Veteran Filmmaker James Mathers recently spoke with Filmmaker U about his long career as a Cinematographer and his very important mini-doc for productions that he recently produced called "Getting Safely Back to Work in the Age of Covid."
James began his career in the entertainment industry as a child actor appearing in many films and TV series of the 1960’s. Behind the lens professional work started after he attended film school and a wide variety of staff and freelance assignments led to a specialization in cinematography and the founding of his own business, "The Migrant FilmWorkers."
James has served as Director on a large variety of productions ranging from features, TV series, documentaries, and commercials. He has been the Director of Photography on over forty feature films and MOWs and has seen six TV series from inception through their first season. While still very active as a Cinematographer, James also finds time to regularly produce, write, and direct interesting projects.
James is the Founder and President of the nonprofit educational cooperative, The Digital Cinema Society, a group dedicated to the industry's informed integration of new technology. Additionally, he is a contributor to several industry trade journals and is a sought after speaker on the topic of emerging digital technology.
Gordon Burkell (GB) - Today we are joined by James Mathers, cinematographer for the "US vs. John Lennon," "How Bruce Lee Changed The World," and "Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson In The Story of SMiLE." He's also the co-founder of "Digital Cinema Society," among so many other things. Can you tell us a bit about the "Digital Cinema Society?"
Jim Mathers (JM) - It's been 18 years now. It started as a bit of a hobby, but it's been very consuming. It started because, as you said, I'm a cinematographer. Most of my background, although you mentioned some of the documentaries that I did, most of my background has been shooting indie features. If you're shooting any features, they will sometimes want digital technology because it's much less expensive and in most cases faster. I was a pretty early adopter to shooting movies on HD. Since it was new and I was using it, I was asked to speak about it. I was starting to get frustrated with how much misinformation was going on. Some of the manufacturers were even saying with digital, you don't have to light anymore. As a cinematographer, that just really irritated me! So some friends of mine and I got together, and we did a little documentary. It was a labor of love. We were trying to just clear the air. We got to interview some people that were doing high budget films including James Cameron, George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez; as well as a lot of the people that I was working with in the indie world, Allen Daviau, ASC. We ended up creating a nice little half hour documentary. At that time, DVDs were the way to distribute things. So FotoKem made 2000 DVDs that were given away free of charge. I was very proud of the production, but it was starting to become obsolete, even before we could finish it because things were changing so fast. Myself and Brian McKernan, who was the editor and the publisher of "Digital Cinema Magazine,"decided to do an ongoing thing. That's where we got the name "Digital Cinema Society." We never have advocated for digital over film, it's always just about trying to find the right tools and trying to keep the industry current on motion picture technology. I'm not an expert on anything, I'm just sort of a jack of all trades filmmaker. I go and try to find the people that know what they're talking about, and then bring that to our members and to the community at large. So we have a membership organization of about 7000 members all around the world, mostly concentrated in Los Angeles and in Chicago. Because I live in Los Angeles, we have most of our live events here, but we record everything we do and put it on the web. All of our videos, you can find links to them on our website, which is www.digitalcinemasociety.org.
GB - That's a perfect segue because you also just released a video on COVID safety and getting back to work safely. Can you tell us about putting together that video?
JM - That is one topic that everybody wanted to find out about! We're all eager to get back to work on set, but we found that there was also a lot of misinformation in that arena. I originally became aware of the seriousness of COVID because a friend of mine, Allen Daviau ASC, was one of the early victims of it. He passed away in March of last year. Allen hadn't been in good health the last few years and he was living at the motion picture home. He was an easy mark for COVID. However, a Steadicam operator that I use, Jeff Muhlstock, he's a young man and in good health... and he almost died from it. So I was aware and I took it very seriously from the very beginning. I wanted to try to help other people to take it seriously and to see what ways we could adopt to try to deal with it to try to get back to work as soon as possible safely. We got interviews with COVID compliance officers to find out what they're doing to keep everybody safe on set. We got an interview with Michael Cioni from Frame.io, who's always been a leader in doing cloud workflows, and found out a little bit about how they're dealing with this kind of thing. We got an interview with a rep from Panasonic who talked about remote production and the ways that it has advanced. There was also a lighting, Luminous, that made lightning strikes and other types of HMI lights - they found that they could use their lights to kill the virus and they figured out a way to treat the air. They have a system that they've developed where the air flows in and gets cleaned safely and then flows back to where people are working. The main point is that it's not one thing that's going to keep us safe, it's that you have to do all these things. Even if you're cleaning the air, and even if you're doing all the things that a COVID compliance officer demands, you still have to do everything else. Right now we are getting vaccinated, but we're not out of the woods yet. We still have to be safe. I want to encourage everybody to do that. But get back to work at the same time.
GB - What's one of the biggest misconceptions that you learned about? Maybe we can clear the air about those?
JM - Well the major one is that you don't have to wear masks. That's one thing that's become a political thing here in the States. I think that it's crazy. I don't know why people would make that an issue. That was one of the main kinds of things that people just weren't taking seriously.
GB - Now with the Digital Cinema Society how are you guys tackling the new virtual productions? That seems to be really exploding in popularity, but I haven't been on one yet. Have you been able to experience the dome or the void or whatever they're calling it?
JM - We used to do a lot of events, live events, and we would record them. A big part of our activities every year was going to trade shows like NAB and we'd do interviews. The last NAB that we did we shot 64 different interviews. We roam the halls and do these interviews about new technology and we have an editor across the street who gets the videos up in like, an hour or two so that everybody that can't make it to Las Vegas can find out what's new at NAB. That might not be necessary next time, we might be able to just send it to the cloud. We did an interview series, much like we're recording here, which we called our Digital Cinema Society technology spotlight series. We did about 50 interviews that way, with some of the same people that we would have covered at NAB and we did that just about a year ago around the time NAB would have been. I think people are getting a little tired of webinars. I like interviews like this, but webinars I think, I don't know... it's getting a little old to me. So we decided that we would start doing these mini documentaries like the COVID documentary. Another one that I'm working on right now, I actually started this before the pandemic but it had to be shut down, is on large sensor cinematography. I was actually shooting yesterday with Snehal Patel from Zeiss and Cinematographer Julio Macat, ASC. We also interviewed Steve Yedlin, ASC and Nancy Schreiber, ASC to get different perspectives on large format cinematography, not just the pluses, but the challenges. There's also a lot of misinformation in that area. I like to attack the subjects that have a lot of misinformation. That now brings me to virtual production. That's our next documentary!
GB - We're gonna have to keep an eye out for that!
JM - We're working with Sam Nicholson, he's been a real leader in doing this, and I also will probably cover the people that are working on "The Mandalorian." I know that's already been done quite a bit, but I always try to get to areas where people aren't aware. There's a lot of other people doing virtual production now. Again, there's misinformation like "you don't need a green screen anymore. You don't need visual effects, post production, visual effects artists or painting... you don't need Nuke artists." But it's not true, you still need all these things working together. It saves a lot of time and you can put everything on the screen and shoot it live, but there are challenges too. I try to show the good and the bad and get away from the hype. That's one of our major things that we try to do is cut through the hype.
GB - You like to work on independent features. I feel that there's going to be a lot of desire to use this technology for that. Do you think you'll see that in independent features ever? Do you think the price will come down? Will there be a lower budget version that people start to pick up?
JM - I think so! Technology's always getting less expensive and easier to use. That's just going to continue. Right now, you could shoot against a large screen TV, and put a background on there. It's a lot more complex what they're doing with these virtual sets, like on "The Mandalorian." They're using tracking information that comes from the lens and comes from the camera and they're feeding that into the computer so that the background moves in relation to how the camera's moving. You can rack focus, and the focus will blur in the background as well. It's a lot more sophisticated, but you could do something simple. I hope low budget filmmaking gets easier. It's a tough way to make a living. I've been doing it for a long time and I shot about 40 movies on film. When you were reading my credits you read some of the documentaries because those got more of a release than a lot of the other movies I have worked on. It's like they get released on home video, so I really love it, but it's a tough go.
GB - What is it that you love about it?
JM - I just love storytelling, you know.
GB - That's why I was wondering about virtual production, because, and maybe this is part of the misconception, it's eventually going to bring the cost down because you're working less. But whenever I see the footage from this technology, there's a team of coders sitting there working in Unreal Engine.
JM - Hell, we still had to create those backgrounds. That's not easy! Right now, I think one of those operations is over a million dollars to set up. But yeah, it's gonna come down to where you can buy it at Costco.
GB - When you're working with a director, when you're starting out on one of these indie projects; how do you get on the same page with them?
JM - A lot of times, we would use visual references. I have a director that likes to find an art book and he says, "I want this kind of a feeling." Others will play videos of other films that they like or we like the style of. It's taking visual references. There's a great website now, where somebody catalogs tons and tons of little snippets, or stills. They've just taken still frames from lots of famous movies and that's a great way to just go through and come up with visual references, because it's hard to communicate these feelings. You know what kind of a look you want, but references help. That's usually how I start, I always like to do a lot of testing. Before I do a project, I like to go out and test and try to run it through post. If it's a feature film, I try to run it all the way to the big screen.
GB - You've done documentaries and you've done fiction films or "indie films." How do you approach them differently as a Cinematographer?
JM - On the documentaries, it's more just like collecting. It's not usually so much of going for a look or anything, you're just trying to get as many interesting people in front of the camera as you can. I mean, you still try to make them look as nice as you can. I do a lot of celebrity promotional interviews. That kind of thing helps me make a living between these movies, or it allows me to have the luxury of working for little pay on indie movies. In those jobs you just try to make the people look as good as they can. And you try to help the directors get as much and collect as many good interviews as they can. You mentioned the "U.S. vs John Lennon." We shot a lot of those interviews on a green screen. Sometimes we had a little pop up green screen and we'd go in and put up two Kino Flo lights on each side. Sometimes in some very small spaces, we'd only have a few minutes to get in and out to shoot people like Walter Cronkite. We spent a lot more time on Yoko Ono. I had to fly back to New York three times to shoot her because she kept changing what she wanted to say. She was very particular. They didn't just find somebody local for that. I had to go back. It was fun!
GB - Is there a particular celebrity that you got starstruck with?
JM - Well, that goes back to my child acting days. My older brother was a sort of child star. You have probably heard of the TV show "Leave it to Beaver"?
GB - Yeah, yeah!
JM - He played the "Leave it to Beaver" character and I also did a little bit acting. One of the best experiences that had the most impact on me was meeting Walt Disney. I worked on a Walt Disney movie when I was six or seven. He would come around to the set every day and he even gave me a tour of the studio. Next to his office, there was a giant room filled with a scale model of Epcot Center which hadn't been built at the time. I walked down the hall and they had a naked robot of Mr. Lincoln giving the Gettysburg address. They were working at the movement, and that was to appear at the 1964 World's Fair. That's where it started before they moved it to Disneyland. I don't know if you've ever seen that. It was just getting into the backlot and being around the studios. It was a lot of fun for me, I didn't have to work every day like my brother did and that was a grind. I'm glad I was never famous. It's not an easy thing. I could see it, from seeing him. The long answer to your short question is I was most interested to meet Walt Disney.
GB - Why did you go from acting to Cinematography? Why did you choose to make that switch?
JM - It got ugly! No, I was always exposed to it, you know? And so I had a little bit of interest in it. I was also interested in journalism. I could have gone either way. So now it's sort of coming full circle. I get to do a little bit of writing, and covering trade writing, for Digital Cinema Society. I've always been sort of a visual person and like I said before, I don't specialize too much. I do a lot of different things. I do a lot of directing and producing and I also do editing. Actually, you know, after my child acting jobs, my first job was as an assistant editor. It was literally writing down timecode numbers on the first electronic videotape editing system for the Frost/Nixon interviews, when David Frost first interviewed Richard Nixon. They didn't have the machines to keep track. I had to sit in the dark, writing in and out numbers. Timecode was a terrible job also, but then I became an operator on that system. It was educational because being an operator, I usually had an experienced editor sitting behind me telling me where to cut so I got a feel for that. I really didn't like being locked in a darkened room all day, under pressure, and so that's when I decided to make a definite move to get out of there and into cinematography.
GB - I have one last question I like to ask everyone during this COVID time. A lot of people have, because we're locked in our houses, have been watching a lot of streaming services. So I'm wondering if you've seen anything over the past year that you would recommend people check?
JM - Oh, the chess drama. "Queen's Gambit." That's just a wonderful program. And all the movies that are up for Academy Awards.
To become a member or find out more visit www.digitalcinemasociety.org The Digital Cinema Society recently completed a new mini-doc, "Getting Safely Back to Work in the Age of Covid." The program is dedicated to the memory of our friend and longtime DCS member, Allen Daviau, ASC, an early victim of the disease. You are invited to see this mini-doc at: http://bit.ly/DCSdocumentary
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