Master of Light and Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Michael Wylam

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Hi everyone! Today, we are happy to spotlight the incredible talent and multi-award-winning cinematographer, Michael Wylam. Michael is renowned for his work on ‘Where Darkness Lies’ (2019), ‘Lorne’ (2016), and ‘Nathan Loves Ricky Martin’ (2017).

Known for his meticulous attention to detail and his masterful manipulation of light and shadow, Wylam recently gained well-deserved recognition for his work on the acclaimed film ‘The Ornament,’ which earned him an ACS Award, celebrating his exceptional contributions to cinematic art. Additionally, he has received a recent Leo nomination for Best Cinematography, further solidifying his reputation in the industry.

Michael Wylam’s approach is distinguished by his painterly use of light and shadow, his expressive camerawork and a distinctive aesthetic that sets his projects apart.

Michael, your work on ‘The Ornament’ has been widely acclaimed. Can you share what initially inspired the visual style you chose for this film?

Much of the look was really inspired by the tone of the script and the period the film is set in – late 1990s/early 2000s. From there it was about offering up a visual grammar that explored that world in an appropriate way.

I was keen on creating our own look photographically, one that didn’t try and emulate a specific film. If anything, music was my biggest inspiration for this film. Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s “Winter Songs” has a feeling of Christmas with the choir element but also a haunting quality which inspired me when doing the storyboards for the film.

Could you describe one of the biggest challenges you faced while shooting ‘The Ornament’ and how you overcame it?

One of the biggest challenges was the restriction we had on shooting nights at the house location. Given that much of the interior house scenes played at night in the script, I knew tenting this large house (with each room being essentially a wall of windows) was going to be a challenge.

I also wanted a sense of believability through the lace curtains in the outside world at night and a presence of life and depth. After a tech scout, Key Grip Chris Rogers did a fantastic job of tenting the entire house giving me 15’ of room immediately outside the windows.

Michael Wylam

I was then able to pepper lights here and there and wash light onto foliage outside or use our Christmas lights to create a sense of street lamps, bokeh in the distance.

How closely do you work with directors during the pre-production phase?

I generally like to work very closely with directors during the early stages of pre-production. I find that the more I can get inside the director’s head and we can emotionally map the story, the more prepared we are and the earlier the better.

Time is often limited with directors as pre-production approaches principal photography so by that stage I generally do a lot of my own research and prep to develop ideas photographically.

Each project is different however so adapting and evolving different approaches is a fun part of the job.

How do you determine the final look of the film? What research did you conduct before filming, and how did you collaborate with the director to align the vision?

This is a film about abuse in the family home and how that trauma translates was an important element to communicate visually.

I did a lot of research on the psychology of abuse and thought about how that could translate to the feeling the light would communicate in key moments without getting in the way, compositionally how it could present balance and imbalances, and what lensing choices to employ to create a subtle sense of control or unease.

Michael Wylam

In the early stages, I did a great deal of listening to our director Jinjara Mitchell’s personal story which she was bravely telling and with her being a first-time filmmaker I wanted to offer as much support to her as possible throughout the process.

Do you have a favorite shot from the film or one that you’re particularly proud of?

The attic scene was particularly challenging and was located on the fourth floor with no access to condors or lifts that day. We were able to push the schedule to the very last minute of light on the wide shot so it looked black outside and here I had M40s on the car park and on the street below, one of which was roaming to emulate car headlights passing by. Numerous other lights were hidden out of shot and behind furniture to make it look as if light were coming directly through the window from outside.

Michael Wylam

Then we picked up the coverage the next day and blacked out the windows. This shot was a powerful moment – here Tessa has endured her mother’s abusive outburst and she goes to the attic to escape.
I liked the idea that she is dissociating here as a means to deal with the trauma and to punctuate this moment I employed a tilt-shift lens to distort the image slightly. In the negative space, we see a light pattern reminiscent of a chicken coop, presenting a subtle visual cue that she is imprisoned or trapped.

Are there any genres or types of projects you haven’t worked on yet but are interested in exploring?

I would love to shoot a period film – there’s something about being true to the purity of light prior to electricity that really interests me.

I had the opportunity to shoot a black and white film recently but was unable due to scheduling conflicts but I’d love to lens a similar project again. Sci-fi also would be high on the list.

What advice would you give to aspiring cinematographers who wish to develop a unique visual signature like yours?

Shooting whatever you can at the beginning of your career and studying others work is great advice but there comes the point at which you want to develop your own visual language and the way you see the world or a script through a viewfinder.

How a composition emotes or how light makes you feel in a given moment during day-to-day life are things a cinematographer should bring to the work. Technically perfect images without context aren’t particularly interesting to me and we are bombarded with so many homogenized images every day that feel empty.

Films are about making the audience feel a wide range of feelings and creating imagery in service to the script is best done, in my opinion, by drawing upon your own relatable life experiences – I think this creates a window for audiences to relate to.

There’s a sincerity in that approach to image making which audiences respond to subconsciously. So my best advice would be to immerse yourself in different cultures, live in other countries or cities arriving with the clothes on your back and work it out, have other interests unrelated to film, watch fewer YouTube tutorials and have a wide range of life experiences.
When you bring that to the work you really have a perspective and a voice to offer.

Thank you so much Michael for sharing your experience and these valuable insights with the community!

If you wanna learn more about Michael Wylam, go check his Instagram page.

Stay tuned for the next article and in the meantime, if you missed our latest article, go check it out.

Much love!
FilmmakersWorld Team

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