The revered cameraman / sage Christopher Doyle approaches his craft without pretension. Let's explore his work and wisdom.
Australian-born cinematographer Christopher Doyle has brought his talents to some of the most iconic films in international cinema, working with artists such as Edward Yang, Alejandro Jodorowsky and most notably the esteemed Hong Kong writer Wong Kar-Wai. Together, Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle gave birth to seven feature films, including Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love.
Doyle, known to his contemporaries by his mandarin name 杜 可 風 (Dù Kěfēng), is an adoptive son from Hong Kong and has lived in the incredibly dense port city for three decades. There he continues his work to this day and builds on his well-known cinematic work. He is an unmistakably sincere man who freely expresses his affection for Hong Kong, his aversion to pretense, and his reverence for life.
Although Doyle is known for his remarkable cinematography – luscious and gritty at the same time – he finds his truth by being open to a variety of practices and experiences. He's multilingual, very collaborative, and spends much of his time creating lively and expressive collages. In this post we will ponder the filmmaker's diverse approaches to life, beauty, and art, as well as how we can all practice his philosophies.
A man who is still there
Continuing his creative endeavors at his Kowloon Bay studio, Christopher Doyle is the definition of a man who is still at it. In recent years he has worked on two projects under the direction of the esteemed dissident Ai Weiwei, made a film with his girlfriend and peer Jenny Suen and – perhaps most notably – the Hong Kong trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, his avant-garde, directed a portrait of the modern Hong Kong people.
The Hong Kong trilogy blurs the line between documentary and narrative fiction and is an inescapable political glimpse into three generations of Hong Kong. Like a modern symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Doyle transforms real places in Hong Kong into surreal waking dreams where real Hong Kong people speak with their own voices and break reality apart to show us the truth. Produced at the height of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, the film offers an insightful look at the 2014 Occupy Central demonstrations, as well as honest interviews with Hong Kong residents, young and old.
It goes without saying that Christopher Doyle is a master of composition and color. So it should come as no surprise that this gift would manifest in other forms. He has been practicing mixed media painting and paper collage for years. Similar to his photography, his collages are chaotic and elegant at the same time, permeated with vivid colors and full of expressive texture.
His mixed media practice is an indication of his method of being open and working on himself. By practicing this new discipline, he strengthens his artistic sense and expands his understanding of shape, color and beauty. With this in mind, Christopher Doyle, the Australian-born, ethnically European, multilingual Mandarin student who became a world-renowned cameraman is a true multidisciplinary.
In an episode of CNN's Parts Unknown series, the late Anthony Bourdain spends time with Doyle in his studio reflecting on the history of Hong Kong and the innate beauty of all things. Here we get an open look at the other artistic pursuit of the cameraman, namely the collage. As he pours gray ink onto a gleaming white sheet of paper, Doyle Bourdain reveals his thoughts:
I don't watch movies, I don't watch other people's work. I can't draw, but I know if you paste this and move it around a little it can take you anywhere. So to me, collage is like the unexpected compilation, to perhaps suggest something that you never thought of.
Doyle often claims to be "not very technical" and describes his filmmaking career as something of an accident. If not intended, then this brilliant filmmaker may have found his calling through another mechanism – his love of life and his openness to the world as it is. His work with paper collages illustrates this attitude. In this practice he literally throws up pictures to see where this chaotic union of color and shape will take him.
We can all take note of Christopher Doyle and be open to new experiences. Find something new – a new discipline, unlikely hobby or interest – and pursue it. Whether sketching, cycling, dancing or writing – a new exercise can only widen the path that you have already covered.
Find the movie
In an interview with ARRI, which celebrates the centenary of the legendary camera brand, Doyle discusses this virtue of adaptability. He describes the Eastern mindset of filmmaking after having worked primarily in low-budget Chinese-language cinema for most of his career. He tells ARRI
I think I have a lot more enjoyment from this Asian process of finding the movie rather than making a movie.
The filmmaker shows his awe of openness again, takes whatever comes his way and makes the most of it. He often talks about his experiences with the director Wong Kar-Wai, films in a confined space, uses the available settings and works with the colorful madness of Hong Kong.
In fact, the duo filmed much of the Chungking Express in Doyle's humble apartment in the central Hong Kong neighborhood. Her run-and-gun approach enabled films like Fallen Angels and Happy Together, kinetic films that focus on grit to portray heightened reality and raw tenderness.
Maybe a little flexibility will be enough to make the next Chungking Express. Don't let circumstances hinder your work. Sure, this is easier said than done, but you may find something unexpected.
Give voice to the unspoken
In another great moment from the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown, Christopher Doyle and Anthony Bourdain visit the picturesque Tai O village, accompanied by Doyle's friend and co-director Jenny Suen. The well-preserved fishing village on the west coast of Lantau Island was the location of Suen and Doyle's 2017 film The White Girl.
While having a drink, Bourdain asks Doyle about changes and the slow disappearance of the region's culture, a product of gentrification in the city and the lengthening arm of mainland China. Doyle's answer is quite eloquent:
The only function of what we do with art or anything is to give voice to the unspoken, to give it a form in which it has never been perceived before. We cannot change the evolution of history or gentrification – you cannot stop that. But at least you can say: see what you lose.
This view of life and art is remarkable as it reveres the acceptance of change, but also bears the responsibility to document, understand, and deal with it. It fits the philosophy of finding the film perfectly. A filmmaker can only say: "Give an idea a picture." This is how he and Suen create with integrity. They give an idea an image and act as a vehicle for that idea rather than as its creator.
In times like ours, a time marked by widespread political unrest and an ongoing global pandemic, turning away from creating something fresh or unimaginable and synthesizing the moment, this unprecedented, redefined now, can serve filmmakers well .
If we creators can humble ourselves, we can assume the role of messenger and give voice to the unspoken. With so much to say, maybe a messenger is just what we need.
Christopher Doyle's openness to life and his ability to adapt to circumstances have made the filmmaker the man we know now – an icon who celebrates light and color that were found and not created. Aspiring filmmakers can follow Doyle's lead – find a new discipline, practice life, and find film.
Discover the work and philosophy of the best filmmakers in the world:
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Cover photo via Kin Cheung / AP / Shutterstock.