You see the world, you end up in jail three or four times, you accumulate experience. And it gives you something to say. If you don’t have anything to say then you shouldn’t be making films. It [has] nothing to do with what lens you’re using. – Christopher Doyle .
Born in Sidney, Australia in 1952, Christopher Doyle has had perhaps one of the most exciting lives of any artist living today; so colourful, in fact, as to have turned him into somewhat of a legend. After leaving Australia at the age of 18 with the intention of travelling the world, Doyle accumulated oddball jobs, working on a Norwegian cargo ship, as a cow herder in Israel, as an oil-digger in India, as a doctor of Chinese medicine in Thailand, and who knows what else. Eventually, Doyle was (re)baptised Du Ke Feng (“Like the Wind”) in the late 1970s by his Language/Poetry teacher at the University of Hong Kong, fitting name for a truly unique artist, who, since picking up the camera to shoot That Day, on the Beach (1983) for the legendary and late Edward Yang, has risen to become one of cinema’s most sought-after cinematographer. Gaby Wood writes for The Observer in 2005:
He is known for his perfectionism and eccentricity. A single love scene in Days of Being Wild, the first of seven films he has made with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, was completed after 53 takes. Their last film together, 2046, took five years to make. For Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Doyle insisted on filming a certain kind of tree that only blossoms in Mongolia for 10 days a year. He shot Gus Van Sant’s frame-for-frame colour remake of Psycho without having seen Hitchcock’s original, and on Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon he drank a bottle and half of whisky a day .
Aside from being somewhat of an eccentric, cinematographers like Doyle, both in status, recognition and talent, are rare and far apart. Cinematographers are responsible of every aspect concerning the actual photographing of the motion picture – from camera operations, which include movements through space, film stock, lenses and filters, to the lighting crews responsible for achieving certain looks, atmospheres, textures, etc. Cinematographers – or DPs, short for Director(s) of Photography – usually blend into the immense fabric of the filmmaking machine as, perhaps the most important person on set after the director, yet usually as another tool for them to command around. In that respect, and for most regular filmgoers, cinematographers are anonymous, with only a few names occasionally rising to the attention of the mainstream for their distinct visual style or game-changing techniques – Anthony Dod Mantle, for his pioneering of digital cinematography with films such as 28 Days Later… (2002) and Antichrist (2009) and 2008 Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire as well as Emmanuel Lubezki for his stunning and instantly recognizable steadycam work on Children of Men (2006) and recently on The Tree of Life (2011), are perhaps, the most immediate examples.
Some photography :
Known for his highly improvisational style resulting from Hong Kong’s unpredictable, often crammed and mostly difficult environments in which he developed his style, Doyle started his career with Yang’s That Day, on the Beach in 1983, accumulating subsequent collaborations with filmmakers such as Claire Devers (Noir et Blanc in 1986, which convinced Doyle he wanted to work in Asia) and Patrick Tam (My Heart is That Eternal Rose in 1989), until the fateful day he met Wong Kar-wai, for whom he shot Days of Being Wild in 1990. The film – and his subsequent collaborations with Wong Kar-wai, completely redefined world cinema’s aesthetics and launched both Kar-wai and Doyle’s career on the international front. This collaboration gave birth to what is sometimes referred to as the “Wong Kar-wai” aesthetic, which is perhaps as misnomer in respect to Doyle’s instrumental role in developing it – and pursuing it in other Hong Kong films from the late 90′s and early 00′s.
A striking use of rich, vibrant, lush and complementary colours, fluid handheld movements, innovative use of urban lighting such as neon and intentional over-exposition to create artful blur are all trademarks of Christopher Doyle’s work, from – roughly – 1989 to 2004. Instantly recognizable, Wong Kar-wai’s cinema became indissociable with Christopher Doyle’s work; cinema which, thematically, is about relationships, romance and urban alienation, always very intimate with its characters, while in images, is concerned with the expressionistic potential of the urban environment as well as the exploration of a surreal, dream-like atmosphere through the use of lighting – and its possible deformations through lensing, exposition and so on. By extension, these traits became Doyle’s main concern during a period in which he produced what is widely considered to be his best work. Days of Being Wild (1990) was immediately followed by Chungking Express (1994), a quick in-and-out production Kar-wai and Doyle shot as a respite from the epic production of Ashes of Time (1994) and which, perhaps because of its immediate, almost improvised nature, turned out to be one of the absolute masterpieces of contemporary cinema, one of this author’s all-time favourites, championed and distributed in the West by Quentin Tarantino’s now-defunct Rolling Thunder Pictures and subsequently picked up by the Criterion Collection in 2008.
It is usually difficult to talk about a cinematographer’s style by dissociating it from the directors (or films) in the service of which the images were produced. That said, as Doyle shot Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997) and the seminal In the Mood for Love (2000) for Wong Kar-wai, as well as the odd films for other directors here and there, such as Kaige Chen’s Temptress Moon in 1996, Ki-Yong Park’s Motel Cactus in 1997, Gus Van Sant’s undecipherable Psycho remake/experiment in 1998 and even Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights in 1999, it quickly became evident that his fascination with expressive colours, as well as his concern with use of light and motion as painterly elements of composition were more than a passing or circumstantial stylistic fluke. Furthermore, Doyle’s propensity for evasive and constantly morphing form became clear in his unconventional framing, always attune to the environment around him and the possibilities to play with depth of field as well as focus: note in the stills above and below the equally fascinating use of shallow depth of field and deep focus, as well as the various styles of compositions at play; partly as an obligation of the cinematic medium, but mostly as a desire to make the most out of every frame, express pure emotion through of every image.
[...] I think the point of cinematography, of what we do, is intimacy. Is intent, is the balance between the familiar and the dream, it is being subjective and objective, it is being engaged and yet standing back and noticing something that perhaps other people didn’t notice before, or celebrating something that you feel is beautiful or valid, or true or engaging in some way. – Christopher Doyle
In 2002, Doyle was given the opportunity to take his fascination with colour composition to its natural conclusion, with Zhang Yimou’s epic wuxia film Hero, starring Jet Li as well as Wong Kar-wai favorites Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung and for which Doyle won his 5th Hong Kong Film Award for Best Cinematography. An excerpt from his production journal was published in the September 2003 issue of American Cinematographer :
It’s an epic scroll that reveals itself in colours [...] The same story is told in a number of ways, a slightly different version each time that is as much a response to as a compounding of the story that came before. Each elaboration has a colour system of its own – white, red, blue and green are the colours we have settled on.
In Robert Mackay’s interview conducted for The New York Times  in August of 2004, Doyle makes a few notes about colour:
Having decided to shoot a key part of the third tale in a desert near the border with Kazakhstan, the filmmakers picked the white of the desert at noon for the costumes in this section. When it came to actually shooting there, however, the crew found the desert at noon beautiful but unendurable; they had to wait until later in the day to shoot, when it was cool enough to work. ”The white became a little bit warmer than white,” Mr. Doyle notes, ”because of the evening light.”
Red was the first colour Mr. Zhang chose, which presented Mr. Doyle with an immediate problem: in his work with Hong Kong directors like Wong Kar-wai, Mr. Doyle had made a conscious effort not to use the colour. “Up until `In the Mood for Love,’ ” he says, “we avoided red at all costs. I think I’ve probably said on at least 25 films, `No red,’ because it has too many associations in Asia.” Then he had to find a way to produce images that would match the unusual red of the hand-dyed costumes. To do this he decided to switch from Fuji, the film brand used for most of the film, to Kodak. “The red is a Kodak red,” he said. “It’s a much more saturated solid red.”
The filmmakers decided to stage the climax of the second story on a magnificent lake in the Jiuzhaigou [Valley] region of China, and the color of the water, they say, inspired them to make this section blue. As Mr. Doyle explains: “We knew that one section should be red, but we weren’t sure what the other colours were. And so we wandered around China looking for spaces that were interesting or unexpected or perhaps hadn’t been shot before. And we said, `Oh, this might work for this, therefore this section is this colour.’ It kind of evolved organically. ” The resulting lack of contrast between characters and setting was intentional. “The thing about colour is that it’s like light,” Mr. Doyle says. “In order to see darkness on film, you need a bright spot in some part of the frame. In other words, you need a contrast. In this film you’re totally surrounded by one color, and that’s very rare.”
Woven through the variously colored stories of ”Hero” are green flashbacks [...] While most of the movie’s bold colors were achieved by using filters and processing the film in unusual ways, the curtains had to be color-corrected on a computer to get the exact shade the filmmakers were after. Mr. Doyle, an Australian who made his name in Asian cinema, is impatient with universal theories of color like the one offered by the Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro: ”Storaro says green is the color of knowledge. Well, I’ve done many films where green was the color of memory, and that’s just a personal choice. Actually, in ‘Hero’ we used green for the flashbacks because we ran out of colors. We’d done all the other stuff. So we had the red, we had the blue, we had the white — there was only green left, basically. You’re not going to do anything in orange or pink.”
As Doyle signed his last collaboration with Wong Kar-wai in the form of the science-fiction epic 2046 and moved, if ever so slightly, away from Asia to shoot films such as James Ivory’s The White Countess (2005), M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water (2006), Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park (2007), Johan Renck’s Downloading Nancy (2008), Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009) and Neil Jordan’s Ondine (2009), his style evolved as it got away from the busy, hot-coloured romantic backdrops of Asian metropolises and into colder, more conventional – sometimes Hollywood – terrain. Doyle’s concern with colours and the dream-like potential of light (especially blue light in his Western work), as well as his distinctly effective style of coverage, which often incorporates hand-held and a perceivable ease of movement, can still be seen, but in undeniably less striking ways. A subtle shift in aesthetics which had been foreshadowed, perhaps, by Psycho‘s muted colour palette. Sometimes unremarkable in respect to his otherwise unique aesthetic, these latter films show a more conventional facet of the cinematographer’s work, while offering Doyle an occasion, as ironic as it may sound, to experiment with a different, often large-scale, model of filmmaking. In a 2009 interview for Vice, Doyle is quoted as saying:
Those [larger-budger, studio-type pictures] were fantastic experiences. I would never have had so much respect for craftsmanship if I hadn’t done them. And they also informed me about the qualities of a more complete, more technically astute Western working environment. I could say, “Is that really the kind of film that I want to make?” Well, yeah, at that time that was something I wanted to know. 
Doyle, nonetheless, seems to evolve in a privileged manner, finding interesting work around the globe and choosing his collaborations wisely. Stimulating filmmakers with very different approaches and stories to tell, are as many occasions for the artist to master the cinematic image, which, a decade ago, he helped define through new parameters of movement and beauty and which Doyle is now looking to (re)simplify in the way he presents us colours and light, often naked, often visible, often unremarkable but always beautiful. Doyle’s work has always drawn attention to itself in a way, commenting on the potential of the cinematic medium to go further than pure representation and into something else, more beautiful and unique, energizing considerably what filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni have attempted with films like Red Desert (1964): that is, to paint with the camera. Trivially, both are linked through the 2004 anthology film Eros, for which Doyle shot Wong Kar-wai’s segment “The Hand“ and Antonioni contributed his own, “Dangerous Thread of Things”.
More recently, Doyle has moved into even more eclectic territory, shooting, amongst others, Xue Xiaolu’s Ocean Heaven, a perfectly harmless tearjerker about an autistic kid; Shinji Imaoka’s delirious Underwater Love - a musical pinku film mixing sex, songs and folkloric turtle-beaked monsters known as kappa; as well as Rabbit Horror 3D – which, let’s hope, is exactly what it sounds like, despite being unfortunately re-titled for the international market as Tormented - for Takashi Shimizu, legendary J-Horror director behind Ju-On (2002), the subsequent sequels and American remake The Grudge (2004).
Written October 25th & 26th for 589-BWT-03: Imaging Technologies with Myriam Rafla, Dawson College, 2011