Brendan Riel is a cinematographer operating out of Los Angeles, specializing in music videos, commercials, and short narratives. In his career, Brendan has maintained a gritty, realistic style portrayed in abstract ways.
How did your interest in cinematography begin?
I vividly remember sitting in my 6th grade social studies during an assignment presentation. A girl in my class decided to turn in a video assignment that her uncle had helped with. It was a nerf war through the woods that looked like The Matrix with the bullet time effects. Everyone in the class was amazed and I thought to myself well, I want to amaze other people too. I started making short action films with my friends in the neighborhood. At the very beginning I was shooting on some little Canon Powershot camera. My first real camera was a Canon T2i. That was a big deal for me. I did some small web series projects with some buddies and was into doing my own VFX as well. I was just in love with the process, not really knowing that I wanted to specialize in cinematography. I tried to get experience in entertainment, but working at a local TV studio taught me that I didn’t want to be involved with live TV. At all. It wasn’t until I started shooting shorts with my friends that I considered narrative storytelling more. I started reading Shane Hurlbut’s blog, andI began to understand my interests a little better. I remember he reached out to me about a comment I had left on one of his blog posts. We got to talking about college and he recommended I go to his alma mater. The next year I started school at Emerson College with a specialization in cinematography.
Explain what is was like interning under Shane Hurlbut, ASC. Any interesting stories you have to share? Would you recommend a mentor to all aspiring DPs?
Working for Shane was awesome - he is truly a master of his craft, and a wizard with lighting. He just knows which methods will yield certain results. Being on set and working with him was so valuable. I think what I took away the most from Shane was really understanding the importance of a thorough prep. Things always change on the day, plus you have to allow room for some spontaneous creativity - but going into your project with a clear idea of your visual language, rules, and a solid team are probably most important. Interesting stories? I’ve got tons. I remember I managed to break an M40 (the head on the electric combo just fell off the stand with the light on it), I broke a metal halide practical light and smashed a practical tungsten light bulb all in one day during one of his master workshops in Burbank. That’s when i decided to work gripside! I got teased about that day for months.
You started working under DPs Key Gripping. How has your experience being a Key Grip translated to your DP work?
It was ingrained in my mind for a long time that in order to be a DP i needed to be doing only DP work. I was so stubborn about that for a while when I first moved to LA, right out of college. It’s not true, though. Doing crew work helps you become a better DP and it helps not to have to worry about money as you build up your portfolio. It’s ok to be crewing for other people in your climb up this industry ladder. Gripping has allowed me to work with some fantastic DPs and gaffers as well as meet new people who would crew for me and vice versa. It gives you a cohort of individuals who are all trying to do the same, so you end up climbing together. Do what works for you - everyone takes their own path. It’s just like how working freelance in our industry isn’t the holy grail of being successful, but many think that it is. If you work a day job or if you like working for a company because of the consistent financial stability (especially when first starting off) then there’s absolutely no shame in that. You absolutely have to do what works for you. Key gripping has totally worked for me.
Woking gripside has taught me so much about lighting. I’ve gotten to see how DPs I admire and have come to trust work, how different gaffers light and also how we can all communicate and collaborate to execute the director’s vision. Because in the end, that’s what it’s all about. I love rigging and building contraptions - I’ve always enjoyed using that part of my brain. Coming up through the lighting department has allowed me to understand how to light and exactly how to achieve an effect rather than just repeating the same setup each time to achieve similar results. I’ve become a better communicator, have met some awesome people and I think it’s made me a better DP. Personally, I think that a DP needs to be proficient at lighting. I feel like it’s more important than knowing how to pull focus or build a camera for steadicam. In a pinch I’d totally rather be without a gaffer than without a 1st AC.
We really liked “The Audition.” How did the concept for that come about?
Thanks! It’s funny - the director and I met on Instagram (which has almost become the Tinder for filmmakers). Instagram is such a great platform for connecting with other people in our industry. Jon Primo and I chatted it up on the ‘gram and decided to meet up to try and collaborate. We were just going into this as a passion project. There wasn’t anything too magical about the conceptualization process though. We were getting close to our days of shooting and I remember us changing up the concept quite drastically. We got talking about things and decided that what we had wasn’t working. This is where some clever thinking on the day will help make the piece all the better. Keep an open mind during a project for sure. I definitely wanted something to showcase my cinematography that would continue to help define my look. We wanted to do some studio work and also some location shooting. I wanted to try out some new lighting in the studio for some sort of gritty beauty lighting with in-camera lighting cues. That was a lot of fun.
We also liked the “Level Water” commercial. It looked like there was a lot of locations you shot at. Was that a logistical challenge to shoot?
That commercial was a fun one. We shot that thing in only 3 days. It took a lot of planning for which location needed to be shot at what time throughout the day because I ran with all natural light. I had a few floppies and some diffusion frames, but no units. That piece was all about the energy of the camera movement and the pacing in the edit. I think we shot at 7 locations. The production team was Blonde Media, out of Denmark. They came in for the job and weren’t as familiar with Los Angeles as I was. We did a day of location scouting and I brought them around to some different spots.
How would you like to see your career evolve over the next 10 years?
I look back from where I am now and hope that my past self would be happy with where I am. It always seems like in the present moment you’re not doing well enough - and that’s a good thing. It means that your heart is fully in it and you’re doing it for the right reasons. I hope in 10 years to still be in love with the process and not be tired of anything. I want to stay inspired to learn and become better. If we’re talking actual career goals, I see myself shooting narrative features and TV series work. Narrative is still where my real passion for image making is.
What advice would you give other aspiring DPs that are trying to get their work seen?
I’d say just keep doing the work. It’s so cliche that it’s almost hard to hear but it’s true. Then, put out the work you want others to see. You’ll only get hired for the work others see - define your look.
It’s so important to keep yourself in check as a human being too. Be kind, be a good person, rub shoulders with the right people and be whole-heartedly passionate about what you’re doing because hopefully you’ll at it for a long time. Character and personality go a long way in getting noticed.
Also, don’t feel like you have to listen to everybody. Create your own path.
That being said, in the past (and present, who am I kidding) it’s extremely frustrating when I’m excited about a project that comes out and nothing happens. No new directors reach out from thin air because they want to work with you, agents don’t reach out to sign you, etc. Maybe you’ll get a few extra likes than a normal post on Instagram. If that satisfies you for the long term then maybe you’re doing this for the wrong reasons - it could be a problem that’s bigger than just Instagram recognition. Be in love with the process. Enjoy what you do in the moment while you’re on set. It’ll help things be a little smoother when you feel like you’re not getting as much traction as you’d like.
Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
I shot this short film with director Brendan Sweeney at the end of 2018 that I’m super excited about. It’s got a 70s aesthetic with some experimental vibes, and I’m looking forward to seeing it on screen.