Art by Tom Swanson

Cinemagic: Interviewing David Wilson

David Wilson is an artist.  Even if you don’t know who he is, you might already be a fan of his work.  In fact, you might be responsible for one of the (roughly) 21 million Youtube hits on The Athlete Machine – Red Bull Kluge, a project that David worked on as Director of Photography.  One aspect of his career that interests me is that his work gets big airplay and web views compared to his relative anonymity behind the camera.  Plus the process to create the images is a total mystery to me. It was a pleasure to get his insight into these subjects and more…

Daniel: Is your official title Director of Photography? Your education is as a cinematographer, I believe… So, can you define those terms and how they relate?

David: Director of Photography and Cinematographer are somewhat interchangeable titles.  The American Society of Cinematographers define the role of cinematography as “ a creative and interpretive process that culminates in the authorship of an original work of art rather than the simple recording of a physical event.  Cinematography is not a subcategory of photography.  Rather, photography is but one craft that the cinematographer uses in addition to other physical, organizational, managerial, interpretive and image-manipulating techniques to effect one coherent process.”  I consider myself a Cinematographer but the title “Director of Photography” tends to be used more readily for this role in movies, television, documentaries, commercials, etc…

Daniel: Describe a little of the process to begin a project: Do people bring you an idea and then you come up with a visual ‘story’ for it? Are you involved in production beyond setting up and filming shots (which looks like plenty of work given what you’re shooting) or does it vary depending on the project?

David: I am freelance.  I typically get hired by production companies that represent Directors.  In regards to commercials, which I shoot a lot of, the client hires an advertising agency.  The advertising agency comes up with the creative for the client’s advertising needs.  The agency then hires a Director which they feel would best be suited.  The Director then chooses a Director of Photography he or she feels like would be a good fit for the project.  At this point the DP would start looking at the treatment and storyboards for the project.  From there the Director and DP would begin talking about the look and feel of the lighting, the medium to shoot on, camera movement, etc.  Some jobs will have many days of prep – scouting locations, testing equipment, conference calls, meetings.  Other jobs will have very little prep and you just have to make the most out of it when you start shooting.

Daniel: How do you coordinate with someone when making their vision into a reality? Do clients have specific ideas and ask you to put it to film or do you get a lot of artistic liberty? After all, they’ve chosen you for a reason i.e. they want the David Wilson version, not someone else’s interpretation.

David: My ability to coordinate a Director’s vision runs hand in hand with the Director’s ability to clearly communicate. Some projects have very specific cinematic needs, which might not be the most cutting edge or exciting.  On others projects I am given the creative liberty to try new techniques.  In the end my job is to best serve the Director’s vision of how the project should look and feel.

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Daniel: What about figuring out the shots? At what point do you say, for example with the Athlete Machine, ‘we’re going to need a certain camera mounted on a car in a special way and we’ve got to get some skilled professional driver to follow these athletes’? Just that one aspect of the shoot seems like an intricate project of it’s own. You were working with a team on that project and were part of a larger crew from what I gathered. I’m at a loss for how a project of that scale comes together – pulling together all the elements needed to make what the viewer sees.

Also, is it key to nail certain shots the first time so there’s only one take? Let’s say you’ve got an athlete hucking themselves through the air, risking injury: The athlete needs to stomp the trick, the equipment has got to be dialed, the people filming have got to be on point, etc, because you can’t realistically do 50 takes the way you might with an actor reciting a line. We’re talking about perfection essentially.

David:  There is a collaborative process that happens on every production. It takes coordination of the Director, Producer, DP, Assistant Director, Gaffer, Key Grip, Camera Operator, Camera Assistant, Art Department and on down the line of crew to pull each shot off.  In regards to a project like Red Bull ‘Kluge’ there were many facets that had to align to pull that of.  There were athletes performing intricate stunts that interacted with man made Rube Goldberg machines.  While this maze of stunts was happening the camera needed to fluidly traverse through and hit exact marks at very specific times.  It took Red Bull and Syyn Labs over a year to coordinate the project, weeks to build the machines, three days to light the warehouse, a day of rehearsal and 6 hours to shoot.  It was quite the undertaking.  We wanted to shoot the project at a high resolution so we decided upon using the Red Epic camera, which has a maximum resolution of 5K.  We also wanted to be able to show some of the intricate features of the machines so we utilized over 40 GoPro Hero 3 cameras because of their small form factor and their ability to be mounted almost anywhere.  The main camera needed to cover quite a bit of ground through the maze of obstacles.  We used the Ultimate Arm as our camera car system which allowed us to have the camera on a 3-axis stabilized head which was attached to a robotic crane arm on top of a high powered SUV.  We also had a handful of other cameras in cranes, helicopters, etc.  These tools allowed us to get the shots that best told the project’s story.  There was a lot of synergy going on with the 100 + person crew to make that shoot a success.

Talking with Ryan Sheckler on the Kluge set

Talking with Ryan Sheckler on the Kluge set, Ultimate Arm mounted above

Daniel: In the video on the making of The Athlete Machine, we see you have a little moment in the car where you’re cussing and then kind of laughing. How stressful are some of these individual shots and also some of the projects as a whole? Are there times you’re just praying for a shot to work or is there some zen to it?

David:  Most of the stress of the job comes down to time.  There’s a set amount of time scheduled / budgeted for each production.   When unforeseen issues arise, such as a camera malfunction, wardrobe problem, actor and director needing more takes than anticipated, part of the scheduled shoot time gets eaten up for subsequent scenes.  There are days when I come to set not having a clue how all the work will get completed in the allotted amount of time.  The only thing to do is be as prepared as you can, have your crews as up to date with info as possible and be malleable when things don’t go exactly as planned.  A lot of times there is no way to know if a certain shot is actually going to work until you get out there with the camera and start shooting.  That’s where the stress comes in – when the clock is ticking away and you’re just trying to pull off a super technical shot that you haven’t had time to rehearse.  That’s when you really rely hard on the crew members you surround yourself with.

Daniel: Redbull consistently puts on some of the coolest events – breakdancing, mountain biking, whatever. And their Media House is top of the game. What’s it been like to link up with and work with them?

David:  Red Bull has been a lot of fun to work with over the years.  A good friend of mine, George Mays, started directing and producing projects for them back in 2008.  He brought me in to shoot a lot of Red Bull’s culture projects – music, dance, etc…  From there I began shooting a few of their super slow motion pieces with Director Nick Schrunk.  The Red Bull projects have been challenging but very rewarding from a creative standpoint.

Daniel :Does your background as a skater provide you w/ a special perspective on action sports? From my time spent on the deck of skate ramps and actually riding transition, I think I see the sport in a whole different way than someone who’s at the sidelines of the half pipe, etc. It seems like you’re a go-to guy when it comes to sports.BB2DGW

David:  I grew up skateboarding.  I was never all that great but I loved the way it made me feel.  I loved the comradery of the crew I skated with.  I loved planning out ramps to build and pooling our resources to make it happen.  Skateboarding is unlike any other sport.  You can do it anywhere.  Once you’re hooked, it changes the way you look at the world.  You are constantly scanning the architecture of the streets in a different way than a non-skater would.  I’m pretty sure that acute visual aspect of world that skateboarding brings pushed me towards cinematography.

Daniel:  Does what you do feel more like art or more like work?

David:  There’s definitely productions you sign on to do for the money and productions you sign on to for the art.  That being said, I always try to approach each production with a desire to make it look the best it can.

Daniel:  Do you have a favorite shot or shots that you can talk about – whether that’s with an athlete or b/c of a certain setting, etc.

David:  My favorite shots are ones that you prep and map out in advance but you really have no idea if they are going to work (and in the end they do work).  I did a Red Bull shoot where we wanted to show Basketball Slam Dunk artist, Kenny Dobbs, dunking the ball in super slow motion at sunrise with the Los Angeles cityscape in the background.  The director, Nick Schrunk, and I found a court, mapped out where the sun would rise and figured out the camera move weeks in advance.  When the day came we knew that we would only have a 20 – 30 minute window where the light would be right.  We set up from 1am to 5am, then rehearsed the move over and over.  The sunrise turned out beautiful, the equipment worked flawlessly, the athlete was on point.  Everything lined up and we got the shot.  We rolled the dice and everything worked out.  Those are my favorite shots, where you go all in and it works out.

Daniel:Do you enjoy the process more, or seeing the finished piece? What’s your roll in how things are edited to determine what the audience will actually see?

David:  I have been fortunate that a lot of my work has ended up with top notch editors and post productions personnel.  Once the shoot is over I really have very little, if any, say in how a piece is cut together.  I usually give notes on how I feel the piece should look or sit in with the colorist for the final color.  Other than that, the edit is typically out of my hands.

Daniel:  Some artists work in their garage or a small studio and their work may never be seen. When you shoot a commercial for someone like Nike, are you conscious of where will that be aired and how many people will see it? What’s it feel like to have your work on display like that?

David:  I’m always conscious of where my work will air.  The goal is for whatever it is to have the broadest amount of exposure.  Some traditional TV spots end up getting a lot of air play.  Others not so much.  Web has obviously started playing a huge role in exposure as well.  I’m always stoked when there is a positive response to projects I’ve been involved in whether that comes through as YouTube views, Vimeo comments, Facebook likes or continuous air play on TV.

Daniel: To follow up on the last question, considering the size of the audience for some of these pieces is it interesting to remain basically anonymous?

David:  I try not to stay anonymous to my work, unless it deserves anonymity.

To see a wide range of David’s work, check his site: http://www.davidgwilsondp.com/

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