How I Became A Young Cinematographer with Kevin Garrison

“Being a young DP is something I initially felt was a disadvantage when I was starting out my career. I always felt there was a bias towards DPs who just had more years of experience under their belt, and I was always afraid my age would come up in a director meeting or pitch. But the fact of the matter is that our generation has grown up with a proclivity towards keeping a finger on the pulse of new technologies, staying informed, and utilizing resources like social media to help build visual libraries and share information - we can learn from each other at a pace never before seen in the film industry. With hard work, lots of study and the right networks, anyone can make large strides toward becoming a cinematographer at a pace we haven’t seen before. The work one puts out is more than ever the litmus test.” - Kevin Garrison, DP based in Los Angeles.

Working your way up is a pretty universal philosophy, and many filmmakers start out in the industry doing work at the bottom of the ladder, with goals to eventually reach better positions. The problem is, many find themselves so entangled in the work of their current position that they never get the opportunity to shine. Being a creative takes skill and experience, so you wait and wait for that time to come when you’re eventually chosen to move up.

Kylie Jenner + Kendall Jenner - Fall Campaign Launch from Kevin Garrison on Vimeo

For Kevin Garrison, this came much sooner than he expected. Since starting out in the industry at just 19, he’s gone from PAing on set to being a professional cinematographer in a few short years, shooting his first feature film In Search of Fellini at the age of 23 and at the age of 26 now, having filmed numerous commercials and narrative projects in nearly 40 countries. He attributes his head start to an obsession with studying, testing and shooting constantly, and surrounding yourself like minded individuals to develop connections over time.

He shares with us his path to becoming a respected DP and how others can achieve the same:

Starting Out

In Venice for In Search of Fellini

“I actually fell into filmmaking somewhat on accident! I grew up in LA as a child actor, but when I was 14 my family moved us to Florida where I went to high school. I wasn’t great at sitting in a classroom, even though I loved studying on my own, so I eventually did my GED the first day I was legally allowed to. This was in 2007 when the first iPhone came around and people were starting to take photos from their phones. Photography came onto my radar as a result of that, but it wasn’t until I did a photoshoot with another photographer, for a misguided attempt at an acoustic solo album I was doing at the time, that I actually picked up a real camera and started shooting. I asked that photographer to teach me the basics of how to use a camera, and he kindly obliged. Before long, I obsessed with a new craft and I started studying photography and shooting constantly - watching tutorials online and buying courses from other photographers to learn about lighting and camera techniques. I started booking a few jobs here and there and I was hooked and eventually decided to leave Florida and move to Los Angeles.

“An opportunity came up when a documentary production needed a photographer to travel around the world pro bono for 3 months. My photographer friend was supposed to work on that, but he ended up not being able to make it - so he recommended me for the job. It was by an organization called Youth for Human Rights International. I met with the founder of that group Mary Shuttleworth, who saw how willing I was to do just about anything to travel and shoot. She mentioned they’d need photos and video and I just said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s not a problem at all. I can totally do video!’ and promptly went back into the online abyss to figure out how the heck to shoot video on a DSLR.”

“It ended up being a pretty crazy trip. We traveled to 9 different countries over the span of 97 days. I handled all of the photos and videos from prepping to editing and, when it was all said and done, we had a wrap party in Los Angeles where they had footage and photos from the trip playing for all the attendees. That’s when I was approached by Taron Lexton, a fantastically talented director who I owe a lot of my success to today. Taron introduced himself as a Director and I learned that he was also an accomplished DP, and owner of his own film production company TXL Films. He asked me to come check out their office one day to get a tour, which I did.”

Traveling the world.

"I ended up coming in to “tour” TXL just about every single day. I started helping out on a feature they were in post-production on. Taron mentioned a few times that they couldn’t afford to pay me and that I didn’t need to be working on things, but I think he eventually gave up on keeping me outta there. I just wanted to stay and help out as much as I could for the experience. I bugged the editors to teach me things, spent my nights studying, free time experimenting and building my reel, eating nothing but top ramen and eggs when the bank account got a bit thin.”

“One day the jedi mind trick finally worked and Taron caved, hiring me on at what he thought was a modest rate - which it was -  but I was over the moon. It was a lot of money for me at the time and I was just amazed that you could make films and get paid for it. Suddenly I could pay rent without having to do headshots with my roommate to make ends meet. Some months went by and Taron mentioned in passing one day how helpful it would be to have someone who really knew their lighting around. I knew he was in some sort of secret prep for a feature film, so I spent the next 6 months learning everything I possibly could about lighting - studying every book I could find and annoying every rental house in the greater Los Angeles area asking to test out equipment.”

First Feature as a DP

"In Search of Fellini" - Trailer from Kevin Garrison on Vimeo.

“My first big break happened when I shot a short PSA for TXL Films, which put me in the running for an indie feature film called In Search of Fellini, which was directed by Taron Lexton and written and executive produced by Nancy Cartwright, who’s known best as the voice of Bart Simpson. Production had interviewed dozens of DPs for the feature initially but hadn’t really settled on anyone yet. I was on a this ultra low budget PSA filming all around the world at the time, for the Anthony Lawrence Earth Organization. I had a backpack loaded up with a RED camera and a few changes of clothes. I was traveling to Iceland, New Zealand, Patagonia, India, Vietnam, Italy and Hawaii. I recalled that I saw some sketches in Taron’s office of a girl on a boat looking up at the canal in venice, so I sort of tried to sprinkle in shots on this PSA that might replicate what I thought were going to be shots he was thinking of for the movie.”

In Search of Felini was over a hundred days of principal for me, included a number of pickup segments. It was shot primarily in Italy, which was a total dream come true. We started shooting in late 2015 and wrapped in June of 2016, with a release in 2017. It toured the film festival circuit for some time and did really well, scoring an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and eventually getting picked up by Netflix, where it’s really taken off and become accessible to the masses. In Search of Fellini opened a lot of doors for me, and I would absolutely credit that film with launching my career.

Soon after wrapping Fellini, Taron brought me onto another absolutely crazy shoot, again traveling around the world, this time for a 42-day commercial shoot for a wonderful children’s educational company called ABCmouse.”

“We had the Teradeks for all of these projects. I bought a Bolt transmitter and 3 receivers early on in my career because I realized just how important it was to work without cables and a bunch of gack in the way, and I can’t imagine going back. I can be a bit of maniac on set in terms of camera movement and flexibility, so not having that freedom would be very detrimental to the way I work. Not being able to move the camera at the last second when a better shot reveals itself would be my worst nightmare.”

The Jenner Shoot

Kendall & Kylie Jenner

“After finishing Fellini, I was looking for more opportunities to work on narrative projects, so I took on some short films and passion projects to try out new techniques with some directors I really admire. That kept my hands full for the better part of half a year, until I got a call to work on a really unique project, which was a fashion shoot with Kylie and Kendall Jenner. The commercial was with an Australian Director named Sophia Banks, who’s a really fantastic director I’d previously worked with for an Anine Bing perfume commercial. She called me right after I landed back in the US from an international shoot and asked me to be on this shoot. This was also around the time ARRI came out with their Alexa LF, and Sophia was very interested in trying out a new format and seeing what it was capable of. I was fortunate to know some of the guys over at 20/20 Camera in Santa Monica who had just gotten an Alexa LF in, and they were kind enough to put together a wonderful camera package for us to use.”

“The shoot was at the Sheats Goldstein Residence in the hills of LA. Kylie and Kendall were debuting their fall clothing collection. Originally, they were just expecting a super short video to go with the stills they were shooting on set. But Sophia and I both said to hell with that. We wanted to go all out and create something exceptional, given the rarity of the opportunity and the exceptional location. I ended up bringing in 3-ton grip and electric packages and this massive camera package - I think it probably caught everyone off guard initially.”

Camera prep for the Jenners.

“We ended up shooting this wonderful fashion piece with the Jenners using the Alexa LF and Signature Primes. The LF is an absolute beast, Quaid Cde Baca did some wonderful work flying it on Steadicam despite the nearly 40 pound build. I had my 1st AC, Joe Cheung, pulling focus with Prestons, and wireless video coming in from a Teradek Bolt 3000. We did a 1:3 setup, with video going from the transmitter to our 17” Sony OLED, SmallHD DP7 and 703 Bolt.”

“We couldn’t have done it without the wireless gear. Being able to move without any concerns for cables and know that the video feed is going to be solid anywhere on that massive property saved us critical time with the girls. The Director, client and I all had monitors going the entire day without a hitch. We shot 20 different outfits all in 1 day and both Kylie and Kendall were super lovely to work with. The brand ad ending up going everywhere, including some five story screens in Times Square, which was absolutely surreal to witness.”

Check out more of Kevin’s work below.
IG: @kevingarrison


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