Speaking with Lidia Nikonova was such a pleasure, and we spent the better part of an hour going through her journey as a successful and accomplished cinematographer. Her passion began at the young age of 17 when she first started working as a photojournalist for newspapers. Over time, she rose up in the ranks and made a name for herself working on a number of films, commercials, and music videos including The Weeknd’s “Call Out My Name” music video on Spotify.
Vertical content is all the buzz lately and Lidia has played a big role in being a part of this movement we’ve seen on Spotify Vidoe as well as IGTV (Instagram TV). She spoke to me about the unique approach to dealing and creating content on this platform and what makes it so intriguing to the masses. Along with all the above, adding onto the list of Lidia’s accomplishments is the fact that she produced one of the first vertical anamorphic videos. For those who don’t know what that means, read ahead in the interview as we talked at great lengths about it! Take my word for it, it’s pretty darn amazing!
Lidia continues to follow her passion and is based out of LA but works worldwide creating beautiful and vivid imagery for the audience to adore and admire. Now without further ado, check out my conversation with Lidia as we break down her methods, process, and everything in between.
How did you get into this line of work and what path led you to what you do today? My story started when I was growing up in Russia and I think I wasn’t taking photography seriously until I moved to Australia at the age of 17 that is where I started working as a photojournalist for newspapers. That was a big transition for me because getting into cinematography from stills is a fairly common path but for me what really struck me was when I was working for newspapers I was in an intern level position early on and the types of projects I had to do that the other photographers wouldn’t.
When I started moving up in the ranks and I got to do documentary projects for the papers, that’s where it really became clear that it’s not about photography for me. I started to do long-form investigative projects with journalists and on my own. I realized that my biggest interest was in sequencing and telling the story that forms over the course of the time it takes. It became clear to me that I couldn’t just stick to photography. Also, simultaneously, I was in undergrad where I did some film theory from a broader perspective, like world cinema, and got to know more about the concept of time.
You’ve worked on a diverse variety of projects ranging from music videos to commercials. What are the challenges you face with doing each one? I think every format I work with is very unique, and so it’s not just music videos and American cinema and commercials, it’s a whole proliferation of content that is made in between especially in the music video and commercial world – starting with promotional video that are more social media driven and then finishing large proper television commercials. The format for all of them is different. I feel like a part of being a successful cinematographer is to understand what each format entails and how to deliver something that is innovative and is clearly within the genre that it asks itself to be.
For me personally, a majority of my work is narrative sound music videos and commercials. It’s kind of like switching between three different modes of engagement. Music videos are something that is driven by visual metaphor, and the rhythms and emotions of the song are the guiding point, rather than a script or character development. It becomes more abstract, surreal, and poetic which I love and it also gives you more opportunities to see that you are not bound by the realities of the film world such as continuity and logic.
It’s driven by the experience so you can forget about the world and the physics and get to play around with a lot of things that you seldom would use in narrative or commercial world. One of my favorites is using dynamic camera which is having the camera be more animated and more emotionally driven rather than classic Hollywood driven. You can experiment with things like putting the camera on the ground, underwater, or basically anywhere or the opposite where you have no movement whatsoever to see what effect it brings. With commercials it’s something you have to work on and satisfy the format criteria.
Each product will have a very specific guidelines of how it should be photographed which comes from brand managers and clients generally. It’s making sure that it is the very best version of what is possible within the brand image which is also a very interesting challenge and where lighting comes into play more than camera movement for me. Because in commercials, the lighting makes it stand out and sets the mood.
Tell me a little bit about your research process when you’re given a project to work on and the techniques you implement in the creative process. I am very much driven by pre-production and researching and I like planning. My pre-production starts with doing as much as research as I can on the brand or the artist I am working with and really trying to understand what the brand is going for and how they position themselves and what is their color palette and what are the kinds of dos and don’ts that they do all across their commercials, music videos, Instagram, and just their overall presence. I think that is crucial because through that you can understand what the client wants without them having to explain it to you, it is kind of just given. And then, step two is understanding the needs and vision of the director and also the creative producer.
Collaboration with the director is something that starts very early on and as soon as I get on the project, I try to get as much face time with them as possible so that I understand the mood and the tone of the piece and how do they want the camera to feel and what kind of lighting are they after and the kind of tonality and the reason they create. I also like to know what they plan on doing in post with editing and color because I really like to take that into consideration in making sure all pieces the production gets from me are in unison. After that we do the shot list! You go over the shot list with your collaborators (especially if its been created before being hired) and making sure that it’s enough of the materials they want and it’s just the best version of what it can be.
There has been a shift towards vertical content (Spotify Video and IGTV) and you’ve been a big part of that movement. What went into creating this shift on your end and what did your experience as a cinematographer bring to this type of content? The thing to understand about vertical content that it is very seldom shot by professionals because a majority of vertical content comes from users and that is the model we have grew to understand. If you see a vertical video on YouTube, it is probably going to be someone uploading from their phone. Having cinematography as my background, it was interesting because we tried to step away from the DIY aesthetic. With the vertical video I did for The Weeknd on Spotify, we had the reverse approach. Rather than sticking with the DIY low-fi quality of an iPhone camera, we shot with a cinema level camera with vintage anamorphic lenses where the look is specifically known from like ’70s and ’80s sci-fi blockbusters. It looks extremely professional and even though people are watching on their phones, the thing we forget is that people not only watch vertical content on their phones, but they watch literally everything on their phones. Cinema that is made for large screens is also being watched on the tiny screens of phones. So tailoring content to that format is really important.
Your latest film, The Day That, won Grand Prix at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and is also in competition for the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival in October. Could you tell me a bit about this film and your work on it and what were some of the things that made it special? My involvement with it began as a result of working on another film with the director and producer so we already had experience working together so when our director, Dorian Tocker, had the idea to do this specific script I was very excited that they decided to interview me for it. The script changed drastically so we started with one thing and ended up with something completely different which in my opinion was something more genuine, authentic, and personal.
It’s Dorian’s personal story so he is sharing it with the audience. His commitment to the project and his desire to go through all the difficulties, whatever they may be, and the pride he had in the project was really important from the minute we started working on it. This is why I stuck with the film even though the story had changed drastically, because I could see how he was putting himself on the line and how he was challenging himself to be transparent and genuine in the film. We had pre-production for a total of six months and after that we went into production and shot for 5 days for principal photography and one day of reshoot a couple of months later.
What was interesting is that when we started working on the script it was clear that the film could not be photographed in any conventional Hollywood way. We started to develop our own language that we thought would be true and capable of representing the very deep and very profound notions of loss and grief that the film deals with – yet not in the teary, depressing, melodramatic way but something that is very open and transparent. The nature outside the window would still be as vivid and active and the sun is shining and everyone is going on with their daily activities – but yet in your family, this extreme tragedy just broke, and showing that juxtaposition was the decor of our pre-production. However, when we started developing the language, we realized this is specifically for visuals because the film has very little dialogue in it, most of the action unfolds through the images and sounds. It’s really just a visual experience, so with that we had to look at a lot of films and see what felt wrong or right for us.
When you were shooting The Day That, what stood apart from the other work you’ve done and what made this project so unique? One of the biggest things that was unique was that the film had a lot of improvisation in it and that is not something I normally work with. We were presented with something, for the scale of our film, meant that we had to deal with a lot of performance. The improvisation was the biggest, eye-opening experience because it really turned out to be magic. For instance, when we were in pre-production for the film, me and the director would shot list and try to plan our framing to make sure the visuals tell exactly what we want to tell. And then we would go and pick the locations and pick the props and clothing with the consideration of who the actors were themselves.
We tried to bring their personal lives into the film so we would pick a house that was like a house that was lived in by a family, and wasn’t just a set. The house would have a lot of character and texture, there were scratches on the walls and some corners were bit up. You can see that kids had run around there and it had the atmosphere. Dorian kept a lot of that atmosphere in the film by how the house was shown. When he started working with the actors he asked them to bring some of their own things they had around their house and then further down the line these items were in the film, kind of of blending reality and fiction and making it personal. The actors had a lot of their own stories brought in and it was really nice to work in that way and it always kept me surprised and nothing was predicted.
I love The Weeknd and it’s so great to know that you worked on the lyric video as well as the music video on Spotify for Call Out My Name. What elements are you looking at when you’re working on something like this and what is the collaboration process like given that you’re dealing with music, lyrics, and the artist? This starts with getting to talk to the director about their vision and it depends on what stage they bring you onto the project. Sometimes they will bring you in before the idea is even solidified or even discussed with the creative team and sometimes the shot list is ready and you are just there to make sure it is in the best version of itself. But for me, what I liked the most is working with directors who have interest in hearing your opinion and bring you in as a creative collaborator, that is always very rewarding.
The director for The Weeknd music videos had a very clear idea and a solid vision because he had worked with The Weeknd previously and our editor, he also had worked with The Weeknd before on his online content so the both of them knew the aesthetic and color palette and knew what he likes and doesn’t like. So my job was just to make sure that the lighting is there and is emotionally responsive to song. The song is very pensive, powerful, and dynamic so making sure the images are very dynamic and captivating without taking too much from the song. Making sure it’s not distracting the audience but rather drawing them in.
I read that you produced one of the first vertical anamorphic videos. Could you describe what that entails and why it’s different than other types of videos? Are there benefits to it over other methods? There are two types of lens – spherical and anamorphic. Both are widely used across the board in all kinds of cinema and television. However, anamorphic lenses are something that squeezes the images twice through specific optics and then upon dealing with the footage, you desqueeze so it becomes twice as long. This is what largely known as wide-screen or cinema scope vision and you think about this prolonged image, which is longer and taller. Basically, through specific arrangement of optical elements inside lenses you have some artifacts that the spherical lenses don’t have.
A lot of the sci-fi films and big budget films use anamorphic lenses because of the quality it brings to the image. Each manufacturer and lens has a unique set of characteristics that can be picked based on the project. An easy way to spot if an anamorphic lens is being used is looking out for flare that goes horizontal. If there is something bright in the film, you’ll notice the flare going sideways. The focus and depth-of-field is also different, along with many other technical factors.
Of all the different types of projects you worked on, is there one in particular that you really enjoy and one that particularly challenges you in an exciting way? I just love shooting and as long as I have the opportunity to shoot and be creative, it’ll always keep me mesmerized.
Being a cinematographer means precise attention to detail because what you produce is essentially what creates a visual impact for the audience. What is your favorite thing about what you do and what is a piece of advice you would give for those aspiring to get into cinematographer? I think my favorite part of my job is getting to work with all this amazing talent and collaborating like my director Dorian Tocker for The Day That. Every time it’s a whole universe of references. Personalities are different, and likes are different. So switching between powerful creative types and learning from them has definitely been the most enjoyable part of the process.
As far as advice goes, the biggest thing for me personally was reaching out for advice from others and reach out to the people whose work I like and I find inspiring. Ask them how they were able to get to where they were and connect with them. Because with the field of cinematography, there is not a lot of academic research so a lot of it is for people who practiced it or were taught it. So trying to get any information comes from talking to people which is the best thing to do.
What projects are you currently working on? I am shooting a film with director and a good friend of mine and it’s a film about the experience in dealing with severe trauma but it is a vampire film. Production for it has begun and we are all very excited about it! This will be the director’s directorial debut so it will be very exciting. Later this year, I will be shooting an action feature so that will be very fun. In November, there is a cinematography festival in Poland so I’m really hoping to be there then!