Have you ever wondered about the magic that goes into immortalizing those unforgettable moments from iconic shows like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars? Behind every captivating performance is a crew of cinematographers who make it possible.
Jimmy Garcia has worked on American Idol since season one and for shows like The Masked Singer, America’s Got Talent, and the Billboard Music Awards. Throughout his career, he has continued to adapt to changing technology and has achieved mastery over a diverse range of cameras.
Dive deep into stage shows and cinematography with our insightful Q&A session with Jimmy as he shares his wisdom and skills with future cinematographers. Suppose you’re curious about the world behind expert camera work or an aspiring cinematographer eager to grasp the secrets of the trade. You’ll want to check out our full podcast with guest Jimmy Garcia on Industry Insights (link below).
Question 1: As a Director of Photography, what are your primary responsibilities in a production?
As a director of photography, my position itself is the primary responsibility. There are very few jobs where someone looks over your shoulder if you’re on your computer. That can be a little nerve-wracking, but that’s what it’s like as a director of photography.
Whatever shot you’re giving, and it’s on a monitor, the director, producers, everyone’s looking at it, looking over your shoulder. So, your primary responsibilities are finding beautiful angles, working with light, knowing how to use light, and making images that are just beautiful so that your client is happy and can use what you’re filming for their production to make it better.
In short, it’s the quality of the image and how they are portrayed for that particular production.
Question 2: Lighting plays a crucial role in cinematography. Can you talk about your approach to lighting for different types of productions and how you use it to enhance a show?
Lighting is everything. You can create moods and energy through lighting.
I taught Broadcast 440 at Point Loma University here in San Diego. I would explain lighting in a “spiritual way.”
Let’s look at three-point lighting. There’s the key light, the backlight, and then a fill light to fill whatever’s behind you. The key light is God, and it is lighting you. The backlight separates you from the world, in a sense. And the fill light fills the image, the screen, which you could consider your faith, in a sense. This is how I look at it, my little way of explaining it.
But lighting is so important. If I’m filming someone outside, I always try to shoot against the light – you don’t want them squinting. If you want to see their face clearly, I usually put the sun behind people and bounce light into them.
Back in the day, we’d have to set up a camera and try to defocus the background. And we had things called Hampshire Frost, which was like a shower curtain behind people. And then you’d put stuff behind that and make it look defocused.
Nowadays, you have these incredible cameras that do that inside the camera digitally. Lighting is so much easier nowadays than ever before.
Question 3: How do you maintain a consistent visual style and tone when working on a television series with multiple directors and episodes?
The director pretty much comes up with that style. As a DP, these directors rely on your expertise to guide them. That’s why they call you back to work on their shows.
You need to look for the right angles and how light looks behind people. The directors are depending on you for those kinds of things. A consistent visual style is how nice you can make it look.
Question 4: How do you balance artistic expression and technical precision as a Director of Photography?
Technically, it comes down to these cameras and lenses. There are a lot of apparatuses within moving cameras and drone cameras.
Technology is constantly improving and changing, and you must stay relevant to continue working in this business. You can’t just get locked in how you used to do things. It’s still good to experience how things were done before and apply that knowledge to new ways of doing things.
Artistic expression and technology are completely intertwined. And nowadays, technology allows us to capture shots without an actual camera guy in front of everything. Camera placements and movement can be done remotely now.
Question 5: What excites you most about the future of cinematography, and what new trends or developments do you think will shape the industry?
It goes back to what I said earlier about the technology of cameras and apparatuses. You have spider, jitter, and rail cams on sets and studios that can move.
It’s movement. Cameras are a visual medium; we must hold our audience’s attention and compel them to keep watching. And there’s sometimes movement within the frame. Breaking Bad, for example – that series was phenomenal. The camera never moved, but everything in the camera did.
They’d have specific focal points, and it’s out of focus at first, and then something comes into focus, and those kinds of things are creating movement on their own.
Everybody’s a cinematographer nowadays. We have phones that are incredible and shoot incredible images. The bar has been raised so high now with cinematography and what you can do with a phone.
Question 6: Could you describe a typical day on set for you as a Director of Photography?
A typical day involves meeting with producers and finding out what needs to be filmed, how it will be filmed, and what the actual production is, whether it’s a particular act or a specific production.
And what is it going to look like? Is it lit already? Is it going to be lit? So, we must work with a lighting director to ensure everything is done correctly. It’s a collaboration. Even with sound – sound is so important as well. A typical day is meeting with your director and producers, finding out what your assignments are as director of photography, a DP, a camera operator, a drone operator, a movie cam operator, a steady cam operator, a jib operator, etc.
Preparing yourself mentally and physically and knowing what they’re after is always challenging. And if what you give them is not what they’re after, you must find a way to provide them with what they want through your skills and gifts.
As a DP cinematographer, you can give suggestions based on their vision, resulting in a look that may even be better than they had in mind.
Question 7: What essential skills and traits are needed to excel in your role?
One of the most essential traits is people skills because you’re part of a team.
If you’re working with a producer or director and they’re not really comfortable with you, first and foremost, you must break that barrier and come with a great attitude. You have to be a people person. If you want to be kept getting asked to work on shows with these certain directors and producers, your skill level as an individual and as a team member is crucial.
There are a lot of great cinematographers out there, and if you’re a jerk on set, people will not work with you. Someone else will take your place. So I think a big skill is your people skills and how to get along with people and bring in great energy.
Question 8: How is shooting for a reality TV show different from a movie or scripted series?
I’ve gravitated towards reality and TV series because I personally like live television. In movies, an actor can have multiple takes to capture the right performance.
With live TV, I need to capture movement as it happens. It’s a different skill than waiting and setting it up to happen. And that’s a big difference because the performers are not actors on many of these shows. So you have to capture as things happen.
The other thing about live TV is that there’s a certain adrenaline going on – if you’re well rehearsed and know what’s going to happen, there is nothing more satisfying than pulling it off on a live TV show, of capturing the big moment. You’re not doing multiple takes. I don’t like burning out the camera crew, the editors, or the producers.
I like live television because it’s happening, and that’s it. Once it airs, they might throw an editing fix on a West Coast viewing 3 hours after the East Coast premiere, but for the most part, you see the first and final take.
Question 9: What are some key considerations when choosing the right camera and lenses for different types of projects?
I think the key to choosing the right camera for a job is accessibility. Is this camera in the way of the set? Is this camera and lens too big for the set? Is this camera and lens giving you a wide enough shot? Are your shots tight enough? Is the camera great in low light, or is it a fast-speed camera?
Those are all the key considerations. Every director knows their lenses. Lenses are the key to all of it. I can’t stress that enough.
Another consideration is budget. Are you using a smaller format camera versus a larger format camera? Depending on budget, what’s your edit budget?
Question 10: How do you adapt your approach to cinematography based on the director’s vision and the overall tone of the project?
I adapt my camera cinematography work with the director’s vision by trying everything I can – every angle. Sometimes, that involves putting the camera on the floor. Sometimes, I have to stand up. Sometimes, it’s about putting some foreground in front of the camera just to give the director different options.
You have to be very adaptable to different situations. It’s a creative business. We have to adapt in every situation, in every lighting situation, in every person in front of the camera. We have to adapt sometimes because of limitations.
You’re constantly adapting. For instance, we’ll have camera meetings on America’s Got Talent. There are 20 cameras, and we have a camera meeting regarding all these different acts. Every act can vary a lot, whether a performance needs low lighting or if there are lasers or light shows. These factors change how we have to position cameras. You have to adapt in every way to try to pull it off, but being well-rehearsed is a big; it makes a big difference.