Making Films With a Positive Message

UK cinematographer Ben Cole has established himself as a spiritually oriented, one-man film crew, often working around the globe with first time directors who want to make films with a positive message. “This mission is still my quest and life seems to point people who have heard of my positive adventures towards me.”

Cole’s latest effort took him to Cape Town, South Africa to lecture at a 2013 screening to spread his message of positive filmmaking.

Traveling Light

To accommodate his extensive travel, Cole is constantly fine-tuning a high quality, light-weight digital film kit compact enough to take as hand luggage on a flight.

Presently Cole owns and operates RED and DSLR camera equipment that allows him to be mobile, to get into remote locations. “The Epic camera I love, but it’s not a documentary tool. On the RED, I love to shoot feature dramas and commercials, to pay my rent and support my family, and because I have many years experience as an actor to bring to the table.” But for Cole the RED has its limitations. “The cooling fan on the Epic makes a loud noise when you’re not filming, which often interferes with the event you’re supposed to be a silent witness to.

Ben Cole

Ben Cole

“My philosophy is to disappear when I’m shooting documentary, so that the people being filmed can get on with their life without feeling self conscious of the film crew. The DSLRs are wonderful for that. ‘I’m just a tourist taking photos approach’. On many projects I’m asked to shoot some of the footage ‘guerilla style’. That means no permissions, just wander in and shoot. Of course sometimes this can compromise one’s integrity, but most of my films are trying to make a positive comment on life and I find a good excuse in that, to shoot first and ask permission later. I often shoot on my Nikon D800 and then shoot some beauty shots on the Epic once I have permission.”

Sculptors of Light

Cole considers himself a digital cinematographer. “I specialise in cinematography,” he says, “but I am really an all around filmmaker. Why that word cinematography? Well, I worked years ago with my hero Vittorio Storaro who told me that to call ourselves directors of photography competes with the director. We are sculptors of light. That really inspired me.”

The lens, for Cole, is the creator of beauty. “All this obsessive discussion on kit is becoming redundant now since the big sensors have become the norm. It’s the lens that makes the quality and I very rarely shoot on anything that cannot handle a photographic prime lens.”

Positive Beginnings

Cole’s interest in focusing on the positive in filmmaking began in the 1990s when he met a Tibetan monk named Lama Ganchen. “He seemed to recognise me and ushered me into his room where he had a laptop and a TV. This was very impressive as not many people had a laptop in those days. He sat me down and told me he had a mission for me. ‘I want you to make positivity into posi-TV.’ he said.”

Ben Cole

Ben Cole in action

On his return to the UK he met someone who was looking for teachers for a new charity project in Africa. “I then spent two years in Ethiopia running a film school for 12 street kids. We found them begging at passing cars and housed them, fed them and taught them life skills and film skills. I learned a lot making films with them. My biggest lesson was that by teaching you learn fast.”

He says, “We trained these teenagers to make fundraising films for Non Government Organisations (NGOs) on the first DV cameras (VX1000) and the first computerised edit system. It was the best job I have ever had.”

Searching for Projects

After Cole completed the Ethiopian project, he searched for work that was outside the commercial realm of filmmaking. He chanced upon a couple of musicians (Duncan Bridgeman and Jamie Catto) who had just scored a deal with Chris Blackwell (from Island Records) to travel around the world filming their adventures recording a world music album. (All the music was recorded to an Apple Powerbook laptop.) “They had little experience of filmmaking,” he says, “and asked me to mentor them as we travelled to 52 locations around the globe. I was a great fan of ‘Koyaanisqatsi’  (which means ‘life out of balance’), and after being told by the inexperienced directors that my job was to ‘shoot everything that moves’, I decided that I would shoot a digital version around these diverse cultures.”

When they finished filming, the directors realized that Cole had shot many time lapses and interviews on his own. “They had a huge film in the can,” he says. “Since then I have learned to acquire all the skills in filmmaking, from shooting to sound to directing to editing. This is now very common amongst the new generation of filmmakers.”

Cole made a name for himself with 1 Giant Leap. It turned out to be a double Grammy-nominated project. This, and his meeting with the Tibetan monk, has carried Cole a long way. His search for positive projects leads him to “… get involved in any way I can and then influence their concept by being positive about their film. The directors often are very grateful for extra footage of inspiring people and events around their subject. It takes more dedication and effort but pays off in the end.

My obsession with photography led me towards filmmaking. I have since been asked by many directors to go out and gather footage on my own and would take the opportunity to interview people I meet on the way. When interviewing strangers on a one to one basis there is this great meeting of old souls that takes place. That has influenced the films I shoot.”

Acting Roles

“I focus on films with a positive message because after many years trying to make a career as an actor, I met casting directors who would ask me what kind of roles I wanted to play. I would answer ‘Any role with a positive message about men and masculinity. I want to show vulnerable men who care about life.’”

Cole acknowledges the casting directors would be fascinated with this, then point out they had never had a role with a character like that. The result: he did not get cast in their films. “I had a choice to either carry on faking bad rugged men and stupid selfish souls for the camera, or follow my true path.”

Cape Town

Cole is preparing to lecture (2013) at a screening in Cape Town to spread the message of positive filmmaking. He says he wants to support his partner’s (Caroline Carey) work teaching ‘Movement Medicine’, a form of positive therapeutic dance meditation. “I have been documenting her work for the last three years, and hope to shoot and direct a feature drama we are writing together based on her book Ms’Guided Angel, telling her story of surviving sexual abuse as a child through rescuing herself by dancing her inner sense (innocence) back into her body.

“This is a very topical and controversial subject, one we filmmakers need to address.”

Last Word

“Finally, I would like to say that we in the film world have to serve a sense of integrity around the films we make, not our fame or personal importance. Let’s all inspire our audiences by taking responsibility for the messages we put behind the movies on those screens, and so continue the journey to make positivity into posi-TV.”

Further Information:

Ben Cole’s website

1 Giant Leap on IMDb


UK-based cinematographer Ben Cole, whom we interviewed in 2013, recently shot an innovative new viral ad for European retailer Carphone Warehouse. Cole, along with director Sid Wheeler, initially interviewed several classical musicians who were using new software that helps design an app for their phones/tablets. This, in turn, aids them in being better musicians. The instruments used were a cello, a French horn, and a flute.

Cole's shoot

            Ben Cole’s shoot

“No need for a human teacher nowadays,” says Cole. All you need are “… apps from tuning your instrument to scale teaching software that judges how well you play your scales to an app that samples a French horn and loops it so (the musician) can build an orchestra from just her playing.”

“Then,” says Cole, “we go into an amazing club in Brick Lane, East London and set up a live collaboration between a DJ and these classical musicians. You should have seen the club members’ faces when a bunch of classical musicians – including a bass opera singer – walked onto the club’s stage. They began to make a surreal operatic melody which was sampled live by the DJ on his iPad, and then sent back with a few new app tricks and, hey presto, a fusion of drum and bass aka operatic classical dub.”

Cole says he shot all the action “… on my Red Epic at 5K mounted on a Steadicam, two Canon D5s and my Nikon D800, plus of course the new GoPro3 Silver mounted on the DJ’s chest.”

Cole can’t hide his excitement about this shoot. “So get this – the future of night clubbing is a few eclectic musicians on stage with many people wandering around with their iPads sampling the music and sending their mixes to the master DJ to play for the house. No one knows at any moment who is mixing the tunes. Now that’s collaboration!”

Controlling the performance

Controlling the performance

The performance

The performance