Sean Bagley is a cinematographer based out of Los Angeles, CA focused primarily on commercial and narrative content. Throughout his career, Sean has shot for clients such as Nike, JBL, and Iceland Air.
How did your cinematography career begin?
It feels like it’s been a long road, but as soon as I learned what a cinematographer actually does, I thought “Yep, that’s what I want to do.” At that point, I did everything I could to just be on a movie set. I called the local grip and electric rental house in Salt Lake City where I grew up basically begging them for any information on what film shoots were going on. I did a grip “internship,” and an electric “internship.” I basically just did free labor for about a year, but those are some of my fondest memories and it allowed me to grasp the basics I needed to eventually land in the camera department. I did a little bit of film loading and a little bit of focus pulling, but mostly worked as a 2nd AC. I ended up working in commercials and features as a camera assistant for about 4 years. I had plenty of great mentors in Salt Lake City who not only taught me a lot, but also pushed me to never be satisfied and to keep moving upward. I knew I wanted to be in Los Angeles, and felt I needed to make a drastic leap to get there. So, I decided to apply to AFI, and got in.
After I graduated AFI, and with student loan payments coming up, I took a job operating b-camera on a prank show in Los Angeles. We were shooting a very silly scene that involved a levitating grandma in Pan Pacific Park. I was operating a hidden camera underneath a bunch of umbrellas and blankets disguised as a picnic. Mid-shot, I got a call to shoot a Utah Jazz commercial with director Julian Acosta, and that changed everything for me. I said yes, had to quit the prank show, and very soon after the Utah Jazz spot was finished, I was signed at my first agency. I’ll never forget that phone call.
You studied at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Can you explain what that was like? Would you recommend AFI to other cinematographers?
For me, it was a fantastic, challenging, and a very rewarding experience. People in the industry will tell you that going to film school is a waste of time, and that you can learn everything you do in school that you do on set. I don’t really agree with that, and it certainly hasn’t been my experience. I spent many years on set working in camera, grip, and electric, and sure, I learned a lot from many people and situations. However, you never really have time to sit back and observe, or think about why the DP used that light, or that camera move. You’re too busy wrapping cable or marking actors. At AFI, you get to spend two concentrated years focusing on yourself as a cinematographer, absorbing as much information as you can and shooting your own projects. You get to do at least six projects with full crew, support and gear. I learned so much from a creative angle, and a technical one as well -- photometrics, image science, where to put the camera and why, etc. The networking is also a major positive. I met some great people that I hope to continue to collaborate with for many years. The only downside, and it’s a major one, is of course the cost... It’s expensive. I was only able to go by taking out some major student loans, and I’ll be paying them back for many years.
Do you have any interesting stories from set you would like to share? Learning experiences?
The most challenging project I’ve done was probably a Samsung spot I did with Julian Acosta that needed to be shot entirely on Samsung phones. First, we had to test the Galaxy and Note phones for a couple of weeks and eventually came up with a few different formulas to get the best image possible. There were a few challenges with the hardware that we were able to resolve during testing. We used FilmicPro, which had to be specially developed for Android devices. We also had to 3D print a bunch of different pieces to make some of our lens adapters work. We put the phones on gimbals and drones and sometimes had up to 10 shooting at once. The limited dynamic range required me to light a lot more than what I traditionally do, which turned out to be a good challenge. To top it all off, we were shooting in Los Angeles in the late summer and hit a record heatwave. The phones were malfunctioning left and right, and some of the 3D printed pieces literally started melting! But, ultimately we finished, and I’m proud of a lot of the images we got. I still have some people surprised that the commercial was shot entirely on a phone. Ultimately, with every job, I’m learning something new, big or small. I feel like if I’m not learning something new, I’m not really doing my job. I bring a little journal to set to jot down notes from every gig because I started to worry everything was blending together. It’s easy to fall into a pattern, and you have to just force yourself to be even more creative, keep learning and to challenge yourself.
You have a shot a lot of commercials. Would you consider yourself a commercial cinematographer? You have shot narrative work as well - would you like to shoot more of that? Or music videos?
I kind of fell into commercials, and I’ve really found my place here. I’ve been lucky to consistently do commercials that are narratively or creatively driven, which has been a phenomenal opportunity to hone my skills, experiment, and pay the bills. I think I’m currently most marketable as a commercial DP, and that’s fine for me right now. However, narrative filmmaking is the reason I wanted to become a cinematographer and what drew me to AFI. I actually just did my first feature film last year with a very talented director Elle Callahan, and I hope to do another one with her soon. When it comes to feature work, I’ve learned you just have to be patient. Often times, projects get delayed and pushed, or even fall apart. I’ll always strive to do more feature films, but commercials really help fill in the gaps. As for music videos, I’ve done a couple, but would always love to do more with the right artist and director!
How do you feel that your lighting techniques have evolved over the course of your career? Has it always come natural to you?
To be honest, I don’t think lighting came naturally to me. It’s been many years of reading how other cinematographers do it, watching tons of movies, studying, taking photos, etc. I think that I’ve always had a particular taste for lighting, but identifying what that is and why it resonates with me has taken a lot of work. Additionally, the ability to execute and get the results I want has taken a shit ton of practice. It’s a constant evolution.
You are currently represented by WPA. How has representation helped your career? Was it a tough road leading up to getting represented?
In film school, they always tell you that “having an agent doesn’t matter” and “they won’t get you work.” For me, the opposite has been true. As soon as I signed at my first agency, I felt a sense of legitimacy and projects started rolling in. I’m not saying this will be the case for everyone. I think it was more of an opportunity meets preparation type of situation. I worked my ass off, and getting an agent just helped show people I was ready to work more. WPA is my second agency and I’ve felt that jolt of energy again, it’s like having a great team behind you.
But, yes, it has been a tough road, especially if I count every single step along the way. Making personal projects, interning, working for free, reading American Cinematographer, loading, coffee runs, sending Roger Deakins letters asking if I can work for him (didn’t work), clapping, juicing, carrying lens cases up mountains, reading more American Cinematographer, gripping, moving to LA, film school, tons of debt, short films, more free labor, more personal projects, spending a lot of money on personal projects, operating, etc., etc. I think in the end, it was the hard work and persistence that paid off. But, when I finally got repped, I thought to myself, “Okay, I can finally get to work.” Because whether you’re repped or not, it’s about the amount of work you put in and the desire to get better every day.
Expand on the directors you have worked with. How do you feel working with different directors can influence your style? Are there any particular directors you feel help you get the most out of your cinematography?
Darius Khondji said something like “The best tool a DP has is the director,” and I think about that quote all the time, especially working with a bunch of different directors. Some of my best results are with directors who let me run free, and give very little notes. Other times, it’s with directors who are a lot more specific, and have a much heavier hand when it comes to the look. That’s the great thing about being a cinematographer. You get opportunities to work with a lot of different personalities, and voices -- and that can really influence your overall style. I learn a lot on each job with different directors, but ultimately, I think it comes down to whether we connect to the story, and if we connect to each other on a personal level. Some of my closest friends are directors that I frequently collaborate with, and those are typically the best results. When you trust each other, you’re not afraid to try new things, or push each other further.
Where would you like to see your career in the next 10 years?
I suppose I want what most DPs want, which is to do one or two movies a year and then a bunch of commercials in between. I look at the careers of DPs like Greig Fraser, Adam Arkapaw or Bradford Young, and I get very inspired. Not necessarily by the quickness of their trajectories, but the significant difference in their early work to their current work. I just hope that I can continue to grow with my director and producer friends. If in ten years I’m still making films and good stories with my friends, I’ll be incredibly happy.
Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
I’m doing a sci-fi film in about a month that I’m very excited about. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. I also have a couple of features that are currently brewing and hopefully they both shoot sometime next year.