“When you’re making video that’s going to reach millions of people, you have to put your best foot forward. This video will represent your client’s entire brand, franchise or network, so you really need to be on your game. Any mistakes will set you back in a cascading effect.” - Jonathan Belinski, DP and Founder of Belinski Media based in Los Angeles & New York.
A goal for many filmmakers is to work with bigger and bigger clients as you climb the arduous path to becoming well-established in the industry.
But working with clients like major TV networks and studios can be massively different from working with smaller, local clients. Sure, having your productions recognized by the best can be very rewarding, but these high-profile clients come with high expectations, with much less leeway for errors.
So we sat down with Jonathan Belinski, multi-Emmy Award-winning cinematographer who founded Belinski Media in 2005. Jonathan’s production house has worked closely with major clients for years, including Fox Sports, Sony Studios, HBO, MLB, NFL, and with celebrities including Charlize Theron, Denzel Washington, Clint Eastwood and many more. He shares his biggest tips on working with clients.
Time is Money
“Many people have this misconception that being on set is the biggest part of filmmaking, but the reality is filmmaking is all about preparation. It’s a lot of conference calls, paperwork, planning, collaborating with your team. The success of a shoot can be 95% determined before you get behind the camera. Because when your talent shows up, you need to be ready.”
“The main obstacle when you’re working with big clients is time. This is true for all projects, and us filmmakers always want more time to shoot, but when celebrities come to your set, they only have hours - sometimes minutes - before they have to move on. For example when we work with athletes, they are not always required to be there, and frankly they have other things to do. You want to make this as quick and painless for them as possible.”
“So what we do is we rehearse how we’re going to be filming in advance. We run through the motions with extras and stand-ins, learn the lighting, framing, follow focus movements, and everything involved. The goal is to be so well-rehearsed that when the talents come in, everything moves like clockwork and we get it right in one shot.”
Game Day with the MLB All-Stars
For the last several years, Jonathan has worked with Fox Sports to create promo videos for the MLB All-Star Game, where a player’s are voted in from the fans and league to play in an exhibition match. Jonathan’s promo set was Executive Produced by PT Navarro, Produced by Etienne Materre, and Directed by Erin Hoskins along with Editor Craig Russo.
“We create what the TV world calls “teases”, which are like cold opens that get viewers pumped up. These are played on TV right before the start of the game and in commercial breaks. Often they also establish a theme depending on the city that they’re in. This year the All-Star Game was in Washington DC, so it was chosen to play with a voting theme (this fits perfectly with the voting system the MLB has for choosing All-Stars).”
“Our production designer Spike located an original voting booth preserved since the 1960s. For 2 days before the shoot, we spent all day rigging the place up with lights, making sure everything looked exactly the way we planned.”
“The Home Run Derby is the day before the All-Star Game, and that’s when every single player participating in the All-Star Game is in the city. But the thing is, these guys are here to play baseball. Every minute they spend on set is a minute they could be practicing or working on other things. You only get one shot, because once they leave, there are no retakes.”
Here’s the setup his team used:
- 2x RED Helium 8K
- Leica Summicron C Prime Lenses
- A Cam - handheld, slider, tripod
- B Cam - Movi Pro
- 2x Teradek Bolt 3000
- Flanders Scientific and Sony OLED Monitors
- Bartech and Heden follow focus systems
“We wanted to capture both wides and close-ups, but only shooting 1 camera at a time. So we had strict routine going on. We had our A Cam rigged with Leica 75mm for getting a close-up. As soon as we got that shot, we changed the lighting, got onto B Cam and immediately went to wides. In the interim the 2nd AC would change the A camera lens to something else."
“Having this process pre-planned is super important for shooting with major athletes. We had a few hours to shoot all 30 + of of the All-Star players that came our way, and at any time there were 2-3 guys backed up waiting for us. We’re constantly under pressure to be fast, but at the same time we also need to capture amazing video for our client (Fox Sports).”
A Wireless Solution
“Every media outlet in Washington DC is at this event, sharing this tiny window of opportunity to meet and work with the players. As a result, we’re working in tight, confined spaces with tons of people moving through. So we want to keep our sets cable-free.”
“On top of that, our ACs need to be able to pull focus from the video village. The players don’t get any rehearsals, so they’re pretty much improvising when they get on set. Combine that with the constant movement on our Movi or handheld cams, and you can see why it’s so important to have zero-delay video. For this I trust wholeheartedly the Teradek Bolts.”
“No matter what shoot I’m on we always have the Bolts with us. We don’t have time to be setting up cables on set, especially for shots that need a lot of movement. Clients also want to be able to see the shot so one of the monitors goes to them.”
“Being cable free makes life so much easier. My Bolt 3000s work just as well as any cabled monitoring system, so I don’t ever have to worry when I’m on set. Not to mention when your production is clean, it also looks way more professional to your clients.”
Be Ready to Take Risks
“When I first started my career in the film industry in the 90s, I used to feel intimidated. There’s so much competition out there that if you don’t meet expectations on a job, it’s going to take you a long time to recover from it.”
“But feeling intimidated doesn’t need to be a bad thing. If anything, it made me paranoid in a good way, and that translated into me testing my setups 10 or 20 times over. I wanted to make sure everything worked flawlessly when our clients showed up to not only create an amazing product for them, but do it meticulously and leave a lasting impression.”
“My two biggest pieces of advice for rising cinematographers is: get on sets as an AC or any position to see how the pros do it, and when projects come along, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Get out there and shoot using some of the techniques you learned as well as develop your own style. Most of the difficulties on set can be avoided in the preparation leading up to the shoot. If you’re well-prepared, know the shot list and are on top of your job, you will be successful.”
“Get into the habit of over-preparing. As you start working with bigger and bigger clients, there are more time restrictions on your shoots and less room for error.”