Lumunaut Story #65: Director of Photography Derek Donovan
WHAT IS YOUR STORY?
Growing up I was heavily into skateboarding. My friends and I started when we were around 7 or 8 and that was our lives after school. This was right around the time Tony Hawk Pro Skater came out on Playstation, so we all had our favorite skater on there and would then go out and try to be like them. This lead to me taking my mom’s video camera all of the time and filming us in the driveway, as kind of just a form of proof that we did a certain trick. Eventually, for my birthday I got a point and shoot JVC camera and a fisheye lens. After that, we started constantly making skateboard videos. We were in middle school and couldn’t drive so we would ride our skateboards sometimes up to an hour away to find different spots to film at. Then we would bring the footage back and edit on Windows Movie Makers. The videos started to become more elaborate and go beyond just skateboarding - turning into a documentation of our lives.
Whenever we went to do something there was always that second before where everyone made sure I was filming. We weren’t doing these in hopes that everyone would watch them, it was more to just have within our friend group and to show friends that may not have been there. When it came time to decide what career I should go into, I wanted to try to be a cameraman for skate videos. I watched skate videos and realized that obviously someone was getting paid to film them. So off I went to film school. Until then, it had never dawned on me that someone could have a career in the film industry. I started to realize that I’d already been doing this for the past 10 years of my life. And once I figured out how to take the skills I’d been developing since I was young and evolve them into cinematography, everything just took off from there.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU DON'T HAVE A CAMERA IN YOUR HAND?
When I’m not filming, I still skateboard. Since I was the one always filming, I never became as good as everyone else so I mostly just cruise around. I have two dogs and like to go hiking and camping with them as well.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE?
I think the ultimate goal for me has always been to shoot things I would enjoy watching. Even when I was young, everything we made was just stuff we thought was cool. Naturally, my style and the things I like have changed and developed over the years into what it is now.
WHAT ATTRACTS YOU TO THE WORK YOU SHOOT?
I think what attracts me to a particular film is a sense of soul and emotion behind the camera. There are certain DPs who’s style evokes this sort of raw experience that has a human aspect to it and, for me, makes it more tangible and relatable. The same goes for content - I like to do projects that have authentic stories. I enjoy something that is more personalized and unique to the characters, where you feel like you are getting a glimpse into their lives and culture. Throughout the film, you are able to build this connection to the character and genuinely care for their wellbeing.
THE CRAZIEST THING YOU HAVE EVER DONE AS A CINEMATOGRAPHER? HAVE YOU EVER GOTTEN YOURSELF IN TROUBLE?
I’ve definitely done some questionable things when I was younger and documenting everything. We’ve speed through parking lots at night while holding shopping carts out the window and running them into the curb to get a shot of them flying in the air. We would break into our local skatepark at night to film without having to wear helmets. Looking back, we probably weren’t making the best choices, but it always made for more interesting footage and gave a since of realness to it. We got pretty lucky with those things and were never caught. There may be riskier things in the future that get me injured or in trouble, but at least I’ll have a good shot and story to go along with it.
WHAT'S IN YOUR CAMERA BAG?
I actually don’t personally own any video cameras. I own a Pentax 645 120 film camera and a Minolta X-700 35mm camera. Any camera I shoot on is either rented or borrowed from a friend. The stuff I own is mainly grip and lighting equipment: lights, stands, flags, frames, etc. I’ve always found that the tools I have to create and shape light ends up being more important than what I’m shooting on, so I try to cover myself on that end before worrying about the camera.
WHEN DO YOU RELY ON YOUR INSTRUMENTS AND WHEN ON YOUR FEELINGS?
I actually rely on my instruments a great deal. Before a project starts, I like to figure out all of the creative aspects of the film like the style and mood. I can then create lighting ratios based on that information to use on set. Therefore, I’m always relying on my meter and false colors to keep me in line while shooting. I’m always paranoid that the image will look great while shooting but not be what I wanted when we get to post, so those tools end up being my safety net.
IF YOU COULD CARRY ONLY 4 PIECES OF EQUIPMENT TO A PARALLEL UNIVERSE FOR A YEAR, WHAT WOULD YOU CHOOSE?
If I had to take 4 pieces of equipment to a parallel universe it would be a camera and a 32mm lens (assuming those aren’t a given), a large black solid, and probably just a practical lamp. I really like shadows and dark cinematography, and practicals always fit nicely into that environment.
IF YOU COULD GIVE ONE FINAL ADVICE/TASK/RIDDLE TO YOUR FELLOW CINEMATOGRAPHERS, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I think the best thing anyone can do for their cinematography is to find their style and run with it. I think your style is the foundation of your cinematography that you can then build greater things onto once you start introducing stories and characters. That creates the human aspect behind the camera that people can relate to.
WHO ARE YOUR TOP 4 CINEMATOGRAPHERS?
Roger Deakins, Bradford Young, Khalid Mohtaseb and Chivo.
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