Noah Greenberg Falling into Motion

Photo: Rhiannon Cooper

Noah Greenberg moved sideways into cinematography through a fateful collaboration in 2008. He began his career more than 20-years ago as a commercial still photographer, shooting portraits for editorial, music and advertising clients.

While he was always fascinated with art and photography, it was his experiences in college, years earlier, that spurred his interest in imaging. Greenberg originally enrolled in the University of Rochester to pursue a cross-discipline major in English, Art History and Psychology. After taking his first photography class at the U of R and interning at a local photography gallery, however, Greenberg came to realize his true passion for photography, and soon after transferred into Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT) School of Photographic Arts and Sciences program, where he began to pursue the discipline in earnest.

After RIT, and a stint at an equipment rental house in NYC, Greenberg spent a couple of years assisting and shooting in Philadelphia before moving back to his current home base in NYC, where he started out doing portrait assignments primarily for editorial and music clients.  In 2003, he secured a “really great gig” working on a Web campaign for Microsoft, which helped him later sign with PROOF (a small boutique agency) in 2004, where he met Craig William Macneill who was, at the time, editing portfolios while pursuing a film directing career.

The following year, Macneill had his first short film screened at Sundance, and decided to have a local screening in Brooklyn – after which Greenberg and Macneill discovered that they both loved whiskey and became fast friends.

Jump ahead to 2007, when the two met for more whiskey, and Macneill told Greenberg, “I just finished my new screenplay.” Greenberg offered his congratulations, of course, yet was puzzled when Macneill replied, “Congratulations to you because you’re shooting it.” (Macneill was familiar with Greenberg’s work from editing his still portfolios at the agency.) They ordered another round and, after a few drinks, the flattered and surprised Greenberg said, “let me sleep on it, and I’ll give you an answer in the morning.” That, however, was merely a stalling tactic, Greenberg says. “I loved the idea, and knew I was going to say ‘yes,’ but I needed a minute. I had never touched a motion picture camera; I knew nothing about cinema in the formal sense; and it was going to be shot in Spain, in Spanish, on Super 16mm!”

As promised, Greenberg called Macneill in the morning. “I told him ‘yes,’ but can we wait a minute so I can get my hands on a Super 16mm camera first?’” After a quick conversation with his neighbor, director of photography, Frank G. DeMarco, Greenberg got an introduction to the folks at ARRI in New York, who kindly lent him a camera for the weekend.

Yet Greenberg’s trial by fire didn’t end with learning how to use the camera, as he quickly became a part of the producing team—a “real challenge with my imperfect Spanish.” Since Greenberg had produced all of his still photo shoots, film production wasn’t too much of a stretch for him, however, chaos reigned. “Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The truck got stuck in the mud, people didn’t show up. We didn’t get to see our camera registration test until after we finished shooting! But we got it done and it looked good!”

Then, on the last day of shooting, Greenberg fell backwards into a ditch after filming a scene in the woods. It was dusk and his pants got caught on a tree stump, throwing him off balance. The fall was momentous for a couple of reasons. First, his first light meter, which he had purchased as a student, broke his fall but ended up smashed. Secondly, upon seeing the destroyed still-photography meter, director and friend Craig William Macneill teased, “It’s a sign. You’re officially done with still photography!”

Despite all the challenges—including doing double duty as DP and producer—Greenberg loved the experience. “It was really fun. The chaos was great,” he added. And, equally important, was working with a team: “I love the film family; working with a big collaborative group was a very welcome change after years of being a still photographer where it was just me, or maybe me and few other people.”

Since then, Greenberg and Macneill have gone on to collaborate on a number of projects: the 2012 Sundance Selected short film, Henley; The Boy, a feature film starring David Morse and Rainn Wilson that had its debut in competition at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival; the 2016 anthology television series Channel Zero: Candle Cove for Syfy; and the forthcoming feature film Lizzie—a period piece based on the story of Lizzie Borden and the 1892 murder of her parents starring Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart.

Greenberg’s other narrative feature work includes: Most Beautiful Island, shot on super 16mm and awarded the Grand Jury Prize for a Narrative Feature at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, written, directed by and starring Ana Asensio; Coin Heist, a Netflix Original Film directed by Emily Hagins; Cruise, directed by Robert D. Siegel, starring Emily Ratajkowski and Spencer Boldman; and the thriller Camino, directed by Josh C. Waller, starring Zoë Bell.

Greenberg always likes to have a camera in his hand, but what he does on set depends on the project. On several sets—Lobos, Henley, The Boy, Camino, Most Beautiful Island—he operated full time. For other multi-camera jobs like Cruise and Coin Heist, he operated the A Camera. On other projects, he will step back to a more traditional director of photography role and direct other operators, perhaps stepping in to operate on specific scenes, as was the case with Channel Zero: Candle Cove and Lizzie.

When he’s not operating the camera, Greenberg makes an extra effort to develop a rapport with the actors—“a relationship that happens more organically when [he’s] shooting.” At the same time, he adds, not having a camera in his hand “offers more time to collaborate with the gaffer…it’s harder to have broader lighting conversations in the moment when you have your eye to the eyepiece.”

For Camino, Greenberg shot every frame of the film. “It was fantastic, and dynamic—there was a lot of action work and a lot of running around. It was only one camera, but I was handholding it for 12 hours,” he said. “We were in the jungle, so we had to keep it streamlined. The monitors were 50 feet away and I’d run over and talk to the director for a minute and run back to the camera. Or he’d stand looking over my shoulder at the on-board.”

When Greenberg is operating, he is very technically precise, and will monitor and adjust color using his Sekonic C700 meter and a combination of waveform and false color depending on the circumstances. When not operating, Greenberg will have the gaffer and key grip stand with him at his monitor so that they can collaborate and make adjustments in real time via radio with the crew. (Greenberg, unlike a lot of DPs, also wears a radio “because it speeds things up” by allowing him to communicate with the camera operators and other crew.) When working from his monitor cart, Greenberg’s prefers to have a hardware waveform and vectorscope as well as the ability to toggle between Log and LUT signals; he will remotely control the iris using a single channel wireless remote so that he can ride exposures and make tweaks on the fly.

Greenberg believes his primary job on set is to translate the director’s vision while imbuing the project with some of his own visual style. This includes: making decisions about camera and lens selection, how the camera moves (or doesn’t, as the case may be) in a scene, shot composition, and lighting.

“My job as DP,” he explains, “very much depends on the director, the relationship, and the project. Some directors lean heavily on the DP for the visual direction, while others have very specific concepts for the visual aspects of the process. Craig [Macneill] for instance, has a very fine-tuned idea regarding what he’s looking for. In that case, I’m really refining that idea and translating it. It’s a very collaborative process. If you work with a director for a while, you start to understand what he or she wants,” says Greenberg, adding that “I kind of know what Craig is looking for when we work together. It’s not 100% me; it’s me operating within the parameters that I know will define Craig’s vision.” Once this synergy between the director’s vision and the DP starts working, everything moves smoothly and quickly.

Tech Stuff

While his cameras may vary, Greenberg has been using Chimera products “forever, it seems!” As a still photographer, he worked with Chimera softboxes, which he used with his Profoto strobes. On films like The Boy, gaffer Andy Cole would pair the Chimera softboxes with ARRI M40 HMI’s for much of the night-time interior work, “pushing” them through windows; while on Channel Zero: Candle Cove, gaffer John Clarke utilized softboxes and strip banks with control grids for the Barger light.

When shooting The Boy, they used a 12K HMI on a hill across the street from a motel they built for the set. “We used a large Chimera box on the light and that was our single source as fill, providing a night-time base for the scenes that were shot in front of the motel and by the fort…My concern was that I didn’t want to have to light the motel too much. We [the production designer, gaffer and director] ended up putting fluorescent fixtures under the awning and sconce lights in front of each door. The combination of those practical lights as key lights and the 12K on the hill lit almost everything that happened outside of the motel at night.”

Still Shooting Stills

For his personal work, Greenberg prefers his 1960s and 1980s vintage Rollieflex TLR medium format film cameras.  However, he has recently begun carrying a Fuji X-T1 when on set for behind the scenes photos. This began on Camino, a film about a photojournalist in 1980s Colombia that was filmed in Hawaii.  Greenberg “had stopped dragging my Rolleis to the set since they were delicate and impractical.”  He started taking pictures with his iPhone for fun, but was frustrated with the results and decided that a compact digital would be worth carrying. He’d sling the X-T1 over his back while he was shooting with the ARRI Amira, and would shoot candids when he could. In the end, he had shot a couple of thousand pictures and, as it turns out, his shots saved the day.  Since the protagonist was supposed to be a photojournalist, the director used some of Greenberg’s images in the film as her (the PJ’s) photos.

Additionally, there was a scene in a tiny village that the director wanted to tell through her still photographs. The director initially thought they’d shoot it on the Amira and then pull stills for that scene. As they were about to shoot the scene, however, the Amira went down. Greenberg shot the whole scene on his Fuji X-T1 as a series of evocative still frames, and those were used to tell the story.

Greenberg obviously still enjoys shooting stills, and always will. But when we asked what he’d like to do that he hasn’t yet done, his reply was simple: shoot a 4:3 black and white noir film. Given his long-term love of black and white still photography, that’s no surprise. Let us know when it happens, Noah—we’ll definitely come to the screening!

Noah Greenberg is a member of IATSE Local 600 in New York and is represented in the by Danica Pupa at DDA Talent (www.ddatalent.com)

You can see more of Greenberg’s work on his website: www.noahgreenberg.com.