Interview with Cameraperson John Clemens (AUDIO)

 

Download the audio of my interview with cameraperson John Clemens.

The Second Sight offers insight and analysis on the media and entertainment industry - an often misunderstood or mischaracterized sector of the American economic and cultural landscape in the midst of its own technological and cultural shifts - from globalization and the emerging creative economy; to digital technology and the evolving aesthetic and nature of content; to the growing technological cross fertilization between media, defense, and medicine.

My name is Alexa D. O'Brien. For the next two months, we will focus our attention towards understanding the evolving nature of the below-the-line training cycle for motion picture technicians, in the face of both digital technologies and newer end to end digital workflows; and the coming of age, so to speak, of the game generation - the older cusp of which, now in their mid thirties, having finally entered their productive years as journeymen technicians and content creators.

Today, we are talking with cameraperson, John Clemens. For seventeen years now, Clemens has ac'ed and operated for directors of photography like Lance Acord (Buffalo 66 and Lost in Translation). His most recent work with Acord was on a Mercedes Benz spot that Acord shot and directed. John has also worked with Joseph Yacoe, known for his commercial and music videos work. Clemens most recent job with Yacoe included a hair product commercial with Penelope Cruz. Director of photography, Darren Lew, who has shot commercials for the likes of Clinique, Versace, Nike, and Adidas, and who began his own career as a still assistant to renowned fashion photographer, Steven Meisel, has said of John Clemens:

"I have never worked with a camera assistant who had it more in his blood than John. He has got a sixth sense for focus and a working method of military precision and consistency, it is no wonder he works with the greatest DP's from all over the world. His skill goes beyond the technical--he quietly contributes to the art of camera work each time we work together everyone else becomes second best after working with John."

John Clemens' credits include Buffalo 66, Naqoyqatsi: Life as War, and Requiem for a Dream. I am honored to have John Clemens on the line for a Second Sight pod cast interview.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Hi, John. How are you?

John Clemens

Good. How are you doing?

Alexa D. O'Brien

I'm good, thank you. John, why did you become a camera assistant?

John Clemens

I primarily became a camera assistant...I was studying photography. I studied photography my whole life. I was in college at the time, and I just felt like I wasn't getting enough of both film and photography in college. So, I left college and eventually, a number of months later, became a production assistant with hopes of moving into the camera department.

Alexa D. O'Brien

What was one of your first projects as a camera assistant?

John Clemens

I guess one of the most memorable projects...Sandy Hayes, a wonderful steadicam operator, had called me up to assist for him on a music video that we were doing. This was early on, and we were shooting, Hype Williams was directing, and I met Mike Garofalo on the set, and from that day forward I went to work with Mike as well as a second AC, and things just really flourished from there.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Sandy Hayes credits include Garden State staring Natalie Portman. In 2006, Hype Williams became the recipient of the MTV Lifetime Achievement Award, and his more recent work includes music videos like Kanye West's "Gold Digger" featuring Jamie Foxx. Mike Garofalo's has also been around for years, and his more recent credits include "Dave Chappelle's Block Party."

What is one lesson that stands out for you as you were rising through the ranks of the camera department?

John Clemens

Just maintain, stay focused. Be very even keeled, and try to keep your ears open. Listen to the director, director of photography, assistants and the other crewmembers as they are communicating; and in essence, they are all trying to get the job done, you know, fulfill an idea that is being put forth to them.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Tell me about one of your more challenging jobs?

John Clemens

You know, they have all been challenging in certain respects...in their own respects. Looking back on it, I sort of still get a little nervous on Buffalo 66, due to the fact that we were shooting Ektachrome film for that project, and we were doing clip tests for each scene; but ultimately we had most of the...I would say 90 percent of the movie in the can without developing a single stretch of film for dailies. So, that was probably the most nerve wracking project I have worked on.

Alexa D. O'Brien

How do you handle stress on a job?

John Clemens

At this point, I try not to get stressed out about much. Stress just adds another level that you really don't need to think about in the process of doing your job. You know, occasionally you will be thrown a loop...thrown into a situation where you are really fighting yourself...and stress really works against you, when you are trying to figure out an answer to a problem in a certain situation.

Alexa D. O'Brien

You mentioned Buffalo 66, are there any other projects that stand out in your memory?

John Clemens

You know, there are just so many to be honest with you. Looking back, I would really have to think at length to try to pull out the one that really sticks in my mind. They have all played a really important part through out the years.

I mean going back, Sandy Hayes and I had the opportunity to work on Woodstock, the Barbara Koppel documentary, that still hasn't been released yet. Sandy and I were on one of the crews that were send out to pick up and photograph three days of the festival all on our own; and that was just a real thrill, especially with my love for music videos as well as music.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Why do you love music videos?

John Clemens

You know, that is a great question. Probably, because I remember the first time MTV came on the air over cable; and it was just a point in my life where I was at the right age, very into music, and then it was really groundbreaking to have these wonderful commercials for songs that you absolutely love. Ultimately that is really what drove me into the film business. I really wanted to spend the rest of my days making music videos.

Alexa D. O'Brien

We seem to be at another crossroads in terms of the nature and aesthetics of content...what do you think about what is going on in music videos or shorter format for Internet distribution?

John Clemens

I think it is all very exciting. I mean, there are still a number of music videos being made, lots of features, lots of commercials. In terms of the advent of the Internet, you know, more and more, we are shooting stuff that is both for television, for commercials before movies, feature length movies in theaters, as well as for Internet content. So, it just provides, in my opinion, another great opportunity to work in the film business.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Is there a common denominator that all great AC's share?

John Clemens

I guess with anything you chose to do, I tend to believe that you choose to do something because you are really passionate about it, not so much because of the money. The money is not necessarily secondary - it is nice. Don't get me wrong. But, ultimately you have to be happy with what you do, and I think if you are passionate about anything, ultimately you will be successful.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Why are you so passionate about photography or cinematography? What is it? Have you thought about that? Do you know why you are passionate about it?

John Clemens

You know, I have been passionate about photography ever since I was a child; my grandfather teaching me photography, color photography, black and white photography. It has always been just a part of my life. So, other than that I really can't tell you much more, why I am so passionate about it, except that it has always been such a part of me.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Do great ac's approach their job differently or do they all sort of approach the job in the same way?

John Clemens

I would imagine that somebody who is successful at what they do, tend to do things just a little bit differently. They have a different approach, different style, different personality, a different way that they see things. I would imagine, more often than not, that would be the case. Back to being very passionate, enjoying their job very much, being a part of the crew and the film making process. Honestly, I fell that that is ultimately what makes a great ac, a great gaffer, a great director of photography. Just having a great passion, a great source of pride, you know, in their craft.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Has the training cycle changed since you began your career?

John Clemens

No, I don't think it has changed that much. It is interesting because there is no specific training cycle, so to speak. Some people come through camera houses. Some people come out of film school. Some people just....myself I was a stage manager at Peter Corbett and Co., and, you know, for example on the weekend when the stage was closed, I use to go over there and play around with the cameras and do some shooting there. So, it's just a matter of...there are so many roads to Rome. There are so many ways to approach the jobs, as well as your background...background in education and personality. Taking that all into account, I wouldn't say there was a generational difference with becoming an assistant cameraperson.

Alexa D. O'Brien

So, if I understand you correctly you wouldn't say that there are major differences between your generation and the one that is coming up now.

John Clemens

No, I don't think so. There is definitely lots more opportunities. Well, lots of opportunities for an assistant to hone his skills and gain the experience. They are still shooting both lots of independent and higher budget films. Music videos are still being photographed. We live in an age where cultures can get enough information, and couple that with the fact that we are now working video as well as film, it seems like the opportunities are just ever so abundant, in terms for working technicians, artists, in the film business.

Alexa D. O'Brien

I have heard from several older professionals that the younger generation coming up seem more afraid to admit when they do not know something. Some have even gone so far as to characterize that propensity as a form of arrogance. Would you respond to that?

John Clemens

I would respond to that, it depends on the person's experience in the film business for starters. I would imagine that perhaps, not so much the arrogance but the naivety of the people not seeking any sort of advice. You know, I would imagine that they are a lot less experienced within the film business. I would take a guess at and the reason being is because the film business overall is a communicative art form and the people making it, the best projects ultimately turn out with how well the crew members are communicating on set. The flow of ideas within the set, from the top from the director, down through even the production assistants. As much as anyone would deny it, it is a very collaborative form of art and communication. So, you know, I would just imagine that the lack of experience, it just boils down...a by-product of that lack of experience would boil down to the lack of communication between the different technicians on set. I wouldn't...it seems to me to be a very large call that it would be a little bit arrogant, you know. I wouldn't be able to say that that particular example is a matter of arrogance as much a s a lack of experience, more than anything.

Alexa D. O'Brien

I often think to myself that there are so many different forces changing the culture of below the liners from one of craftspeople who goes through a formal apprenticeship to a culture of technicians who very often approaches the job from the point of view of perhaps self education, perhaps climbing the ladder faster than their predecessors, would you comment on that?

John Clemens

You bump into a situation where someone jumps a rung on the ladder or whatnot, but ultimately it is the relationships that you have within a business, that you have formed through out your lifetime even...not just in art school or, it could be a social gathering, or it could be someone who is self-taught could possibly have made their own movies and just excelled in a certain craft whether it being shooting, focus pulling, you know. Again, it brings us around to that there are a lot of approaches into, you know, any particular type of filmmaking. If you wanted to narrow it down and say whether it be commercials or you have to be a little more specific in terms of you know what kind of work is being produced. But ultimately it is a funny system in how, you know, very experienced ac's, very experienced craftspeople, tend to do larger budget type shows, quite possibly. That is not to say that somebody with less experience wouldn't be invited along as well.

Alexa D. O'Brien

What I hear you saying is that the skill set or even art remains the same, it is the tools that change...

John Clemens

To a degree. You know like any craft, you need to learn new tools on a daily basis, you know. It is a wonderful thing there is always going to be change. There is always going to be new tools, better tools. There is also going to be tools that are not better, but they fit a particular application for a different look or a different situation. You know, it is an ever evolving process, you know, not too much stays the same these days; although things within the film business tend to be a little bit slower changing. If you look at how memory and computers, and computer systems and how quickly they change and how quickly you have to learn new systems, the film business is still offered new film stocks, new lenses, new cameras, new technology, all the time, and that is an evolution of any given thing. And it keeps it exciting and you have to not only reinvent yourself, but, first and foremost, you have to relearn and along with relearning a new tool, film stock, camera et cetera. Ultimately, the new tools create new possibilities for new looks and new projects and new ideas of how to approach a new shooting style or situation, and it is quite a growing bit, it keeps the business growing with fresh ideas as well as a lot of new tools are culturally based. Different filming styles are based on what is happening within pop culture, and not to throw away old cultural filming values, but just to give you an idea of the ever-changing possibilities that you are handed on a daily basis.

Alexa D. O'Brien

How has digital technology changed the aesthetics of motion picture imaging?

John Clemens

From my perspective, it has given a whole other opportunity to stylize as well as capture imaging as well as to present ideas in essence of director, director of photography as well as the technicians. So it is a wonderful opportunity, it is a wonderful new tool and it has at times, it has very specific applications, if you are going to video Internet. It just opens up many more doors for opportunity within the business.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Are you referring in part to the immediacy of digital technology vis-à-vis film?

John Clemens

To a degree, I mean I was reading an article...that is one of the main reason's Roberto Rodriguez really enjoys shooting digital is the immediacy of it, the immediacy of being able to play back a particular scene to see if that was a selected take for him or if he would like to do it again. There are some people who are very into the immediacy of it. My experience with it so far, we are in the midst of doing an HD project right now both in New York and New Orleans and San Francisco, and we haven't really had the need for the immediacy. To see the exposed image that quickly, actually we have photographed everything and then we have handed off the tapes to the editor. We haven't even taken a look at them. It is a commercial, although that shouldn't mean too much. We are not playing back anything. It is documentary style. So, you know, for some people it would be a matter of the immediacy of capturing on video. More often than not it really boils down to multi-camera shooting, whether it be for broadcast as well as it seems that there is a feeling that...there is a feeling that there are the economics of shooting video as opposed to shooting film. And I haven't quite figured out the economic yet, it doesn't seem to make sense for me. So, I really cannot make a judgment call on that.

Alexa D. O'Brien

How has optical technology changed or advanced for cinematography in the last decade?

John Clemens

Being the purchaser of new motion picture lenses I can attest that they are just... the technology on the glass is just so superior, whether it be computer-designed elements within a zoom lens for example, or within a prime lens. Lens design these days is so far superior and complex, probably due to the computer. Lens coatings and the technology that laid down those lens coatings on a lens for the same reasons, are much more advanced. You know, they are constantly striving for lenses with better resolution, better optical quality, better physical performance in terms of moving gears, and moving elements within each other, and lenses that are faster, are longer, and have in essence a better minimum focus on them; and all these just add to the experience and improvements within the image capture on both motion picture cameras as well as video cameras.

Alexa D. O'Brien

Has the workflow change with higher end digital technology, whether it be HD or larger chip cameras?

John Clemens

Not too much for the camera assistant. You still have the same issues, or the same workflow, not necessarily issues, but that is more part of the job: maintaining the camera in a good working order, making sure the focus is coming up and is collimated correctly both on the lenses and the cameras. You do have a back focus issue on some of the Sony cameras, the Panasonic cameras, but ultimately the workflow is the same. You are maintaining the cameras so they work properly, and they will for the long run, and they hold up very well. You are maintaining the focus, and that the lenses are calibrated properly. The same situation on motion picture cameras. The workflow on set: you are still getting marks, you are still pulling focus on them, and the lens manufacturers have done a wonderful job with making film style lenses for the video cameras that make it that much more comfortable as well, both comfortable for the assistant and the operator. But as well, to somewhat give a more filmic depth of field to the video cameras. Ultimately, the only thing that changes within the workflow is you most of the time you'll have a...on the Sony and Panasonic cameras, smaller chip cameras that are manufactured by Sony, Panasonic, Fuji, you will have a digital imaging technician to keep a better eye on your color rendering as well as your highlights and low lights, to make sure that you are within the boundaries of capturing those highlights and lowlights and everything in between. Panavision and Arriflex have done a wonderful job with their two video cameras, digital HD cameras that they came out with, that maintain the exact workflow of the film cameras that are being utilized today. There is no back focus issues on them. The menus are relatively the same as, you know, a standard thirty-five motion picture camera. So, they have done a wonderful job in maintaining the workflow on their end. So, overall with the question that you have asked: the workflow is, I would say, is still the same regardless of which cameras you are shooting ultimately your responsibilities haven't changed.

Alexa D. O'Brien

I recently spoke with a director of photography who made the point to me that with digital technology there are so many more variables in the digital work flow that affect image quality. Do you think that that is a fair thing to say?

John Clemens

I think that is truly a fair thing to say. For example, with film you are using...just a small number of film stocks, whether it be Fuji, Agfa, or Kodak. And with experience with those film stocks, you can narrow it down quite well and pinpoint the look that you want to achieve. Now with the digital HD cameras there is no flat-line between the...there is no starting point for example within...even from camera to camera, but let me not jump ahead of myself, there is no baseline between a Sony, a Panasonic chip and even within the same series of cameras. There are little anomalies inherent within each camera that it is hard to gauge a baseline off of. They are good in giving you the tools necessary to change those little nuances whether it be between cameras within a particular manufacturer or a cameras from different manufacturers. But ultimately there is a little bit more work in coming to a known with digital cameras as there is with film and the experience that you have with a certain film stock for example, so there is a...the tolerances are squeeze down a bit on you.

Alexa D. O'Brien

John I really want to thank you for your time today.

John Clemens

Oh, thank you Alexa. It has been a pleasure. Have a good day.

Alexa O'Brien Alexa O'Brien researches and writes about national security. Her work has been published in VICE News, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Guardian UK, Salon, The Daily Beast, and featured on the BBC, PBS Frontline, On The Media, Democracy Now!, and Public Radio International. In 2013, she was shortlisted for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in the UK and listed in The Verge 50..