Alan Gwizdowski ‘09 on Making it as a Cinematographer

November 22, 2022

Thumbnail of Alan Gwizdowski for the Making it Big in 30 Minutes Podcast

Alan Gwizdowski started out shooting skateboarding videos with his high school buddies before he found himself at Emerson College. It was there that he met some new friends, specifically Dan Perrault ‘09 and Tony Yacenda ‘10, who he’s continued to work with, mostly recently on the Paramount+ series, Players. Alan and Georgette wax poetic about the advice he'd give his younger self, his “holy shit” moment working in television, and lessons he learned the hard way. Recorded on September 19, 2022.

Find more of Alan on IG @alangwiz and http://gwizphoto.com

More of Georgette at https://www.georgettepierre.com/

Transcript: Season 5, Episode 7

Alan Gwizdowski


Georgette Pierre:
What does it mean to make it big? Well, it depends on who you ask. And we did. Welcome to Making it Big in 30 minutes, a podcast for, by, and about the Emerson community. You're about to meet an Emersonian who's making it, making a living, making a difference, and sometimes making it up as they go. I'm your host and alum, Georgette Pierre. If you like what you hear, subscribe and share with your friends and meet me and other Emersonians over on Emerge, the only digital platform exclusive to the Emerson community. Go to emerge.emerson.edu for more.
Alan Gwizdowski is a cinematographer based in LA. He got a start shooting music videos and short films, which eventually eclipse into TV shows, feature films and commercials. Some of those moments can be attributed to Emerson alumni he connected with along the way where he landed TV series and films on Paramount Plus and NBC's Peacock streaming platform just to name a few. The consistent through line with most of my guests: "Our time at Emerson unlocked the doors for opportunities we had only fathomed." Alan and I waxed poetic about advice he'd give his younger self, his holy shit moment working in television and lessons he learned the hard way. I welcome Alan Gwizdowski on making it as a cinematographer.
Hi Alan, thank you for being here with me today.

Alan Gwizdowski:
Hi. Happy to be here.

Georgette:
So what's like the lighthearted or quirkiest way to describe your profession?

Alan:
Well, as a cinematographer, I'm the person that technically achieves what the director wants to do. So finding that partnership with a director of figuring out what the style and look of the movie or film, commercial, music video, whatever it may be, working with them to figure out what the look's going to be and then technically achieving that.

Georgette:
Yeah, I love it. So what surprises you most about the work you're doing now from maybe what you thought you were going to be doing?

Alan:
When I got into it, I was kind of always into flashy commercials and music videos, very visual effects, heavy content. Recently that's been a little more steered towards a naturalistic look doing a lot of documentary style projects, whether it's a real documentary or a fake documentary, but having more of a real life feel to it, which is something that I've really come to love about it, but then I also just like to make cool content. So it doesn't really matter to me specifically what the type of project is as long as it's something that I think is fun and cool in the end is going to have a good response because I think people watch all kinds of different stuff. I got into it from making skateboard videos and watching commercials and then didn't really get into feature films and TV shows much until I was in college and starting to study it because I was always just an active kid and outside not really watching too many movies.

Georgette:
Yeah. Now what are some things or what do people often get misconstrued with being a cinematographer, right? So you are the right hand to the director or to executing director's vision? Sometimes I get the director of photography or DP mixed up with the cinematographer. I mean, do you all live in the same world?

Alan:
I think mainly it comes down to the cinematographer is dealing with the camera and the lighting, he's the head of those two departments and combining those two as one aspect to create the image. I think the biggest thing or biggest question for most people is, are you designing every shot? Are you coming up with all the shot ideas, doing all the lighting yourself? Which for the most part you kind of are, but it also depends on the director that you're working with. I've worked with directors that are super technical, they know a lot about lenses or they know a lot about lighting and they really like to work with you hand in hand to design that element of it. And then I've worked with directors who really just want to direct the talent and are open to 100% of the ideas when it comes to lighting and camera.

So you kind of have to be a chameleon and figure out the preferences of the director that you're working with. Or if it's commercials, then there's also the client ways in heavily on what it is that they want to see. There's usually a creative agency attached that has big creative input.
So you're going to have to be a chameleon and figure out, what kind of style is this project going to be, am I going to be 100% designing the image myself or am I going to be taking a lot of those cues from a director who really wants to, for say, for example, do super long takes and be very deliberate with the camera moves. Or are they just going to say, "Where do you want to put the camera? What do you think is the best way to shoot this scene?"?

Georgette:
I love the way you describe it by saying designing an image because that's something that I've never even heard before or thought about because I've been on the production side of things. And so hearing more about how the things are executed is always so interesting to me. Is there a piece of advice that's been tattooed to your heart coming into this field, coming into this industry?

Alan:
I would say my biggest piece of advice is to create whenever possible, especially if you want to be a creative. Everybody has to start out somewhere. Whether you're starting as a PA or if you're a camera PA or camera loader or just low on the totem pole for whatever position it is you want to do, to step up to be a creative, you have to prove that you can do that work or you can be a creator. So anytime you have an opportunity outside of your work that is just to pay the bills, it might be something that you know might be working on set and stepping your way up each job as you go.
But eventually, you need to make that jump to be the production designer or the cinematographer or the director. And that can be a scary thing when a lot of times you are turning down work to say, "Oh no, I don't do the previous position anymore. I'm not going to be an AC anymore or I'm not going to be a director's assistant." You just want to make that jump to then tell people, "Okay, now I'm a cinematographer, now I'm a production designer, whatever it may be." But in order to get there, you just have to create and you have to be able to show people that you've done it before or at least some form or fashion, and take whatever opportunity that you have to create and try and tailor that to show people that you've done it before.

Georgette:
What piece of advice have you heard or was so told to you even whether it was in Emerson, whether it was when you got your big break? Anything that stood out to you that was shared with you as far as a piece of advice is concerned?

Alan:
Oh, that's a good question. Knowing that I wanted to be a director of photography, on the opposite end of that question, there was a piece of advice that I really didn't like that stuck with me. Being a still photographer and trying to just book as much work as I possibly could doing still photos, I was told that my portfolio was too broad. I needed to pinpoint a style and try to get hired for that style basically. But that always stuck with me as something I didn't really agree with. And knowing that as a director of photography, there's going to be all kinds of projects. It could be a beauty commercial, it could be a comedy movie, it could be a little dicky music video or something like that. It's all different and they all have different styles. So as a cinematographer, you're kind of expected to figure out how to do every style.
And that's one of the things that I really like to do is figure out how do you create this look in the first place, find a reference and figure out what is the lighting behind this or what are the camera choices? And almost every project is completely different. So being given the advice that I need to hone in my style and make it something very specific and be known for that style I thought was the complete opposite of what I was actually trying to do. And that's always stuck in my head as something that I try to move away from.

Georgette:
Oh, I like that you flipped it. I like that you flipped it. So what if you could go back in time to your Emerson self, what would you say?

Alan:
Be patient. Not everybody hits it big right out of college. I know plenty of Emersonian that have hit it big right off the bat or got recognition right off the bat and then the next thing you know the next project and the next project are just getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and it seems like you might not be doing anything different than them, but you just haven't gotten your chance yet.

For me in particular, I had several cinematographer friends who within a few years out of school they were booking big clients and just got noticed for certain projects and I felt like I was kind of falling behind when I just hadn't had that project that hit yet. It didn't get noticed. Or I didn't feel like I was doing anything different or I wasn't any less talented, I just didn't get the recognition right off the bat and it took a lot longer. But as frustrating as that can be in the moment, just know that there's always time to build, there's always time to learn and just keep moving and keep doing the next project eventually. As long as you're doing what you want to do, then that's kind of what I consider making is. I'm doing the position that I wanted to do. Whether or not I've been nominated for an Oscar or done some huge Hollywood project, I'm still doing the position that I want do and just try to make it bigger and better each time and just be patient with it.

 

Georgette:
Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Speaking of the being patient advice to your younger Emerson self, has there ever been a job in your journey that made you question you just even pursuing cinematography?v

Alan:
I've definitely had points where I was shooting something that it just wasn't really the kind of project that I wanted to do and accepted the job basically to pay the bills and to keep going. There's been a few points where it's work like that. But it's not necessarily anything bad, it's just not necessarily the type of project that I want to do and then trying not to get myself pigeonholed into a certain type of production that I don't want to continue with. So kind of along the same lines, I try to remind myself to be patient if I find myself in a lull or a rut, which naturally happens when you're in the freelance world. It's not always consistent work. It's kind of when it rains, it pours. It seems like you're getting a bunch of stuff at once and next thing there's nothing coming along for a few weeks at a time or whatever it is.

I just try to remind myself to be patient with the next project and take it one at a time. Because when you have a project, all you can do is do your best at that project at that time. You can get down on yourself about working on the next big thing not really particularly liking the project that you are working on, but I found that everything that I have done, whether or not it was a project I liked, I've always learned something from it and it's practice. So just get what you can out of each project and make it the best you can. Nobody's going to notice whether or not you liked that project personally. They're not going to see you on set when it comes out and goes on TV or online. So all you can do is your best with each project that comes.

 

Georgette:
That's such a good point about how they're not going to see whether you liked it or not. It's like, "Did you do the work? Did you show up and do what you were supposed to do and did you do it to the best of your ability?" So that...

Alan:
Exactly. And I would add to that that it may not even be the project itself that people see, but it might be the relationship that you end up getting with that director or that producer or somebody that you might work with down the line on a different project that you actually really do like. So everybody kind of find themselves in positions where you're doing a job that's not necessarily your cup of tea but you can always make something of it.

Georgette:
Now with you being... So I saw some other projects that you've worked on. You worked on Paramount Pluses, Players, Honk for Jesus Save Your Soul with Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall. What was your holy shit moment in television or film? Was it those shows, was it something else? Tell us a little bit about how those other things I mentioned came to be as well.

Alan:
That's a good question, my holy shit moment. I would say... Well it was a long time coming for me to book Players. The director and creators of that are Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault who are also Emersonian. I have been working with them since we graduated, basically started shooting small comedy shorts and fake documentaries. So we did a lot of original content for College Humor and Funny or Die. So we'd been shooting together for 12 years and super close. We have a shorthand, we know how each other like to work and we wanted to keep working together.

But then when Tony and Dan sold the concept of American Vandal to Netflix, since I had shot pretty much every project that they had used to sell themselves to book that show, I kind of assumed that I'd be able to go along for the ride and be the DP for that show. And turns out that studios don't quite think that way. So if you have a first time director of a big show, they don't also want the first time DP to be the one shooting it. So that was a big realization for me, kind of an oh shit moment of, "Okay, well I got to prove myself more so than I thought needed to." They were able to get me on the show as a camera operator and eventually I was doing second unit DP work on that show, but I didn't get the big break the same time that they did.

 

So we did two seasons of American Vandal and then they started creating Players and there was another year and a half to two year down period of... They're not on another TV show right now. They were doing some commercials and music videos, like some shorter term projects that I would shoot for them. But then when Players came around, it was also the same kind of boat where I had to go out for the interview. Tony brought me in because he wanted me to shoot it, but I needed to get the studio approval. And I had learned my lesson from the first go around that it's not just going to be handed to me. So I had to come in with a presentation, have ideas, really prove myself to people other than Tony, the studio execs and producers.

 

And so I did the interview for Players. Actually, I think that was a Friday night and then Saturday morning I was flying out to Atlanta to go shoot Honk for Jesus the next day and start production on that. When we wrapped our last day of shooting with Sterling K. Brown, I got a text from Tony like 20 minutes later, he said, "Hey, let's go make a TV show." The approval had come through. I had basically waited two months to hear. At that point I thought I didn't get the job because I hadn't heard anything. But it was a big moment for me to wrap one of the biggest actors I've ever worked with on one production and then a few minutes later I get a text that the TV show was happening and I actually got the job, so that was the big oh shit moment for me.

 

Georgette:
Yeah, that's awesome. I was told that... Were Emersonian on Honk for Jesus as well or it was just Players that had Emersonian behind it?

Alan:
Just players. Players was a very big Emerson crew. Honk for Jesus, I knew one of the producers... I had actually never worked with her before, but her husband is another Emerson DP, so we knew each other. Her name is Kara Durrett and her husband is Lowell Meyer, who's another DP from Emerson. He actually played on the Emerson hockey team with me. When I got out to Atlanta for Honk for Jesus, I didn't know anybody else on set. It was completely cold hires for the rest of crew, just taking recommendations, reaching out and interviewing people. But I had never worked with anybody else on the movie. But then when I got to Players, the creators were Emerson, some of my camera crew and lighting crew were Emerson. You always find that when you're on these bigger projects, whether or not you knew them, there's like another at least a sprinkle of Emerson students on set in some way. For such a small school, it's got a huge presence, which is cool.

Georgette:
It does, especially in TV and film. There's like that running joke. Even though I didn't go there for undergrad, that there are no math classes, anything logical as far as you're studying at Emerson. It's all creative, creative, creative. It almost feels like the School of X-Men. That's how I kind of think about Emerson. And so what's one lesson you learned the hard way?

Alan:
Well, I think when it comes to a mistake that I'm glad I made, I would say that not being prepared for that first big interview. I had done interviews for smaller projects but they were less formal and it was kind of down to the decision of the director whether or not they wanted to work with me. But that same story I was touching on with not getting approved by the studio, I'm glad that happened the first time. It sucked to not get the job, but I needed to learn that lesson that once it's this size of a project and this much money involved with executive producers, studio heads, everybody weighing in on the decision, you really need to come to those interviews ready to bat and have a plan, have a lookbook, some ideas and ready to explain how it is that you think you can achieve this project. So not being fully prepared for that first one and not getting the job was the big eye opener that led me knew I really need to step it up when it comes to interviews and how to book the bigger studio projects.

Georgette:
What insight would you offer people that are looking to... I know you said you started off with skateboarding videos, music videos, and then you transitioned. And so what is it that people need to do to add to their portfolio, one? And those that may feel like they're at that point in their career where they're almost there with a TV show or a film, what could take them over the edge to really just the insight that no one ever tells you that you end up learning by accident or mistake or similar to what you kind of navigated with that first studio interview?

Alan:
When starting out, I'm not the first one to give this advice, but something I think is true is to shoot what you know. Especially just going along lines as a photographer or cinematographer, if you get your hands on a camera, shoot what you know, what's around you, what you're comfortable with. And then also whenever you can, try to step outside of your boundaries and get uncomfortable with it, that's always going to make you grow. But tackling projects that you are familiar with or situations that you're familiar with and figuring out your own voice as to what it is that you like to shoot. You're probably going to end up shooting things that are not particularly your voice or that are somebody else's idea. Especially as a DP, you're not coming up with the concepts most of the time, but figuring out how you can expand upon it. And then always trying to have a few tricks in the bag. Even if it's something that you've done before, you can potentially apply a technique to a different project or expand upon an idea that the creator of that project had to really push the envelope.

And that's what I like to do whenever I pick up a new project. I'm not typically the one that comes to the table with the original idea, but working within the boundaries of whatever it is we have, whether we have a big budget and some money to work with and finally have the budget to play with some new toys that we couldn't afford in the past, or is it going to be something that is slimmed down and we just have to get creative with a super simple camera package or almost no lighting and how can we expand upon this idea within the confines of whatever situation we're put in. So that was kind of a long-winded answer, but I think shooting what you're comfortable with and then finding ways to just make it a little different each time.

 

Georgette:
No, and that was actually a perfect answer. And then what about the piece of like, now they're coming into their own similar to you where they're on the brink of getting their big break?

Alan:
So I would say try not to get frustrated whenever it doesn't go your way, but as much as possible just have as clear of a presentation as possible, have good references and try to come up with some original ideas that might spark creative minds. Like the director who's most likely already has a vision for what they want the project to be, but if you throw out some ideas that can get them excited, then having some new techniques or ways of approaching it that would really imprint your spin on it and let them know that you would be a creative as opposed to just someone coming in to paint by numbers and do the job.

Georgette:
Yeah, I just think sometimes when a lot of us don't get in the rooms, we're just like, "Man, I wish there was information I knew, if I knew somebody that has been in that place before." So I think it's always helpful to hear from people like yourself that's doing the work and has had their own trials and triumphs.

Something that I think about when I started off season 5 and now as season 5 is coming to a close, I found myself just losing momentum, not feeling inspired, not feeling strong. How do you keep the momentum going during those times? You don't feel strong, motivated or inspired?

 

Alan:
I try to remind myself not to let any shots slip because that can not necessarily ruin a project, but for you specifically the creator, you'll be able to notice if you didn't like how something turned out, say it's one specific shot in a music video or something like that. The general public is going to watch that music video and most likely not notice that one specific shot that wasn't up to par or that you felt like you just kind of let it slip because you were too tired or whatever the case may be. But anytime I find myself in that position on set where I'm frustrated or I'm tired or whatever the case may be, I try to remind myself to just focus, just get through this last shot or this scene, do the best you can and don't lose focus and let it fall to a subpar level that you didn't have the aspirations for.

It is hard especially when you're doing the long form projects and it's long hours, long days over an extended period of time and you can find yourself weeks in and you're not even close to the finish, but you're dead tired and it's hard to keep going. Just try to remind yourself that if you can do the best you can, then you're going to be happy in the end. And if you let that slip, by the time you're done with the project and you look back, you're going to wish you kind of stepped it up for that one shot that you let slip. So just trying to remind yourself as you go along. And it can be tough because it definitely is a hard industry with long hours. As much as a lot of crew is trying to push it in the opposite direction and have more civilized hours and break times and stuff like that, it's just kind of the nature of the beast unfortunately with the film industry.

 

Georgette:
Yeah. And it's funny because also took that metaphorically speaking, don't let any shots slip from a standpoint of just don't get to a place and you said it where your best is no longer your best wherever you are, even if it's in your own personal projects or in your day. But I like that. Don't let any shots slip because that one time you were tired, that could play out differently where people are going to be like, "Oh, this person wasn't on top of their game. They're normally on top of their game." And I don't necessarily know if there's always grace offered in our industry because you could hire someone new to replace you for your position.

Alan:
Right.

Georgette:
And those are things I think about as well. Now no matter what you do now, your experience at Emerson has influenced who you are today. Every institution leaves its fingerprint on us, whether we use it, acknowledge it or not. What mark did Emerson leave on you?

Alan:
Once I got to Emerson and I realized that there was so many other people that were passionate about similar things as me, then that's when I felt like I was in the right place. I went to a high school that didn't have a media wing or any type of production classes or really any art classes. And I just didn't feel like I was around people that were trying to do the same thing as me in any way. I had friends and I had fun in high school, but I didn't have a community of people that were trying to do the same passion projects as me or create stuff. And then I got to Emerson and everybody was doing it.

So once I had graduated Emerson and moved out to LA then it was just get together with your friends who were trying to make short films and music videos and whatever passion projects they could think of and just start doing it. So for me it was really finding that community and knowing that whatever that passion might be for any given person. There's some niche market or niche community that is doing what you want to do. And I think the nice thing about the amount of platforms and content that are being created today is you don't need to create something that is for everybody or for the global market. Anything can be successful for a small niche and there's enough people within that niche that it can sustain whatever project it is that you're trying to do.

 

Georgette:
Now what's one thing you like to try next and why haven't you tried it yet?

Alan:
Well, something I've dabbled in, but I haven't really done much of it is more in the virtual cinematography space, which is getting bigger and bigger these days, especially with car commercials and TV shows, like The Mandalorian made the shooting on LED volumes popular and now that tons and tons of productions are doing it. So I've dabbled in that and I've done some shoots on an LED volume, but I haven't done much work inside of Unreal Engine, like designing camera and lighting work in the program, which is basically like creating a video game level but to a standard that looks good enough to be on TV or on film and can interact live with cameras on set.

So getting a little more into technically designing it and working in the program to do camera and lighting. Because if you think about animated movies like Pixar and stuff like that, it's animation, but there still is cinematography. There's shots in camera moves and specific lighting and that all has to be designed. You're just doing it in a program as opposed to real life. So that's something that I can see the momentum of those types of shoots picking up. And I would like to get a little bit more into that and just kind of get my hands dirty with the technical creation of it in the program. But it's also hard to... I also don't like to sit at a computer all day. So that's one reason I like to be on set. So I'd like to learn enough about it that I can utilize it, but I think I'm always going to want to be hands on a camera and on set.

 

Georgette:
Absolutely. I look forward to seeing your name in those spaces as well. And lastly, what does it mean for you to make it, and how will Alan know when he gets there?

Alan:
To make it means to be doing what you want it to be doing and being able to support yourself and live the life that you set out for. I don't think it necessarily means winning awards or being the most notable or top of your game, but as long as you're doing it and you're able to do it and do it as often as you'd like, that's what I consider making it. So I've been able to sustain a career as a cinematographer and just trying to make each project bigger and better. But the fact that I am a cinematographer and I'm shooting projects for a living, I consider that having made it. Can I make it a little bigger? Yeah, probably, but I think I've made it so far.

Georgette:
I love that. Alan, thank you so much.
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