Q&A: Brooks Film Grad Keith Lancaster on Shooting a Feature Film with Ice-T & More

February 26, 2013

Keith Lancaster earned his BFA in Film from Brooks Institute in December 2012 and most recently worked on a feature film with Ice-T in New York City. Our writer spoke with Keith about what drew him to cinematography, the experience he gained at Brooks and the exciting opportunities he found on set.

What is it about the field of cinematography that drew you in?

Before I went to Brooks, I had a passion for documentaries. I was a camera fanatic, and I just wanted to kind of go out and spend my life learning about things and shooting them. I didn’t have really that much of a thing for cinematography, especially narrative cinematography that has the bulk of lighting and everything, until I went to Brooks.

I saw the details about lighting for story and emphasizing a mood and so all of a sudden it was kind of a new world and I hadn’t thought of it before. So I’d say it’s just the idea that you can be part of a big team but at the same time, have your own visual signature on something that’s so collaborative.

Keith Lancaster Alma de mi Alma

“Alma de mi Alma” – Short Film, 2012

You spoke about Brooks changing your focus. What was it there that helped prepare you for what you’re doing now?

There are some good lighting classes, but I did most of the research for the actual cinematography part myself. The thing that I think Brooks helped me prepare the most for was the idea that there’s so many people needed on the set to create something with any sort of production value. Without that environment, I don’t think I would ever had gotten the experience to do what I wanted to do. 

I have friends who’ve gone to other schools, and all of them seem to have one or two films that they worked on aside from a couple of really small drills. At Brooks I think I ended up with something along the lines of four short films, a three-part Web series, a couple other vignettes, two music videos and a couple commercials. I shot so much stuff while I was there, and it’s because the environment there is so conducive to shooting as much as possible.

Anybody can go and look up lighting diagrams, and anyone can go watch a movie and try to pick up how it was lit, but when it comes down to it, you’re not going to learn anything until you put it to practice.

Keith Lancaster Nokia spot

Nokia “Evolution” Commercial, 2010

Is there anything in particular that sparked your approach to how you work today, something that changed how you think about lighting a scene or conveying the mood?

Hmm, I’ll have to think about that. I was oddly successful while I was there. Everything I tried turned out to work great. There are a lot of reaffirming stories. For instance, we shot our first short film halfway through the program. It wasn’t really horror-esque but it was very dark and very moody, and people thought it was a horror film anyway. And so I had an idea to light the entire film with just a lantern and a little bit of fill from the lantern.

It was one of those things where even the faculty thought it would be a bad idea, and I did camera tests and bought a lantern and figured out what could be done and what couldn’t. And when we got to set people were pointing at the monitor saying, “Don’t do it this way, you’re going to need add some fill lights, because see how the wave forms are,” and I just kind of ignored all of them. We got through two days of shooting and put together a short film and everything turned out absolutely perfectly. At the end everyone was like, “Wow that really did work.” So one thing I’ve learned is that if you have an idea, just go for it.

The most important thing is that it’s a creative job. It’s still very scientific and it gets kind of mundane and all that stuff, but when it comes down to it, the only thing that’s going to give you anything that you’re proud of is the stuff you took a chance on or the stuff that only you thought was going to work right. You’re going to have to sometimes explain to other people that what you want to do is the way you want to do it, and you can’t be afraid to take the leap.

Keith Lancaster Whispers Within

“Whispers Within” – Short Film, 2011

What can you say about your project you’re working on with Ice-T as director of photography?

It’s a feature film with quite a few big names in African-American cinema. It involves the guy who played Caine in Menace II Society (Tyrin Turner) and various actors from a lot of Spike Lee films from throughout the ’90s. It’s an urban-action-drama type film, and it’s been incredibly fun. I think it’s the director’s fourth film. They’ve done mostly found-footage horror and limited-location movies along the lines of the film “Buried,” and so the thing that’s been interesting about this so far is that I’ve been able to contribute quite a bit to the directing process, because they don’t have a lot of experience in standard narrative filmmaking. So there have been a lot of things in shot listing and planning out coverage and stuff that I’ve been able to contribute a whole lot to that’s been kind of fun, as opposed to things where I just show up on set and things are taken care of. It’s fun to be included on meetings that the cinematographer’s not usually included on right off the bat.

Do you have an idea when it might be finished and able to be seen?

We’re hoping to finish shooting sometime over the summer, and we’re probably going to go on to post pretty quickly after that. Scheduling for when we will be finished with the cut and ready to talk to distributors is still happening.

For more information on Keith’s work, visit http://www.siignal.com.

Ian Forbes is a freelance writer from San Diego. He is the Founder/Senior Editor of the film review website www.soberingconclusion.com and Membership Chair of the San Diego Film Critics Society.