LA based cinematographer Joshua Reis has shot some of the biggest music videos in the industry and recently shot Justin Bieber's 'What Do You Mean' music video alongside long time collaborator Brad Furman.
Q. When did you decide you wanted to be a cinematographer?
A. My transition into cinematography was slow and gradual. I guess its best to answer by first explaining that it all started back in High School when I enrolled in a multimedia class. At the time, DV cameras were just beginning to trickle down to the prosumer market. I invested in a Canon XL1 DV videocamera. I was the first kid in my school to have a MAC and video capture card system running a 4 TB SCSI RAID system. I taught myself Photoshop, After Effects, and Premiere. This stuff was really cutting edge and I was really getting into motion graphics. It wasn’t until I attended USC (University of Southern California) Fine Arts, that my focus drifted towards photography. Yup, I applied to film school three times, but never was accepted. However, I worked on student films so I was dappling between the Fine Art and Cinema student social groups.
I don’t think it was until my junior year that I found my calling to be a Cinematographer. I shot my first 35mm music video for a friend and the video turned out really well. I was excited and because of my fine art emphasis in photography, I really understood the film negative, color temperatures, filters, and how to use a light meter. So essentially everything that I had learned in photography, was applicable to lighting for motion pictures. Everything else, I learned working on set student films.
So it wasn’t until my senior year that I knew I wanted to become a cinematographer. So I was about to graduate with a BA in Fine art and only had a couple of projects on my DP reel. Earning a MFA was financially unrealistic for me so I knew that I had to come up with a creative strategy. I used my motion graphics skills to earn a living while camera assisting on the side. I would DP for friends on shorts, low budget music videos, and green screen shoots. Essentially things took off from there as I built a DP reel.
Q. Do you think it’s important for filmmakers to study at an institution?
A. If you don’t get into film school, there is hope. I think its equally important to get an education, earn a BA or AA degree. It really does come down to how you apply yourself. While at USC, I did earn a minor in Cinema. However, I think the greatest benefit of attending film school is learning about film theory and networking with peers. The relationships that you build in school will be your bridges to a career in the future. I really think the motion picture industry is all about networking and as a cinematographer, your reel is a close second. Becoming a DP is super competitive. Talent and discipline are important, but luck is definitely a required ingredient to building a career. Sometimes its all about being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right person who is going to give you your first opportunity.
Q. What was the first big music video that you worked on? Can you remember how it felt at the time?
A. My first professional music video was probably “All The Way Turn't Up” Roscoe Dash ft. Soulja Boy. I had shot dozens of videos prior to this video, but this was probably the first job that my agent was able to showcase and get me some gigs outside of my personal network.
Q. When you work on a music video, do you brainstorm ideas with the director about the concept of the cinematography or is the idea pre-conceptualised by the artist or their marking team and you just have to shoot it?
A. Every director has a different style and way for approaching a job. Some directors provide a detailed shot-list, look-book, treatment, and know what they want. Meanwhile, some directors approach you as a collaborator and are looking for varying levels of input. In music videos, typically we are scouting a day or two prior to filming, so there isn’t much time for a prolonged or creative dialog. A lot of the time you have to go with your instincts. As a Cinematographer, you must always remember that the director is the boss and its your job as the DP to execute their vision. Meanwhile, we must function within the means of the budget and time limitations set by the producer. So in my opinion, a DP is a middleman for managing the resources on set all the while being creative.
Every job is different. Prior to working with any artist, I like to do my research. I look at their previous music videos and or marketing material. After reading the treatment, I typically like to have a creative dialog with the director. This is when I get a better sense for colors, lenses, and techniques that they may want to employ. Next, production takes us on a scout and this is when I like to give additional input regarding shooting directions, gels, cameras, etc. Yes, I very much enjoy working repeatedly with directors. Once you collaborate with a director on a handful or projects, you become comfortable with each others decisions and I think the creativity is taken to a whole other level. I’m a firm believer that if a director and DP are a good team, their work only becomes better.
Q. You shot Justin Bieber’s ‘What Do You Mean’ music video, how did you get the chance to shoot it?
A. The Justin Bieber music video, “What Do You Mean” was a very exciting project. It was a two day shoot with a very ambitious shooting schedule and limited budget. I have worked with the director, Brad Furman, many times over the years. It’s funny, because I first met Brad working as a film loader probably around ten years ago. I worked my way up on his gigs moving from a loader, 2nd AC, 1st AC, camera operator, until I eventually started shooting for him. I typically operate everything that I shoot unless it involves Steadicam. Brad and I had just completed shooting the feature, “The Infiltrator” so I have a keen understanding for what he was looking for on this Bieber video.
Q. What was the process on lighting the 'What Do You Mean' music video?
A. Brad loves neon and vibrant gritty colors, so that was a strong influence for the music video. The gaffer and I employed a lot of low light lighting fixtures such as LED rope light and created lighting via lightning strike units. Brad wanted the video to be stylized, but everything had to feel real and motivated. We wanted the video to feel cinematic, so we framed for 2.40 widescreen on Panavision G Series anamorphic using an Alexa XT. We would set guidelines establishing a creative visual arch for the flow of the narrative. I think great filmmaking always involves employing a specific point of view. One of my favorite setups from the video is the trunk scene. It’s simple, dark, but intimate. We used two LED light rope simulating the brake lights and a small handled tungsten lighting fixture to supplement light from the cigarette lighter. Sometimes keeping things simple works best.
Q. Have you shot many music videos on film? Do you prefer the digital or film format? Why?
A. After working for a couple of years post college, I was able to save up enough funds to purchase an Arri SR2 Super 16 camera. This was prior to Red, Alexa, or even Canon 5Ds hitting the market, so owning a film camera really allowed me to experiment by shooting my own projects. I converted an Arri M camera into hand crank so I was always trying new techniques. I would run the film forward and backwards, flashing the film and testing with cross processing, push and pull processing. Today, I own a professional digital cinema camera, but I still am able to shoot film from time to time. However, I feel that the vast majority of the industry has moved away from celluloid towards digital. Digital allows for improved low light sensitivity, longer uninterrupted filming, and the benefit of seeing a pristine HD signal on set. On the other hand, film has a certain elegance about it. A lot of the look of film is determined in the photochemical process, while the look of digital has a lot to do with LUTs and post processing algorithms. I think its important for DP's to learn about both processes. I hope to be shooting both film and digital long into the future.
Q. What is the best advice that you have ever received? And what is the best advice that you could give to aspiring cinematographers?
A. If I had any advice for aspiring cinematographers it would be three things. First, keep up with the technology, both new and old. Cameras, lighting units, and post workflows are experiencing rapid change. These tools will empower you as a cinematographer, but new doesn’t always mean better. Second, I think its important to have a good solid understanding of film theory and history. This knowledge will empower you to make the proper creative decisions. Third, the best way is to get out there and shoot. Make mistakes and learn. Be inspired and build a reel. filmmaking is extremely accessible.