Spotlight Interview with AFI Cinematography Faculty and Alum Michael Pessah – American Film Institute

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Spotlight Interview with AFI Cinematography Faculty and Alum Michael Pessah

Michael Pessah (AFI Class of 2004) is not only an innovative and talented cinematographer in his own right, but also a proud AFI alum and current member of the Cinematography Faculty at AFI. He attended Hampshire College where he was a Kodak Cinematography Scholarship award finalist, and then earned an M.F.A. in cinematography at AFI. Michael’s eclectic credits include INSECURE, SAVING FLORA and SMILEY FACE KILLERS. He has also made a name for himself in documentary, working as a cinematographer on the Emmy Award® nominated SCANDALOUS and VIVA LA CAUSA, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award®.

In 2020, Michael was invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), and he was recently selected to serve on the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress, which works to ensure the survival and conservation of American cinema.

AFI spoke with Michael about his trajectory as a cinematographer, his new role on the board of the NFPB and the importance of film preservation and restoration in the current climate.

AFI: Congratulations on being selected to join the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) at the Library of Congress. How did you become involved and how is it an extension of the work you do at the Conservatory?

Michael: Thank you! The NFPB consists of representatives from various organizations in cinema and academia. The ASC and International Cinematographers Guild (ICG) have two spots on the board, previously held by Caleb Deschanel (AFI Class of 1969), ASC and Bradford Young, ASC. Stephen Lighthill, ASC – who has the distinction of being our Chair of Cinematography at AFI and also the President of the American Society of Cinematographers recommended both myself and Ellen Kuras, ASC to be the representatives for this cycle, and we were eventually appointed to be on the board.

It’s the honor of a lifetime. In addition to being a working cinematographer, I’ve taught “The History of Cinematography” at AFI for more than a decade. When I screen and lecture on films such as SUNRISE, PLAYTIME, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS or KLUTE, it’s amazing to see how quickly they expand our Fellows visual lexicon and inform their work. Additionally, when they have a bit more context on artistic and cultural movements that have influenced our visual storytelling, they really begin to grasp the role of the Cinematographer as someone who engages in an important dialogue with the films that precede their work, as well as someone that will help steer the direction of our imagery in the future.

I aim to show film prints in my class at AFI as often as possible, aided by our amazing projectionist, Tim Linehan. I’m well aware of the necessity of preserving these prints, as they have become more and more difficult to source over the years. Showing the DCP of MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER is a completely different visual experience for the audience than seeing a print, and I believe there is great value to seeing these works of art as intended. It’s possible that many of these prints will be gone soon if we don’t make preservation a priority. Imagine if the only copy of “Dubliners” available were the audiobook?  The text would be the same, but it would be a significantly altered experience for the reader.

At the NFPB, I can help be a voice for the necessity of film preservation and speak to how valuable it is for current and future cinematographers.

AFI:  Can you talk a little bit more about the kind of work you and the National Film Preservation Board will be doing to ensure classic films are recognized, restored and preserved for generations to come?

Michael: One of the main responsibilities of the board is to select films for the National Film Registry and ensure that a selected title either has already been preserved or will be in the future. Additionally, the NFPB preserves many extraordinary “Orphan” films, which have suffered neglect, and works to provide resources for restoration and generally raise awareness for film preservation.

AFI:  Growing up, what led you to gravitate to the art and craft of cinematography? Who were some of the greatest artistic influences on you as you were starting your career?

Michael: I was raised in New York and found myself gravitating to cinema at a young age. The local public library had a collection of VHS cassettes in the basement, and I sought my way through all of the four-star reviews in the back of ROGER EBERT’S HOME VIDEO COMPANION. Then I would go and look up all of the old Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael reviews on microfilm in the stacks upstairs. Those grainy images were my first film school – I saw Coppola, Kurosawa, Bergman, Buñuel. It would have been much easier now with Netflix and Rotten Tomatoes, but the search was part of the fun. It was an amazing moment when Roger Ebert was my AFI graduation speaker…I got to thank him in person!

When I was an undergraduate, I went to Hampshire College and saw great experimental work by Maya Deren, Bruce Connor, Stan Brakhage. That work stuck with me too.

On a summer break, my cousin connected me with a job as a production assistant on a commercial shooting in New York. There, I saw the job of cinematographer in action for the first time and knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I took an internship at Curious Pictures and talked my way into them letting me load their motion-control camera. After a few years of filming smaller movies and video in New York, I applied to AFI – one of the best decisions I ever made! There I was able to weave all the strands together.

AFI: After going to school at the AFI Conservatory, what was it like to join the Faculty?

Michael: I always enjoyed teaching, and even as an AFI Fellow, I taught at Cal-Arts. I worked at Loyola Marymount University for several years after graduation, as well as at several other schools in the area.  When the opportunity presented itself to teach Cinematography at AFI, I was delighted. I believe it is the finest Cinematography program on the planet and has been for many years. The faculty meetings are wonderful, and it is a joy to be surrounded my so many brilliant and accomplished colleagues.

AFI: What do you admire most about the Cinematography Discipline at AFI, and what is your favorite part of teaching aspiring filmmakers the craft of cinematography.

Michael: The Cinematography program at AFI teaches cinematography from the inside out. It doesn’t get seduced or distracted by technology or gimmicks and discourages that impulse in our Fellows. Instead, we teach them to grasp visual storytelling – understanding the essence of the story, building visual arcs through a movie, creating a meaningful aesthetic and learning how to successfully collaborate with all types of partners on set.

There are many schools that will teach you how to utilize cameras and lights, but really that is the easy part of cinematography, and with each passing year, it is a less and less important part of the craft. Considering how simple and powerful the cameras are now, cinematographers must be able to do much more than simply create a functional image to have longevity in their careers.

Stephen Lighthill deserves tremendous credit for his stewardship of the department during this time of great technological change. By keeping us all focused on these core goals, we have been able to continue to graduate extraordinarily well prepared and creative cinematographers, year after year.

At the end of each year, I ask the Fellows to submit a paper where they show examples of how the films we have screened in class have influenced their work. It’s incredibly inspiring to see the creative, fearless and thoughtful way they incorporate classic imagery into their own visual “fingerprint” by the end of the year.

AFI: How would you describe your aesthetic style as a cinematographer? As someone who’s had a varied career and worked on an eclectic range of documentary and narrative series and films, what kinds of projects are compelling to you?

Michael: I try to combine avant-garde sensibility with classic visual storytelling in my work. I aim for the cinematography to be a meaningful voice in the storytelling – something the director can use in conjunction with the other elements, or in counterpoint.

My career has been unusual in that I’ve bounced frequently between narrative, documentary and commercials. It confuses people sometimes, but I’ve learned to embrace it as a strength. It’s all storytelling, and you learn things from one project you can apply to another.  I choose projects mostly based on the director. A cinematographer needs a dance partner, and I’ve been fortunate to have several really wonderful directors with whom I’ve built long-term collaborations.

AFI: As an alum of AFI, can you describe some of the tools that the Conservatory armed you with as a cinematographer? What lessons did you learn that you still use in your career?

Michael: AFI taught me to appreciate that there are so many valid ways to approach things. When you are in a room with 30 amazing cinematographers and 30 amazing directors, you realize that there’s no “right” way to tell any given story. Realizing this was very freeing, and it allowed me to trust my instincts and to lean into my collaborations more fearlessly.

AFI:  Outside of AFI, what are some current and/or future projects you’re excited to work on and what drew you to them?

Michael: As we speak, I am filming a movie directed by Dawn Wilkinson with an amazing cast including Antoinette Robinson, Bill Cobbs, Charlyne Yi and Margaret Avery. I am very excited about the work we are doing. I filmed some additional photography on INSECURE this year, a show that AFI Alum Ava Berkofsky (AFI Class of 2013) has been doing brilliant work on as the DP. I also filmed a documentary for Magnolia Pictures called SCANDALOUS with director Mark Landsman (AFI Class of 2004), who I met while we were AFI Fellows, which was recently nominated for an Outstanding Documentary Emmy® by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

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