Who are you?
I’m Markus Ilschner, a German-born cinematographer based in London and Munich.
What is your field of expertise and how did you find what you want to do?
My expertise lays in creating strong (script related) visual content and imagery for different formats, e.g. commercials, features, short films, docs.
I found what I did during my apprenticeship at BAVARIA FILM STUDIOS in Munich, as I wanted to become a director in the first place but I changed my mind during those three years; it culminated in two shorts and a long format movie where I was responsible for the camera work.
What was the turning point in your career?
Well, there wasn’t actually a turning point to say so. As I didn’t get accepted at public film schools, it was my decision to go the old-school way and learning my skills on set whilst going through the ranks of the camera department. Actually, I started on a German TV series as a grip assistant before becoming 2AC (Second Assistant Camera) and so on. The turning point might be the last big project I did as 1AC (First Assistant Camera) back in 2015 when I decided to move forward and become a cinematographer.
Did you have a mentor?
I learned on various sets various things. My longtime DP (Director of Photography) Stefan Spreer taught me quite a lot about light, movement and speed. I worked with various other DP with a different style and approach which helped me to find my own style.
How did you find them?
Movie industry works the same all over the world: you need to know somebody or get recommended by someone. I got introduced to my longtime DP when I was a 2nd AC on a series. He then called me back 5 months later, asking me to become his 1AC on a two-part TV drama abroad: I jumped right on the boat!
What was a key lesson?
I was operating a casting for DP Jürgen Jürges at BAVARIA when we found out that the faces of the talents on the footage we shot were too pale and with a green tint. The reason for that was because the the sun was shining on the green grass outside of the house where we were filming and the reflection got into the room, messing up skin tones: that’s when I started to become aware of what cinematographers are responsible for and what they have to pay attention to.
Who is your favourite cinematographer and why?
That’s not an easy question to answer: it is like asking what’s your favourite song. It depends on the mood you are in or how you experienced it back then.
There are a few. Roger Deakins (SBC, ASC, BSC) is on top of the list. His visual style and camera work just fit the script and augment it in a way that it is not easy to notice for the audience but it looks so beautiful and elegant to my eyes. Roger Deakins’ lighting approach and use of movement is amazing.
How do you prepare to work on a new project?
After reading the script, I always create a mood board to lock down initial thoughts on light and colours. Then, I constantly speak with the director about locations, blocking and shot listing. The worst thing to me is showing up on a project unprepared: always have a plan, even when you don’t need it!
How do you like to work with your camera crew?
It is always a respectful, fun and focused environment. During my days as an assistant, I learnt how to run the camera department: I learnt to focus on my job but also to give up some of the work to the other AC’s.
Is there science behind what you do?
Yes and no. Being a cinematographer is more than just finding a "nice" frame. It’s also about knowing about lenses, how light works and the physics behind it; but it also requires the understanding of art, shapes and colours. Being a cinematographer is a continuous learning process as it is impossible to know EVERYTHING and you can learn so much whilst doing it!
Can you describe the gear you use on big production?
That’s a difficult question to answer as it depends on the story and the requirements.
Let's consider a simple drama: there is mainly one camera operated by the DP. Often it gets shot on ARRI cameras and lenses get picked based on the look and taste envisioned by the DP.
Then there are dolly with tracks, sliders, tripods, Steadicam rigs, cranes in big grip trucks and quite a lot of light gear in a separate truck; lighting kit depends on the style and the story, but also on the location and the budget available.
For complicated sequences, you may find a second and a third camera to capture as diverse as possible footage.
Can you describe the gear in a short film?
Well, that’s not easy to answer as well: it comes down to budget. Most of the money spent for a short film goes on gear, and I always have to fight for every pound to get gear!
But what gear to use also depends on the story you want to tell.
For a short film I’m currently prepping for, I have decided to go for an Arri Amira and Cooke S4 Mini lenses and I will operate the camera handheld all the way, with the support of an Easy rig: no dolly, slider nor crane. Lighting, depends on the location but, for this project, it will be LED fixtures mainly due to weight, manpower available and accessibility.
Team composition: DP, 1AC, 2ndAC/DIT.
What do you want most from a talent?
Being an actor/actress is a very challenging job: thank God I’m behind the camera!
What I am mostly looking for in a talent is authenticity with real emotions, words and mimic, as well as gestures and posture. It also helps if the talent hits their marks, knows about camera movement and timing as well as has an understanding of the process of filmmaking.
What has been your biggest mistake on set?
Oh! Some minor ones but the biggest one was on a second unit sunset shoot for a TV drama, shot on 16mm film.
I was unloading the magazine when the 1AC told me to hand over the can to seal it out in daylight: but film must be loaded and unloaded in a special dark tent and it has to be properly sealed in it as well.
Since that was my second day on a shoot, I followed the 1AC instructions and handed the film over to him… but I should have known better! The film slipped from his hands, it felt down on the floor and the can opened!
We grabbed the film as quick as we could and put it back in the can: we thought we lost all the footage! But film is usually wrapped in a pitch black cloth and that prevented any loss: thank God for the pitch black cloth!
What advice will you give cinematographers around the world?
Be true to yourself as no other human can see the world through your eyes. That’s your world and how you feel it. Express it the same way and you will find your style.
Keep an eye on the latest technological innovations but don’t panic if you don’t know every camera or light out there.
Learn from every single shooting you do and ask yourself how you can improve for the next one.
Be patient, persistent and honest.
Stay true to your feelings.
How would you summarise your style?
It’s a mixture of natural light, elegant and smooth movements, emotional and appealing images.
I like contrast and low angles.
I follow my emotions based on the first images that pop into my head when I am reading a script.
What interesting book have you read recently?
Honestly, I just found the Five C‘s of Cinematography and started reading it: a lot of theory and knowledge that I have already gained over the years, but it also has some bits that broadened my knowledge.
Who do you admire and why?
A German DP called Fabian Wagner (ASC, BSC). I had the pleasure of meeting and working with him. Besides being a cool, fun and open-minded person, he is an excellent cinematographer with a stunning eye for the “perfect” shot and composition.
Hopefully, we will work together in the future.
What is your passion besides job?
I love to watch movies and take photos but since my kids arrived, I want to focus on them and learn how they see the world.
I like drumming but I did not have enough time in the past few years.
Any final thoughts?
The best way to learn and gain experience is by sharing your passion and experience. Even if I’m a cinematographer by trade, I do learn every day and on every shoot: I have hunger for learning more and I won’t stop learning.
But what’s also very important is the social part of the job and your downtimes: give yourself a break and recalibrate your mind and eyes.
Where can we find more about you?