A conversation with cinematographer & photographer Brandon Hoeg
Yeah, so I’m a 23 year old cinematographer and photographer living in Chicago.
What did you go to school for?
I graduated from DePaul University in 2018 with a BFA in digital cinema and my concentration was in cinematography.
Did you always know you wanted to do that?
I had always liked the idea of making things. I liked editing weird little videos together or making weird short films with my friends. For a little bit, I wanted to do environmental activism and I wanted to pursue soccer in college, but that stuff didn’t really pan out. I had a teacher in high school who really pushed me and motivated me to pursue a career in filmmaking because I had always thought of it as an inaccessible thing. Sometimes it still feels like that, but he really motivated me and convinced me that it was something I could tangibly go after. Photography was always a hobby, sort of peripheral thing, but it started becoming something I took more seriously. There was no specific catalyst, it just sort of organically happened.
Were your parents supportive of your choice to study digital cinema?
Yeah, I think my parents were always pretty supportive of that. I don’t know if they were necessarily like, ‘that’s the best thing ever,’ but I think they trusted me to scrape everything together and figure it out, which I’m still currently doing.
What is your biggest accomplishment?
I try to approach things like: if I feel like I did my best and made something worth sharing, that’s an accomplishment even if it’s something only 200 people view. It’s always an accomplishment to bring together a team and work together on a common goal and create something you’re proud of. If I had to point to one specific thing I am proud of, there’s a short film I shot in Vietnam last summer. I love how it turned out.
Can you tell me a story?
When I was in Vietnam, it was August and it’s so unbelievably hot and humid, like 107 degrees Fahrenheit and 100% humidity. Before I left, I got moisture wicking clothes. Basically, I wore these pants everyday, and the one day that I wore shorts, we were sitting outside all eating lunch and one of the grips comes up to me. He barely speaks English, so he is using Google Translate on his phone. He used Google Translate to ask me about my tattoo because I have my dog’s paw print tattooed on my ankle. We had a short Google Translate conversation about my dog and my family and he was really sweet telling me about his family. Then, he takes his phone back and looks at me and says in broken English, ‘I have a tattoo too’ and I’m like, ‘oh really, what do you have?’ And he shows me, and in a classic, New York 80s gangster-style font, he has a tattoo that says ‘Jenny.’ And he looks me in the eyes and says ‘I love Forrest Gump.’
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
That’s an interesting question because I have multiple jobs. I am a set lighting technician. I’m a member of IATSE Local 476, which is Chicago’s stagehand and entertainment workers union, so I work on TV shows and movies in the lighting department where I usually work on bigger shows. I’m also a freelance cinematographer. Each job has its pros and cons. Being an electrician is great because you work as part of a team with a common goal, and you learn about lighting on a large scale. But there is the con of 70 hour work weeks, but I don’t know, I kind of like it. It’s fun and challenging, and you realize how much you miss it with all the Covid stuff. Everyday is a new challenge. You’re faced with new issues and new solutions everyday and it is fun to always be problem solving and working through things. But being a cinematographer/Director of Photographer (DP) is also really fun because you get to collaborate with people and try to bring other people’s visions into reality. It is really fun and rewarding, conceptually having an idea on paper and turning it in to something tangible and presenting it to other people. It can be frustrating in terms of scheduling and communication. Sometimes you do a shoot and you never see it or hear anything about it ever again, but it’s so rewarding when it goes well.
Does it bother you that you work on things and never get to see the final result?
Sometimes it’s frustrating to not see things be finished. On a lot of the indie shoots, you’re really just putting a lot of energy and time into things, and most times you’re not being compensated properly. The hope is that you’ll make something cool, but sometimes it sits on someone’s hard drive forever. It is what it is, ultimately.
What is your goal?
If I could boil it down into one thing, I would love to be a part of telling stories that matter and impact other people. All kinds of movies, stories, and media have impacted me, and I’d love to do that for other people. I’ve become interested in, and excited about, the prospect of helping amplify other people’s stories to make something cohesive that others can relate to and find meaning in. Before, I was like, ‘I wanna work on features of a certain budget or larger scale indies,’ but now that goal is peripheral. Now the goal is something that’s not quite as tangible. Also, I think the goal is just to make something cool.
What is your favorite project you’ve worked on?
That’s tough. I mean definitely the short that I shot in Vietnam, it’s called ‘Dinner.’ There’s a film I shot when I was a junior in school that’s called ‘Maplewood.’ I love that film, I think it’s really cool. I don’t know, it’s interesting because most of the passion-project type things take a small piece of your heart with them.
Least favorite project?
There’s a bunch of stuff I’ve done that I don’t really love. For awhile it was everything I did, I was like, ‘damn this f*cking sucks.’ Sometimes things just don’t end up looking how you thought, but I learn a lot and grow a lot from things like that.
Who is the coolest person you’ve met?
I met Roger Deakins, who is like my idol. I’ve never understood being starstruck until I met him.
Who inspires you?
There are so many people. Kore-eda is my favorite director. I really like Maya Deren’s experimental stuff. DP’s like Bradford Young and Roger Deakins. This is such a hard question. Rachel Morrison. Oh my god, I don’t know. I really like Robert Eggers, Barry Jenkins, Alfonso Cuarón. William Eggleston is a big photography inspiration, and so is Li Zhensheng.
What is the biggest issue you face in your industry?
This question is better served to address people who face more disparity in the industry than I do. We need to work on not only paying women and BIPOC properly, but also just supporting those voices. Those things far supersede any sort of injustice that I may have thought I’ve experienced in the industry. What they go through is so different than what I experience. It is improving, but there is still a long way to go when it comes to inclusion and diversity.
How has Covid-19 impacted your job?
I didn’t work for like four months. I had to go on unemployment and I had been saving up to make a big student-loan payment, and I had to dip into that. The only jobs I’ve had since Covid are small, indie things, so it’s like still being unemployed and I don’t know when it’s gonna come back. It like totally destroyed the whole industry.
When it comes to shooting film, how do you decide what is worth taking a picture of?
That’s the cool thing about keeping it as mainly a hobby. I never want it to feel like a job, though it does sometimes. I like reserving it in a special creative space which allows me to shoot anything I think is cool.
What is your favorite thing about shooting film?
I like how tangible it is. The big thing is that I really like the process of waiting for images and slowing down. I have binders of my negatives and my slides and it’s cool to have something physical that you made. Shooting 16 mm and getting your reel back from the lab and getting to hold the negatives is so cool. I built a darkroom in my apartment. I love the darkroom and printing.
You use an old-fashioned medium, so how do you feel about technological advancements like virtual galleries?
I think virtual galleries are a really interesting idea, especially in terms of accessibility of art. Like right now, I’m working on this project about how Covid revealed a lot of social and economic disparities. For this project, one of the big things is putting it on YouTube so it’s free and accessible for people to watch so they can gain information and knowledge. If we went the festival route, it could be months before it came out, and who knows how many people could even see it. I think the same school of thought is being applied to virtual galleries. I love things that are tangibly printed and being one-on-one with art, but I don’t think that’s being taken away — I think it’s evolving. Things evolve and are fluid. Virtual galleries also change how artists are making art. I think it’s a new tool artists can use to connect with people in new and unique ways. It allows for new, creative thoughts and processes. It allows for new media, like motion art. I think the accessibility aspect is the part that’s most exciting, but it offers artists a new way to connect and create, which I’m always down for.
What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?
People want to do what I do? *laughs* My advice is just be a compassionate and nice person and always be willing to accept ways that you can improve yourself. Just be honest in what you make and how you make it, the rest fills itself in.
Have you ever been interviewed before?
How did I do?
I thought you did well.