Growing Up Behind the Camera

With a body of work for top names in the industry like J.J. Abrams, McG, Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, David Moxness A.S.C., C.S.C, has a technical history in media that goes as far back as gaffer for the very first interactive television show, Captain Power, as well as camera for Gene Rodenberry’s EARTH: FINAL CONFLICT, the first episodic to use 24 fps HD video. Known for, Moxness is currently filming a return to the popular and very successful miniseries, The Kennedys, with a sequel, The Kennedys After Camelot. He also shot several episodes on this last season of Lethal Weapon for 20th Century Fox.

Moxness is so busy because he is highly sought after for his reliable, clean and yet highly stylized camera work. His knowledge and eye have made him very popular in the world of episodic, stylistic television, shooting no less than two to three productions a year… since the nineties. But he says that with every project, it’s the story not the genre that is paramount to his approach, and he’s totally comfortable working on anything from science-fiction to drama to action.

“That’s what I love actually,” he explains, “is the opportunity to be able to switch back and forth between different genres and different ideas.” In addition Best Cinematography in 2012 for The Kennedys at the Canadian Society of Cinematographers Awards, he’s won two LEO awards for cinematography and Outstanding Cinematography in a Regular Series by The ASC for his work on the 2006 Arrow episode of Smallville, Moxness ebbs stylistically from characteristically dark to commercially high key as needed. He says the lighting all depends on the tone of the script and says he tries not to get away with too many effects just because he’s shooting something like sci-fi, a lesson he learned from working for J.J. Abrams so often during the lens flare years.

Reuniting him with director and frequent co-conspirator Jon Cassar, the team have worked together on both Kennedy series as well as last year’s When the Bough Breaks, released by Sony Pictures. “I think we see a lot of things similarly,” he says about Cassar, noting their collaborative experience. “We have a similar approach. We’ve developed a bit of a shorthand now, though we have had long, long discussions as to what we wanted and how we wanted to get there. Once we were clear on that, I was pretty free to do as I wished, actually, which was quite lovely. He’s very respectful and very trusting of myself and my work, and I am with him, as well.”

“The Kennedys and The Kennedys After Camelot were fantastic projects to do. Creating those world events and that period of time in mankind was quite wonderful,” he says. The 2011 award-winning miniseries starred Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes and Tom Wilkinson. Moxness was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie, as well as Best Photography in a Dramatic Program or Series at the 26th Gemini Awards for achievements in Canadian television, which he won in addition to a CSC for Best Cinematography.

“I try to see the environments as a natural place,” he explains, saying his approach to lighting depends on mood and scene rather than genre. “On When the Bough Breaks, we had one studio set for one day. Otherwise, we were on location for that whole picture. That’s one of the things I enjoy the most is being involved early on in setting it up. It’s a real treat. My episodic work is usually a mix of stage and location, on the other hand. Even so, I think it’s more about using the instruments in a different way rather than needing a lot. I might use really hot Mole beams/flashlights, for example, even in the more dramatic period pieces as a window or a door effect, so it feels right and natural. Conversely, on fantasy, I might end up doing something with extremely soft lights where hard light is often the first thought.”

“It’s nice to be involved early on in prep,” he continues. “I love first seasons of shows, and shooting pilots. I love putting a show together from the beginning, really getting involved with the creative producers and the writers to on a visual approach that’s going to compliment what they’re going forward with. I really like to be involved early and get the cinematography and the visuals and the camera to really be in sync with the writing and the story.”

When working with multiple directors across a season of shows, the approach can be different. He says there’s a balance to navigating the unifying look of a show while also respecting the point of view of each individual director. “Obviously, whomever the director is, it’s up to his or her ultimate vision,” he says. “When they come in to the show, if we’re an episodic, we certainly have discussions in prep as to what that particular show is. It’s a fine line sometimes in allowing them the ability to put their thumbprint on it while staying within the overall design. It can be tricky for the cinematographer, I think, to keep the creative consistency of the show, especially while working with a director for the first time.”

“Episodics are always a journey,” Moxness says. “I try to stay open to all of their thoughts and ideas and try to extract the best from that for our show. A director might come in and have a really great idea that we hadn’t even discovered yet.” As he does one-off shows here and there, he’s also used to the reverse, as well, where he’s the new guy in an already-moving production. “Fun challenges to have!” he laughs. Fresh off several episodes of the Lethal Weapon reboot for Fox Networks, Moxness laughs at variety of work that he is known for, like the shows Fringe, Smallville, and, one of the first comic book shows, Witchblade.

“It’s kind of funny,” he says. “I think sometimes you get sort of pigeonholed as the sci-fi guy, or the comedy guy, or whatever it might be. I try to do a vast array of stuff. Good shows with good stories and working with good people, those opportunities come along? You don’t pass them by.” On Lethal Weapon, he’s been using the ARRI Alexa, rented with lenses and accessories from Keslow Camera in Los Angeles. He says the production will carry two ARRI Alexa bodies as well as two ARR Alexa Mini bodies for odd placement and action sequences.

“You can get quite a high frame rate out of the Minis!” he says, noting that they are also more compact, ideal for the action show for placement in automobiles and tight spaces. “They’re useful bodies to have and having the two Alexa Classics and the two Alexa Minis sort of covers us for pretty much anything they throw at us from a camera standpoint.” To light for these tiny areas, Moxness has been experimenting with new LED solutions. “I’ve been quite fascinated about how that technology has changed and has gotten so much more stable and consistent for us,” he says. “I think this is the first show where I’ve really started to explore LED lighting in a big way. Not to say that I’m solely using LED technology lighting for the whole show, but I’ve certainly used it more than I have in the past.”

On several recent productions he’s found himself working with lights like ARRI’s Sky Panels with full RGB color adjustments, overhead Sourcemaker balloon models, Quantum120 4’x4′ frames by Cineo (available to rent from Cinelease), LiteGear LiteMat panels, and Kino Flo-style banks that have been reconfigured Quasar LED tubes from Quasar Science, which don’t need anything like ballast for the low power requirements. “I said to my gaffer the other day,” he smiles, “‘I’m really enjoying a few of these things, they’re so versatile and I don’t really seem to be giving up anything.”

Moxness started out in camera and worked as a gaffer for many years before transitioning back to the lens. “I had a family at quite a young age and those days, way back when, it was a little easier to get jobs on lighting crews or grip crews,” he remembers. “Then I became a gaffer for a long time, really had wonderful opportunities to work with some great DPs that really mentored me and took me under their wing.” As grip, picture and electric, Moxness has worked with Chimera a number of times since the eighties. “I’ve always carried a number of Chimera bags in my package,” he says. “Typically I have a couple of large ones that I can put on 5K’s or 10K’s, and then rings that adapt down to things like 4K HMIs. A couple sizes down from that, I also put them on 2K tungstens and blondes, and a smaller one that I could put on a baby or something small.”

“Chimera just saves on a lot of gripping work in terms of the flagging, certainly on wide shots,” Moxness explains. “I get a very, very nice quality of light, and a broad, soft source, which I’m typically using. Chimera just helps me to keep light off the walls and ceilings and floors, as desired, then from there you just start flying flags as we get tighter. A really terrific, efficient tool to have. They pack up because they’re so compact, and they’re lightweight and durable, too.”

Behind the camera since he was an 11-year-old shooting movies in British Columbia with his dad’s 8mm camera, as a young Canadian cinematographer, he says that he owes his career to a feature and episodic DoP by the name of Rene Ohashi, still shooting now, who he had the opportunity to first work for in the mid-eighties. Still shooting now, they’ve worked on multiple productions together. Similarly, he’s very fond of the communal environment that he’s found not only in Los Angeles at The ASC, but also at the Canadian Society of Cinematographers, which he has been a member of since 1999.

“Different country, different group of people,” he says, “but I think their ideas and their philosophies are all very similar. It’s about supporting and strengthening and moving the art of cinematography forward to the next generation… That’s the great thing about the ASC, events that give the opportunity to look at new products and talk to the people involved and offer up ideas and opinions. We share emails and text messages back and forth during the year but we all do the same work, so we don’t get to see each other often. It’s nice to bump into friends at those events, too.”

He’s very happy with how his career has blossomed over the years. “Everything in the world was different then a little bit,” he remembers. “I didn’t really know what I had at the time but it was such a wonderful time to start and grow up in the industry. I really feel very, very fortunate.”

Photos Courtesy of 20th Century Fox