Peter Pascucci’s Cinematography Builds on the Power of Collaboration

The director of photography discusses his latest project with the musician Amber Mark and fangirling over MJ Rodriguez.

A collage of stills by Peter Pascucci featuring individuals as well as groups of people
Stills by Peter Pascucci, collage by W Magazine.

Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights emerging talents in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, senior content editor Michael Beckert chats with the New York City-based director of photography, Peter Pascucci.

Congratulations on your latest project with the musician Amber Mark. Can you tell me a bit about the job and how you got on it? What was it like working with Amber?

Working with Amber was incredible. She is a tour de force in the sense that she’s a multifaceted musician, writer, and also creative directs all of her videos. Normally, when I’m approached for a music video, the artist and director lean on me heavily to guide the visual, but when Amber’s team approached me, I knew I would be following her creative intuition and leaving a lot of space to explore with her. I think the result is beautiful and personal to her story of self-love.

The project is co-directed by Amber Mark herself and Satya Zoa. I always imagine co-directing to be difficult—what’s it like to collaborate with two directors? Did the set feel playful or did you all go in with a pretty clear direction?

I found it really interesting collaborating with Amber on this because not only did she have a co-director, Satya, but Amber’s stepsister Chloerose helps direct all of Amber’s projects. I found myself answering to and collaborating with all three of them pretty equally. Amber fosters a very collaborative and familial energy on set.

For a project like this, are there weeks of pre-production via Zoom calls with the artist, or do you start working on it a week before the shoot? What’s the pre-production timeline like for a project like this?

Prep is a funny thing in the film industry, because it’s never paid but the good projects require a lot of it. In the case of this shoot, they booked me on a scout in LA and then a one-day shoot a few days later. The total prep time on this was probably two weeks on and off including 2-3 days of actively working on it in LA.

This music video is particularly interesting because of the VFX involved. When Amber is spinning in that glass cube, was that done in-camera, or in post?

Almost all of the elements on screen in this video are practical—the glass cube was meant to mirror her album cover art for Three Dimensions Deep. One thing I love about prep on projects like this is that everyone’s open to wild ideas. On one of our calls during prep with the production designer, Lucca Liberal, I suggested we get a turntable for the glass cube so that it could rotate in frame and catch the light in interesting ways. I was super glad they went for it. The VFX artist, Max Colt, did a fantastic job of extending the sets tastefully and adding elements into frame like the three moons above Amber when she’s dancing in the reflecting pool.

Film still from Amber Mark’s music video for Bliss (2022), cinematography by Peter Pascucci.

At the end of the video, we see this gorgeous scene where Amber’s hands illuminate and she sort of evaporates. From a cinematographer’s perspective, what sort of things are you thinking about during that scene to ensure the post-production house gets the material they need?

The disappearing scene at the end was an interesting challenge and one that I wanted to look as organic as possible. The way I approach shooting as well as lighting is first thinking about what the scene is giving you naturally and then deciding whether or not to augment it and how much. As a cinematographer, once you understand light and how it works physically in space, it becomes easier to tackle shots like this. For me, it’s about working backward—the shot was described to me as a glowing figure disappearing into particles. The tricky thing about someone glowing is that they’re emitting the light versus having light shone on them. The solution here was to use RGB Titan Tubes just outside of frame to illuminate only Amber and not the background or grass.

Film still from Amber Mark’s music video for Bliss (2022), cinematography by Peter Pascucci.

What was the most challenging part of this project?

The most challenging part of this project was budget. A lot of my work as a cinematographer comes down to how I can create interesting images within the context of a project. And sometimes it’s easier to make beautiful images with less money than with a huge budget.

Earlier this year you did the cinematography for MJ Rodriguez’s song “Something to Say.” I’m a huge Pose fan, so I obviously follow MJ’s career pretty closely. What was it like to be in charge of the cinematography for such a brilliant artist’s debut?

Working with MJ was a dream. I’m guilty of having cried watching her performance in Pose many times, so it was definitely nerve wracking meeting her. I’ll never forget that morning on set, she showed up with a small entourage and walked across this large industrial space where we were shooting just to come over to the corner where my crew and I were working to personally introduce herself to us. Those little gestures go such a long way in making a project shine.

Film still from Michaela Jaé’s music video for Something To Say (2021), cinematography by Peter Pascucci.

How did you get into the arts? Did you always want to be a cinematographer growing up?

I was the youngest sibling of three and grew up watching my sister experiment with black-and-white photography in high school. I became obsessed with the process of shooting and developing black-and-white very early on. My older brother took a much different route and was a coder and software engineer. Looking back, I think the combination of my sister’s craft and brother’s technical prowess is what led to my initial interest in cinematography. What makes a good image is fairly simple—and yet the process of image making is endlessly complicated. This is what I love about cinematography: there are infinite ways to create an image and all of them are uniquely beautiful and personal.

Many of our Ways of Seeing readers are just graduating from college, or are recent grads. What advice would you give those seeking work in the arts during their first year post-graduation?

I studied film at NYU Tisch. I got in off the waitlist after getting rejected just about everywhere else. At the time, I resorted to taking a train to New York City and knocking on the NYU admissions door...It worked. I fought my way in—that shaped my work ethic at school. I had something to prove. My advice to students is to not be afraid to vet your professors; audit their classes or drop them if you don’t like them. The education is too expensive and precious to waste your time on a professor who doesn’t click with you. Chitra Neogy was a professor at NYU who changed my life. She described her classroom floor as fertile ground and encouraged us to remove our mask before entering the space. These lessons took years for me to fully understand and that was the beauty of my education at NYU. None of it made sense in the moment but it was an integral part of finding my voice as a visual storyteller.

Film still from Children (2021), featuring Billy Porter, and youth from the Ali Forney Center, cinematography by Peter Pascucci.

Looking back on your career so far, what are you most proud of?

Wielding a camera is to be taken seriously—with respect. You’re holding a set of eyes and choosing where to point them. It’s a unique privilege to be given that power. Much of our careers are a dance between securing your voice and exemplifying your skill without becoming a tyrant, without stifling this precious thing known as collaboration. The projects I’m most proud of in my career are my work for the Ali Forney Center, a nonprofit homeless shelter for LGBTQ+ homeless youth. It’s the work that has an impact which excites me and keeps me motivated.