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Cinematographer brings expert knowledge to filmmakers at Brooklyn College

Stuart Dryburgh meets with students to talk about the art of movie-making

April 12, 2022 Evan Rosen
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On Thursday, the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema at Brooklyn College kicked off another installment of their new Filmmaker-In-Residence Program by holding a Q&A session with the Brooklyn-based Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. 

Students, alumni, and faculty were invited for a screening of the Academy Award-winning film “The Piano”, directed by Jane Campion and for which Dryburgh was nominated for Best Cinematography. After the screening, the room overflowed with those clamoring for an opportunity to pick the brain of a lauded and instrumental figure in modern cinema (Dryburgh has worked with such directors as Martin Scorsese and Ben Stiller in addition to Campion).

First though, came a career-spanning conversation between Dryburgh and the graduate school’s executive director Richard Gladstein – who is, himself, a two-time Academy Award-nominated film producer who has worked on many big-budget Hollywood pictures and collaborated closely with director Quentin Tarantino.

The event is just part of Gladstein’s renewed commitment to “bring the industry to Feirstein.” A mission that is already succeeding, considering the names – Scorsese, Tarantino, Stiller, Campion – that echoed through the room.

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“I think this is a really special event for our school. We do this in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment who graciously funded us in it,” Gladstein said. “We bring a filmmaker or group of filmmakers to the school and we do a series of workshops and seminars with them. Those seminars are intended for all of our students across all disciplines, regardless of what the filmmaker’s background is.” 

Photo by Craig Stokle

The program was started last year with the filmmaking team of HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness,” and the school has previously welcomed in filmmakers behind the hit Netflix show Queen’s Gambit, Steven Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, and director Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”), among others. 

At Thursday’s introduction, the students were treated to an in-depth analysis of Dryburgh’s body of work as well as his journey in the film industry – a journey that originally began in his home country of New Zealand.

“I had been a gaffer for about 10 years, and I had some commercial directors who were happy to give me a go on smaller projects,” Dryburgh began. “Table top, pre-digital stuff for McDonald’s and other companies… carpet kingdoms, car yards, retail. I spent 4 or 5 years in that world.”

That’s where Stuart Dryburgh built up his body of work before shooting a feature length “ski-adventure movie,” and subsequently beginning a fruitful collaboration with another New Zealand native, Jane Campion. While working on “The Piano,” Dryburgh discussed one aspect that made Campion stand out amongst other directors.

“Jane is very good at explaining to everyone, the whole crew, what her intentions are. There’s one very memorable scene in the film where Jane said, ‘This scene is all about the unease of this character and my focus is the teacup.’ And it is – there’s an overhead shot of that teacup which plays a lot of the emotion of the scene. You’d be amazed how many people don’t do that. Everyone on set knows what it’s all about and what her particular interest is, which is really useful.”

Photo by Craig Stokle

Dryburgh went on to talk about his experience with Scorsese on the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire. “Hmmm 30 days, we can do it in 32,” he quotes, giving an excellent impression of Scorsese politely demanding a few more days of shooting. “I think he had fun, because he kept saying it was like when he was doing Taxi Driver; because he couldn’t do his languid pace, he had to pick up and run with it and he was actually jazzed by that.” 

Going on to praise Ben Stiller (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) as well as director Zhang Yimou (“The Great Wall”), Dryburgh then delved into his specific process as a cinematographer. 

“In a perfect world, I would go through the script scene by scene with the director and we’d make notes. In situations where I’m delegated to do this, I would go away and create a shot-list from their notes.” Dryburgh continued to detail his tinkering with color filtrations before the shoot of “The Piano,” his favorite part of the process (the actual shooting, of course), and even provided some career advice for aspiring cinematographers. 

“I usually start before I’m even officially on the project. What I’ve found over the years is to show up to the first meeting [with a director] with visual material. Now, I use Pinterest. And interestingly enough, even if it turns out your first instinct is not what the director had in mind, it still gives you something to talk about.”

Currently, Dryburgh is working onFallout,” a limited series adaptation of a video game, for Amazon Studios, produced/directed by Jonathon Nolan. He discussed his plan to rebuild his visual reference board for the show. 

I will plaster images all over my office – the images that I think are the mood of the film, and everyone who comes in can see where my head is at. It’s not to influence the other departments but it is useful for everyone to see very early on what they’re getting into. It’s collaborative on so many levels. There are so many people who go into making a good movie.”  

Dryburgh has called Boerum Hill home for the past 15 years after moving from Manhattan. “It was my wife’s idea really but I love it and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he says. “And we were lucky – snuck into a derelict brownstone before the only people who could afford it were hedge fund managers and movie stars.”

The Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema is embedded in the vast Steiner Studios film lot on the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and is helping to usher in the next wave of Brooklyn filmmakers, offering diverse and cost-effective degree programs. During Dryburgh’s residence, students will have the opportunity to sign up for collaboration workshops, lighting workshops, and one-on-one mentorship programs where they will be able to continue to learn from one of the industry’s most experienced cinematographers.

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