Ben Mullen is a cinematographer based in Los Angeles specializing in music video content. Throughout his career, Ben has shot for artists and clients including Big Sean, Puma, and Complex.
When did your journey into cinematography first begin?
One year, on a family trip to Colorado, my parents took my brother and I to a video store where we rented a bunch of monster movies. After seeing some very poorly executed Godzilla movie, I figured it must not be rocket science to make a film, and started trying to make my own on the family DV camera with action figures.
Later, I was lucky enough that the high school I went to had a phenomenal after school film program— it was started by ex-faculty from USC and funded by Sony and Anonymous Content. My freshman class was essentially shown the ropes both technically and academically by upperclassman and guest faculty: how to load film, how to use c-stands, film analysis and critique, etc. We were encouraged to make our own experimental movies for most of the year, and then every spring the entire class of about 30 would make a movie together. The director had to be a senior, have worked every other position on set, and was democratically voted in by the rest of the class. It was a really amazing program that in many ways was more beneficial to my filmmaking education than my college experience was.
What was the biggest turning point from your earlier work into the artist you are today?
In college I took a class taught by director Barnet Kellman who preached the value of creating reality for your performers. His entire thesis is that the less constructed the scene is for the players, the better the performances you’ll get. For example. if your actor needs to drink coffee in the scene, put coffee in their cup. If they are sitting down in the scene, make sure they have the right chair for the scene. If the space is real and appropriate, the actors will have more room to play and experiment and so on. He also encouraged extensive rehearsal— 20+ hours for a two page scene.
At the time of taking this class I had been so obsessed with making images look ‘good’, disregarding if the hot lights, flags, and diffusion had been affecting performances in a negative way. Since then I try to be much less obstructive with my equipment— light from above, outside windows, practicals, etc. Lighting and camera presence affect the vibe on set so much, and I think it’s really important to make technical choices that support the overall mentality and working style of the film you’re shooting. Especially for narrative, when the resources are tight and the performances are the most important variable.
What was the cave system you shot in for First Movement? What challenges came along with that?
When our small team arrived in Jamaica (Director, Producer, 1st AC, Artist) we were greeted with relentless, nonstop thunder storms. The original treatment Kevin Clark had written was no longer doable, so we had to both improvise a new script and shoot it in about 4 days. Ryland Burns (producer) had the tremendous foresight to book us an air bnb that was a short hike from dozens of beautiful locations and also found us a fixer who took us off the beaten path, found our entire cast, and basically executed any crazy ideas we had on the fly.
We all stayed in a bungalow where we would watch our dailies and plan the following shoot day. We’d wake up early, shoot until it started raining, come back to the pad to eat and regroup, and then figure out what else we needed from the story and go back out and shoot the rest. The cave system was on our last day of shooting, and it was also our first day of uninterrupted sunshine. Viktor was singing while we set up in the cave and it echoed off the walls and created such a good vibe to experiment and improvise. It was probably the least challenging part of shooting save for navigating all the bats flying around.
What’s your process for setting up a shot? From early inception to execution.
My process varies a lot from project to project because some directors like to meticulously plan, and others want to be more spontaneous on set. I think it’s just most important to get people to explain what they want the project to look and feel like, and where those ideas are coming from. From there you can brainstorm, make suggestions, choose the tools, etc.
For example, a director might say, “I really like wide angle lenses, and natural, cool lighting, especially for the interiors.” They might think they are being specific, but it’s only because they are seeing something in their head. Do they mean wide angle lenses like a 12mm or a 24mm? When they say cool lighting are they just talking about neutral, or something more like royal blue moonlight? Sometimes it’s more exploratory and we chat about the general tone of the piece, the homework the director has done for the actors, how a certain scene fits in to the film as a whole. This is my favorite part of the process, as I can make my own suggestions to capture those feelings, and then tailor the technical to match.
When it comes to execution, it’s all about communicating all of the above to the team. I find that a lot of my job in prep and production is just management and communication. Making sure the keys understand the logistics of what we are doing and more importantly, why we are doing them. Boiling down all the conversations I’ve had with the director and producer into something that’s easy to swallow and build upon. Then, my crew can again recommend tools or techniques that might be better than what I originally thought, and I can be free to roam and improvise within the support system we’ve set up.
Do you shoot on film, digital, or both? If both, when do you use one over the other?
I would say at this point it’s about 50/50 for film and digital. I really enjoy the process of shooting film— we get to rehearse more, there is more prep, the on set attitude is more focused, and the look is incredible. But at the same time, you run into situations that can be very problematic to efficient storytelling. The gear is heavy, fragile, and more prone to failure than most modern digital cameras. The cameras are more rare and the film itself takes up more physical space. Often, thinking about exposure, shooting different stocks, pushing and pulling, etc. can be quite a headache on set, especially when you have a very tight schedule and can only afford a low shooting ratio.
On the flip side, digital cameras are tiny, competitively priced, and somewhat universally available. You get to play with the look in real time and you can shoot infinitely. But that comes with a different pace and mentality on set. Often you won’t rehearse, or shoot multiple versions of the same shot, or spend hours of the day watching playback! I find that it can be very chaotic at times. While I think it’s possible to merge these two ways of working, I end up trying to lean into the strengths of whatever format I’m shooting rather than to make one work counter intuitively to what’s natural.
I’d also like to say that these are both generalizations over the mediums as a whole. There are so many different types of film and digital formats and each one has a different set of variables which may or may not be right for the project at hand. I really don’t believe there is any hierarchy to any format in filmmaking because at the end of the day 90% of how a movie looks and feels is a result of everything but the camera (performance, production design, costumes, SOUND, vibe on set, etc). The project needs to be thought about beyond format and I always try to keep that on the forefront of the conversation with directors and producers. Sometimes it’s more important to give resources to another department rather than be a stickler on the medium.
What do you look for when you’re trying to create an image for the camera? Is there any specific criteria or is it just something you have to feel?
I’m very interested in visual exposition. I think it’s a shame to just turn the camera on a closeup and let the performance happen. I have to explore further than the first instinct I have for a shot, or at least break down the initial idea and figure out why we wanted to do it. I have been watching a lot more movies lately and it’s made me realize that when a film makes you feel a certain way, you can go back and sort of objectively look at what variables contribute to the feel of a movie. Then when you are making the piece and have an instinct to frame up a shot, you can reflect on why you felt the camera needs to be static, or this size, and so on, what sort of energy these instinctual choices are giving to the camera. This way you can check yourself and make sure you’re making a choice that’s best for the piece as a whole.
What’s the most complicated shot you’ve pulled off in your career?
Every shoot is complicated for different reasons, so it’s hard to think of a single shot. The most logistically complicated shoot of recent memory was on the music video for Blaxploitation, directed by Alex Lill. The entire set was a 30’x30’ miniature, and our main talent was a 4 year old boy. We had very few resources and very little shooting time with our child actor. We shot deep stop, like T8 or T11, and at 96 FPS in order to get an image that replicated ‘real word’ physics. So we have (6) 10Ks over the set going into a 30x30 1/2 Grid and barely getting an exposure. We had to shoot most of the video on a jib with a periscope lens in order to weave the camera in between the small spaces, and we didn’t have a remote head so often it turned into my ACs and I tiptoeing through a miniature city to get the shots we needed. On top of that we also did all the lighting inside the miniature buildings, and all the tiny lights inside the cars and streetlights. To make things more complex, at the end of the video, the main character floods the whole city with water. So our BBE (the wonderful Mitch Ball) patiently soldered custom waterproof LED rigs for 50+ buildings, in addition to 100+ miniature cars and streetlights. I remember at a certain point, every single person on set was helping to wire and secure the little street lamps in order to make our day. Mitch had us organized like an assembly line— it was completely wild. It was hard work for everyone involved but I think we made something very special together.
Where do you go/what do you do to get inspired?
I try to watch and read anything that has been recommended to me. I have a long list I’m slowing getting through.
What’s one piece of advice you have for upcoming DPs?
It’s a marathon, not a race. I feel many people in film put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed quickly in the film industry. Coupled with the fact that your colleagues are constantly showing off on Instagram, there doesn’t seem to be any apparent value for taking things slow. But in my opinion, it’s just not important to streamline success without specific goals in mind. There is no merit in achieving in your 20s what some might in their 40s— without a doubt, every DP is on their own path with their own life experiences that inform the work. If you are truly passionate about whatever kind of work you do, that should be enough.
Any upcoming work you want us to know about?
Last year I was fortunate to shoot a very tender film with Director Charlotte Benbeniste called Bye Bye, Body. It’s the story of a teenager, Nina, who steps out of her comfort zone while at a weight loss camp in an attempt to discover her identity. I learned so much from Charlotte and the team she brought together to make the film, and it was absolutely the most of myself I’ve put into a project. It’s currently being submitted to a few festivals and workshops, and I can’t wait for the world to see it!