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A Conversation with DP Kelly Mason

The path to becoming a cinematographer isn’t always a clear one, nor is it the same for every person. In some cases, it is the craft that finds the person first. For cinematographer Kelly Mason, CSC the journey began with an early interest in still photography and the encouragement of a family friend into filmmaking. Mason worked her way up in the camera crew and recently transplanted from her native Canada to Los Angeles. It was in Canada that she established herself as the first female cinematographer in the western union of IATSE 669. Mason has also served as an instructor for camera assistant courses at both the Canadian Society of Cinematographers and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Last year, she was recognized as Best Cinematographer at the Caribbean Film Awards in the music video category. Despite a fruitful career in Canada, Mason made a strategic career decision to move to Hollywood in 2002. The migration has opened up an array of possibilities, some of which the cinematographer will discuss in this interview as she looks back at her career and shares some helpful advice about getting to where you want to be.

You started in the camera department in Canada. How did you start learning about cameras and working?

Clip 1 from Mason’s reel

4 MB QuickTime Movie

I started in the camera department right out of high school. My mother’s
close friend from Trinidad is married to Fred Waugh — a stuntman legend in
the business. He was directing second unit for “Cannonball Run III” — a $55 million budget film back in the mid-80s. It was the biggest budget of
that time in Canada. Fred introduced me to the camera department which
consisted of seven cameras. Allen Smith (“Quest for Fire”) was the DP and he
asked me if I’d like to stay on as their camera trainee for the remaining
three months. I didn’t realize how lucky I was when I casually accepted.

The first shot I experienced consisted of a seven camera set-up. The core of downtown Montreal was shut down and it was a
shot of a BMW jumping the center meridien of a three-lane thoroughfare and
crashing into oncoming traffic. I remember the 1st AD getting on the
walkie-talkie and calling in the next BMW. Stephen Campanelli
was one of the Steadicam operators and
the rest of the camera crew were career assistants, some with more than 25
years of experience.

I returned to Toronto, quit my job at the shoe store and got into the
union as a camera trainee. I worked for free on the first couple of projects
and then recieved minimum wage for six-week cycles on different shows. I
felt so lucky that I was getting paid to learn. The program provided the
opportunity to meet many people. Then it was series work with commercials
in between for 10 years. Series was the greatest training ground because
sometimes we’d do more than 30 set-ups a day so we were always hustling and
thinking ahead.

Since you have worked your way up the camera crew, how was it moving up
from position to position? We have a lot of readers who are struggling their
way up, any advice on this?

I spent approximately five years in each position before upgrading. It was
important to me to feel that I had exhausted my passion in each job. I also
prepared myself for the next position by doing dailies or non-union jobs. I
knew I needed to be strong moving into an upgrade. My advice is that
one should prepare oneself for the job as much as possible, because the
production is investing in you, and of course you want to be an asset so
that your reputation remains favorable at all times. Do not upgrade until
you feel strong and confident. If you are upgrading to a first assistant, go
to the rental houses and practice threading the Panaflex, Moviecam, Aaton,
whatever. Carry a tape measure everywhere and practice judging distances,
know your depth-of-field charts for the different lens types, study
conversion tables for filters or frame rates or shutter compensations, read

Jon Fauer’s

book on the

Arriflex

system and the

ASC

manual. The most
difficult transition of course has been going from operator to DP. The
other positions in camera are, for the most part, technically warranted and
more focused on the job at hand, however as a DP, one must be a visionary
and at the same time, one must streamline the thought process to efficiently
make choices to benefit the many areas of pre-production, production and
post-production.

When did you become interested in cinematography?

I really didn’t realize my love for cinematography until I had started
operating. I had set a goal when I was 17 to be an operator by the time I
was 30. When I was a camera trainee, I asked the gaffer what the names of
the lights were, however, he advised me that I should only concentrate on the
job at hand. So that was what I did. In my spare time, I shot still images.
When I was 15 my father built me my first darkroom. To this day I have
maintained a darkroom and am a bit of a proud silver gelatin archival
printer. With the combination of my set knowledge and stills experience the
role as a cinematographer has come naturally.

Clip 2 from Mason’s reel

4.2 MB QuickTime Movie

You’ve lived in Los Angeles for a year. How has working here been different? Was it difficult to integrate yourself in the film industry here?

The transition has been an adventure discovering a new landscape and
dissolving into a community that is charged with industry and industry
events. The great advantage to being in Los Angeles is that there are so
many tools to choose from as everything is at our fingertips and the masters
of light (my mentors) are based here — so I have the advantage of being
able to attend lighting seminars or panels to listen and learn. That just
generally isn’t the case abroad. It hasn’t been difficult to integrate
myself into the industry as, like any activity, it is a matter of simply
taking action and there are so many wonderful opportunities to move into
this flow of events.

You take advantage of helpful film organizations in Los Angeles. Why is it an important asset to new filmmakers out there to involve themselves with different organizations?

It is important to involve yourself with helpful organizations like the
American Society of Cinematographers and

Women in Film

because these
foundations are outlets to experienced talented artists that are very
enthusiastic about educating and encouraging anyone interested in the field.
These organizations offer workshops which provide opportunities to learn
more and meet more people. So much of the magic of the industry is based
on the energy experienced between people and these organizations give us the
opportunity to create relationships.I must mention American Cinematographer magazine is my monthly textbook.It provides real
accounts of the cinematographers experiences in production, detailed
lighting set-ups, post techniques and the latest on technology and
speculations.

What I would say to budding filmmakers is to busy yourself with
informational literature, online and on paper; like

creativePLANET,

International Cinematographers Guild,

Below the Line

and American Cinematographer. Visit the websites of
the rental houses, know what is out there. Learn how the tools can help
you achieve your vision. Constantly engage yourself with activities
related to cinematography. If you are sitting in a restaurant, think about
how you might light the scene differently. Watch movies, decipher filters
or color temperatures chosen to achieve the mood.

What are you up to these days?

When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I met the city manager from Boulder
City, Nev. at a Hollywood party and he invited me on a road trip to the Grand
Canyon with a natural healer from San Diego, a famous architect from
Austria and a Tibetan monk. The next day I packed my truck and headed to
Nevada. When I initially saw the monk I was awed by his peacefulness, as
he sat mindfully in the lotus position with the prayer wheel smoothly
spinning in his right hand. Then his cell phone rang, and the illusion was
shattered. Anyway, I have ended up shooting a documentary on him and his
practice in Buddhism. I also shot a documentary for a group of women
called “Code Pink — Women for Peace” we flew to Washington, D.C; to shoot the
peace marches around the White House just days before the war in Iraq broke
out.

Portrait of Stanton Rogue
©Kelly Mason, 2003

I am also doing small jobs, for example, interviews with directors, DPs and
writers for DVDs, a job for Kodak at the Entertainment Technology World show
on DPs talking about the art of commercials, and shooting motion picture
stock footage for Getty Images for future profit. I also shoot and sell
still photography — fashion, portrait, wedding, fine art. Both mediums
provide an opportunity to practice the art of lighting, composition and
problem solving. Recently, I held a housewarming/photo exhibit party in hopes to sell one or two pieces.

There is always a way to survive financially, the real hardship is emotional.
The value of family and friends is defined when we take these adventures.
My future goals are to practice my art as a cinematographer — and to be very
conscious of the miracles that present themselves in the process. For the
most part, I have experienced my adult life on set with a group of people
that of course all have different ways of seeing, so it is most exciting to
create room for everyone to do their job to the best of their ability with
open lines of communication. Still photography is my immediate outlet for
artistic expression so I am constructing a collection of images for a
tabletop book that portrays spirit.

Has it been challenging for you as a female cinematographer? How?

I believe it is challenging for any cinematographer, male or female — there
are so many talented people to choose from. I look young for my age so some
people are afraid to hire me. They aren’t aware that I have close to 20
years of experience in the camera department. Kelly is also a man’s name so
sometimes people are surprised when they meet me. However, once I have the
job, I have the opportunity to make great pictures, and so judgement eases
off. The pressure then is to perform. Hopefully the people above-the-line
are aware enough to give me a chance to prove myself and see past the gender
politics.

You also do still photography. Can you talk about how stills can play a vital role in
developing a young cinematographer’s eye?

Stills photography is a concentrated version of motion picture. It’s one moment rather than consecutive real-time moments captured. It is the same theory. Know how your film
performs, understand what you want to achieve in-camera, what can be done
in post (or the darkroom) and see your composition through the eyepiece so that you understand the angles from which light and shadow may be present. If
a cinematographer can’t afford to rent a camera package or the cost of
processing he/she can bulk load the motion picture stock and shoot tests
with an SLR. Same theory.

What do you think of digital video as a tool?

I think it is a tremendous tool if applied with creative technique and suitable to the story…No really, it’s capture qualities are constantly improving and it is exciting. It is another means to exhibit images and ultimately transmit a story. Some stories will demand the look and the tool will fit the production dimensions. I am supportive of any
system that can successfully capture a quality image.

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