Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh helped create the distinctive look of Kiwi classics The Piano, An Angel at My Table, Kitchen Sink and In My Father's Den. In recent years Dryburgh has worked mainly overseas, on projects as various as Lone Star, Bridget Jones's Diary, and HBO series Boardwalk Empire. His early beginnings as a gaffer taught him much about how light can create mood.
Dryburgh's family emigrated to New Zealand from London, when Stuart was nine. His father gave him a camera, kickstarting an interest in photography. Dryburgh began studying architecture at Auckland University. For his final year project, he made "an incredibly bad" 16mm film with a borrowed Bolex, enjoying the experience hugely.
An attempt to break into the Australian film industry as an editor saw Dryburgh driving taxis in Sydney for six months. Later he got a job as a runner and lighting assistant on 1978 Kiwi feature Middle Age Spread.
Finding himself working amongst a talented cadre of emerging cinematographers, Dryburgh shrewdly decided to concentrate on the job of gaffer (the chief electrician responsible for lighting on a film set). As a result he found himself working and learning alongside many major names in New Zealand cinematography, in the process gaining a reputation as a skilled lighting specialist. Dryburgh especially credits working alongside the "terrific" Alun Bollinger: on 1981's Goodbye Pork Pie "he basically taught me how to do everything", and by the time of 1984 classic Vigil Bollinger was allowing Dryburgh a surprising amount of input into lighting.
After six years as a gaffer — including time alongside a young Jane Campion on after-dark tale Queen Street — Dryburgh moved into the cinematographer's role in 1985. Soon he was shooting a range of commercials, music videos and short films, making his dramatic debut as cinematographer with Peter Wells' half-hour Jewel's Darl (the tale of a relationship between a young transvestite and his transgender friend). Dryburgh followed it with two stylish shorts for director Gregor Nicholas, Rushes and performance piece Drum/Sing. By now he had formed lighting company Streetlight Production with then-partner Dorthe Scheffmann.
In 1987 Drybrugh shot his first feature, largely handheld, helicoptering up mountainsides with a small crew for ski movie The Leading Edge. He claims to have got the job because "I was relatively cheap and I could ski". But the film that would truly showcase his potential was Kitchen Sink, for which Dryburgh credits director Alison MacLean's "incredibly clear" vision.
The short tale of a woman who pulls a hair out of the plug hole and finds something entirely different, Kitchen Sink's high contrast black and white look was pivotal to its surreal mood. The film was a multi-awardwinner, received international acclaim, and remains an enduring seller overseas. Dryburgh followed it with work on anthology show Ray Bradbury Theatre, then shared duties with Alun Bollinger on madly ambitious puppet series Space Knights.
When Bollinger proved unavailable, Dryburgh was given the chance to shoot An Angel at my Table, a three-part television drama that later became a Kiwi TV and cinema classic. This 1990 biopic of writer Janet Frame was originally shot on 16mm. Dryburgh used a range of compositions and filters to strengthen the film's many moods, from the cold blues of the hospital scenes, to the brighter lights of Spain and the bach where Frame becomes a writer.
An Angel at My Table won accolades, and standing ovations at European festivals. In 1992 Dryburgh reunited with Angel director Jane Campion on gothic romance The Piano, which proved to be his calling card overseas, with its rendition of the New Zealand bush and sea scapes used to compelling psychological effect.
The Piano is a textbook example of what can emerge from close collaboration between director and cinematographer. Campion provided Dryburgh with many drawings and visual references. A combination of filters and low lighting levels helped give the film's exteriors their distinctive "submarine" blue look, a look which initially caused worry for some of the film's producers and cast-members. The mud which surrounded the main house set wasn't much fun either. The Piano won Dryburgh cinematography awards in America, Australia and Poland. He was nominated, but beaten to the Academy Award by Steven Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski, for Schindler's List.
Dryburgh made a cinematographic double-punch by following The Piano with impressive work on another Kiwi classic, the more conservatively-budgeted Once Were Warriors. Dryburgh used high speed film, lots of lights, and a special printing process to achieve the film's unusual mixture of social realism and stylisation. Dryburgh shot tests to find a look that would give the skin tones of the Māori cast "a real punch and gorgeousness to them". He also operated the camera, describing Warriors' look as "glamour lighting in a dirty old state house".
Since Once Were Warriors Dryburgh has worked largely overseas, mainly on American-funded projects. His first experience in Hollywood proved a rare backward step; Dryburgh was removed from Al Pacino thriller The Devil's Advocate after three weeks, forced to carry the can by Warner Brothers after the director fell behind schedule. He moved on to The Perez Family, a romance involving Cuban refugees, where Dryburgh's lighting work echoed aspects of Warriors.
Dryburgh's colleague Alun Bollinger argues that Drybrugh has been selective about which overseas projects he has worked on. "He's gone there (to the United States) determined to work with more idiosyncratic directors, people with a strong sense of individuality and style, and that's been a very good choice."
After working on John Sayles' acclaimed border drama Lone Star, Dryburgh reunited with Jane Campion in Europe, to shoot Henry James adaptation The Portrait of a Lady. Determined to avoid the normal period film trappings, Dryburgh minimised wide shots and used a highly mobile camera.
A long series of overseas projects has followed, including hits Analyze This, Bridget Jones's Diary and the pilot episode of TV's Sex and the City (shot on 16mm). Dryburgh was persuaded back to New Zealand by the "unbelievably good script" of In My Father's Den, where he experienced firsthand the "confident, focussed" direction of Brad McGann. Dryburgh shot wildly out of sequence in an effort to capture different seasons on film. He later called it "one of the best projects I've ever been involved with" with Warriors coming a close second. Den would win him cinematography awards in England, Shanghai and New Zealand.
In 2007 he shot The Painted Veil, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham's novel about tainted love in a time of cholera. Set in 1930s colonial China, the film starred Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.
Dryburgh's projects also include a number of commercials, helping bring a sense of "deliberate unreality" to The Tempest (for Frida stylist Julie Taymor), and shooting the pilot for acclaimed prohibition drama Boardwalk Empire. Martin Scorsese directed, and Dryburgh described it as in many ways "a dream job". The New York Times praised the camerawork on the pilot as both "lavish" and "exquisite".
In 2013 Variety argued that Dryburgh's cinematography on Ben Stiller's remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was "reason enough to see the film on the bigscreen". Dryburgh followed it with Michael Mann cyber-crime tale Blackhat and a sequel to Tim Burton's version of Alice and Wonderland. In 2016 Variety namechecked the "sweeping agility" of his and fellow cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding's work, on Chinese-US epic The Great Wall.
The New York-based Dryburgh's work has also seen him working often with other New Zealanders overseas: Oz-Kiwi director Roger Donaldson on 2003 thriller The Recruit, actor Marton Csokas on fantasy Aeon Flux, and Warriors star Temuera Morrison on the Vietnam-themed Beautiful Country. In 2012 he returned to New Zealand as director of photography on Japanese-set drama Emperor, directed by Brit Peter Weller.
- This profile is partly adapted from the Duncan Petrie book Shot in New Zealand
Stuart Dryburgh Website. Accessed 16 December 2016
Duncan Petrie, Shot in New Zealand - The art and craft of the Kiwi cinematographer (Random House, 2007) page 136
'Stuart Dryburgh on good, old-fashioned camera tricks' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Gemma Gracewood. Loaded 11 July 2011. Accessed 11 July 2011
Tim Gray, 'Oscars: 5 Contenders You Need to Watch on the Bigscreen' - Variety, 17 December 2013
Maggie Lee, 'Film Review: Matt Damon in 'The Great Wall'' - Variety, 15 December 2016
Grant Smithies, 'An eye for detail' (Interview) - Sunday Star Times, 17 October 2010
Alessandra Stanley, 'Jersey Shore - The Early Years' (Review of Boardwalk Empire) - The New York Times, 16 September 2010