If you’ve seen any recent indie films set in Seattle, you’ve likely watched them through Ben Kasulke’s eyes. The cinematographer has been behind the camera on an astonishing number of local movies of note, including major success stories such as Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed and Megan Griffiths’ The Off Hours. Skilled at capturing everything from the murky interior world of an all-night diner to the gray-green natural expanses of the rural Northwest to the fever-dream horrors of dysfunctional childhood memories, Kasulke, 35, is a sort of visual translation machine, using light, shadow and hue to immerse viewers in a script’s intended world.
Though he is quick to share kudos with his colleagues, Kasulke clearly has a gift. Last year, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for cinematography (for The Off Hours), and this year, he was awarded the city’s Mayor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film.
Raised in northern New York and based in SoDo, Kasulke majored in cinema and photography at Ithaca College, graduating in 1999. But it was music that drew him to the Northwest. “All the music I was listening to was from Olympia,” he recalls, so that same year, he moved across the country. Soon, he landed a job as a negative cutter and film archivist at a Seattle postproduction company. “That job really got me in the door of the Seattle film world,” he says.
Seattle’s thriving contemporary dance scene also provided entrée for Kasulke. After the dot-com crash, Kasulke explains, the only people in Seattle who could afford to make movies were local choreographers who had secured grant money for film projects. So from 2001to 2004, he made experimental films for contemporary dance mavens such as Maureen Whiting and Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson (of 33 Fainting Spells).
This experience proved helpful in more ways than one. “Choreographers deal with space in such a personal way” he says. Unlike narrative films, in which he and the director have similar instincts about how to tell a story, “Dancers’ ideas come from out of left field,” Kasulke says fondly. In addition, it was his connection with local dancers that helped him get his first real director of photography gig in 2005—at The Film Company, a Seattle production company with ties to the dance scene. There, he worked on Shelton’s first feature film, We Go Way Back, which earned a Best Cinematography Award at the Slamdance Film Festival.
So what’s Kasulke’s cinematic secret? It’s not a fancy camera. “The one thing I carry across all the films is my demeanor on set,” he says. “I believe you make great work when you have a great working environment.” Filmmaker Griffiths agrees: “I think what really distinguishes Ben is his respect for actors and their process,” she says. “He’s incredibly generous and collaborative, not to mention hilarious and weird and smart and truly gifted.”
He’s also extremely busy. Last spring, he wrapped Shelton’s newest movie, Touchy Feely, and in June, he finished Dayna Hanson’s feature film, The Improvement Club. He’s working on the Adult Swim TV series The Heart, She Holler (which he calls a “a horror soap opera”), and also on an ambitious project by Guy Maddin. Still, Kasulke is cautious. “When things are going this well,” he says, “my instinct is to try to find a soft landing place, because I know it won’t always be this great.” For the first time, we hope he’s got it all wrong.
NEXT UP: Watch for the DVD release of Your Sister’s Sister this fall, featuring commentary with Shelton and Kasulke, and a short film for local music phenom Shabazz Palaces.
PHOTO CREDIT: HAYLEY YOUNG