Please introduce yourself. What do you do? Why? What do you want people to know about you?
My name is Thomas Hubbel, and I’m a Director Of Photography. I work with directors to bring their films to life, filling the creative and technical role of shot composition and lighting on set during film productions. I’m the head of camera & lighting departments. Image gatekeeper. Visual interpreter. Team leader, but servant to the script and creative source material. I love working with bold directors, those who are not afraid to trust me, and especially not afraid to push back. I’m an image maker and a director’s therapist. I have endless thoughts and opinions, but I need to know a director’s vision inside and out first, coupled with a delicate examination before making final decisions that effect the final image.
Why do I do what I do? I would probably write a book on it if I had any writing skills, but alas being behind the camera as a storyteller and observer, seems to be where I communicate best.
Art is a language to me, a tool to communicate and connect ideas, feelings, and question reality itself. I believe we use art to quite literally fabricate the unknown into existence; make sense of the world while sharing it with others, or holding a mirror to oneself and to society. Real art – art that grips you, scares you, inspires you, humbles you, intrigues you – is something beyond the physical reality, I think furthering existence itself. The tissue binding life together at the seams.
Film of course is visual and auditory, technically, but on a deeper level a tool, that allows us to realize ideas and feelings, control time and simulate each other’s perspectives; explore the unknown and bring it forth. Controlling that direction as an artist, and giving up that control as a viewer, is a miracle and magic to me like none other, really only found in cinema. I argue storytelling is what makes us human, what allows us to be conscious and aware at all. We build narratives in our minds, we simulate the future based off our memories of the past, and we empathize with each other’s lives – all through narratives we tell each other and ourselves.
I love creating and watching films, but as the author of my own images, I can’t enjoy watching my own work the same way I can enjoy watching other people’s films. The tradeoff is beautifully ironic, and for me totally worth it – the creative process with the director. The relationship you make with a director is like building a little family, the preparation process combined with the executing of an actual production together is like a mini lifetime of play. You become friends, you become enemies, you listen to their ideas and let them humble your own. Their ideas and input can change your whole worldview, and inspire new avenues for you to take artistically. It’s a redemptive, cleansing process. Building trust for one another is absolutely key on any fulfilling project personally, and for me it’s built through thorough preparation and deep conversation, as well as simply exchanging ideas. The actual filming and production time on set together, executing a vision, is an absolutely priceless space for creativity and collaboration to me.
Life offers an unlimited amount of opportunities to realize and examine our existence; for me, the camera and the act of storytelling is where I find life worth living.
What qualities make you different and unique from everyone else in the industry?
I don’t think what makes me unique is what makes me valuable, but honestly rather what makes me most like others and aware of it that is my strength. I think empathy is the #1 tool behind the lens, guiding every creative decision and grounding it to character or story. Seeing through a creative or script to its core idea, peeling back each layer above it thoroughly and thoughtfully, and keeping the spirit of an idea alive while constantly evolving and adapting is what I think I bring to each work of art and project I take on.
Maybe it’s the Kodak roots flowing through my veins, or being introduced to electronics and technology from a young age, but the technical aspects of filmmaking and cinematography have always come pretty natural to me. I believe it’s a true gift and privilege, as it allows me to harness my energy and brainpower for creative decisions and conversations, but always subconsciously be aware of the physical needs a shot requires. The more I examine each shot and decision we make on set, the truer my imagery stays to the source material and to my creative ethos.
Describe THAT moment when you realized you’re doing what you were born to do.
There likely was never one moment, as I cannot think back to a time in my life where I wasn’t playing with cameras. My Dad has worked at Kodak (Systems Engineer) for 30+ years, so growing up he’d always have cameras around, which certainly introduced me to the physical tools. I think that access to the technical tools, combined with growing up in a very large family, made me able to manage and study personality behind the lens. Capturing a moment in time on a photograph was magical to me, like capturing a firefly in a jar. Designing motion pictures and narratives, controlling a viewer’s view, and all the complexity that goes into the psychological elements of filmmaking immediately felt greater than me, and worth all my time.
I was probably 5 or 6 when I was fully aware and afraid of death, paralyzed and struck by the idea that the ride of space and time we call life, can only exist if non-existence also “exists” or “is”. This fascination led me to accept the contrast-based reality we live in today, and exploring that contrast has always been a main motivator in my life.
The subjective nature of reality also troubled me as a child, and heavily impacts my creative process to this day. Filmmaking and storytelling offered me a route to explore other people, where managing and comprehending the different perspectives of others’ and their life experiences really resonated with me. To me, life seemed not worth living without the presence of others to enjoy it with, and joy was found in that revelation when the camera became my tool of articulation.
My dumb child brain always wanted to experience everything through everyone else’s perspectives, over and over, unbound by the limits of space and time. I believe art allows us to travel time and live many lifetimes, and filmmaking allows me to build intricate narratives that explore all that space in between. Being a filmmaker and cinematographer has gifted me insight into humanity, I live vicariously through the stories and characters in my work. It stretches time and calls for a god-like manipulation of it, but also humbles you to a small, mere observer. What a gift it is, to cheat death for a living, and to see into the hearts and minds of other creatives.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to go through and how did you grow through it?
The road to being an artist and making a living at it is long, completely unpredictable and often isolating. The biggest challenge I’ve had is believing I’m worthy of this at all; worrying that my point of view or creative ethos doesn’t resonate with others, or that I’m incapable of comprehending someone else’s ideas. Cinematography is a very collaborative art, relying on a team and not just oneself, so feeling inadequate or not interesting enough for a project or director has constantly plagued me; insecurity and doubt can be very poisonous. Egos run high and people will crush you if you don’t stand up and believe in yourself. I find that building a team and network of crew you love and directors you respect extinguishes those fears when I’m on set, but it certainly is a challenge.
I grew up relatively poor, so getting through film school and investing in a career like this has been extremely difficult, but certainly not the biggest of my challenges. I think despite its disadvantages, the journey to success is all the more rewarding, and I cherish each moment I’m fortunate enough to be creating with others for a living. I can only learn to love it more and more as time goes on.
I also suffer from severe depression and chronic illness, both of which tend to be unseen from the outside, and can increase feelings of isolation and unfairness when times are hard. The time between projects is where I find myself most fearful, relying on hope and gratitude to guide me out and focus on all the wonderful opportunities I’ve had.
Who are the TOP 3 people you’d want to meet that could elevate your career or business? Why these specific individuals?
I’d love to witness Andrea Arnold and Robbie Ryan in action. They’re a director/dp duo that has been incredibly inspirational to me, and not only do I believe in their artistic abilities as filmmakers, but their near divine understanding of the human condition and experience. It’s all so finely woven into their artistic contributions to film, absolutely astounding and inspirational.
I’d also love to meet Hiro Murai, I think he’s at the cutting edge of the narrative space right now. His pov and style really inspire and strike me continuously.
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