During the month of September Art Adams rolled out a new entry in his 28 Days of Cinematography Insights series, and he covered everything from details like the most important light on a set to advice around breaking into the industry.
On the latest installment of the PVC edition of That Studio Show, host Scott Simmons talked with Art about some of the key insights he explored in the series. They’re joined by Matt Jeppsen and Adam Wilt, who offer their perspective around some of what Art talked through as well as some insights they can offer around their own experiences in the industry.
Scott Simmons: Welcome to another edition of That Studio Show. This is another ProVideo Coalition edition, it’s been awhile since we’ve had one out on the air as I’ve been busy and I haven’t been able to jump in and make it happen so it’s entirely my fault. But I thought a great topic of conversation for this episode would be to look at Art Adam’s recent 28 Days of Cinematography Insights. He went 28 days throughout the month of September with a post a day about very relevant and very good DP related topics. So we have Art here on the call. Art, how are you doing?
Art Adams: Hey, I’m doing okay. Thanks for having me.
Scott: Thanks for doing it. And thanks for putting together all 28 tips. And you’re out in Los Angeles? Or somewhere in California?
Art: San Francisco Bay area.
Scott: Gotcha. So I was a little too far south. But now we know you’re in San Francisco. We also have on the call Mr. Matt Jeppsen, who has been on the show before and is also an esteemed DP. Matt, how are you doing?
Matt Jeppsen: I’m not sure about esteemed, but yes, I’m doing great.
Scott: You’re esteemed. And you’re still in Arkansas?
Matt: Yes. (Laughs) The esteemed location of Arkansas.
Scott: We love Arkansas. And we also have Adam Wilt, a very established director of photography himself and a guy who writes software and a gentleman who has one of the greatest understandings of camera stuff, be it the technical side or otherwise. I’ve read articles from Adam over the years that prove no one knows this stuff better than Adam does. Adam, thank you for joining us.
Adam Wilt: You’re welcome. People will dispute your statements but I’ll stand by them.
Scott: If they do I will go to the mat for you, sir. Because your stuff is always very insightful. So first, Art, I’ve done 28 days of Quicktips a couple times, and it takes a big commitment to write a post a day, and when I did it, sometimes I would have simple little software tricks that were literally one sentence and a picture. But some of your insights in this series are pretty in-depth. So I was just wondering how were you able to spout so much knowledge in such a short period of time.
Art: Oh boy. (Laughs) I’m pretty good at spouting, as anyone who’s seen my posts on the Internet will know. It was a little tough at first though. I started out in a self-directed manner which was slow going, and then I was working the editor at PVC and he threw out a bunch of questions and that worked a lot better. It was harder for me to come up with the questions and the answers, but once I had questions I could very easily respond to everything he threw at me. Together we just came up with a list and I plowed through them before or after work. I habitually show up early for shoots, so I just brought my laptop and parked in a Starbucks and would crank a few out at a time. It came together pretty quickly.
Scott: I think all four of us have been writing on the Internet for a long time and often being asked something is a great catalyst for getting a post going. Now Matt, you have been working over the past month so you’ve been pretty silent on the Internet in general, but I think you said you read over most of Art’s stuff yesterday, so which of these insights caught your eye? You take over the conversation, because I’m not a DP so I’m just going to listen and learn.
Matt: I think it’s interesting that Art found it easier to answer questions than to start with “this is what people would ask”, and it leads to something that we’re probably all asked at one point. You’ll be approached by, maybe, a film student or someone young in the industry and they’ll start asking you, “tell me about what I need to know.” And you don’t know what they need to know. You know what I mean? It’s very difficult to go, “okay, here’s how it goes,” and then just brain dump them. Because you can’t brain dump a decade, two decades, three decades of experience just like that. And I’m sure we all get the, “how to you break into the industry?” thing from people on a regular basis. I know that comes up for me a lot. We have a local college here and they have a decent film program. So I’m constantly getting asked to meet for coffee by kids who say they want me to tell them everything. And that’s an interesting topic. One of the posts that Art did was about breaking into the industry. Art, what is your background, and what’s the two-minute pitch for how you broke in and got started?
Art: Well, everyone told me it was impossible unless I was related to someone. I got down to LA and discovered that it really wasn’t. It was more about proving that I was one of those young people who was trainable and could learn quickly. That’s really all it takes. Being on the other end of it, I’ve seen this time and time again. Someone will show up and they get it. I got a cousin of mine on a job out Arizona years and years ago. He just wanted to try out the industry and I managed to get him a job. The first time the dolly tracks went down he watched very attentively, and the second time the tracks went down he was standing behind the dolly grip with a box of wedges and a level. So this was someone who paid attention and was able to anticipate what coming and was right on top of stuff. That’s what you have to do in order to be in the film industry. I’ve never seen anyone get it quite that quick, and I certainly didn’t when I got started. I had to work at it. But if you’re trainable and you pay attention you’re going to end up on some lists and people will start giving you opportunities. The trick is you have to prove that you’re that person before they’ll pay attention to you, and how do you prove that without working with them? And that’s where you typically go out and work for free or for cheap to try to meet people who are trying to build their own reels and helping their friends out. You make connections with people on low-budget stuff where there’s very little risk and they’ll take whoever they can get. If you can show there that you get it, then they’ll take you onto better stuff.
Scott: Very nice. Adam, are you focusing on your technical and programming work or are you actively out looking for DP-type work?
Adam: I’m neck-deep in programming work right now and for the foreseeable future that’s where my focus is.
Matt: Are you still actively developing Cinemeter?
Adam: Yes. iOS 9 threw us a loop in that they took away on the 64-bit devices the metadata that I use for exposure measurement. Fortunately, I had to fix that same problem for iOS 8 on some of the older 32-bit devices. So I just had to throw a switch to enable that on iOS 9. Apple doesn’t sit still. They give and they take away, so there’s always fun to be had with that. After that stuff I can get back to adding features to it.
Matt: I just really appreciate all that you’ve done with that app. It is so useful and oftentimes just out of laziness I just don’t want to bring my light meter and you can just pop out the iPhone and get some rough reading and have an idea of where you’re going to be.
Adam: As the photographers say, the best camera is the camera you have with you. The same is true with the light meter.
Matt: Absolutely. Now how many years have you been in the industry? I have a little over a decade and I know Art is probably double that. Right Art?
Art: This is year 28.
Matt: Adam, you’re a fixture. I don’t ever not know about Adam Wilt.
Adam: I wasn’t around a whole lot in the 20’s to work on things like Birth of a Nation. But I’ve been working on and off in the industry for a bit over 30 years. It’s sort of been a side job for me though. Mostly I’ve been working in software engineering or development of that type. More of the behind-the-scenes stuff rather than behind-the-camera.
Scott: This industry has changed into a computer based world, and I see that as a post-production guy who never thought there’d be so much focused on computers. But cameras are computers now, so I guess that has positioned you, Adam, very nicely as this industry since everything is so computer driven, has it not?
Adam: It’s been interesting. I’m working on an app for someone that is going to be involved in picking the right ND filter for certain situations with a certain kind of camera. More than that I can’t say right now. But they came to me because I know the computer side and I also know the cinematography side of things, so I instantly got what he wanted to do and came up with a prototype in very short order. The cameras are really becoming computers with sensors and a fitting for a lens. If you’re lucky people put a good lens on them. The convergence of the technologies has been quite fortuitous in that the two things I’m most interested in have come together. I could go into more technical detail, but I know we want to keep this industry focused.
Scott: I do want to keep things industry focused, so here’s a very clumsy segue from that. Day 16 of Art’s series was around rules of thumb for lighting. And I just wanted to ask the question, what are the rules of thumb for lighting? I’m an editor, so if I went out and started trying to shoot stuff what do I need to know?
Art: There are so many. I’m continually adding to my list of internal lighting tricks. Every once in awhile I realize I’ve invented something two or three times, because I’ll do something on a shoot that I find works really well, but then remember that I did that exact thing ten years ago. It just never stops. Right now I’m very much focused on naturalistic lighting, or as I call it super-natural. It looks natural, but it looks better than natural. Often, natural light doesn’t look all that great, but I like creating something that looks like it could happen in the real world, but in reality I’ve completely created it and it meets my aesthetic standards. A lot of that is filling from the key side, so if I’ve got a key setup, which I just think of as a directional light, I don’t really think in terms of placing a key. Say I’ve got a light coming from a window. A big, soft, diffused source. Then I’ll put my fill on the same side of the camera as that soft source and wrap it around a bit, and then let it drop off on the other side. That way, instead of getting a bright side and a dark side, which is traditional key-fill lighting, you end up getting a much broader range of tones around a person’s face and around objects in a room. I’ll also light large spaces by putting up a number of diffuse sources along one side. Sometimes, instead of making a big soft source, I’ll use a number of smaller ones, like 4×4 balance cards all lined up in a row. Sometimes at different heights, because they all cast subtle shadows on the background walls and things like that. They blend together to look like a big soft source on people, but if you look at the background, you get all of these interesting, almost random soft shadows, which are very much like what happens if you look at a room that has a bunch of windows down one side of it. And it can be very pretty. So I’m always looking for ways to light stuff in a way that is interesting, brings out tonality and that I consider beautiful but at the same time doesn’t necessarily feel lit or artificial.
That’s just a preview of what Scott, Art, Matt and Adam discussed during the podcast. Hear the rest about what the guys have to say around cinematographers who have a still photo background, the type of niche DP’s can carve out for themselves, what their reels look like and plenty more via the links below.