Cinematographer Ryan E. Walters talks about how the role of DP is evolving, how to rig a Red to a helicopter, and where the market is headed for filmmakers.
Aimee Baldridge: You launched your own business in 1998. Has the role of director of photography (DP) evolved since then, as technology and the market have changed?
Ryan E. Walters: Yes, the role of DP has definitely changed. When I first began working as a production assistant, DPs came in and played that one role in the camera department. There were fewer cameras to choose from and fewer options available, so they had a much deeper knowledge of all the tools because of the limited selection. Now it seems like every other day a new camera system is coming out, and DPs are being pressed to be more involved in the post end of things.
As budgets get smaller, the challenge becomes knowing where to place your focus. As you’re pressed to do more, there’s only so much time and money, so how do you put those resources in the correct places? The more time I spend on the post end of things, the more that takes away from what happens on set. Figuring out how much time and energy to put into all the different aspects of what I'm asked to do as well as how to develop those skill sets, and then balancing that with what I'm actually interested in, and trying to figure out how to monetize all that is definitely a tricky balance.
AB: Is there a big range in terms of the scale of the productions you work on?
Ryan E. Walters: Oh yeah. This month I was working on a project where it was just me and the director and the producer, for a little corporate internal piece. So I was in charge of running cameras, and setting up lights, and helping out—essentially being in three different roles on set. And then this last week, I was doing shoots for a feature with a crew of eight or nine.
Ryan E. Walters riding the rails on a mid-size shoot.
AB: How do the logistics change when you have very few people but you're still trying to do a professional production?
Ryan E. Walters: The tools that I use change a lot depending on the size of the production. If it's a small crew, then I'm going to be looking for tools that are light and easy to set up, that don't cause me a lot of hassle, that are portable, that won't break my back. These days, cameras are so small and light that having a small crew is not as big a deal. Even just five years ago, all the cameras were a lot bigger and heavier, so it was a lot more difficult working on a smaller crew.
It's also about planning everything in advance during the preproduction process so that everybody's expectations are at the right level. A smaller crew means it's going to take me longer to do everything myself, because I'm in charge of the camera, lighting, and grip.
AB: Do you own a lot of gear, or do you rent most of it?
Ryan E. Walters: I own some lighting and grip gear. I’ve found that you need to have that around for smaller productions. I’ve owned various cameras over the years, but with the technology changing so quickly I’ve found that there's a lot more I can do with the projects that I'm working on if I can just rent. Owning a higher-end camera system just creates lots of overhead and less flexibility. I want to match the appropriate camera to the project rather than trying to force a camera choice just because I own something.
AB: How do you get familiar enough with cameras that you're renting when you don't have them available all the time?
Ryan E. Walters: That's where relationships with rental houses come in really handy. They make money when I rent from them, and they want me to feel comfortable with what I'm renting. So I can go to them and get my hands on the gear. It’s a great way to build those relationships as well as get the information and experience you need.
Ryan E. Walters behind the camera.
AB: What kinds of cameras do you shoot with these days?
Ryan E. Walters: I've been shooting with the GH2, 7D, 5D, and C300 recently. Last week I shot with the Red One MX. I've shot a lot with the Epic. Recently I've been doing a lot of shooting with the ARRI Alexa. So, everything from $1,000 cameras to $100,000 camera packages.
AB: Is customization ever an issue because when you rent smaller cameras they don’t come with your personal rig that's set up just the way you want it?
Ryan E. Walters: That is definitely one of my frustrations with the smaller cameras, because the smaller cameras get, the more standard accessories get taken out. So then you have to figure out how to rig them up so you can actually work with them. Everybody's working style tends to be a little bit different as far as what accessories you want and how you want the camera configured to fit your own shooting style. What I’ve done to get around that is invest in some camera support rigs and accessories so that I know I've got everything I need to make the smaller cameras fit with my own personal style of working.
AB: So you buy the rig and rent the camera?
Ryan E. Walters: Yeah, because a lot of the little rigs can be moved from camera to camera. If I know I can rig a camera to fit my own shooting style I'm much more comfortable.
AB: What's the smallest kit you travel with?
Ryan E. Walters: A DSLR packed into a backpack, several lenses, a lightweight tripod, and a little audio kit. With that kind of kit, I would mostly be shooting run-and-gun documentary work.
AB: What tools do you think people who are starting out with a DSLR and building a small kit should learn about to be able to shoot better?
Ryan E. Walters: I really appreciated learning how to use a light meter. I can go out to a location and take all my readings, and know how my camera's going to behave and what kind of tools I'll need to bring along with me in order to make it all work.
Anything with multipurpose functions is key, especially on a smaller production. If I have to play multiple roles, the Induro Hi-Hat is super helpful because it functions as a high hat and as a low hat. It's one small piece of kit that I can bring along with me and get multiple uses out of. Sliders have been super helpful to me. I've been using one recently by MYT Works, and they have been able to position them so they move with a dolly shot or in a vertical position, and I can make it look like a little jib shot. But it's just one small, light piece of gear that I can get a lot of use out of.
AB: What's the largest kit that you travel with in terms of what you actually have to bring and not what you might rent on location?
Ryan E. Walters: I’ve had to travel a couple of times with the Red One, like for a gig we did in Alaska for the Discovery Channel. That was a larger camera package. The camera body's weight is about 12 pounds, and by the time you have it all kitted out, the pack is about 30 pounds or so. We brought a small grip package along for that as well as stabilization gear, because we were mounting the camera to a helicopter.
Ryan E. Walters on location in Alaska.
AB: What were you shooting in Alaska?
Ryan E. Walters: An installation of power lines that were going across uninhabited Alaska. We were filming crews that were barging all the structures in and then flying. They had these massive helicopters that would lift the telephone poles and all the wires. It was quite an impressive feat to watch.
Ryan E. Walters shooting with a Red by helicopter.
AB: How did you shoot from helicopters?
Ryan E. Walters: That was all kinds of fun. We had a good relationship with the company that was installing the power lines, so we could use their helicopters. They had some really highly trained helicopter pilots who were former Air Force people.
We would do things like take the doors off the helicopters and shoot out the side, or we would rig up camera rigs to the helicopters themselves so that we could sit inside and the camera would be outside.
AB: What's the advantage of strapping the camera onto the helicopter instead of holding it while you're in the helicopter?
Ryan E. Walters: Stability and maneuverability are really what it comes down to. I just couldn't get the shot out the window without seeing windows or helicopter blades. We had to figure out another solution. If I hung out the side of a helicopter filming to get some of the angles that I wanted to have, the helicopter pilot would have to fly sideways, which is a really difficult maneuver to do while keeping the helicopter steady and smooth against any kind of winds. So we rigged the camera to the helicopter to get some of the angles and still be able to fly straight ahead.
AB: How did you make the camera stable and safe when it was strapped to a helicopter?
Ryan E. Walters: We got a little gyro system from Tyler Camera Systems that we would mount underneath the camera to remove vibrations, and then we also wrapped a big bean bag around the camera. It didn't get rid of all the vibrations, but it got rid of enough. The helicopter was moving fast enough that in the footage where we're flying over the Arctic you can't really tell there are micro vibrations. Everything changes fast enough that it isn't an issue.
Ryan E. Walters getting ready for a shoot with a helicopter-mounted camera.
AB: You’ve been traveling with Tenba’s video shoulder bag lately, right?
Ryan E. Walters: Yes, it fits really well in the overhead compartment of a plane. I've been using that mostly with DSLR gear, when I travel via plane or just go out on a smaller shoot, like a documentary project some or a smaller web spot, where I have to carry essentially the entire camera package and any little camera accessories along with me. I'll use that bag to transport everything.
What I’ve really appreciated about it is the amount of nooks and crannies and zippers and places to put everything. I can literally put my entire camera package in there and carry it with me. I don’t have to make multiple trips back and forth. I've got all the accessories that I need to make the package work for me.
Tenba bags are very well built. I don't think twice about my gear being protected.
[Read Ryan E. Walters' full review of the Tenba Roadie II HDSLR/Video Shoulder Bag here.]
Ryan E. Walters' Tenba Roadie II HDSLR/Video Shoulder Bag packed for a shoot.
AB: You seem to really be rolling with the changes. Where do you see things going in terms of the kind of work that you'll be doing in the future and how the technology is evolving?
Ryan E. Walters: For myself, I think where things are moving is toward owning more of the content. I think that's where the money's going to be in the future. Right now 90% of what I do is work for hire. When I'm done with the budget, I collect my paycheck and move on to the next project. But from what I've been seeing out in the marketplace there's definitely a bigger return if you own content. So I'm developing a training series that I'll be launching soon to train people on camera systems and lighting. It will be at www.thecinematographerseries.com. I’m also extending my stock footage portfolio.
AB: Is it better to work with a bunch of different distributors or to distribute your own content?
Ryan E. Walters: That's pretty hotly contested. I'm a big believer that it’s good to diversify. If you don't, then you're at the whim of whatever stock house you're with, and if they decide to not treat you fairly, then you kind of have to suck it up and deal with it because you have all your eggs in that one basket.
If you diversify, you're getting seen by more people, which is always a good thing, and you're never at the mercy of one stock house and how they're feeling that day.
AB: What are you looking forward to this year?
Ryan E. Walters: I’ve spent the last couple months getting ahold of more resources on how to tell better stories. So this year, I'm excited about implementing more of the craft and artistry of storytelling, rather than the technical bits. I feel I'm at the point where I know enough about the technology that it's really fading away and my work is more about the craft of storytelling and image making.
In terms of where the industry is headed, things are so much up in the air that I'm really just interested to see where they go, and figure out how to progress accordingly so that I can continue to do what I love to do.
Alaska: Skycrane from Ryan E. Walters on Vimeo.
See footage shot by helicopter in Alaska by Ryan E. Walters on Vimeo.
Ryan E. Walters is an award-winning cinematographer who travels worldwide in the pursuit of telling stories that are visually compelling. His experience includes feature films, documentaries, commercials, and shooting for Comcast, TLC, Oxygen, and the Discovery Channel. You can see more of his work and read his blog on his website. To find his training series for filmmakers, visit his Cinematographer Series site.