The life of a Hollywood cinematographer
A mix of talent and luck landed cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg in Los Angeles.
It’s Sunday evening and a rare moment of quiet in the life of Peter Flinckenberg. He spent his day off at a Korean spa with his sons and now it is time to catch his breath at home in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.
Flinckenberg’s alarm clock will once again wake him at five the following morning, when shooting of the I’m dying up here comedy series continues for CBS Corporation’s Showtime network. The show is set in a 1970s Los Angeles stand-up club and it is scheduled for release next spring. At the same time, Flinckenberg is working on a documentary film about 60s comedy duo Cheech & Chong. Shooting of the movie The Sound of Metal, starring Dakota Johnson, is set to begin in January.
Flinckenberg has realised his dream of working in the movie Mecca of Hollywood.
“Life is amazing,” he laughingly acknowledges. But how did all this come about?
From building site to law school
“It was actually a bit strange,” he says in reply when asked how he wound up working in cinema. After secondary school, he was at a loss about what to do with his life. For a while, he worked in construction in Moscow. The years following the fall of the Soviet Union were an exciting time to be in Russia.
Social pressure and the examples set by his mates soon drove the young man back to Finland, however. Flinckenberg studied fine art for a year and then successfully applied to law school.
“But reading law books in solitude was not my thing. I wanted something more.”Frustrated with the reading, he recalled an earlier experience of success.
“When the Soviet Union began to open its borders, I had the opportunity to accompany my parents and a group of scientists to meet with our Finno-Ugric kin-folk on the previously-closed Yamal Peninsula. I hired a camera for our second visit and a YLE news cameraman showed me how to use it.”
The material Flinckenberg recorded was first bought by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE and then also by other European TV channels, enabling the purchase of his first very-own video camera. It took years before he dared think about cinematography as a profession, however.
A late bloomer
Flinckenberg says he has always been an observer in addition to being sensitive to mood and light since a young age. In the end, it was natural for him to try out a creative field.
“But I was anxious about the University’s entrance exam. I decided to completely ignore what the others were doing at the exam.”
His approach was successful and Flinckenberg got in.
“This was a new world for me. I understood what film-making is and how demanding it can be. I was a late bloomer. My classmates had created their own operas and films at 14, but I was not like that.”
Flinckenberg originally wanted to make documentaries, but a training programme for documentary directors did not exist at the time, so he wound up studying cinematography. He became fascinated with cinematic storytelling and the possibility of cooperating with the director, set and costume designers, lighting and sound designers as well as the other crew to create entire worlds. Flinckenberg nearly runs out of words when singing the praises of his education.
“Our professor at the time, Esa Vuorinen, had knowledge and experience of the world at large. He opened the eyes of us students and taught us how to think of the bigger picture.”
Getting work experience by serving as, among other things, an assistant to cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos during the shooting of the films Fire-Eater and Ambush was also significant. Without Esa Vuorinen, Flinckenberg would not be in Hollywood right now.
The American wonderland
Pirjo Honkasalo’s Concrete Night was a stroke of luck for Flinckenberg. In September 2014, the film, which was directed by Honkasalo and shot by Flinckenberg, was selected to represent Finland in the long list of candidates for the best foreign-language movie category of the Oscars. It didn’t make the short list, but was nevertheless noticed by the American Society of Cinematographers, which nominated the film for its prestigious Spotlight Award. And the movie won this prize.
“All of a sudden, every agent in town was very keen to meet with me.”
In just a couple of months, Flinckenberg was asked to make his first Hollywood film. He filmed a movie directed by fashion designer sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy in Northern California. After the summer, his family leased out their house in Espoo and moved to Los Angeles.
Flinckenberg was terrified at first. The high cost of housing and educating their children in America shocked him. Union membership also costs an arm and a leg, but you have to have it in order to work in the industry.
The first year also included a difficult phase when agreed projects got postponed and cancelled. This was often caused by starring actors rescheduling. Flinckenberg had also turned down some other projects to make time for the movies, which were now being rescheduled. Even though he was constantly adding to his network of contacts, there just wasn’t enough work. Switching agencies rectified this situation, however. Agents are vital cooperation partners for cinematographers and he had to do a lot of learning about this aspect as well.
He also had concerns about his own professional competence.
“The idea that everyone else is better than me can get into your head. However, I soon realised that I’m good enough and that I’m liked because I’m the way that I am.”
Hard pace but good vibes
Now Flinckenberg is shooting a TV show, a documentary and a film.
“Getting into television was a real lucky break. The TV side seems to be experiencing a big boost as organisations like Netflix and Amazon move into content production. I also like that TV shows are recorded in Los Angeles, whereas movie shoots often take place somewhere else. It allows me to stay closer to my family.”
Everything is, of course, much bigger in America than it is in Finland. There’s more money, equipment, staff and time. The budget for one episode of I’m Dying Up Here is $6–8 million and it takes 12 days to record it.
Behind each production is a large and well-oiled machine.
“Working is easy when you’re surrounded by so many people offering assistance. Each segment is managed with care. Assistant directors are incredibly capable. They can, for example, instantly conjure up 20 cops to block off roads and then 40 classic American cars will glide into the picture. The cost of things is not a constant concern over here and you’re encouraged to focus on doing good work instead.”
Flinckenberg has found it most difficult to accept the rigid hierarchies that Hollywood’s powerful unions and guilds enforce. You are not allowed to stray outside your own professional role.
“I have to separately apply for permission if I want to touch a camera myself. Sometimes I find it hard to keep myself behind the monitor!”
Shooting is intensive work and a day on set is 12 hours long at minimum. The pace is hard in Hollywood, yet Flinckenberg finds the mood pretty relaxed.
“Although you feel like all the juice is getting squeezed out of you, there’s plenty of support, humour and good vibes. You get a lot of encouragement. It’s easier to give it a go here and failure does not equal death. Good pay also makes things easier.”
Light – his most important tool
A cinematographer’s main responsibility is to direct the filming team. When shooting a TV show, Flinckenberg supervises several camera crews of 4–5 people as well as even larger lighting and grip crews.
Flinckenberg usually starts his work by reading the script the producers send him.
“This is a sacred moment. I typically begin to envision what the end result might look like when I read the script. I’ll then quickly try to engage the director in discussion so that I don’t push my own vision too heavily.”
Flinckenberg presents his own proposal to the director in the form of a visual collage that can include photographs, art and paintings.
“My most important tool is light. And light is emotion, it’s difficult to put into words. I’ll often emotionally recognise that something about the lighting or the movement of the camera is off relative to the scene being narrated.”
Flinckenberg has one piece of advice for film students.
“Aim high. At the end of the day, everything depends on your own desire to achieve something bigger. I’ve always felt the urge to find out what I’m capable of. Finns should absolutely feel in no way inferior. The standard of our education and our work ethic are just so high.”
Flinckenberg thinks the best aspects of Los Angeles are its art scene, multi-cultural nature and social life.
“I enjoy the different neighbourhoods of LA, their colour and diversity.The social life is also great here and the standard of the art scene boggles the mind.”
In his free time, Flinckenberg can be found shuttling his kids to soccer and music practice. He plays soccer himself as well and likes to hang out at jazz clubs. Weekends are spent visiting friends.
“Thank God I didn’t get to Hollywood as a young man. It’s easy to become ungrounded here if you’re not at peace with yourself.”
Peter Flinckenberg graduated as a cinematographer in 2003. He lives in Los Angeles, where he shoots TV shows, movies and ads. Flinckenberg received the prestigious Spotlight award for the movie Concrete Night in 2014 and this year Variety magazine named him as one of ten cinematographers to keep an eye on right now. He has won a Jussi Award for his work on the movies Concrete Night and Pixadores. Flinckenberg also shot Selma Vilhunen’s short film Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2014. In 2015, Flinckenberg filmed Woodshock in Los Angeles. The movie starred Kirsten Dunst and it was directed by the designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, founders of the fashion label Rodarte. Shooting of the film The Sound of Metal, which stars Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson, is scheduled to start in spring 2017. Right now, he is working on the TV series I’m Dying Up Here for the Showtime network.
The article was originally published in Aalto University Magazine 18: https://issuu.com/aaltouniversity/docs/aum_18_web/20