Often as a freelancing filmmaker, I find myself on projects that I don’t closely identify with but for one reason or another (usually financial) I end up taking. Recently though, I’ve been spending a lot of time working to get projects off the ground that are more meaningful and closer to me. (Such as http://www.sevendaystillmidnight.com) Projects that would represent my reasons for wanting to get into this crazy business but as I’ve worked on these more personal projects, I’ve realized that for the bulk of my career, I’ve worked from one project to the next searching for something that I could connected with. The “meaning or message” of something is often a conversation that comes up at some point in every project I work on and the process of finding that point of inspiration or meaning is something I often ponder and imagine is a challenge for others as well. I’ve realized that over the years I’ve developed an approach to finding inspiration in those projects that at first glance, were uninspiring.


James Suttles, Director of Photography Behind the ScenesWorking mainly as the Director of Photography, connecting with the material is something I must do to perform my responsibilities and be true to the project. As the DP, my interpretation of the material is illustrated throughout the final product in the photography and with film being a visual medium, it’s never a good thing for the photography to be disassociated from the emotional core of the film.

However, some of the projects that I have done were things that I perhaps didn’t completely agree with creatively, politically, philosophically or sometimes they were subjects that just didn’t interest me.  As a freelance filmmaker, I’ve shot a good number of sports films and I can honestly say I don’t think I have ever once sat through an entire sporting event without losing interest or counting the minutes away on the clock.  Sports just do absolutely nothing for me.  So with those projects, I found myself gravitating toward the human interest aspect of the characters and plot.

The same can be said for the faith based films that I have done. As most people close to me know, I am a fairly liberal person and often I am asked “how can you do those films?” Honestly, the messages that are presented in most of the faith films I have shot are ones that should be universal. As polarized as our society is, I still feel like the arts should be a place that commonalities are found. The Christian World view, as the faith based film community likes to portray it’s messages, is one that share common themes that all people should connect with no matter your religious preferences.  Film can be a window into another point of view, an opportunity to step into the shoes of another culture. It can also be a great tool to inspire and the themes of strong family, morality and strength through adversity should be shared as often as possible. So how do I handle that struggle and guard against not being true to my position on the project, risking the quality of the photography, and making sure the project doesn’t just become a “Job”?

Finding a Similar Passion

20140708-183427-66867870.jpgA number of years ago, I did a film about the early days of stock car racing. Red Dirt Rising was a challenge for me to find inspiration for and at first I wasn’t excited by the prospect of the film even though it was a great opportunity. It was based on a book and I found the book hard to read in that it was all about dates and races, names and places that I couldn’t connect with. I agreed to attend an annual award ceremony for the “Old Timer’s Racing Club” and, in an attempt to add value to the trip, I brought my wife and son along with the idea we would take an extra few days and make a vacation out of the trip. As I went around meeting the men and women that found love in working on and driving these obnoxiously loud hunks of metal I started to realize that we had so much more in common than I had originally been willing to admit. Though my love of cameras, stories and lights were probably just as alien to them as their machines were to me, I realized that their passion was just as infectious as mine.  I began to realize that beneath to surface, there was a story of passion and love that deserved to be told.

A Defining Moment for a Filmmaker

A few month later, at the auditions for the film, an older gentleman came in with his wife who were both in there 80’s. They were both slow talking but kind, gentle people and had come based on the request of the Executive Producer. This man had loaded his vintage race car onto a trailer and brought it to the audition ready to show it off.  What he didn’t realize is that what I found most impressive wasn’t his machine that he babied and cared for on a daily basis but it was his child-like eagerness to share his passion.

Behind the Scenes 1014_8842274995_oAs we walked out to his truck and trailer, I noticed his slow pace and unsure steps that he made as his wife began to tell me about her husband’s fight with cancer that began 20 years prior.  She proceeded to explain that he had worked as a race flag man in the 40’s and 50’s when they were first married and as life went on, he stopped due to his responsibilities as a husband and father.

In his 60’s he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and given 6 months to live. A few weeks after the diagnosis, he decided he was going to race a car the last few months of his life. He didn’t care what his doctors said, it was the last chance he would have to experience something he longed-for his entire life. What’s the worse that could happen? It wasn’t like it would kill him any faster than the cancer. He bought a car and started working on it every evening. He raced every weekend and she said his personality changed and he smiled more than ever before.

Twenty years later, he was still racing and she swore that the happiness that driving that stock-car brought, was what saved his life.

Just then, this man, that just seconds before I would have thought needed a cane to navigate the sidewalk, jumped up onto the bumper of the trailer and hoped into the race car with a child-like vigor.  He cranked the engine and revved the motor filling the industrial complex we were based in with the rumblings of thousands of RPM’s under the sheet metal skeleton. The smile on his face reminded me of my 1 year old son at the time. Bright eyed and ready for life.

This became a defining moment for me. Inspiration can come from deeper than the surface and the passion of people is one of my first go-to sources of inspiration on any project still to this day. It may not be on the surface, related to the main subject in any way, but if you continue looking, the inspiration is there somewhere.

My Evolution and continued search for Inspiration

As time has passed since that project, I continue to look for that one thing that connects me with the material. The idea that the art of filmmaking is solely a technical one is ludicrous to say the least. As much as “Film” has become a commercial entity, I still believe the great films that inspire people are the ones that invest in a deeper meaning and aspire to be more but never lose sight of the entertainment value. As a filmmaker, balance is key whether it is the lighting, story or performance and depending on what creative position you find yourself, stepping back and finding your inspiration is key to delivering a quality project. I have found that the best work I have done is on those projects that the point of inspiration, that theme I discover, is carried through from beginning to end.

Red Dirt Rising - Behind the ScenesFrom a DP’s perspective, prep conversations with the director are key to finding that inspiration and guiding the visuals to represent their overall vision but even then, I often find myself eavesdropping on the conversations between the director and actor on set to help guide me as the production churns on.

As a filmmaker, I hope to leave something behind that influences the world in a positive way even if it is only for a brief moment of time of simple escapism.  Film is about influencing others through a creative interpretation of an event, story or subject and to be an honest filmmaker, you have to inject a little something of yourself into everything you do so in my opinion, your first job on any project is to find the inspiration that will be your guiding force in everything you do from that point on. Otherwise, it’s just a “Job” and is that really why we got into this crazy business to begin with?

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