Posted on Tuesday, December 26, 2023
In the world of visual storytelling, few professionals navigate the delicate balance between personal artistic expression and commercial viability as seamlessly as Dale Sood, an esteemed Cinematographer and Director and Associate Member of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers. Beyond his remarkable achievements in the realm of cinematography, Sood's unique approach to photography as a form of personal "art" adds an intriguing layer to his creative narrative.
As we delve into an exclusive interview with Sood, we explore the intricate interplay between his photographic endeavors and his distinguished career in cinematography and directing. Discover how Sood's passion for photography not only shapes his distinctive aesthetic but also serves as a captivating conversation point with potential clients, offering a glimpse into the artistic soul that fuels his cinematic vision.
PH: Can you share a bit of information about your background and work as a Cinematographer/Director?
Dale Sood: I started my career in film rather late in life. Becoming a filmmaker at the age of 35 was my third or fourth career move, depending on what we qualify as a career - being first a working musician, then a climbing guide. The gateway drug for me was lifestyle television, where I found myself as a television host for a show on Home & Garden TV here in Canada. Through a later circuitous journey involving trying my hand and production and directing I discovered that filmmaking was more my speed than lifestyle television. In 2011, frustrated at the hierarchal and kafkaesque system in television production, I bought a camera and just started making things. Within a couple years I had already had a documentary premiere at HotDocs International Film Festival and some international sales.
Like a lot of new filmmakers, I believed that I wanted to be a director, but confronted with the realities of what it means to be a director, the dream of it became far less appealing. I simply started to follow my instincts and interest - which always led me to fawning over the visual language of film. A few chance encounters led me to working as an electric on commercials sets, which then evolved into a career as a gaffer. The whole time I was still shooting on the side and trying to find my artistic identity. After 7 years of gaffing and shooting simultaneously, I decided to stop gaffing entirely and leap into the world of being a full time cinematographer.
PH: You recently worked on a TaylorMade golf gig. Can you share how you came to work on that and what the experience was like?
Dale Sood: One of the producers from Scratch Media in San Diego reached out to me through ProductionHUB. They work with a lot of major golf brands, and had a component to one of their commercial spots that needed to be shot in Toronto. They chose me simply based on the visual style of my work that’s presented on the site. I was also able to bring value to the production because of my years of gaffing. I have relationships with nearly every rental house in the city, so I was able to work as a remote production manager for the spot - arranging all the rentals, and negotiating the best rates as well as booking some of the best technicians.
The experience was overall fantastic, with the client and the director leaving thrilled about how the shoot went. However, here’s where I infuse some rare honesty. Mistakes happen; sometimes small, sometimes big. A couple weeks after the shoot was over, we all discovered that the last card wasn’t backed up. We had lost an entire final scene. I offered to go back and re-shoot it on my dime, with a small splinter crew - and the pick up shoot integrates perfectly with the previous footage. The take away here is that we never want these things to happen, but how you handle things when things go wrong is far more important than when everything is going right. I never panicked, and I knew I could save the shoot. I also look at unplanned challenges as opportunities to be an even better artist on the next job.
PH: I want to switch gears a bit and talk about your photography. Can you elaborate on the role of photography as your personal "art" and how it influences your style as a cinematographer and director?
Dale Sood: If you look at my social media, you’d likely come to believe that I’m a photographer first, cinematographer second. However, despite dabbling in photography since adolescence I never took it seriously enough to be proficient at it. It wasn’t until early in my filmmaking journey that I because increasingly frustrated by the feedback loop with video. The learning process was just so slow. You would shoot something and then maybe you’d see it in a few months, often much longer. If you shot your own things and edited them yourself, it was still a big event - requiring so much crew, prep, time, and money. I was so eager to expand my visual storytelling abilities that I somehow decided photography could be a way forward. Photography is just so instantaneous and requires so little crew, time, and money in comparison to film or video. I committed to using only continuous lights so it could replicate the experience of shooting motion and over time I found a boundless type of joy in photography, particularly portraits.
As for the role it plays - I’ve made a commitment to not commercialize my photography. Its sole purpose in my life is to play counterpoint to my occupation. When you monetize something, a lot of expectation comes with that. My photography is the most pure expression of my personality, my instincts, my interests, and my aesthetics. It is free of influence but must still operate within the bounds of constraints. There is a great interview of Joni Mitchell in which she is asked how she is able to continue to write great music all the time, and her response was (while speaking of painting) “It’s a natural thing for me to rotate my creative crops when I’m dried up as a poet.” Photography is crop rotation for me, so that I never drain the nutrients from what feeds my art.
Through photography and my photographic influences I’ve built a shorthand that extends into my motion work. One of the best compliments I ever received was being hired to shoot a music video because the director said, “you light people, especially women, better than anyone else I work with - and that’s important to the client" (a group consisting of three women). More than gaffing, photography taught me to light people. There is nothing like staring at a face in photoshop for 5 hours to make you hyper obsess about how light casts on certain faces. I am often asked now to do lighting presentations for major lighting companies as a result of building that particular skill, so clearly photography has actualized the goal I originally set out for it when I started.
Photography courtesy of Dale Sood on Instagram
PH: How do you navigate the balance between maintaining photography as a personal artistic endeavor and using it as a tool to showcase your aesthetic to potential clients?
Dale Sood: It’s a choice on how I use my time. I’m perhaps not financially motivated as the mean average of people. I prefer time to money, and I only want money to buy me more time. I reinvest a lot of what I earn back into my art - both photography and motion projects. I get great joy out of the act of creation, and I have more ideas than I have time.
I originally set out to make my work be a showcase, but now my intent is far different. I’m no longer out to prove my abilities, or my worth. I’m out to create joy - not only for myself but for those who so graciously give their time and talent to play are role in my art. We’re all looking for joy and satisfaction, but so many of us think it resides with “the next thing.” The next job, the next award, the next advancement, only to find we are still chasing it. I’ve made a decision to be grateful for what I have now, and to need nothing more. If I try to make photography an income generator, I risk robbing myself of something that doesn’t ask anything of me except the fullest expression of my interests; and you can’t put a price on that.
PH: In choosing not to commercialize your photography, how has this decision impacted your creative process and the way you approach your work?
Dale Sood: To counterpoint my previous answer - it doesn’t make me any less interested in the commercial side of my work. Quite the opposite. The ability to create art on my own terms is a pressure release valve. Since I have this portion of my life where I’m not having to please a director, a producer, or a client, I can walk back into those professional situations with full attentiveness and the energy to tackle any situation. I can’t imagine a world in which I’m just having to answer to a paying client all the time. It would be emotionally exhausting. When you get to a certain point as a working filmmaker, you’ve got more or less the same skills as any other peer. So, I worry less about being “good enough” for a director or client, and spend more time trying to make my sets a place of positivity, kindness, and gratitude. If you spend all your time chasing money, you start to lose a lot of the energy for the things that actually matter.
PH: Can you share examples of specific instances where your photography has become a conversation point with potential clients and how it has contributed to your professional engagements?
Dale Sood: Beyond the example used above regarding the music video - the conversations around my stills work is more of a soft conversation. It doesn’t directly lead to work, but it establishes my voice as an artist. When I’m in prep or interviewing for a gig, nearly everyone comments on it - and I think it does a good job of communicating my aesthetic. We live in a world now where so many DPs don’t even have reels any more, and few directors or producers desire to watch a 2 or 3 minute demo reel unless it’s for long-form narrative work. My photography saves some people time who want to get the gist of my style without coming through all my videos. It’s allowed my work to be more prolific and allowed for a greater output, which in tandem with my motion work has led me to professional partnerships with Fujifilm, Sony, DMG Lumière, and Nanlux Americas. So to say it’s done nothing for my career would be somewhat misleading.
PH: How do you integrate your photographic work into your professional profile, and what considerations do you take in selecting which pieces to showcase to convey your aesthetic range?
Dale Sood: I don’t give it too great amount of thought. I put everything I’m willing to show on my Instagram page. From there, certain photos will make it on to my web page, and I’ve put an album up on Production Hub of my work that’s been published in magazines. One thing I’ve yet to mention is that I do a lot of my work in the realm of fashion. I mostly partner with other fashion photographers here in Toronto and we’ll do an editorial together; they’ll do the photos and I’ll do the video.
I’ve come to be familiar with the publishing process, and I’ve been fortunate to have some of my personal photography work published in some reputable fashion magazines. It’s very cherry picked, but it looks nice to see some of your work in print. These are the ones that I’ve chosen to place as a gallery on my PH page. My assumption is that producers would be most interested in what I’ve published because clout is a thing, though I personally find it unimportant.
PH: Given that your primary income comes from cinematography and directing, how do you find synergy between your photographic art and your professional pursuits?
Dale Sood: I don’t find any synergy; It’s a controlled madness all of the time. I’ve also yet to mention that as a parent to a 12 year old, I’m also a professional child-to-soccer-practice delivery driver. Among other things, I still try to make time for my physical fitness and outdoor pursuits like climbing and cycling, as well as continuing to be a musician. It’s a full schedule to say the least, but one can’t accuse me of not getting the most out of my life.
Photography courtesy of Dale Sood on Instagram
PH: Has your approach to photography evolved over time, and if so, how has it influenced your cinematographic and directorial style?
Dale Sood: The only way that photography has influenced my directing is in relating to the people in front of the camera. Every actor will tell you that the worst thing a director can say is “do X” or “be X.” Humans don’t respond naturally to that. Whether it’s video or a still, we’re all pretty good at judging real humanity and we can spot discomfort or bad acting. Photography has given me the opportunity to play with how I work with my subjects. We get to play pretend, and play with our imaginations. When people respond to real emotion or real challenge, they act in the most human way possible because there is no time or incentive to over-think.
From a cinematic perspective, It’s shown me that most people are not interested in reality. They’re interested in what a real moment in time felt like. Memory, interpolation, nostalgia are far more important than fidelity to a moment. Cinematography is not additive, it’s subtractive. It’s about removing all that is distracting and setting a mood for the audience. In concert with the production designer and the sound designer, we have a responsibility as cinematographers to help the audience into an emotional setting the minute they press play. It’s an entirely fabricated version of reality - but it’s more true to our real feelings and memories than if we did nothing to the space in which we’re filming. Photography has shown me to be no different. Photographers manipulate images to get closer to the real emotions attached to that image, than had they done nothing to the image at all. This doesn’t have to be photoshop either, it could be as simple as the picture profile or contrast curve you choose, or whether you choose to shoot in color or black and white. Big changes can be found in the most subtle of choices.
PH: What advice do you have for artists who are considering a similar approach, separating their personal artistic endeavors from commercialization, while still using it as a tool for professional visibility?
Dale Sood: I’m going to give you a terrible answer here - and likely not directly answer your question, but stay with me here…. I’m weary to give advice to anyone on their professional or creative path. Not to say that my experience doesn’t hold value for others - but trying to copy someone else’s approach only leads one further from their own true path. My choices aren’t without consequence. Despite a comfortable life, I lack the usual boxes one checks with an established career. So, my path is not for the faint of heart or those who have more traditional expectations of a career in film or photography.
That said, I’m still young in my craft despite being on the cusp of 50 years old. I know that much of my career growth lies ahead in the next couple decades. Had I chosen this career path at the time of college, I’m well aware that by this point I would have the house and all the things one would expect to have after a 30 year career.
If there is one piece of advice I am comfortable giving, which was given to me by one of Canada’s most sought after DPs, “As a cinematographer your career is not up to you. The more you force it, and try to hustle your way to success, the more it will drain you and destroy you." So much of financial and social success in the commercial art (any time you make money from any art form), is based on luck. Being at the right place at the right time or knowing the right people. The only way that you can increase your luck is by focusing on that speaks to you, and keep making it. Eventually people will connect with it, and only you can offer what is unique about your art. I also encourage emerging artists who feel inadequate or overlooked to be grateful that you live in a country, and to have grown up with just enough resources to choose a career in the arts. You are among a very small percentage in this world with this great fortune. Any thing you experience on top of that, is a bonus in my opinion.
This is where ProductionHUB has shown to be a benefit. It’s allowed me to increase the distribution of my art, which creates more luck. The more people that see your work, the greater chance someone will connect with it. This is particularly important in my case because I’m a bit of an introvert and have never felt comfortable cold calling directors or working a room at an industry event. It’s just not in my character. So, distribution channels like ProductionHUB become ever the more valuable to me.
Photography courtesy of Dale Sood on Instagram
PH: How do you see the intersection of photography and your professional work evolving in the future, and what role do you envision it playing in your career?
Dale Sood: My most favourite (excuse the occasional Canadian spelling of words) thing about my work is the exploratory nature. It continually evolves as we learn more, or as we have repeated enough of one thing that we’re ready for a change. Photography and filmmaking tell me so much about myself, and learning more about myself every day is the greatest reward. Artists get to continually ask themselves “why did I make that decision?” Or “Why do I find one thing interesting, and another thing not?” We have to look into ourselves and seek out the origin of these instincts. Your art evolves also on its own. It has its own voice, and you are merely the vehicle for it.
I only have one expectation for the future, which is that my work continues to take me in places I could never have predicted or forced. I’m all in for exploration, new challenges, and perspectives. The rest, is not up to me. It would be nice to do be shooting large fashion campaigns in Europe, but I don’t need that to be happy.
PH: Can you share any upcoming projects where your photography and cinematography will converge, offering a unique perspective into your creative process?
Dale Sood: I typically keep the two worlds apart, but I can speak to two scenarios of note.
I’m very interested in how the frame dimensions affect our relationship to art. Why are some things 8x10 and others 2x1, or 16x9 vs 9x16. We all have our own opinions, but we can all agree that the frame dimension affects our perception of the content. I’ve never fought the vertical video that makes some DPs shudder. Everything has value when applied with purpose. What I’ve now started to do is play with photo and video in my Instagram carousel. When I do a photo shoot, I’ll also roll some video. Then I can frame it similarly to the photos and place it within the photo carousel. These aren’t edited videos so much as a video vignette of the photo - but it allows me to present video in a similar way as a photo. It doesn’t have a purpose other than I’m curious about it and need to experiment with it. Perhaps it will affect future motion projects.
I continue to work with fashion photographers on projects. My closest collaborator is Ara Coutts - with whom I’ve had a great deal of success - our last editorial was published in Harper’s Bazaar. This year we embarked on an ambitious new editorial, which we shot in rural Quebec. Over three days we shot a full narrative film in addition to the photos. It’s a fashion film, but if didn’t tell you that, you wouldn’t know. We’re using it as a way to start a conversation about the power of fashion - how it can be presented in two very contrasting ways.
Here is one insight that I can provide, for those who are looking to work with photographers. There are times when you can get the video to match the photos, aesthetically speaking. There are also times when it doesn’t make sense to do so. What works in motion doesn’t always work for stills and vice versa. You can front/flat light models in stills in a way that’s hard for the eye to resolve in motion. Societally speaking, we’ve created a bit of a different language for the cinematic experience. The best way to understand when you can and when you can’t is through experimentation. It’s very situational, but generally in studio campaigns it’s very easy to match. When it comes to lifestyle shoots, it can go either way depending on the content. When you’re trying to do something really artful, they can often diverge considerably. You have to trust your instinct and also be willing to fail. Those who you we may admire or look up to for their success have not succeed more than us, they’ve failed more than us.
PH: Lastly, where can people go to learn more about you / hire you?
Dale Sood: ProductionHUB of course! I try to keep it up to date when I remember to. As mentioned my Instagram page is also a good place to start (@artsandrec) and my website artsandrec.com. For those who are interested, I also make occasional tutorial content on a YouTube channel for a major Canadian Photo/Video retailer, Vistek. It can be found at www.youtube.com/vistekltd, I’m a somewhat reluctant YouTuber, but your readers can get a good sense of my personality.
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