by ASC Staff, American Cinematographer
American Cinematographer: When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Todd A. Dos Reis, ASC: Being raised by a single mother in a New Bedford, Massachusetts, housing project, I had a great deal of unsupervised time. I was slipping into R-rated movies at the age of 8. It’s there that I saw Three the Hard Way, Uptown Saturday Night, and other films that would later be classified as Blaxploitation, where actors like Sidney Poitier, Jim Kelly and Pam Grier were the heroes fighting for black people.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
I have a council of ASC cinematographers in my mind who are constantly advising me: Conrad L. Hall encourages me to use every frame to tell a story; Gordon Willis makes me practice my craft every day, to light images as dark as he did; I strive to impress Roger Deakins with my lighting diagrams; and Bradford Young inspires me to think outside the box.
What sparked your interest in photography?
I developed a love of the art by seeing films at my local theater every weekend. I took a photography class in high school, which introduced me to the science of making an image.
Where did you train and/or study?
I earned a bachelor’s degree in cinema/TV production at USC, but what I soaked up on film sets as a camera assistant and camera operator watching amazing cinematographers gave me a great foundation. As a young DP in the heyday of MTV, shooting close to 100 music videos gave me ample opportunity to create without fear.
“Achieving ASC membership gave me a concrete goal that has driven me my whole career. As one of only seven African Americans with this honor, membership gives me a platform to help find ways of reaching an underrepresented, diverse community like the one I came from.”
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
On feature films, Russell Carpenter [ASC] showed me how lighting could tell a story, and that experimentation needed to be a way of life. I learned how to lead and treat crews by the example set by Johnny Simmons [ASC] on his music-video shoots.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
The quest for originality has driven my career, and I am influenced by artists who have changed the way the world ‘sees.’ Caravaggio revolutionized natural daylight in his paintings, while Vermeer boldly used strong shadows and shafts of light to create a style.
How did you get your first break in the business?
After college, my first job was as a PA on a Russell Carpenter feature. I hounded the camera assistants, Mark Jackson and Art Martin, to teach me everything camera. They let me take Arri BL and Arri III magazines home on the weekends to practice. Soon, they needed a loader and I was hired. When a 2nd unit was brought on, I moved up to 2nd AC.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
There was a three-year span where I was going back and forth between Longmire, a modern Western crime drama, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy. The desert landscape of Longmire allowed me to push the limits of both darkness and blazing brilliance. On every episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, we were able to create three musical numbers.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
As a 1st AC, I blew focus on a John Woo film and then had to listen to John Woo moan in agony during dailies.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Absorb the wealth of knowledge that you are surrounded by on the set. Never stop learning.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I am inspired by the storytelling of Christopher Nolan, Sam Mendes and David Fincher.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I am mesmerized by film noir — from the films of the ’40s to Blade Runner 2049. My soul would be satisfied if I could create a world steeped in dark shadows.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
My childhood dream was to play basketball for the Boston Celtics. My adult dream is to play center midfield for the U.S. National Soccer Team.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
David Klein, Russell Carpenter and Johnny Simmons.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Achieving ASC membership gave me a concrete goal that has driven me my whole career. As one of only seven African Americans with this honor, membership gives me a platform to help find ways of reaching an underrepresented, diverse community like the one I came from, and to be a resource for those undiscovered artists.