Going Off Camera

Off Camera Sam Jones: photograph of Kristen Bell

Kristen Bell

This is our extended interview with Sam Jones.

Sam Jones says that his sober and yet utterly charming approach to celebrity portraiture has the singular goal of telling the story of his subject, with only a single capture. As a photographer, he has captured hundreds of these single-image stories for an award-winning roster of top-shelf talent that has included everyone from George Clooney to Jeff Bridges to Matt Damon. The dedicated storyteller doesn’t stop there, either. As a master documentarian and commercial filmmaker, he’s nearing his 90th episode of “Off Camera,” a weekly broadcast that he has been helming for DirecTV since 2013.

With a show featuring informal, hour-long chats that dig far deeper into the lives of his subjects and their creative processes, Jones purposefully created the look to be absolutely minimal in design to avoid detracting from each interview, going so far as to capture directly in black-and-white through the EPIC-M RED Dragon monochromatic camera, which eschews the Bayer-array of RGB pixels in a standard color sensor to capture an extra one and a half stops of dynamic range. With recent chapters on Michael Shannon, Rachel Bloom, Will Ferrell and Jake Gyllenhaal, Jones laughs that the laissez-faire discussions often devolve into fairly uncertain territory.

HDVideoPro: How did this project genesis come about?

Sam Jones: It came about a couple of years ago as an experiment. Originally it was just an online thing that I was putting together as a labor of love. We made our own site. You could go to the site and read the article for free and listen to the podcast for free, or you could watch the TV show. We never sought distribution or sought to sell it as a regular television show at the very beginning. Then it went up the chain at DirecTV to the guys that run the channel. They really liked it, and they brought us in for a meeting, and they ended up buying the show and licensing the show. It was really fortunate that they found it, and not only that they liked it, but they didn’t want to make any changes to it.

They let us keep it in black-and-white. It has been amazing to own our own television show that we licensed to the network and where they don’t really try to come in and tell us who to have on the show. There’s no oversight, which is great. They just let us do creatively what we want. In fact, I don’t think anyone from DirecTV has been to the studio. I think part of the deal is that we’ve exceeded expectations in the guest list that we’ve been able to put together. If that wasn’t the case, we might hear more. I guess the vote of confidence keeps coming around every year when they pick us up again! I think some of that has to do with the fact that we’ve managed to get good guests.

HDVidePro: Are you pursuing guests, or is this just people that you’re shooting already and they’re just interested in the project and want to participate?

Jones: It goes both ways now. We get pitched, and then we have our list of people that I’m interested in on a rotating basis, and we go after those people. Sometimes there have been cases where we’ve gone after somebody for over a year, or maybe two years, and then they’ve finally come in. It’s, like, a long game and a short game to get people that are interesting in the chair each week. There are certainly a lot of people that we’ve not been able to get yet that I still hope to. It’s always a challenge to go after people that you’re really interested in. Then sometimes we get offered people that maybe weren’t on my radar. We will look into it if they seem really interesting.

Off Camera Sam Jones: photograph of Nick Offerman
Nick Offerman

HDVideoPro: What was the first that you would consider an “Off Camera” interview?

Jones: “Off Camera” started very deliberately at the end of 2013 with a test with a friend of mine who is a studio musician and has played with everybody from Jackson Browne to John Lennon. I thought his life story was really interesting and, since I knew him already, it would be a good experiment to see if the format worked. I just asked him to come down to the studio. That was our first “Off Camera” conversation that we ever filmed. It’s funny, but the decisions we made on that first one all ended up being exactly what we do on the show to this day. It has changed a little bit, but for the most part it’s still just an hour-long, non-agenda conversation about creativity, the process and whatever else comes up. We try to make it very honest and authentic, and we don’t really plug things. We just try to make it the kind of conversation you would hope to someday find yourself involved in. If you’re a fan of somebody and you like their work, the idea is that you could sit in their living room and have a talk about their approach to their craft. That’s what the show is.

HDVideoPro: You already tell such a great visual story with each of your still images for celebrities, but “Off Camera” is filling in the gaps between those still images.

Jones: I’ve made a few documentary films and done a lot of work in the commercial arena, too. I’ve done a lot of interviewing. The thing that I think is different between an interview and a conversation is that when you’re interviewing somebody for a documentary, the person asking the question isn’t on-camera. You’re digging for something. There’s a little more manipulation, almost like a journalist writing a lead for a story and then trying to support his theme. I thought that if we set it up more like a conversation, then it would be more inviting for a viewer, whereas I think a documentary interview is more stylistic than what we do on “Off Camera.”

Coming from photography, a great conversation with somebody interesting is a portrait in a lot of ways, more so than a photograph. That was the goal. The people that I grew up loving, like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, extrapolated from a single image of somebody what that person was like. Could we do that with a moving frame? That was the initial impetus for filming the conversations: Can we make a portrait come to life? That’s also why we chose to do it in black- and- white with a white background, because we didn’t want any distractions. A couple of years before “Off Camera,” I interviewed Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers for about four days. For the interviews, I stuck them on white, and I shot it in black-and-white. When we were editing the footage, I said, “Wow, the absence of color and the absence of background really make you just feel like you’re inside their brain.”

Off Camera Sam Jones: photograph of Jessica Chastain
Jessica Chastain

HDVP: I Am Trying to Break Your Heart was the first documentary that you ever directed. That’s incredible because it’s a very good movie.

Jones: Thank you very much. It was a good story to stumble across, but it’s funny, when all of the things happened in that film that delayed the release of the record and broke up the band and caused them to be dropped by the record label, at first it was rather upsetting for me. Because that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. Then I realized that all those things happening, they were exactly the story I wanted to tell; it just didn’t happen the way I had first envisioned it. I think that was my biggest lesson in documentary filmmaking. You can’t start with too much of an agenda, or, if you have an agenda, you have to be open to letting it change.

HDVP: What was it that got you interested in documentary in the first place?

Jones: I was in bands myself, and I just loved music documentaries. They gave me more of an insight into songwriters and how they did it. That’s what I was always looking for in a musical documentary. Are these people like me? Are they human? Are they fallible? Do they struggle? I think the vérité form of documentary really appealed to me, and, then, the other part of it was that I felt like a lot of good documentaries were about such huge bands from a previous generation, like the Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. I wondered who were my contemporaries that are worthy of the same kind of film about them? Wilco seemed like my generation’s version of a band that’s really going to stand the test of time. I felt like someone should make a documentary about these guys. It started out as an impulse to want to see that film, but it didn’t exist.

HDVP: You do a lot of commercial direction and music video production, as well. You have so much going on—what’s the method to the madness here?

Jones: I do, not so much the last year, but I do. Last year I did more documentaries, the show and still photography. I’m very lucky with “Off Camera” that that’s done right here in our studio in Santa Monica. As much as the show takes up a lot of time, I’m not traveling to do it, which has been great. That has been such a change from when you’re doing commercials. I have a friend who’s a commercial director who, as he became more successful, was in Argentina or South Africa all the time, because a lot of commercials are made there for budgetary reasons, just like films are shot out of the country.

I have two little girls that are in school, and I feel really strongly about being around. I’ve really tried to set up my life where I’m around more. In 2014, I made a big documentary for Showtime about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. It was great because, except for maybe two weeks in New York, it was all shot here in L.A., and we were able to edit it right here in my studios. This last year I shot another documentary for Showtime and, again, we set up the edit bay at the studio here. For me, the big change has been that I’m not chasing the jobs around the country and the world as much anymore. I’m developing projects that allow me to be here more. That has been really, really great, you know?

HDVideoPro: I do. It’s the democratization of video; you can edit video at home on a computer now. You’re also able to leverage digital multimedia so well. Like with “Off Camera,” you’re using not just the television show but also pumping it out as podcasts and everything else. Do you have any advice for younger photographers or filmmakers who are looking to go into the same sort of work that you’re in?

Jones: (Laughing) I wouldn’t say I was successful at social media. I think if you asked around the office, I’m pretty unsuccessful at social media because I just don’t like it that much. I’m never really satisfied doing just one thing. I think it’s the reason that my career has followed the path it has. That’s true to me, because even back before I did the Wilco documentary, I had already directed a few commercials, because it seemed interesting. I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been a calculated business person that looked at the state of photography and said, “I have to learn video.” That was never me.

I would say trying to maintain my curiosity is what gets me up in the morning and gets me excited. Following that curiosity down a rabbit hole has been a good business plan for me, because I don’t think of it like a business. We joke around sometimes that the goal is to have no clients at all. I never want to be someone who has clients. That’s crazy, of course, everybody has clients, but when you’re making a project that you believe in and you love, that has always been the times when I’ve gotten the most fulfillment out of work. With “Off Camera,” the lesson learned was that you could just make something that you love and people come to it!

HDVideoPro: As a young artist yourself, is this where you saw yourself heading? Is this the direction you wanted to go in?

Jones: No, that’s the funny thing. Things that are important to you, they will raise their heads at different times in your life. I grew up as a kid loving radio. Then we start doing this podcast, and I realized the reason I love doing the podcast is because I loved listening to the radio after I was supposed to be asleep when I was a kid. There’s something really intoxicating about radio for me. That maybe wouldn’t have occurred to me 10 years ago. Those are the kind of things that I think if you’re trying to make something original or make something that’s true to you, you don’t know where it’s necessarily going to lead. Not for me, at least. I’m sure there are artists who have this super-delineated vision that they’ve had forever and they know how to telegraph that into a career, but I’ve never known that. I’ve always tried to stay open to what’s exciting to me in the moment.

HDVideoPro: Well, your body of work has such a remarkable pedigree. It’s gorgeous work visually, and wholly engrossing, whether still or video. For photography, what’s your system?

Jones: It depends on what the project is. A lot of the time it’s the Canon Mark III. I love that camera, because it’s just small and it does the job. I’ve used the Hasselblad and the Phase One, and I keep wishing that I could continue to use those cameras because the images they make are great. When you put a Canon image up next to the IQ back on the Phase One camera, the Phase One is just beautiful. But if you can only take one picture a second, and the camera is heavy, and really hard to focus, then what’s the point? Canon has done a really good job of getting closer to the film look in terms of the way focus falls off. One thing I noticed as a photographer, when digital came around, is that focus falls off very differently. Those medium-format cameras like the Phase One and the Hasselblad, digitally, they fall off in a weird way that doesn’t look as much like photography to me. I was one of the last people, I think, to switch over from film. It got to be a problem for a while where people just didn’t want to hire me if I was shooting film.

It’s funny, I always think of Richard Avedon; there’s a guy that from the very first negative he ever developed, to the very last thing he ever printed, the system never changed for him. He was in a fixed period of technology. A guy like me learned my entire craft on one system, both in film and still, and then had to make a complete change halfway through my career. It’s quite a thing to have to take everything you’ve become good at and developed, and the system and your look and your style and the way you control your imagery, and have to learn it all over again while the digital medium was still developing at the same time. It was quite a thing. It wasn’t a small task. But I think I learned in the end that the tools that provide you with the most immediate response to the work are the best. In photography, if you can photograph quickly without thinking about your equipment too much, that’s what you want. When filming, same thing, you want something that you can work with quickly and intuitively and then, in this day and age, you’ll do a lot of work on the image later.

HDVP: You’ve used a lot of motion camera systems on commercials and things like that. What was it about the RED system that made you decide on “Off Camera” to go with that?

Jones: The monochrome chip was really interesting to us because when you talk about range of stops, I think by using only a monochrome chip you get almost a 15-stop range. And when we’re shooting something that has a white background, white is the hardest thing to make look good on digital, and in black-and-white. In film, even in the white there’s grain, but in digital, there’s no grain in the white. It looks more harsh and digital. The last two values before pure white; those seem to be hard to attain. With the exposure curve more on the white end, it just blows out later. It’s like working in Photoshop and going over the limit of what the screen can handle, and then it just goes to pure white, whereas when you take a scan in of a piece of film and there’s still grain in the white that has a value to it, rather than just pure light.

The other thing was that DirecTV was starting to investigate and broadcast everything in 4K. There was all of a sudden this dedicated black-and-white camera that I heard about from RED. David Fincher had challenged the RED guys to make a monochrome chip like Leica. I went to RED and talked to them about it, and they wanted to help us out and gave us some cameras to try. We did, and it worked out great, so that was our decision. Also, the REDs have a solid film feel to video. I don’t know if it’s their compression or what, but they’re pretty easy to work with. I’ve used ARRI and I’ve used RED and I’ve used Canons for commercials, but the REDs seem to be pretty great for what we’re doing. I wish people could see it before it goes through television and satellite compressions, because we watch it in full resolution here at the studio on a 4K monitor, and it really is something to see. We often will put on the show while we’re here editing the next one, so we’ll put on a broadcast from DirecTV, and we will try to color, edit and adjust our color based on what’s happening to it on the broadcast.

Also, the interesting thing about the RED, too, is that we’re able to edit in RAW. We don’t have to convert to edit. For this show, that’s so helpful because there are five cameras running. With Adobe Premiere Pro and the RED plug-in, we can work directly with raw footage that we don’t compress until we have an edited show to send out. We did the Bob Dylan documentary for Showtime on REDs. We had so much footage. We had three cameras going 12 hours a day, so we had 36 hours of footage a day. That’s when we got into the whole Adobe RAW process, and it changed our lives.

Visit the “Off Camera” website at offcamera.com