Austin Schmidt is a cinematographer based in Los Angeles. His flexible creativity can be seen in various narrative, commercial, and VR work. Throughout his career, Austin has created content for brands including Dodge and Samsung.
How did you first get into cinematography?
To be honest, I sorta fell into the whole thing. When I was heading off to undergrad, my main priority was finding a school with the closest dorms to a surf break. When it came time to choose a major, I arbitrarily went with Studio Arts. As the year progressed I realized how bad I was with a paintbrush. But it was in one of those early classes I got a taste of visual storytelling. We were tasked with creating an installation and for whatever reason I thought to create a first-person video experience of a newborn being extracted from a womb via emergency C-Section. I had never played with cameras (still or video) at this point but really felt drawn to the process. It took several years of applying to film schools before NYU accepted me. In the first week they encourage students to focus on one aspect of Production, but I had no idea what each role was. Having heard I used to paint, a Professor ushered me into a cinematography class and I was instantly hooked.
What were some of your artistic inspirations early on?
I gravitate to stories with a heightened sense of reality, visually speaking. As far as film directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet absolutely blew my mind. Gilliam was pretty great. Spielberg, Cameron, del Toro. For still photography definitely Elger Esser, Jonas Bendiksen, and Larry Sultan. Their world creation and visual language is incredible.The heart in each of their stories revolves around a human element, but with this added sense of wonder that reminds you of the magic hidden in everyday life.
What do you look for when you’re composing a frame?
Depth. I’m always looking for depth in the frame. I’ll be crawling on my hands and knees, hugging close to walls, or climbing fences to find it. Film/Video is inherently a 2-Dimensional medium, so I’m constantly fighting to add that extra facet that brings the story to life. There’s many ways to technically achieve depth through composition, contrast ratio, depth-of-field, lens choices, color juxtaposition and camera movement. But I can’t say I compose a frame based off a predetermined checklist. A lot of my decisions are based off of instinct, which is really just a byproduct of repetition and experience.
Which is a better working environment: Commercials or narrative? Explain why
I wouldn’t say that one is universally better than the other. They each have their pros and cons. Narrative requires a ton of work and time. It’s exhausting, and frankly, you’re hardly ever compensated in a way that’s commensurate to the work you’re putting in. But, on the flip side, watching a completed film is one of the most satisfying feelings on earth. You also get to form personal relationships when working in the narrative world. I’ll spend three intense months with actors and crew, really getting to know them as people. The commercial world is a completely different beast. It’s a great way to try out new tools and you can never complain about the pay. But you’re in for a few days and then you’re out. I barely have time to remember my co-workers’ names, much less get to know them as people. I’ve also learned to feel less attached to the end product. Multiple Producers and Clients pull the image into different directions and it becomes a bastardized version of the original intent. Ultimately, both have their merits.
How did you get into your VR work? What are some of the added complications when filming with that technology?
I dabbled in VR for a few years after my brother invited me up to GoPro’s San Mateo headquarters to train in the technology. I was pretty captivated by the whole thing. GoPro had just purchased Kolar stitching software and it was amazing how far the two companies had advanced the medium. As far as complications, there are certainly some technical obstacles to tackle. When you’re shooting, you need more cameras to capture more resolution — and you also want more lenses in order to increase the image overlap, because this allows the stitching software to blend seams better. However, more lenses means more stitching, and thus, more time in post: For instance, stitching and cleaning up a 4 minute piece with Kolor and After Effects could easily take weeks to complete. Meanwhile, any movement of the camera increases the likelihood of revealing seams, which also yields more time in post. As you can imagine, this all becomes incredibly pricey, but it also can limit your creative choices. VR inherently places the viewer in a 1st Person perspective, and because of this — at least, in its current form — VR feels better suited for “experiences” rather than narrative storytelling. That being said, the medium is developing at lightning speed, and will continue to do so. I’m excited to see where it goes next.
With projects like “Mario Brothers” how do cinematographers shoot with VFX in mind? Does it make it harder or easier?
The Mario Brothers series was an incredible collaboration with a great Special Effects team (SFX). The goal was to shoot as much of the world in-camera as possible, while visual effects (VFX) was mainly used to augment the SFX team’s work. For instance, in Peach’s jail cell when the Koopa brings in the Chain Chomps, most of that is achieved through prosthetics and puppetry. The chains holding the chomps were plastic pieces attached to styrofoam orbs for the head. Fishing line was attached to the links and orb so the puppeteers could animate them while sitting on decking above the set. VFX was then implemented for the Chain Chomp faces. I definitely subscribe to the general consensus that VFX is most successful when there is some basis in practicals. This also applies to lighting with VFX in mind. For example, when Luigi touches the fire flower for the first time and conjures a flame ball, I animated firelight around him so the VFX artists would have a lighting base to augment from. If no base for that fireball was there, the VFX artists would have to manufacture the lighting effects from scratch which result in a less realistic image. So, I wouldn’t say working with VFX is harder — it just requires different technical considerations. It’s important to rope in your Production Designer and VFX team early, and as the “overseer” of the image I make sure those conversations are happening. My golden rule is: Never rely on post to fix an issue that can be addressed in camera.
What was the hardest shoot of your career? How did you plan for it, and what how did it turn out?
Many of the features I’ve worked on have been physically taxing. Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can plan for when working in extreme environments — ultimately, it’s the name of the game. But actually, the hardest experience was probably my first feature shoot. We were filming near Barstow during a record summer heat wave — 1150 Fahrenheit type stuff. It was an action story full of gun fights, explosions, and car chases. Running around with multiple cameras each day in that heat took a toll on everyone’s body. To combat the heat, the crew would wrap moist towels around their heads — but the water from the towels would then attract these swarms of bees which landed on their heads to drink. This led to some intense stings, — several of which ended in the emergency room. Meanwhile, on the same shoot, there was a stunt mishap during the final chase sequence: The lead stunt driver miss-judged the impact point and his car rammed directly into another vehicle. Life Flight was called but fortunately, he turned out alright. That first shoot made for a pretty rocky introduction to feature filmmaking. As fate would have it, the film was never released and I never saw a cut.
What do you do when you get stuck/in an artistic rut?
In between films, I keep myself busy with research. I’m constantly watching movies to analyze storytelling techniques. I collect images from paintings and photography to add to my ever-growing collection of visual references (which I build in Evernote). Beyond that, I keep up with American Cinematographer Magazine; it’s a little neurotic, but I actually keep a spreadsheet with different DPs’ technical details and creative thoughts. I draw inspiration from these sources when I’m in the weeds trying to bring a new film to life.
I also teach myself new software. I learned Blender and Unreal Engine to create lighting tutorials from scenes of my previous films. I’ll be gradually posting them on my newly formed blog once the Production companies allow me to release the images. Playing in that software is so much fun, and it helps to keep my brain stimulated, creatively speaking. It’s like playing Legos as a child
Any future work you’d like us to know about? How do you hope to see your career evolve over the next 5 years?
I’m really excited about a film I worked on called Radioflash, which will be released later this year. It’s a YA adventure film about a tech-obsessed teenager in Washington who has to journey on foot to her grandfather’s mountain home after an EMP wipes out all power on the western seaboard. We spent three months shooting in the mountains of Utah, Montana and Idaho. The whole experience was a blast — I got to hang out with a personal hero of mine, Bart the Bear II, and his trainer Doug Seus; and we filmed in some awesome locations like Kootenai Falls (of The Revenant fame). Plus, we created some great underwater sequences in a water-tight set, which is always fun. The whole thing was a throwback to the adventure films I cherished as a kid.
Like everyone, I’m constantly striving to meet my own lofty expectations for myself, and there are certainly filmmakers I’d love to work with (what’s up J.A. Bayona!); but if I’ve learned anything over the past decade or so, it’s that patience is key. At the end of the day, DPs are craftsmen, and you can’t really control how the cards fall. Instead, I try to focus my energy on staying sharp and connecting with filmmakers who share my creative interests. There’s nothing more satisfying in this business than finding your people.