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Sonja Tsypin: Interview with an artist sharing new stories and perspectives

Aug. 20, 2018
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photos by Naomi Sedgwick

Coming from a background in fine arts, New York-born cinematographer Sonja Tsypin tells stories through visuals, allowing her to capture ordinary existence in a new light. She likes to remind her audience of the strange and surreal nature of life. In an effort to represent all different people, places, and perspectives, Sonja always works to find something new rather than settling for mundane subjects. Sonja helps pave a path for women to succeed in film, all while steadily following her creative instincts. 

“I think our world is much more strange and surreal than it may seem, and as filmmakers we have the power to illuminate that magic in the mundanity.”

Lily Seckendorf: How did you first get into cinematography?

Sonja Tsypin: I came into cinematography from a background in fine arts—I was a painter most of my life. I actually started out in documentary filmmaking, but eventually I began to crave more creative control over the content; I wanted to create stories from scratch. Finally it became clear to me that my real passion lies in the image-making more than anything else, and that’s how I found my calling in cinematography. Things haven’t changed all that much since my days of painting—I still work with composition, light, and color. I’ve [just] found a new medium.

Lily: Do you prefer film over digital? How do you think they compare when it comes to the film’s connection with the audience?

Sonja: Of course there are considerable visual distinctions in the footage when shooting film as opposed to digital, including differences in color rendition, highlight, and shadow processing, homogenous vs. organic texture, etc. Ultimately, however, I believe the decision to shoot one over the other should depend on the demands and intentions of a particular story or concept, and though film can look really beautiful, that doesn’t mean it’s right for every project. 

Lily: You started out as a painter. Why did you choose to pursue cinematography over painting, and how does your experience as a painter relate to your career as a cinematographer?

Sonja: I think my background in painting informs what I do immensely. The biggest difference between the world of fine arts and the film industry, for me, is intention; I think filmmakers are much more aware of the audience and of the viewer’s experience, which is important. In the art world, you can make art for the sake of art. You make something just because it was stuck in your head and you had to get it out somehow. I’m glad I got to experience that before I came into this industry, because it taught me how to listen to my voice and not focus solely on reaction.

Lily: Your works are quite narrative. What inspires you, and how do the plots develop in your mind?

Sonja: I do work on a lot of narrative projects—I think this has to do with my experience at the American Film Institute (AFI) which is an entirely narrative-based program where they teach that everything stems from story. I have done a bit of screenwriting, but I generally come onto a project a little bit further into the process once the script is finished or close to being finalized. From that point I do a lot of analysis during which I break down the script and try to understand what the essence of the story is. I work closely with the director, trying to uncover and understand their vision so that I can help bring it to life, and hopefully enhance it. I work to discover answers to questions like: what do these characters want? When are the biggest shifts in the script? What are the moments of decision? What’s the overall mood and tone of the piece? From there you can start to build a world, and a visual language grows out of that. Eventually, through that intimate collaboration, more elements can start to solidify including shooting format, lighting schemes, camera placement, movement, aspect ratio, etc.

Lily: What lessons have you learned along the way?

Sonja: Don’t wait for anything or anyone to hand you an opportunity, just start creating content and that process will lead you forward. Even if a project feels in some way familiar, always work to find something in it that’s new to you—don’t settle for regurgitated concepts and stories. Push for risk-taking, otherwise why do what we do? Let your work speak for itself. 

Lily: Would you say your work is activist?

Sonja: My main aim is to tell stories and to create visuals that allow people to see things in a new light. I think our world is much more strange and surreal than it may seem, and as filmmakers we have the power to illuminate that magic in the mundanity. So in a way, I do want to change people’s minds, but not always towards an activist agenda. I think I’m more in the business of making art for art’s sake, but I do believe it’s absolutely possible for social change to be brought about through that art, whether intentionally or not, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Lily: Does your work purposely feature a greater number of women than men? Do you think your experience as a woman in society has shaped the way you create and understand cinematography?

Sonja: I work with a lot of women and am part of a hugely supportive community of female filmmakers, so I think naturally there are a lot of female-driven stories being told in that community. However, my goal is to tell stories about all different types of people, places, and perspectives. When it comes to being a woman in the industry, my perspective is that actions speak way louder than words. I believe that the best way to pave a path for women to succeed in film is to focus on the quality of the work you’re making, and to stay committed to your creative instincts.