Tudor Platon: “In working out the cinematography for a film, I try to gather as much information as possible”

27 April, 2020

Tudor Platon is one of the most talented and active young directors of photography in the Romanian film industry. The latest films he has worked on are the short film “The Christmas Gift” (2018), by Bogdan Mureşanu, winner of several awards, including the trophy by the European Film Academy, and “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (2019), by Gabi Virginia Șarga and Cătălin Rotaru, his debut in feature film.

Born on December 10, 1991 in Piatra Neamț, Tudor Platon studied cinematography at the National University of Theatre and Film (UNATC) “I.L. Caragiale” in Bucharest, between 2011 and 2016 (bachelor’s and master’s).

Since college, he has been a camera operator and director of photography on several short films, including “In the House” (2014) and “Sex, Pipe and Omelette” (2017), by Ana-Maria Comanescu, “All Rivers Run To The Sea” (2016), by Alexandru Badea, and “4:15 P.M. The End Of The World” (2016), by Gabi Virginia Șarga and Cătălin Rotaru, both selected at Cannes, or “Private Party” (2016) and “Black Clothes” (2017 ), by Octav Chelaru.

In 2016, he was nominated in the “Young Hope” category at the Gopo Awards. Recently, he also directed a feature-length documentary, “House of Dolls”, which hasn’t been released yet.

At one point you said that in middle school you liked math, but in high school you lost interest in it, and you turned to photography and started watching movies. Where did your interest in cinema come from and when did you realize that’s what you want to do?

In middle school I went to all the math contests and Olympics, but I don’t know why I did that. I was doing well, but I didn’t necessarily like it.

In the 8th grade I got into photography. It was a trend all over the internet, everyone had DSLRs and was taking pictures. I went for it too, so I let everything else go and sat all day and flipped through photo albums or read about photography and visual art in general. That’s what I did in my early high school years, which eventually went hand in hand with film.

Step by step, I came to realize that I don’t want a career in photography, because I felt it went into a sharp decline as to how the public received it and the impact it had at some point, when those whose albums I used to check out were still active in the field.

So the closest thing to the way I used to tell stories seemed to be the film, which still had the power to be received. I think at the end of the 9th grade I clearly decided what I wanted to do – cinematography.

How did you figure it out so early? What gave you the feeling that that’s what you wanted to do?

In high school I was in a Math-Computer Science class. My father was working in IT and at one point he told me to do anything else, but computer science. I saw him sitting in front of the computer for hours and how much he disliked it. I think that’s what made me avoid any math-related field of work. Then I joined the photography wave so popular at that moment and from there I got to film.

How were the five years at UNATC? What have you learned?

I don’t have very fond memories of high school, but I know I really liked college. I was very engaged in it and I was filming as much as I could. I think it was also a way of socializing, because I didn’t know anyone when I arrived from Piatra Neamț to Bucharest.

Probably the stories related to UNATC are always the same: that it’s hard, that nothing is done in college. I don’t know, I think if you want to do something, you do it. For example, I shot a lot on film. Even if there wasn’t much available, we managed somehow to get more.

What I really liked about film school was that you had to make ends meet, that no one was going to hand it to you on a platter, that apparently you were left by yourself in a kind of Romanian cinema antique shop, with old equipment and reels of film hanging everywhere on the third floor.

Basically, apart from school projects, you filmed for other colleagues and outside of school?

I worked with several colleagues from directing and I also worked outside of school. I was filming most of the time, so during the part-session I couldn’t really get to all the exams.

The fact that you were able to work so much means that it helped you and now you can benefit from it.

It definitely gave me some confidence. Of course, there’s still some anxiety that comes now and then, but it’s a useful one – it’s an emotional-related anxiety and it really grew on me.

I feel that I have a certain freedom, that I can practice, experiment, play. I’m no longer limited by some stylistic dogmas. I don’t think anymore that I should follow in the steps of others or about what someone else might say. I went through this phase in college when I was scared. What’s going to happen? Did I set the lights well? What will some teacher or operator I admire say ?

What interests me most is that there is a visually coherent discourse. It’s much more important. It doesn’t matter if the camera is too shaky or too static. There must be something inside, beyond the picture. The idea of an empty, meaningless picture has been killing me ever since college.

What do you mean?

The idea of a film made only for the visual impact, where the actors move to create visual compositions from one end of the film to the other. I recently tried to watch some Oscar-nominated films. After 10-15 minutes I closed them. I prefer looking at paintings and I find them much more beautiful than any movie. I don’t think that’s what cinema is about. There must be a speech there. It can’t just be something beautiful on the surface and empty inside.

Where does that come from? In school, what were the principles that they encouraged on you?

We must have been lucky, because we were the last generation under Florin Mihăilescu’s guidance. If you watch his films, you can see that there’s an intention behind the picture, that it’s not empty. He doesn’t come, film and then go home. There’s a certain atmosphere he creates, he thinks about it before. You can see he has a speech. And he talked us into it. He was always telling us: “You are filming the screenplay, not a certain place or a certain light.” He had this saying which was very beautiful and stayed with me. He used to say: “The screenplay is your Bible”. From there, you can get anywhere without losing the essence.

How do you see the role of the camera operator and director of photography in the relationship with the director? You are the one who has to understand exactly the intentions of the director and the screenwriter, and translate them into picture.

I think about cinema as a kind of quest, and in its center is the director. He sets the tone and rhythm of the quest, but he is also the most haunted by thoughts, ideas and theories, worries and anxieties.

I believe all of these contribute to making the film, but first they have to be mixed, burned, questioned, transformed and maybe forgotten. For that to happen, the director needs to throw them at someone who is present with him and can give him feedback one way or another.

The camera operator is that person, because he is the closest to the director during this whole period of turmoil. He is the one who answers, who questions, throws back the same ideas under a different formula.

And all this so that in the end something clean and new remains – the film -, which is still the director’s, born from his turmoil. I think it was still Florin Mihăilescu who summarized this best, under the idea of a mirror-operator.

What was it like, for example, at the making of The Christmas Gift, Bogdan Mureșanu’s short film?

It was very interesting with Bogdan, because he’s controversial. So I turned communism on all sides, since I didn’t live through it, being born in 1991. For me there were just stories. I watched many documentaries and reports of the period, to get an idea of the stylistics of the time and of how the ’89 Revolution looked like and was captured in pictures.

At the same time, I went through several books, magazines or albums that capture Romania in the ’80s. I only mention Andrei Bîrsan’s photo album, which manages to capture the youth’s extraordinary joie de vivre. At least that’s what I got from it.

Bogdan was telling me: “I want it to be realistic, I want to believe this story, I want to feel that I’m there.” So I called people, “How was it on the streets at night? Why was it like that? How did you feel walking down the street?” I was told, “It was dark, you couldn’t see anything.”

How did I get to the stylistics of the film? I noticed that zooming was in vogue at the time. So, to believe that it’s filmed then, I thought I should include the elements of the period. We decided on a format, we adopted the zooming, and we started playing with them. What mood do we want to inspire? What are we interested in? We’re interested in fear, the fact that you are being watched, observed. Then, we started playing with these stylistic elements to convey the desired mood. The light is realistic, but at the same time there’s an effort of covering all our intentions related to the character and the story.

Then, once the shootings started, we didn’t have camera rehearsals. It was done at the same time with the actors’ rehearsal. When the actors were ready, I could step in with the camera, at which point I was trying to react to the actor’s inner reactions, to his feelings. It doesn’t mean it came out well every time, because the takes were never the same. But that was something we decided on from the beginning. I knew the camera positions and where we were going to jump the axis, but that’s about it. The camera had a certain freedom, which I improved from one take to another, just as the actors’ act improved. They were hand in hand.

Thou Shalt Not Kill is the first feature film you have worked on as director of photography. It’s a film set in the medical world, made in a realistic key and with raw cinematography. How did you work with directors Gabi Virginia Șarga and Cătălin Rotaru?

Some screenplays leave you a great deal of freedom in thinking about how to approach the story stylistically. But there are also screenplays which are written, as in this case, to be viewed in a certain way. This screenplay was written to be shot with the camera on the shoulder, with tracking and very long shots. At least that’s how I felt, and when I first spoke with them, they told me that’s what they wanted. That was the writing, that was the rhythm of the script. There were three months during which we only talked about this film, and we looked at various materials, we went through hospitals, we researched.

But there was this video that stuck with me. I think it was this story of two doctors at Colentina Hospital, who had come from abroad and opened a neurosurgery ward, but now had to resign.

And in that video, made by Recorder I think, they explained why they resigned. It wasn’t necessarily the issues presented, but I was struck by their state of being, their frustration. They couldn’t take it anymore. They just couldn’t stand it anymore. When I first watched it, I was upset all day. It kind of destroyed me. So we decided that this is the movie we want to make. During shootings, in order to get in that mood, I was watching this video.

So you need to get into a certain state, one that you think would be right for that particular film and what it should transmit?

It’s what I think now. Maybe in two years I would do the same screenplay differently, because I would experience something else. After all, it was a film with a single character that had baggage, frustration, sorrow, anguish. I looked for them in various environments, in painting, in literature, but that video was it for me. I was extremely tense during shootings. I was with the character all the time, the camera was close to him, and I was constantly taking in his inner state.

During pre-production, I try to gather as much information as possible, by thinking of the screenplay, the story, the discussions with the director. I watch movies. I look at paintings or photographs. I’m listening to music. And I see what’s left at the end. Then, during production, I let everything out. I try to give myself to the picture. I think it’s vital to have something in you when you, yourself want to create. I can’t be empty. It can’t be just for show.

But that doesn’t mean I cannot try another direction. I don’t think I have a particular style that I prefer. Every movie is different. The stylistics comes a lot from the director. I try to follow the director, but not out of visual accuracy, but based on their personality. They are different as people, they like other things, they like other kinds of music and, in turn, the music might have a different rhythm – it can be slower, softer or it can be uneasy.

There are directors who have a very developed visual sense, who know what they want from the camera. And there are directors who are more interested in acting. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other. I worked with both types.

What do you like about cinematography? What does it offer you?

It’s not just about the picture, it’s about each project – the fact that I’m learning new things. I discover new things, I see the world differently, and this happens through interaction with people, through searching. I start reading for a certain subject that I am going to film, in order to reach its essence. This search enriches me.

It’s a nice feeling knowing that you’ve accumulated a few months and you can finally let out – in my case, start shooting. When the production ends, there’s an extremely pleasant feeling. You feel something came out of you. It’s a release. It’s a moment that lasts a few days. After that, I feel the need to start over.

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