Nicholas de Pencier on his Storied, “Hodge-Podge” Career

Nicholas de Pencier (with Jennifer Baichwal, left) filming Watermark / Courtesy Mercury Films Inc.

Nicholas de Pencier’s career resists easy categorization. Best known for his cinematography work with award-winning directors such as Jennifer Baichwal, Liz Marshall, and Susan Fleming, de Pencier also regularly produces and sometimes directs the projects that he shoots. While photographing award-winning docs such as Watermark, Act of God and The True Meaning of Pictures, de Pencier brings his diverse skill set—what he calls a “holistic” approach—to the DOP-director relationship and the visual storytelling process.

In advance of his DOC Institute Master Class on June 25, de Pencier talked to POV about how his self-professed “hodge-podge” career got started, how much time to spend on gear blogs, and the advantages (and perils) of juggling several roles at once.

POV: Brian St. Denis
NP: Nick de Pencier

POV: What led you to want to be a director of photography (DoP), and why primarily for documentary?

NP: What led me to want to be a DoP was like many things that I do: kind of an accident. I’m not sure that I did want to be a DoP! My definition of a career is something that you fall into for long enough that all of a sudden, you realise that it’s become a career.

I always took still photographs. I had a darkroom with a friend in high school and was interested in film, but thought that I would make fiction films. I started working on film sets for several years in all different departments and capacities, and enjoyed that experience. That was kind of my film school. One day my stills camera got stolen out of my room while I was sleeping in my apartment, and I didn’t own another one for probably 15 years. The next camera I bought was a Hi-8 video camera. It was mostly to film friends’ modern dance and theatre performances; a little bit of what we’d call documentary, but not at all in a vocational sense or with any focused ambition.

It wasn’t until I met a woman named Jennifer Baichwal that I kicked into gear as a director of photography. She was interviewing me for a job that basically didn’t pay any money but had a free trip to Morocco. I’d been transitioning out of working with crews on feature films and into smaller, home-baked projects, which then gradually eclipsed the other career. I produced some drama and worked on some films as a producer and even a director, but mostly started making docs with Jennifer, who became my partner and wife.

I think I fell into docs because it’s a really closely-knit, collaborative endeavour. It’s not so mediated through all the crew and the marketing machines, producers and distributors. You can really execute a vision that is yours and hopefully unique, and that’s what makes it exciting. Docs are not part of the sausage mill, and I love that.

POV: What photographers or cinematographers influence you?

NP: In the early days I would’ve been hard-pressed to name you the canon of photographers. Now I’m way more versed, mostly because many of the docs that I’ve worked on have been about art photographers. I was way more into just doing my own thing in terms of photographs. I loved the process of developing film and printing black and white. Of course, I must’ve absorbed cultural and photographic influences.

I would say what influenced me more was when I went to university again and studied English literature and art history. There’s no question that I was interested in framing and light in a way that was manifest in that choice of pursuits, and I learned a lot from that. When I meet young, ambitious would-be cinematographers, sometimes they either have it or they don’t. But sometimes it’s not that obvious and my advice is, ”OK, spend way less time on the blogs about the latest gear, and way more time in the websites of European museums with the Dutch masters” to get some kind of an idea of composition and framing. Retroactively, I can see its importance.

POV: Speaking of gear blogs, how much do you keep up with constantly changing technology?

NP: I try as much as possible to have gear that fits what the production wants. Does that get easier? No! I’m travelling with more cameras than I ever did, and hemming and hawing every morning about what am I taking out into the field that day. But you have to keep up with the hamster wheel. I’m not deep in the weeds of the specs and all of that. I tend to just try to get the very best cameras I can afford, which through the years have been everything from really crappy cameras to recently, more high-end gear.

There’s a revolution that happens every two to three years with technology, and the latest revolution is towards a kind of camera that takes fantastic pictures but frankly is really hard to operate in an observational documentary way. You can build crazy cages around them and try and adapt and balance it, but I’m not just being nostalgic for the old ENG-style camera. There were a lot of shots that I didn’t miss when I was packing one of those more “news” cameras, because they were designed to be fast and reactive. Whereas new cameras, when I first switched over, I would almost break the zoom barrels on the lenses trying to go tighter or wider.

It’s a constantly evolving relationship with your technology that we all have. You try and find the sweet spot for the moments you’re trying to capture on whatever project you’re working on.

POV: You often juggle a lot of different roles at once—producer, DP, sometimes director—is this born out of curiosity or necessity?

NP: I think if I’m at my best, everything that I do is in the service of getting good films made: films that I believe in, that are some kind of net positive in the universe, and yes, that interest me. I couldn’t afford to hire people to do the stuff that I don’t like to do, so I ended up being the producer. I ended up learning a lot and building capacity in that area. In some cases it’s literally, “Ok, I’ll produce that film, but I’m not gonna sit at home and push the paper—I’m coming out and shooting it, too!”

Obviously on bigger projects, a lot of these roles are full-time and they can suffer when I’m doing something else. But I would go crazy if I was just the producer, because business administration doesn’t really interest me. At the same time, I like the responsibility and control of producing where you don’t give your project over to somebody else. I think that leads to a lot of creative freedom that I can go and exercise when I’m behind the camera. If I’m producing, I know as a DoP that, “Wow, we haven’t got it, we need more days here.” It closes that feedback loop of information and decision-making.

POV: What can the attendees of the upcoming DOC Institute Master Class look forward to?

NP: I’m looking forward to the Master Class and have enjoyed the opportunity to hold up the mirror to my hodge-podge career and see if there’s any meaning or through-line to it. I’m pretty sure that I won’t come up with an amazing, eureka idea. I think all any of us who do this kind of work can do is share stories, and I’m happy to do that. If I can try and find some connective tissue amongst them, all the better, but I’m happy to stand up and take my turn telling stories. I’m always happy when other DoPs share stories and always learn a lot.

Further reading:
Watermark: Interview with Nick de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal
The Universe is Electric: Act of God

DOC Institute hosts a Master Class with Nicholas de Pencier on Thursday, June 25 from 6:30–8:30pm at Technicolor (49 Ontario St., Toronto) – get your tickets here! Non-DOC members who purchase tickets can get a special $15 rate on a POV Magazine subscription!

Brian St. Denis is POV’s Production & Marketing Manager.