Tudor Panduru: „Being a cinematographer helps me get answers to some questions”

2 February, 2021

At only 31 years old, camera operator & cinematographer Tudor Panduru has already worked on the cinematography of several important films – Romanian and international productions. The feature film that brought him notability was “Graduation” (2016), by Cristian Mungiu, followed just one year after by another acclaimed title, including for its cinematography – the Georgian film “My Happy Family” (2017), directed by Nana Ekvtimisvili and Simon Gross.

His filmography also includes the documentary “Cinema, mon amour” (2015), by Alexandru Belc, “Suleiman Mountain” (2017), by Elizaveta Stisova, another documentary, “Shindy music” (2017), by Andrei-Nicolae Teodorescu, “Hawaii” (2017), by Jesús del Cerro, “Saf” (2018), by Ali Vatansever, “Simple Women” (2019), by Chiara Malta, “Zavera” (2019), by Andrei Gruzsniczki, “Adventures of a Mathematician” (2020), by Thor Klein, “So, What’s freedom?”, by Andrei Zinca. The latter is the first feature film on which he worked as a camera operator; although it was shot several years ago, it had its first screenings only in 2020.

He was also the DoP of Cristi Puiu’s latest film, “Malmkrog” (2020), and last year he worked on two important Romanian feature films, which should have their world premiere in 2021: “The Father Who Moved Mountains”, by Daniel Sandu, and “Întregalde” (working title), by Radu Muntean.

I talked to Tudor Panduru about his passion for photography as a teenager, about his studies at UNATC, about the people who influenced his career, about the relationship with the director, about his working style and about his perspective on cinematography.

Born on September 10, 1989, in Piatra Neamt, Tudor Panduru found his passion for photography during childhood. “We always had a camera at home. My father used to take pictures. An uncle whom I was close with, too. At first, I liked taking family pictures. This was my first contact with photography. I think I went with it because I’m attached to memories. Then, when I was 11 or 12, my parents bought me a point & shoot camera for my first school trip. I still have it. I was taking random pictures. I wasn’t looking for something specifically or had a clear idea in my mind. At one point, my mother had to document some stuff at work and was given a small digital point & shoot camera. That’s how I found out about the macro function. And I started photographing all kinds of things this way – flowers, textures, objects”, he recalls.

He wanted to become a doctor or dentist, so he went to the Natural Science class in high school. In the ninth grade, however, there was a sudden change in his plans, thanks to the drawing classes held by a young new teacher – Cristina Petrariu. She was the first person to play a decisive role in his path as a future camera operator.

The teacher brought in class a French photography magazine in which he saw some macro photos, and he thought that’s something he could do as well. She asked him to show her the photos he had taken: “A week later, at our next class, I brought her a DVD with thousands of photos I had collected over time and that I had taken just for fun. In only two weeks she organized an exhibition at the public library, which came as a huge surprise to me. My parents were a bit reluctant at first, but they eventually went with it. That’s how I started studying photography, to be curious about it. My teacher gave me art history books from time to time. And I was taking tons of pictures.” At one point he also got involved with the well-known local Youth Theater, where he took photos that also ended up in an exhibition.

The same teacher also turned him to classic films, made by well-known directors, starting with Andrei Tarkovsky. “But I was no stranger to cinema. When I was a child, I used to watch all these movie tapes that my father had collected, translated by Irina Margareta Nistor. I was a big Star Wars fan. Then, as a teenager, we had the DC ++ program where you could download movies from the Internet. I would search for all kinds of movies. Then there were the movie DVDs. Me and my friends would exchange them between us. Watching movies was a cool thing to do. At that time, you didn’t have access to the same level of information as today”, Tudor Panduru also remembers.

Still, filmmaking wasn’t in his agenda at the time. Films were rather a “treat”, but also a source of inspiration for his photography. For example, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – and especially its cinematography – made a big impression on him when he first watched it: “My home in Piatra Neamt is near the Bistrita River, and over the river there is a bridge leading to the swimming place. Usually in the fall and winter it gets very foggy there. So during those days, I would miss the morning classes to go there and take pictures.”

In the tenth grade, he thought about ​​pursuing photojournalism, it seemed cool. But because he had friends who had chosen to study film in Bucharest, he began to find the idea interesting. At the end of the 12th grade, in the summer of 2008, he applied to Cinematography at the Media University in Bucharest, where some of his friends from Piatra Neamt had previously entered. He got in. But he also went to the famous UNATC training courses, because he wanted to try there as well, in September. Before his admission exam to UNATC, he ended up working on the making of of a commercial which had as camera operator the already well-known DoP Oleg Mutu, who had signed the cinematography for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), by Cristi Puiu, and 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (2007), by Cristian Mungiu.

He says that it was the second crucial meeting for his career: “I approached Oleg Mutu and told him that I was going to apply to film school as well. I asked him if we could meet and talk more. He tore a page from a notebook, drew a sketch on lighting on it and left me his phone number. I think I still have that page. It was our first interaction. We met again, showed him my portfolio, and he encouraged me to pursue film. We’re friends even now. During college and my master’s, I worked with him on a few films – as an assistant camera or 2nd AC.”

He was admitted to UNATC, where he chose to remain and where he had as professor the well-known operator Florin Mihailescu, the third key-person for his career. “He opened my eyes to many things I didn’t know then. He also made us become very responsible. Technically speaking, he taught us a lot. He asked us to watch movies and write reports on each of them. He inspired in us a sort of desire to get it right, to ask more of ourselves, but also to understand the story and support the director. College was awesome thanks to him. Otherwise, it could have been better (laughs). Then again, I didn’t really bother with certain subjects either. Anyway, I loved shooting. I was saying yes to everything. Besides my own school projects, I worked with many colleagues in Directing, for their own exam projects. And I also made films with those in the Multimedia department”, recalls Tudor Panduru.

After his undergraduate studies (2008-2011), he continued with the master’s degree in Cinematography at UNATC (2011-2013). That’s when he started working outside of school, too, at first on music videos. At that time, Cristian Mungiu was shooting Beyond the Hills and Oleg Mutu was the DoP. So Tudor Panduru worked as Oleg Mutu’s assistant on the film. But he met Cristian Mungiu before that – during college, he had scanned some photos taken by the director’s father in the ’70s and ’80s, which were used in the promo campaign for Tales from the Golden Age (2009).

After working as the main camera operator on several short films, a documentary, Cinema, mon amour, and a fiction feature film, So, What’s Freedom?, in 2015 he had the great opportunity of working as DoP on Graduation. He admits that he doesn’t know exactly if he was Cristian Mungiu’s first option, but he was definitely recommended by someone.

“Until receiving the final OK from Cristian that we will make the film together, there was a “trial” period, about a month and a half long. We worked on a commercial together, we scouted for locations, he recommended me some films to watch, he took his time to weigh on it. He tested me to see if we were on the same page. The credit I got from Oleg and Cristian was my launching pad. Anyway, I kind of went forward without really thinking it would be difficult. I wanted it so much that I didn’t see any obstacles on the way”, says Tudor Panduru. He was only 26 years old when he worked on the film.

He says that the location was very important for Cristian Mungiu: “I think that’s where we drew out the essence for the language of the film. The whole film is built around the apartment of the main characters [ie – played by Adrian Titieni (father) and Maria Dragus (daughter)]. I decided on the colors together with the set designer Simona Paduretu. In the screenplay, the house is described with a certain layout. It took some time until we found the perfect place to build that apartment. After that, we needed to consider the atmosphere at different times of the day. The fact that we filmed in Victoria (ie – town in Brasov) gave us a lot of freedom. We could do what we wanted there. It was like a built-up set.”

When it comes to their approach on Graduation, he says that each sequence was rehearsed a week before the shootings started. “Me and Cristian talked on each sequence specifically, about what kind of atmosphere there needs to be. Because we went with continuous shots, we discussed the camera movement and the way it should work in the film. Cristian is a man who listens to all the opinions on the set and knows how to choose what is most important. And he has a sense of rhythm that not many have”, says the DoP.

He says that he loves shooting long takes: “Although many DoPs see it as some sort of limitation, long takes really work out for me. I feel more expressive when I’m dealing with a long take. Shot/reverse shot on the other hand kind of bores me out. Technically speaking, long takes are a lot more puzzling. If you have a shot/reverse shot, you don’t have to hide the lights, you can set it close to the character. But long takes require setting a certain atmosphere through lighting, deciding what to leave in the shadows.”

“This kind of approach might have come from my experience in documentary film, which in my opinion is very important. In a way, it shaped my upbringing. I can’t say that I thought so well of the documentary film in school. But then I worked two and a half years, almost three, on Cinema, mon amour, when I sat for hours with the camera in my arms and there was no sense of boredom. It was fascinating to tell in real time everything that was happening, to be in the right place, at the right time. To not lose any detail and find the most complex way to capture what you have in front of your eyes”, explains Tudor Panduru.

When he prepares the compositional concept for a film, he gets his inspiration from the locations. “I go to the locations as many times as possible, to see them at different times of the day. So I can get a sense of the atmosphere that I need to create. Then, of course, I think about contrast, saturation, colors and make a plan of what should appear inside the frame. But that’s in collaboration with the director and the set designer. There isn’t a standard formula”, he adds.

“When it comes to lighting, I’m into some sort of magical realism. It moves me when I see a light that falls in a certain way and that seems to remind me of my childhood. Or of the experiences that I’ve lived through. And if they are relevant in the script or in the dramatic situation, I use them. If not, I’ll find some other way. Or there are things that can simply come from form. From the story set-up”, he adds.

He really likes the blue-green nuance, and when possible, depending on the location and the season in which he shoots, he tries to use it in the picture. He also uses diffusion filters: “Modern lenses are very sharp. In my opinion, technological evolution in cinematography only standardizes a certain type of look. I’d rather go for film stock, I really like the feeling that it gives. And maybe that’s why many of the films I’ve worked on have something in common. For example, I don’t like having a very dense darkness. If it’s a Romanian film, there certainly won’t be a very strong contrast.”

He admits that the digital image may seem sterile: “What does digital mean? The higher the resolution, the stronger the video sensation, when you can even see the pores. There are some anatomical things that simply don’t work for some movies. It’s a technical improvement, but I see it as a minus in terms of artistic quality. When film stock was in vogue, things were a little more essential. Now, with the modern image, there is a lot of information that you have to ingest and then reflect on what it really wanted to say, what it wanted to convey. It’s a hyperrealism that dominates you.”

But he confesses that regardless of whether a film is made on film stock or digitally, the most important thing remains what he manages to express further, beyond these technical aspects. He likes best working with Arri Alexa: “It’s most operators’ favorite camera model. It’s the closest one to film stock, it’s more organic. But, in the end, you can do your job with any camera, if you know it well. You just need to know its tricks. I feel most comfortable with Arri Alexa, even though I would love to shoot on film.”

About working on Malmkrog, by Cristi Puiu, he admits that it was difficult, but that it made him overcome his condition and learn many things.

“Having a visual arts background, Cristi wants to control in great detail all the visual aspects of the film and pays great attention to composition. Together with the set designer, he had some clear elements from the very beginning, when we first went scouting. For example, the colors of the walls. The stage work and the position of the camera are mainly Cristi’s doing. He used to vision them the night before or right there on the spot. My job was to look at the people inside the frame in a certain way. The camera had to tell the story with some kind of attachment. As if a person is looking at the characters with kind eyes. Also, the camera wasn’t supposed to anticipate. That was the most complicated thing. The camera movement wasn’t an easy task. Especially when there were so many variables”, details Tudor Panduru.

“It was an important film for me. It was very stressful, but I think I overcame my condition. It was hard, but I also learned a lot. I think that after this experience I gained some courage. I worked with the camera like I’ve never done before. Until now it was character driven, it focused on only one character, on a single situation. But in Malmkrog, the camera depicts a mood, a kind of look. It struck some sensible chords inside. It made me think about some things that I didn’t consider until then”, says the DoP.

Tudor Panduru confesses that in his work as a camera operator or cinematographer he has always been attracted rather by “the mystical part of things, by what’s invisible to the naked eye, when in fact I’m responsible of what one can see clearly”: “This profession helps me ask myself some existential questions. And get answers to some questions.”

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.