The Sinner DP Radium Cheung (H.K.S.C) shares his cinematography story
Radium Cheung (H.K.S.C.) is an award-winning DP known for groundbreaking indie film Tangerine as well as Showtime series Billions and Golden Globe-winning crime-drama The Sinner. Here Radium tells Mandy News all about his journey
Radium, tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the camera department? How did that first happen for you and how did that take you to working in the industry?
Well, I don’t know where to begin! The interest in photography was ingrained in me since I was a little kid. My father was a hobbiest, so growing up, we would often go out to the country and shoot still photographs on the weekends. It was many years ago so we were shooting on film negatives then. Every time you clicked the shutter and made a photo it cost money. So my father taught me to be careful and consider everything when composing each frame. He would give me pointers of classical composition, taught me all about the relations between the aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, focal length and all those fundamentals.
That way of perceiving the world through a camera’s eye, different lenses and focal lengths became second nature to me. I’ve also always had a profound love in cinema. Being moved and taken to another world where you’ve completely forgotten about everything else for that hour and a half was magical and additive. I wanted to be a part of that when I grow up - to tell the kinds of stories that once moved me and to move other people the way I was moved.
So how did that develop into something you started to do?
[Laughs] I kind of stumbled onto it in a very strange way. Growing up in Hong Kong during the British colonial era, we learned English very early on in school but it’s still very different once you are thrown into a truly ‘English-speaking’ world. So when we moved to the US when I was 12, it was very hard to make new friends because of the language barrier. So after school I would go home and escape by watching a lot of movies from Hong Kong (this is in the ‘90s so it was video tapes) which made me feel like I was taken back home. For a few years, I would just immerse myself in these stories through cinema. When I finished high school I thought “I miss home, I wanna go home!” and that’s what I did. At 17, I went back to Hong Kong alone and tried to get into the business. I had no idea how and don’t even know what companies did what. There was no internet then. I just somehow collected a bunch of numbers randomly – advertising companies etc – one of them happened to be a casting agency.
I had no idea what that was but called and asked “do you guys need assistants or interns?” thinking that it might be a production company. They said “no but we need actors, do you wanna be an actor?” I said “no, no... but... yeah sure!’ I went in and met with them, they took some photos of me and started sending me out to auditions. That’s how it all started.
So the first half year in the business (summer of ’93) I was just doing bit roles in these Hong Kong movies. that’s how I stumbled into the film business. Obviously, that had very little to do with how I eventually moved to the camera department but that was my way in and it was super exciting. I was 17 and just thought “I’m on a movie set! This is what I wanna do!” I would observe what each person do and learn how the set works; the different departments and who’s responsible for what.
Eventually, I found an apprenticeship at a rental house prepping in the camera and lighting department. Then I made a move back to the states, New York, on my own when I was 20. I didn’t know anybody here and had to start all over again.
There was a thing called Backstage Magazine back then in New York, mostly for actors, but in the back there were usually some ads for crew work. Most were unpaid, “student film looking for crew” or “independent film looking for crew”. It was through one of those ads where I started to get some work, unpaid at first but slowly meeting more people, branching out and grew from there just like anybody else.
Let’s fast forward to working on The Sinner. How did you become involved with that production?
I had just wrapped my second season of Billions for Showtime – where I shared DP responsibility with another cinematographer. There are always periods of inquiries where producers/directors wants to meet for various projects and either nothing comes out of it or I’m not too keen on the material. it was in that kind of month of weeding through, when The Sinner came through my agent at the time. I was doing a commercial in LA when they sent me the completed pilot which was so beautifully shot by my incredibly talented colleague, Jody Lee Lipes. As soon as I watched it in the hotel, I called my agent right away and told her “this is exactly the kind of material I would like to do!” So we scheduled a meeting with Derek Simons – our amazing showrunner and head writer. He was very patient and encouraging in hearing the ideas I had on the visuals and I felt an instant rapport right there at the meeting.
Two days later I was flying to Houston for another commercial and there was a voice message from my agent as soon as I landed. I had a good feeling that was the offer. And it was! Going back to my original motivation to work in movies and TV, it’s very important to me to get on the right project and work with material that I respond to and that I, as an audience member, would want to see. So I was very thankful to Derek, Dir Antonio Campos and the studio for this opportunity.
Tell us a bit about your approach to the material on this.
Fortunately, with both seasons of The Sinner, Derek and I have a very similar sensibility and approach to the material. And If you look at season one and season two, you’d see how the language evolved, and adapted to the current story. As creatives, finding that common cinematic language with your collaborators is truly an amazing experience. It’s like musicians jamming together and finding that common voice and resonance.
In season 2 in particular, I'd noticed early on from the first scripts that there’s an ever present state of uncomfortableness in all our characters. that feeling of uncomfortableness became the motif in my process and every aspect of my craft was considered with care to create that state - framings that are just slightly awkward; motions that begs the camera to pan/tilt with but we just stop short; focus points that viewers expect but we deny them; exposures that are just slightly darker than it demands; a pull-out when push-in is expected; a colour base that's just slightly less saturated as it should be... every one of these tools are considered and calibrated to maintain that feeling of uncomfortableness. in doing so the visuals mirror our characters and such uncomfortable state registers in viewer's mind subconsciously. Furthermore, these carefully calibrated denials are like an itch on your back that you can't quite scratch. it's exactly that very itch that I find helps draw viewers in along with the story lines.
It’s a fantastic cast that you’ve been able to work with, how has that changed or progressed the way that you have worked with the camera?
We’ve been blessed with such an amazing ensemble cast. Our leads, Bill Pullman, Carrie Coon (and Jessica Biel for season 1) are all so intuitive to the camera. To me, the set belongs to the director and the cast, so I really try to minimise my presence; minimal cameras, lighting equipment, dolly tracks or whatever.
Through my decade of gaffering for different DPs, I got to see how vastly different their approaches are. Some DPs are less considerate of actors. They might prioritize on lighting the actors beautifully and take up so space with big soft lights and flags. Your image might be beautiful (artificially so) but you take up half the set. You limit actors, their movement and what they see in their world as they’re acting. I’d always been very conscientious of that and try to do the least possible to disturb the set so they can stay in their world when they perform and don’t feel us being there.
Through season one and now season two, the actors sense how me and my team protect their space in that way. That’s how we build a trust and rapport. I’m blessed with very talented camera operators Justin Foster and David Kimelman who truly understand that approach. When it comes to handheld shots, I’d often operate myself. I love that intimacy with the cast and being part of the scene: you’re dancing with them, you’re receiving and giving energy back and forth just like all the actors in the scene. Sometimes that doesn’t happen right away but after a few weeks there’s definitely this subtle energy exchange and they play off to the camera.
It sounds like something that’s less communicated with words and something that’s almost a sentient feeling that just becomes a part of what you’re doing?
Absolutely, but that is based on trust. Through the process I have to show them consciously that they can trust me and my team. we’re here to protect them, to protect THEIR space, THEIR stage and THEIR performance. THEIR face! Once they have that trust, they know they’re in a safe space and could give so much more in their performances.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to become a DP/cinematographer? And what advice do you have for people coming from outside of the film capitals of the world?
Well, I always like to say I’m nobody to give advice because every journey is unique and everybody’s sensibility is different but I will say stay focused – pun intended – because if anybody has an ambition in this business, whether you want to be a DP or a designer or director, you’re not gonna get your full paying job right away.
So how do you get to that point while still maintaining your sense of focus? You gotta work, you gotta make money and pay rent, we all do, and that often become a distraction from your main direction, which you should be focused on. Finding the balance is the most challenging part. What I always say to people with a heart for this is, “yeah sure find a job, maybe you’re not getting the job you want yet, maybe you wanna be a designer but now you’re an art assistant, do that by all means. Surround yourself with good, talented people and make a living in the meantime.”
But any time you get an opportunity to do what you really want, do that. That sounds easy on paper, but what it translates to in real life is “OK, now I’m getting these peripheral jobs and getting decent pay and then all of a sudden I’m offered this job to design an indie movie or a music video or to DP this small little spec commercial where there’s no or very little pay.” It’s NOT easy to say “OK I’m gonna pass on these other decent paying offers to do this passion project that I’m not gonna get paid for for a few weeks.” That’s a very practical, very real and challenging decision to make when opportunities come, so what I always say is: “no matter how hard it is, focus on what you really want to do and do as much as of it as you can.”
If you wanna be a DP, take every chance, every opportunity you can to shoot and figure out the living part, somehow. Don’t get distracted and get comfortable in getting paid well on other things, because then you miss opportunities that, in the long-run, are gonna pay off much, much more.