'Perseverance is key' Happy! cinematographer Niels Alpert on shooting TV and more

Niels Alpert is the award-winning cinematographer behind hit the TV shows Sleepy Hollow, Happy! and Iron Fist. Here he tells Mandy News all about ascending through the camera department to the director of photography position, his process on Happy! and what aspiring cinematographers can do to get noticed.

23rd November 2018
/ By James Collins

happy series dp niels alpert SYFY

Tell us how you first got involved in the film and TV industry.
I was in college, studying languages and writing for the school paper and was headed towards journalism with an international focus. I had a couple of summer internships, one of which was at NBC’s Today show. I spent my Summer working for them and every time I went by the Control Room studio, I would see the cameras and the lights and feel the energy. It was two hours of live TV every day and it was exhilarating.

I started taking video and filmmaking classes at my college. I took a couple of basic classes that I could get into, got a video camera and started making videos. I just got hooked on the process and found I had an ability for it.

Right after I graduated college, my film professor at the university of Wisconsin asked me if I wanted to work as a boom operator on his low-budget independent feature. I saw the gaffer and the grip, the camera assistant and I was fascinated by all of that.

I came to New York City, hoping to work my way up as an electrician, doing set lighting, but of course I started off as a PA. I then did one year in electric and grip work before meeting a great cinematographer named Peter James, who shot Driving Miss Daisy, among many other great movies. He told me I had to get into camera, so I shifted my focus, ended up getting in the union as a camera assistant and worked my way up there. That’s how it started.

Some of your early work was based in the music world. Was that something that just turned out that way or did you have a passion for music? 
I definitely have a passion for music. I followed the path that was laid out for me, or what was available to me. I tried to work on anything and everything that I could.

I was lucky enough to work in music videos from the early ‘90s into the 2000s. I worked with some amazing artists and directors in various capacities. I got to work as a DP and got to direct a few music videos here and there with mixed success, but I loved the process of working on them.

Everyone enjoys the experimental creativity and the possibilities that exist in music videos. But I also wanted to work on long-form film narrative too.

None of it has ever come easy. There has never been a period in my career where I felt secure in my position or like I had my feet planted firmly on the ground. I’ve been hanging on to the sheer cliff-face of the industry since day one and I feel like I’m still holding on to that wall by my fingernails!

If you are inspired by Niels to work on music videos you can use Mandy Actors to find UK jobs.

Before you started working as a DoP in your own right, you worked on a series that people still consider to be one of the greatest ever made – The Wire. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience on that?
Well, I was incredibly lucky to work on that show. I was brought on as a camera operator on season five by DoP Russell Lee Fine. We’ve been friends for many years. He supported my career, has been a great mentor and I’ve learned a lot from him.

The hard part is wondering will I ever work on something that good again? Just in terms of that level of writing, authenticity and value in every aspect of it. It was a very challenging job but it was incredibly rewarding to be part of something that was so culturally and socially and cinematically significant.

Tell us what it was like to wok on a series like Happy!
The thing about Happy! is that it’s an artist-driven project. It’s not something that has been conceived through network focus groups, or by people who are striving to get the next big hit on the air.

Happy! is an outlier and it is totally unique. Grant Morrison, who created the original graphic novel, and Bryan Taylor executive producer/creative director of the show, are both artists and they see things differently from other people. So, working with those kinds of minds, you’re putting together a show that is completely unlike anything else that is on TV or available to me as a cinematographer to work on. I

We’re in the midst of season 2 right now and it’s very challenging because we’re doing strange, unusual, out-there, really crazy stuff every day, but the rewards are tremendous.

What’s the initial discussion that you have on a project like Happy!?
Bryan Taylor is the person who originally called me to shoot Happy! I had seen his movies Crank and Crank 2 years ago and, when I saw them, I thought “I should be shooting for this guy.” That was probably ten, maybe fifteen, years ago. Somehow, through chance, we found each other.

The first thing I said to him in my interview was a quote from his movie. We had a good laugh and that was just a great start to it. I felt like I had just intuitively had a good understanding of Bryan’s aesthetic and the way his mind works.

We had conversations about how we could push the envelope to make something that felt really gritty and stylised and true to the energy of the graphic novel. Then through a process of discussion and experimentation, we came up with some different looks and concepts and shaped a look for season 1.

In season 2, we’re actually doing it in a totally different way. Season 2’s going to look decidedly different. You don’t want to repeat yourself. The subject matter and the environment in season 2 is different to season 1 so we adjusted our visual palette and shooting strategy accordingly.

Of course there are certain signature things that we did in season 1 and things that we like to go to for our Happy! look, but it’s definitely going to be different visually from a cinematography perspective.

Do you have a favourite element in your toolbox that you like to work with, regardless of what you’re working on?
It’s tough to say! I like to change things up. I’ve never been one for super-consistency. I like to do things differently and to explore new ground, trying new tools and technology if they’re available and appropriate to the project.

One thing that is really crucial is having a couple of really great monitors to look at that have colour and exposure tools on them, and a really great set of lenses.

On Happy! season 1, we used vintage Zeiss Super Speed lenses and now for season 2, we’re using Leica Summilux Primes, which are, in terms of lens design and technology, a quantum leap ahead of the Super Speeds. That was part of the discussion about how we wanted a different feel for this season.

A great set of lenses, more so than the camera, is crucial. Your selection of lenses will have a huge impact on not just the visual aspect of the show, but your entire method of working. How the lenses interface with the camera, how they handle challenging situations like flare and low light.

What advice do you have for young and up-and-coming DoPs and cinematographers?
You just have to trust in the process and know that wherever you are at this moment in your career, that’s where you’re meant to be. If you have the dedication and the ability, but most of all the perseverance, you will ultimately achieve your goals.

But don’t imagine that it’s going to happen overnight. It’s patience and investment in yourself and your work, in the long term, that will pay off. That was certainly the case for me. My career has been highly speckled with failures and long-term periods of struggling to get work but I stuck it out and things are good now. Perseverance is key.