Inspiration as a filmmaker can come from all different places. For DP David Kruta, he was able to succeed in his current career by drawing influence from his previous careers, including his time spent as a graphic designer and as a dish washer. Since his days washing dishes, David has gone on to work as a DP in the film world, the commercial world, and in the music video world with directors like Michael Lawrence, Grant Singer and Eli Stonberg. David also recently lensed the upcoming music video for “Ghost Hits” by Shake the Baron, directed by Alex Amoling. We talked to David about working as a DP, being influenced by his previous jobs, and lugging camera gear on the subway.
David: I was freelancing as a web designer and was hired full time by one of my clients - a little web startup. Soon after I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I took a screenwriting class, and the professor asked a few of the people that seemed most interested in production to do a 48-hour film project with him. I saw that he was taking on a lot of roles, and everyone else was just trying to fill in the gaps. I said “I’ve heard about this cinematography thing. Why don’t I shoot it for you?” He directed and wrote, and I shot it, and it won best film. People seemed to love the imagery. After that, I shot a few other low-to-no budget projects around Rhode Island, but very quickly realized that there wasn’t a lot of room for advancement without working my way up the traditional ladder. I started thinking about what could I do: I worked as an AC for a bit. A good friend of mine is a Steadicam operator, so I ended up going with him on shoots as a Steadicam assistant, pulling focus wirelessly. I then discovered the DIT position and started making a career out of it. I did a few features and commercials and joined the union, but I always continued shooting - music videos, little commercials, stuff like that. I shot a feature during this time and since then I’ve shot three more. Moving to New York has really helped me make the jump to DP work. There have been parts that are tough and there’s a lot more involvement. You’re involved much earlier in the process; you don’t just show up on the day. It’s a lot of creative thinking which is hard after 16-hour days for a month straight, but I thrive on the challenge. It’s something that keeps me coming back and enjoying what I do.
Au Revoir Simone - Knight of Wands
Doug: What about working as a DP here in New York? Do you find yourself working primarily with directors who are located out here, I see you've also shot videos for guys like Grant Singer and Eli Stonberg who aren't based out of here.
David: It’s a mix – they’re mostly from the Northeast and New York. I’ve worked with some directors from Boston and Philadelphia. But Eli, for example, we were friends in high school. Then he moved to LA, but every time he comes back to the East Coast, he gives me a call if he’s doing a job out here. I think it’s nice to work with directors from all over: Grant Singer, for example, he found me out of the blue. I think that New Yorkers, we have a sort of look, and we have a certain drive and work ethic. It might not be as flashy and polished as what you get in LA, but we get down into more of the gritty look - a lot more realism. I think you can sort of get into people’s heads a little more with the way we shoot. Also, if you have to lug your gear around on the subway all the time, you’re used to the rougher, make anything happen experience. The thing I found about music videos is you can’t get too stressed about the details. A lot of times you’ll have a general shot list, or in the case of Mike Lawrence, he’ll tell you a feeling he needs from the scene. I love working with Mike because there is very much an organic process. He does things spontaneously and trusts me to do my job, and trusts the people around him to do theirs to enhance his vision. A lot of times, I’ll be shooting, he won’t even be seeing what I’m shooting. Sometimes, he’ll grab the camera and go shoot something, and I trust him to fill in the gaps that I miss. It’s a really fun way of working.
Gambles - Trust
Doug: Are you getting more out of the blue professional contacts now that you have had more work come out?
David: Most of my work is in features and commercials, but I love music videos. They’re a creative playground. The way the feature world works is very much based on word of mouth. Most of the work that I get is either people that have worked with me before as a DIT, for example, and know that I’m shooting. Maybe I worked as DIT on a $5 million film, and now a half million or $1 million movie has come across their table, and they’re like, “Oh, here’s that guy. Let’s give him a chance and bring him in.” Very little work comes from out of nowhere.
Doug: You mentioned working on features primarily. You just had a feature that you shot screen at Sundance, Concussion. As you have more success in the feature world, do you plan to focus on that direction? Would you leave the music video form behind, or do you think you’d always have it there as that creative playground like you talked about?
David: I don’t think I’ll ever leave any medium within film behind because each one informs the others. Although my goals skew more towards long form narrative, it’s nice to interject the features with smaller projects like commercials to pay the bills, and with music videos to try something new. You can do things that are a lot more risky. You can try different ideas. You can do stuff that might not work in a feature and would totally work in a music video, as long as they’re attention grabbing or weird or interesting. It’s almost encouraged, especially if you have a director that trusts you. Just because the budgets are small and music videos are so many, there’s tons of music videos that to do something weird and different makes them stand out. I am partial to videos with a narrative slant. With Michael Lawrence, shooting “Black Mold Grow,” for example, there is a story. There’s no performance, and it’s also really weird. We have scenes where you can’t see our actress. She’s completely shrouded in darkness. There’s close ups of her eyes, and she’s spitting dirt out, just really weird stuff out in the middle of the forest in Buffalo. It’s fun, you know?
Levek - Black Mold Grow
Doug: You say commercials pay the bills. Is that true even compared to what you make on a feature?
David: Features tend to span a wide range of budgets but in general, you never have enough money. I’ve even had experiences on majors where they’re still concerned about numbers, which in comparison to the actual budget are tiny, but they add up. Especially on indie features, every penny counts. You’re trying to stretch $100,000 or $200,000 over 15 or 18 days - it ends up not being a lot. It’s also not the risky creative playground that music videos are because there are certain conventions and certain restrictions when you’re trying to tell a narrative story. You can’t just go completely surreal unless it’s part of the script and part of the vision. However, to me, the act of telling the story and shooting for that many days, and really making something cohesive and coherent that comes out as a two-hour piece, that's something I really love. Seeing the directors work, and being able to keep up the level of energy, enthusiasm, and vision over that length of time, I think it’s wonderful.
Doug: Your website also mentions that you have some background in fine art and culinary art. I’m wondering how those two areas have influenced your work as a DP.
David: Culinary art is interesting because my first job was in a restaurant. I started out as a dishwasher, and I worked my way up to line cook very quickly. The one job I loved most until I got into shooting was washing dishes. What I really loved about it, was that it was hard work - you’d go in there and work your ass off for 10 or 12 hours. You’d go home soaking wet, sweaty, disgusting, but you felt like you put in a good day. There’s a lot of teamwork involved. You’re an integral part of the kitchen. The people depend on you to have certain things done at a certain time, that you’re going to be able to deliver, and they’re also there to support you as well. I get a very similar feeling on a film set. You have your camera team. You have your G&E. You have production. You have a great producer, there’s nothing better than a great producer that can take all the stress off and allow you to be creative and really do your job as good as possible. For me, it was a very simple transition. A lot of things made sense. You’re doing something technically different, but it feels the same.
The Last Royals - Crystal Vases
Doug: As far as equipment of choice, do you prefer the RED Epic? Do you have a camera that you like to shoot on the most or is it a job-to-job thing?
David: I have a RED Epic package and a set of anamorphic lenses. I tend to start there, especially for low-budget projects like music videos and passion projects. For me, I want to make the project look good, and I want a certain quality on my reel. That was a very big part of buying a camera. However, I do like to approach every project with “What’s best for the project?” Then take into consideration budget and technical constraints. I start out with, "In an ideal world, film would look best for this or Alexa would look best or we should shoot the whole thing on a GoPro." At times, it comes down to, “OK, we’ve got this bit in the script and we need to shoot 120 frames per second, but we need to steal it in the subway.” We’re not going to run in there with a Alexa or a Phantom, but you can’t do that on a 5D. You end up shooting on Epic. For example, going to Indonesia with Michael Lawrence, we had talked about a few different ideas. I talked about bringing a Canon out there, the 1DC, for example, which has a really great form factor. It’s compact and it’s easy for a two-man team to work with it. The C300, for example, really great low light capabilities. In the end, we wanted the high resolution, we wanted the slow motion capabilities, and we wanted it all in a small package. We brought the Epic out to the middle of nowhere off the coast of Sumatra and shot 120 frames per second in the jungle at 5K RAW. There’s not really a better choice than Epic for something like that. If I was going out there, and I could have cranes, and I could have a camera crew, and any lens I wanted, perhaps I would have chosen the Alexa and chosen different lenses, but it was the best tool for the job at the time. That’s really the number one concern: if it’s the best tool.
Nada Surf - Electrocution
Doug: Do you charge more when it's your camera that the video is being shot on? Is your fee raised, or is there some kind of insurance involved?
David: I have insurance on my equipment, and I ask for a certificate of insurance from production. I do try to keep a level of common sense, but if there is some danger involved (to the equipment) but it means possibly getting a great shot, the production wants it, they understand the risks involved, and the equipment is all insured, then we do it. We’ll explore all the options. Yes, I have seen cameras run over by cars, and dunked in water - it happens. That doesn’t mean that we’re ever going to sacrifice getting a good shot if we think we can do it within reason, and we think we can do it to the best of our abilities and if we think we can do it safely and practically. As far as rates are concerned, I have my labor rate as a DP and I have my equipment rental rates.
Read the full article by Doug Klinger on IMVDb.