Interview with Cinematographer Tristan Oliver (Isle of Dogs, ParaNorman, Fantastic Mr. Fox)

It was a true honor interviewing the extremely talented Director of Photographer Tristan Oliver. Every single film he’s worked on has turned out great. And there’s not many people you can say that statement about! If you don’t believe, simply go to his website and watch some of the short films he’s worked on and see his list of feature credits:

Matthew Toffolo: Where were you born and raised? Was cinematography something you always wanted to do as your career?

Tristan Oliver: I was born and raised in Gravesend in Kent. An unlovely and somewhat godforsaken town on the Thames estuary.

I knew nothing about films or photography as a child. My main passion was the theatre. I wanted to act (or be a doctor or something) My first real contact with the camera dept came when I was acting in a movie. It was something of a Damascene moment and I really threw myself into trying to get into that environment immediately afterwards. I didn’t even own a stills camera when that movie started!

What has been your most proudest work of your career? Or, what has been your favorite project to date?

In terms of feature films I would say ParaNorman. I had a fantastic time at Laika for two years and a very close, creative and rewarding relationship with the directors of that movie. I’m exceptionally proud of how it looks (even if no-one has seen it.)

Can you explain to us what an Animation Director of Photography does?

There is really no difference in being a DOP for stop frame or live action. The ultimate aim is to create something beautiful for the camera. To light and frame according to what you consider to be visually special. I wouldn’t want to make concessions to the medium of animation. That is by the by.

In practical terms, there are a few differences. We typically run a 50+ unit shooting environment which is an enormous amount of stuff to keep tabs on. That’s 50 sets, 50 cameras all running together. I need to ensure continuity and quality of look across that huge mess of stuff.

Other than that the main difference is working into the macro end of the lenses which can severely compromise the depth of field. We tend to work at very tight stops (16, 22) to compensate for this.

You just finished working on ISLE OF DOGS. Can you give us a sneak peak of what do expect?

Unique. Many of his tropes will be familiar to audiences. The flat lighting. The highly symmetrical framing. The art direction and propping. This particular movie is very busy and visually complicated. Compared with Fantastic Mr Fox for example it is really intense viewing. There’s an awful lot going on up there!

Is there a type of film/TV show that you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

I’d love to get my teeth into some American TV drama. The quality of work coming out of the States is astonishing. There’s so much of it and it’s nearly all really good. Well written, well plotted and edited. Everything.

In terms of movies, more live action please. I need a rest from the puppets!

What are you generally looking for in a director in order for you to do your job as best as possible?

All directors are different and as such, what they require from the DOP varies. Wes wants me to exactly put up on the screen what he has in his head. It is totally his vision so my role is very much reactive. With some other directors there is more of a creative collaboration, the role is proactive if you will. Neither is necessarily better than the other as long as you trust the director to bring the movie in.

What do you think a producer/director is looking for when they bring on you to DP the film?

I’d like to think that I’m the best at what I do. I have a huge amount of experience. I’m very professional and I bring on the best, most user friendly crews but essentially what a director needs is someone they can trust.

What is your passion in life besides cinematography and film?

So many. My daughters, my partner, beautiful Swiss wristwatches, restoring my 17th century house, good food, good wine , good company.

What movie have you watched the most times in your life (besides the ones you worked on?

There are lots but probably Kind Hearts and Coronets, the first Matrix and Ferris Beuler’s Day Off. That’s just for fun. In terms of cinematography, I think Conrad Hall was a genius and I can watch Road To Perdition any day of the week.

What advice do you have for young cinematographers who would eventually like to DP movies for a living one day?

Keep learning. Watch movies, read about movies. Who do you like? Why? Think about how stuff has been made. Don’t rely on your innate talent but keep building your technical knowledge, the two together will be very useful to you. And never ever send out a CV for a camera trainee position with your name followed by the letters DOP. It goes in the bin.

tristan olivier 2

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every single month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 3 times a month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.


By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival


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