Isaac Bauman is a Los Angeles based Director of Photography. Eight years into his career, Isaac has already established himself among the best, shooting for clients such as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and the NFL.
You have extensive work in music videos, how did you begin that part of your career?
I got into music videos right after dropping out of film school. I bought a 5D package, and dove headfirst into the Craigslist 5DMKII-shooter-for-hire scene. The jobs were basically a mix of no-budget student films, sleazy, weird short films by older, failed filmmaker types, and shitty music videos.
Before long, I found myself employed by a couple of directors who regularly shot thousand-dollar-ish-budget rap videos for local LA artists. My rate was $250 a day - for myself and my entire package. Eventually $350. I lived that life for about two years, before I met director Abteen Bagheri in 2011. Abteen was referred to me through a friend - he knew I had experience shooting low budget rap videos, and he was about to direct his first music video after graduating from Stanford. Which was a no budget rap video.
It was for an unknown rapper from Harlem named A$AP Rocky, a song called “Peso.” I’d never met Abteen, and to accept the job I would have to fly myself to New York City the next day - out of my own pocket, of course. I was so desperate to shoot anything at all, so I agreed immediately. I flew out the night before the shoot, and met Abteen for the first time at about 11PM. We had to wake up at like 6AM the next day.
Between Abteen’s sharp vision, Rocky’s charismatic talent, and my two years of 5D rap video experience, it was lightning in a motherf-----g bottle. The video is an all-time classic, and it instantly propelled Rocky to worldwide fame. Abteen and I edited the video together, and we became and remain close friends and collaborators.
Based on the strength of that video, Abteen slowly began to get other opportunities. About 8 months after “Peso” we shot two videos back-to-back: Delta Spirit “California” and Blood Orange “I’m Sorry We Lied.” Each video had a budget of about $7k - which sounded like a million dollars at the time.
Those videos put Abteen and myself fully on the map. After that, I started to get calls from other low-budget (but talented and ambitious) up-and-coming music video directors. That was the beginning.
As of this interview, I’ve shot ninety-four (94) music videos. But I won’t shoot more than 100 in my life, so I’m at the end of my prolific music video career.
You were able to work with some massive artists such as Drake and Kendrick Lamar. What was it like working with them? How did these sets compare to the others you’ve done?
There is a palpable sense of excitement on set. Drake’s “Worst Behavior” and Kendrick’s “King Kunta” are destined to become classic songs, by iconic artists who are already legends in their own time. Working on those videos felt like being a part of history.
Both Drake and especially Kendrick were professional compared to most rappers I’ve worked with. Rappers are often many hours late, high, drunk, more interested in smoking blunts with their entourage than working on shooting the actual video. The more famous they are, the more entitled they feel to behave in what I consider to be an unprofessional manner.
If you had to pick a favorite project you’ve shot, what would it be and why?
In the last year or so, I’ve shot the second and third seasons of a horror anthology show on SYFY - Channel Zero: No-End House and Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block. It’s always been my dream to shoot elegant, emotionally grounded horror, and Channel Zero is exactly that. Our seasons are six episodes, each 45 minutes long; a good balance between long enough to develop the story without cutting corners, and short enough to keep it tight, exciting, and contained.
As an anthology show, each season provides an opportunity for a fresh start - to explore new characters, locations, themes and visual approaches. Nick Antosca is a brilliant showrunner who has given myself and the director(s) carte blanche. The writing is sharp, ambitious - and the studio has the guts to let us do our thing, and provide us with the resources we need to pull it off.
But my real favorite will always be Florida Man, directed by Sean Dunne. While I’ve moved away from the documentary world professionally, I’ll always treasure the pair of doc features I shot for Sean - Florida Man and Cam Girlz. We shot Florida Man in ten days - with a crew that consisted of the director, our producer, a PA, a sound guy, and myself - prowling the streets in the early evening and late nights with the five of us packed into a minivan. Looking for Florida men.
The camera was super stripped down - just a top handle, the body, a battery plate, and a lens with a clip-on mattebox. I pulled my own focus on the barrel of the lens. Shot everything by day with a 16mm lens, at night with an 18mm - as it was one stop faster than the 16mm.
We only shot in bursts of a few hours at a time. Approaching subjects freely. Sometimes after hanging with them for awhile, other times I would approach them filming, come what may.
You will have to watch the film to understand what I mean, but I’ve never felt more alive or excited creatively on a shoot than I did on Florida Man. I am grateful to Sean and to Cass Greener, the producer, for the experience - as well as MVP / GOAT editor, Kathy Gatto, for absolutely murdering the edit.
In our opinion, a lot of your featured short films have a futuristic dystopian feel. Is that the style you like to shoot best?
Absolutely. But more than futuristic or dystopian, I see it as an interest in “genre.” As both a filmmaker and a film viewer, I am most excited and inspired by work in the crime, horror, sci-fi, action, and thriller genres. The darker, the better.
I started to realize this a few years ago, and lately I’ve really been chasing it. I asked my agents to stop putting me up for any normal indie / drama stuff. I’d rather shoot maybe a not-so-great but visually exciting post-apocalyptic thriller than a really good coming-of-age, slice-of-life, mid-life-crisis, cry-a-thon indie drama - to be honest.
And I’m finally at the point where I think a lot of people understand that - you picked up on the vibe enough to ask me about it, for example. Most films, tv shows, and shorts that are interested in discussing a project with me are in that world.
NFL ‘Surprise Yourself’ is very well executed. What kind of camera rig did you use for to accomplish the POV shots? Was it the same rig throughout?
Most of the spot is an Alexa Mini on my shoulder, regular handheld style. All you need to achieve any given POV shot is handheld where the actors look directly into the camera right?
The shots where the character’s hands enter frame were achieved with a Doggicam shoulder rig that mounted the camera on the actor’s shoulder. The camera was removed digitally from the two mirror reflection shots, the first of which was handheld by me, the second on the Doggicam rig.
The football sequence at the end is an A7S II mounted on a football helmet worn by an athletic stunt performer. That rig took A LOT of figuring out. The stunt person had to wear a real football helmet, because he was participating in a staged but real-enough and dangerous football game, getting tackled, etc - and he needed real protection.
The camera also had to look like it was inside a football helmet, and of course it would not fit in there with him. We had to design a rig that was a football helmet with a camera mount in front of the face mask, and then another face mask in front of that - to create the POV of being inside a helmet.
Almost a double helmet - and certainly much heavier than a double helmet. The stunt person / operator had to support the camera from underneath, with a handle, so all the extra weight wouldn’t tear his head off his neck.
Shoutout to Alexa Lopez @ Panavision, who is a filmmaker in her own right. Alexa and Panavision allowed us to play around in their shop so we could design our rig.
Favorite camera to shoot on and why?
I like the Alexa Mini because of its size and weight.
What was your most challenging set to light?
Most challenging set to light so far was probably a green screen water tower sequence in Episode 3 of Channel Zero: No-End House. There’s a scene in the episode where a couple characters climb a water tower to get a better view of the world they’re in. There is no way we could shoot the scene at the top of a real water tower, so we built a full-scale top of a water tower on stage, surrounded by 270° of greenscreen.
The scene begins with the characters ascending the top section of the ladder and climbing onto the catwalk that encircled the water tank, then walking all the way around the catwalk while delivering dialogue. We shot our plates with a drone at magic hour / dusk, and had to match that light in studio.
The floor of the catwalk was 12’ above the stage floor. So I was in a situation where I had to create soft, ambient light at that height, 360° around a pretty massive set piece. And with serious logistical constraints.
The simple answer would be to hang an array of spacelights from the grid overhead - but when we did the math it turned out that not only would it require almost a hundred spacelights extending in evenly in every direction in order to be able to wrap all the way around the actors faces and create that ambient look. And due to stage floorspace real-estate conflicts with other sets (and the need to have about 270° in green screen) we’d been literally backed into a corner - and the overhead grid of space lights was not an option at all.
We had to have the characters walk all the way around the catwalk in a single take, so we couldn't light with big bounces sticked up from the floor either, because they would have blocked the green screen. And we would have needed about a dozen 12x12 frames, which would be crazy hard to wrangle even with a pretty big crew. So after some deliberation, we decided to suspend a ring of only about a dozen spacelights around the circumference of the catwalk. It was important that the light feel ambient, and not toppy - each spacelight was on a pulley, so we could lower them to get more wrap on the actors faces as needed.
Ultimately, it worked pretty well. The scene looks magical, and realistic. It’s such an exciting visual moment in the episode. Because the catwalk was so high, we needed a technocrane to be able to pull off the moves the director had planned. So we have this beautiful, magic hour sequence at the top of a water tower with gorgeous dusky drone landscape plates, all together seamlessly.
It took the art department and the set builders weeks to build and decorate it. And the grips days to rig the green screen and spacelights. And we shot the scene out in 3 hours....
Do you have a consistent process you use to light or do you use a different approach on every set?
In general, I take a fairly similar approach to all of my lighting. I emphasize systematic thinking, rubrics, bibles etc. I’m extremely organized when it comes to planning a project, and I try to restrict the number of techniques and equipment I need in order to give the project a very particular look.
To me moving quickly and efficiently is of paramount importance, and I always emphasize simplicity and speed in my planning. I always try to “light the scene, not the shot” so that the director and the actors have maximum flexibility. For better or worse, I consider myself to be a director’s DP, a producers DP, an AD’s DP more than a DP’s DP. At least until I’ve earned the privilege of having the set wait on me. But for now, I cannot bear even a hint of waiting on camera or lighting on set. We wait on everyone but me, and that’s how I like it.
So I always light through the windows, from the ceiling, or with practicals - so we can shoot 360° and not have to “turn around” the setup. To me, it’s a worst case scenario when I need to bring lights, stands, and grip equipment onto the floor of the set. It feels like an intrusion. When it becomes necessary (as it often does) I favor smaller, lighter, mobile lights rather than bigger, softer, prettier sources. For example, I’ll key the talent with a LiteMat 4 on a c-stand all day rather than having my crew build a book light with frames on the floor of our set. Easier to adjust, easier to turn around, easier to nix - everything is easier.
Even when I know I get can get away with bigger, softer, but less mobile sources, I’ll choose my little portable lights just for the principal of it! Sometimes to drive the point home, I’ll tell my crew (half-joking) “fast is better than good.”
I refer to large, complicated, equipment-intensive setups as FUCKERY. Even on c-stand and a floppy on set is fuckery when you start to think about it.
How often are you involved with in the coloring process of your work? Do you have a preferred colorist you work with?
Not nearly as often as I’d like! It’s unfortunate, but the truth is the DP is not seen by production as a necessary part of the post production process. They don’t hire us to attend color, instead hoping to cut corners and save money by relying on us doing it for free out of self-interest.
If you would to give one piece of advice to young DPs what would it be?
Take every meeting.
I heard this bit of advice at the beginning of my career, I took it to heart, and it has paid off. Take Channel Zero for example - a few years ago I was on a job in Romania, and I received an email from a producer, inquiring about my availability / interest in a short student film. The script did not speak to me, the director was a student with literally no experience, and the budget was nonexistent.
I was exhausted, and working in a very different time zone on a demanding project with limited windows of alone time. But I took the meeting, because of the ‘take every meeting’ rule I hold myself to. During our Skype meeting, I listened patiently, I asked questions, etc. After they finished their pitch, I politely let them know I wasn’t interested, and that was that.
A year and a half later, I hear from my agent that a TV show (Channel Zero) is interested in scheduling a meeting with me. My first meeting was with the showrunner, Nick Antosca. I asked him how my name came up, and he told me that he’d asked his assistant at the time for the names of some cool young DPs. It turns out, his assistant was the producer of the student film I had the Skype meeting with more than a year prior…
Take every meeting!
Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
Channel Zero: No-End House just finished airing, so that’s available on Amazon and iTunes. Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block airs this upcoming spring. I’ve never worked harder, longer, or done better work than I have on the last two seasons of Channel Zero. I am so thankful for opportunity, so grateful for the talent of all my collaborators, so humbled by how f-----g treacherously difficult it was to shoot, and so proud of the final product. Cannot wait for you all to see them.