Cybel Martin is a New York City based cinematographer and up until 2016, the only African American woman to receive an MFA in Cinematography from New York University. Perhaps because she was named after 1962 Oscar winning film, “Sundays and Cybele”, this native New Yorker has set her sights on her own golden statue. She served as the Cinematographer for “Orange Bow” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and for “Sangam” which was recognized and premiered at Sundance. She’s been featured in American Cinematographer Magazine, Fast Company Magazine, Indiewire, and more.
We got the chance to sit down with Cybel and discuss her past, her career, and why she watches one new film every day.
KitSplit: When did you fall in love with film?
Cybel: Everyone falls in love with film, right? I’ve always loved films— I remember when I was a child, my mother threatened not to let me watch Pinocchio until I finished my spinach…that was really upsetting!
I’m named after a french film, Sundays and Cybele; I guess it’s always sort of been there. Both my parents are very big lovers of film, so it’s always been a conversation. I realized i wanted to be a filmmaker in college, and went to Tisch Film for graduate school.
K: What was your journey like after graduating from Tisch?
C: While I was in grad school I did grip and electric work, anything I thought would help me be a better DP, but once I graduated I stopped doing that kind of stuff. The year I graduated, I shot my first feature and got my first agent. I was like “Okay, we’re off and running!”
My first feature, Dregs of Society, didn’t get distribution but it was still a big deal. It’s a significant milestone to shoot your first feature and get one under your belt—you’re judged by that. It’s the same thing for budgets— have they done a 1m, a 5m, a 50m film? Some people don’t care, but a lot of people do!
K: You watch a film you’ve never seen before every day. Why did you first decide to embark on this project?
C: I was prepping a Bollywood style feature film and realized my knowledge of Indian film was severely lacking. I decided to watch at least one Indian film per day, sometimes more. I watched both classics and modern day films. It definitely helped me when communicating with my director and finding inspiration for our visuals. After a few weeks, I decided to expand the practice to all types of films. I’ve been watching a film I’ve never seen before every day since 2009…right now I’m up to 557 for the year. It’s so easy to find them now if you commit to it, and you’re naturally interested in watching films. Netflix is a godsend to this whole idea! I’m always inspired…I think all real filmmakers are.
K: Amazing. Do television shows or short films “count”?
C: Some count! TCM has a great app—it makes it so easy to watch all these film noirs and monster movies. There’s no criteria other than watching the film. If I’m doing short films, it should be 3 in a row to count as one film. If it’s a television show, I have to watch the whole series!
K: What if you hate the film you’ve chosen that day and don’t want to finish it?
C: The whole intent for me is watching how a visual can support a narrative, so my only rule is that I have to finish the film. Even if I hate the beginning of the film I’m watching, sometimes the last 20 minutes can bring everything together, so I always stick with it. I see what the filmmaker is going to say, and I learn a lot from that about how to tell a story visually. Even films I think don’t work, I ask myself “why didn’t it work? What would I have done differently?” We’re filmmakers, it’s a hard discipline, a hard industry, and I learn from everyone’s trials.
K: Do you ever miss a day?
C: I’ve watched at least an average of one film a day since 2009. I’ll miss some days if I’m shooting, but I make them up. Right now I have 557 banked for the year, so I can miss a few days. There are days I watch 5 or 6—often in winter when not going out. I did a job on a cruise ship at the beginning of the year and i was so happy to crash and watch whatever was on at the end of the day.
K: What’s your favorite film that you watched this week?
C: Audrey and Daisey: it was really good, really hard to watch—but I’m thankful that it was hard to watch. It’s sad, but it’s real. Sweet Bean was also lovely! I really want to watch more films by non-western female directors—she’s from Japan. Rams was also wonderful, Man on High Heels was fun– for every 10 films I watch, 1 is extraordinary, 4 are fine, the rest are shit. That still ends up being a lot of great films!
K: How many other people that you know of have you inspired to do this? What kind of feedback have you gotten from them?
C: We have a hashtag…#TeamNFOTD (New Film of the Day) is 114 people who, at one time or another, used our hashtag. There have been a few blog posts about it, and @reelsistas created a spreadsheet for us which I’ve used for the past three years.
K: Do you think you’ll keep doing this indefinitely?
C: Who knows?
K: Do you have a favorite camera?
C: If i could shoot everything on film i would, I was raised on film, so it’s my first language! If not on film I try to shoot with an Alexa– I love the alexa because it translates how I see light and how I view what I want to accomplish.
K: What advice would you give to young filmmakers, other than watching a film a day?
C: The advice I was given when i was starting out is to just shoot everything! Seriously, shoot everything, it’s too early in your career to be picky. Other that that my advice is to not listen to anyone’s advice.
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