Something I really love about our Spotlight series is that it teaches us how we can learn a little something from our peers. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that you never stop learning! This series has given great opportunity to grow as a filmmaker, allowing us to compare our skills and techniques with others, while also seeing just how vast our community is! This is why I’m so glad that our focus of this week is Les Gaddis! Les is not only a hell of a great cinematographer, but also a great guy. He’s been a member of the Inner Circle since 2009, and has been a cornerstone in the community.
Our team sat down with Les and picked his brain about cinematography and working in the industry. Check it out below!
- What is a ‘cinematographer’ to you?
A cinematographer to me is so much more than just composing a shot and picking gear for a project. Being able to communicate with the director, crew, and communicate to the audience through camera movement and lighting is what sets great cinematographers apart from the rest. I’m always working on becoming a more effective communicator.
- Les, how do you work with a Director to identify the shots you’ll need?
I’m a very visual person. So for me, creating look books and having visual examples that I can share with the director helps a ton. I use Pinterest Boards quite a bit. You can create a board with all your pins/images, make it secret, and invite the director. It takes little time to set up and I’ve found that to be extremely effective.
- What are some things you learned early on that continue to shape and inform your process?
One really helpful tip that was given to me early on was “put your lights where the sources are.” It really helped when I was starting out and trying to figure out lighting. This also takes the guesswork out of what will look natural because you are just accenting what light is already there. I still use this sometimes when I’m thrown a curveball or under a time crunch.
- How did you become a cinematographer? What was the moment you knew you wanted to become a cinematographer?
I started as a second shooter covering events when I was 15 and thought that it would be cool to work on movies for a living. I initially wanted to be an editor but whenever I found myself behind the camera, that’s when my passion for filming really showed. So I went to the Art Institute of Dallas to learn video production, read blogs literally every day on filmmaking, and just learned as much as I could.
- Can you walk us through your process of creating a shot list and who you collaborated with along the way?
Creating a shot list and the process usually depends on the project. Some directors like to collaborate and talk through a shot list. Others just tell me to handle it. If i’m creating the shot list, i’ll usually go into seclusion. I turn off my phone, tv, or any other distractions. I’ll mark up the script with notes that apply, then almost go into a meditative type state where I visualize the scenes. That usually takes time to get to that place but i’ve found that when I take time to do that, it really helps the story come together.
- When you’re shooting an exterior scene, how do you plan your shot list in order to maximize daylight?
When I’m planning exterior scenes, I try to avoid filming at noon. Being in Texas, that’s when it’s the hottest. The sun is directly over you and it usually takes time and crew to control all that light. I use “Helios” on the iphone which is a sun tracking app, kind of like Sunseeker. Before the shoot and during the scout, I map out where the sun is going to be and do my best to plan on working with the sun instead of against it.
(The Helios App.)
- How do you determine when to stick with your shot list vs. improvising on set?
I usually try to stick to the shot list to make sure that we get all the coverage we need for the scene. If we are under time restraints, that’s when I start thinking about consolidating shots to make up time.
- Do you use storyboards? Why or why not? When do you find storyboards to be most effective and when do you feel they’re a hindrance?
I’m not a fan of storyboards. I think they look cool. I find that whenever storyboards are involved, that usually takes away a lot of the creative freedom you have on set because you are locked into the boards. Also, sometimes the storyboards don’t account for setup time, and location restrictions.
- A lot of young cinematographers equate good images with good cameras. Do you agree or disagree with this belief and why?
I don’t equate good images with good cameras. The camera is a tool. Having a great camera will make getting good images a little easier. But those really great images come from cinematographers that use the camera as one of many tools to visualize a story.
- Follow up: How important is the camera itself to you and how do you choose what camera you want to shoot with?
As I’ve grown as a cinematographer, i’ve noticed that the camera has become less important as I’ve focused much more on lenses, lighting, production design, etc. Because I own a camera, usually the client wants to use that on a project and sometimes it’s hard to steer them away from that.
- How important are lenses, and what are the qualities and aspects of a lens you look at in determining what you want to use?
Lenes play such a huge role in the look of your project. I’m such a lens nerd. I’ve done and watched hundreds of hours of lens test. Some of the characteristics I look for in a lens are: sharpness, color shifting, what it does to skin tones, and how it makes me feel. Sometimes the best lens is the one that just feels right for a project.
- How important is light to the quality and emotion of a shot/scene?
Lighting is very important in communicating the emotion of a scene. It can help direct an audience’s focus and also create depth. Understanding how light reacts to certain materials, skin tones, and modifiers is something that every cinematographer should know.
- Where did you learn to light? Do you use lighting diagrams?
I learned the most about lighting from Shane. I’ve been following the blog since 2009. There was also a lot of trial and error. For the longest time, I just experimented and hoped that I could create something that didn’t suck.
- What is one specific lesson that you learned from Shane that you applied to your latest work? Do you have another example?
One lesson I learned from Shane was lighting night exteriors and also creating moon light. That’s something that early on I struggled with.
Here is a campfire scene I shot for a short film called “Elements of Us. The character in this scene is looking at a “mysterious figure” that appears in the fire. The actress is represented on the lighting plot by the blue icon. I used light proximity to give me the results I was looking for. I didn’t really have the gear or crew to throw up frames and pound light through them. A few weeks before I filmed this project I did a few test and ultimately agreed with Shane’s recipe of using Tungsten lighting, CTB dialed in to taste, and setting your WB somewhere in the 2900k-ish range.
Another concept that Shane stresses is the importance of testing. That really helped me with pre-production of the last feature I DP’d.
Here is a Character Light Study – (Unlisted but I can make public if need be)
In Shane’s Illumination Masterclass, he talked about how the same lighting can react differently to different actor’s faces based on their facial structure, skin tone, and other variables. I never really thought about that before then. I found it interesting as well how certain lens focal lengths, even from the same lens manufacturer, could have such a different effect on an actor’s appearance.
Here is a screen grab from the feature. In this scene, the main character, Malik, is reflecting about past decisions. This moment was a mixture of planning and happy accidents on set. We lit this scene during golden hour and you could see the beautiful sky peeking through the blinds. The color contrast and set design matching the sky just worked out. Looking back at the frame, I probably would have taken the backlight down a a stop or two. I lost some crew members that day and was pushed for time so had to roll with it. So is life.
- What do you consider the top 3 core skills for cinematographers to learn?
I think I would list film theory as the top core skill. Understanding that will help with your creative decisions. Then I would list being an effective communicator. Lastly would be the technical stuff like knowing the camera, lighting, composition, etc.
- How important is the gear to achieving a great finished product? What would you recommend to filmmakers without access to top tier gear?
Having gear to use that’s easily accessible is great, but when the budget isn’t there, you gotta keep moving forward and get the shot. There are a ton of options for renting gear to get yourself familiar with it. If you don’t have the money to do that, get creative. Being innovative and coming up with solutions is such an asset as a cinematographer.
- How important is a community in growing your career? What steps have you taken to network?
Community is a huge part of growing your career. One of the best things something like film school can offer is a network of peers to grow with. Also, online communities like Shane’s Inner Circle and/or local meetup groups can really help with learning, and getting gigs. I’ve been a member of the Inner Circle since day one. Social Media makes it so easy to connect with people. You just have to nurture those relationships. I’ve also networked through my podcast, Capturing Light.
- How does your career impact your family and what tips do you have to share?
I’m extremely lucky to have married my best friend, someone that understands that work days could be 8 hours or 14 hours. Cinematography is all about paying attention to the little details. I’ve found that I’ve been better at paying attention to life off set in general with my wife and daughter. It’s hard to balance work and life, especially as a creative, but that’s something that I would recommend creatives work on. It’s really easy to let this industry consume all of your time.
- Shooting in markets other than LA? What is easier? What is more difficult?
I’m currently based in Dallas and have had challenges just like everyone else finding work at times. There isn’t a place that’s easiest to become a cinematographer. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication. Everywhere has its own challenges. Networking and getting yourself out there in your own market is so important. Being flexible and having the ability to travel to other cities/countries is equally important. A lot of cinematographers, myself included, do more work than you would think outside of their market.
- Communication with the crew. What is your process and what works well?
Shot list and lighting plots are usually the way I communicate with the crew. Being pleasant on set goes a long way. You get call backs for other gigs if you play well with others. Treating everyone with respect on set goes a long way.
I want to make sure to take the time and thank Shane, Lydia, and the Hurlbut Visuals team for all the hard work it takes to create educational content and the Inner Circle community.
We’ll keep on creating the best content we can for our members. A BIG thank you to Les for giving us some of his time to tell us more about his process. Like Les said, and I’m sure you heard it from me now and again, learning is about making mistakes. It’s about understanding through trial and error, but it’s also about being part of a community where it’s all about helping one another grow! Working well with others on and off set goes a long way! So, we’re pleased to hear about Les’ experience in the Inner Circle. Make sure to check out Les’ podcast, Capturing Light.
If you want to see how some of our other members are doing, or look into some different approaches, check out more of our Spotlights.