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Billion Dollar Cinematographer Jonathan Sela Rises as Master Storyteller

Director of photography Jonathan Sela was born in Paris and raised in Israel, but it was during a boyhood visit to his grandfather’s hometown in Poland that his future in filmmaking was foreshadowed. The family was surprised to find a Hollywood film crew working in the tiny village. The production was “Schindler’s List,” and among the filmmakers were Steven Spielberg and his DP, Janusz Kaminski. The film went on to earn seven Academy Awards, with an Oscar for best cinematography among them.

Sela found his way to cinematography over the next two decades, but not because of that brief, chance encounter. His love for storytelling was — and is — the driving force. “I was always fascinated by the experience of seeing films in the theater,” says Sela. “I loved the escape from reality into some kind of alternate reality. I’ve never really had another job besides working on movies. From a very early age, I just knew that this path seemed right to me.”

A taste of life on the set in Israel led to a desire to work on films with bigger scope, and bigger audiences, and to studies at the American Film Institute.

Contacts he made at AFI led to stints as a gaffer, and an internship with the late cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was enlightening. Director Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) was an important backer early on. Today, Sela’s credits include sprawling, state-of-the-art blockbusters like “A Good Day to Die Hard,” “John Wick,” “Transformers: The Last Knight” as well as prestige commercials and music videos with the likes of Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, John Legend and Kanye West.

“Sela is a master and a commander, which is the perfect combination for a cinematographer,” says Kelly McCormick, producer of “Atomic Blonde” and “Deadpool 2,” both of which Sela lensed and David Leitch helmed.

“He’s a master at his craft and a commander of the plan. He and David are a match made in heaven. They see movies the same way. They are planners and they both think about every frame of the film with regard to the characters. What’s great about Sela is he loves challenges. He and David see what some perceive as problems or constraints, whether location-related or budgetary, as opportunities. He’s truly a gift to the craft and to our filmmaking process.”

Even on the most complicated, effects-heavy, high-tech undertakings like “Transformers: The Last Knight,” which was directed by Michael Bay, Sela never loses sight of the story and characters. And despite the undeniably mercenary aspect of making blockbusters, he considers himself an artist.

Sela shot film for most of his projects until recently. His four most recent features have been shot using digital cameras. On “Deadpool 2,” he worked with Vantage Film, the lens manufacturer and rental house, to customize lenses in order to achieve the texture and flavor he envisioned for the project — effects he might previously have created by manipulating the exposure and development of film stock.

“We’re in the business of making the impossible possible. … We can do anything.”
Jonathan Sela

“What I do is technical, but I try to stay nontechnical,” he says. “All of this — cameras, lights — is just a great canvas, paint and brushes. They’re all available to us to tell stories with. There’s never one or the other that is inherently better or worse. But the more you know, the better you can solve problems, and come up with ways to do things. It’s the mix of the unexpected that’s the beauty of creation.

“That’s why we love to do as much as possible in-camera with the real actors, even though it might take longer,” he says. “The more the audience feels the actors, the more they feel like it’s really happening and buy into it.

Geography is also very important. We shoot things in such a way that you can really understand what’s happening. There’s been a shift in movies into such crazy chaos that the audience doesn’t even know what they’re looking at anymore.”

Sela says one key to his approach is to constantly bring decisions back to meaning and emotion: “As a filmmaker, the draw for me is to collaborate and work with the people that want to ask those hard questions. That’s how you create something that’s fresh.”

The DP adds that “we’re in business of making the impossible possible. I’m constantly reminding people that we can do anything. But you have to know the story, and the characters, and the perspective, and you need a team that’s willing.”

Also important: listening to others. “The best work is done with people who challenge you,” says Sela. “By thinking through the limitations, you thrive. Never tell me there’s only one way to do it, or that we can’t do this unless we have that. I feel like that’s when I’m getting comfortable, and as an artist, I never want to get comfortable.”

Jonathan Sela follows Charlize Theron on the set of “Atomic Blonde,”

But Sela is not unrealistic about priorities, whether in life or in filmmaking. “We’re not curing cancer here, but we’re sure trying to put our voice into it,” he says. “That’s the beauty of filmmaking. We take what’s on paper and try to push it to the limit, given the resources. That’s the same if the budget is $1 million or $300 million. It’s always the story. In the Hollywood system, very few directors want to work in the deep way old filmmakers would. They get so caught up in the machine that nobody sits down and really breaks down the essence of the storytelling.”

Ironically though, action pictures have never been Sela’s favorite film genre. “If those sequences come out well, it’s because we’re focusing on motivation and meaning,” he says. “I got into this because I’ve always been in love with ‘The Deer Hunter’ and films like that. But that is not the business we’re in today. I’m fortunate, and I’m grateful, but I’m looking forward to the day when I can make a musical or a fairy tale.”

The DP speaks wistfully about intimacy. “For me, two people sitting at a table talking about love sounds so much more interesting than cars and explosions and a fight sequence,” he says. “You never know where the path will lead — you just try to form great relationships with great people, and then see where it leads.”

But in the end, the process of filmmaking is the best reward of all. “Every day on a film set is a good day,” he says. “I still get the goosebumps. I still get nervous, and I think that’s what keeps you alive and fresh and interested. Once you tell yourself that you know how to do something, you stop growing. So I constantly try to approach everything as if it’s the first time I’m doing it.”

DAVID LEITCH ON JONATHAN SELA

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