By Nicholas Jackson
The School of Film offers several different specialization tracks for MFA and HTC students. Thesis student Jacob Midkiff was kind enough to answer some questions pertaining to the cinematography track. In his two years here, Midkiff has worked on dozens of student films and has spent his summers gaining industry experience on professional sets. Recently, Midkiff had a couple different pieces (as an actor, as a director, and as a director of photography [DP]) screen at this past spring’s Athens International Film and Video Festival.
Why did you select the cinematography track over the other options?
I chose the cinematography track above the others simply because I would rather be a cinematographer. Don't get me wrong. I love creating my own work. But when it comes to a career, crafting visuals using light, shadow, composition, and so on is way more appealing to me.
What are the steps of pre-production for a Director of Photography?
There is a lot of preproduction for a DP. In some instances, I'm even involved in giving script notes, but I wouldn't classify that as a hat of the DP to wear. In almost all instances, though, it involves talking constantly with the director about what we both see in the film. And those conversations help the decisions of look, color, aspect ratio, camera movement, among other things. Without these conversations, I'd have little guidance in approaching how I'd light and compose the story visually.
How much of the process is technical and how much of it is subjective taste? How do you negotiate this combination?
A lot of the preproduction process is balanced between technical and subjective taste. Like stated earlier, through these talks with the director, we discuss aspect ratio and technical things that are essential for me to know when it comes to filming something. I can't choose the appropriate camera and equipment to use unless I know what exactly we need to make first. But at the same time, we talk color and contrast ratios. That's what spawns a lot of conversation where I include my own taste in relation to the visuals in the script, as well as hear the director's taste. We see what matches between both our ideas and other times we bump heads over what aesthetic choice to make. Ultimately, the director is always right. It is their film and they're trusting you as a cinematographer to make it look amazing and authentic to the script. If the director disagrees with something I want to do, we'll often have a quick spat expressing both of our viewpoints. But if that doesn't sway them away from what they're doing, it is the director's call and I trust them enough that I adapt to what they want.
What types of sets do you prefer to work on? What have you enjoyed most in your work as a cinematographer?
One of the biggest reasons I wanted to be a cinematographer was because every set is different. Don't get me wrong. You'll have the similar lighting designs and getting similar coverage in each film, but then there could be one scene that is completely new and exciting. I especially love working on sets where I get to experiment doing new things visually. For instance, this year I shot a film using only practical lights at night time, which was the most fun I've had lighting. I was able to study lightbulbs more in depth before investing in ones I would need and was able to collaborate even more heavily with the art department when it came to purchasing and choosing lamps to use. In another instance, I got to experiment with candlelight, which had its own challenges, ones I never had to worry about when it came to lighting a scene with only cinema lights. These new experiences that are present in every film shoot is what keeps me eager to be a cinematographer.
How do you craft a cohesive visual style across a film?
A lot of cohesive visual styles come from preproduction. You look at how two characters interact on the page and, from that, you can see their personalities. For example, let’s say one is sharp and straight edge; the other is free and open. Now you can craft a lighting motif where you light one character using edges and shapes in the shadows while you light the other one with a soft and rounded light. Now, how you're lighting them is a subliminal aesthetic visual representation of their character. This is obviously an example, but it speaks of the process better than I could. It's also important to look at the world around these characters and use that as a guide. They live in a poor and rural area? Give the film a look that utilizes brown and fadedness that really sells that tone. Talking with the director about these things and getting a sense of the story that they want to tell really helps when crafting a cohesive visual style.
Are you working on anything right now?
Over the summer I have a few projects lined up that I'll be director of photography for. Aside from that, I'm in preproduction for a film of my own that I'll be directing in the fall. I'm not sure which of the those I'm more excited about.
Do you have any advice for those looking for work in the cinematography field? What is a common mistake cinematographers make and how can they avoid it?
I feel a lot of mistakes I've seen other cinematographers make is not being involved enough in preproduction. Scout these locations with the directors. Make lighting designs and shot lists in your head while you're there. Take photos to recall the spaces. Not only will these things make for a quicker set-up time come shoot day, but it will also give you more opportunity to craft every shot before showing up to set. You have a huge white wall at that location? Oh well, but at least you have three weeks to obsess over how you'll make it look interesting versus showing up the day-of and having to improvise.
What Directors of Photographers inspire you?
Which directors of photography inspire me? Oof. This one is the hardest questions for me. There's a lot of director of photography friends of mine that inspire me and a lot of Ohio University Film alumni that really inspired me in the beginning. I wouldn't be pursuing what I am without them. On a household name level, it's easy to say Roger Deakins, but also Ellen Kuras, Michael Slovis, and Peter Deming. And out of fear of spouting off too many people, I'll stop there.