Alumni Spotlight on Emmy®-Nominated Cinematographer Nick Higgins – American Film Institute

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Alumni Spotlight on Emmy®-Nominated Cinematographer Nick Higgins

Following SXSW, we sat down with cinematographer and AFI Conservatory Alum Nick Higgins (AFI Class of 2002) to hear more about his projects that recently debuted at the acclaimed film and television festival. His documentary THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ALLEE WILLIS delves into the life and legacy of Grammy Award®-winning songwriter Allee Willis (AFI DWW Class of 1991) while BRANDY HELLVILLE & THE CULT OF FAST FASHION investigates the brand’s labor conditions and environmental impact over the years.

Nick grew up between Scotland and Saudi Arabia as part of a navy family, developing a strong passion for photography. Persuaded not to study it at university, he received a Business degree and sold aircraft engines in far-flung locales including Hong Kong and Rio De Janeiro before deciding to pursue cinematography. His acclaimed work includes COUNTDOWN TO ZERO, THE WAY DOWN and portraits of Anita Pallenberg, Gilda Radner, Jerry Brown, Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong and O.J. Simpson in the Academy Award®-winning documentary OJ: MADE IN AMERICA – for which he was also nominated for an Emmy®. We spoke with Nick about his new films that premiered at SXSW, why he was drawn to documentary filmmaking and his advice for those interested in pursuing non-narrative storytelling.

AFI: What led you to cinematography as a profession as well as the AFI Conservatory?

Nick: In Brazil I met my soon-to-be wife Kristina Robbins (AFI DWW Class of 2003) and told her I was thinking about a career change to filmmaking. Fortunately for me, she was also a budding filmmaker and suggested I apply to AFI’s Cinematography program. I was no doubt the least experienced Fellow ever accepted as I hadn’t done film as an undergrad or worked on sets, but during my interview, I was able to convey my passion and thankfully they let me in. I learned a ton, especially from Bill Dill, all of which I applied to working in documentary. AFI gave me a confidence that it would have been hard to attain on my own.

Upon graduating, one huge piece of advice I received was to consider specializing which really resonated with me. To a huge extent AFI already does that by breaking us into different disciplines. I saw an opportunity to take that one step further and boldly stated that I was a Documentary DP. Documentaries, even low budget ones, just spoke to me in a way that low budget narrative scripts did not. I started worked consistently and eventually Mark Harris, a three-time Oscar®-winning director, hired me to shoot a film and sponsored me when I joined the AMPAS documentary branch which was quite the honor.

AFI: How did you first connect with director Alexis Spraic to film “The World According to Allee Willis” and who were some of your favorite interview subjects to film?

Nick: I collaborated with Alexis a couple of years before on her film about The Magic Castle, so we had a great working shorthand. That project took place within the subterranean confines of that amazing old and very dark mansion. The Allee Willis project was the opposite with its neon colors and whimsical decor. Alexis wanted to accentuate the wild, bright and upbeat aesthetic that Allee created. We did this with a combination of lighting and art direction. It was a job crying out for LED tubes and, lucky for me, I’d recently bought a set so we could paint the walls in all sorts of bright neon colors. Anyone that hung around Allee was typically an upbeat personality, so they were all enjoyable interviews. Mark Cuban and Paul Reubens were probably the most memorable with them sharing great tales of hanging with Allee way back when.

AFI: With BRANDY HELLVILLE & THE CULT OF FAST FASHION, you teamed up with director Eva Orner to take on fast fashion and the exploitative practices at Brandy Mellville. How does your process differ when you’re working on a darker investigative exposé?

Nick: The Brandy film was an interesting project to work on and took us to Italy and Ghana as we traced the life cycle of their clothing. The majority of the world’s used clothing ends up in Ghana and it has a shocking impact on the environment there. Most of it ends up at the landfill and it gets washed into the rivers and eventually the ocean. The city beaches are covered two feet deep in textiles which is not an exaggeration. That film starts all happy and poppy with teenagers posting haul videos with all their new cheap clothing and ends on a much darker note when we trace what’s going on behind the scenes.

A lot of the difference between projects comes down to lighting. When I travel, I make an effort to hit any classic art gallery and head straight for the 17th century portraits. There’s always an eye light in those paintings however subtle. I remember DP Owen Roizman coming to AFI, and he said it’s all right to go dark with lighting as long as there’s an eye light. That stuck with me, and I always check for that. Some stories cry out for you to black out all the windows and others are quite the opposite. The director will typically have strong feelings about how dramatic to go, so I listen for clues. When I did OJ: MADE IN AMERICA, the director was adamant about cranking up the drama, so I did that film with a single key light, a ton of negative fill and some ragtag tungsten peppers in the background. Because at that stage I hadn’t done any interview-heavy films, I leaned into my AFI education and tried to control as many variables as I could so the film would feel coherent. I started to shoot every interview from the same distance with the same lens at the same f stop.

AFI: As a cinematographer, what’s the greatest challenge you face going from project to project and what do you typically shoot on?

Nick: Documentaries are typically shot over a lengthy period of time, and I usually have up to a half dozen at various stages of production. The biggest challenge is remaining consistent, so the end product looks and feels coherent. I take copious notes along the way and collect behind the scenes shots of every set up. I have separate folders for every project on my phone. That way when I bounce from project to project, I can recap what we’ve been doing and get back into the right mindset. Camera-wise I’m making my living as an owner/operator so I seldom work with a camera that isn’t my own. Currently, I have two Sony Venice that are ideal for the high-end documentary look and an Fx6 for anything that requires me to be nimble.

AFI: What do you think makes for a successful collaboration between a director and a cinematographer?

Nick: Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that directors are under tremendous pressure, and they have a lot to worry about. I listen to their ideas about the tone of the film and any visual references that they have and then strive to do what I can to take things off their plate so that they can focus on the bigger picture. Before we make any hasty choice based on location shots, I like to check every conceivable angle with the director so that we know everything the space has to offer. There’s usually one stellar shot and a few alternates. The director can then decide which is most appropriate for whoever is showing up first. Once that’s done, they can get back to cramming and, as soon as we are ready for some art direction, we can hone in on the final look.

AFI: What is it about working in documentary that resonates with you and what advice do you have for emerging cinematographers who want to get into non-fiction rather than narrative storytelling?

Nick: Documentaries are often about something important that’s worth shining a light onto. I certainly started by being attracted to working on films that tried to right a social injustice. I love the fact that I get a crash course in a variety of subjects anchored by someone that’s exemplary in their field, and I love that I’ve been able to proudly share what I’ve worked on with my kids. At AFI I remember we watched the Preston Sturges’ classic SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS which examines the age-old debate about whether artwork should be about socially relevant struggles or simply an escape for the masses. At this stage of my career, I’m still really happy to work on projects that are dark, but when a light one comes along, I’m quite relieved.

To anyone thinking about getting into nonfiction, I’d suggest they get a small camera and lighting package. When I didn’t have any paid work, I made things on my own and some of them went to festivals and garnered attention. Budgets are often tight, but if you get a wage and add a rental to the equation, you can make it work as a career. I worked on a ton of indie projects with directors that hadn’t yet had success and eventually one of them hit. From that success I was able to attract experienced directors that had a proven track record.

Comments (1)

Isabel Lipthay

Dear Nick, it was a wonderfull experience to work with you by „ Following the ninth“ from Kerry Candaele! Because of your sensitive xamera but also because of your humanity. Thank you so much!


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