How To Get the Perfect Shot with Cinematographer, Jayson Crothers

WITH Cinematographer, Jayson Crothers

Cinematographer Jayson Crothers

How To Get the Perfect Shot with Cinematographer, Jayson Crothers

Episode 18 – Kino Society – Film Cinematographer

When you understand the purpose of the shot, you will know how to get the perfect shot. Today’s guest is Jayson Crothers, a talented cinematographer who has developed successfully in film and television, working on movies like Coldwater and shows like Chicago Fire. As a child in the early 80’s he became very interested in the mechanics of cinema because his father ran a single-screen movie theater. Determined to pursue the profession he wanted to follow, in the 1990s he earned his BA from Columbia College Chicago and his MFA from the American Film Institute. Loving what he does, Crothers feels fortunate to collaborate with people who share his talents and passions, so in his spare time he teaches filmmaking classes that have taken him around the world. His latest work, Cruel Summer, a new series produced by Jessica Biel for Hulu and Amazon, premiered at the SXSW 2021 festival.

 Here is what you’ll learn:

  • Jayson tells us how he first became interested in film as a child at the theater where his father worked.
  • He believes that Cruel Summer is definitely the highlight of his career thus far.
  • Jayson states that in the process of doing something creative, you are also learning and growing. So when you’re done, you might want to do it a little differently.
  • Jayson says a good thing about COVID is keeping days shorter, which requires productions to focus on being more efficient.
  • What makes a good shot? 
  • How the movie Seven aroused interest in him for dedicating himself to cinematography and for being interested in photography.
  • Movies or TV? Jayson chooses TV because usually you have a lot of time to really explore stories and characters.

To learn more about Jayson, follow him on Instagram, or visit his website.

Interested in knowing more about the show?


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Owen Shapiro  00:04

Welcome to Kino Society with Owen Shapiro. In today’s episode we have Jayson. Jayson Crothers is a sought-after director of photography in both film and television. His latest work Cruel Summer, a new series produced by Jessica Biel for Freeform for Hulu and Amazon International, premiered at the 2021 SXSW festival. Welcome to Kino Society Jayson. Why did you want to go to film school?


Jayson Crothers  00:38

Oh, that’s a great question. From my small when I was a kid, I was really interested in the mechanics of filmmaking. I’ve told the story before, like, amongst many places, I grew up, I grew up in Alaska as a kid, and my dad is a part time job ran a single screen movie theater there is back in the early 80s. And members, sometimes you take me and sit me up on a couple of phone books, some books on a stool appears with a little window and kind of watch the same movie through this little glass window over and over and over again. But the speakers in the theater or in the booth were broken. So I’d watch movies up there with my dad without actually hear the sound, but just seeing the pictures and having like the projector kind of cranking away next to me. And so from very early age, I I understood that movies were also a mechanical process. It’s something I was always interested in. But when I started, you know, I first started going wanting to pursue film. This is in the late 90s. So this is before digital is was this is really before you HD was a prevalent thing, the internet, there were very few resources online. So we’re not my initial daughter going to film school was wanting to get into film, having no contacts and entering the industry at a time that although it seems kind of for now, given that, you know, there’s 1000s of websites, you know, and are in my iPhone case, surprisingly good video at the time is just film and film school kind of scene for me like the only way to kind of get a foot into the door to start trying to work towards a career in this industry.


Owen Shapiro  02:02

So which school did you go to?


Jayson Crothers  02:04

I started off when I was 18. I went to a small two year program in Scottsdale, Arizona called Scottsdale Community College. And at the time, they had a very the beginnings of a small two year program into a much more robust program now, but from there, I moved to Chicago and got my undergrad degree at Columbia College in Chicago. And after I graduated from Columbia, I kicked around for a while and kind of the independent world and then found my way to Los Angeles, where I eventually got my master’s degree from the American Film Institute.


Owen Shapiro  02:31

So what’s your favorite project that you made? 


Jayson Crothers  02:35

Great. That’s a tough question. I don’t say I wouldn’t say I have a favorite. There are definitely some projects that I I’m more proud of than others. Anybody who’s done this for a long enough time also has certain credits on the resume that they are less proud of, I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite I certainly have. There’s certainly a number of projects that stick out for particular reasons, whether it be you know, very proud of the actual movie, or the relationships they built on that project via something like something like Cruel Summer is definitely something I’m exceptionally proud of. So I’d say that’s definitely a highlight. You know, throughout my career, you know, they’re working in Chicago Fire is very proud of some of the movies I’ve done this movie did years and years ago called cold water that had big impact on people and people didn’t really resonate with so I don’t have a particular favorite so much. They have a certainly a number of projects, that a lot of fun memories of either any of that,


Owen Shapiro  03:19

that you think you could have done that you look back on, and you think that maybe nowadays you could have done better.


Jayson Crothers  03:24

That’s every project, I think I often think, you know, as soon be wrapped today, on the walk back to my car and and the drive home, I usually find myself reflecting going, you know, what I should have done near what I could have done. I think that’s inherent in the process of there’s something I written years ago that really resonated with me the idea that in the process of doing of doing anything creative in the process of doing it, you’re also learning you’re growing. So it kind of creates this an interesting cycle of in the moment, as you as you were, in this case, personal photography, as you are framing a shot or lighting your shutter or setting the camera move in the very act of doing that you are learning something new and growing and evolving. So by the time you’re done with that shot, you’ve learned something from that setup. And at the very end of it, you look and go, if I had to take it all down and do it over again, I might do it slightly different. So it’s an interest? It’s kind of a tough question. Because I think the short answer, the short answer is yes. You’re looking back. I think now, obviously now I if I were to go back and redo any project done in the past, I would absolutely do them differently, not necessarily because the work I did at the time wasn’t good. Just because I think I’m a different photographer and different personnel. I think in some cases, I would do some things better. And there’s some things I’ve done in the past that I think I look back and go I think if I tried to do the same film now, although it might be technically better, I may not be as creatively as good because I think there’s definitely something to be said for when you’re early in your career. And you don’t have this amount of experience you make a lot of you make a lot more but I think in some cases a lot more bold, creative choices because you just don’t know any better. You don’t know that. You know, the thing you’re doing maybe should scare you more this down? That’s actually probably thought about it. But yeah, I think the short answer is Yeah, I would probably do something very differently. I don’t necessarily know if it’d be better. But I certainly do things different.


Owen Shapiro  05:10

I’ve heard from a lot of people that experience or knowledge tends to come at the sacrifice of creativity.


Jayson Crothers  05:15

I don’t want to say, part of me wants to agree with that part of my instinct, I think that’s, I think that’s too broad of a statement, I certainly do think when you’re starting off, and you lack experience or technical knowledge, you even tend to tackle things from more intuitive place of, you know, well, there’s this look or this, there’s this effect that I’m looking for, and I don’t have the experience or the knowledge to know all the you know, the quote, unquote, right ways to do it, or there’s efficient ways to do it, or the tools that might do it better. So you tackle it with pure creativity. And from that comes some really interesting ideas and some very interesting work that as you get older, you go, Okay, well, if this is the effect I’m looking for, I have more experience, I no better tools, I’ve you know, I’ve done things through trial and error. So you end up doing something that is perhaps more effective and efficient when you want to achieve but not quite as creative. It’s a double edged sword. I do think there, like I said, I think early in my career, there are definitely things I look at, I’ll look back on some old work of mine, and go, I you know, I’m not sure if I would be as bold as I was, then, at the same time I go, Well, that wasn’t me being bold. That was that was me not knowing how far I was pushing things. So it wasn’t you know, at the time, it wasn’t me intentionally being bold, or making really strong creative choices, it was me to a certain extent, not knowing that, like what I was doing was potentially catastrophic. And I kind of got lucky, it’s, it’s tough. At the same time, I’d also say, experience, you know, I would argue that experience also lets you be more creative. Because as you know, as I get older and get more experience, I find, I find that when I have a creative idea, now I have more experience and knowledge to pull from to know better how to execute it, as opposed to looking at something, you know, some old working. Remember, there’s a movie I did years and years ago, we had a large night exterior, it’s just been lit mostly by light. And I’d never done it at the time. So I tackled it the best way I knew how it worked well enough. Whereas now I look back and go oh, well, you know, having to do that again, you know, on a film just a few years ago, I was able to do it much more effectively and do it in a much more creative way. Because I had more experience. So I think it’s like anything I don’t think is a hard and fast rule. I think it depends on situation a situation.


Owen Shapiro  07:21

So what so regular workday like for you.


Jayson Crothers  07:23

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a regular workday, especially now in the days of COVID. You know, in general, I think in general COVID notwithstanding a typical work day, you know, I usually get a few hours for call I’ll usually spend before I leave for set, I’ll spend a few minutes to review the script for shooting that day, review any notes I have for that day, and make it a point to always get the set, or at least I’m usually on set at least 30 to 40 minutes for call time. I like to get there before everybody else if possible, just so I have a few moments on the set to myself, when I click my own thoughts. Also, if I get there, and there’s something that’s really problematic, you know, we’re on location and maybe I see the the trucks landing in the wrong spot or something like that, it gives me an opportunity to get ahead of problems like that. Typically, you know, an average workday is between 12 to 14 hours, lunch, you sometimes get to take lunch, oftentimes, lunches are taken up with other meetings, you know, whether it be a production event, something coming up, or reviewing something from, you know, previous day’s work, whether it’s dailies or something of that nature. And after we wrap I’ll usually head home and depending on again, depending on the production, either reviewing or doing a little bit of prep work for the next day’s work, reviewing games from the previous day’s work. So on average, you know, 12 to 14 hour work day, and then anywhere between two to four hours of additional work kind of before and after the day is pretty common. That changes obviously, when you’re when you’re doing TV, during a television show or movie. And then also, you know, with COVID protocols in place. Now, one benefit of COVID is our days are getting shorter. So all of our days are but you know, 10 to 11 hour days on average, which is nice because they get to go home on a more regular schedule, it does make the actual workday a bit tougher, because you know, you’re just trying to try to cram more work into the day. But that’s on average, what a typical workday looks like.


Owen Shapiro  09:06

So do you think that things are going to permanently change? Now that’s like post COVID?


Jayson Crothers  09:12

That’s a great question. I think it’s very rare that things go backwards. So I think it’s inevitable that even after COVID is no longer an active part of our daily lives. I think it’s inevitable that certain new working practices will stick around. I mean, look for one of the hardest things about our job is the hours, you know, it’s tough to do, you know, 12 to 14 hour days, you know, in some cases, sometimes it’s even longer than that unfortunate. One nice thing about COVID is keeping shorter days, I think to a certain extent requires productions to focus on being more efficient and requires people to to be more efficient. And there’s something very nice about pre COVID if I had a 7am call, I’m not going to make a tentative dinner plans with my wife and go okay. I’d love to have dinner at eight. I might be done at eight I might not be done. Tonight, it might not be done till 10. Now it’s nice to go to seven, I’ve got a 7am call, I will absolutely be home by 7pm we can make a dinner date at 7pm. That quality of life I think is really important. So two servings, and I hope things like that stick around. But I think it’s inevitable that after you know after COVID past isn’t it’s not an active part of our everyday life, I think it’s inevitable that there’s going to be things that change with how production works. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


Owen Shapiro  10:26

So what do you think goes into a good shot?


Jayson Crothers  10:29

I think first and foremost, having an understanding of the intention and purpose of that shot, I find that often when a director says, you know, let’s do a shot here, if it doesn’t, if it does, if I’m struggling with, you know what the frame should be or what the focal length should be. My first question usually is to ask the director like, what is what’s the, what’s the purpose for this shot? What is like, why are we doing the shot, and not in a challenging way, but in a way to try to understand like, is this shot? Is this shot to establish the geography of a location? Is it to establish you know, where people are within a certain space? Is this shot supposed to convey certain emotion is this shot supposed to convey a story point, sometimes a shot is designed simply to be an editorial piece where you go, Well, I really need this shot to get us from point A to point you know, to get to be the interstitial peace between shot a and c, the foundation for setting up a good shot, a useful and effective shot is first and foremost understand what the purpose of that shot is. And that’s usually if I ever struggle, that’s usually the first place I’ll start is what is the purpose of the shot after that? It becomes highly subjective. You know, I think any shot that conveys the information? Yeah, I think at the end of day, every shot is is at its core really about conveying information. It’s up to us as the storyteller about what information that is, what information do we need to convey to an audience? Is it spatial? Is it story? Is it relational? Is it all of those things? Is it tone and mood, every shot conveys information, so when you cut to a new shot, that new shot, it’s conveying new information, I think you need to first and foremost understand what the information is you need to relate to the audience, I think, and that kind of ties back into, well, if this is the information we wrote, we need to relay then that’s what the purpose of the shot, it’s, and that’s the purpose of the shot. And this is the best way to do that shot. So it did that. And you know, I wouldn’t necessarily say you know, a good shot is a pretty shot or a really dynamic shot. Sometimes that is the case often for me, the some of the best shots are some of the simplest shots, because they’re simple in how they convey information. And, you know, again, I’m also typically, you know, I think my case, I’m not gonna say style that I like to be they don’t have a style. And I think having style, it’s kind of a dangerous thing for simpler for my tastes definitely more towards less is more. So I usually find when I’m setting things up, I’m trying to actually remove things from the frame, you know, do I need, you know, do I need to have all these lights? How many lights? Can I turn off? How many things can I remove from the frame so that I can have something that’s more clear to an audience? I know it’s a bit of a ramble. But I think the short answer the question is, what makes a good shot is something that is effectively conveys whatever information that we need to convey to an audience in does so in a way that moves the story forward, conveys that information and doesn’t distract the audience.


Owen Shapiro  13:07

How much of the shot you think changes between what you’ve envisioned and the actual shot?


Jayson Crothers  13:14

That’s a really great question. It depends on the story depends on the director depends on hundreds of factors that go into every day. Sometimes they’re things just out of your control, it’s not uncommon, you might go to a location and go, Oh, you’re going to do this, we’re going to stage a scene, it’s going to be great the sun can be setting, we’re going to we’re going to time it shoot the whole scene this way, it’s going to be wonderful. And then you get there on the day and the clouds rolling, you go, Well, this changes the entire way the location works, it changes how we’re going to block. And so the things that you were planning on no longer apply anymore. So you end up going well, we can keep shooting it the same way. But it’s not going to be the same thing. So we should rethink what this is now. It depends you sometimes, even though it’s been a Cruel Summer, there were definitely things that we planned. And then for a variety of reasons, you know, they just change sometimes you get there on the day and a better idea presents itself where you say, you know, you’re the director and everybody land there and go, Well, this is the thing we’ve been talking about planning for days or weeks or maybe even months. And then when you arrive, inspiration strikes, a better idea presents itself somebody has a better idea. And you hopefully are prepared enough and confident and allowed. There’s other things where you arrive and Okay, the thing we’ve been talking about for weeks, you have prepared it and it’s the right thing to do is you just executed as planned. I think it changes in scene to scene setup, the setup, what I definitely enjoy is I like being as prepared as possible so that when a better idea presents itself, you feel confident in taking advantage of it.


Owen Shapiro  14:42

So how is working in television different from working in movies?


Jayson Crothers  14:46

It’s a great question. I attribute it a little bit like theater. The biggest difference, creatively at least is a movie you can go into a location, shoot a scene, finish the scene and as you’re leaving to go home If you suddenly realize there’s a different way, or maybe a better way to do something Too bad the scene is shot, you’ve left that location, it’s over with TV. If you shoot something and as you’re leaving you go, you know what might have been better creatively, the nice thing about television is because of the very nature of episodic, you will probably be back and that st, you may very well be back to that location, the next day, or later in the week or next week. So it’s a little bit like theater in the sense that every time you do a performance, every time you shoot, you get to learn something new that you get to reapply the next time you’re in there. So if you’re, you know, for example, the Cruel Summer, you know, the way we lit and shot a stage location the first time, which changed dramatically the second time and the third time, and by the end of the season, we were able to, I believe be doing much better work creatively, logistically, practically, because every time he shot in those stages, we was locations, we learned something new, and we learned what worked, what didn’t work, how to evolve things. That’s a real advantage, I think, to working in television is a broad generalization, I think scheduled is also a big difference. your schedule in production in general is always tight, there’s never enough time there’s never enough money TV in general, you have I find usually have a much more aggressive schedule. And just again, it’s just the nature of television have, you know, you have a lot of work to do in a very short amount of time, and there’s really no safety net. So I find TV as a general rule, not always, but as a general rule, you end up having a much more aggressive work pace, you


Owen Shapiro  16:25

have to keep aside. Now let’s go away from your work for a bit. Do you have any favorites, movies or directors,


Jayson Crothers  16:32

I have a lot of favorite movies, they also change based on the kinds of things that I’m working on, or just where I’m at my life. You know, I’ll always go back to the one I’m always a little hesitant to address this question because it It changes your month to month, week to week, sometimes day to day. I will say one thing I always had a soft spot in my heart is ironically sauce about maybe the wrong term. The movie seven was actually the movie that got me into cinematography. When it came out. I was working as an assistant manager at a movie theater. And I went in towards the end of the movie to help clean up the theater with another employee and I thought something was wrong with the with the projector because the credits when I first walked in as I go, the credits are running the wrong direction. So I thought I was wrong. And when I realized I was like, Oh, no, this is this is correct. This is different. This is bizarre. After my shift, I went in and sat down watched the movie. At that point, I didn’t really know what cinematography was I just knew that images were so had such an impact on me that it’s what prompted me to even look up like what a cinematographer. What. So I To this day, I’ve kind of credited that movie with sparking an interest in me in pursuing cinematography, and being interested in photography.


Owen Shapiro  17:39

What about television series,


Jayson Crothers  17:41

there’s so much great television. You know, my, my wife, and I actually just started watching a show on Amazon called them. We just started watching a couple days ago, they think it’s fantastic. You know, over the years, you know, a TV, some TV shows that have had a big impact on me. The Battlestar Galactica reboot had a massive impact on me, again, kind of that sense of some really incredibly powerful, strong storytelling and a really strong sense of visuals. Yeah, there’s a lot of different TV shows that that I have, I get hooked on to and watch. Again, I’m hesitant to to start throwing them out there because this can just turn into a laundry list of you know, all of my favorite shows. But yeah, I will. I would say that these days, I find I’m actually watching more television and movies. I think just because nowadays, one thing I really enjoy about television or the movie, you’ve got two, two and a half hours to tell a story with television, when you think they’re really enjoy is you’ve got a lot of time to really explore stories and characters. So I think just storytelling wise, lately, I’m being drawn more and more to television, because I think it’s a bigger canvas to tell stories on.


Owen Shapiro  18:47

So what would you say to someone who wants to enter the world of cinema.


Jayson Crothers  18:50

And a lot of things I would tell somebody, I think some advice that I was given very early on, the advice was a bit aggressive. So when I first heard it when I was younger, I was a little off putting because I’ve gotten older, I understand what what I think the person actually meant. When I was starting off. Somebody told me if there’s anything you could see yourself doing in life, being happy at other than filmmaking, go do that instead, which at the time I found off putting, I think now they’re gotten older, I understand what you’re trying to say, which was, you know, when you get into this incredibly difficult profession, it’s very hard career, it takes a long time to get established. It takes a long time to build a community and relationships and to build experience and to build a career kind of one project at a time. And even when you’ve had a lot of work and everything is very kind of cyclical. So there are you will have periods where you’re very busy. And then you’ll have periods where despite your experience or talents, your contacts, you’ll have periods where things get slow and you don’t work. It’s a very difficult career. And when I was younger, you know there are definitely periods you’re like, Alright, I’m working very hard and I’m still can’t seem to quite break through and it’s getting demoralizing and I’m watching friends and colleagues leave the industry to go do other things. And I think The person gave me that advice. I think their point really was some points can be very hard. If you’re not, if you’re not fully committed, save yourself the time and the trouble and go do something else to be happy doing something else instead. But for me, I always kind of fell back to this is the thing that I love to do. I’m To this day, I still feel like I’m very fortunate that I get paid to do my hobby, like I get paid to do the thing that I would go do for free anyways. And that’s kind of always helped me stay the course, so to speak. So that was the advice I was given you nowadays, I look and go look, if you if somebody, you know, when I started off, I didn’t know anybody in the industry, I had no contact, you know, I was I was a teenager living in Arizona going like, hey, one day, it’d be nice to work in the movies. Somehow I built a career out of this. So I feel like if I’m able to do it, anybody should be able to do it. It is a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of sacrifice. And it’s a lot of patience. So I would my advice nowadays to people are, if it’s something you want to do you understand that it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not gonna happen quickly. And it needs to be, for me, at least I think it needs to be about the work. The focus needs not be on how do I build a career? How do I how am I successful? You know, how do I get to to be, you know, well known and respected or established, I think you need to focus on the work on doing the best work you can every day on every project. And I think eventually, inevitably, a successful career will will emerge from that. But I think you need to focus on the work and understand that it can be a long haul, but at the end of the day, as cheesy as it may sound, it’s I think it’s the best job in the world. You know, I’m very grateful and fortunate every day.


Owen Shapiro  21:30

 Finally, where can my listeners find and connect with you?


Jayson Crothers  21:33

So I’ve got my own website, which is Jaysoncrothers.com. I’m active on Instagram, which I think is just @jaycrodop  . That’s about as much social media as I feel like I need these days. Yeah. And then. Yeah, and then various projects, you know, they’re playing. Yeah, I think you mentioned earlier, cool summer premieres april 20 on a free format in Hulu, so you can also check that out as well.


Owen Shapiro  21:54

Alright, that’s all for today. Don’t forget you can subscribe to Kino Society on iTunes and Spotify.


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