How To Light Interviews with DP Chris Mckechnie

How To Light Interviews with DP Chris Mckechnie

A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of talking with my friend Chris Mckechnie, who is an extremely talented and experienced Cinematographer based in Dallas, Texas. Chris made the move from LA to Dallas in recent years and has been enjoying the change of pace as well as the opportunity to work in a less saturated market.

Our conversation revolved around a free PDF booklet that Chris shared on social media earlier in 2019. DVE Store found this full interview lighting resource on a Blackmagic Camera Facebook users group, and we were impressed at the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the video lighting techniques in his booklet. In the booklet, Chris breaks down his approach to lighting video interviews – aka “talking heads” -- as well as what’s going on in his head when he lights a scene.

Our conversation gave me a lot of insight into how he approaches film lighting for specific scenes and working on collaborative projects. Our over-the-phone interview ended up being 1 hour and 45 minutes long, so I will be going through the main takeaways from our conversation, highlighting some key questions and answers. Video recordings of our interview can also be found on my YouTube page.

Getting his start

Chris got his start in the film industry at the age of eight years old. His Dad owned a “multi-million dollar a year, 63 employee production house” which focused mostly on visual effects and high end commercials. Chris, describes being on set a lot. When I asked him to give me an estimate of the amount of interview sets he has worked on, he told me that “It’s insane. If you count [from] when I was eight to now, I’m about to be 37, it’s a lot.”

Being able to work on plenty of interview sets over the years, he’s learned that adding contrast in his lighting and being intentional about which lenses he chooses has a huge impact on producing a pleasing image and can make the subject look more flattering on screen. “I used to always front light and blast the talent with light. Nowadays, less is more.”

Chris prefers working on narrative and scripted content although interviews and wedding videos is where he got his start. “Wedding filmmaking, interviews, corporate, that’s kind of the wheelhouse that most filmmakers start in and so it’s just a matter of making it look different and kind of putting your mark on it.”

“Interviews can sometimes be the most challenging because you have to make the visual appealing because a lot of those pieces are talking head. So, how can you break the mold? How can you make it engaging?”

“When you show up, their jaws are to the floor and they’re like ‘Oh my gosh this looks amazing’, then you know you’re doing your job right.” Chris’s idea of “less is more” with lighting reflects his philosophy of what makes a stellar DP as well, commenting that directors and production companies hire you because of your expertise. “I’m hiring this person because they’re going to make this look good”. Not being spread thin, but narrowing your focus to a specialization will allow you to be an expert at your craft, which will make you more valuable and more likely to get hired.

Although currently working as a freelancer full time, he did try working more regular, 9-5 type jobs a few times in his life, but Cinematography eventually drew him back in.

“I became a cop at one point because I thought I wanted to do that. It was fun, but I missed being creative, so I came back to cinematography, and I went off after the high, high end clientele, got myself a RED, and I used that as bait to attract the bigger clients. I’ve been working independently with my Dad the last 10-15 years.”

Chris’s advice to young aspiring filmmakers is to get their hands dirty by creating and getting experience on set.

“Film school’s great and that’s for some people, but honestly the best experience you’ll have is actually on set[...] You’re gonna learn more faster[…] Take the money you would use for film school, and put it into creating your own content[…] That’s what a lot of filmmakers and directors are doing now is foregoing film school and they’re just creating content.”

In the age of the smartphone, creating content couldn’t be more convenient.

“We all have cameras in our pockets now… I love it, it’s great for our industry.”

Q: What draws you to the craft of Cinematography?

A: I love telling stories and I’m a visual person. I don’t like reading books, I like just watching content. It’s interesting to see how I’ve evolved over even like the past couple years. It’s funny because I’ll watch content that I’ve shot or been a part of, even 2-3 years ago and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh that’s garbage, I can’t believe I shot that!’ It’s almost like our cinematography is progressing as quickly as technology is.

I just love cinematography and I love crafting an image. Lighting, shaping[…] coming alongside a director, or a production house or whomever is in charge of the production[…] I want to try and get inside their head to figure out ‘Okay how are they envisioning this and how can I help bring that to life?’[…] I love being a part of that[…] Every project is different, and so that’s great too. You kind of implement some of the same lighting techniques sometimes, but overall every project is different and unique. I love the challenge, I love just the diversity of content that I get to work on and be a part of.

Q: How do you approach giving content that you work on as long of a shelf life as possible?

A: I think people sometimes get caught up in gear, and I’m one of them! I’m absolutely one of them. And with the gimble, I think it’s just being over-used like crazy. And again, I was one of them that would just always have the camera on the gimble.

Typically in cinematography, you want to utilize camera movement, lens choice, to help better tell your story, and if it’s just a blanket, ‘Oh hey, we’re just going to have the camera on the gimble all the time’, then those shots don’t become as impactful, they don’t really help tell your story because it’s like the same ol’ same ol’ over and over again. Same with slow motion. Typically you would use slow motion, especially in scripted content, hardly ever[…] Now it’s just getting over used and people get caught up on, ‘Oh it doesn’t shoot 120p slow motion?’ How often are you really going to use that for anything? You look at major feature films, hardly ever do they ever implement slow motion.

Youtube is really sort of driving our industry in the sense of, it’s a free platform that [fimmakers] can engage their audience on and publish content and people view it, so that’s kind of driving our industry in a way that is kind of shaping it obviously. Now, everyone’s a filmmaker with more affordable cameras than there ever used to be. It’s great for our industry, but also too, you have this endless supply of filmmakers that are coming up through Youtube and they’re doing their own thing, which kind of hurts some of the other cinematographers, the high level guys, because they’re like, ‘Oh, I can pay this guy 500 bucks or whatever and they’ll shoot an entire commercial for me.’

I’m always on Youtube, watching and learning and seeing what’s working, what’s not, and watching movies.

Q: Do you normally have pre-production meetings for interview shoots?

A: That’s more dependent on the scope or scale of the project. If you’re interviewing high profile clientele, like actors or actresses, then typically that comes with a bigger crew, more pre-production. Let’s say you’re working for a local business or something. You most likely won’t have pre-production just because they don’t want to pay you for it just because their budget’s limited. I would say it’s probably half and half. Half I get to scout and talk with the director, be heavily involved with pre-production, and the other half I just show up on set and try to make movie magic so to speak. Whenever you walk into a space, not just for interviews but for anything, I just try and see what is already there and what can you use to your benefit. Because the less stuff you have to bring in, A, it’s less work for you, and B, it will feel more believable because you are using what’s already in the space.

Q: Do you try to reproduce the look of natural light sources in a scene or augment it?

A: Obviously, the goal of any cinematographer is to make the lighting feel believable, or not fake. So that, I think, is the biggest challenge, is making it feel like it’s there and not augmenting it[…] the more you augment and shape and control, sometimes, it starts to pull people out of the story and they’re distracted by the production.[…] when you bring in less units, then it’s going to feel more and look more believable because you’re doing less augmentation. I try and look at where the natural light is coming from, play off of practicals, and [ask] how can we add depth to the scene as much as possible.

Q: Do you feel like Texas is a good fit for you and that you’re one of the only guys on your level there?

A: There are talented people here for sure, however in LA guys like me are a dime a dozen. LA and New York, those are the two headquarters for our industry. In Dallas, there are some [DPs], but not nearly as many. The problem though, is clients out here in Dallas don’t necessarily need the high, high level people because [generally] their project is corporate, or for a church, so sometimes it can be a challenge to get the high level work, and so it’s more like, “oh, we don’t want to pay somebody that much per day, so we’ll hire somebody else”. That’s a battle that every freelancer goes with. Our industry is a roller coaster and it’s either feast or famine. Sometimes it’s like, “Oh my gosh I’m not gonna have enough money to pay my mortgage”, and then God provides. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I would love consistent income, and I’ve done the full-time stuff. I just hated it so much. I was freelance for so long and then I went full time for a short stint and I absolutely hated it. I didn’t have the freedom of freelance to work on jobs that I wanted and turn down those that I didn’t. It was a typical 9-5 job and I absolutely hated it. My family got used to having me home. It was just a different lifestyle and I couldn’t do it anymore so I came back to freelance. While it’s a roller coaster, I wouldn’t have it any other way because I get to spend time with my family. Being more centrally located, the family gets to come with me on trips because we’re in Dallas now. I’ve done jobs in Oklahoma, Nashville, Houston, we’re very centrally located.

Q: Can you talk about utilizing a handheld camera to get more bang for your buck? (see photos above)

A: Whenever I shoot handheld, typically I’m on an Easyrig or a cheaper knockoff version of the Easyrig. People complain about [In Body Image Stabilization] or lack thereof in all these cameras that are coming out, the more affordable cameras. A common complaint is when people say “Oh, it doesn’t have IBIS, I can’t shoot with it”. Well, those [more affordable cameras] are smaller cameras and they need IBIS, because the heavier you go with a camera system, the more stable it is because there’s just more inertia that needs to be involved in order to move it. These frames I all shot on an Easyrig. It’s actually a cheaper version, you can get them for like $650 on eBay. Easyrig makes amazing devices and they’re well worth it, but for those indie filmmakers who can’t afford a $4,000 handheld support system, then you can get the cheaper version on eBay. This [project] is using that system.

I shot anamorphic on this with the RED Helium 8k. While shooting 8k, this does not feel like it’s 8k resolution because, again, I’m shooting anamorphic, knocking it down, it feels more filmic. You have the beautiful distortion like the hand shot. Anamorphic is great. And you can go cheap on the anamorphic by shooting the scope route, which is basically like a projection lens that you put on the front of your taking lens, and that’s what this is here, it’s like a custom anamorphic projection lens. You’ll get a similar result like Lomo anamorphics which are typically like $15,000, whereas this one is like $2500. And you don’t have to buy multiple of them because you have your taking lenses already, and then you just put this thing on the front, and then boom, you have anamorphic, and then you just swap out your taking lenses to change the focal length.

Run and gun

I love camera movement. I feel that shooting handheld puts the viewer more in the scene. It feels less produced and non-stabilized. It’s not like crazy shaking, but there’s some organic motion to it as apposed to always on the gimbal or always using IBIS, it just starts to feel “digital” and so I like putting the viewer in the moment as much as possible. And yeah, I’ll use sticks from time to time, but more often than not, I’m going the handheld route. And if you have a bigger system like RED or something like that, then an Easyrig of some sort helps to create that stability because it’s adding another point of contact on your body and it’s utilizing your frame. When you’re rocking just a Gh5 or something that doesn’t have IBIS, then typically you don’t need something like [the Easyrig], but even with a Gh5 or a Blackmagic Pocket 4k or 6k, I’ll even still use the Easyrig because it doesn’t have IBIS and you can do some parallax stuff, you can really add some organic movement that isn’t crazy jittery.

Honestly, I prefer the look of an Easyrig versus the look of a gimbal because everyone’s doing it and it’s just getting so overused nowadays. It used to be “That’s an amazing aerial shot!”, or “That’s an amazing tracking shot!”, but we’ve seen it so much, that it has no impact on the story really, because they just overuse it and everyone’s a pilot and everyone’s a gimbal operator because you don’t need much experience to operate those things. Utilize movement to help tell your story. And again, I was absolutely caught up on that bandwagon of always having it on the gimbal. I get burned out on that type of stuff, and you want to change things up because you don’t want any product to be cookie cutter. “I’m just gonna throw it on the gimbal and shoot every shot on the gimbal”. Well then it becomes cookie cutter, right?

Q: Do you have a certain set of lenses you like to use for interviews? 

A: So I shot the music video “Sonora” [with] Finn Wolfard, he’s from Stranger Things. He wants to be a director and he’s amazing. He’s so incredibly talented and so humble. You work with a lot of celebrities who are just exactly the opposite, and once they have that star power, they don’t treat you well. So it’s always nice when you have a very high profile celebrity who’s down to earth and humble and just talks to you, so [Finn’s] amazing.

This entire music video was shot on the Lomo series. And again, high, powerful sensor, that was the [RED] Epic, and vintage glass. It really creates a unique look that more [closely] replicates film. If you have a Gh5 with Panasonic lenses, there’s so much in-camera sharpening already going on and then you put sharp glass on the front of it, it just starts to look more like video or more “digital”. If you shoot film, that’s sharp, but it’s not like crazy sharp. Now, I will always shoot on vintage glass no matter what camera I’m shooting on, just because it just looks so much more organic. Then I’ll add film grain because people nowadays are trying to replicate film. The sensors are great, but they’re just too sharp and people are caught up in resolution and 8k and 6k and all this other stuff. 2k is plenty sufficient, and most movies are still screened in 2k. So the higher resolution you go, the more you need to knock that down, and you have better bokeh, you have better subject/background isolation or separation because it’s more progressive as apposed to just pin-tac sharp to crazy out-of-focus. Almost all vintage glass is lower contrast, and so you’ll have a better highlight blooming than you would like a sharp digital lens, like a Canon L series or something like that.

On Shooting Anamorphic 

Anamorphic Shooters on Facebook, it’s a Facebook group of about 10,000 members. If you’re interested in getting into anamorphic, that’s a great place to start. You can get cheap anamorphic scopes that will give you this look without paying 15,000 dollars per lens for something anamorphic. I’m a part of that group, there’s a lot of members on there, and people ask questions on the forums, and it’s a great place to learn about anamorphic if you’ve never shot it. It’s a great place, it’s where I learned about the cost-effective way of doing and shooting anamorphic, because anamorphic is a big craze right now that’s going on and a lot of people like shooting anamorphic, but typically, anamorphic lenses are crazy expensive and so it deters a lot of people. But, if you got an anamorphic scope and a single focus solution, then you can produce imagery like that. Quite honestly, most people cannot discern the difference between anamorphic scope and vintage lomo anamorphics or Kowa anamorphics or something like that because it gives you a very similar rendition. Obviously, master prime anamorphics, those are crazy sharp and those look different, but when you’re shooting anamorphic, you’re not going for “Crazy sharp”, you’re going for the distortion and the softness that anamorphic gives you.

Low budget interview setup with the Forza 60s:

Chris Mckechnie 


IG: @redepicguy

29th Jan 2020 Thomas Lefotu

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