In Session: Cinematographer Lakota Ruby-Eck

ALBANY – There’s a heck of a lot of work that goes into the creation of film, and just as there are unsung heroes in a myriad of art forms, for film, it’s often cinematographers. Hardly a small responsibility, cinematographers, along with the movie’s director, can either make or break a scene, as well as a movie itself. One such cinematographer in the area, Lakota Ruby-Eck, is making quite the name for himself. Through hard work, and dedication to his craft, Ruby-Eck has quickly fleshed out a style of his own, drawing inspiration from fantastical elements in an otherwise mundane real-world setting. Using contrast of color, with darker toned themes, Lakota has developed a keen eye in a short amount of time.

I had a chance to sit down with Lakota this week. What follows is our conversation.

Lucas Garrett: Nice to meet you, Lakota. I saw you a while ago when working on the film, Ridicule. Thanks for taking the time to sit down today. Tell us a bit about yourself.

Lakota Ruby-Eck: No problem! I am a New York-based filmmaker. I do a multitude of things. My number one focus is being a cinematographer. I also do camera operating, assistant camera… a little bit of everything. Having so many years on set, locally, has given me a lot of time to explore different facets of set.

LG: Is there a type of set you like more than others?

LR: I definitely prefer narrative work. I’ve worked in reality TV; I’ve worked in documentary; music videos and a whole host of other things. I’ve really enjoyed music videos as well, but my main focus is narrative work, be it short films or feature films. I haven’t had a chance to work in scripted television, yet, but that’s certainly something that I’d also like to do. I imagine I’d like it just as much as I enjoy short and feature films.

LG: How did you get into the world of filmmaking? What made you want to go in that direction?

LR: What made me go in this direction was accidental. I was in high school and I really wanted to be a National Geographic photographer.

LG: Mhm.

LR: There was a year my high school put me into a video class. Even if they made a mistake, we weren’t allowed to switch out classes for the first week of school. I had to sit in this class for the first week. From that week alone, I was like “Oh my god, why am I not doing this?” It was a slow-build from there… as the years went on I started to realize more and more that I wanted to do movies. I was a big TV kid growing up – I didn’t have any video game systems, so I watched a lot of movies.

So, getting that class… I can’t believe it was never a thought in my mind. Later on, one of the founders of the 518 Film Network, Micah Kahn… I ran into him – I’ve known him for years – at a film meeting. He had me work as a set photographer on one of his sets. Because of that, it opened up a whole new world, and I got super involved. It was cool to actually get a chance to work on a set.

LG: Now, your main role is as cinematographer. How much control do you have over what you shoot? Does it differ for every project, or do you have a collaborative role? Walk us through the process of a cinematographer.

LR: It really depends on the project. It’s a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, you work with a director and they’re super open to collaboration. If they think the suggestion you make will improve the quality of the project, they’ll take it. Then, you’ll get directors who don’t want it at all; they just want someone to show up, light the thing, and shoot it exactly how they want it. I think it’s really important before going into a project to have that discussion with a director on who they are and what they want.

LG: Has that ever happened to you, where you didn’t know what they wanted?

LR: Yes. That’s how you learn with a lot film stuff. I didn’t go to film school; I went to college for video. It was more like news and not what I was looking for. Then, I tried to go to film school but couldn’t afford it – it’s so expensive. Then, I got lucky and got in with Micah, as I mentioned before, and other local people. I learned everything from having hands-on experiences on set. Having moments where I was giving too many ideas, or suggesting stuff, and the director being like, “Hey, that’s not cool.” That’s how I learned that.

Then, I’d work with another director and they’d say, “Hey, we’re supposed to be a team. I wish you’d give insight.” Everyone’s a little bit different and I have to feel it out going into it each time.

LG: I know in music that a lot of what I’ve done I’ve learned by doing it wrong. You know? I’ve learned by making the mistake and then saying, “Ah, I don’t want to do that again!” Is film the same way?

LR: Absolutely. I don’t think on the grander scheme there’s many projects that I’ve worked on where I didn’t make some form mistake that I didn’t learn from. Whether it’s infinitesimally small; not a big deal at all and no one even noticed, or a big thing that either had to be addressed on set or in post.

I don’t know if it’s like this with music, but a lot of times, certain mistakes that you make you’ll get a year or two past the project. You’ll return to it and you’re like, “I knew that I made those mistakes but I don’t even notice them that much.” Obviously, I still won’t do it that way, but they don’t affect me as much as I thought it was going to.

LG: Absolutely. Absolutely, that has happened to me. Are you working on anything right now?

LR: I’m pretty much always working on things. Because of my overall versatility on set over the for years, and through the 518 Film Network, and through my hard work of hitting the pavement and meeting people, I’ve built up a sizeable group of people who want to work with me. I’m currently in prep for five different short films. I’m shooting a music video tonight.

LG: Oh, nice.

LR: I started really pushing for this to be my main thing for the past two years.

LG: As a cinematographer, what are some of your favorite films?

LR: That’s a hard question. There’s a lot of movies. From a cinematography standpoint, I really enjoy horror movies. They are things that can be very surreal. Everyday life… you don’t think about it a lot, but light a lot of times is either warm or cold white. I like really colorful movies. For example, the movie Mandy directed by Panos Cosmatos and with Nicolas Cage. It’s a gorgeous movie: it’s colored lighting; it’s very contrast-y. it goes the extra mile of putting you into this fantastical world, even though it’s not a fantastical movie. It’s the real world. The light itself gives it such a feel to elevate that.

I do also enjoy films that are very plain-looking, as well. A lot of David Cronenberg movies – History of Violence; Eastern Promises – I really like contrast-y, mmody movies. I tend to gravitate to that sort of thing rather than super brightly lit comedies. I like it being sort of dirty and weird looking, you know?

LG: Mhm.

LR: There’s a cinematographer from the 1990s, Robby Müller. He shot movies like Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire, To Live and Die in L.A…. he does a really good job of mixing that natural world feel with color – more so than others. One moment it’s a very normal looking world, and the next scene it’ll feel almost fantastical, even though it’s not.

LG: Is there anything that you want to talk about that I may have missed?

LR: I guess probably the biggest thing would be, currently we’re very deep into post. I’m involved in the coloring side of it, but I shot a feature for a local company called Dirty Sweater Pictures. [The film] is called Earworm. It’s very much a labor of love on our parts; we’re all very excited to eventually release it. I don’t know how much is left to go before finishing it, but it’s closer to the finish line than it is not. Keep your eyes out.

LG: That’s with Kyle Kleege, right?

LR: Yeah. He’s my longest collaborator… I’ve done more stuff with him as a director than anyone else.

LG: Thank you again for your time, Lakota. I’ll be in touch with you soon.

LR: Awesome, thank you!

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