, film is one of the most powerful ways to tell a story. Akoon, who’s been contributing his cinematic artistry to the film, television, music and advertising industries for nearly two decades, has amassed a resume that reads like that of someone who has spent their entire life in the field.
A visual powerhouse, Akoon has been the driving force behind the imagery within an array of powerful productions from films including “Forest Fairies,” “The Incident(s) at Paradise Bay,” “Together Alone,” “Rattan,” and “Eve,” documentaries such as “The Flying Stars,” and the series “Walk the Walk,” “Literature Alive,” and “Space Riders: Division Earth,” and more.
Though he has made an indelible mark in the industry internationally as the cinematographer on a plethora of high-profile film and television projects, his skills extend to include any production that involves the moving image. In the last year he was the cinematographer on several music videos for international rap star Booba including videos for the songs “Validee,” “92i Veyron,” and “Comme les autres” which combined have over 30 million views on YouTube. He was also the cinematographer on the ‘making of’ promo video for Canadian Tire’s multi-award winning commercial “Ice Truck,” which took audiences behind the scenes with Ice Culture as they created a completely functional truck out of ice to show off Canadian Tire’s innovative new auto battery, which works in the coldest of climates.
Akoon brings a rare philosophical and intuitive approach to his work.To him, a film is a living animal that has its own destiny; and the cinematographer, director and everyone else involved is there to facilitate and create an open collaborative space where it can organically come to fruition. For many filmmakers, this may seem like a rather foreign approach, especially considering the managerial tasks that come with overseeing entire film departments, but Akoon’s ability to trust in the process is one of the things that not only makes his work so captivating, but has also creates a more enjoyable working environment on set.
To find out more about this seasoned visionary, make sure to check out our interview below!
Where are you from?
CA: I’m from Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, Ontario Canada.
When and how did you become a cinematographer?
CA: I was exposed to the craft of image making at an early age. My sister was a good illustrator, so was my brother in law at the time. They inspired me and I drew as often as I could. Later in high school I got into painting and sculpture and studied fine art. When it came time to apply to college I wasn’t interested in being a starving artist, so I chose my love for movies over my love for fine art. I was accepted into Ryerson’s film program, and went with the idea of becoming a production designer as I thought my skills in painting and sculpture would suit that vocation. But day one they gave us a Bell and Howell 16mm film camera, and I was hooked. I was never really interested in still photography, the romanticism of shooting on motion picture film was too enticing to me. Real movies were shot on film I recall thinking. How ironic that today is now a digital cinema world. I very quickly discovered that the job of a cinematographer is to ‘paint and sculpt’ with light, well that was it. I picked up my first issue of American Cinematography (January 1995 issue, featuring Interview with a Vampire – Philippe Rousselot ASC, AFC) I reread that issue maybe a hundred times. I decided to devote the following four year undergrad to focusing on shooting for other directors in the program.
What does the work of a cinematographer entail? What are your responsibilities?
CA: Movie making is so subjective. The way in which filmmakers work is as varied as there are films. I find that so interesting about what we do. Its never quite the same job from film to film. How I work on a given project is a mystery that slowly unravels and reveals itself throughout the process. Reading the script many times in prep and again during filming, meeting with the director as often as possible, how a cinematographer understands the story and what it means to the director cannot be rushed, it evolves over time and becomes more rooted in one’s self. Good cinema is truth of experience, so it only makes sense that the truer the experience is for the filmmaker, the truer the film produced.
A film is a living animal, it’s so important to allow yourself to adapt to what it wants to be. I am very thankful that my education has given me a firm foundation in the craft of cinematography, at least enough to allow me to focus on the approach of story and not overly concern myself with the technical details. That being said, on every project I do I learn a little more about the craft, about film making, and about myself.
What do you think makes good cinema?
CA: Good cinema for me is when the lights go down and the projector sparks, and for the next couple hours life outside the theatre is forgotten and the only reality is what’s on the screen. Good cinema is truth of experience. When I watched movies as a kid the story that unfolded felt more real to me than my actual life. I experienced fear, sadness, pain, happiness, and empathy for those characters as if I was those characters.
I remember being six years old, watching a horror movie at a neighbor’s house, one I probably shouldn’t have been watching at that age, and when that child vampire flies to the human child’s window and begins scratching his fingernails on the window I still recall the fear that paralyzed me, then when the boy let the young vampire in and he floated closer and closer to the camera, well I couldn’t watch anymore and hid behind a couch blanket. That night I slept in my parents bed. I made them put the radio on to distract me from hearing bumps in the night. I still remember some of the songs I’d heard on the radio that night. Only later I would identify them as ‘The One that you Love” – Air Supply and Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’.
Good cinema gets a hold of every part of you and does let go. Good cinema is not absolute, what is a good film to a child is not necessarily what’s going to be good film to an adult, but that doesn’t make a child’s opinion on what his favorite film any less valid. By that same rational good cinema to one culture would not necessarily be deemed good cinema to another, but truly great cinema has the ability to transcend age, culture, ethnicity, or religion.
Good cinema should always be a human experience. I don’t expect aliens from another planet to understand our cinema, but if they did, they would understand what it is to be human.
What has been your favorite camera to use so far and why?
CA: Making any film is difficult, limitations on time, money, resources. So when it comes to choosing a camera I like it to be as simple to use as possible, while still enabling me to achieve the desired photographic quality for the film.
I usually like cameras that are small, and versatile, so that there are very few limitations to where the director and I choose to place or how to move the camera. Camera placement for me is so pivotal in a film’s visual language. As much as I enjoy lighting, and sculpting the image in shadow, camera placement is the most important aspect of my cinematography. Where you place the camera is literally where you put the audience for that moment in the story. Now that being said, I wouldn’t shy away from the opportunity to film with say an IMAX film camera, which although being very large and heavy, surpasses in quality anything digital is currently capable of. But I would demand the tools and support that would enable us to place and move the camera where ever we wanted. That being said, if IMAX was an option for a production, but the limitations on support equipment were too great, and would limit where I could place it or how I could move it, I would choose another camera system.
When I started in the camera department, there was no digital. There was only film, in fact when I went to film school we shot exclusively on 16mm, so I still consider myself a film guy. Film cameras are simple, their just motors, highly precise motors but motors nonetheless. There was only one factor that dictated the look of your image– what film stock you chose, and of course your choice of lens. Choice of lens is still an important factor in digital cinematography, but what dictates the quality of your image behind the lens is a million electronic factors. This is not simple. But digital cameras have become the new standard in cinema. With Kodak slowing down motion picture film production and labs closing, all cinematographers must adopt digital.
I use the RED Epic often. Not primarily for its inherent image quality, but more for its form factor and work flow design. It’s small and contained (no tethering to another recording device necessary), yet I can build it to suit on-the-shoulder hand held work. It easily rigs to any movement device, dolly, Steadicam, gyro stabilizers etc. And it shoots RAW, digital cinematography’s answer to a ‘film negative’ like work flow. But what I like the most is the ability to adjust the quality of the image aggressively for on set viewing with no destruction of the RAW recording. When shooting film, no one on set has any idea what the image will look like but the cinematographer. The cinematographer had a lot of control in making sure the lab and daily colorist followed their instruction to achieve the desired look. But with digital, everyone from the producer to hair and makeup can see what the image actually looks like on set, its so important that the quality of the image they see is what you intended. When I shot a lot of film I was a big fan of manipulating the processing of the negative and instructing how it would be printed. Over exposure to print down. Under exposure with the intention to print up. Pushing to create contrast, pulling to lower contrast, special processes like bleach bypass. I like with a camera like the RED that I can apply similar looks to the image that live only as digital instruction in the metadata of the digital files, while not affecting the RAW recording.
But the RED is not a perfect camera by any means. Neither color science nor light sensitivity have improved enough for my liking through the camera’s design generations, Dragon, Weapon etc. I very much enjoy using the Alexa, particularly if set up to shoot ARRI RAW, a raw format like the RED but with even better color science, but the size of the camera has presented some limitations in use on lower budget productions. I am very excited about the new addition, the Alexa Mini, as are many young cinematographers. I do believe with future versions of the Alexa Mini it might end up being my favorite camera.
Can you tell me a little bit about the projects you’ve done?
CA: Director Lorne Hiltser and I both loved the script for the film “Incident(s) At Paradise Bay” written by Nat Crocker, an AFI colleague of ours. It’s loosely based on the controversy surrounding disciplinary academy’s like Tranquility Bay in Jamaica, and the ethics of their practices. Lorne and I were fascinated with the poetic style by which the script was written. There was an eerie dreamlike quality to the script that we wanted to explore visually.
“Together Alone,” was a feature film about two young men and one young woman as they struggle through friendship, sexual relations, and self identity. It was directed by Mateo Guez who I’d worked with several years previously on a music video entitled “Smokin’ Lounge” for acclaimed jazz performer Molly Johnson. Although the film was written by Joseph Rafla and Nancy Smith whose script was heavily inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets, Mateo desired to make a film that did not strictly adhere to any one script or blueprint, but rather would evolve through improvisation and experimentation, as a result the film making was a very intimately creative experience.
“Space Riders: Division Earth” is a comedy series created by Daniel Beirne, Mark Little and director Jordan Canning. The series is a take off of the popular “Power Rangers” series where talented youths are chosen to adone special powered space suits in order to battle intergalactic crime, except on our series two dumb founded man-children are mistakenly chosen as the new heroes that will defend earth from numerous space villains. “Space Riders: Division Earth” was an absolute joy to work on. A very well written and performed series. Our talented cast would often go off script and resort to their amazing comedic improve skills, and kept the crew always laughing.
When Brent Martin the founder of Canova Media asked me to shoot a commercial for Canadian Tire I was very excited. Canadian Tire was known for having some of the best commercial campaigns in Canada. Most notably for ‘The Bike Story’ a beautifully made and shot 1990s commercial about a young boy living on a rural farm in the Prairies and the bicycle he dreams of owning but wouldn’t dream of asking his hard working father for. So when I found out that we were actually commissioned to film the making of video I was a little disappointed at first. I wanted to film the dramatic story, not the behind the scenes.
Then I met with both Martin and director Nadia Tan. Canadian Tire was doing something very special for the campaign to introduce their new car battery that works under extremely cold conditions. They were having a truck built out of ice, one that would actually start and drive. My excitement was renewed. Martin and Tan wanted to tell the story of this challenging endeavor, and of the hard working Canadians that would put their heart and soul into this challenge. Filming was set in Hensall, Ontario where Ice Culture, the company that was building the truck, is located. Ice Culture is world renowned for their ice sculptures– they’ve built entire ice lounges in Dubai, Thailand and Spain, and a life sized replica of a Mini Cooper. But to make a truck made of ice that would actually run was a first. Although this making of video was still to be a commercial for a car battery, it was important to Martin and Tan that we tell the story of Ice Culture, a small family owned business, and also get a sense of the small town where they’re situated. Hensall can be a bleak town in the middle of a cold Canadian winter but there is also a warmth to it. A place where everyone knows each other, where families run the farms not industry. We really wanted to get across the idea that this incredible record breaking feet was accomplished by hard working everyday Canadians. But we wouldn’t have a lot of time in the video to articulate all of this. In the end the commercial doc is merely two and a half minutes, so we knew that every frame would count. Although we were filming amongst the bleakness of winter Tan wanted the frames to have an artfulness and inviting nature to them. The colors under the consistently overcast days were also very subdued and desaturated but I was able through a combination of camera setting and color grading in post to bring out the pastel tones in the palette.
We accomplished this with very particular framing when photographing the town of Hensall and the exteriors of Ice Culture. Over a few days, in often blistering cold conditions we followed the Ice Culture team as they tested Ice blocks on the trucks chassis while static and driving, and filming the making and assembly of the truck. The resulting video really shows the detail of the hard work that went into the making of this ice truck. Not only did this truck actually run but the detail that went into its design, from the hand coloring of the Canadian Tire logo, to the hand carved license plate and rear view mirror complete with hanging pine tree air freshener, all made of ice. The Ice Truck campaign went on to be nominated and win more than a dozen awards including being shortlisted for the Cannes Lion, the holy grail of commercial awards, and I believe our making of doc, was a big contributor to the overall success of the campaign.
<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/35_YJNHFkWA” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
The music video for “Validee” by international rap star Booba featuring Benash was the first of several music videos I would shoot for Booba. Chris Macari, the director, wanted the feel of this video to be very cinematic, a mini movie in itself. The video depicted Booba and Benash as high level operatives within a Columbian drug cartel, while the story focused on the betrayal that Booba must navigate when an undercover cop develops an intimate relationship with Benash’s girl during his investigation into the cartel’s operations. We travelled to Medellin, Columbia, the home of Pablo Escobar, in search of authentic locations as backdrop to our story. For the video’s lengthily opening sequence we shot exclusively in Barrio Pablo Escobar, where the narc built over 500 homes for thousands of impoverished Medellin locals living in slums.
What makes you pick one project over another?
CA: Most often it’s the director. No matter how much I develop and evolve as a cinematographer, my work on a particular project is very much dictated by the talented director involved. A good director makes a cinematographer better. The work of a filmmaker is so much about process, the way they like to work. The way they have to work. Each director’s process is very unique. It’s what gives their films their signature.
A cinematographer must learn how they fit in to that director’s process. That process of adaptation and over time, synergy, makes us better cinematographers. As a result the cinematographer is only as good as the directors they are working with.
I also like films that at the core of them is a moral question or debate. My favorite Canadian director is Denis Villeneuve. He’s obviously done very well in the last few years, with films like “Prisoners” and “Sicario”. But what I love about his films is his protagonists always face a difficult moral choice, and ultimately ask us as film goers, ‘what choice would you make’.
What has been your favorite project or projects so far and why?
CA: “The Incident(s) at Paradise Bay.” The director Lorne Hiltser is a good friend of mine, I believe the best films and shooting experiences are with directors that you are good friends with. On a given project you have to feel like you can call up the director late at night and say, “Hey dude, I got a problem with this scene we’re shooting tomorrow…” If I have to go through their agent and wait for a response, we are not going to be able to connect in the way we need to. This was also the first film I shot where there was absolutely no budget for lights, which ended up being quite liberating.
Of course Lorne and I were able to design the film specifically around that limitation, choosing specific times of day for exterior scenes, and choosing interior day locations that had the right natural light quality, and also scheduling to shoot at the right time of day for those as well.
I enjoy lighting very much. I enjoy sculpting and painting the image with light and shadow, and I enjoy spending time on the lighting process. But what I found liberating on this project was getting to focus solely on the composition of each shot, sculpting the image using only camera tools, filters, depth of field, and lens choices. Interacting with the scene and the actors on a very instinctual level, with Lorne giving me the freedom to make those instinctual choices in the moment while the camera is rolling.
On this film I discovered the importance of relying on instinct even if it contradicts the original plan. A film is a living animal, listen to it. It will tell you what it really wants when you least expect it.
What has been your most challenging project and why?
CA: “The Body Tree” was a very difficult production. We lost quite a few key locations, both during pre-production and throughout production. The schedule was very tight and more than half of our script was night exteriors. On top of that we had a cast of almost a dozen actors, that’s a lot of coverage to accomplish in a short number of days. Despite all the challenges I believe we made an engaging character driven thriller full of great performances by a fantastic cast of actors.
What separates your overall visual style from other cinematographers?
CA: I’m not sure if I have an overall visual style, which at times concerns me. A cinematographer is arguably more marketable if they have a specific style, ‘we have to get the guy that does that look’. But I feel that each project I shoot requires its unique look and style, a combination of what look is initially desired or discussed with the director, the specific circumstances and limitations of the production, and the nature of the locations chosen.
If I do have a style I feel its important to not be aware of it. Each film deserves a unique visual approach, and I would hate to force a style I might have on every film I work on.
What would you say your strongest qualities are as a cinematographer?
CA: I’m very good at problem solving and thinking on my feet. Very often things don’t go as planned and I excel at improvising. Quite often when a preconceived idea for a setup didn’t go as planned, the new idea I came up with ended up being better than the original idea.
I am quite competent with technology, but I that don’t like to dwell on it. It’s a necessary skill for many aspects of the job, but for the most part you have a good crew and knowledgeable partners that fill in what ever gaps in knowledge a cinematographer may have. Its not the most important aspect of cinematography.
I tend to feed off of ‘in the moment’ emotional stimuli. Listening to music being the best example, also taking in a great performance by an actor is another. I’d heard some where that David Lynch at times gave his camera operators music to listen to while operating certain shots. I could see myself performing my best in that way.
I am a good camera operator. I enjoy operating for other cinematographers, namely my wife Kristin Fieldhouse who is a fantastic cinematographer herself.
The quality I hope to nurture the most is the ability to connect with a director’s needs more efficiently. I believe that nurturing the relationship with the director is where a cinematographer should spend most of their time.
I liken a director’s job to weaving a complex and detailed quilt. Its important as a cinematographer to be aware of where you best fit into that fabric.
What projects do you have coming up?
CA: “The Body Tree” is a thriller about a group of American youths that are invited to an isolated estate in Siberia to honor the death of their murdered friend, but soon discover the murderer might be among them. Not entirely a new concept for a thriller, but the film’s director Thomas Dunn put together a very talented cast of actors, and directed their performances superbly. The resulting film is a great character piece that transcends the cliché of the ‘cabin in the woods’ horror genre.
What are your plans for the future?
CA: My current focus is meeting and getting to work with as many young directors as I can. Many of my cinematography heroes did their best work within their most prolific director partnerships, Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola, Sven Nykvist and Ingmar Bergman, Vadim Yusov and Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s the great partnerships that make great cinematographers.
What do you hope to achieve in your career?
CA: Mostly I want to have photographed a body of work that I can be proud of. At the moment I am looking for film projects that interest me, interesting stories, interesting visual opportunities, but I can imagine a day when a film’s meaningfulness is more the priority, philosophically, socially or politically. I don’t yet have children but feel it would be important to leave a film legacy that says this is what I cared about in this life.
Why are you passionate about working as a cinematographer and why is it your chosen profession?
CA: I love creating new worlds and evoking different emotions with imagery. It’s what I most loved doing as a kid, through illustrations, painting, and sculpture. But what bigger canvas than film to create images in, and what bigger impact on an audience than creating images for a story, an emotional journey.
I love the energy you receive working with other people. You feed off of the other’s creative energies. I love that our creativity is about building upon other’s creations, a well written script, a director’s preliminary storyboards, a production designer’s beautifully designed set. I think I would hate to be a writer, there’s nothing more daunting than beginning with a black page.