Before he was a cinematographer, Jamie D. Ramsay had a brief career as a child actor. "My mum was a single parent, and she put me into commercials as this little side hustle," he recalls with a laugh. "I was very cute back then. And I was around film sets a lot and always watching and really loving that energy."
His short-lived tenure as the face of a Kellogg's commercial, amongst other ads, coincided with a burgeoning interest in photography. His grandfather gifted him a camera, and when a film school opened in South Africa, Ramsay applied. "I loved photography, and I'd spent my entire life observing the world, and I'd been on set a lot. Film School was a light being turned. Now, I could learn how to do it."
Ramsay has lensed movies for South African countrymen Neill Blomkamp (2009's Oscar-nominated District 9) and Oliver Hermanus (including 2019's Moffie and 2022's Oscar-nominated Living). His latest film is All of Us Strangers, from writer and director Andrew Haigh.
The drama follows a lonely writer to his childhood home, where he discovers his long-dead parents living as if no time has passed in more than 20 years. As such, Ramsay needed to create a visual language that was both tactical and ephemeral; shooting on 35mm was his way of creating an analog presence in a digital world. More important was the feeling he wanted to capture.
"I knew that I could feel the movie inside of me. The tactility of having my electricity pass through the camera was more important than anything else," he says. "It was important for the camera work and the cinematography to be intimate and personal, and I wanted to transcend from the objective to the subjective."
Below, Ramsay shares with A.frame five of the films that have had the biggest impact on his own cinematography. "There are movies that have impacted me emotionally and ones that have impacted me technically."
Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen | Cinematography by: Roger Deakins
Technically, you've got the great Roger Deakins. His work, including No Country For Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James, is extremely impactful for me. There's a poetic simplicity to his work that cuts out all the peripheral fluff and just focuses on the integral emotion of the scene, albeit very practically. He's a very practical cinematographer, but the way the camera is positioned, where it's moved, the way it's lit, there's a poetic simplicity to it. For me, it just takes all the fluff away, and it allows you to cut to the bones of it.
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne | Cinematography by: Alain Marcoen
Emotionally, I am often floored by the Dardenne brothers' films. They always pick very relatable characters that are living day-to-day lives and create little micro narratives that are so relatable. I remember watching The Kid With a Bike in Cannes one year, and I was floored by it.
Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev | Cinematography by: Mikhail Krichman
I think I was at Venice Film Festival when I saw it, and I find watching movies at festivals so interesting. Your natural reception is always so heightened, because you're around people who care, people who actually don't eat popcorn next to you in the cinema, and it's a joint experience. So, some of my favorite movie experiences have been at film festivals.
There's this shot in Loveless where the door's open and the parents are arguing about not being interested in having the boy in their lives, and then suddenly the door shuts and you see the boy listening behind the door the whole time. Oh my God.
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman | Cinematography by: Sven Nykvist
I'm going to talk about two films that created my kismet for All of Us Strangers. One was Cries and Whispers. The camera almost transcends its presence into being one of the cast members in the scene, and it uses the zoom to explore as if you're going into a memory and you're looking around it for little clues.
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki | Cinematography by: Atsushi Okui
The other movie that I felt like I would combine with Cries and Whispers is Spirited Away, which is a beautiful film. There's a childlike ethereal presence that we tend to lose as adults that's so beautifully represented in those Studio Ghibli animes. I think Spirited Away and Bergman's Cries and Whispers come together and create this ethereal but serious zymurgy in this movie.
Andrew [Haigh] brought Cries and Whispers to me, and I brought Spirited Away to the party. It was such an obvious collision of two very, very different genres and very, very different feeling films. Even in hindsight, I look at it and I think, 'Yeah, that's a great combination.'