James Mathers grew up in the film industry.
As a child actor, he performed in feature films alongside such notables as Henry Fonda, Walter Brennen, Buddy Ebsen, and Hayley Mills. He also guest starred in episodes of Bewitched, My Three Sons, The Munsters, and Adam-12.
Behind the lens professional work started after he attended film school and a wide variety of staff and freelance assignments led to a specialization in cinematography and the founding of his own business, The Migrant FilmWorkers. Jim has been the Director of Photography on over forty feature films and Movies of the Week, and has seen seven different series from inception through at least the first season. In the last few years, he has been developing an expertise in shooting “filmstyle” digital pioneering the use of the RED 4K camera with several features and TV series. Recent projects have also led to a wealth of practical experience and an in depth understanding of 3D acquisition.
In the documentary realm, he was DP on the Lionsgate theatrical release The US vs. John Lennon, as well as the Grammy nominated Showtime special Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile. He also shot segments of the Sundance Doc Winner For the Bible Tells Me So, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s 11th Hour.
He is the President and co-founder of the nonprofit educational cooperative, The Digital Cinema Society, a group dedicated to the industry's informed integration of new technology. The group was formed in 2003 as an outgrowth of a documentary entitled Digital Cinema Solutions. Featuring industry luminaries and digital pioneers such as James Cameron, George Lucas, Robert Rodriguez, Stephen Soderbergh, and Allen Daviau, ASC, this volunteer effort helped to clear the air and focus the discussion at the inception of digital motion picture production. In spite of its success, the program was almost obsolete before it could be completed, so an on-going effort known as the Digital Cinema Society was begun.
The purpose is not to advocate for digital, but to objectively examine all media, solutions, services, and technologies without favoring any one brand, service, or format over another. With an international membership over 5,000, they count some of the top filmmaking, technology, and business leaders in the Entertainment Industry among their membership, proudly serving as a conduit for these diverse disciplines to work together. Membership benefits include a monthly eNewsletter, admission to regularly scheduled educational presentations, industry screenings, and access to the member’s site with streaming coverage of past events, and news of the latest developments in the field of Digital Cinema.
Editor’s Note: I met James Mathers four or five years ago when he was speaking in Orange County about the Digital Cinema Society. I have followed him ever since. Besides being totally on top of what is happening in the digital world, he is known for being even handed in his review of technology and a really nice guy. You can check out his remarkable career to date at IMDB
OCS: As a child actor and spending time on sets, you were obviously exposed to the production side of filmmaking at all levels. Were there one or two particularly interesting experiences that inspired you make a career on the other side of the lens? Any standout mentors during this time that you still keep in touch with today?
James: Growing up in the industry, I quickly developed a strong work ethic; successful child actors need to be reliable. Although I never worked as an actor with my older brother Jerry Mathers, who played the title role in Leave It To Beaver, he was a role model. He worked seven years straight on the original series and never missed a beat or uttered a word of complaint. Lucky for me, I was never famous, but I got a window into the complications of being a child star through Jerry. I was free to go out in public without having to deal with fans, and got to attend regular school except for the occasional acting stints. For me, it was the best of both worlds, but I have great respect for the way my brother handled it all.
OCS: Please tell us about your formal filmmaking education.
James: I attended California State University, Northridge. (CSUN), and started studying Multiple Camera Television Directing. It was a time I think of as the second Golden Age of TV, and I was attracted to the world of multiple camera shows like All In the Family and Saturday Night Live in their early years. At the same time I was exposed to Filmmaking classes, and although I loved the excitement of live camera cutting, I came to appreciate what could be accomplished with the single camera technique, and got hooked. However, the fact that a senior project shot on Film could easily cost thousands of dollars, made me decide to shoot mine on tape. This is when I first started to think about deploying cinema techniques with electronic capture.
OCS: Was there an early job that helped confirm your love of the business?
James: My first job out of school was as a Post Production Assistant on , The Frost/Nixon Interviews, (not the 2008 feature, but the original interviews after Nixon left office in the 1970’s). It was the first deployment of computer assisted off-line editing using multiple 1/2” reel-to-reel decks. Prior to this, tape editing was done physically with razor blades. My job was very tedious, writing down the “decision list”, time code for every cut, (which is now fully automated). I later became an Operator on this system, which started a tradition of working with new technology, but I didn’t like being in a darkened room all day; so I made a conscience decision to get out of post and into production.
I started my own little production company specializing in shooting “filmstyle” digital remotes. It was the early days of the “porta-pack”, with separate shoulder mount camera and 3/4” or 1” VTR, which segued within a few years to the various one piece Beta camcorders. I had a lot of success in this niche, but became frustrated that Producers were only shooting electronically because they wanted a quick and cheap product, while I wanted to make movies. I got my investors in the production services company to then go along with the purchase of 35mm film cameras, plus more complete Grip Electric packages. I spent most of the 1980’s shooting dozens of Indie movies and renting Producers most of the necessary gear.
By the mid-1990s, however, the Indie movie business bottomed out, and budgets that were already slim, plummeted; so I sold all the gear and started working in TV. A few years later when Producers were looking for Cinematographers that had film lighting experience, but were not put off by electronic capture, I was ready to start shooting movies in HD, and have been mixing Film and Digital ever since.
OCS: What was your most difficult on-set and/or planning challenge that you had to overcome and how did you resolve it?
James: My most recent feature, BRAKE, starring Stephen Dorff, is almost entirely set inside the trunk of a car. To make matters worse for me as a Cinematographer, he is also encapsulated in a multi dimensional plexiglass box. This created a two-fold challenge: how to keep the visuals from being stagnant over the course of ninety minutes and how to avoid seeing reflections of any lights in the virtual barber shop mirror that had been created. I decided to use practical sources of light could be seen as I moved the camera dynamically around the box mounted on a Jib Arm. Luckily an element of the story was a digital countdown timer, which was decided to be a glowing red LCD clock. Using the new MX sensor in my RED camera allowed me to operate at a very high ASA, or camera sensitivity rating, and the clock actually became my Keylight. I cheated it around, and drove the Script Supervisor crazy, because she had to make sure the countdown time was correct since it was always appearing in reflections. Other illumination was provided by very small LED Litepads, which are only about a quarter inch thick and easy to hide behind contours in the car’s truck lining. I’ve been getting great feedback about the look and at the end of the movie, people tell me they never noticed they had just spent so much time inside the trunk of a car.
OCS: There are dozens of “high” definition cameras from GoPro, to Canon Vixias to Red to Arri. Are you comfortable that all of these offerings have a place in professional filmmaking?
James: Just like a painter has a particular brush for various effects there is a correct format for every motion picture project. It’s up to the Filmmaker to choose the right tool for each job.
OCS: What advances in digital technology do you see on the horizon (say 5 and 10 years out)?
James: I’m often asked about what I see for the future of entertainment technology, and although no one has a crystal ball, I’ve had a pretty good track record of predicting trends over the last few decades, so I’ll venture to take a guess. I think you’ll see a melding of still and motion cameras and that they will continue to get smaller, but have more features, while screens will get larger. Capture resolution will increase, (perhaps partially by increasing frame rates), and I think the standard for finishing, exhibition, and distribution, even in the home, will soon go well beyond the current HD or 2K and settle at 4K.
I believe 3D will persist, but become more subtle, getting away from “in-your-face” depth effects and simply support the storytelling as another element of visual communication. In the near future, 3D will be shot with a single camera that will record not only the main image, but also depth cues that will later be used to computer generate the second offset image necessary for the illusion of 3D.
OCS: What in digital has, and has not, lived up to your expectations?
James: The quality of Digital Cinema cameras keeps improving at a rapid pace, and is now very close to what is achievable on film. However, one stumbling block that needs to be addressed is the archival capability of electronic capture. I can no longer play the tapes of my early work, and I’m afraid with formats changing so quickly nowadays, that the material I shoot electronically today might be hard to playback in years to come, while projects shot on film, can always be re-mastered, sometime at better quality than their original release. I think once Digital techniques can rival the archival abilities of film; that is when it will have arrived.