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How saying “yes” helped this cinematographer build his career

Scott Henriksen tells us how he went from being a gaffer to becoming D&AD’s top-ranked cinematographer

Illustration by Jael Umerah-Makelemi

Cinematographer Scott Henriksen has worked in the film industry for over twenty years with commercial, creative and feature films under his belt. He’s cut his teeth on music videos with Spike Jonze (‘California’ for Wax, 1995, and ‘Buddy Holly’ for Weezer, 1994) and worked with Hollywood movie stars like Jennifer Aniston and Jim Carey on iconic ads for Emirates (‘Horrible Dream’) and Verizon (‘Cable Guy :90’). Recently, he also claimed the number one Cinematography spot on D&AD’s rankings for his work on the Black Pencil-winning campaign The Lost Class.

We caught up with Henriksen to ask him how he forged his career, why making friends on set is crucial and how exactly he went from a gaffer to a sought-after cinematographer. 

Always say “yes” if you can

It’s so important, especially at the beginning, to say “yes” to things. Looking back over my career, I don’t regret a single thing I said “yes” to, but I do regret some of the opportunities I turned down. 

I had studied photography and when I left college, I wanted to work in film, so when I would get a call from someone I knew asking me to do sound or be the gaffer on a shoot, I said “yes” and made it work. As I progressed through these jobs and projects my path in film became clearer. I also started meeting people I would work with again and again.

You never know where a “yes” will take you. Saying this word has taken me from music videos with Spike Jonze to feature films and commercials, and there are still things I want to try that I am yet to do. That is one of the most exciting things about creative work and the way it evolves. 

It’s about making connections with people

Put yourself in a place — whether that be at film school, art college or just in your everyday life — where you will meet people who have the same goals as you. What helped me the most is my friends and the groups of people that I was around when I started out. Those little circles of crews that work together repeatedly throughout their careers are really important, and a network of people who can support you and keep you in the loop can support you both on and off set. 

We were all learning together and the things I said “yes” to that I maybe didn’t feel ready for ended up working because I had help from great people who pointed me in the right direction. Film work is teamwork and each person on set is important to realising the overall vision. Learning with people by working on smaller projects and going on creative adventures with your peers will create strong working bonds and allow you to learn on the job in a supportive environment. 

Experience will show you what you really want to do

The first opportunity that came my way was when I was living with this guy Wyatt Troll. He was working with his friend the American photographer and director Melodie McDaniel, who was just getting into directing at the time. He said, “Hey, want to help me? We're going to shoot some music videos.” That’s how I ended up doing lighting for him. 

He was later working with Spike Jonze and I ended up assisting him. After that, I was asked to work on something as a gaffer and then as an assistant cameraman, and through these experiences, I realised cinematography was what I should be doing. 

Learn to think on your feet

In many ways when on set, this is a reactive role. As a cinematographer it is important to understand that you arrive on the project quite late and you have to get up to speed quickly. Also, something as unpredictable as the weather can affect the light, so you always have to have a backup plan. Having a plan B and plan C in the back of your head is pretty important. You also need to be able to roll with the punches, like when the director decides that he wants to do a different setup than the one you were expecting to do, you have to have enough flexibility to be able to change and weave around that without compromising the production.

People skills are as important as technical skills

In this fast-paced environment you need to be able to communicate calmly and effectively with people. You are working with the writer and the director’s vision, and you need to make sure that that is communicated on the day. There might be changes and pressure on set, and you need to make sure the shots are what you want and what the director wants so having people skills is essential when navigating so many opinions and expectations. 

D&AD’s Foot in the Door series asks creatives to share their unique route into building a creative career. Read more interviews with the likes of a trailblazing casting director and a filmmaker known as ‘The King of the Super Bowl’ here.

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