ART OF THE SHOT: The DP of “The Fosters” Kees Van Oostrum, ASC

The President of the ASC talks Blackmagic cameras on “The Fosters”

He is the current President of the American Society of Cinematographers and at times he shoots on the Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K for  Freeform/ABC “The Fosters.” Yep, you read that right. A man who could use any camera and at times he chose the URSA Mini 4.6K. I bet you, like me, want to know how he came to this decision for the teenage family drama.

HALLETT: You’re shooting The Fosters right now, right?


HALLETT: Let’s talk a little bit about your decision to shoot on the Blackmagic Ursa Mini for this season.

VAN OOSTRUM: It’s really an economical choice. Obviously, the mini is just as small and it’s handy to work with, but there’s a huge price difference. We basically shoot with regular Alexas on this show, and it’s nice to be able to have a handheld camera with you all the time so when you need it you can just grab it. The Blackmagic has performed that role beautifully at a very modest price. It matches really well with the Alexas in most of the occasions. In low light maybe Alexas are a little bit more potent, but for a lot of the stuff that we use it in and out of cars, it’s perfect. It fills the bill the best. So that’s how we have been using it.

HALLETT: What do the camera crews think about it? Did they throw any shade on it?

VAN OOSTRUM: No, they like it a lot. The operators like the electronic viewfinder and the camera crews like the simplicity of the camera. It’s basically we get it ready, it’s ready to go. We’ve used this for about a year off and on and it’s worked out really well.

HALLETT: Are you shooting raw, are you shooting ProRes if so, what flavor are you choosing?

Oostrum VAN OOSTRUM: I just do ProRes 444 because that’s what we are on. I don’t venture out into the RAW world on this show because it would be too much of a hassle for post to deal with a different format. But when we tested the camera we obviously tested it in 4K RAW, just to see what potential it was, and we were very happy with it. Like I said, we mostly use it in the daylight sequences and cars outside, so the ProRes version just works quite well. We have no issues with that.

HALLETT: So the pipeline: you guys shoot it–where does it go after that, how do you guys handle it? 

VAN OOSTRUM: We do a copy on set that goes to editing, and when editing is done with it then the footage goes through color grading, and that’s where all the files get conformed to the original 444.

HALLETT: Blackmagic has been a camera company that some people kind of love-hate. Actually, some people love to hate Blackmagic. What do you think?

VAN OOSTRUM: I certainly don’t hate it because besides the camera I have the waveform monitors on set. I use their distribution amplifier. I personally am quite fond of the Blackmagic products because I think they perform well. I’ve had no issues with them over the years, and the price is right on most of them–they’re not overly expensive, and the performance is good. I like their support too. They really know what they’re doing I think on all of the peripheral equipment that they build as well, so I’ve been extremely happy with it. I also started to use some of their Micro Cinema Cameras for some of the car work that we’re doing. And again I was very happy with it. I don’t personally like GoPros because they’re so unpredictable and noisy and though they call them 4K cameras they’re not very fast. People nowadays when you’re shooting with Alexas they expect the GoPro to put out the same quality–which of course it doesn’t–but the micro with the right optics is very close to what the Alexa would do, certainly for these big great shots, it’s a magnificent camera for that as well, and easy to work with.

HALLETT: What kind of lenses are you using with the micro?

OostrumVAN OOSTRUM: The Olympus zooms–I think they’re 14-50mm or something like that, and we also have a set of Veydra lenses to go with the camera. I think they really put a wonderful image out for the reasons where we use it for, hiding places and so forth.

HALLETT: I mean the price is right, isn’t it?

VAN OOSTRUM: Yeah, I mean it’s not the cheapest, but it’s also not the most expensive. I think it falls right in the middle, which is very comfortable. I think for us because production is always on our case when we ask for these extra cameras, and if these were Alexa Minis, the price would be objectionable to get two extra cameras. So if it’s these little micros, it’s very doable. It’s very modest in price comparison.

HALLETT: And you guys are shooting ProRes with that too or are you shooting RAW?

VAN OOSTRUM: ProRes. If I wanted the quality I would probably go to RAW, but it poses too many problems in the post and especially the micros–I’m shooting 72-frame shots. Nobody will ever know what it is. I don’t really need the extra “oomph” that RAW will give you, but the possibility of RAW is always there as you know, and if you really do need it–like maybe if I would do a stunt at night, and I would really want it all to be detailed and everything, then I probably would go to RAW and make it look better in post but that hasn’t happened to me yet.

HALLETT: You’re out there. I’m in Nashville, so I don’t get to see the world that you’re learning in and experiencing at work. I’m assuming it’s very much an ARRI or a RED world. Are you an outlier?

Oostrum VAN OOSTRUM: The cost of the camera in relationship to the production is really negligible because our episodes are about $2 million apiece, and whether you shoot in those seven days with a $4,000 camera or a $6,000 camera, it’s not really a contingent because what are we talking about, we’re talking about a couple thousand dollars on the whole budget, right? Obviously, the more expensive cameras do certain things better, there’s no question about it that an Alexa has a little bit more depth than a Blackmagic, but when we going for a third or fourth camera, the numbers start speaking to you. We rent our equipment on a series basis, so we normally get discounts. However, when we go for the extra little body, it comes to us at full fare, so they get actually quite expensive, and that’s when a cheaper camera–if it is within the range of the capabilities of the camera–it is a very welcome little thing for production because they like not to always depend on these extras, and it invariably gives us just an extra camera where otherwise they might have said well maybe not. That’s sort of where it works for me in the long run. Would I shoot the whole show on Blackmagic? If I don’t have to I probably wouldn’t do that because I would still be relying more on the solidity of an Alexa and all of the other advantages that come with that, which work probably work better in a production situation. But if somebody came to me and says here’s a totally low-budget movie, could you shoot it on a Blackmagic? I’d say sure. The camera puts a really, really beautiful image out. It’s not bad, it’s just in production there are other requirements. We need to power up a lot of peripheral equipment, and that kind of stuff is typically worked out in the more professional cameras.

HALLETT: What would you say has been the most difficult shot you had to shoot with the Blackmagic Ursa Mini so far?

VAN OOSTRUM: At one point we had an episode where there was a raid on the school and the concept was to shoot it completely handheld, all day long. We had two Blackmagic’s specifically for those sequences to run around with all day. I think that was the most tasking thing we’ve ever done with them because it wasn’t the incidental shot, we actually shot all sequences with them, and they performed really well. There were no problems and of course, it’s an extremely light little camera so it was very welcome to the operators to get the flexibility to run around with it and to do well with it. Everything worked great on it. We had them fully rigged out with remote focusing, iris, and everything, and we had no issues. Probably that was the most challenging we’ve ever done with it.

HALLETT: Has it been the type of shoot where you go wow, this little camera is exceeding my expectations?

VAN OOSTRUM: Eventually, you’ll get the job done with whatever camera you have. It’s just this was a tremendous convenience factor. You didn’t have to lug around heavy cameras, and we had the flexibility to just be there with the camera at any time. So it’s helped production time speed up. Again, it’s something you could probably do with an Alexa Mini, but for our show would have been objectionable to get two Alexas Minis for two days to do those sequences, so this was a more budget-oriented solution that actually worked really well.

HALLETT: Did you find it a difficult switch to digital?

OostrumVAN OOSTRUM: No, not at all. I’ve never found it very difficult because the bottom line is with digital you see what you do verbatim in the moment you’re there because you have monitors. You watch what you’re doing. I’m not saying they completely represent what’s in the digital data, but I would say most cases you know about 80% what you’re doing, and on film, that’s not necessarily the case. Despite the fact that we’ve built up a tremendous craftsmanship to predict what will be on film–and obviously they expect us to know what we’re doing–there’s always that surprise factor that you don’t really know and that you find out later, and digital foreshortened it quite a bit because 99% of the cases you know what you’re getting because it’s right there.

HALLETT: Do you miss film any, or do you prefer to stay in digital?

VAN OOSTRUM: No, I mean I like both, but in some ways, it’s not really wanted from us anymore to do so much film, or if any. I’m doing it still for commercials because they demand it. In my dramatic work, I haven’t shot film, in four, five years. Will it happen one day? Possibly. There is a whole movement out there where people want to shoot on film and they like the look and they want the feeling of it and I understand that, but it also has to be something that the productions support when you go in and shoot a movie.

HALLETT: I talked to one guy and this question didn’t pertain to him and I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but I’m gonna ask: how do you balance your work life versus your home life?

VAN OOSTRUM: How do I balance? Well, I like what I do very much. Like I always say my hobby became my profession, so you could wake me up day and night to do it–I do–but at the same time, I do have a life and I do have a family and you just sometimes you just say okay enough is enough and I’m going to spend my days with this or I’m going to take some time off. That’s what I’ve always tried to do, and when our kids were smaller I made the promise that I would never be away from them for longer than three weeks. And we would always work it where either they came to visit me or I would go back home for a weekend, sometimes flying sixteen hours back-and-forth to be able to accomplish that, but I think that at least kept me in touch with them because it’s very easy in our profession to lose your family for months on end if you’re going on location and you’re not in the vicinity where you live. It happened to me once when I shot a film in Bulgaria and I was gone for seven months and obviously, I never saw them. Today what is really great of course is Skype. Skype helps us stay in touch with people a lot better than we used to when it was just phone calls and stuff like that. At least now you can sit down for an hour or two on the weekends and chat and share experiences. So I think it’s between Skype and still always trying to find time to get together. It’s really important. The thing is when everything is done and the kids are out of the house, rarely will you ever hear anybody say oh I think I spent too much time with them.

HALLETT: True. How old are your kids?

VAN OOSTRUM:  My children are 19 and 21.

HALLETT: So they’re a good age. Are they out of the house?

VAN OOSTRUM: Yeah, they’re in college now.

HALLETT: Are there days when you’re away from your family that you’re like, “What am I doing here?”

VAN OOSTRUM: Oh yeah, sure. I’m not saying that it’s always rosy what we do. As you know we’re always under a lot of stress, you sometimes don’t have the right partnership with the director that you work with, especially on a series you get thrown together. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often. I would say eight out of ten experiences are always really terrific I feel. And there’s a few there that your personalities or your styles don’t really match up and you gotta bite the bullet and push through for seven or eight days. And that’s something I had to get used to when I started this series because before that I did features and television movies and basically, you were always paired with the director and it was a definitive choice for both of you. Series work is a little different because you are on the job and directors come and go. But in itself, like I said, 80% of the time it’s fine and sometimes it’s not so great and you just deal with it which makes you a stronger person in the end.

HALLETT: What has been the best day for you on set? Describe it if you can.

VAN OOSTRUM: The best day is always when you have a concept for a scene and it just falls together, you get beautiful shots. Like funnily enough yesterday I had a great day because we had some kind of conceptual scene with extreme wide angles and created something really interesting here with the framing, and he came up with some frames that I thought were exotic and strange and really support the story, and that gave me a lot of great joy, those moments when you go like wow, this is really working, and we’re doing something that is a little different than what you would expect. I think that would describe a great day for me, and of course, I’ve had many. And I’m very happy about that.

HALLETT: What kind of person succeeds at filmmaking?

VAN OOSTRUM: You have to have perseverance. You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in your talent. And then I think for a cameraman it’s important that you hunker down with that and you keep pursuing it. When I was starting out–of course I had my ideas from the very first day, but to execute those ideas and to keep them consistent within a scene within a movie, I found the hardest thing. And it’s still one of the most challenging things. You can light a shot, it’s beautiful, and then you gotta continue that beauty in the sequential shots that you’re doing. And that’s sometimes pretty hard because there’s a certain density, a certain look, and then you turn around and the walls are different and it changes the whole thing. And I believe that’s one of the toughest jobs to do once you step beyond the initial creation, is just to keep that consistency going not only in one shot, but multiple shots, and eventually the whole movie.

HALLETT: Who fails at filmmaking? What characteristics do they have?

VAN OOSTRUM: I guess people that are giving up too quick. If you get discouraged or if you feel like “I can’t do it” then the boats stops. I sometimes notice that when I teach with students. You run into people that have an idea and then they throw up their arms and they walk away. You can never walk away. You just have to sit down and say okay, try again. Yes, it takes times sometimes, but you have to be ready to take the consequences of that and defend yourself. The whole basic principle is never walking away from a bad shot. Try to improve, improve, improve. And that doesn’t mean that every shot is great. Sometimes you just have to throw it in because of whatever situation. Just say okay, fine. I failed. I did something that wasn’t up to my standards, but I know it wasn’t and I’m going to make sure next time it won’t happen. And if you don’t have that attitude I think you won’t succeed because you won’t get to that point where you do wonderful stuff. You just keep falling away, and eventually, that will be very discouraging.

HALLETT: Attitude’s so important, isn’t it?

VAN OOSTRUM: It is. Of course. And also be light about it. It’s not a matter of life and death. It’s a matter of creation, and creation comes out a sense of freedom and a sense of I do what I love, not I feel restricted and I can’t do what I want to do. You can make beautiful stuff with no lights. What you need is your eyes, and find the right time of the day. Like in the Revenant. NOTE: Emmanuel Lubezki basically wasn’t using lights. He went for a look that was totally natural and waited for the right light to come, and look at some of the beautiful stuff that he created that had nothing to do with all of that circus that they sometimes drag along.

HALLETT: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

VAN OOSTRUM: If I wasn’t doing this? I would probably be an architect because it has my chance to create buildings and great architecture and I’m really fond of that. That’s what I’ve always said to people. I’ll either be a production designer in movies, if that’s what it was or an architect.

HALLETT: Let’s bump back a little bit. When did you know this is what you wanted to do with your life?

VAN OOSTRUM: I think very young. I was probably 16 when I realized that I wanted to be in this business. And I was attracted to cinematography because I was a still photographer. Then I started to see movies and I thought this is really interesting, to create dramatic images and lighting and stuff.

HALLETT: What do you suggest to people who are studying cinematography now? What advice can you give?

VAN OOSTRUM: Just do as much as you can, because you learn by doing not by watching. But at the same time, watch movies and determine what you like. If you know what you like, that’s a very important ingredient in trying to get there. If you know you like a certain cinematographer or a certain way of lighting or working, concentrate on that and just immerse yourself into style and the approach. Eventually, you start living and breathing it and it becomes second nature.

HALLETT: Some people have a favorite work: commercials, documentary, or features. How about you?

VAN OOSTRUM: In my heart, I love features. I really do. I like the challenge from a dramatic point of view. I do also love commercials, and I really enjoy them because it’s a very visual challenge. I really enjoy that. I love doing them and I totally up on them, but would I want to do without the other? No. I would always want to be able to do dramatic films because I like the storytelling aspect of it a lot. I got started with commercials fairly late in my career. Actually, by accident, I always wanted to do them but never got close and them.

HALLETT: Is there a type of commercial that you would like to shoot but you haven’t shot yet?

VAN OOSTRUM: There always are because we do these boards, and then we don’t always get the commercial. So I have a few that I am so sorry we never go to do because the agency decided to go with a different client. We always do get very visual commercials and so we do a lot of optical things. I have a few ideas that I haven’t been able to execute yet because that particular commercial that we designed it for didn’t work out. So yeah, there is always that.

HALLETT: How much of this business do you have to face rejection?

VAN OOSTRUM: All the time. It’s a creative profession, so you sometimes come in with ideas, and if the other person sees it differently, you have to adjust. Sometimes out of the compromise comes something that is much better. I feel it is a very collaborative art and by throwing ideas at the wall, some stick and some bounce back. It’s just the nature of it. The harder you work the more specific your work will get, of course, because you hone yourself towards a certain point. You have to be ready that what you suggest might not be the ultimate thing, but it might lead to something that is quite specific and wonderful.

HALLETT: What type of camera, or features would you like to see in a new Blackmagic camera?

VAN OOSTRUM: God, that’s a good question. I don’t know. Maybe what would be nice is to have a totally integrated system. I know that Blackmagic is probably stopping at that point right now because they want to be price-conscious, but if they are able to integrate video transmitting, and integrate some of the other features that cameras have now, that might be the next step for them. Essentially the camera is what it is and I know it will improve over time because sensors and tech eventually get better. Maybe their next step is to more fully integrate some of the functions that we add on to the camera. You know when you look at the digital camera today, it’s the camera and then it is like sixteen boxes that are attached to it of various nature like focus and zoom control. I feel that in the future we want that more and more integrated. ARRI has very much the proprietary stuff where you use their system and you can plug it in. And I think RED takes more the approach that here’s a box you can have, a standard battery in the camera body and it will drive this or that or the other and if you want another brand then you get another box, and I thought that was very smart to open it up so you’re not only obliged to use the one that company makes, or otherwise, if you don’t, in the case of a Preston you add two boxes to the camera and it becomes a funky thing. That’s the one thing with digital cameras today is that when I look at them on the dolly I’m going like oh my god. They’re making small cameras, but the stuff that they hang on it makes it three times as large.

HALLETT: Isn’t that the truth.

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Brian Hallett, is an award winning cameraman, editor, and producer. He has shot everything from Network broadcast news, promotional image campaigns, music videos, short films, and documentaries. Check out his reel at hallett-brian.com