Poet Nicanor Parra taught Mathematics and was a Professor of Theoretical Physics.

Interview with a Cinematographer & Photographer

Jeff Gatesman “Chicago”, 2007

NAME: Jeff Gatesman

JOB TITLE/OCCUPATION: Cinematographer, Photographer and wayward filmmaker

PROFESSION/INDUSTRY: Entertainment and Documentary Film plus Commercial Photography

EDUCATION: B.A. in Film Studies and Production Techniques from Columbia College, Chicago (Strong emphasis on composition, optics and aesthetics of film); Summer Photography program at FAMU in Prague, CZ.

ADDITIONAL PURSUITS & AREAS OF INTEREST:  I have been writing and telling stories for decades. Before I went to film school I was writing and submitting short stories for publication, and worked as a feature writer for two local newspapers in my hometown. The move to writing screenplays and making movies is a natural extension of my love of photography.

WEBSITE:   jeffgatesman.com

What is your educational background, specific to your profession?

I originally went to College to study engineering, I thought I wanted to design airplanes. Before finishing my degree however, I got a job with Otis Elevator in their Sales Engineering department. I was working full time and going to school at night and when my employer gave me a PC I realized I could be much more efficient in my school work using word processing programs at work instead of my old typewriter at home. Before long I was spending half my time at work writing personal stories and had to come to the realization that I was on the wrong career path. So I left my job and enrolled in film school.


I’ve loved movies since I was a child, but never thought it could be a career: movies were made in Hollywood by moguls and stars and I was just a kid from the midwest. When my Dad got a 35mm camera I used it so much, he never had a chance to, even though I didn’t know much about how it worked or why some photos looked good and others didn’t. I had a photography class in grade school and learned the fundamentals, but at Columbia I had the opportunity to learn everything about the history, technology and art of creating motion pictures and that’s when the veil lifted. Everything made sense to me and using the cameras, lighting, cutting film, manipulating the photo/chemical process, all seemed to be natural to me. Finally I was in control of the images I made and learning a new language, a new way of communicating.

What was your most valuable experience, that gave you the tools and insight to work in filmmaking?

I’ve had the tremendous pleasure to work alongside some of the best cinematographers in the world, most notably Dante Spinotti, Dean Semmler and Haskel Wexler, and each one has shown me something special about what makes them great. From Dante I’ve learned there is a fluid balance between light and camera, Dean has shown me the energy of exciting camera moves, and Haskel taught me the dichotomy of working as a cinematographer when he said “some days you make art, and some days you make a paycheck.” But all of them have shown me how important it is to maintain a great team, regardless of the project you are working on, and that nothing great gets accomplished without a whole crew of talented people around you. Respect for crew members and the other collaborators on a project is as important as being a good leader.


Working on large crews can sometimes be very chaotic, but watching these men work with confidence and cool heads to get the images they want has been very inspirational and has always stuck with me. No matter what I am working on, I try to always be respectful of the other crew people and to stay focused on what I am trying to accomplish. I’ve found that on those occasions where I am working with some of the most challenging personalities, this attitude helps me create the best work.

As a working professional, what changes have you seen in your industry that have significantly affected how you work?

The digital revolution has, by far, changed the motion and still photography businesses in innumerable ways. Before digital, most everything was created on film and it required a strong grasp of the technology and craft that only came from years of experience, and even then some things would be out of your control and could go horribly wrong. When I was shooting film you had to take what you exposed to the lab, and there was always anxiety until you got a “negative report” several hours or even a day later. Would there be a hair in the gate that would ruin a key shot, or a possible speck of dust that can cause a scratch through a whole roll of film? Not to mention the numerous possible ways the film can get “flashed” or mistakenly exposed. At that time only seasoned cameramen got the jobs.


With digital you can monitor exactly what is being recorded, in real time, which means anyone who at least knows how to turn the camera on can be the cameraman. Sometimes we refer to this as the “Red Revolution” referring to Red Cameras which are widely credited as bringing very high quality digital imaging to people who could not ordinarily afford to own high end camera equipment. It was originally referred to as a digital still and motion camera system, and it still is that as all the concepts of digital imaging are crossing over to both still and motion picture photographers.


Hence, this has changed the entire workflow, from pre-production and shooting through post-prodution. New roles have been created on sets such as Media Manager’s and DIT’s (Digital Imagining Technician). It has changed Producers’ expectations of costs, time management, and oddly whether or not you actually need lights anymore. And it has changed the qualifications for becoming a cameraman–sometimes it is just the fact that you own a camera (which seems to be the most important qualification some producers are looking for).

With regards to the new generation of talent entering the film world, what are the skill sets that you are seeing?

I am seeing a lot of young adults coming into the industry who are very well versed in the high technology of digital imaging. They are using social media and the internet to stay well informed of integral, yet very rapidly changing tech such as CODEC’s, delivery and archiving systems and all the new camera’s being introduced. A few of the more savvy people I know are also using social media very effectively to get new clients and create more work for themselves.


It’s very impressive to see how much technology is being carried around and exploited so easily by some of these people, but there is something missing in the whole process, and I think it has to do with traditional film language–something that was very integral to my education in film school, which is conveying thoughts and emotion through the use of composition, optics and Aesthetic. I recently was out to dinner with 4 of the smartest guys working in 3D motion picture production and there was a rather excited 45 minute conversation about the movie Hugo, to which I contributed little because it was all technical. Finally I had to ask if any of them thought it was a good film. My point is that digital motion capture has recreated 3D as a new and viable technology which has given all those really tech-savvy guys good jobs, and we’ve seen a rise in 3D production, but the one that is getting the most acclaim was helmed by legendary filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Robert Richardson (the DP), two men who have long, highly acclaimed careers and have mastered (if not helped to define) the language of film. I would have to add that additional proof of this concept would be Avatar, directed by James Cameron, and Pina, written and directed by by Wim Wenders which has been selected as the German entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this years Academy Awards.

What would your advice be to aspiring cinematographers &/or to the institutions and instructors that are providing them with the education & “tools” they need to work in the film industry?

I believe most people get into the business of filmmaking and photography for different reasons than I had. To me story is essential to both motion picture and still photography. I don’t understand how a photographer can choose a correct lens without knowing what emotion he is trying to convey.


I think Aesthetics and history are the things film and photography schools should be emphasizing to their students. What would have been considered modern film production in the nineties, might as well be considered as part of the history lessons kids get at film school these days. I know why I choose a certain aspect ratio when shooting digital because I know I want the freedom of manipulating head room in the final output the same we used to do it with 35mm 3-perf film production (sometimes called Super 35). When I tried to explain this to my young crew, none of them had heard of it nor understood what I was trying to do. But it made all the difference in post production.

“One of the things I wanted to stress is that in today’s digital environment has blurred the lines between still photographer and cinematographer quite a bit. There are many still photographers racing to learn film techniques, but I think I am one of the few people who have an education and practical experience in cinematography, who is working in still photography.” — Gatesman

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