INTERVIEWS - CinematographerTools.com

"My father would tell anyone who would listen that this dentist thing he was doing was not his passion; cinematography was."

 

-Lasse Hallstrom

 

Whether you want to make your own films or get a job in the industry (or both), it is important to not only learn the art of filmmaking, but to also listen to those who work in the business full-time.  We interviewed several professionals and asked them a variety of questions that will help you better understand the craft, working on the set and what it takes to do this for a living.  These talented professionals have been working in the business for decades and all share a love for what they do.

INTERVIEWS

Matt Doyle, Director/Producer

PRODUCER MATT DOYLE - CinematographerTools.com
PRODUCER MATT DOYLE 2 - CinematographerTools.com

1.  Tell us about yourself and the types of projects you work on.

I started my career at ESPN in 2000 as a production assistant working on SportsCenter.  Few things will train you to suck it up and get things done like working every night/weekend/holiday from 6pm-3am in Bristol, CT during your early-mid twenties.  If you’re able to make it through that darkness, there are rewards on the other side.  I spent about eight years working with the features unit at ESPN where I was lucky enough to produce some amazing projects and travel the world.  From long form work on OTL and Sunday NFL Countdown, to producing documentary series like “Training Days” and “Gruden’s QB Camp”, and most rewarding of all, overseeing the launch and production of “Kenny Mayne’s Wider World of Sports”, I honestly had the dream job of all dream jobs for a sports fan like myself.

 

With “Wider World”, Kenny and I (along with a small crew of super talented shooters) traveled the world for three years covering some of the craziest sporting events (bull penis fighting in Nicaragua for example), while actively participating in others (like the world’s first bungy jump in New Zealand).  We got paid to take the ultimate crazy sports fan’s vacation.  It will never get better than that.

 

However, a man gets tired after years of bull penis fighting and visiting underground muay thai fight clubs in Bangkok.  So in 2012 I decided to partner up with a long-time friend of mine who owned a marketing agency just north of Boston (Travis York of GYK Antler) to form Big Brick Productions.  We now have a team of producers/editors/shooters/social content creators that has been consistently growing since we came together 3 years ago.  We work on projects ranging from large scale commercial campaigns for big companies like Bauer hockey and New Balance, to long form digital content and social media for brands, in addition to a ton of traditional feature work for networks like ESPN, Fox Sports, and NBC Sports.  It’s a great mix of projects that keeps us consistently challenged creatively, while also helping to stave off the boredom associated with working on one type of project day in and day out.  It’s been a great three years so far.

2.  Who or what influenced or influences your work?

There’s never a good way to answer this question without sounding too cliché.  I don’t really know….  I’m influenced by so many different things.  Certainly my peers in the production world are always a source of inspiration.  I constantly stay in touch with friends and colleagues to keep an eye on what they might be working on at the moment.  I’ll fall down the rabbit hole on Vimeo staring at the latest “staff picks” from time to time.  I will admit that it’s sometimes frustrating watching such amazingly creative work being done by so many people, but at the same time it’s immensely inspirational.  Seeing the way people are pushing the boundaries of creative shooting/production/design/post work always drives me to push our projects to that next level.  In my opinion, any good creative should be consistently striving to challenge themselves.  Don’t be afraid to try something new or out of the box and fail.  It’s the only way to keep pushing the bar.  Jesus….that’s enough clichés to last everyone a while.  Whatever…bottom line….just find cool shit out there that looks awesome and try to make more of it on your own with your own projects.  You’ll get it right eventually.

3.  What do you want from a good director of photography?

For me, a good DP will always have a pack of gum.  I never have gum with me, but always want some on shoots, so if they have that…we’re usually good to go.

 

Honestly, as a director, I’m looking for a DP to be my partner.  A DP and director should be locked at the hip and completely on the same page with regards to the creative direction, look and feel of whatever project they’re working on.  However, a good DP shouldn’t be a “yes” man.  They need to have an opinion and should always be willing to challenge me on a particular shot or setup.  There are times when I’ll have a specific shot in mind, or even a rough idea for a “feel” I’ll want to get across with a particular setup, that I might not be able to properly convey.  A great DP will be able to work with a director to bring that “feel” to life without needing to have their hand held in order to get there.  Every director has their own style and way of working with DP’s, but for me, I’ll always want that person to be there in lock step with me, ready to challenge me when needed, and always willing to do whatever it takes to “get the shot”.  And again, packs of gum and/or fondness for a post-shoot beer or two will always go far in my book.

4.  What's your basic approach to working with a crew on a project?

I try to do the best job I can in relaying what it is we’re trying to accomplish that day.  As a director I’m running point when we’re on set, but ultimately I’m completely dialed in to the picture on the screen.  That’s where a supremely talented crew really saves the day.  From a great AD, to people in the grip/gaffer world, to wardrobe/props/production coordinators…..everyone should know their roles by the time we hit record.  I always try to make sure everyone knows what the hell we’re trying to get done that day at the outset so that we can all do our jobs and end up with a great finished product.  In terms of a vibe….I’ll always try to keep a loose set, even on the most stressful of shoots.  It’s just not my style to be sitting up on a director’s chair with a  megaphone and a beret chirping down at cast and crew to make pretty pictures.  I try to treat our long time crew members like family, because that’s what they are.  Especially the ones who have seen me after eating street meat in Nicaragua.

5.  How do you handle the pressure on set?

Flip a few chairs over…scream at talent and crew…likely storm off the set.

 

You just need to buckle down and get it done.  Again…stupid cliché, but really, what else can you do?  There’s no use in stressing out or taking it out on others on the set.  As a director, you have to run the show and figure out a plan.  Maybe you have to ditch that extra setup you’d hoped for.  Maybe you wrap an interview sooner than you’d like in order to get another shot.  There are always things you can do to be sure you don’t end up holding the bag at the end of a shoot.  You always have to make sure you have enough to go back and make magic in post.  Cover the basics if you’re up against the clock.  Any additional stuff you’re able to accomplish will just be gravy.  They can’t all be home runs.  But next time…do a better job of watching the clock sooner and adjusting so you’re not up against it again.

6.  What kind of things do you like to accomplish in the pre-production phase?

I don’t know….lock in some over-priced craft services?  Rent a helicopter?  Find someone who speaks Italian?  Get the crew vaccinated?  Who the hell knows….it really depends on the job.

 

Bottom line, I like to be sure we put a great team in place to assure we’re successful when it’s time to shoot whatever we’re shooting.  Will we need two cams on the set?  Will there be a grip truck that day?  Do we need a pyro guy?  Who’s our AD?  Etc…etc…etc.  If we can walk out of pre-prod feeling great then the shoot is usually going to be smooth sailing.  However, if there are snags in pre-prod (scripts not approved, shooting boards changing, locations not booked, crew unavailable), things can get tenser than they need to be on set in a hurry.  Ideally we’re as buttoned up as possible in pre-prod, but sometimes things happen.  Pre-production should never make or break a shoot…..you should always be able to get the goods once you’re on the set….however, a great pre-prod plan will certainly make things easier during production.

7.  What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the business that wants to be a producer/director?

PRODUCER MATT DOYLE 3 - CinematographerTools.com

Do stuff.  Really.  Do anything.  Any project you have a chance to work on….jump at it.  That’s the only way you’ll ever get better at what you’d like to do.  Also, try to work as many jobs as possible in the field of production.  Learn how to shoot.  Learn how to write.  Learn how to edit…….really devour it all.  You can’t have too many skills in this field.  Make yourself invaluable.  But again, above all, get out and do SOMETHING.  The technology available to people today to make great video is absolutely astounding.  You could make an earth-shatteringly powerful video with nothing but a cellphone.  Take advantage of this accessibility.  Just create stuff.  And watch Vimeo.  And always have a pack of gum on set for moody directors.  That will help you more than you know.

PRODUCER MATT DOYLE 4 - CinematographerTools.com

Mark Devin, Director of Photography

DP MARK DEVIN - CinematographerTools.com

1.  Tell us about yourself and the types of projects you work on.

I've been in the Business, actually getting paid, for about 30 years. I started at a small PBS affiliate, which was non-Union, so we did everything, we designed and built sets, we did the lighting, and we did everything. The staff rotated in Directing, Audio, Camera, Editing, and Lighting. It was a great training ground. I worked in many facets of production and eventually fell into Camera and lighting. Although, I still had the desire to shoot more film, so through self-study, a few workshops, and just saying yes to everything, I earned the title and was hired to work as a Director of Photography. I shot and exposed film using 35mm and 16mm cameras. I shot no budget indie shorts, and a lot of Commercials, mostly commercials. However, it was a blast, I loved the adrenaline rush of knowing with confidence exactly how the film would come out of the lab, through my decisions on: film Stock, exposure, and color temperature, with film you couldn't look at the monitor to adjust and guess, you had to know exactly how to expose, and compensate for, or correct for color temperatures. Film production is a science and an art. This knowledge continues to aid me in High Definition and 4K productions, to this day. You can still learn how to do this with digital photography, look it up, learn it, live it love it.

2.  Who or what influenced or influences your work?

I have had a fascination with the visual arts as early as I can remember. As a kid I loved Black and white films, animation, cartoons, Disney films. I pretty much devoured every genre and style I could find. To nail down a few, I would say the art of Edward Hopper, Johannes Vermeer, and Cinematographers such as: Bob Richardson, ASC, Vilmos Zsigmond, Vitorio Storaro, and Conrad Hall. Although, I would not know about any of these guys if I hadn’t discovered and read American Cinematographer magazine, in fact reading the magazine voraciously, shaped and motivated me the most. Lastly, observe life. I have always and still do; stop to notice natural lighting situations, how the sun falls through the many layers of a tree, and the shadows it creates, or how the light from a street lamp through a café window creates a kicker or top light on someone sitting across from you… yeah stuff like that excites me!

3.  What's your approach to collaborating with a film director or a TV producer?

I do just that; I collaborate. I read the script, I listen to their vision, hopefully, I'll end up on the same page. I then confirm, and say, “ this is visually what I feel that you want to say and see, am I in the ballpark?” Then you go from there.

Here is a short post from my LinkedIn page; it’s very much the truth:

In TV/Film Production, as in all business, the customer is always right. Our profession is subjective, if you create a mood or a shot that the director or producer does not want to use, it doesn't mean that you failed, it means that you have to find out what their vision is and create it. That is what distinguishes you as a creative professional. I joke with my clients that; "I am the guy who makes things happen", well I am, and we all have to be to succeed, if you make it happen, and the production is a success, then you did your job, and repeat business will happen.

 

4.  What's your basic approach to lighting a scene?

I use my eyes; I try to visualize the scene by looking at it, not through the lens, but straight on. I want to see what I am working with, ambient light, good textures, bad textures, things I want to see in focus, things I don’t, shadows I like, shadows I don’t, a mood I want to create, an actor that I want to portray in the best lighting for their features, age, and personality. There really isn’t a formula. If its people, I start with large soft sources, then create a moving portrait. If it’s a scene on a set or location I want to enhance it, work it, and ultimately impress the Producer, Director, and Client, as well as myself.

 

5.  How do you handle the pressure on set?

Well, that’s my personality, I thrive on the pressure, I use it as an energy force, because I know that if I planned and did my homework correctly, then all will work out smoothly. You have to plan, plan, plan, and always do your homework for every project no matter how large or small, or the pressure becomes a burden and not an asset.

6.  What is some of your favorite gear to work with and why?

There are so many good cameras in all price points for many different uses, in this day and age, there is no one tool that can do everything, learn about all cameras, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Learn all the tools of the trade, learn what their purpose is, learn how to use them, then; learn them again.

I own a few, no, I own a bunch of cameras, and tools, I have my favorites, however, a good camera person, if they want to grow into, and earn respect as a true Cinematographer, needs to be able to create art with any image capture device available or affordable.

 

7.  What advice would you give to a cinematographer just starting out in the business?

You have to possess a passion to do it all, learn it all, and live it all.

Never complain, or say, “I plan to Direct, so I don’t have to learn how to flag a light”.  Be humble. Do not be a ‘know it all’! Professionals do not enjoy or respect a young crewmember that constantly feels the need to throw out technical specs, equipment, names, and projects, or tries to challenge those higher up than them in the food chain. In the same respect, the person who you poke fun at today could be in a position to hire you tomorrow. Help everyone, be cordial to everyone.  When on a set: hide your phone; keep it in your pocket, stand up and watch the action, offer a hand, get involved in the action, keep your eyes open at all times, watch the key players, you may learn something.

Say, “ Yes I’ll flag that light!” “I’ll set those C-Stands”, and don’t be afraid to say, “ I’ll do it, but first can you show me how?” or “what’s an apple box?” you may illicit a good chuckle, but you will earn respect, and learn something at the same time.

 

If I stop learning, if I stop acting like a kid, if I loose my creative passion, if I ever complain; then I do not deserve to belong in this business.

 

DP MARK DEVIN 2 - CinematographerTools.com
DP MARK DEVIN 3 - CinematographerTools.com
DP AARON FRUTMAN - CinematographerTools.com
DP AARON FRUTMAN 3 - CinematographerTools.com
DP AARON FRUTMAN 2 - CinematographerTools.com

Aaron Frutman, Director of Photography

2.  Who or what influenced or influences your work?

3.  What's your approach to collaborating with a film director or a TV producer?

5.  How do you handle the pressure on set?

6.  What is some of your favorite gear to work with and why?

7.  What advice would you give to a cinematographer just starting out in the business?

1.  Tell us about yourself and the types of projects you work on.

4.  What's your basic approach to lighting a scene?

I am a DP and partner at DGA Productions in Boston, MA.  I started as an intern in 1996, moved into doing audio and eventually photography and camera work.  We at DGA do a variety of productions including commercials, documentaries, sports, corporate, and cooking shows.  I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world and meet some incredibly interesting people.  My favorite jobs involve telling the stories of inspirations like Travis Roy and Pete Frates.

When I started in the business, I was just happy I found a job where I didn’t have to wear a tie or sit at a desk.  I very quickly grew to love the business and had two amazing mentors in Dean Gaskill and John Maliszewski.  Both of them are brilliant cinematographers and passionate story tellers.  Dean has since passed, but left a lasting legacy of collaboration that still permeates our company and always will.  Michael Andrus currently works at DGA and motivates me to always push myself, as he is constantly evolving and raising his game.

Pre production is everything.  Storyboards, scheduling, location scouting, conference calls, video examples.  All can help keep you on the same page and make for a more successful shoot.  You should know when first walking onto the set exactly what everyone is doing and how soon they need to have it done by.  Having all of the crew working as a tight unit usually makes things run smoothly.  It saves time, money, and most importantly helps the producer/director achieve their vision.

Lighting is no doubt an art, and a potentially challenging part of the shoot.  It’s also where a good DP can set themselves apart.  Time and crew is a big factor.  Do I have 10 minutes or 3 hours?  Do I have a gaffer, 3 grips and a 5 ton lighting truck or is it just me and the sound guy?  Todays cameras and easy accessibility to cinematic lenses make lighting so much easier because small or difficult spaces can now look so beautiful with very little help. Generally, keep direct sun off the face and have the subject looking into the key.  A small detail for me is in the eyes.  I need them lit well and super sharp.

Nowadays, I usually handle pressure fairly well, though that has only come with years of experience and consistently strong crews.  In the end, as long as the subject is exposed correctly and in focus, everything else is subjective window dressing.  As long as you remember that, even in the face of a panicky producer/director, you’ll be ok in the end.

I go through phases.  For awhile it was sliders and time lapses, then stabilizers and go pros.  Right now its drone without a doubt.  We’ve been shooting drone lately with a two person configuration, which has made things so much easier to get specific, incredible images.  To be able to send a camera 1800 feet in any direction has absolutely changed the game.

When someone is starting out, its vital to show up early, be ready to do what’s asked, and keep complaining to a minimum.  We all started at the bottom, so handling the small stuff is your initiation into the game.  The job usually has brutal hours with lots of weekend and holiday shoots.  You have to love what you do.  For me, being part of a team that works well together is super rewarding, so finding people you want to work with is critical.  Assimilating with the crew and doing the job asked, no matter how menial can make you indispensable, which leads to more shoots.  Learning how to anticipate is another significant skill.  Having a fresh battery for the cameraman or a stinger ready for a grip are a couple of little things that can set yourself apart.  Being social media savvy is another important avenue to both showcase your talent, and give respect to those whose work you admire.  Knowing how to wrap a cable with the over under method immediately endears yourself to the senior crew members.  And advice relevant to all of life, the less you stare at your phone the better.

1.  Tell us about yourself and the types of projects you work on.

I am an 11-time Emmy Winning filmmaker and producer at ESPN and primarily work on the show E:60.  I have worked in television since 1996, and have been at ESPN since Nov 2001.  My favorite projects have ranged from teases, short and long form features and documentaries including "Perfect" where I interviewed 15 of the living 17 MLB perfect game pitchers, the Alabama Auburn football rivalry called Roll Tide War Eagle and most recently my dream project called Star Wars: Evolution of the Lightsaber Duel, where I traveled to Japan for the World Kendo Championships and worked with the one and only Mark Hamill.

Martin Khodabakhshian, Director/Producer

2.  Who or what influenced or influences your work?

3.  What do you want from a good director of photography?

5.  How do you handle the pressure on set?

6.  What kind of things do you like to accomplish in the pre-production phase?

4.  What's your approach to visual storytelling?

I have often been told my films and features resemble the work of Errol Morris which is an extremely high compliment.  My favorite directors include Christopher Nolan, Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese.  Although we are a sports oriented organization, I relish the opportunity to push the creative envelope in story telling with a cinematic, risk taking devices and scripts

The main thing I look for in a good DP is their ability to collaborate , take my vision and enhance it with their own particular style and approach.  I work best with DPs who don't just point, shoot and cover.  I want an artist.  I want DPs to push me to the next level, think unconventionally and create with an enthusiasm that matches my own.

Basic approach to good story telling is don't be formulaic or predictable.  Shoot things that have metaphorical applications not just used for b-roll.  Think differently.  Take educated risks.

I handle pressure through prayer. God is who gives me my talent and ability. So I give everything back to Him.  I really don't feel pressure when I am in the moment.  I seem to relish pressure.  I work better under pressure.  I enjoy and work better with deadlines.  When there is pressure I tell myself "in the end, it's only television."  And I don't HAVE to get this done, I GET to get this done.

Pre-production is all about brainstorming, research and applying things I have seen in other films, shows, art that I either want to emulate, borrow from and evolve or better yet come up with something entirely new.  I like watching movie trailers and get inspired with music scores and cool uses of graphics and fonts.

Roll Tide War Eagle - www.cinematographertools.com
Martin Khodabakhshian wins an Emmy - www.cinematographertools.com
John Boyega and Martin Khodabakhshian - www.cinematographertools.com
Mark Hamill and Martin Khodabakhshian - www.cinematographertools.com
Dr. Dre and Martin Khodabakhshian - www.cinematographertools.com

Nicole Noren, Producer

1.  Tell us about yourself and the types of projects you work on.

I am an investigative producer for the ESPN Enterprise Unit and newsmagazine program, "Outside the Lines". I produce/direct/report/write investigative pieces and features, and tend to focus on stories about health, education and youth sports. Our stories end up on TV, radio and on espn.com, so we are truly a cross-platform production unit.

2. You work on a lot of investigative pieces. What kind of pre-production work do you do before going out and shooting the story?

My stories sometimes take months of research and reporting before we ever do an interview. Every story is unique, but one important tip I can share is to try to collect archival videos and photos early on. Also, bring a HD DSLR camera into the field. It's much easier to take photos of photos (if a scanner is not available), and you never know when you'll need to shoot something yourself. It's rare nowadays to have a story without at least a few snippets of broll or photos I quickly shot in the field myself.

3. What do you look for in a good director of photography?

Talent behind the lens is obviously important, but I prefer to work with DPs who like to get invested in stories and who genuinely care about the subject matter. Also, it's important for me to be able to collaborate with my DP and have a level of mutual respect, where they will respect my vision for a story, and I respect their ideas and opinion.

4. As a producer, how do you keep your style fresh?

I watch a lot of feature documentary films, listen to podcasts and news radio, and go to quite a few art exhibits, but I honestly don't watch a ton of television.

5. What's the most memorable story you've ever produced and why?

Our investigative story on Sasha Menu Courey, a former Univ. of Missouri swimmer who battled borderline personality disorder. Mental health stories are scarce in the American media landscape, especially the sports world. The story spurred numerous policy changes in regards to both mental health care and sexual violence in the Univ. of Missouri system. I was honored to help give someone a voice who could no longer speak for herself, and to raise awareness about the issues in the story. Also, the crew on the story was incredible - some of my favorite people in the business. It was truly a collaborative effort and everyone played a crucial role.

6. What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into the industry?

Be prepared to work extremely hard and never be afraid to speak the truth. Once you get your foot in the door, no one cares where you went to college or who you know, it's all about how hard you work and how much you can adapt and learn new skills, as well as stand up for what you believe in. Also, be sure to be kind to everyone. A producer or director who values everyone's integral role, and who is patient and kind to their crew members, will not only be more respected by their crew, but they'll create a healthier and more productive work environment for everyone.

Jeff Olsen, Production Company Owner

1.  You've been running a successful production company (Northern Lights Communications, Inc.) since 1994.  What's the secret to your success?

I think the most important thing in business is to surround yourself with talented people, who enjoy working with others and creating great work.  We are in the service field, so if a client comes to us, they want to know that we are really good at what we do.  They rely on us to listen to their needs and deliver their message in a professional and creative way.  We are proud of the work we do and we have a real enthusiasm to deliver great results for our clients.

2.  Northern Lights does a lot of production and postproduction work. What do you look for in a good editor or director of photography?

Someone who works in this field needs a unique blend of talents to succeed.  The first thing they need is to be able to listen to the client and be able to interpret their vision.  Ultimately, the client is the one we are working for, so we have to tailor everything we do to making them happy. Technical ability and thoroughly understanding the production process is also important.  The last thing is the ability to always make the client feel like they are part of the process.  It’s really about building strong and collaborative relationships and being pleased with the work that we create together.

3.  You were originally interested in photography before you got into video production.  How exciting is it for you that today's digital cameras act more like film cameras with big sensors, fast lenses, 4K or better resolution and the ability to record a wide dynamic range?

I actually went to photography school before I got interested in video production.  That was an invaluable experience for my approach to what I do now.  It taught me some important basics that I use almost every day.  Depth of field is something that I learned very early on in photography.  I learned how the size of the lens opening (aperture) helps determine how much of a shot will be in focus.  DOF plays a huge rule in what an audience focuses their attention on in a shot.  The other very valuable thing I learned in photography was composition.  When a shot is moving in video, it is sometimes hard to see the composition.  But when you think of it like a still photograph, it makes seeing the scene much easier.  Where would you put the main character or subject in the shot?  Where is your horizon line?  How is the frame balanced?  Look at really good photographs and you will see so many things that can help you with setting up your compositions in video.

4.  Beyond managing a production company, you are also a talented editor and camera operator. What's your favorite part of the production process and why?

One of my favorite parts of this field is lighting.  That is something you can spend your whole life learning and I really enjoy it.  There are some basics that you need to learn first, but there are also so many subtle things in the process that you learn over the years, that really make a huge difference in the final look of your shots.  You should look for lighting in everyday life for inspiration (paintings, photographs, television and movies).  All of these use lighting to create a mood and to help tell a story.  It is always a good practice to think about how someone else lit something and try to figure out how he or she did it and what they were trying to accomplish.  It’s a lot of fun and improves your work.

5.  What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into the industry?

I often tell people who want to get into this field, that they really need to have a love for it.  This industry is always evolving and there is a lot to learn.  In fact, the learning process should never end.  If you love what you do, then you will look forward to learning and getting better at your craft every day.  I think that it’s this kind of passion that is needed to succeed.

 

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