In this version of the “Art of the Shot” I talk to Jody Eldred who is an Emmy award-winning Director of Photography, Camera Operator, Writer, and, DGA Award-nominated Director whose credits include JAG, NCIS, National Geographic, ABC Network News, and much more. Interestingly, Jody started his career outside of Hollywood. From shooting his church’s 11 AM worship service while in high school to working at the local TV station in Lousiana as a sports reporter, photographer, and editor, Jody Eldred has worked at nearly every level of the film and TV business. Recently Jody had the opportunity to share his thoughts on the Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 4.6K and his 2016 NAB presentation for Sony.
HALLETT: Tell me how you got started in this career?
ELDRED: I got started at my church that I grew up in Louisiana. The church had been on the air, since probably the late 1950s in black and white. Before too much longer they switched over to color and the local TV station, CBS affiliate, said: “We’re happy to still carry you, but we don’t have remote color cameras, so if you buy your own, we’ll do that.” So they did and they began using high school age kids in the youth group to operate the cameras. And I had always had an aptitude for taking pictures, whether it’s still pictures or whatever since I was a kid. It’s just some kind of a gift that God has put in me. For me, it was fairly easy. I moved from that to directing the worship service’s live TV. I was in high school at that time. It was kind of a high-stress environment because we were the highest rated show at 11 AM on Sunday mornings. Doing that as a high schooler was do or die. You either do it right or you’re gone, and it was something I had the aptitude for. Then I got hired at that same CBS station as a sports photographer and later sports reporter and moved into the news department where I was shooting and reporting. I was probably 19 when I started working in the business, professionally. I was fortunate to work at a couple of TV stations that had some really good guys there. People that were really good at what they did, both from photography and lighting and from the reporting side as well. Then I did some self-education, went to some lighting seminars that were done by Hollywood-type people in the area, and just educated myself as much as I could do and moved out here at the end of 1983 and it just kind of been an evolution since then. My degree, I have a B.A. in Sociology. So my formal education was not for TV or film, but it was about understanding the people I would be communicating with for the rest of my life. I did some graduate work in psychology, psychotherapy, and counseling — which also do the same thing. Those are all things that I feel kind of broaden my horizons in terms of stretching my brain in different directions, where it wasn’t just focused on “How does this camera work? How do you do this lighting? How do you edit? How do you tell stories as a person in film school would learn?” And that’s not a cut to anybody who went to film school, it’s just that I’m very glad that I had the education, practical experience that I did, cause I find it’s given me some good deep roots that some other people that I work with don’t have. And I do a wide variety of things, so that served me well. I do write, I’m a published author, I’ve written screenplays. Got a television pilot for an episodic series that I wrote that we’re trying to sell. I’ve been a D.P., I’ve been a reporter, edited of thousands of news stories and documentaries and so forth. I think that the beginning and the education and the experiences I’ve had allowed me to do a wide variety of things, and I’m not here to say that I do all of them with excellence. I try to. But it’s a little bit different from most of my colleagues and friends who kind of focus on one thing, but there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I love them and there are some terrific people. I just like having a variety of things I can do.
HALLETT: Do you often see former TV news reporters/photographers /editors working in Hollywood?
ELDRED: That is a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. I know an awful lot of it is being driven by economics. In fact, probably 99% of what people decide to do with their careers is driven by economics, for better or worse; usually, it’s for worse. Right now, it’s getting increasingly difficult to sell anything. Shows, documentaries, promos, anything. . . It’s just money is tight for everybody, and it’s very much that trickle-down thing. If money is tight for any of the companies who sponsor television commercials and sponsor shows, that directly impacts the networks and directly impacts the budgets they have for every single show that is on the air. For that reason, it can become increasingly difficult to make a living in this business, because there is a lot of competition for the jobs that are available and there’s always somebody who is going to do it for cheaper. So you’ve got to find a way to continually be either reinventing yourself or trying to find that position that puts you as the first person they think of because you’re really good at what you do. I think that a lot of people who are around my age– and well I’m older, I’m 60 now– a lot of guys who’ve been doing this for a long time have really focused in on those really one or two areas they do best. There’s another subset of people, like myself, who have some skills in a few different areas and don’t want to be locked into one particular thing because we just like doing those other things too. I think younger people have a much greater opportunity to kind of broaden themselves and step into several different arenas. But I have a hunch that eventually they’re going to find the one thing that fits them best and they will probably stay in that. That’s not an unwise thing to do. It’s just not for everybody. That’s my observation. And that’s my experience.
HALLETT: Who succeeds at this business? What kind of person?
ELDRED: I think the person who succeeds in this business is someone who really, really wants it. Somebody who is not in it for any other reason except “this is what they were made to do” because if you’re not good at it, you will not succeed. You will be miserable. So I really encourage people to find out what it is they’re good at and go do it. To work out of your strengths and not out of your weaknesses. You have to get used to rejection and be okay with it. Doesn’t mean you have to like it. Your entire identity cannot be tied up in “Did I sell this project?” ,”Did someone like what I created for them?”, “Did I get hired for this job?” There’s going to be somebody somewhere that’s going to prefer someone else’s work, that’s just the way it is. It has to be someone who has a sense of who they are, that has some value beyond what it is they do for a living because you will be crushed. It’s the same for actors and the same for musicians. You also have to be a person who is continually sharpening your skills and making yourself a better person. You have to be somebody who stays on top of things. This is a rapidly evolving business, technology-wise, and if you lag you’ll be left in the dust. The other thing I would say, a person who is a success in this business is someone who continually seeks to surround themselves with people who are better than they are. They can be people who are better than you are at your craft or people who are better than you are in character and moral development. I’m really fortunate to have a whole bunch of friends who are current or former Navy SEALs. These guys are amazing, and whenever I’m around them I complain less. So, being around people who are better than you is a really good thing. I think that’s one of the keys to success.
HALLETT: I saw your video concerning the Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro and how easy it is to use. Tell me a little bit about your experience with that camera.
First, I don’t work for any of these companies. They call me to do things for them, and I’m straightforward with all of these companies and there’s a lot of them who ask me to do stuff. I probably have had 15 companies over the years who’ve asked me to promote their products. Some of them I have declined because they’re not products that I like or that I would use. The F55 and that whole project I did for Sony with the new R7 Raw recorder and shooting that 120 frames 4K raw in HDR, that was just the coolest thing I’ve ever gotten to do. It’s a whole lot more expensive than the Blackmagic camera. The only camera I’ve worked with from Blackmagic is that URSA Mini Pro 4.6K. When they asked me to take that camera out and give them my assessment of it, well there’s always going to be things about cameras that I feel like should be redesigned because the people who design cameras are not the people who use them. They’re not like people like me and you. So there’s always things they miss, but thankfully with this particular camera, I really liked it a lot. I was remembering while I was setting up and thought, “Man this sure is easy” to turn the menu off and on, to change my ISO, and to change the tint after I set my color balance… I mean it was great. The URSA Mini Pro 4.6K is just so much easier and faster to use than any other camera that I’ve worked with to set up and just make it go. It was so fast. That was great for me. This was a real fast one-man crew sort of thing that I was doing. So I didn’t have a whole of time to be making adjustments here and there. This camera was a wonderful thing. I like it a lot. For the money, I haven’t seen anything else out there that even slightly compares to it. I think it’s phenomenal. I did some overexposure tests for a friend of mine, Roy Wagner, who is an ASC DP and Roy is an F65 kind of guy, in addition to film, and he knew I had this camera. So I shot all these tests and he was stunned at how it was almost near impossible to shoot overexposed on the URSA Mini 4.6K. I’m shooting 3 stops over and skin tones are completely white and washed out… “Well this is going to be unusable.”, I was convinced. I was wrong. I did some seminars for Blackmagic where I showed the ungraded overexposed Raw (with 15 stops dynamic range) and the color graded footage. You can hear people gasping! That’s kind of cool thing. You have to be shooting in Raw to do that of course. Man, it really did look good. I’ve had a friend of mine at Roush Media here in Burbank and I took some of my footage in there and had him grade some. He does Red, Alexa, 35 mm, F65, you name it and he said, “This thing really grades very much like Alexa footage.” He was very impressed by footage from the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K. The highlights roll off very much like the Alexa does. It has a fantastic viewfinder which is phenomenal for the money. The Arri Alexa is $90,000 and the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K is a $6,000 camera. So I took that to the bank. There’s nothing out there that comes close. It’s intentionally not a sophisticated and complex system because I don’t think people who have only $6,000 to spend want to buy something that is complicated. I think they made it very accessible in terms of technology.
HALLETT: How much does the tech shape what you do?
ELDRED: Not very much. There’s has to be a minimal level of technical capability or you can’t do anything. That depends on the kind of things you’re doing. I need tools that will meet the needs of my clients. I’ll give you an example. I was shooting promos for a college and we had two elements. One was interviews with some students. The second was some b-roll of one the students who is a baseball player and very gifted. I shot the interviews with the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K in 4K on ProRes 422, which looked beautiful. I didn’t need to shot RAW because I had controllable light. I made it look nice in camera. Shot it in 4K because it’s going to be posted in HD and the 4K allows you to resize the shots of the interviews if you want to go in for a tighter shot. I didn’t have to have two cameras. So the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K worked perfectly. It looked beautiful. I would not have wanted to have shot the b-roll with that camera. First off, I only had prime lenses for the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K and that’s not good for shooting sports! So what camera did I use? I used a camera that is probably close to 10 years old, my Sony EX3, and I have had that camera since it first came out and I love it. I use it all the time. I have it configured as a nice shoulder mount camera with an Anton/Bauer battery on the back. It’s got a very decent viewfinder. I’m able to zoom in and out with an ENG-style lens and do critical focus and everything. It’s lightweight and small enough for me to do handheld easily. So here are two cameras that are very different from each other in technology and age. The EX3 was much more expensive than the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K was when it came out, which is kind of interesting because the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K is so much more powerful. I was not hampered or crippled in any way by not having the newest coolest latest technology to shoot that b-roll. These cameras are just tools. Now if I’m shooting a motion picture or higher end commercial, then I would definitely want to use something like the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K and I would shoot in Raw because we want to make it look like film. But as my friend Roy Wagner says, “We can make good pictures with any camera. It’s not really so much about the technology as it is the person behind it.”
HALLETT: What do you tell someone who is looking to buy a camera?
ELDRED: I usually don’t tell them anything. I ask a whole lot of questions. My favorite question is, “What’s the best camera?” It’s like me asking you, “What’s the best car?” Do you want the highest gas mileage? Do you want to impress everybody with something that will go incredibly fast? Are you going to go to the mountains? It really depends on what you want to do with it and it’s the same with cameras. A guy was talking about getting a Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro or Sony FS7. I asked, “What do you want to do? Are you going to do run and gun?” A larger sensor camera– not only is it not necessary for that– but it can be a liability. Shallow depth of field is not your friend in run-and-gun. If you want to do something that looks very cinematic where you want shallow depth of field and selective focus then you do need a camera that has a large sensor that can achieve the look. So you have to ask a whole range of questions. You don’t want to go out and buy the coolest thing right now because that might be old news tomorrow. You need to really think about what it is going to do. Think about what kind of versatility you may need from that camera. When it comes down to, “Should I buy or should I rent from somebody else?”, you have to look at that same thing in view of the economy and your personal finances. Do you have enough work currently and do you see enough work coming down the pike that will support this kind of tool? If you get something that your clients are not going to want to use it doesn’t matter how good it is.
HALLETT: I saw you at the Sony Booth during NAB 2016 where you showed off their new recorder for the F55. What was the response to the presentation you made at NAB?
ELDRED: It was really good. I’ll tell you a funny story. For ten or twelve years I have done this at NAB, I present different cameras and different demo videos that I shoot for them, and a lot of the presentations you do all day long. You’ll do one presentation and there’s a fifteen or twenty-minute break before you have to do another one. It goes on all day. People come up in between and talk to you the entire time and then you’ve got to do another presentation. So you’re talking constantly for three days and it’s very difficult. The Sony presentation at NAB 2016 was, I think, one of the coolest things that I’ve ever done. They showed my footage on a 25-foot HDR LED screen. Amazing to behold. So I’m you know, proud, “Yep, that’s me… I did that.” So at the end of the presentations, I’m waiting for people to come up and probably ask for my business card. There are seven or eight people standing in line who have walked up and want to talk to me. I say to myself, “Okay… here’s where I get my accolades and all my attaboys and, ‘Can I have your card?’, and all that.” Yet, every single person said the same thing, “So, who made that screen?! Who made that big display?” Not a single question about me or the camera, nothing… instead it was “Who makes that big screen you presented on?” I’m like, “You know, I don’t know… some Japanese company with a vendor we sub-rented.. it came in a bunch of pieces from Japan, I really have no idea…” That screen was amazing! But what am I, chopped liver? *chuckles*
HALLETT: I can see how that may feel.
ELDRED: It’s like having a delicious meal and you go up to the cook and you say,”What kind of oven did you use to cook that in?” *chuckles*. But you know what? I didn’t really care all that much because I told them everything I knew about the camera and HDR. I showed them how we shot it and showed them the footage. I just left it all out there and I guess there was a whole lot of questions that needed to be answered. In the end, I just want people to walk away and think that is some cool technology and it may be useful to them. I want them to remember that it was Sony and it was the F55 recording on 4K in slow-mo. That’s what I want them to walk away with, and if we did that then my mission was done. It’s the same way with all the cameras that I show including the Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro 4.6K. I mean of course I want people to see me, to see my work, and think,”Hey, he’s really nice guy and he knows how to shoot.” You know you get work because of that. But my obligation is to show off the capabilities of my client’s equipment and candidly let people make the right decision for them. If those companies have great gear and they are getting some sales out of it because somebody out there like me is talking and saying, “This is what I’m using and this is why I like it.”, I’m fine with that. I want to help companies with great products succeed. And I want my colleagues to succeed by making the best choices in the equipment they use.
I would like to say that it’s worth mentioning that I’m brand agnostic. I really don’t care who makes the gear. Some of the manufacturers I work with maybe don’t like it so much when I say that. Some of them love it when I say that because I’m not married to any brand. If someone at Sony doesn’t like that I talk about Blackmagic, well, too bad. And if someone at Blackmagic doesn’t like that I’m talking about Sony, well then, too bad. I have great things to say about products from both of those companies. I’m not going to use a camera or anything just because someone puts it in my hand or it to me. I will use stuff only because I like it the best; I think it’s the best for what I do. I don’t care who it is. I’ve shot, demoed, and test for Panasonic, Red, Sony, and Blackmagic. I make my decisions based on what works for me. Same thing with lighting. I have worked with a lot of lighting companies and some of their instruments I use and some of them I don’t. Because of that, I don’t have any problem speaking candidly about different products and different companies. I hope that makes me appear to be less biased or a fanboy, and I have been accused of that occasionally, but I’m not. If I don’t like a product I go tell my friends I don’t want this camera/light/tripod/gadget, and here’s why. And if I do like it, I want the world to know.
I’m a filmmaker, I’m a storyteller. That’s what I do for a living. As far as gear is concerned, I’m just a beggar who has found bread, and I’m sharing what I know with other beggars! That’s all it is. “Here’s what I’ve found; if it works for you, great. If not, that’s OK too.” People in our business desperately want somebody to be truthful and shoot straight with them. And if manufacturers happen like what I have to say about their products, all the better. Everyone wins. There is some amazing gear out there today. My job is to be a truth-teller about it.
Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro 4.6K Digital Cinema Camera