Thorsten (or Thor, to friends and favorite gear-rental startup) Thielow is a German-born, Brooklyn-based freelance documentary cinematographer. He has worked all over
the globe, shooting everywhere from bustling cities to remote desolate regions (you name it!).
Thor is a founder of Kamera Kollectiv, a talent agency representing world class cinematographers sharing a similar ethos. He has worked on several documentaries for theatrical release and primetime television. Some of his credits include, “The Hunting Ground” and “Before the Flood” as well as commercials for companies like AirBnB. Thor worked on a number of award-winning docs, including two Sundance premieres this year (where he incidentally bumped into our CEO and Cofounder, Lisbeth)!
KitSplit: Tell us a little about your work.
Thorsten: Most of my work is Vérité driven documentaries on social political Issues. I love everything involving character driven documentary, the intimacy and rawness and the relationship with characters that builds over the course of production. To me capturing real moments, in a non-intrusive way is very satisfying. And I take about one commercial job every other month, to mix it up a little and explore new and unusual ways of creative visual storytelling.
KS: How would you describe your style?
T: As a cinematographer I try not to tie my work to a specific style. I love the world of visual storytelling and I greatly enjoy the vast diversity of projects and their need for visuals.
KS: Cool. What have you been working on lately?
T: I am working on a two exciting series, one for Alex Gibney’s JigSaw Productions and one for HBO. Unfortunately I can not disclose the content of those quite yet. Also I am working on a fun Spot for AirBnB at the moment, a road trip through the United States. On top of that, I had two films in Sundance this year, Water and Power – a California Heist and Rancher Farmer Fisherman.
KS: Can you tell us a little about your process?
T: When I come on to a project, I try to not read too much about it and go in with a clean mind and carefully listen to the director and producers. I want to be open to their ideas and approach. Thats a great starting point for a creative conversation: to me, a lot in filmmaking is about consistency. Sticking to one visual language for one film or project. I often chose one T-Stop for a project and try to be consistent with it throughout production, regardless of the camera system, gimbals and other tools being used.
Also, the choice of lenses is very important to me. I often chose a set of two to three key focal lengths that best fits the story and production and try to stick to those throughout. My favorite setup for Vérité is a 35mm prime at a f2. I love moving in space and explore angles rather than zooming in and out. For a wide shot for instance I love stepping out of the room, shooting through the door, rather than putting a wide angle lens on.
KS: Can you give us a general overview of the gear you typically use?
T: For Vérié based documentaries, I use a ARRI Amira or Canon C300MKII for Handheld. I also love having a second camera on a gimbal for transition moments and scenes that flow. I typically have a Alexa Mini or a second C300MKII on set, build into my Freefly MOVI M15, ready to go. That gives me great flexibility to quickly switch between handheld mode to gimbal mode. The Gimbal has really changed my way of working, it’s a fantastic tool to explore spaces and angles in a way that was not possible before gimbals came out. I use a Redrock Micro Fingerwheel on the Gimbal to pull my own focus on Documentary project.
KS: What is your most-used piece of gear?
T: My most used pieces of equipment are definitely my lenses. There is no one camera for all the different jobs I am working on, and cameras tend to have a pretty quick life circle these days. But the lenses I can often use across projects and camera platforms.
It’s absurd but my 12×12 full grid cloth was probably the best investment I have ever made. On interviews I use it in a indirect lighting setup. That large source not only creates a beautiful soft light and painterly modeling on faces, it also is a real life saver for surprises. For instances there will be no reflections in glasses on bald heads.
KS: What’s the best piece of advice you got when starting out?
T: It is crucial to me to really listen to the filmmakers vision, to get in sync with the director and their connection and vision to the story. And most importantly the relationship to the people I work with, crew and subjects. The is a complex dynamic between filmmakers and their subjects a giving and taking. That relationship is often fragile and beautiful at the same time. Building and protecting that connection is a key in documentary filmmaking to me.
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