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  • Cinematographer

Jim Frohna

Job Title
Cinematographer or Director of Photography (DP)
Freelance; has worked on Big Little Lies, Transparent, etc.
Los Angeles, California
$75,000 - $200,000
University of Wisconsin–Madison B.A., Radio, Television, and Film, 1986-1988
New York University Tisch School of the Arts B.F.A., Film, 1988-1990

I think that having on-set experience is huge because not only do you learn how a film set works and how to get a job done or get through a shoot day, you also learn how to be a leader.

The Profession

My job is to collaborate with the director to bring the visual look of the project to life, work really closely with the production designer who has a huge impact on the visual storytelling as well, run the camera department, and oversee the lighting and grip department. There are head people in each of these areas but they’re all underneath the cinematographer. 

Another part of my job includes being part of the decision making on what locations are chosen and then deciding what camera and lenses will best support the story and the project—including when we’re filming it, what lens focal lengths we’re using, what you’re gonna see on camera. The choice of what the audience is going to see is very much a collaboration at that point between the director and the cinematographer. Is the camera gonna be still? Is it gonna move around on a dolly or on a crane? Be sweeping through a location? Or is it gonna move in close on an actor’s face? So all those decisions that build the vocabulary of the project are made between the cinematographer and the director. 

I work primarily in television or in streaming. I’ve also worked on independent features. I started working mainly on TV commercials and did some documentaries. The thing I love the most is storytelling, and I’ve gotten the most out of and done the most work in TV.

The Hardest Parts

One of the most challenging parts of the job comes when you’re on a long-term project. I did the second season of Big Little Lies [on HBO]—we filmed for eight months. Your body gets used to the grind but it definitely becomes a grind. It’s a lot of work. 

Some shows that I’ve been on, at minimum, you work 11 or 12 hours at a time. Some shows go 14 hours a day. So when you’re doing that five days a week, for weeks and weeks and months at a time, it can be hard on the body and soul. So taking care of yourself while you’re in production becomes a big deal—really resting when you’re not working… There are some projects where you’re filming a lot all night long. A five-minute scene with two characters talking in a parking lot at night can take all night. Or you’re shooting sundown to sunup for a one-minute scene. And so the shows that have a lot of nighttime scenes, there are periods when people are like vampires, working only at night and then sleeping all day. That’s one of the biggest challenges. 

And then, even though I really love it, collaborating can also be challenging. For me particularly, on a lot of shows, you’re working with a different director each episode of the show, so you have guest directors come in and you work with them for one week or two weeks. And then they go and another one comes in. The challenge is—and pretty much across the board, I’ve enjoyed the challenge—but it is one where you have to learn their language or their vocabulary for how they like to do things. 

Each director in that case comes in with their own style. They might know exactly what every shot’s gonna be and know exactly where the cameras are gonna go, have grids on graph paper mapped out of locations and where they see the camera. They’ve made all the decisions in their heads, on paper, before you get to set. Other directors like to be there and sort of feel it out and improvise a bit, or respond instinctually. 

Again, I think it’s a fun challenge because it keeps me on my toes, keeps me working new muscles—that’s another challenge. But I think the biggest is the stamina factor.

The Best Parts

We’re a bunch of oddballs and misfits and creative goofballs who come together. And the process of everybody showing up and contributing, solving the puzzle of that day’s shoot, and creating something from nothing. 

They build a set that’s a fake apartment building. The set dressers have filled it with stuff so that you walk in and there are still times when I’m on a set that feels so real and then the lighting even feels natural like it’s sunlight. And I will sometimes forget that I’m in a fake place, and I love that. 

And then there are the crews. People show up and they are ready to go, ready to dive in. It’s about problem-solving as a collective. It’s about the rush and thrill of a super challenging setup or scene. It’s just all about the attitude of the crew members. And part of it is—to be there, you wanna work hard but also have a good time, which is not just that you’re messing around. 

Somebody I’ve worked with on a number of projects instilled this idea in me: We start the day from a place of gratitude that we get to make art for a living. And that has informed so much of how I move through, let’s say, the last seven years of my career. 

I think the people who last in this business are the ones who come in with a really good attitude and they’re willing to work their butts off and enjoy it while it’s happening. There’s a phrase that came from the same person … that we’re a community of possibility. And it’s all about “What if?” Or “Let’s try this.” Or “Why not?” And just the energy of the group of people all focused on one goal is such a fantastic playground of creative expression.

How I Got Here

I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee in Wisconsin, one of seven kids, and the middle child. I had it in me from a pretty young age that I loved movies. I loved going to the movies, I loved sitting in the dark in the theater and all that. By the time I was in high school, I was making a lot of little videos of my friends and this is when cameras were expensive and not on our phones—there were no phones. It was in me probably halfway through high school: I knew I wanted to eventually go to film school. I wasn’t quite ready right after high school to leave Wisconsin but I definitely had the burning desire to be in this business from, let’s say, around 14. 

Cut to me moving to Los Angeles, fresh out of NYU film school, one of the bigger-deal film schools in the country, and what do I do? I end up delivering pizzas for six months or so. I eventually made my way up to being a waiter at that restaurant but I was running around in the Hollywood Hills delivering pizzas. And even then, I could sort of laugh about it, like, “Oh, the glamorous life.” 

I also lived in New York for a year and a half or so after graduation and worked at a restaurant there, too, which is what you do right? Otherwise, that was a period when I was still writing stories, so I didn’t have the itch to get on a set just yet. 

Traditionally, DPs either come up through the camera department or through lighting. I moved out to L.A. and ended up getting hired through a friend on a lighting crew and I enjoyed that. Again, I just wanted to be part of the film business. I started in commercials, the less glamorous part of the business. It was just a blast to be on a set and I really enjoyed lighting. And then I had a friend from film school who was a DP, who started coming out to L.A. and asked me to run his lighting department—that title is “gaffer,” who runs the lighting. Pretty early on, I was then running a lighting department and we started doing music videos and other projects and eventually did some independent features together. 

So, I was a young father, I was a gaffer making a decent living. I never set out to be a cinematographer. I just loved storytelling and being involved. So after a number of years as a gaffer, some of the directors or cinematographers I was working with would invite me when we needed to shoot an extra camera on a particular day of the job for whatever reason. I was interested in the challenge and said yes. And it was this wonderful thing that I didn’t even know I was gonna love [and] sort of openly revealed itself to me. And as I did more of that, I started to realize: “Oh, this is where the real creative flow happens. And it’s such a fun job, how could I say no?” 

It’s a longer story to talk about the transition from lighting into being a DP but basically, it took the fact that I had built up these relationships with certain directors and DPs prior to this. There was one director who I had worked with for many years in a row who asked me to shoot a documentary for him. Once people heard that I was working for this director, who’s fairly well known in the independent film world, then other directors who knew me said, “Oh, you’re shooting now. Will you do this thing?” Like, I did a music video early on for The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Things just sort of opened up, I was very fortunate. 

A lot of times, people will try to make the transition and it doesn’t work out for various reasons or you struggle for a couple of years. I was very fortunate in that it was a very smooth transition into being a DP. And then the real next chapter of my career, my creative life, was then really wanting to get to do actual stories, real narratives about human relationships, and all that. So, pretty much from when I started as a DP to getting my first narrative project—that’s all I was aiming for: working and making a decent living. But I really wanted to get to where I am now. 

Part of my story is that when I first moved out here, I wanted to be a writer and director. Pretty much everyone who graduated from film school wanted to be a director. I tried that for a while, and I had fun while I was doing it but it didn’t turn into a career. Meanwhile, I was making a decent living doing the lighting crew and then gaffing. But certainly, there came a point when I felt like I was far from why I had moved out here. Working in commercials for so many years, like, “This is not what I imagined for myself.” I didn’t dwell on it too much but there were definitely days where I’d feel like I’m spinning my wheels or nothing’s happening. 

And as I’ve already explained, it was only because I’d been working on the job I had that I’d built these relationships, which led to the one director asking me to shoot the documentary. So all these years that might’ve felt like I was wasting time or not doing what I really wanted to—that was the foundation that led to the first thing that then led to my DP career. At the time, of course, you don’t know that. That’s one of the things that, when I have talked to younger people about this business, like… You just don’t know. You can get a call from somebody you worked with two years prior and you thought that they’d never call again. Then they call you up and say, “Hey, I remember you from this thing and it was super cool.” 

The first hurdle is getting the foot in the door and then after that you show up, you show that you care and you’re paying attention, and you work hard. Then people remember that and pretty soon you’ll start building your posse of people that you know, and that leads to other jobs. 

A Typical Day

Pretty much every day you go to work, you get a map sent to you in an email telling you what location you’re going to. You don’t go to an office. You get a map to take you to someplace in L.A. or to a different part of the country. So what I love about the job is that there’s not a typical day. 

There are tools you can rely on and you can get into a flow where it’s predictable to a certain degree, but there’s also always the element of unpredictability. Like, we’re shooting on the beach and it’s supposed to be a sunny day but it’s cloudy, so what do we do? Well, maybe the scene can still work as a cloudy day, or maybe at the last minute, we need to get these big rigs called Bebee lights that are like stadium lights, where you can drive this truck into a parking lot by the sand and put the thing up in the air and now you’ve got your fake sun. But the team, the whole production entity has to be ready to respond to those things. 

And that can happen in much smaller ways like I was on a show where the main actress had to do a scene where she opens up her purse and is finding a picture of her grandchild. And the actress decided it’d be great to have [a photo wallet]. We were at someplace very remote and the props people had to scramble to figure out where they could get one without making us wait too long. Again, that’s one other little example, but there are those kinds of curveballs created. 

I’ve always tried to frame them as opportunities or creative challenges as opposed to problems, but the fun part is it’s like a puzzle that you get to solve every day collectively, with a huge group of people. And there’s no one right way to do it. But there’s always the problem solving and that’s a big thrill for life in the film business. 

The Workplace

It’s a unique business. It is a traveling circus. It’s not for everybody. It’s for people who don’t wanna ever have to dress up for work. I can wear jeans and shorts to work all the time and t-shirts, and it suits me perfectly in that way. 

The freelance life is one where you sometimes don’t know when your next job is, but if you’re fortunate, you get into a groove where you have a project that you’re on and then you start to hear about the next project, or you get hired or put on hold for another thing. And so you sort of go from one to the other. 

There are dry spells, and you kind of have to get used to that where… Again, I’m not somebody who, despite some periods when I would be feeling differently, I don’t need to know there’s a job every day of every week… I’m not the type of person who needs the consistency of a 9-to-5 job. I love the flexibility and I’ve been able to be around when both of my daughters were young. I was on hand as an equal parent. But that meant a lot to me that I had that flexibility that I wouldn’t have had if I was in a very traditional job. 

But you have to be ready for dry spells and then chunks of time when you’re on a project. Sometimes when you’re on an indie film, you have 30 days to make a whole movie. Or you’re on a TV show, like I said, where you’re on a job for six months. The length of jobs varies and the locations and the stories you’re telling all vary, which is part of the fun. I was never gonna be someone who could put on a suit for work and a button-down shirt. 

Sometimes you’re on location. Sometimes you’re in a big house in Malibu on a beach. Sometimes you’re in a cramped auto repair shop somewhere where it’s 110 degrees outside and you’re sweating. I’ve done a lot of work on sound stages at various studios around town where you get to go through the gate of Hollywood Studios which has been around since the beginning of the film. And I get, you know, a special little thrill showing up at Paramount Pictures … Again, that variety is what is so great about the job—you’re on stage for a week and then you go and you’re on a different location each day for two weeks, and then you’re back on the stage. Keeps it fresh and interesting. 

I’ve been very fortunate the last handful of years where I’ve had steady work. But certainly earlier on in my career—I’m thinking mostly of when I was in commercials—where there’d be some weeks where you wouldn’t work at all. And then you’d get a job that was three or four days. And then the next week you wouldn’t work again. So it was almost like you were lucky if you had a job that fell each week, and they would never necessarily even fill up a week because commercials are short; they’re usually two or three days. 

Part of that means knowing that, earlier on, you’re gonna have more days off than you have on. What do you do with your time when you’re not working? And also, I’m not saying I was good at this because I was not, but figure out how to make the money work, knowing that you’re not gonna be working as much as you might want to. So paying attention to covering your basic rent and food and all that. That’s just how it goes. 

Somebody advised me at some point to have a hobby. I know some cinematographers who like to make their own furniture or who paint when they’re not working. I do a bunch of random stuff so I have things to occupy my time. … A big priority was always being with my daughters and my wife, so when I wasn’t working—being on hand to do school pickups and drop-offs. And taking part when [my older daughter] did theatre, I was always volunteering to be part of the lighting crew for the school play or to videotape the high school productions. 

Then trying to also exercise and do yoga or whatever to take care of myself. But the priority was always being around, cooking dinners for my women and all that—that’s where I put my time and energy when not working.

Myths of the Profession

One thing that I learned back when I was a gaffer was the idea that there’s no one answer to a situation or to a lighting challenge, in my case. You don’t have to know everything. There’s not an “everything” to know. Part of it just the discovery and the willingness to take chances or to risk something or to say, “Why not? Let’s try it this way this time.” That was a real big eye-opening epiphany where I thought, “Oh. There’s not just a way.” 

So even as a DP, I can still get the feeling, like, “Oh, I’m supposed to know exactly what we’re gonna do in this scene,” or have the exact right answers ready when the producer says to me, “What are you doing with this? What tools do you need? What’s gonna happen?” Whatever the question is… Not knowing is okay. And the journey of the discovery and the how-to is where the creativity lies and where the fun is. That’s what it’s about, it’s about cracking the puzzle. 

That idea that you have to know everything or that there’s a right way to light a scene is absolutely untrue. And that’s part of the fun: You get to bring your own eye, your own creative twist to it, perhaps something inventive or not. It’s part of the beauty and the fun of the art-making—the exploring the way in. 

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

Just start looking around and seeing what draws your eye, your soul.

When I was in film school—and I’m not convinced that you have to go to film school because so much of what I have gained has happened just being on set —  there was a professor who said to a class of probably 100 people, “Look around the room. In a year, only half of you are going to be doing anything related to the film business. In five years from now, only 25 percent of that half will be doing anything in the film business. Ten years from now, it’ll be ten percent,” or something like that. And I just remember this thing inside me that said, “I am going to be in that ten percent. I am that ten percent.” So part of it is just having the drive within oneself. 

And then it’s seizing the opportunities and building the relationships once you have a foot in the door. The thing, I guess, that surprised me is all the twists and turns in my journey as a creative artist. Like I already said, I didn’t set out to be a DP. The key to remember is that it’s not a straight path. It’s not, “you walk in the door and you are this thing.” The great thing about the film business is you can start as a production assistant and get a sense of “What does the art department do?” And then there’s props, and they get to make cool things like swords or a fake thumb when somebody smashes a hammer. There’s hair and makeup. There’s producing and the team that puts it all together and makes the machine move, and makes sure we’re at the right location at the right time of day. 

So there are all these different groups under the umbrella of a film production set. It’s an opportunity when you’re young to just pay attention and see where your heart pulls you or where your mind pulls you. Whatever it is, to know that there are all sorts of possibilities and that the path is not necessarily going to be right into what you wanna do. But that every job I’ve had, I’ve learned something from. And alongside that comes the building of relationships. Who do you enjoy working with? People who are good at their jobs but also decent people has always been a big priority for me.

Nowadays you can take your phone and start telling stories. How you see the world through the photographs you take—it doesn’t have to be video, it can just be stills. Just start looking around and seeing what draws your eye, your soul. Find a group of people that you like telling stories with. And I would again, always stress to find decent people who are kind and positive, because you are gonna be working very hard in this business. And so it’s ideal to be with people who you enjoy being around and who are positive collaborators. Then once you get that foot in the door, like I said before: Pay attention, be ready to jump in. Take the initiative and show that you care and just… Work hard. It’s not necessarily always glamorous—those early days and those early jobs—but it’s how you get to know the world of a film set.

I think that having on-set experience is huge because not only do you learn how a film set works and how to get a job done or get through a shoot day, you also learn how to be a leader. As I mentioned earlier, as a cinematographer, depending on the size of the job, the crews that you are overseeing can be 30 people. And beyond even just the number of people, as one of the key creative people on a set, people look to you. There’s the assistant director, the director, and the DP, and those three set the tone for how things feel on set: the energy and the flow and how smoothly things go. How you behave matters. What kind of leader you are really matters. 

Then people say this sort of cliche thing, like, “Watch other movies and decide what you like.” I wish I did more of that. I have time for some viewing but not a ton. But there is a fun thing I’ve done in the past where if there’s a movie I love, I will watch it again but with the sound off, so I’m just really watching what choices are being made—both in terms of the camera, but also if it’s a close up of an actor now or why are we so far away? Just to look at in a way that’s hard to do when you’re all wrapped up in the story by hearing the sound. I find that I learn a lot; you start to get a sense of what they were after or the language that they’re speaking, so to speak… Is that a prerequisite? I don’t know. It’s fun! 

Advice to my Younger Self

I would say enjoy the ride. Enjoy the twists and turns and the unexpected left turns or dead ends. Or actually, I don’t think there are dead ends—just twists and turns that lead to the next experience. And it’s all added up, so enjoy the ride. 

You think you’re supposed to be something by a certain age. I’m 52 and I would say only in the last five years have I felt like… And even then, I love directing and I wanna do more of it. But this idea that you have to be exactly what you’re supposed to be by 25 or 30 even—it’s a false narrative. 

I wouldn’t have been ready when I was 25 or 30. I wouldn’t have had the experiences—or not even just the practical film set experience. I’m talking about where I’m at in my life as a father, as a husband, as a creative person. 

  • Categories:
  • Arts and Entertainment
  • Television and Film
  • Cinematographer
As told to Vicky Phan
DATE: 2020-07-09