May 20, 2015 by Louisa Jelkmann
Jesse Eisenhardt loves to tell good stories and this is exactly why he became an award-winning Cinematographer. Besides shooting features, broadcast television, and projects for clients such as Google, Yahoo, and eBay, he also finds the time to shoot short movies that have a knack for going viral
Production Paradise: When did your interest in film begin?
Jesse: I have always been drawn to the idea of making movies ever since I was a kid, but it wasn’t until college when I realized that I could actually make a career out of it. I wavered on this decision for a while, until one day it just hit me: Of course I wanted to be a filmmaker! When I enrolled at the University of Southern California for the graduate film production program, I had to frequently pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, because I couldn’t believe just how much fun I was having every day.
Production Paradise: What was your route to become a Director of Photography?
At USC, there were many opportunities to be the DP on my classmates’ directing projects, and the more I would shoot, the more I realized how much I loved being behind the camera. As I gained experience, I branched out to start working professionally as a gaffer in Los Angeles, soaking up as much knowledge as I could from other DPs. Soon, the DP work started rolling in, and I retired my set gloves for good.
Production Paradise: How would you describe the visual identity you give your work?
Jesse: My visual identity has many faces, and is driven entirely by the project. My style can range from a classical, glamorous, and highly composed scene for one spot, to a rough, handheld, natural look for another. The story drives everything – the angles, the lens choice, the lighting, and I’m flexible in my aesthetic to enhance the story and the director’s vision.
Production Paradise: How important has it been for you to shoot short films in addition to commercial projects?
Jesse: Shooting shorts in addition to commercials helps keep my storytelling skills fresh and lets the creativity flow. Commercials are challenging in a specific way because you are typically limited by certain factors, like running time, safe framing, etc. With a short, sometimes the only limits are your creativity, and the budget! Both types of shooting are always exciting, but filming shorts brings me back to my film school roots.
Production Paradise: You shot the short film “It is Not About the Nail” (directed by Jason Headley), why do you think was it such a viral sensation?
Jesse: Filming “Its Not About the Nail” was a really exciting and eye-opening experience. For one, it was one of the quickest shoots I’ve been on, from pre-production through post. We had a tiny crew and shot the whole thing in a half day. There was no room (or time) for anything fancy. No dolly moves, no steadicam – just a 5D and some kino flos. It can be tempting to try to add a whole bunch of flair, but I would argue this script did better without it. Second, to see the amazing Internet response was jaw-dropping. None of us had any idea while were filming that it would become a viral hit. A lot went right with this project–a great script, good acting and directing, a simple, universal story (that anyone who has been in a relationship can understand), and it wasn’t a second longer than it needed to be; this all made it very easy for people to forward around on the Internet.
Production Paradise: When starting on a new project, drama or commercial, what is it that you need to consider to create the desired mood?
Jesse: First, I’ll read the script once through and try not to think about how to film it, just take in the story, the characters, almost reading it like a novel. I want to feel the emotion of the script first, before making any decisions. The second time through, I’ll start taking notes, writing down questions, coming up with shot ideas, and visual concepts. And after that, I’ll present these ideas to the director, and start assembling some visual references so we can find a common ground for the look we are aiming to achieve. I look for anything visual, movies, photos, magazines, music videos, those all can be really key to finding that right look. Then, when we are on set, I always leave room for improvisation, because you need to be ready to adjust to any changes. Often times once I start setting up a scene on set, no matter how much planning has gone into it already, we will find some way to make it better.
Production Paradise: What’s the most outstanding piece of gear you’ve used recently that other DoP’s are going to go crazy for?
Jesse: There are so many amazing filmmaking tools out there now, it is hard to single out just one. So I’ll choose a post-production tool that I absolutely love, and that is DaVinci Resolve. As a cinematographer these days, there are such powerful digital tools available, that it’s essential to understand what you can do on set versus in post. Knowing the capabilities of a color grading suite like Resolve gives me a huge amount of power to be able to “sweeten” things later (I try not to use the term “color correction” too much because really, we aren’t correcting as much as we are just achieving or enhancing the look we had planned for). Especially with the ubiquity of cameras that offer log or RAW recording formats, now the latitude to perfect the image is just phenomenal. And in a way, it gives me a similar excitement to seeing dailies back when I would shoot film. Now I look forward to the color session because it’s the first time we are really going to see what we intended the piece to look like.
Production Paradise: What’s up next for you?
Jesse: In addition to continuing to shoot commercials and shorts in and around San Francisco, I have another project with Jason Headley in the works, and I’m signed on to shoot a feature horror film in Michigan later this year.
We would like to thank Jesse Eisenhardt for taking the time to speak with us. You can see more of his work on his website and in our latest Showcase San Francisco. Find more about Jesse Eisenhardt and other DOPs, directors, film production companies and more in San Francisco film directory.
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