EXCLUSIVE: interview with director of photography Stephen Windon

Renowned for his work as the cinematographer for Fast & Furious and Star Trek Beyond, the award winning Stephen Windon talks to Mandy News about the world of cinematography and his exciting new project on Sonic the Hedgehog.

10th December 2018
/ By James Collins

Stephen Windon IMDB

Introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got involved in camera and how that took you into the film world?
My name’s Steven Windon; I’m a director of photography. I was introduced to the industry through my family, funnily enough. My father was a director of photography and a director, and my grandfather was in the lighting department – he was a gaffer, who began on silent movies in Australia back in the 1930s.

After the Second World War, my grandfather worked for a large studio facility in Australia called Sydney Sound.

As a result, as the years went on, TV began in the late 1950s – around the time I was born – my father was a newsreel cameraman for Fox Movietone News in Australia.

He then got into TV advertising, all because of the beginning of television. So, he started his own production company, making commercials in Australia.

When I was a toddler and young, during school vacations I used to visit my Dad making TV commercials on set. I just thought it was amazing that you could use a movie camera to record an image, first of all, and tell a story. And then the magic of silver halide being sent to a film laboratory, and being stripped, and then up would come a latent image that you would project, and you would see this whole magic appear.

I guess, I was entranced by the whole idea of being able to tell a story with a movie camera.

Did you then just follow in your father’s footsteps into his production company or did you go off and study – how did you get into it yourself?
As soon as school finished for me, when I was 18, I studied at a college in Sydney, Australia, where I did a course for two years called The Film Production Techniques course.

It was a terrific place to learn the technical side of things, as well as the creative side. I spent two years doing that.

That was a good grounding to learn more about optics and the chemistry side of it. As well as that, we’d be given assignments and we could go out and shoot our own little 16mm films.

In between times, during vacations, I would spend some time and watch my father at work as well.

At the end of that course, one of our lecturers ran the Sydney camera department for Australia’s national TV network, the Australian Broadcasting Commission – which is the Australian version of the BBC. I was offered a position there as an assistant cameraman in 1977 and I spent the first eight years of my career working for this rather prestigious television network.

During that eight years, I learnt to work in many different genres and formats – I was a news and current affairs cinematographer, educational documentaries, rural documentaries. There was a lot of different departments, as well as traditional TV drama.

It was an incredible experience. I was an assistant and I got to work in all these different environments, and work with some amazing cinematographers.

How did working on something as big and monumental and historic as Star Trek come along?
Quite often, I think about the times when I was a junior in the camera department - I would never have thought that a few decades later I’d be working on a Star Trek movie.

It’s pretty amazing to walk on to the bridge deck of the Starship Enterprise. It’s quite jaw dropping the first time you do that. And then, of course you understand that it’s a big project, and it has big scope, and big scale and it’s a big Hollywood studio, Paramount, making it.

But, in the end, what you do as a storyteller, as a cinematographer, is bring that to life as you would a beautiful documentary. Obviously, it’s different approach, but the secret is finding that approach and, as a result, from working with the director and the production designer and the producers, that story evolves.

So, in essence, yes, it’s big scale, but it’s applying the same techniques as a cinematographer.

When you’re on board on a project like that, what’s your approach as a cinematographer?
My approach is working very closely with the director, because the role of a cinematographer, in any genre, is really being able to achieve the director’s vision.

The interesting thing about cinematography is that it’s, not in equal parts, partly creative and partly technical – it’s such a great blend and such a great mix. On something like Star Trek, it’s very technical and very artistic. So, it’s a really interesting blend.

As a result, you spend a lot of your time with the director and the production designer and the art director, because there’s such a style to it. It’s rather unique, having the Starship Enterprise, the bridge deck, the other layers in that ship and the alien planets.

All of that stuff is design and it’s all expressed by the visual energy that’s often written into the screenplay.

That’s the other thing – the screenplay often drives, and I think it’s important that it’s written as a visual journey, and Star Trek Beyond had that in its essence.

When you’re working on something like Star Trek Beyond, with such a history, do you have people there making sure that you’re staying true to it?
No, there isn’t, but I think most of that is already baked into the screenplay. There’s an accurate timeline to something like Star Trek and, though it can deviate and vary through that storyline or thread, there is a core to it that stays the same.

Most filmmakers and the studio that owns the story and the franchise, don’t want to deviate from that too much. There’s obviously a loyalty to Trek fans – it’s quite unique in that regard.

You also work on another massive franchise of a more modern type, in Fast & The Furious, and you’ve worked on, well after 10, it will be 7 of those movies - is that correct?
Yes, once we get to 10 it will be seven, that’s correct. I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in five of the films in the franchise. We’ve had the same producers all along – it’s been made by Universal Studios and our producer, Neil Moritz, is the filmmaker who puts these productions together.

I’m lucky I’ve been involved in five of the films over the past decade and worked with three different directors on the franchise – so, I guess I’ve been a bit of an anchor.

It’s down on your IMDB that you have been announced to work on the next two – is that right or am I jumping the gun?
No, you’re not jumping the gun; my next film will be Fast 9, as for Fast 10, that’s a maybe right now. It depends on who’ll be directing it – it looks like Justin Lynn is attached to direct it.

I’ve done full circle; my first Fast & The Furious film was the third film in the franchise – Fast & The Furious Tokyo Drift. That began my collaboration with the director, Justin Lynn, and then we did Star Trek Beyond together. Now, the next movie I will start next year, in February 2019, will be the ninth film in the franchise and Justin’s returning. So, we’ve done full circle and it’s really awesome that he’s coming back.

When you’re working on films like Fast & The Furious, do you get to have lots of fun with technology with regards to how you’re shooting?
Films like Fast & The Furious are so enormous in scale, and that’s something the studio wants and has included in these films.

Every time we do one, we make different camera rigs to film on cars, there’s new technology, there’s different stabilisation systems. You know, we’ve gone from shooting on film to digital in that time.

It’s been amazing, the technology and being able to see what we can do with the scope and the scale that we do things.

The studio’s been wonderful, in that the mandate is – “let’s make the next film bigger”. So, we are always thinking, while we’re making the current film, how we can possibly make the next one bigger. But, somehow or other, we do.

It’s a credit to the directors and Neil Moritz, our producer, and the studio, that all these forces come together and we make this massive film on a big scale.

It’s so much fun to work on – they’re incredibly challenging and it’s great to embrace the new technology.

What would be the most challenging thing you’ve had to do, thinking outside the box, to capture something?
A lot of the challenges that come with making a film, sometimes there are technical things – blending some action beat that may need to then morph into a CG world. That’s the fun side of the technical part of it and figuring out how to do that in your collaboration with the visual effects department – which is obviously a big thing on a film of that scale.

Some challenges are more logistical, such as taking 200 of your crew and filming in Cuba – which is what we did on the last film. You can imagine, we have to take all the equipment and tools, and specialised camera vehicles and remote-control camera vehicles, and all the things we’ve created in the franchise, to a new country and a new culture.

That’s exciting – to have our helicopter fly down in the streets of Havana and doing some cool photography there.

Each challenge is different – as I’ve said, some of them are more creative, some of them are technical, some of them are logistically challenging. It’s one of the fun things about the craft of cinematography.

Do you have a favourite piece of camera equipment that you like to use or do you have to use lots of different tools?
When you read a screenplay, you imagine the vision of it; you imagine the look of it – the same thing happens if you read a compelling book.

If it puts you in that environment, then I believe there’s the right kind of equipment, the right kind of cameras, the right kind of lenses, the right kind of sensors, the right kind of film to use to help you with that story, with that vision.

I don’t think there’s one system that would work the same on the next project. There’s a certain amount of discovering the methodology and establishing that with your directors.

Its recently been announced that you will be starting Sonic the Hedgehog – what can you tell us about what that will be like and what else you are working on in the future?
I’m about to start shooting Sonic the Hedgehog for Paramount, here in Vancouver. I’m shooting that until the middle of October and then, I live in Sydney, Australia - I’ll return back there.

Next February, I’ll start pre-production on Fast & The Furious 9, with Justin Lynn directing.

I’m very grateful and very lucky. It’s fantastic that I have an exciting and challenging project like Sonic the Hedgehog, and I’ll look forward to the next Fast & The Furious as well.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into the camera department and those looking to become cinematographers?The thing about the camera department is that there seems to be this global, international thing; when I visit movie sets anywhere in the world, the focus is always the same. It’s like a creative pyramid and right at the very top of that, there’s a camera that’s capturing motion pictures.

I think that once you jump on that pyramid, you’ve just got to climb the pyramid to get to that camera. That’s perhaps by just getting in touch with your local film commissions; it’s directly getting involved and trying to access it – equipment rental companies can be a good way to do it

Once you have the opportunity to be on set or be a trainee, which can happen different ways – societies of cinematography is another good one, such as the ASC or Australian Cinematography Society.

Once you have the opportunity to be part of a camera department, I think it’s important to be a good listener – listening, listening, listening is the core of working in the camera department.