Jon Chema is a Director of Photography based out of Los Angeles, CA. Having an unconventional upbringing to cinematography, Jon has quickly propelled himself to working with clients such as Playstation and Afrojack and is currently represented by Gersh.
How did you get started in cinematography?
When I first started, I actually wanted to be a doctor and pursue pre-med. I was born and raised in Detroit, and had always dabbled in film stuff, but never thought I could make a career out of it. After freshman year I realized pre-med wasn’t for me, and ended up in school in Nashville where I pursued entertainment studies. I had multiple internships there, was a camera PA and started assisting all the Dp’s in town while also working in a camera house. When I graduated I started making country music videos, shooting on both super 16 and 35mm while also learning digital. I went for it, and finally decided to shoot all my own stuff. I was able to travel and meet a lot of people in the coastal cities. Realizing the small market in Nashville, I decided to move to LA. I moved here a couple of years ago, got signed with an agency, and ever since been working like crazy.
What was the first big DP gig you got? Anything you learned?
My first real gig was a Coca-Cola commercial I shot in Atlanta. Both the director and I got thrown into it. We shot in the Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta, and it was a massive job. I had a ton of crew, a technocrane, and lots of other toys to work with. Coming from small music videos, I was kinda thrown into the fire, but thankfully the job went really well and received a lot of positive feedback for both the director and myself. It was an awesome learning experience and helped me establish myself to get future jobs.
You are represented by Gersh here in LA. How has your career changed being apart of an agency? What was DP life like before representation?
The Coca-Cola commercial really put me on the map to help me get representation. You kinda know when the time is right to get representation. At a certain point I needed someone to help manage my schedule, and help me negotiate rates. They are great at taking care of that end to allow me to focus on the creative. They are also a team member, helping you put your name in front of clients.
DP life before representation was a gradual progression. I was shooting for about 3-4 years freelancing on my own. Once I started to get more work, representation kinda fell into place. It was an organic process.
What’s the creative process like working with such big brands and artists such as Playstation and Afrojack? Do you get a lot of creative control?
They are both different in regard to creative control. Commercials have a lot more money overall, but less creative control. Normally the DP is brought on a commercial project to execute a vision the brand or ad agency has already established. That’s great for some jobs, but is not creatively fulfilling enough to do it all the time. Music videos, passion projects, and short films allow you to have a more pronounced creative touch on the vision. For me, there’s a fine line between how many commercials and creative jobs I do. The creative jobs might not pay as well, but if you believe in the creativity behind it, you can bring that into the jobs that pay well.
How do you go about lighting a project? Do you like to pre-light? How has your lighting technique changed over the course of your career?
Lighting is very project-to-project dependent. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a DP in my visuals. I’ve learned that sometimes the best way to approach lighting is often times the simplest. My last job I shot a scene with all practicals, and it worked really well. When I come on a project, I ask what the story asks for in terms of visuals and I go from there. I personally like to light through windows - I feel that it gives the most natural look. When I go on a tech scout, I often bring my stills camera and take pictures just to see what the world looks like. I then work with the director to help craft a look based on the images. For outdoors, I often find myself taking light away. Sometimes the easiest solution outside is to take light away. But it honestly varies from project to project.
What was the toughest project you have worked on?
I recently got back from shooting a 2 day music video in Colorado, and it was physically the most demanding shoot I’ve ever done. The storyline involved a deaf man falling in love with a local mountain girl. We had a deaf actor on set, so naturally there were more challenges. We also shot it all on film, in the snow at 10,000 feet. There were logistical challenge such as moving through 3ft snow to different locations, and physical challenges having half the stamina because of the elevation. But in the end it was something we all believed in, and that made the experience so much better as we all had creative contributions to the project.
What do you hope to accomplish by the end of your career?
Ultimately I got into this career because I want to tell stories - as cliche as that sounds. I’ve always been moved by the world of cinema, and being able to escape any problem for 2 hours is the greatest thing in the world. That’s the power of cinema -it moves you, it’s viceral. So at the end of my career I want to have created films that told stories people connected to.
If you had any advice to give to a young DP what would it be and why?
Always stay humble and never put yourself above anything whether it be a job or working with someone. I’ve had some of my best shoots working with people that I would have never expected - lots of pleasant surprises. Ultimately it comes down to trusting your gut, and treating people with respect.
Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
The Colorado music video I was explaining earlier I’m very stoked about. I also have a couple of commercials that I can’t say much about at the moment but excited to share once released.