The art and craft of cinematography – interview with Jayson Crothers

March 8th, 2016

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my absolute delight to welcome Jayson Crothers. As there’s not nearly enough space in one interview to cover all the features and short films that he’s worked on in the last fifteen years, we’ve spent most of our time talking about the cinematography on the magnificently shot “Amnesiac” and his ongoing work on the TV show “Chicago Fire”.

As the conversation weaves between the details of these two specific projects and the overall world of cinematography, Jayson talks about the glamour and reality of Hollywood, the intersection of passion, hard work and luck that propels one’s career forward, the business aspects of making movies and how things are evolving in the world of increasingly competitive episodic TV productions, the overall job of a cinematographer through the major three phases of film production, the variety of visual tools that cinematographers use to tell a story, creating a safe emotional environment for the actors on set, spending 200 days in each of the last few years shooting 23-episode seasons of “Chicago Fire” and the variety of screens that surround us as the viewers. In addition, he takes a deeper dive in the ongoing transition from the medium of film to digital, how it affects the visual aesthetics and on-set discipline of various departments.

Jayson Crothers on set. Photography by Elizabeth Morris.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself, what drew you into the industry, and how you got your start.

Jayson: Like most kids, I grew up loving movies.  Over time my love of watching movies inspired the idea to make movies. I didn’t know anyone who worked in the industry and had no idea where to even start, so I took a Super 8 class at a community college. My instructor recommended I enroll in their cinematography course, and as soon as I picked up a light meter things just clicked and made sense.  I continued my education getting a Bachelor’s from Columbia College in Chicago. I was an intern with Panavision and I interned under Tom Priestly, ASC on a film for MGM. Then I moved to Los Angeles and earned my MFA from the American Film Institute (AFI).  After graduation, most people start shooting commercials or music videos, and work towards shooting feature films.  I did it the other way around – I fell right into shooting a lot of low budget features, which I did pretty non-stop up to 2013 when I came aboard the TV show that I’m on right now (Chicago Fire).

Kirill: Allow me to bring you back to when you where studying film in Chicago and LA. There’s a lot of glamour associated with movies and Hollywood, and I’d imagine that there must be quite a few people going to these schools because of that and not because they love making movies. Did you see people attracted to the glamour, only to abandon the field once they were exposed to the everyday grind of the industry?

Jayson: Certainly. I think about my very first class at Columbia. We had around 40 students in our class, and two years later when I graduated I only saw one other person from that first class.

I think a lot of people go to film school, or want to enter the business, because there’s a lot of apparent glamour to it. A lot of people are drawn to that and how exciting appears to be. There’s a promise of money, of fame and success, and it all looks really sexy and glamorous until you’re standing on set at hour 16 in the pouring rain, and you’re ankle deep in mud, and you have a cold, and you haven’t seen your family and your dog doesn’t remember who you are [laughs]. I think that’s when the reality starts to set in for people.

This is hard work and goes beyond just a job. We work freelance, so it’s not just a job, but rather a lifestyle. You’re self-employed and you are marketing yourself. It’s like starting a business but you only have one product, and if that product isn’t working, you’re not making a living. You’re the product.

I think that when people realize that it requires a lot of work and sacrifice, then very early on people learn quickly if it’s for them or not.

Kirill: My impression is that you have to have real passion for the field to stay in it for any significant number of productions.

Jayson Crothers on set.
Photography by Elizabeth Morris.

Jayson: Absolutely. It’s a lifestyle. Being freelance and self-employed is really nerve-wracking for some people. Very long hours is really hard for people. The sacrifice is not something that a lot of people want to do. And it’s not a judgement; for some people it’s just not for them, and for other people it is.

It’s a very specific path, and I think that if you want to have any kind of success in it, you have to be in it for the long haul. It requires an enormous commitment of time, tenacity, and patience.

Kirill: Would you say that in addition to the determination to get into the field you also need just a tiny bit of luck to get to the right production? Is pure passion enough to get into the field and to get ahead?

Jayson: It’s something that people don’t really acknowledge as much as I think they should, but there is an enormous amount of luck involved. Passion is crucial because it’s what initially gets you into pursuing this, and it’s what’s probably going to keep you going when things get hard or when you have a down time. In this business you have ups and downs all the time. So when things go down, you’re going to fall back on that passion to help keep you going forward.

Passion in and of itself doesn’t really mean anything unless you couple it with a lot of hard work. I know a lot of people who are really passionate, who work very hard, but then you need a certain amount of luck and good fortune. You need a lucky break. You need the right project, you need the right people, and you need the right time.

Every success story about people in our industry is a great story and is legitimate. But there’s a lot of hard work that most people never see – it’s that person who’s an “overnight success”, but actually has 10-15 years of toiling away before they “make it”. And these stories, I think, are a culmination of passion, a lot of hard work, mixed with the right project that was done at the right time. If anything, that might be one of the hardest things. People can be very passionate and work very hard for years and years and years before they get that lucky break.

I started shooting features right out of AFI in 2005, and my lucky break came about when I got called for the TV show that I’m on now. That’s eight years of hard work (plus all the work before AFI, which began in 1997) and a lot of close calls, of “I was almost lucky, but not quite.” And it’s hard to see year after year go by and you wonder when, or if, that lucky break is going to come.

People that are successful are the ones that work hard, but frankly are also the ones that have the patience to wait until the good luck comes along. Preparation, good fortune and hard work need to come together at the same time.

Kirill: It’s almost like you need to keep on honing your craft so that when the opportunity comes, you’re ready to pounce.

Jayson: Exactly – all the hard work and passion prepare you for when someone gives you that opportunity, and most of the time you don’t know that the project you’re working on is that opportunity. Something else that’s vital to taking advantage of these opportunities is the mindset that everything you do gets equal weight and equal respect. You treat everything as though it’s the most important project you’ve ever done; that’s, in my opinion, the definition of being professional.

It’s very rare that you work on a movie and you say to yourself that you know it’s going to be the special one. Usually you work on something and you enjoy it and do good work on it, and later on people respond to it. Or they don’t. You never really know.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: Is it, at least to some degree, because there are so many people involved through the various stages of the production, from producers and cast to the crew and whatever happens in the post-production when you’re not even there to see what happens to those beautiful frames that you’ve shot?

Jayson: You can work very hard on a movie, but there are so many hands during the making of it that have an influence, and then once you’re done shooting, there are so many other people involved in post-production that can have a heavy influence too. It takes a specific combination of people and circumstances for it all to come together and work.

I try to stay actively involved in post-production, giving thoughts and opinions when I can and when it’s asked of me, because I want to be involved, I want to see the movie all the way to completion, and especially nowadays you have to. There are so many different people involved, and at any one point things can change dramatically, and the intent behind what you did on set can change dramatically. How do you keep that vision and authorship from the inception of the idea to the final exhibition? It’s a constant effort.

Kirill: And there’s also the business side of things. The studio invests in a movie and it wants to see some kind of return on that investment.

Jayson: The reality is that as cinematographers, what we do is inherently creative, but it’s also tied directly to a lot of business and a lot of practical things. Cinematographers have a very heavy influence on the schedule and on the budget. Every day there’s a lot of money being spent that we’re directly responsible for. It’s equipment, people, manpower and often just time.

I’m always very consciously aware of budget, and I work very hard with producers and assistant directors to work out how to do things fast and efficiently, how to save money here knowing that we’ll have to spend money over there. At the end of the day it’s a business. Movies cost a lot of money and they have to make a lot of money. Although what we do is inherently creative and artistic, it’s within the limitations of still being a business. There’s a lot of decisions made on a movie that are made from a place of business or logistics. We don’t work in an artistic bubble. We work in an industry and we’re responsible for a lot of resources. Part of our job is to find a way to make choices tied to practical matters work within the context of our stories.

Kirill: Would you say that you wouldn’t want to live in such a bubble with unlimited money and unlimited time? With no pressure on budget and schedule everybody might be just tempted to try different things and flail around endlessly.

Jayson: I think a lot of people would say the same thing, and I think that for me personally, reasonable limitations are necessary and helpful. If you’re given unlimited time and unlimited money – and these are fantasies – I don’t think it’s going to necessarily make for better work. Creative people in general work better within certain limitations. That forces you to start being creative and go “This is the box that I have to work in, these are the things that I want to do, how do I do the things that I want to do within this box” and from that problem solving you start to come up with other very interesting ideas.

Very interesting and creative work comes out of these limitations. If you were to say “Here’s all the time and money in the world”, often it’s like looking at a blank canvas. You don’t know where to start. A limitation is a starting point; you can work from that.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: Since you started, the industry has largely transitioned from film as a medium to digital. How is this ongoing transition going for you, especially when, as you said, you grew up around the feel, the smell, the crackle of a film reel winding through the projectors?

Jayson: I started by shooting film. In school I shot probably around 50-60 short films all on film. All of my first few features were on film. I started shooting digital on a feature in 2005 with the Sony F900.

People can debate back and forth the merits of digital vs. film. I think that at this point it’s an outdated argument because digital is so advanced. At the end of the day, I think we love film because of its organic nature. It’s very pleasing to the eye. I love film for its particular aesthetic.

With that said, I think digital is fantastic. I’ve done a lot of movies on digital, and “Chicago Fire”, that I’m on right now, is all digital. I love the things I can do with digital that I can’t do on film. One of the things I miss about film being the predominant medium is the discipline that comes from shooting on film. It’s the discipline of being more prepared on set, not letting the camera roll constantly, distinguishing between rehearsals and takes, etc.

Kirill: Is that because film magazines are limited to around 11 minutes?

Jayson: It’s not just the running time. There’s more discipline when shooting film because it’s more expensive. 1000 feet of 35mm film costs roughly $500 and runs for 11 minutes (assuming you’re shooting 4 perf). You know that every time you roll the camera, that’s specific tangible dollars that you’re spending. Then you have to develop that film and transfer. Film is more expensive and people treat it with a lot more respect.

You’re precious with it. Every time you flip that button on the camera, you can hear the money running in the magazine. That requires people to spend more time thinking about what they’re going to do. People pay more attention, and after the scene is done people call “Cut.” Today one of the side effects of digital is people are often inclined to just keep it rolling.

My only complaint about digital would be this. Because it appears to be “cheap” on set, I think there’s a certain kind of discipline that is being lost shooting digital that exists with film. There was a lot more focus when we shot film to the process of creating a shot. Other than that I think digital is spectacular.

I love having a monitor with an image that’s real versus an image that’s an interpretation. When the director says “I want this to feel dark and moody”, with film you can make an informed guess at the intent, but unless you’ve worked together before, your versions of dark and moody might be different. With digital I can light a set, bring the director to the monitor and ask them what they think, and we can discuss and adjust. Creatively it lets me collaborate and talk with my director, my operators, hair, make-up, production designer; it gives us a place to go and look at the same thing. There is no interpretation. This is a real thing that we can all talk about and develop. The benefit of digital is that it has made creative collaborations a lot faster and clearer.

Ultimately, I don’t think there’s really a discussion of film vs. digital anymore. It’s more of a matter of how long film will still be around to be a viable medium for people to use, largely because there are so few labs left open. I hope it’s around for a long time because it’s a beautiful format.

Kirill: When everybody can gather around the monitor and see the frame, is there some kind of magic touch of a cinematographer that is lost in the process? You used to hold the picture in your head and promise the magic to be unveiled on dailies the next morning, and now it’s all there immediately.

Jayson: That goes back to what I said earlier. That’s part of the discipline that got lost. With film you’d start lighting the set, and when you’re done you’d say that now people can go ahead, rehearse and roll. Now with digital you have people saying that it looks fine and asking when can we start shooting. You’re still lighting and it’s not fine, but now you have that added pressure and debates.

To a certain extent there’s still some of that magic left, but it’s harder and harder nowadays. One of the down sides of digital is that the ability to have real authorship of the image is being diminished. Now there are so many people that can point and go “I think that looks too dark. I think that looks too bright. I think that looks fine, let’s shoot.” That’s definitely part of the discipline of film that I miss. There are too many backseat drivers that say that it’s good enough to start shooting, without understanding that either you’re still working or that there are things that they don’t recognize that you’re still trying to address. And that’s the double-edged sword – the same immediacy of the image that lets you collaborate closer with everyone can also be the thing that makes your life significantly harder because everyone has an opinion now.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: Perhaps this is the last phase of the transition to digital where everybody is phasing into this world – directors, cinematographers, actors, the rest of the crew. Maybe in ten years’ time it will be the usual rhythm and people who are graduating from film schools now will see this as a usual thing.

Jayson: Absolutely, and there’s already an entire generation of younger filmmakers who’ve never shot film and never will. They know what film is, but it’s this mythical idea. I do a lot of workshops and seminars and mentorships. They look at me like I’m a crazy person and they go “So when you shoot film, you don’t have a full resolution monitor? How do you know what it’ll look like? And you have to wait a day or a couple of days to see the picture? What if you get it wrong?”

This idea of learning how to see things with your eye and interpret them, what a light meter is really used for – it’s like explaining magic to somebody. They came up on digital, and that’s all they’re going to know. To them, the way the world is now is just normal. And those of us who started with film and then transitioned to digital still bring the discipline of film to sets.

Kirill: Do you think that it’s harder for the actors as well because there is no built-in limitation on how long a continuous sequence of takes can be?

Jayson: Digital “magazines” don’t have unlimited running times, but they often have longer running times than film does. Longer takes are harder on everybody. Sometimes it’s great for an actor. If you’re doing an emotionally difficult scene, or a scene that’s very hard for an actor, rolling and not stopping and doing it again is sometimes great for actors. It allows them to keep on going if they’re in a good space, and I’m all for that.

However, if it’s not a shot or scene that requires that kind of concentration, then not cutting is detrimental to the process of creating the shot or scene. The whole point of doing a take and cutting is to have a few moments where everybody involved in making that shot can make adjustments to make the next take better. If there’s something that’s not working about take 1, there’s no opportunity to change something for take 2. That applies to the actors as well as the crew.

I’m happy to work any way that my director wants to, and I’m there to also support the actors in any way I can, so if keeping the camera rolling for 4 or 5 takes in a row is what they want and need, I’m game for it. Having said that, most of the time I think it’s diminishing returns and taking 60 seconds between takes to make an adjustment will usually result in needing to do fewer takes and ultimately save time.

Kirill: I think back to my earlier days of watching movies, and my vague impression of how movies were made would be the glamorous actors acting, the director yelling “Action” and “Cut” and somebody holding the camera on his shoulder, looking into the eyepiece and shooting the scene. But the job of the cinematographer is so much more than that. How would you describe what you do?

Jayson: So many other people have said it so much more eloquently than me. I think that fundamentally the job of a cinematographer is to be the visual author of a story. That’s a big umbrella that covers a lot of things.

We’re responsible for lighting, composition, camera movement, all the technical aspects that go into cinematography, but it goes beyond that. There’s a lot of aspects to visual storytelling and collaborating with the director. You talk about what a scene is supposed to feel like, what should this shot say visually about the story. There’s the dialog that is being said by the actors, and how we embellish and support that visually; also, how do we visually support the things they’re not saying. How do you transition from one shot to the next? How do you transition from one scene to the next? What’s the visual arc for the entire movie, from the very first shot to the very last shot? How do we maintain that arc, especially considering that movies are shot out of order? Fundamentally it really comes down to dissecting the story moment by moment so you understand what every scene, and therefore every shot, should be about.

And we’re keeping everybody on the same page about what kind of story we’re telling. You work with the production designer, hair and make-up, wardrobe, post-production, every other department and you say “We need this visually, this works and that doesn’t work.” Practically we’re also managers who are responsible for leading a lot of people, maintaining the shooting schedule, working within budgets, etc. It’s a fascinating mixture of being an artist and a manager simultaneously.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: Sometimes I read a good book, and there’s so much happening inside the characters’ heads, so many thoughts and emotions, and I think about how they’d be ever able to make a movie out of it. And then I watch a movie, and it’s a great experience. Do you think you need to be a psychologist to know how the eye will interpret an angle, a zoom, a shadow that convey those emotions without some kind of a background voice that explicitly tells you what’s happening? How do you bring that hidden world into the frame?

Jayson: I have a friend who jokingly says that cinematographers are the psychologists of sets. It’s listening to everybody around you; you’re listening to what they’re saying, but then you’re listening to the things they’re not saying and you’re interpreting all the things they’re trying to say to you. You’re listening to all of that and then you say “This is what I think we need to do to accomplish what it is that you want to do.”

You’re doing it with the director, with the production designer, with the producers, with the actors, with your crew. There’s a lot of psychology of collaborating with people. That takes thousands of different forms.

Kirill: And you of course have your own take on the story. My understanding is that for pre-production and shooting it’s between the director, the cinematographer and the production designer to discuss and define how to bring the story to the screen.

Jayson: That’s exactly what it is. It’s a little bit like cooking, I suppose. Every single person is contributing a different ingredient. At the end of the day it’s the director’s job to really say yes or no to all the ingredients and how they are mixed together, but the cinematographer is right there with the director, having a big influence over the choice of ingredients. It’s about deciding what’s great and what is not going to work, finding the right mixture and hoping that at the end it will be something delicious.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: Let’s talk about “Amnesiac” if you don’t mind. How long was the pre-production and what did you do during those weeks?

Jayson: Amnesiac was interesting. When I was hired, I was out of town shooting another movie, so I did my interview over the phone. Originally there was supposed to be four weeks of prep before we started shooting, but because of some actor conflicts we had only two weeks of pre-production before we jumped right into shooting.

On paper we had 15 days of shooting, but because of some scheduling errors, we ended up only having 14 days. It’s really compressed, even for an independent movie. Independent movies normally have 18 to 20 days, and even that’s tough. So 14 days was hard, especially for a movie that has such a specific visual style.

Most of pre-production for me was getting to know the director (Michael Polish) personally. We’ve never worked together before, and we spent a lot of time not necessarily talking about the movie, but just getting to know each other, building a rapport and trust. I wanted to understand what his tastes were, what he liked and didn’t like.

Ninety percent of that movie takes place in one house, and there were a lot of practical matters to figure out, both in terms of story but also how we could cheat the location to make it feel bigger than it actually was

Kirill: And also to understand how you move the equipment around because you don’t have retractable walls.

Jayson: Especially with independent films when you don’t have a lot of money, you mostly do location work. That’s something that anybody working on a lot of independent productions gets really good at. You can’t just make this wall go away, you can’t just take the ceiling off to hide a light. You walk in and you say that these are the limitations of this space and we have to figure out how to make this space work for us.

Kirill: You mentioned earlier that you never shoot scenes in the order they appear in the final cut. Is that down to how few days you have? Do you rearrange the shooting order to fit the amount of time that you have?

Jayson: Films don’t shoot in order because it’s not practical. The schedule was built around shooting sections of the house all at once. We might have seven different scenes in this one room, so we’d spend a whole day shooting all of them, very much out of order. Now we’re done with that room, and tomorrow we’re going to this other room with ten scenes, so we’re going to spend a day and a half shooting those scenes that, again, are sprinkled all throughout the whole movie.

And part of my job as a cinematographer is to track which scene happens when in the bigger picture. If a scene that we’re shooting now happens earlier in the movie, and the next scene that we’re doing happens later, what is the visual progression of the whole film and therefore how do we need to approach those individual scenes? We started on one side of the house, working our way to the other side, shooting everything out as we went along.

Kirill: There’s a lot of light coming into the house as the story starts. For me as a viewer it felt like something was off, and it looked like the way you’ve portrayed it was to keep the characters inside the house in the shadows, and the strong light coming in but not really getting to them in a sense. From the technical perspective, did you rely on strong sunlight or was it artificial lighting from the outside of the house?

Jayson: That was virtually all created by us. There is very little sunlight outside the actual house coming in, as there were a lot of trees. I’d say 90% of all the light you see in that house was created by us. And it came from a couple of different places.

If you look at Michael’s past work, and he’s done a number of movies, he has a very strong visual sensibility. You watch his movies, and he has a very specific taste that he likes. He likes very graphic compositions, bold strong lighting, shafts of light. During pre-production he said that he always wanted atmosphere to see those shafts of light. He also wanted the film to feel timeless, so we had a very specific limited color palette, in set design, and in wardrobe especially.

We did a lot of atmosphere, with haze in the air. Every single day that we were in the house, we had a hazer that was constantly running. The whole house was filled with it.

For me all the light came from the windows for two reasons. Practically speaking, keeping all the equipment outside the rooms just let us work faster. If we had to change camera angles, we didn’t have to move a lot of equipment inside the rooms because everything was outside. Secondly, with a lot of those giant wide shots there was just nowhere to put equipment in the rooms.

Visually the idea was that the character was trapped inside this house. For me one of the things I wanted to do visually was to portray this idea that there’s a whole outside world with all these things happening that he’s not a part of. I wanted to always feel a lot of bright hard sunlight coming into the room, and no matter how bright it is out there, the inside always feels dark. It’s the idea that even with the windows open the inside of the house still feels dark and confined.

I always wanted to keep in the back of people’s mind is that things never felt right. Everything always seemed just off.

And a shorter answer to your question is all that hard light was artificially created with HMI lights which go up to 18,000 watts. We put those up around the windows to get that hard sunlight coming in.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: I was looking at the listing page of “Amnesiac” as I caught myself missing the names of the two main characters, and then I saw that it’s just man and woman. Was that part of that timeless or placeless or perhaps a personless approach to telling the story, that it could happen anytime, anywhere or to anybody? Did that affect in any way how you shot the scenes between the two main characters?

Jayson: The one thing that was a very big influence was looking for a timeless quality where you don’t really know what time period the movie takes place in. She’s driving a very old classic car. She’s dressed in a sort of 1950s fashion, with matching hair and makeup, but it’s sort of not. He’s dressed in a suit that could either be from the 50s or the 60s, or could just be very modern. Everything about the movie by design had a very timeless quality, and Michael wanted it that way. You couldn’t tell if this is a movie that took place 50 years ago, or is this a movie taking place right now. This woman kind of created this weird timeless environment around her.

If you look at the film, we only had a couple of exterior shots. And we very specifically never showed the neighborhood outside the house. We worked very hard to never show anything outside and to find locations and camera angles that didn’t give away what kind of a time period it was. If anything, the aspect of timeless quality rather than the lack of names, was an influence on some of the visual choices.

Especially when it came to lighting, Kate Bosworth’s wardrobe, hair and makeup had a very classic old-Hollywood glamorous look. A lot of the lighting choices made about her were to give her that timeless quality, that glamorous, soft, beautiful lighting.

Kirill: And by that you mean the amount and the temperature of light?

Jayson: No, it’s the quality of light. For example, if you look at wide shots, that would always incorporate a lot of very hard light, beams of sunlight coming through the windows. When we shot close-ups of our actors, of Kate and Wes, the light on their faces was very soft. It’s the quality of light that we’re always looking for.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: She does stay very composed, and it feels like not much changes about her approach to handling the man [Wes Bentley] throughout the story. He is discovering the situation and struggling with it, and she’s there as this anchor or this thing that knows exactly what she’s doing. Perhaps not an anchor or a thing, but this person that doesn’t change much.

Jayson: I actually think your words are right. “Anchor” and “thing” are good words [laughs]. That was all Michael and Kate. The idea that this character is an anchor and never really changes, and is always very stoic. No matter what is happening, the way she acts when she’s making him soup is the same exact way she acts when she’s cutting up a body. She’s very consistent in her behavior.

And that, again, lent to that timeless quality. A lot is happening in the movie, and the only person who seems to be reacting to it is the man played by Wes Bentley. He’s the only one going “This is all weird, this is all screwed up” but everything kind of moves along at a very methodical pace. For her everything just feels very normal – tying him to a bed, electrocuting him, making tea. These are all very day-to-day chores to her.

Kirill: And as they descend into the basement, suddenly there’s this very brightly decorated ceiling with a lot of light bulbs that feels almost like a dressing room in a theater. You’re descending from the brightly lit big room deeper into the house, but then that dusty basement is very brightly lit from the inside.

Jayson: That was very much a collaboration between myself, the director and the production designer. We looked at the basement, and originally we weren’t going to do that. It’s a very small basement with very low ceilings, and I didn’t want it to feel like a horror movie. I didn’t want the basement to be dark and moody and scary. For me, what I thought was really disturbing about the movie is that all these horrible things are happening in the daytime in these rooms. And although the rooms are dark, these things are all happening right there in the open.

Visually I didn’t want to get to the basement and suddenly feel like everything was really dark and shadowy, and make it feel like a horror movie. Michael agreed with that.

I forget who came up with the idea. One of us said “What if we put up some Christmas lights?” and then I think it was the production designer who suggested to use strings of larger bulb lights instead of Christmas lights. I think that I came up with the idea to cover the entire ceiling.

There was this other thing that I was interested in at that point. In the rest of the house the color temperature of the light was either white or a little cold. I liked the idea that the basement would suddenly be this very warm place. And we got that from the bulbs. It’s bright because there’s light everywhere, but it’s still very dim and very dirty because the light bulbs are not very bright individually. It was a dirty quality of light.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: It looked that you also used smoke for two things – to highlight the projector beam and make it visible, and also to create sort of a dimness around the edges and corners of the basement. And the end result is that you have a dusty but very well-lit space.

Jayson: It was partially for the atmosphere so you can see those shafts of light from the projector. The other part has to do with the overall look of the film. Whenever you use atmosphere, it lowers the contrast for the entire shot. During shooting, on set everything looked very low contrast – it looked soft and a little muddy. In post-production, when we did the color grading, we added all the contrast back in to get very deep blacks and deep shadows. And that was the plan from the beginning. I’d done tests in prep, and this goes back to our earlier conversation about the mystery of the work of the cinematographer – there had to be trust from the director and the producers.

That smoke and the atmosphere, especially in the basement, helped to get the beams from the projector, but also like you said, to keep a dinginess and a dirtiness to the space.

Kirill: As you moved the camera around these hundreds of light sources, were you worried about getting Transformers-style lens flares?

Jayson: Part of it was the lenses that we selected. We shot the movie on Cooke S4’s which don’t flare like that. And part of picking the light bulbs was to choose ones that wouldn’t flare. The concern that I and the production designer had was that we were going to have a ceiling with literally hundreds of light bulbs. We needed to find light bulbs that don’t flare these lenses, otherwise the entire shot would be hundreds of lens flares. I was picking and testing light bulbs before we shot to make sure that we wouldn’t have those problems.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: If you don’t mind, I’m going to bring you back up to the room where the man was tied to the bed. At some point he frees himself, crawls to the door and tries to reach for the doorknob to open it and call for help. In the middle of that you rotated the camera by 90 degrees, and it felt like he’s climbing upwards and the wall is pushing him back down. Do you think it was a risky move, as you don’t usually see that employed in film a lot?

Jayson: Originally we set that shot up “normally”, tracking the dolly along the floor from right to left. We set that up, did one take and after the take Michael and I looked at each other and agreed that it wasn’t right. It didn’t feel like he was really struggling.

He and I were sitting there trying to figure that out, and I think it was his idea to tilt the camera. We re-angled the camera by 90 degrees, and we tried another take, and it was great, it worked perfectly. We did maybe two more takes after that.

I don’t think we necessarily thought of that as a risky move. We thought more of the first take that we did normally, and we both knew that it didn’t work. It wasn’t interesting and there was no challenge for the character. And then we tilted the camera by 90 degrees, and it was great. It worked for what we were trying to say visually. It was about creating the feeling that we were after.

Kirill: The reason that I said “risky” is that, at least for me, I can only think of two movies that did the camera rotation. The first is “Inception” where they fight in this in-between fantasy world, and the other one is “Royal Wedding” from 1951 where Fred Astaire dances on the walls and the ceiling. I’m thinking about the palette of choices and tools at your disposal to convey a certain emotion or mood – close-ups, over the shoulder, centered in the frame, all the way down in a corner – and perhaps as a viewer I might misinterpret something if it’s shown in a way that is not the “usual”.

Jayson: That’s really interesting. As an audience, if for certain shots or for certain moments you’re used to “this shot conveys that”, it might be more interesting for a filmmaker to play against that. If you’re used to normally seeing a close-up to convey this, maybe instead we’re going to convey that moment in a wide shot. Or you’re used to seeing this in a wide shot, and we’re only going to show you a close-up.

I think it’s actually more interesting and maybe more engaging for an audience to play against the expectation. As an audience, if you’re expecting this, we’re going to do that instead.

One thing about the movie that I always thought was interesting was that Michael doesn’t use a lot of close-ups. He likes a lot of wide shots, so often when you’re expecting it to be close, he’d be in a wide shot. I always thought it was interesting that he wasn’t afraid to let things play out in a wide shot. In the end, the final movie that got released used a lot more close-ups than I think we originally intended or wanted to, but the original idea was that a lot of movie plays out in wide shots.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: A last question on shooting “Amnesiac” and two particular scenes between the two main characters. The first was with the man tied to the bed and the woman circling the bed slowly as he starts to understand that the situation is not just weird but rather dangerous, and the second in the basement with him tied, yet again, to a chair and her circling him, yet again, getting ready to drive an icepick through his eye. These are very emotionally charged scenes that can be disrupted very easily by the presence of the camera and crew. What’s your on-set approach to minimizing those disruptions to the actors’ flow?

Jayson: In general, and not just for that particular movie, I always want to have as few people as possible on set. I want as few distractions for the actors as possible. There’s a certain intimacy and trust that you create with your actors.

If you have 30 people in the room, it’s a lot harder to be vulnerable. If you have three or four people in the room, and those are people that you’ve built a relationship with, it’s a lot easier to take chances and be vulnerable.

In that scene in the room it was probably me operating, the dolly grip, the focus puller, the sound man and the director. So it’s the actors and five people, and those were the only people in the room. That’s the bare minimum.

Like I said, not only on that movie but in general, unless you’re actively a part of that shot, you don’t need to be in that space. And that creates an environment where the actors feel a lot freer to try things. It’s about creating an environment where they trust you and they feel comfortable trying things, doing different things.

Especially for a scene like that, that was a bit longer and very slow; it’s a scene where everybody needs to be in sync. In addition to doing her performance, Kate had a very specific timing that she had to do to match our timing of the dolly as well. It’s not just her performing. It’s also her performing and keeping in mind the timing for our camera, and our camera has to be sensitive to her performance. There’s a lot of conversations not only with me and the dolly grip, me and the director, but also with Kate on where I will be and what I will be doing. That way the actors know what we’re shooting, when we’re shooting it, where they need to be. When the camera gets here, that’s when I need you to step around him here so you’re out of the way of this light. There’s a lot of collaboration going there.

Still from “Amnesiac” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: You mentioned that you stayed through into the post-production, which doesn’t happen a lot for cinematographers.

Jayson: I think that it’s become necessary for cinematographers to stay as actively involved in post-production as possible. It’s in our best interest to stay actively involved, because it allows us to make sure that the intent behind what was done during physical production is carried all the way through post-production. There are conversations that you need to be a part of from the very beginning.

I talk about post-production while I’m still in pre-production. I find that now post-production has become just as important a part of my job as physical production. What I shoot is half the job – how that work is finished in post is the other half of my job. By staying invested, I can make sure that if somebody wants to change something, it’s done in an informed way. That way you don’t shoot the movie one way, and then you get to post-production and have everything changed suddenly.

Kirill: Everything has meaning. Colors have meaning, light has meaning. For example, with those opening scenes on “Amnesiac” that had strong shafts of light coming from the outside and characters staying in shadows inside, you don’t want the post-production to bring everything into sharp focus with strong vibrant colors.

Jayson: Exactly. There is a reason and an intent behind everything you do on set during the principal photography. You want that carried throughout. As I said earlier, part of the job of a cinematographer is to be the custodian of that image and carry it from the inception all the way to exhibition.

You can talk to visual effects and say that it all looks great, but this is the style that we shot, and maybe we should change this here. And it’s never in an aggressive way. I make it a point that I’m there to help support the director’s vision and the movie that the director and the producers want to make. I want the production to know that I’m always there to help guide things to where they need to be.

Kirill: Or if they make changes, they do that knowing what they are deviating from.

Jayson: Absolutely, making informed changes. Things change, sometimes for the better, and if that’s a change that you want to make, let’s be aware of what that change means, and let’s make that change together so that it’s the best kind of change it can be. If you want to change this, let’s do it in a smarter or better way, so we actually get what we want to.

Kirill: You’ve finished working on “Amnesiac” a couple of years ago, and you have quite a few productions under your belt in the last ten years. What stays with you when you look back at older productions you’ve worked on? Do you mostly have happy memories?

Jayson: It depends on the production. “Amnesiac” and working with Michael (Polish) was a treat. He’s a brilliant director. Just in terms of working with actors he’s amazing. As a visualist, he’s fantastic. Michael could be a cinematographer if he wanted to be. He’s got great taste visually, so collaborating with him every day was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a director. I have nothing but fond memories of “Amnesiac”.

You think back on some productions, and you think about the great times you had shooting them or the opportunities you had to do some really exciting work. Some productions you remember as unpleasant experiences and that you really wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. I did a film called “Coldwater” about a year before “Amnesiac” and I wish every shoot could be like that one was – it was a joy in every sense of the word. Then there are those occasional films where you’re counting down the days until it’s a picture wrap [laughs]. It depends. Every movie is different. In general I’ve enjoyed most of the projects I’ve been a part of, whether it’s because of the work or the people.

“Amnesiac” was the last movie I did before I came on to my TV show “Chicago Fire”.

Still from “Chicago Fire” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: That brings me actually to my next question. How different was it going from the feature film world into episodic television?

Jayson: It’s completely different and completely the same all at once. It’s the same in the sense that my job is still the same. I’m still collaborating with the director to figure out how to visually tell the story. I’m still responsible for lighting and camera, and working with the production designer, and collaborating with actors. The mechanics of my job remain the same.

It’s completely different in that “Amnesiac” was a 14-day feature. We did it in 14 days with one director and one story. On “Chicago Fire” we do 23 episodes a season. Each episode is 8 to 9 days long, and each episode has a different director. The mechanics of my job remain the same, but what’s different is that instead of shooting for 14 days to tell one story, I’m now shooting for 200 days to tell multiple stories that all flow together for a much bigger story.

Kirill: So you’re the only cinematographer on the entire show? That’s a lot of days.

Jayson: Many shows have rotating cinematographers, but ours does not. I do all 23 episodes. It’s the same cast and the same crew, but every episode is a different director, so every other week I build a new relationship with a director and figure out how to tell this particular story.

Kirill: Do you even have time for some kind of prep work for that episode with a new director, because you’re still shooting the previous episode?

Jayson: My entire prep with a director is one day. The way it works on our show is to spend 8 or 9 days on an episode, and usually on day 7 my second unit DoP will fill in for me while I’m going on a scout. We go look at the locations that have already been picked. We figure out where we’re going to park trucks, where the action is going to be, and all the other technical aspects with other department heads. And then 48 hours later we start shooting together. While I’m shooting, the next director that I’m going to work with will sometimes email me questions, or come visit me on the set in between shots. I have a lot of conversations about upcoming episodes with the Production Designer and 1st AD in between set ups of my current episode.

TV is very demanding that way. Shooting for close to 200 days is exhausting physically and mentally. I’m doing whatever prep work for the next episode I can while I’m also shooting the current episode – I’m also reviewing dailies from my unit, from the 2nd Unit, and reviewing edits and sending notes to my colorist. It’s a marathon.

Having said that, it’s also a brilliant environment to be a part of. Spending that much time with the same cast and crew allows you to have an immediate short hand and you can develop ideas and refine them over a great deal of time. I still can’t believe how much I’ve learned from being on this show and how much I still learn every day.

Still from “Chicago Fire” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: And you do want to guide the director to stay, more or less, within the visual language that is established for the show, or at least for the current season. You don’t want for two consecutive episodes to look completely different.

Jayson: That’s a big part of my job as the cinematographer; to take the director’s ideas and what they want to do, and then interpret them within the structure and the visual language of our show. They tell you what they want to do, and some things you go “We don’t quite do it that way on our show – what you want to do, we do that more like this.”

Part of my job with every director is to help and guide them. My job is to help them to realize their ideas, but to interpret those ideas within the language that we have. If they say “I want to do a Steadicam shot”, our show doesn’t use Steadicam. So we can do it instead as hand-held because that’s our visual language. That way on every episode, the director’s individual taste will come through, but there’s a visual consistency to the entire season and all 23 episodes.

Kirill: And there’s a lot of very interesting storytelling happening in the world of episodic television. Does it feel to you that it is draining, at least temporarily, a lot of talent away from the world of feature film? Perhaps it doesn’t matter where the stories are being told as long as there’s a place to tell them in a creative way?

Jayson: I was never a big TV watcher until the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot. That was the first time that I started really watching and got really invested in TV. I thought it had amazing characters and great storytelling, and was visually fantastic. Since then TV just continued getting better and better in my opinion.

I love doing features, and I’m looking forward to the next feature that I get to do. Now, however, TV is such an amazing place because there’s a freedom to tell very intricate stories, and instead of having just two hours, you have 13 or 23 hours, and seasons upon seasons. And visually things have gotten so sophisticated that TV shows are doing work more on par with what is typically seen in features.

Still from “Chicago Fire” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: And going back to the financial aspect, people are willing to pay to get that great content on HBO, Netflix and other channels. And on the other side, the business people are willing to invest in the shows much more, to enable those visuals.

Jayson: The other thing when you have so much great television is that it creates a lot of competition, but that’s a good thing in my opinion. With more competition it means that there’s responsibility and requirement for programmers to create better-quality television. There are so many different options, and if you don’t create something that’s really striking or original or high-quality, then the audience is going to go somewhere else and find something better.

More and more, all these different companies are making better-quality and higher production value television for smarter audiences, because audiences are demanding that. All that competition requires all of us to do better work, and audiences get better TV shows.

Kirill: Do you think that comes at the expense of mid-level budget feature films not being made as much as they used to be?

Jayson: I don’t think it’s at the expense; I don’t think those movies are being made, at least for now. There are giant blockbusters, and there are small independents, and there’s really nothing in between. People who used to do those movies have either moved to much smaller ones, or moved to television.

Television has become a new frontier for a lot of people that were doing the mid-level budget movies and those types of stories. With that said, I’m very hopeful that those mid-level budget films will return – I think there’s a much bigger audience for those types of stories than studios might realize. Every year a few more films like that come out and they’re fantastic, so I’m optimistic for their future.

Still from “Chicago Fire” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: It used to be that you went to the theater to watch a movie on the big screen, and then you had a small 4×3 TV screen in your living room. Nowadays there’s such a wide variety of screens around us, from gigantic flat TVs to large tablets all the way down to small phones. And you also have a much wider variety of productions, from big blockbusters to indie features to episodic television to Netflix and Amazon doing their shows in the episodic format while they are not your “traditional” TV delivery channel. As a cinematographer, what are your thoughts on this continuum of screen sizes around us?

Jayson: It’s a very interesting topic. On the TV show I’m working on currently, on set I view everything on 24″ monitors. The directors are often viewing things on smaller 9″ monitors. And what I find a lot is that the directors will ask for a shot to go in tighter, because on a small monitor a wide shot doesn’t have the same impact. So a closeup on a 9″ monitor looks good, but when they come and watch it on my 24″ monitors, they say that it’s way too close. I think that speaks to how different screen sizes influence how an audience responds to the photography.

I suppose it depends on the project. When I shoot a feature, I’m doing that with an assumption that it is going to be shown in a theater or perhaps in a home theatre. And shooting a TV show, I’m assuming that people are going to be watching it at home on TVs or on their iPads or laptops. However, I don’t change the way that I’m working based on the possibility that someone might watch this on a tablet or a phone. I can’t work that way. And I don’t say that to be dismissive of watching things on phones or tablets. When I’m traveling, I’ll catch up on things on my iPad all the time.

As a cinematographer, I go about creating and crafting the work that I’m doing in the way I hope the audiences are going to watch it – which is the best viewing environment possible. With that said, if I go to a commercial, and it’s being specifically made to be viewed on an iPhone, then I might do things differently. If I know that an iPhone is the exhibition format, I’ll make visual choices based on that.

I have to create the work assuming and hoping that it’s going to be seen in the best way possible, and then let things fall where they may. There are so many different ways that things can and are being viewed now, and there’s no happy compromise for all of them. I think that the only option for a cinematographer nowadays is to create your work with the best intentions possible.

Kirill: And perhaps to stay current with where the technology is going in how you capture the image, as well as how people watch that image.

Jayson: You do have to be conscious of how something is viewed. For example, the way I’m going to compose a feature film might be very different from the way I’m going to compose a commercial. That feature might play on a 40′ screen, versus a commercial that might only be seen on a phone in between YouTube videos. The way I compose that commercial might be very different from the way I do that feature film. If you know ahead of time that your work is for a specific audience or market, then it only makes sense to play to those strengths.

So yes, you need to be aware of those things, but I don’t think it’s fair or even wise to say “What if somebody watches this on an iPhone? I’m going to change how I shoot this just in case” because now you’re doing a disservice to people that are watching it on a larger screen. We’re in a world where there are so many different ways to view things, and there are a lot of great options. I would hope in the future that viewing environments only get better. I suspect that more and more people are going to be watching things streaming on phones and tablets, and we’ll see how that evolves. It’s an interesting future.

Still from “Chicago Fire” courtesy of Jayson Crothers.

Kirill: Do you have time to keep track of what your peers are doing in feature and television worlds? When you watch something, do you get to enjoy it or perhaps you’re looking at the more technical aspects?

Jayson: When I was doing just features, I had downtime in between films, so it was easier. I’ve been on “Chicago Fire” for three seasons, so I have a lot less free time now. I still try to stay current on what my colleagues and friends are doing. If my friends are doing a film or a TV show, when it comes out I’ll try to watch it.

I try to watch something just for the story, and to enjoy it. If it’s particularly interesting technically, I might go back and watch it a second time, more from a technical stance and appreciation. In general if it’s good, I’m able to watch it just as an audience member and enjoy it as a story.

But it’s inevitable. Sometimes you watch things and you really want to get invested as an audience member. And sometimes you watch and you think it’s beautiful or incredible, and you start thinking about how they pulled it off.

There are some TV shows that I still watch religiously. I’ll download them on iTunes and watch them on my days off.

Kirill: What’s your favorite show?

Jayson: That’s a tough one. I’m a big fan of “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead”. I think they’re both great shows. I’m still a fan of the show “Supernatural”. It’s now in its eleventh season, and for me it’s a really interesting show to watch. They’ve had the same DP [Serge Ladouceur] for all eleven seasons. I’m really interested in how he’s changed the look of the show throughout the seasons. It all feels very connected, but there are definitely things that he’s done over the eleven seasons to change and evolve the look of the show. He’s done over 200 episodes of that show; that’s quite a feat.

I’m also a big fan of “House of Cards” and I’ve just finished watching the first season of “Daredevil” on Netflix. That’s a great show, and the DP Matt Lloyd did fantastic work on it.

Jayson Crothers on set. Photography by Elizabeth Morris.

And here I’d like to thank Jayson Crothers for finding time in his busy schedule and for this wonderful opportunity to talk about the art and craft of cinematography. If you’re interested in more stories on how films and TV shows are made, click here for more in-depth interviews.