Ben Davis is a machine. Since his feature-film debut as a cinematographer in 2002, he’s rarely gone a year without having two or three of his movies released. This year, his prolific filmography went even further, as he had two big movies come out the same month: Captain Marvel and Dumbo. He shot them back-to-back, which is no easy feat given the demands of big blockbuster filmmaking.
We spoke with Davis to see what draws him to working so tirelessly, how he approaches the significant differences between his style and genre-hopping projects, and how he survives the demands of his schedule.
Embracing Focused Boredom
Davis’ leaps from action movie to superhero movie, blockbuster to indie, are helped by having a suitable disposition. “In my career, I’ve always been very keen to try anything and not to be stuck in one particular world,” he explains. “I get bored easily. I don’t ever want to do the same thing.” That ambition to do something different can even sometimes happen mid-project for the cinematographer. “If I’ve lit a set for a couple of days, and I’m shooting something particular, within a few days, I’m bored of it and I want to move on and do something different. I need another blank piece of paper to draw on. I can’t just keep drawing on the same one,” he says.
It’s why Davis doesn’t just leap from project to project without ensuring each project is different; it’s not just about his own interest, but also his development as a professional. “I don’t think I have a fixed eye, the way I shoot things,” he says. “I don’t have a way of doing anything, and I’m always hoping I’m evolving. I’m always being very keen with the look of the films that I’ve shot.”
His restlessness doesn’t mean he has a wandering eye, either. Each project receives his full attention, even when they’re as close together as the mere weeks that separated Captain Marvel and Dumbo. “I can’t really start thinking about another production until the last one’s finished,” Davis says. “If I’m shooting a movie, I find it very, very difficult to give any time to anything else. I have to immerse myself in the project I’m in.”
Following the Director
“Every film has a different language and a different way it needs to be made. Every director is completely different,” Davis reflects. “You have to be very adaptable because, in the end, you’re there to bring the director’s vision to the screen.” It’s that constant that guides him through the back-to-back genre-hopping he’s done — whether it’s going from Kick Ass to Tamara Drew, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to Wrath of the Titans, or Doctor Strange to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the need to make the director happy is intertwined with the different styles each project demands.
It also distinguishes and guides him through projects that might appear, externally, to be similar. Davis treats each Marvel film differently, for example, even though they’re part of a shared cinematic universe full of character crossovers. “Each of those films is a very different movie, and I’ve tried to approach them all with a very open mind,” says Davis, who also worked on Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron. “You can’t go in with the same approach for every film because that won’t work.”
Captain Marvel and Dumbo are useful examples. They’re both big-budget Disney tentpole movies that are heavy on the CGI, and about heroes who must tap into their extraordinary powers to save themselves and their loved ones. But each director had a different way they wanted to approach their projects. Captain Marvel had directors who were new to blockbusters (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck), Dumbo was helmed by a veteran (Tim Burton). Captain Marvel‘s directors wanted to maintain a handheld indie look for their blockbuster story, while Dumbo was intended to be structured and grandiose.
Ben Davis on the set of Captain Marvel with directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, © Marvel Studios
The Demands and Relief of Blockbuster Filmmaking
Davis may welcome the variety in his filmography, but that doesn’t mean any of its easy. “Physically it can be challenging, because, particularly with the tentpole movies, it’s pretty brutal in terms of scheduling, and the demands made on you, as the head of department, are pretty enormous,” he says. “You do have to hit the ground running.”
You also have to keep one foot in previous projects’ post-production race to the finish line. While Davis keeps shooting separately, post-production demands bleed over. “It’s bloody hard work,” he says. “I was shooting a film in the UK, and then I had to do grading sets. I was wrapping on a day of shooting, going to Soho in central London to do night sessions grading Dumbo, and then on other evenings, doing hook-ups with the grading room on Captain Marvel in Los Angeles. It’s been exhausting.”
What helps him survive his career velocity and preserve his mental health is keeping himself grounded when he’s working. That’s important for any cinematographer, especially those with as hectic a schedule as Davis. In his case, being grounded means focusing on his family, which includes five children. “The dad part is what keeps me sane,” he says. “I don’t do a great deal outside of that. I work and then I’m with my family, and I’m a dad.”
Tim Burton and Danny DeVito on the set of Dumbo, © Disney Enterprises
Telling Stories in the Best Way
Davis has shot 26 different feature films. All along, aside from the importance of serving the director, there’s been another crucial constant. “I try to lose any sense of my own ego or my own ambitions in terms of the cinematography,” he says. “I want it to be about servicing the greater purpose, which is to make a film that works and that people are going to want to see. When I’m shooting, I’m thinking about what shots work, the best way of telling the story, and how are people going to relate to it.”
“I’m not necessarily thinking of a particular audience, person, age group, or genre in any way,” he concludes. “My feeling is that it’s either good or it’s not. It either works and you’re telling the story in the right way, or you’re not.”
Top: Brie Larson in Captain Marvel. All images courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.