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November 6, 2009

CU: Christopher Baffa, ASC

Finding Glee in Cinematography

By By Jimmy Kelly

Christopher Baffa '90 has earned the ASC that now comes with his name. A credited director of photography since 1994, Baffa has been dubbed a "Cinematographer to Watch" by Daily Variety for his myriad accomplishments in television and film. Baffa now finds himself utilizing his talents on the set of Fox's new hit series, Glee. The show features a blend of comedy and high-end musical numbers to tell the story of a fledgling high school glee club of diverse outcasts in Lima, Ohio.

Baffa spoke with us on a recent visit to campus, offering insight into both the business and craft of cinematography, as well as a look behind the scenes on the set of Glee.

How do you visualize story? What choices as a DP work to make an event, a character, a theme clearer and what can often stand in the way of that clarity?
A film is only successful when it has a singular point of view and it knows what that point of view is. My job as a cinematographer is to use my tools of lenses and lighting to help translate that point of view to the audience.

You're currently working on the new Fox hit, Glee. Describe a typical day on the job. It's not typical by television standards, because it might be, come in, we've done our two dialogue scenes for the morning and the rest of the day is this musical number. It can be stressful, because it's a huge challenge, but it also is a great way of breaking up the day. There is that weird juxtaposition to get from the reality of the show and into these music videos. Usually what we try and find is some device that gets us in and out. It might be as simple as a little dissolve or camera move that says, "Okay, we're gonna go here now. Go with us, it's okay, we're gonna do a little music video, but in the end we're gonna bring you right back where you were." I think this is never going to be a show that we're going to fully understand and I mean that in the best of all ways.

How has working in the industry as a DP changed for you as the technology behind filmmaking has become more advanced? I think this is extremely pertinent, because we are at sort of an unprecedented time with respect to technology. I tend to be a little old fashioned and feel like all technology is just a tool; it's just a different brush. The art of what we do is in the story, in reaching the audience. How that's accomplished isn't as interesting to me, it never has been. As long as it's about shots that are put together in a certain way to create meaning, then cinematography and cinema as a whole is the same as it's always been, from the silent era to digital to wherever we're going to go.

What was breaking into the industry like when you first started getting work? What challenges did you face breaking in and how did your USC education help you? It's very hard when you leave film school because the industry can be very scary. It seems like a lot of closed doors. Then you start knocking and you find that it's not so scary. I think the thing that my time at USC really prepared me for was people. This film school really is about putting competition aside and I think it sets you up for dealing with people. I remember there was a humanity here that made people feel even in their darkest moments of failure that you're going to come out of this. This is a place where you can put yourself out there and fail in a way that you can't in the industry.

Is there any one thing you've learned over the course of your career that you wish someone had told you when you were getting started? To have hope. I know it sounds cliché, but if you really do just believe in yourself, you can make it in this business. Saying to anyone you'll never make it in this industry, it's just not true. There are people who fail, but there's no reason if you really work at it that you can't succeed.

Glee airs Wednesdays at 9 P.M. on Fox.