Tal Lazar (AFI Cinematography MFA‘09) on Choosing the Right Film School and the Beauty of Not Knowing (Part 1)

Tal Lazar is an award-winning cinematographer, producer, and educator who has studied and taught at some of the most prolific film schools worlwide, most notably the American Film Institute Conservatory (AFI) and Columbia University's School of the Arts. His films (The Unborn, Every Time I Die, and Cho Lon, among others) explore universal themes in film such as the significance of love and desire and the journey toward self-discovery.

Alexa Pellegrini interviewed Lazar about his experience running his New York-based production company, MiLa Media; the differences between AFI, Columbia, and the City College of New York; how to ace a film school interview, plus other tips for aspiring filmmakers.

Note: This interview took approximately 1.5 hours and is a total of 16 pages. Part 2 (8 pages) is available to our Supporting Members, without whom in-depth articles and interviews like this one would not be possible as FilmSchool.org is 100% advertisement free. Supporting Members also enjoy full access to private forums, our database that tracks upwards of 4,000 film school applications, and full Acceptance Data statistics for each film program that help demystify common questions about how to construct a winning portfolio, ideal GPAs and GRE scores, and much more.

What are the highlights of your experience as an educator and a filmmaker?​

I am a cinematographer from Israel. In 2007, I moved to Los Angeles to study at the American Film Institute and primarily worked on independent narrative and documentary films in the United States, in Vietnam, and in other places worldwide. During the time that I was working as a filmmaker, I also started teaching. The first significant teaching gig that I've had was at the American Film Institute, where I taught the main technical course for five years before I transitioned into teaching visual storytelling courses for both cinematographers and directors.

After moving to New York, I started teaching at Columbia University, primarily teaching cinematography for directors, writers and producers, and also teaching for the City College of New York and Berkeley College of Music. Today, I'm also teaching for Sundance Institute and other places. I’ve reviewed film school applications and worked with professionals and students at all levels.

How did going to film school help you network and improve your craft?

The connections that you make with other filmmakers and the ability to work with them. AFI puts a lot of emphasis on the collaborative component—you learn how to let go of the idea that you need to know everything and you need to control everything. It's actually quite the opposite.

Let’s say you join my cinematography class. You will learn about lights and cameras, but you can also learn more about these things from watching YouTube and reading and whatnot. What you really end up learning is how to lead a set, how to cast your collaborators, how to let your collaborators be creative and pick the best idea, even if it's not yours, and how to make the best film in the circumstances that you have—and you can’t learn that by watching tutorials or reading a book.

That comes from experience. And I learned firsthand that film school provides you with the resources, the goals, and the exercises to gain that experience. Film school also connected me with mentors I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to, along with experienced filmmakers who looked at my work and gave me feedback to help me understand how to improve.

So, these are the aspects of going to film school that I think are most impactful—rather than shooting on film, which is something that you can do yourself or if you have access to the most recent lamps, digital cameras, and other tools.

What do you teach and what are the core learning objectives?​

There's always a technical component to the classes that I teach. For example, breaking down lenses.

A film director needs to have a certain technical understanding of lenses because they're one of the most important gateways in which the story gets translated through the camera. To have a wide angle lens or a long lens has a big effect on how the audience relates and connects to the character. If you ask any of the leading film directors out there, they know what a 50 millimeter lens is versus what a 25 millimeter lens is, and that knowledge is essential. To be clear, I am not talking about the field of view—that's how much a lens can 'see'. There's a lot more to that. My classes combine extracting the core definition from a scene along with the minimum technical knowledge required by directors, producers and screenwriters to make their films.

That being said, since I did teach one of the most advanced technical courses at the American Film Institute for cinematographers, I also have lessons where I teach the highest and most technical subject matter. For example, I have an online course that I created with Atlas Lenses. It's an anamorphic lens manufacturer in Los Angeles, and we dive deep into the subject of optics in order to completely demystify and understand how lenses work, so that you can not only pick the right lens, but also test and compare different brands and different types of lenses and even request alterations from rental companies and manufacturers. So, I teach a very, very wide range of subject matter.

Do you still review film school applications or conduct film school interviews?​

I did that last year. This year, I’m not. Adjunct faculty are recruited based on their availability. The department heads and full-time faculty are usually part of it. This year, I opted out.

Tell us more about the Sundance Collab platform. How does it work?​

Sundance Collab is an online platform that brings in film professionals, teachers, and educators. I don't know what the criteria is, but you have to apply and pay to attend. It offers an interesting mixture of filmmakers, from newcomers to professionals. But it’s not for complete amateurs. It’s great for people who are passionate about film, who want to really make movies based on varying levels of experience.

I teach a cinematography course geared towards directors, producers and screenwriters, which is sort of my main thing now. I talk about finding your story and how to visually communicate that story.

What are the core differences between Columbia, AFI, and City College of New York?​

At AFI, I was teaching cinematographers, even though I interacted with directors. At Columbia, I teach directing students. So, it's difficult to exactly compare the two, but I will say that AFI’s model vs. Columbia’s model or City College’s model is very different.

AFI is a conservatory while Colombia and City College are universities, in the classical sense. So, I think that it's worth looking into what that means. We don't need to get into that now. But what does that mean in terms of the teaching method? At Columbia, a university, you have elective courses, for example. You need to take all sorts of extra classes, broadening your view as a filmmaker. At AFI, that doesn't exist. You're very focused on one thing—it has more of a Hollywood studio mentality.

At AFI, if you're a director, you make a certain amount of cycle films in your first year before you make your thesis film. And in all of your movies, the positions of director, cinematographer, screenwriter, editor, producer, and production designer are cast from a pool of your classmates—you can’t bring in outside players. That’s not the case for Columbia, for example. Is that a limitation or is that a good thing? That depends on what your goal is and the kind of person that you are and your ability to have to interview people, and so on. However, both of these schools are highly oriented towards storytelling, towards understanding the message you want to convey.

I will say that many times, out of necessity, people apply to multiple film schools. They also tend to reuse their applications. Unfortunately, sometimes they also forget to remove the other film school name from the application. So we can see this, but it's not a disaster. We know that people apply to multiple film schools. But it’s important to understand that the application that works for one film school may not necessarily work for another one. Each film school has its own model.

For example, I always recommend that people considering a film school go and visit a film set. They are always looking for extra hands. Take a day to help out and talk with filmmakers on campus. It's also great to reference that experience on your application. It shows that you took the time to learn and understand the school's model and if it's a good fit for you.

Is Columbia more theory-based compared to AFI, which is known for being exceptionally hands-on?​

AFI might give you more exposure working on set because its model dictates that you have to be on set for a certain number of days, not necessarily in a key role. You may be an assistant or a boom operator, for example. However, I wouldn't call Columbia the ‘theory school’ at all. The school has many exercises for filmmakers. I teach cinematography and I often need to walk a very fine line so that I don't give too many assignments and exercises, because I know that people are doing so many of them.

As an interviewer, I can tell you that no matter where you go to film school, you can’t expect your program to do the legwork for you. In other words, if you want more time on set, Columbia, AFI, and other film schools will certainly provide you with the chance to work on set. They will give you the resources, the equipment, and access to instructors who will answer your questions and give you feedback—but they won't force you to do that.

Be aware that you need to continue initiating, and if you're able to exhibit that mentality in an interview. You are in that environment to lead, but these opportunities require effort on your part. In other words, I usually ask during interviews, What are you going to do if you're not accepted? What I don't want to hear is something along the lines of, I'm not going to be a filmmaker. That type of response suggests that you expect film school to make you a success, and it isn’t. If you're able to exhibit the mentality that you’re a force of nature and you’re going to fully take advantage of the resources we can give you, your interview is more likely to go well.

How do you define a strong visual storyteller?​

Visual storytelling can be split into two primary areas. From my experience working with filmmakers and film students, the first area tends to be the primary one that I end up talking about, which is finding your story and how you want to tell it. Here's a metaphor: Let's say that I ask you to give a speech. How would you like to give that speech? Would you like to use a laptop? Would you like to show slides? You would not be able to answer these questions before figuring out what it is that you want to say.

Ironically, when we study film, the focus tends to be on the tools and not on what we're actually saying. Lights and cameras and other tools are a means to an end to deliver your message. And that message has to be delivered clearly and very concisely so that it can be understood by as close to one hundred percent of the audience as possible. In order for that to happen, you need to have a clear definition of what you want to communicate. Yet, if you ask a typical film student at the master’s level, What is your story? Sometimes they stumble—they describe the plot, or the scene of the movie, or the characters, when they need to describe the core of the film and each scene in one sentence.

The second part is a little bit easier, and that is how to use cinematographic tools in order to communicate your story. That's the fun part, of course, because there are a million ways to use cameras, lenses, and so on to varying degrees of technical proficiency.

How can a film school student pick the ideal courses to maximize their education?​

When you’re looking for the right classes for you—and the right film school, or even whether to go to film school or not—-I think that it kind of starts with the question, What do you really want? What do you want to do? Do you want to be a director or do you want to be a cinematographer? Maybe you don't know. Maybe you want to experiment with all of these aspects of filmmaking in order to figure out what role is right for you, and that's completely fine. But all of these answers will dictate the kind of courses and the kind of [film] school that is appropriate for you.

If you don't know if you want to be a cinematographer, a director, a producer, or something else, then highly technical courses about lenses are probably not what you need. You need an environment that can give you the taste of each aspect of filmmaking—and many undergraduate programs do exactly that. Master's level programs usually assume that you're a little bit more advanced in your decision of what you want to do in the world of film.

Could you give a greater insight into how film students can be as collaborative as possible, especially for those who want to attend AFI?​

In the beginning of your filmmaking career, fear and insecurity often dictate your decisions. As a young director, you probably write stories rooted in your childhood, things that happened to you, and you may feel protective over them. When you bring in your collaborators, you usually end up working against them by not letting them express their creativity. Unknowingly, you may even pick collaborators who are less experienced because it's very intimidating to work with people who know more than you do—it sort of feels like you're putting yourself in a disadvantaged position, or you might feel like they might take something away from you. This tends to happen at the beginning of film school and during your first projects.

Naturally, some of these fears are rooted in reality. But the secret is to make decisions for your movie and not necessarily for yourself. Because as a director, your job is to make the movie and to select the best people for the job—the people who have the most experience, without letting yourself feel intimidated by that fact. Know that your authority as a director in film school does not come from your experience. Instead, it comes from your leadership skills and from the fact that you have a vision that only you know.

By sharing aspects of your vision with your collaborators and giving them the freedom to be creative, you will make a better movie than you could ever make by yourself. You will also learn more in the process—you will fail more in a good way, and you will get a lot more out of the experience.

So, take a leap of faith, bring on the best people possible, and aim high. Most of your collaborators won't take without giving back. Most people will help you and be motivated by the fact that you're giving them creative freedom.

Has your AFI cohort supported you after graduation?​

We’re in contact on an almost daily basis. I’m in a group text of seven people where we message each other all the time about things on and off set. There is no ego, at least not towards the group. And we’re proud to say, Hey, I shot this thing! Or, Hey, my project is now on Hulu or Netflix, and we watch each other’s films and give feedback or vent. Everybody is a working filmmaker, too. Most of my former classmates are successful cinematographers. A few are in the American Society of Cinematographers, while others are in peripheral fields of cinematography and filmmaking.

I also stayed in touch with my students at AFI—not all of them, but a few. I'm actually in the process of writing a book with a former student. And I make it a habit to try as much as I can to hire former students. In the past, I've hired students to do everything from lighting smaller projects to acting as camera operators on larger projects. There's nothing I enjoy more than to see my students work professionally on set and grow.

Can you tell us about a project you conducted with a former student?​

I directed a feature with a cinematographer I taught at AFI, plus a camera intern who I taught at the City College of New York.

Also, I have quite a few instructional videos online. When I shoot these instructional videos, I bring former students to shoot them with me. So, other than the enjoyment that I have of seeing my former students working on film projects, I can make the movie faster and more efficiently since we’ve worked together before and speak the same language. I definitely felt that in the feature I shot with Hana Kitasei, the cinematographer on my film the Unborn. (We’re also writing the book together.)

What is the book about?​

There are many books out there about filmmaking that take the form of how-to and self-help books. So, Hana and I are trying to deviate from that by creating a text that examines the process of looking at images and making images in two separate tracks. We discuss what happens to the audience when they're experiencing the images we create, something that we need to be more aware of as filmmakers. We examine the decision-making process when creating images as well.

It will follow the track of conversations between the cinematographer and director and hopefully, it will impart the tools for both cinematographers and directors to create images together in a more efficient and more enjoyable way.

Can you share a story of a prolific industry figure speaking at one of your previous jobs or film programs and how it shaped you as a filmmaker?​

When I got my master’s at AFI, Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, CBE came with one of his films. My cohort and I watched his movie and then there was supposed to be a Q&A at the end. He was late for the Q&A, even though we saw him in the beginning. He came rushing in and said, Oh, I'm so sorry, I don't like to sit and watch my own films—sometimes I can see things that I would have done differently. He explained that he went to Home Depot and looked at what they have in the lighting section so he could improvise things on set.

It shocked us to think that you can go to Home Depot and walk into the lighting aisle and you know, bump into Roger Deakins! But then again, when you think about it, celebrities within the filmmaking world are pretty normal people to the outside world. So maybe that shouldn't have been that shocking, but that was funny.

And then, of course, I was struck by the fact that even Roger Deakins is still improvising. He’s still trying to create things of his own—and that requires having a strong imagination and really focusing on the effect that you're trying to achieve. So, we're back to finding and communicating your story, because once you have that story defined really well, only then will you know if the tools given to you are enough.

Finally, the fact that even somebody at his level can still see imperfections in their own work—it was a reminder for me that films are never perfect. You're always going to need to make compromises with yourself, and that’s okay.

Continue reading....​

Tal Lazar (AFI Cinematography MFA‘09) on Choosing the Right Film School and the Beauty of Not Knowing (Part 2)

Tal Lazar (AFI Cinematography MFA‘09) on Choosing the Right Film School and the Beauty of Not Knowing (Part 2)

Exclusively for our Supporting Members, this is the second part of our 1.5 hour interview with award-winning filmmaker Tal Lazar, who teaches cinematography at Columbia University and the City College of New York. FilmSchool.org is 100% advertisement free so without our Supporting Members...

To access the final installment (8 pages long) to read Tal’s advice about developing a strong visual sample, overcoming anxiety and having a strong rapport during the interview portion of the application, and more, click here to become a Supporting Member.

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Alexa P.
Alexa Pellegrini (she/her) is a freelance copywriter, editor, poet, and essayist. Keep up with her latest musings on Twitter.


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