We had the good fortune of connecting with Markus A Ljungberg and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Markus, what role has risk played in your life or career?
The risk that has been most defining to my life was a move I made in 2010. I decided to quit my job in Stockholm and move to London to pursue a career in film. I decided on London because the film industry is huge there and there’s a long tradition of filmmaking. I knew the language, I had a few friends there plus as a EU citizen, at the time there was no requirement for a work visa. I expected it to be challenging, but I was excited to set out on something new and unknown. I had savings to last me for a couple of months. At first I had no idea where to find work, I knew no-one in the industry. There was one month where I had to borrow to make the rent, but after that tipping point I made enough to survive. I found work as a lighting assistant on low budget films. I borrowed a camera to shoot simple music videos, short films and brand content. I was shooting student films and started to build a portfolio. It felt like a great achievement just surviving in London working with film. A bit of a bitter-sweet achievement though as the relationship I was in at the time suffered and ended and I lost touch with some of my old friends back in Sweden. Plus I was pretty much flat out broke for a good while. I came expecting to stay for maybe two years and then move back, but it turned into a decade. But London made me grow both as a person and as a filmmaker, it was worth taking that risk.
There is so much to be said about how to approach risk-taking in life, and so many people have said it way better than I ever could.
But personally, I think it’s dangerous to get comfortable. Comfortable makes you stagnant. If I feel too safe with what I’m doing, that’s a red flag to me. That goes both for my creative process but also with life and my career. I’m not saying you don’t need safety, if we don’t have some safety we stress out and risk making bad decisions. But our brains are hardwired to go for the safe option, I try to be aware of that and fight it. I think it’s about striking a balance, you can’t always be pushing the envelope and expose yourself to risk, but it’s more dangerous to play it too safe. It will leave you comfortable and stagnant.
Please tell us more about your art. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally. Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
In cinematography, the look and feel of the work is really my interpretation of the director’s vision, or it’s developed in conversations with the director. And it stems from either a script or a treatment. In addition to that, you have to take the genre into consideration. So some framework will be set already, which makes it tricky to point out what’s distinguishing for my own work. That said, I do have preferences and I can see certain influences.
I’m very invested in storytelling, the story and the characters. In narrative work I prefer the camera placement and movement to be influenced by the actors, the character arcs and the emotion of the scene. But I gravitate toward contrasty looks, I like deep shadows. And I like to be close to the actors on slightly wider lenses, whenever I can justify it. And I absolutely love lighting. I spend much time studying light and planning for the lighting. The light is really what sets the mood of a scene and together with camera movement it’s what gives the flat image a sense of depth. I enjoy adding subtle colors and texture to the light to give the image more life.
To be honest I doubt any of this is something that really sets me apart from other cinematographers. There are cinematographers with distinct styles but I think often it comes down to nuances. I suppose every DP follow his or her unique sensitivity when composing a shot and deciding how the use the light. I struggle to articulate exactly what that means, hopefully it just shows in the work. For sure I’m influenced by my years of working in the lighting department and my experience in low-budget drama. Working on low budget has taught me how to think on my feet, be time effective and come up with cost-effective solutions to create good imagery.
I’m proud of the success of this low-budget action movie that I shot; Last Man Down, directed by Fans Njie. It’s been an international Netflix hit this year. I mean it’s not going to win any Oscars, it’s a cheesy 80’s style action movie, but the fact that we shot it on such a tight budget and it now has an audience of millions is inspiring. That was one of the most demanding shoots of my career, but it was a good fun.
How I got to where I am? It’s been a journey. Growing up in countryside Sweden I started making videos with friends as a kid. I got very inspired by the music videos of the 90s, there was a playfulness and a sense of experimentation there that I was drawn to. After conscription, which is mandatory in Sweden, I applied to film school but was rejected. I started a degree in tech instead.
During university I was finding freelance work in film, me and some friends attempted to run a small production company, I was working at the university cinema. I did a semester in Singapore where I studied photojournalism and this made me think of storytelling with images on a whole new level. But I didn’t have a clue on how to make a career in film. Instead I finished the degree and I worked for a year a bit in tech. At that point I felt that I just had to give it a shot, or I would regret not pursuing the dream.
I moved to London to learn the craft and to find my place in film. I had no idea where to start but I found work as a lighting assistant on low budget films. I borrowed a basic camera kit that I used to shoot simple music videos, short films and brand content. I did a short course at the London Film Academy where the cinematography teacher John Ward really took me in. He was this old-schooler who used to work as a Steadicam operator; he operated for Stanly Kubrick. He taught me how to use a light meter and gave me a lot of pointers on my lighting. We were shooting on Super 16 film so the light meter was essential. I quickly realized how little I knew about lighting. I ended up shooting several grad film for that school and started to build a portfolio. Eventually, I was gaffing indie films in the UK, like Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst”, and I was shooting low-budget stuff on the side. Some of the films I shot did ok on festivals and I slowly got more requests to DP. At this point I applied to do a master in cinematography at the NFTS but I was rejected. My ego took a blow but soon after this The Swedish Society of Cinematographers (FSF) invited me as a member and I haven’t looked back since.
It’s a career where there is no set path to follow. And just being freelance in a creative industry has its challenges. For years I wasn’t sure what gig would pay the next month’s rent. I think the key is just about perseverance and aligning yourself with the right people. Trust your gut feeling on what projects you take on. And put a price on your time, if you do others will respect your time.
Lessons I’ve learned… Something you realize early on is that your work is always secondary to performance. If the actors are in the zone you need to be prepared to capture that. You can’t stop the flow and spend an hour re-lighting for the next shot. You need to be prepared. When you start out it’s easy to feel that you need to get the perfect shots for your reel or whatever. It’s easy to keep tweaking. But you have to really work towards maximizing the director’s time with the actors in front of the lens, and you have to work towards staying in flow.
I encourage people starting out in film to socialize on set, of course still do your job, but get to know the crew around you. When I was assisting I was focused on working hard and trying to impress the gaffer or the DP. But if your end goal is to DP, direct, or be head of a department, the people you will work with to get you there are other people on their way up. It’s that cliche again; it’s not so much what you know, it’s who you know. Also I’ve learned that it’s important to stay positive and calm even when things go south.
The other thing I’ve learned, which I still struggle with myself, is to not be afraid of reaching out. When I was assisting I didn’t have the guts to reach out to big time gaffers, when I was gaffing I didn’t feel experienced enough to reach out to DPs I admired, and it’s the same now that I’m shooting. I feel that I need more experience before reaching out to directors I want to work with. But you can’t be afraid of rejection in this industry, there’s nothing to lose in reaching out.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
My answer has to be two-fold on this one. In Stockholm one of my favourite spots, not surprisingly, is the photography museum; Fotografiska. It’s so well curated, situated next to the waterfront and they have a great restaurant. And you should also check out the archipelago or nature reserves close to the city. There’s a great Chinese restaurant; ‘Surfers’ that’s worth checking out.
In London, perhaps equally cliché, I hang out in East. I would tour the micro-breweries in Hackney and Hackney Wick. And on the weekends I like to take visitors to the local markets, like Broadway Market, Colombia Road Flower Market and the Brick Lane market. Perhaps not as “authentic” as it used to be, but it’s still nice; great food and good vibes. And if you’re in London you should definitely go out for Indian food.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I want to make a shotout to all the great crew that has worked on my side over the years. Making film is a team effort and I would get nowhere without a good crew. If I have to single out one person, that would be my go-to gaffer Tom Nowell in the UK. He is a true lighting wizard and artist, a one-of-a-kind. He’s also just such a humble and chill person who’s great to have with you both on set and off set. I’ve learned a lot from him. Gaffers are the unsung heroes of cinematography. When I have a solid gaffer in the crew I can spend more time with the director, it allows me to do better work.
Sofia Albin @behindthescenes_withsofia, Harrison Reid, Shane de Almeida, Adi Omanovic, Andreas Fred, Edoardo Brighenti, Sandra Vijandi