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October 04 2018
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It's All Commercials -A Miniflix Interview With Art Adams

Bay-Area Commercial/Corporate Branding DP Talks The Cutthroat Nature of Feature Film Production, Never Losing Your Sense of Story and The Potential of VR Photography

 

In many ways, Art Adams’ career as a professional Director of Photography is a story told in two acts. Art started the first decade working on camera crews in a traditional Hollywood environment, starting as a second camera assistant in the backs of cars before quickly working his way up the ranks. However, the demands of the job (and the insanity of studio schedules) quickly made Art disillusioned with his once-destined trajectory.

So Adams packed his bags and headed back to the Bay Area — the place he was born and raised. Fortunately for him, the tech industry was in full bloom and high-end corporate branding was a viable niche for artists and technicians. Let’s just say Adams hasn’t looked back. In fact, he’s been looking far forward; he is regularly the first to test brand-new camera equipment, and has been experimenting with Virtual Reality technology since before it became an industry buzzword.

We talk with Art Adams about what happened to Hollywood production life, being an artist in a corporate environment and how to properly light for VR.

The Career

In a way it’s all commercials; we’re always trying to sell a product, an idea or an experience.

 

Miniflix Interviewer: Before transitioning into commercial work, you spent over 10 years working on feature films and episodic television in LA. What were some of things you worked on early in your career, and what were some of the different positions you took on as you were getting started? Did you always know you wanted to be a DP?

Art Adams: I started out as a second camera assistant, working on low budget features and loading film in the trunks of cars. Over time the people I met on those projects brought me with them onto bigger and better projects. I moved up pretty quickly: I was a camera assistant for only five or six years before I started operating and shooting. I had no idea what I didn’t know, but I was determined.

As I worked on various sets I noticed that the DP designed the shots. That’s what I’d wanted to do since age 12, so I had to revisit my plan to become a camera operator.

The camera operator position was under attack at the time. There were more DPs operating their own cameras and fewer consistently-employed operators. Those who were employed consistently also operated Steadicam, and this became a requirement for fe3ature and television work. My dream was to design powerful compositions and move the camera with intent, not to become a Steadicam athlete. I realized I had to learn how to light.

Still from Facebook 360 Commercial

 

M: What signaled your transition out of Hollywood production work and into commercials and high-end branding promos?

A: LA is very cutthroat. Production and crew are always at each other’s throats. Crew aren’t treated very well. There was no way to know how long I’d be on a project, or even if it would happen. I’d show up to work as B-camera assistant on a feature only to be told at the end of day one that they’d decided to cut that position. I was now down three weeks of work.

I’m very glad I worked in LA as it’s a great place to learn, but I’m also glad I left. The work one finds in a secondary market isn’t always the most exciting, but the conditions tend to be better.

When I returned to the Bay Area I had no idea what I’d find. I fell into corporate work, which turned out to be a great place to practice all the lighting tricks I’d learned in Hollywood. The visual bar was quite low, so if I experimented on a lighting setup and it didn’t turn out terribly well, no one noticed! From there I worked my way into branding projects and commercials…I’ve learned techniques from working on docs, features and sitcoms that I regularly use on commercials. In a way it’s all commercials; we’re always trying to sell a product, and idea or an experience. I love that.

 

M: Would you say your approach as a DP is different for commercial/promo projects than they are for short films/features/other narrative film projects? If so, how?

A: My approach doesn’t vary by the type of production so much as by the needs of the production. I recently shot a VR project where I had to light everything from an overhead grid with hard light, which I haven’t done in forever. It was great fun.

My natural tendency is to work with directional soft light for an approach I call “super natural.” Natural light is rarely beautiful, but on my sets it’s always that magical time where “natural” light happens to work perfectly for the set and the scene.

My compositional style tends to follow my feature film roots. I like powerful frames with lots of depth, but there are times where the approach needs to be more organic, so I’ll float the camera off an Easyrig instead. It all depends. I try not to get locked into any one thing for too long. Sometimes I force myself to change. For example, if I use one type of lens for a while I’ll force myself to change to another type of lens when an appropriate project arises.

I do think in terms of story, so it’s important for me to find the core of a project so I know when a shot or look will work for the material. There’s a trend in commercials to capture a lot of footage and figure it out later. I can do that, but it’s wasting one of my core talents, which is feature film/episodic television-style storytelling. As amazing as color correction tools are, they can’t change lighting or perspective. If those decisions are made in post, that tells me that the story wasn’t written before we started shooting.

 

M: Certain trends seems to come and go with commercial & branding. Whether it’s the “White Limbo” style commercials [of which you’ve made some] or the “real people guessing answers to questions” trends in car commercials, certain visual ideas and aesthetic choices seem to stick in the public consciousness for awhile and then eventually recede. 

What is your relationship as a DP of commercials to this paradigm? Are you and your commercial directors actively looking to meet certain trend expectations on a project, or are you usually hoping to subvert the expectations somehow? Is this even a conversation you and your director have when approaching a project?

A: As a DP my job is to over-deliver on the look. That requires a director who is willing to trust me to push the image a little farther than they might do on their own. I can see images and edit them together in my head, but not every director can.

Directors and DPs have very different skill sets, and often have different ideas about what makes an image appropriate for a spot. It’s my job to pull ideas and emotions out of the director’s head, and then propose a style that achieves that goal but perhaps in a way they hadn’t envisioned. Sometimes my approach wins, and sometimes they want me to do something different. That’s fine; I’m only seeing one part of the picture while they have to see all of it. My job is to make them happy, but it’s their job to give me the information I need to do that.

Ultimately it’s all about the performances. I like to set the stage and then get out of the way. I want creatives to notice how pretty the lighting is, but I don’t want them to notice the process that makes it happen.

As for common looks, sometimes the ad agency wants to follow a trend because it meets client expectations. When I’m asked to emulate a style I take that on as a personal challenge, and try to give it my own spin. There are lots of ways to shoot white limbo, for example. Some are better than others.

Adams uses “White Limbo” in still from vmware commercial

 

Getting The Gig

The question was always, “How are we going to do this?” It was never, “Can we do this?” That’s an important stage to reach, and directors and producers tune into that.

 

M: Say I’ve just come out of film school with a significant reel and some credits as a DP on student projects? Should I expect to be getting calls from people? Is it still mostly about who I know, or are there jobs out there I’d actually apply for, or show a portfolio for?

A: Students hate it when I tell them this, but I think it’s important: start at the bottom. Work as a PA, or a digital utility, or data wrangler, or something that gets you on professional sets quickly and near the camera. There’s so much to learn, but they don’t know that. They need to see professionals in action in order to understand that everything they think they know is either wrong or lacking.

I’ve shot a lot of projects for companies formed by recent film school graduates, and they’ll often schedule as if it’s a student project. They’ll plan a two-day shoot, and my crew and I will do it in one. They have no idea how efficient a professional film crew is, and in order to get real work they have to learn to be that efficient too. That only comes from experience.

They also have to learn to plan. Every department head needs specific information during prep, and students have to learn how and when to provide that. Lack of planning results in inefficiency. When you reach a certain level you have to work efficiently to survive.

Beyond learning the basics of how to fit in to a professional crew, the other advantage to starting at the bottom is that you can learn from the successes and failures of others. If you jump right in you’re at a disadvantage, because you’re starting from scratch rather than having a base of knowledge and experience to work off of. There’s a hundred years of experience behind modern filmmaking, and there’s no point in making mistakes that professionals haven’t made in 99 years.

 

M: What, in your mind, are companies + big brands looking for in a creative team (of which you are a part) working on promoting their brand or new product? Is it always about the DP with the most creative or tech-savvy reel, or can it be more about having a work history that is relevant to that company’s history, or is it something else?

A: I tend to get work because I form relationships with directors, and they know I can pull off just about anything they want without much fuss. Working calmly under pressure is immensely important. I also have the experience to know that I can dig myself out of impossible situations, so I don’t scare easily. I get nervous, but I surround myself with great crew and we always figure something out. When you do that often enough it builds confidence in your problem-solving abilities. That’s basically what DPs are: artistic problem solvers.

I recently shot a project where we had to tent an apartment building to reduce light levels to the point where practicals played prominently, even though we shot mid-day. I hadn’t done that before, and neither had my crew. We ordered the only rags we could find that were available on short notice, in the very large size that we needed, and found that we either lost too much light with the dark rags or didn’t lose enough light by stacking the lighter ones. The solution was to rig the white diffusion rags as a supporting layer, put the darkest rag on top, and then fold back two of the dark rag’s edges until we let in just enough soft light get the exposure we needed. We created a grip “dimmer.”

The question was always, “How are we going to do this?” It was never, “Can we do this?” That’s an important stage to reach, and directors and producers tune into that.

My agent often submits me up for jobs because I have the right “look” on my reel, or I have a project that looks like what the agency wants. The agency and production company want guaranteed results: when there’s a lot of money on the line, it’s hard to go wrong if the DP you hire has already shot the project you want to make. That can be frustrating, because there are so many looks I want to try that I can’t get hired to shoot because I haven’t shot them already, but I know that if I am hired to shoot such a project I will figure it out. It takes time to get to that point.

Still from night shoot ad for Sony’s Playstation 3

 

The Process

I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes made on projects these days. The first camera assistant should not be managing data. Any time they leave the set, work is going to grind to a halt. It’s a false economy.

 

M: What is the production process like shooting a long take commercial (such as your Cisco commercials) versus a commercial with multiple locations or setups? Is one easier or harder than the other? Why?

A: Changing locations sucks up a lot of creative play time, so it’s better to do that as little as possible. We often try to find locations that are close enough that we can roll carts and a dolly from one to the other. Putting gear in trucks and driving somewhere is really inefficient.

Sometimes it’s unavoidable, so I work with my crew to streamline things. We find ways to move some of the gear to the next location early, or pack things up such that they come off the truck in the right order and are pre-built. We do anything we can to get us up and running quickly.

In the case of those one-take Cisco spots, we had to shoot three in one day on the only stage available in town at the time, which wasn’t quite large enough for what we wanted to do. I suggested that we build the two horizontal shots so the set walls were only three feet apart, while building the top-down set on the far side of the second wall.

We shot the “cloud of lights” spot first. We then raised the “cloud,” pushed the crane forward beneath it, removed the desk and the wall to reveal the note card wall on the next set. We brought in a new desk, adjusted the key light, and rolled.

After we finished that spot we pulled the note card wall to reveal the top-down set, which we’d also pre-lit. We pushed the crane forward and rolled our first take within within 20 minutes.

The key was that my gaffer and I had a prep day on set, with the art department, to figure out how to light and build these three sets. Then we had another prep day to rig the light cloud and rough in the lighting on the other sets as they were built.

“Cloud of lights” spot from Cisco commercial
The notecard wall from Cisco commercial

 

M: What does a camera crew look like on a typical commercial? How does it differ from a short or feature film? Do you usually work with the same camera crew, or does it change from project to project?

A: These days I work with a first camera assistant and a data manager on smaller spots that shoot on stage. Once we leave the stage then a second camera assistant is critical. The first assistant can stay with the camera while the second assistant moves the rest of the gear. We don’t have to stop shooting because one person has to step away from the camera and deal with logistics.

I don’t often get a DIT for on-set coloring, so I’ll create most of the look through lighting and filters. I’m regularly asked if the first assistant can also wrangle data, to which I say, “Sure, if you’re okay with all work on set coming to a halt while they wander off and spend ten minutes to start a transfer.” I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes made on projects these days. The first camera assistant should not be managing data. Any time they leave the set, work is going to grind to a halt. It’s a false economy.

 

The Camera

For some reason, being a geek makes me less of an artist. I love new cameras and I love figuring out new technologies, not because making spots is always a technical challenge, but because I can create imagery more effectively and predictably if I know exactly how my tools work. It’s all in service to making pretty pictures.
Art Adams with RED camera

 

M: Do you have a go-to camera or set of lenses for your commercials, or does each new project necessitate re-evaluating the camera/lenses you need to tell that visual story? How do you usually decide what camera is best for a specific project?

A: I love ARRI cameras. (Disclosure: I work part-time as a trainer for the ARRI Academy.) The ARRI look is the gold standard of digital cameras, and the gear is rock solid. There are a lot of setup options, but once they are configured they get out of the way and let me create.

At the same time, different projects have different needs. If I need 8K for visual effects or motion stabilization, then I’ll go with RED cameras. If I’m shooting doc-style with a small crew then I might go with Sony cameras.

Some cameras are better at green screen than others. Some are better at horizontal motion than others. Some work better under low light than others. I’ve never bought camera gear: I don’t want to be locked into selling the same camera for every project. I like to offer production options. Budgets are strained these days, and there’s different ways to pull things off depending on what the goals are.

Lenses are important. You can’t create an image without a lens. The camera doesn’t do the job alone. I do think the camera has more influence on the look than a lens does, but lenses play a big role. In a way, they are the first step in color correction: any image they present to the sensor is going to be captured at its full bit depth, so they are the starting point for everything we do.

 

M: You say in your bio that you are often the guinea pig for new cameras before they’ve hit the market. Do you have particular favorites from the past year or so that you believe are real game changers? What are the kind of features you’re looking for when testing a brand-new camera model?

A: I always look at dynamic range, highlight and noise quality, how easily can the footage be pushed around in post, how robust are the recording formats, is the UI well thought out, etc. 

Mostly I look at whether the camera gets out of the way and lets me make pretty pictures. I spend a lot of time in prep getting the camera set up the way I want. Once I’m on set I don’t want to worry about that anymore.

I’ve developed a reputation as a bit of a tech whiz and it’s hurt me. My agent will put me forward for a project and the director or producer will respond, “Thanks, but it’s not a technical project.” It’s a bit like turning a portrait artist away because they have too many brushes. That doesn’t make sense to me.

For some reason, being a geek makes me less of an artist. I love new cameras and I love figuring out new technologies, not because making spots is always a technical challenge, but because I can create imagery more effectively and predictably if I know exactly how my tools work. It’s all in service to making pretty pictures.

When I do see creatives getting wrapped up in the technology, it’s often for the wrong reasons. They want to use a camera because it’s the hot thing. I’ve got news for you: it’s not about the camera. The camera is just a tool. 

Unfortunately, creatives can be incredibly susceptible to marketing, and some camera companies take advantage of this. There are too many ways to fudge numbers to completely trust a camera company’s marketing pitch. You have to find someone who knows how to get under the numbers and tell you what’s really possible.

 

VR And The Future

Ultimately, it’s about the story — which is more of an experience than anything else. It’s not traditional filmmaking. It’s theater too.
Still from 360° video for RED with Facebook ad

 

M: What are the current advantages and limitations to VR and 360 filmmaking as it currently stands?

A: No one has figured out how to tell stories with it yet. I think creatives are slowly figuring it out, but we’re in the early days.

We’re also learning how to budget for it. VR is expensive. We can’t work off a generic budget template. Adding a few thousand dollars to line items in a traditional budget doesn’t work. VR projects can grow really big very fast. We’re shooting theater in the round, and all the lighting has to be built into the set or digitally removed. Instead of lighting a space and shooting a narrow angle within it, we’re capturing 360 degrees both horizontally and vertically. There’s nowhere to hide.

 

M: There seems to be quite a debate right now about the state of VR, particularly regarding its ultimate potential as an artform. What do you think are some of the great potentialities of VR filmmaking going forward, and how can you as a DP contribute to the form’s evolution?

A: VR is a lighting medium. There’s a certain amount of composition involved but that’s more about camera placement within a space and the blocking of people and objects in relation to the camera and each other. It’s more about depth than framing, although there are still ways to frame elements within a scene.

We use lighting to direct attention and create overall mood. Lighting changes factor in as well, as we can subtly steer the audience by changing light levels and color during the shot. Nearly every VR project I’ve shot to date has employed dimming systems. Those take time to set up and program, but they add so much.

VR is a tremendous amount of fun, but it takes a lot of prep. You can’t wing VR.

Still from 360° video for RED with Facebook ad

 

M: What is one of the hardest parts about shooting for VR?

A: It’s difficult to see everything that’s going on. The director has to watch many different simultaneous performances in real time closely enough that they can give the actors feedback. There is no 360 playback yet. I often walk the set between takes to check my lighting because it’s easier to do that than try to stitch 8–20 cameras together in my head.

The lighting and grip budgets are a lot bigger. Most VR cameras have limited dynamic range, although this is improving. We like to shoot at higher frame rates: 60fps is the speed at which the human brain processes imagery, so that makes VR appear more realistic. Faster shutter speeds help facilitate the frame stitching process. This means more lights, and bigger lights, which is a shock as traditional productions are shooting at light levels so low that the image on the monitor looks brighter than the set, and if the monitor is turned the wrong way it can actually light the set.

I had to light my last VR project to a key level of 125 foot candles. Compare that six to ten footcandles for a typical day interior, night interior, or night exterior non-VR project.

Ultimately, it’s about the story — which is more of an experience than anything else. It’s not traditional filmmaking. It’s theater too.

 

M: Stanley Kubrick once talked about his belief that the modern (1990s) tv commercial was the key to unlocking the future of cinema, and believed it to be a high art of visual poetry. Do you agree with this, and if so, why? What part about being a commercial DP feels the most artistic and creative?

A: Commercial DPs should live on the cutting edge of style. We live in an age where viewers actively avoid watching commercials, and to stay relevant we’re shooting projects that live on screens of all shapes and sizes. Each medium has constraints: a thirty second spot may work well for broadcast, but fifteen seconds feels like forever on Youtube. And there really isn’t any need for a set time limit on the web: shorter is always better. The longer you make people wait for content, the less receptive they are to your message.

For our part, DPs have to find ways to visually set the stage for these short stories. Great lighting, composition and camera movement can build a world within a couple of shots, or maybe one shot. For a fifteen second spot, the mood of the first image the viewer sees may make all the difference to its success.

 

M: What is your favorite short film/commercial/other piece of short form art? Why?

A: This: http://seances.nfb.ca. The site takes bits of surreal short films and mixes them together into a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’ll never see the same film twice. I’m a huge fan of surrealism, and this hits the spot.

The director, Guy Maddin, made a feature film out of some of these shorts: The Forbidden Room

You can find all of Art Adams’ best commercial and branding work at http://www.artadamsdp.com/.

Art also writes for ProVideo Coalition. You can see his thoughts on the latest trends in cameras, lighting and more at https://www.provideocoalition.com/aadams/.

 

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