This past summer, I had the exciting opportunity to take a virtual filmmaking class taught by a well-known expert in the field, Cameron S. Mitchell. Some of the topics that we covered were film criticism, filmmaking, camera equipment and operation, software, and the movie industry as a whole. It was interesting to learn about the different stories and experiences that Cameron has had while working in the industry and in various locations. I also enjoyed our discussions of our favorite filmmakers and films and how they inspire him to continue working and creating art. After experiencing this incredible class with Cameron, I thought it would be interesting to ask him some questions so that he can share his insights.
Thank you, Cameron, I appreciate that you took the time to do this interview with me.
Q: You’ve worked in the Filmmaking and TV industry for a number of years now, what are some of the highlights of your career?
A: Hey Domenic, thanks for having me. While there are many different ways I could take this I think I will highlight what meant most to my career. In that case, going to Temple University in Philadelphia and studying under the magnificent teachers there such as Paul Swann, Michael Kuetemeyer, Warren Bass, Dan Friedlander, and Jayasinhji “Bapa” Jhala had a huge influence on me as a filmmaker from the breadth of what I watched to the experimentation with film and moving camera techniques in film production oriented classes. When you get out into the field you don’t necessarily have time to do these things anymore, so you rely on what you learned and continue to learn to help get you through each day on set. The next most important highlight for me would be joining the Local 600 International Cinematographer’s Guild union in 2016. I still remember getting my card in the mail and then how quickly from there I was getting on major sets such as “Molly’s Game” (Dir. Aaron Sorkin) and “The Romanoffs” (created by Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner). It is because of the union and banding together with union ACs and operators that I have been able to continue and further my career. It hasn’t been a straight ladder climb (I took time out from freelancing in 2015 to work at ARRI rental as a camera prep tech even though I had been doing DP, Director, and Steadicam Operating roles before that) but more of a shift back and forth and I owe a lot of my advances to individuals in the field who took chances on me even as recent as this year. For instance, in my junior/senior year at Temple U I had the privilege of directing their Tripod Team Initiative. I ended up directing a documentary about Sharon Pinkenson, the director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office who was responsible for bringing the film tax credit to PA with Governor Ed Rendell. I got a long list of potential interview candidates including Steve Buscemi, M. Night, etc but the most fruitful relationships were local filmmakers like Ben Hickernel as well as Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce. Just this past year, the latter brought me on to DP the Netflix show Cat People which has been featured in the Atlantic and well as the Today show among other places. This for me exemplifies the true spirit of the filmmaking process, collaboration and strength from the bottom up. As I write this, there is currently a discussion of striking amongst Local 600 for better turnarounds and working hours. I stand with my brothers and sisters and will support a strike because I know that I wouldn’t be anywhere without them.
Q: The Filmmaking industry has changed since you started working in it during the early 2010s, in what areas have you seen the most change?
A: The most obvious shift is in the influence that streaming giants have taken over the market. Different networks play this different ways but again what remains the same is the bargaining agreements held by our unions. I have worked shows for Amazon and Netflix where the hours have been relentless, 16 hour marathons for weeks on end but I have also worked sets for features that have been able to manage that workload more effectively and evenly. The truth is, even at the end of a week of 12 on, 12 off one can feel physically and mentally exhausted. Currently this is the best case scenario I have experienced on shows and features when it really should be the minimum starting point. The New Media Agreement has proven to be a mass underestimation of the power of streaming when the deal was made in 2009. It essentially is a loophole that has allowed shows with much larger budgets to claim they are “new media” and pay crew significantly smaller wages while the “above the line” staff get pay raises and recognition (see: Ted Lasso and Roma for the most recent examples of how producers, writers, directors get raises and recognition while the technical crew does not). Currently the AMPTP is trying to halve wages that already have not increased with inflation since the 1990s, so if anything the change has been downhill and is another reason why a strike is necessary now more than ever.
Q: You were appointed as a Slamdance Film Festival moderator a year ago. What insights can you share about the judging process for film festivals?
A: Film festivals are one way that a filmmaker can advance their career by getting selections and awards for independent projects that they make. I personally know friends who went on to direct projects that came out of negotiations at Slamdance. I myself have been approached about opportunities as well during and after my short film’s time at Slamdance and other festivals. Slamdance has been a fantastic resource and community to tap into and I was lucky enough to be ahead of my time in making a short film about disability ethics and portrayal in film with “The Co-Op”. This is why I strongly suggest to filmmakers that are considering festivals to make something that they care about and have something to say about from their heart. The competition level is fierce as the major festivals get tens of thousands of submissions for only 100s of slots, but if you are able to strike a cord with a different POV/perspective than we have seen before then you are likely to get moved to the top of the pile and have a better chance at creating a successful film run.
Q: How does working in New York filmmaking differ/ is similar to working in Los Angeles?
A: I don’t want to ruffle too many feathers here but I feel that the rates, hours, and work ethic of east coast sets remain the highest that I have experienced in my time in the industry. Perhaps someday I will experience an LA set that trumps that, but for now I can say the east coast has provided the best experiences for me. (Obviously I am biased as an east coaster who only occasionally shoots in LA :) ).
Q: After working as a Director of Photography for many projects, do you prefer to shoot on film or digital?
A: There are advantages to each. In today’s world where many features and shows are averaging upwards of 8 pages a day (as a point of reference, DP Bill Pope once said that with the highest efficiency crew in the world 10 might be achievable but that’s a big if) digital gives you an advantage in that you can live grade the image with a good DIT and see exactly the latitude of what it is you are getting on screen. Of course, trained film eyes will argue that a familiarity with shooting different film stocks and knowing how they behave will give you the same advantage. There are less and less places to develop film properly as many of the major Kodak labs have shut down. Much like you can format a card, you can accidentally flash a film mag and both are ruined. So perhaps a comparison isn’t the best idea but instead I would rather think what medium is best for what project. There is a movement to film grain run through a gate that I believe digital cannot match even with various film overlays that we have available to us in post. As a Director and DP, you have to decide what is the right medium for the job and you can only make that decision properly if you yourself have sat through camera tests and seen the differences. Or if you schedule those camera tests before you start the endeavor.