Christopher Doyle is currently one of the most sought-after cinematographers in Asian cinema. Somewhat of a renegade, Chris is most well known for his distinctive kinetic, handheld, colour-saturated visual style, most distinctively exhibited in his long-time collaboration with Hong Kong New-Wave filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. Doyle has worked with Wong Kar-wai on all but his first film, and together they have created a visual style that is not only distinctive & innovative, but much imitated in Asian cinema. But more about this collaboration later.
Christopher Doyle was born in Sydney, Australia in 1952. At eighteen Chris left the sleepy suburbs of Sydney to spend much of his youth travelling and experiencing different ways of life. First, joining the Norwegian merchant marines and spending three years travelling the world, after which he worked as a cow-herder on an Israeli kibbutz, a well-digger on an agricultural collective in the North East Indian desert, and a doctor of Chinese medicine in Thailand. In the late 1970s Doyle moved to Hong Kong to pursue an interest in Chinese language and literature. While attending the University of Hong Kong, his professor there bestowed upon him his Chinese name: Du Kefeng, meaning "Like the wind".
Soon after, Doyle moved to Taiwan, where he met and befriended the Taipei art crowd, with people like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Stan Lai, and became involved with the fringe theatre. Doyle was a founding member of the Lan Ling Theatre Workshop in 1978 (the first professional modern theater company in Taiwan). His involvement in fringe theatre led him into work as a photographer and videographer. However Doyle found himself living as an illegal for much of his time in Taiwan, without a visa for six years. Thus many of the films Doyle made with the theater group in the early 1980's were made under psuedonyms because, as an illegal, Doyle couldn't enter the films into competition under his own name. The films were winning awards, and Doyle became notorious because he could not always remember the name under which he had entered the film and won the awards. Doyle then went on to produce, direct, shoot and edit Taiwan's ground-breaking documentary t.v. series "Travelling Images" in 1980, a documentary series which in Doyle's own words was very music-based and esoteric1.. Making this series was what Doyle called his "film school"2..
It was as a result of the "Travelling Images" series that Doyle met and became friends with Edward Yang, who gave Doyle his first big break into cinematography and the world of film in 1981 when Yang asked Doyle to shoot his feature debut "That Day On the Beach". After shooting this, Doyle realised that cinematography was to be his career, and, fearing that the Taiwanese film industry was too small, and might stunt his career, Doyle moved to France to try to , in his own words, "learn cinematography" 3.. But it wasn't long before he realized that he didn't care about "learning" cinematography, and decided to go back to Asia, but before he went, he got work shooting a feature film in France in 1986.
That same year, Doyle returned to Hong Kong and shot Shu Kei's second feature, "Soul" (a pastiche of John Cassavete's "Gloria"). It was through this film that Doyle's unique camera work was first noticed and he started getting regular work shooting Asian cinema. He shot a couple of films by Patrick Tam in succession in 1988/89, as well as Tony Au's "Her Beautiful Life Lies", before teaming up with who was to become his long-time collaborater, Wong Kar-wai in 1990 for Wong's second feature, "Days of Being Wild".
Christopher Doyle's collaboration with Wong Kar-wai has continued from Wong's second film to date, over the course of over seven features and has contributed greatly to the director's reputation as an auteur. Together, their films have developed a number of trademark visual characteristics: the use of distorting wide-angle lenses, strongly coloured lights (sickly, fluorescent greens, cold blues, warm yellows and oranges); seemingly unmotivated switches between colour and black and white stock; the use of highly kinetic, flashy, hand-held camera, unusual shooting angles and camera movements. Many of which Doyle claims are not chosen for stylistic value, but purely out of necessity (for example, his use of wide-angle lenses is often purely as a result of shooting in cramped locations, where the only possible way of filming is through the use of a wide-angle lense, this can be seen particularly in the film "Fallen Angels".
One of the most trademark of Wong and Chris’ visual style is their manipulation of film-speed, often shooting in slow or fast-motion for different effects, having the actor move really slowly during shooting, while filming at a slower frame-rate, so that when projected, it seems as if the character is moving at normal speed, while the rest of the world rushes by. They have also developed a unique technique which they have used in all their films together to date: particular scenes are shot at a slower frame-rate so that the action is speeded up; the frames are then step-printed at a lower speed onto the finished film to restore the action to its real-time duration.4. The resultant images are ethereal and disorientating; scenes play and actions take place as if in normal speed, but yet there is a distortion; images seem to bleed into one another, lurching slightly so that one may think the action is taking place in slow-motion before realizing it is not. The effect is strangely dream-like, blurring colours and lights, seeming to simultaneously freeze action while it continues to move in front of our eyes.
Doyle's drinking is frequently referred to in interviews and articles in the press. His reputation as something of a drinker is quite legendary. Indeed, it is rumoured, though unfortunately I can find no evidence to validify the rumour that Doyle has it written in to his contracts that he can drink beer on set, during shooting. (A man after my own heart).Though in an interview with the Guardian, Doyle says "Anybody who works with me knows what shit they're in for, they know he's had a beer for breakfast". 5. In another interview with Filmmaker Magazine Doyle himself confesses how, while he was shoooting Chen Kaige's "Temptress Moon" he had to "drink enough whiskey to sink an oil tanker" in order to get Chen to fire the camera operator that the Chinese Studio had insisted upon. Doyle refuses to work with an operator, and in order to get him fired, he drank so much whiskey that the studio "realized that they were going to run out of whiskey and that it was more expensive to give Doyle whiskey than it was to pay for the operator"! 6. The stuff of legend indeed!
Though Doyle has worked on several Hollywood films, his disdain for Hollywood is well known. He is vehemently opposed to studio protocol, and prefers to work without an camera operator, choosing to operate the camera himself instead of watching everything through a monitor. He has worked on comparitively few Hollywood movies (only 4 in total to date), his first being Gus Van Sant's remake of Hitchcock's classic "Psycho" in 1998.
Aside from shooting films, Doyle has also had gallery showings of his still photography and collages, and has had twelve books of his photography published (although only his most recent "A Cloud In Trousers" is available in the U.S.) He is currently working on a book of sex poems. He has also turned his hand to acting (in Peter Chan's film "Comrades, Almost A Love Story" in 1996, and he made his directorial debut in 1999 with "Away With Words", which he co-scripted with film critic Tony Rayns.
All in all, Doyle is a very colourful character and a very talented cinematographer, with a unique and distinctive, if somewhat renegade style. He sums up his attitude towards life and filmmaking in the following quote from the IMDB biography for Christopher Doyle:
"I didn't start making films until I was 34. But that wasted youth was probably the most valuable asset for what I'm doing now. You see the world, you end up in jail three or four times, you accumulate experience. And it gives you something to say. If you don't have anything to say then you shouldn't be making films. It's nothing to do with what lens you're using." 7.
FILMOGRAPHY (as cinematographer):
- That Day On the Beach, Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1981
- Noir et Blanc, Claire Devers, France, 1986
- Soul, Shu Kei, Hong Kong, 1986
- My Heart Is That Eternal Rose, Patrick Tam, Hong Kong, 1987
- Her Beautiful Life Lies, Tony Au, Hong Kong, 1989
- Days of Being Wild, Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1991
- Awakening, Sylvia Chang, Hong Kong, 1992
- Peach Blossom Land, Stan Lai, Taiwan, 1992
- The Red Lotus Society, Stan Lai, Taiwan, 1994
- Red Rose, White Rose, Stanley Kwan, Hong Kong/Taiwan, 1994
- Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994
- Chungking Express, Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994
- Fallen Angels, Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1995
- The Peony Pavillion, Kuo-fu Chen, Taiwan, 1995
- Temptress Moon, Chen Kaige, Hong Kong, 1996
- Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema, Stanley Kwan, Hong Kong, 1996
- wkw/tk/1996@7'55''ht.net, Wong Kar-wai, Japan, 1996 (short)
- Four Faces of Eve, Kwok-Leung Gan, Eric Kot, Jan Lam, Hong Kong, 1996
- Happy Together, Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1997
- Motel Cactus, Ki-Yong Park, South Korea, 1997
- First Love: A Litter on the Breeze, Eric Kot, Hong Kong, 1997
- Psycho, Gus Van Sant, USA, 1998
- Away With Words, Christopher Doyle, Hong Kong/Japan/Singapore, 1999
- Liberty Heights, Barry Levinson, USA, 1999
- In The Mood For Love, Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/France/Thailand, 2000
- Made, Jon Favreau, USA, 2001
- Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce, Australia, 2002
- Going Home, Peter Chan, Ji-woon Kim, Hong Kong/South Korea/Thailand, 2002
- The Quiet American, Phillip Noyce, USA/Germany/Australia, 2002
- Six Days, Wong Kar-wai, USA, 2002 (music video)
- Hero, Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China, 2002
- Following the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Darlene Johnson, Australia, 2002 (TV Docu)
- Last Life In The Universe, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Thailand/Japan, 2003
- Green Tea, Yuan Zhang, China, 2003
- 2046, Wong Kar-wai, China/France/Germany/Hong Kong, 2004
- Three... Extremes, Fruit Chan, Takashi Miike, South Korea, 2004
- Eros ("The Hand" segment), Wong Kar-wai, 2004
- The White Countess, James Ivory, UK/USA, 2005
- Paris, je T'Aime (segment "13th arrondissement"), Julio Medem, France, 2005
1 & 2.Filmmaker Magazine "Man With A Movie Camera", interview with Christopher Doyle, Winter 2000: http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/winter2000/movie_camera.php
3Payne, Robert M., "Ways of Seeing Wild: The Cinema of Wong Kar-wai". cf. "undercrank/step-printing method"./
4Payne, Robert M., "Ways of Seeing Wild: The Cinema of Wong Kar-wai
5"If you call me, you know what you're in for",Steve Rose interviews Christopher Doyle for the GUARDIAN UNLIMITED: http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayreview/story/0,,1384339,00.html
6Filmmaker Magazine "Man With A Movie Camera", interview with Christopher Doyle, Winter 2000: http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/winter2000/movie_camera.php
7IMDB : http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0236313/bio