DOP: The versatile Doug Koch

Douglas Koch is one of Canada’s top dops, and certainly one of its most versatile, as his 1999 Canadian Society of Cinematographers Awards nominations for both best commercial cinematography (for Pall Mall cigarettes’ ‘Subway’) and best theatrical feature cinematography (for Last Night) will attest.

Originally from Vancouver, Koch attended film school at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnic, graduating with his demo reel in 1983. He proceeded to work as a camera assistant on low-budget independent films, later making the transition to the burgeoning music video industry.

He credits dop Alar Kivilo (who shot the feature A Simple Plan), whom he assisted on several videos, as being a major influence in those formative years. Koch would later become a major music video cameraman himself, shooting over 100 videos for the likes of Bruce Cockburn, Anne Murray and Sarah McLachlan, capturing the best cinematography prize at the 1994 Canadian Music Video Awards for Spirit of the West’s …And if Venice is Sinking.

Offers to shoot commercials and features soon followed, and Koch earned his first Genie nomination in 1988 for his work on director Patricia Rozema’s quirky hit film I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. His collaboration with Rozema continued on 1995′s When Night is Falling.

It was on the set of the latter that he first worked with cast member Don McKellar, who would later offer Koch dop duties on his feature directorial debut Last Night. McKellar feels Koch’s experience in the cutting-edge world of commercials has advantageously impacted his film work, noting, ‘Doug’s a technical kind of guy. He loves film gadgets and he’s always inventing new ways of shooting and little tricks.’

Koch’s cinematography on McKellar’s doomsday film, which involved the complex bleach-bypass process for an appropriately bleak look, would net Koch award nominations from both the csc and the Genies.

Koch’s commercial credits are no less impressive, his list of clients comprising the who’s who of the corporate world, including: Master Card, Budweiser, Jaguar, Toshiba, Labatt, Bell Canada, Kellogg’s, Apple, Ford, McDonald’s, and Rolex.

He has often been awarded for his commercial work, boasting multiple Bessies, including a Gold Bessie in 1997 for a Visa Canada spot entitled ‘Luggage,’ and his projects have entailed much travel throughout Europe and North America. A recent highlight was a Visa spot which he shot in Miami for New York-based agency bbdo, which he cites as ‘a good break for me.’

Across the pond, where many ads are intended for theatrical distribution, filmmakers often have the opportunity to be more arty and work on a larger canvas. Koch particularly enjoyed a recent piece he shot outside of Rome with Radke Films director Eddy Chu, a frequent collaborator, for a European super-glue manufacturer.

‘It was really fun, filming this sort of Mission Impossible, James Bond kind of thing in a medieval castle,’ he recalls.

Offers for more film work continue to come in, though Koch is reluctant to veer away from a commercial career in high gear.

‘There are a few feature possibilities right now that I’m weighing in,’ he explains, ‘but I set really high standards [for those], because the commercial work is fun and going really well, and why would I want to step away from that? I would only want to if it looked like a really good project.’

Music videos can also be tempting to a dop such as Koch, who hungers for experimentation. But he finds the time and budget limitations in Canada’s video industry restrictive compared to commercials, which can also satisfy the mad scientist in him, allowing him to incorporate his hobby of electronics.

He regrets that his busy schedule has lately prevented him from building his own gizmos, forcing him to delegate that responsibility to the professionals. Koch’s pioneer spirit, combined with his keen attention to innovations pioneered by others, keeps his approach fresh even after shooting hundreds of ads.

‘To me you always have to be exploring things,’ he concludes, ‘and looking not only at what other [commercial dops] are doing, but also what’s going on in still photography and elsewhere, and keeping your eyes peeled.’