Q: Where in the country do you primarily work?
A: The majority of my work stays in the midwest, but a decent amount of work is scattered across the country. I’ve probably worked in a dozen states in the past handful of years.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I grew up in Iowa but I’ve been in St. Louis, MO for a little over 15 years—a midwesterner through and through.
Q: Tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a filmmaker
A: Growing up, I always had an interest in art and photography— my grandpa was a hobby photographer and would put up a slideshow in the basement from time to time. Mostly old barns and flowers and such, but it was captivating. I also knew from a fairly young age that I didn't want a typical 9-to-5 job. I ended up studying Art and Journalism in college— basically cobbling together my own version of a fine art photography / photojournalism program. My first job out of school was at a small regional newspaper in northwest Iowa, but it was clear pretty quickly it wasn’t a good fit. I ended up moving to St. Louis to be with my then-girlfriend-now-wife and bopping around the freelance market as a photojournalist and eventually photo assistant and retoucher.
I started working more and more with Brandon at Bruton Stroube Studios, and eventually, he offered me a job as an assistant. Not too long after I started was the 5D Mark II revolution, for lack of a better term. I was super into the equipment side of the deal, so I got really excited about the possibilities of building that camera into a useable motion picture-making rig. Within the year, Bruton Stroube brought on Tim Wilson as a director to build out our motion business. It was just him and me for a long time— I was soaking up everything I could, learning the ins and outs of the process and industry. We would work with the other studio photographers as lighting consultants for a couple of years, but eventually I was billed as the DP. Everything else was growing along the way—our little 2-man duo in the back corner of the building has snowballed into a standalone post house called Outpost with five editors, sound design, color and supervision all in-house.
Q: What was your first camera?
A: My true first camera was some cheap point-and-shoot camera when I was little. But the first camera that was really memorable was a Minolta “Xtreem” Vectis GX1. I thought it looked so cool; it was all rugged and splash-proof, classic 90s rubberized bubbly design. The big deal, though, was the Advantix film system, which let you shoot in panoramic mode, which I thought was just the coolest thing. I’d never heard the term ‘aspect ratio’ at that time, but I immediately fell in love with how a widescreen format impacted the image.
Q: When working with a commercial client, how do you help move their ideas from a rough concept to a reality that you can capture?
A: One of the things our team does really well is to help build on an idea, no matter the state in which it comes to us.
We have a pretty wide range of clients— some of them come to us with a tightly-boarded concept, and some of them come to us with very little “remember when you did that shoot where you exploded a breakfast? We want that but pasta.” Most of the time, our director Tim does the heavy lifting in the concept phase. At our core, we want to constantly raise the bar and level up every step of the way.
Tim is a really visual director and often has the whole spot in his brain by the time I’m involved in a project. But, he and I will discuss lensing choices, the mood of the lighting and we’ll go back and forth about camera movement and how to execute the more elaborate shots. I tend to do my best work given some constraints, so I like starting with some guide rails and doing my part to build on the existing pieces. I feel akin to a punch-up writer— I get to take material that’s already often good and put the last little finishing touches on.
Q: What is Bruton Stroube and what do you do there?
A: Bruton Stroube Studios started in 1994 as a commercial photography studio. For several years it was just Jon Bruton and Greg Stroube with some shared resources. When I started full-time in 2008, I was employee number 19. Today we’re close to 40 full-time employees. Four still photographers, assistants, producers, retouchers and the motion side of the business (including Director, DP, AD, AC, and Outpost). We primarily shoot imagery for advertising, food packaging, things of that nature. We’ve also produced documentary branded content pieces and a couple of other shorts. Outpost has a wider range, but a lot of long-form docs, some TV shows, and still plenty of commercial work.
My primary role is as DP on our productions, but I also wear the hat of IT specialist, so you can find me from time to time crawling under desks to troubleshoot workstations or staying after hours for some late night nerd sesh upgrading a server or something.
We’ve got a pretty massive SAN with Fibre Channel and 10GbE clients attached— we’ve got about 400TB of live storage and another Petabyte of second-tier storage on LTO tape. I’ve also had a hand in physically building out parts of our studio— from desks and tables in edit suites to the bar in our little hang out spot affectionately referred to as The Render Bar. After all the high-tech camera gear and computering, it’s nice to have a change of pace and build something out of wood from time to time.
Q: What are some steps you take to get ready for shoot days?
A: Productions are 95% prep. Our most successful shoots are ones where we’ve known what each shot and setup should look like—when we walk onto set, it’s just executing the plan—not spending precious time trying to figure anything out.
I try to chat with our director and AD as they’re building the schedule to make sure we’re accounting for time-of-day for any hero ambient lighting and that we’re allowing ourselves adequate setup time between scenes. One of the most important steps I take is marking up a set of storyboards. Oftentimes we’ll have the boards referenced in our schedule, so I can use that and add notes about lensing, filtration and support for the camera team. We use that on set as reference to know when we have a tight turnaround or when we can work ahead to get rigs built, etc.
Occasionally, I draw set diagrams, but often have several conversations with the gaffer and key grip to get us on the same page. I’m usually very hands-on in hiring G&E and camera crew— it’s very important to me to have good set rapport with the crews and a similar teamwork ethic.
Q: What are some campaigns that you’ve worked on that have stood out as highlights in your career?
A: To date, one of my all-time favorite projects was a sponsored documentary about a hockey town in Minnesota called Warroad. We spent a week up there, six miles from Canada, just totally immersed in their little community. The original ask was for a 2-3 minute piece, but we did an 8-minute cut that the clients loved and they sent us back up there to shoot for another week to flesh out a 30-minute TV special.
One of my other favorite campaigns has been for Bad Boy Mowers. We’ve shot commercials and content for them for several years now and they’re super into the lifestyle elements of the brand. Their concepts have included characters that run the gamut from firefighters to helicopter rescue teams to bull riders. I just got back from a week of production in Colorado for this year’s shoot—even more extreme outdoor sports this time around. I love the challenges of shooting in remote areas and moving the camera in unique ways to highlight them.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your mobile digi station? What inspired you to build it and what gear is it made up of?
A: We do a range of projects, in terms of size, budget and physical footprint. But there’s always media to manage and when we’re on location its stressful to pack to travel without having the day’s take backed up to multiple places. As I was coming up there wasn’t always budget for a data wrangler or a DIT, and in our small market there were only a few people I knew I could trust with the workflow anyways. So I wanted a simple solution that was quick and easy and fairly idiot-proof to back up our footage and make it easy to travel with.
I got in on the very first edition of the DigiPlate (I think it was actually a Kickstarter project)— it was developed by a photographer who was always battling how to manage his laptop, drives and cables on set. I loved the flexibility of the setup and the modularity. As they developed more products, I grabbed a few of them and eventually started customizing my DigiCase setup. I think every few months I’m still making small tweaks and customizing it. I’ve added a weather-resistant power port to the outside, a cooling fan, and mounted a Glyph TB3 dock and mag readers for my REDMAGs and DJI CineSSDs.
I have everything wired up so I simply plug the case into the wall and a single TB3 cable comes up from under the plate to provide power and data to my MacBook Pro. Mounted under the DigiPlate is a pair of Glyph Atom Pro SSDs that I can easily unclamp to separate clones at the end of the day or swap in new drives as I fill them up. There’s a slight speed sacrifice with those ripping fast drives to do it all through one cable, but the convenience of being able to plug in a case and a mag and be offloading within a few seconds makes up for it in my view.
The DigiPlate and Case are now manufactured by Inovativ, who continues to *ahem* innovate and add new twists and features to the existing system. It’s great stuff, and obviously very customizable.
Q: How do you see the Glyph Atom 8000 Pro fitting into your digi station?
A: The Glyph Atom 8000 Pro is going to be an awesome addition to the kit just because its so dense and fast. I currently have around a dozen other Atom drives between 2TB SSDs and 4TB RAID SSDs, so moving to the 8TB versions will allow me to simplify things and drag around fewer drives. It’s not uncommon for me to exceed 4TB of data over a multi-day production, and I just like the idea of having the whole take on a single drive (of course with a redundant copy elsewhere). It will make me want to re-think some of my cabling though— the read/write speeds are close to 3x that of the 2TB and 4TB models, so I do want to leverage that.
Q: Monitor or EVF? Why?
A: Monitor. I am a big tall boy so I almost never get to operate on my shoulder where an EVF would be most ergonomic. I’m also often putting the camera in really odd positions or on rigs, so I do more and more of my operation remotely these days anyways.
Q: Zoom or Prime? Why?
A: There’s time and a place for every lens. I used to be a prime-only type of dude but I got a set of Angenieux EZ Zooms for the practical advantages shooting doc work, but now I really like the look of those lenses and have chosen them for aesthetic purposes as well. That said, probably 90% of my work is still on primes.
Q: V Mount or Gold Mount? Why?
A: Gold Mount. Although I’m using my DJI TB50s more and more. Ignite Digi has some killer products to adapt those batteries for not just the Movi Pro, but their Hammerhead gives you 12/25V output for just about anything you can imagine. The TB50 platform, between being affordable and having the killer charger case kit, is one of my favorite things.
Q: Whats an undervalued piece of gear that you wish more people knew about?
A: I dunno... Hats? Friendship? Actually one of my favorite things that I always try to bring is a UE Megaboom speaker ... its rugged, and sounds good, but the killer feature is that it’s got a 1/4-20 receiver on the bottom, so I have fun building stupid rigs to mount it places.
Q: Whats your favorite type of shoot?
A: I truly love the fact that I can shoot a commercial and then a feature film after and then a music video. I’m not sure I have a favorite type. Every shoot is different. Features are my jam but I love sprinkling in short form projects too that are just as exciting.
Q: What type of work do you like doing the most?
A: I have the best job in the world so every day on set is an absolute joy. My soul is in narrative storytelling. As long as the project has a narrative and characters I can get invested in, whether it be inside of a commercial or music video, then it’s my favorite.
Q: What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
A: In the beginning it was just working on confidence. That has come with experience. Having patience with myself. Learning to lead crews who aren’t your go-tos. Dealing with rejection.
Q: Who is one person who has been a mentor while working in the industry?
A: So many great ones but perhaps the longest running mentor since film school has been Johnny Simmons, ASC. Such a generous friend and we like to share good food and photography.
Q: What kind of gear do you need to have on you at all times when you're on set?
A: As a DP I don’t bring much gear to set but essentials include my shoulder pad, light meter.
Q: What’s one piece of gear that you wish existed?
A: I think it’s coming but cameras should have transmitters inside them.
Q: Any advice for young filmmakers looking to break into the industry?
A: Try to take the work you really care about. Focus your portfolio in a way that will lead you to the projects you want to be doing in your career later on. The more you can get invested in a project the better your work will be.