Insight from a cinematographer: Push the boundaries of the medium

These days, it’s rare for budding engineers to be talked out of their career aspirations. But it was an engineering professor who first encouraged award-winning cinematographer Steven Fierberg (most recently of Showtime’s The Affair) to pursue his creative ambitions and chart a course for Hollywood rather than Silicon Valley.

When Fierberg showed up as a freshman at Stanford University, he brought with him the seemingly crazy dream of becoming a filmmaker. He had worked on 8mm films in high school, but without role models in the arts, his talent for math and science led him to consider a “safer” choice like engineering. But his advisor—the head of the engineering department—had other ideas.

A young Fierberg in New York.
A young Fierberg in New York.

As he explains, Fierberg was initially hesitant to commit to a creative field: “Coming from Detroit, I thought, ‘Maybe I should be an engineer.’ But the professor points to these three guys down the hall who looked exactly how you’d expect engineers to look, with their pocket protectors, and he said, ‘Those guys are engineers. You’re too interesting. You’ll never be an engineer.’”

The prescient remark taught Fierberg a lesson that has governed his career ever since: “Those guys loved engineering. That’s all they wanted to do. And even if I had more ability, they’re going to be better than me, because they love it. What I was doing in my free time was watching movies and reading about film… My life is an example of doing what you want to do, not what you can do.”

 My life is an example of doing what you want to do, not what you can do. 

Since then, Fierberg’s passion has taken him from janitor (his first industry job involved cleaning studio toilets) to cinematographer of the hit HBO series Entourage. He turned his lens on the underbelly of the punk scene of 1980s New York and provided additional photography to the shimmering spectacle of Moulin Rouge! Fierberg has also collaborated with musicians, making videos with artists such as Dr. Dre and Tim McGraw, and even winning a Grammy for a video with Robi Draco Rosa. Between projects, he teaches classes at the American Film Institute and the University of Southern California.

Fierberg on set.
Fierberg on set. (Drew Levin)

His wide-ranging projects have taught him the value of creative flexibility. As he points out, “I like to show up with a vision, then encourage the contributions of others who may come up with a better idea… Some of the best shots I’ve done in my life came from being aware of what the actors brought that was not scripted or expected. My being ‘in the moment’ allowed me to see what they were offering and appreciate it, so I could capture it in the best way.”

Despite his successes, Fierberg believes there is more to learn. An eternal student, he draws on inspiration from Renaissance painting, Greek drama, and medieval art. “I’m always trying to grow,” he says. “In my free time I go to drawing and acting classes, or even read Buddhist philosophy in an attempt to have a greater perspective of the world. What’s inspiring to me is seeing something amazing—a painting in an art museum, or someone else’s film. You need to feed yourself.”

drew-levin-21
Fierberg on set. (Drew Levin)

It’s that fizzy alchemy of inspiring raw material, inspired colleagues, and a willingness to leap that has propelled him to the top of his field. And while it would be easy to be complacent, Fierberg is immune to boredom. “If you’re only giving the audience what they know, then why should they waste their time even watching those movies? The best stuff is the riskiest stuff. In order for it to be really great, you have to step out on a limb.”

Fierberg’s risk is built on the back of mastery, a long history of working towards perfecting his craft. As he points out, “I think I have to feel like I’m a master of the technology in order to achieve some crazy, wild, creative thing. You have to know enough to figure out how to push the limits of what the medium can do. Every single time I did that… that was the best shot in the movie. When you really pushed yourself so far that you were terrified that you were making a mistake–that often turns out to be the most interesting and best work.”

This article was produced on behalf of Hennessy by Quartz creative services and not by the Quartz editorial staff.

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