David McLain: From National Geographic Photographer to Cinematographer

Photographer and Cinematographer David McLain

David McLain (www.davidmclain.com) sharpened his skills the old-fashioned way shooting feature-length assignments around the world for National Geographic Magazine.  While the stories varied greatly, the mandate was always the same: create timeless images for a client with the highest visual standards on earth. More recently, he has become absorbed with cinematography and is actively adapting his eye and skill-set toward shooting motion. Together with colorist and post production expert Jerome Thelia he co-founded Merge, a boutique production company.  Business is booming and after finishing a major global campaign for Sony, Merge just received full funding to shoot a feature-length documentary based on the forthcoming book by Harvard anthropologist John Fox entitled, "The Ball:  Discovering the Object of the Game."  

Pictureline:  David, thanks for talking with us.  Will you tell us about your expansion into moving images from a long career of doing spectacular editorial work at National Geographic?  When did this occur and what has been your method of embracing and learning motion?

David McLain: I got into "new media" with Jose Azel at Aurora Photos almost 15 years ago.  Ever since then, I've been exploring new ways to use my skills as a visual storyteller with new tools and technology as they arise.  In this sense, the move to cinematography was very organic.  I've been doing it for a long time now and have enjoyed the learning process which I think is a lot harder than still shooters realize.  Some of the skills of being a still photographer crossover into motion (composition and the ability to see and use light for example), but a lot of them don't (understanding sound, thinking in sequences rather than single moments, post production, and editing).

Pictureline:  When did you decide that you needed someone to handle post-production and how did that partnership with Jerome Thelia develop to create your production company Merge?

David McLain: From day one.  I learned early on that filmmaking is more about collaboration than the "lone wolf photographer" thing.  Every time I shoot motion, it is in collaboration with Jerome.  He has taught me a ton over the years.  Jerome and I have been working together for over a decade.   We met in Australia.  It was kind of weird because even though his background was in motion, he loved the still image.  My backgropund was in stills, but I was really interested in motion.  We were a great match this way and Merge, at its core, is really about combining the best of both of these traditions.

Pictureline:  When someone takes on a full-length documentary, it's no joke.  You need to be committed to the idea for a long-term relationship with it.  Tell us about your documentary "The Ball:  Discovering the Object of the Game."  How did you discover John Fox's book, decide that it was your project, and find funding for it?

David McLain: No joke is right.  The amount of work that goes into making a feature-length documentary is humbling.  John is a colleague and an old friend.  Jerome and I read his manuscript last year and thought it would make an amazing film.   Merge put in about one-third of the budget, and we found an amazing and very enlightened investor to put in the rest.   Sounds easy but about two months of non-stop work from both Jerome and I went into those last two sentences.  We are working under a self-imposed deadline that is really tight.  We WILL be done by the end of this year.  Documentaries can drag on forever, and we're too old to fall victim to that age-old trap.

Pictureline:  Tell us about a few scenes in this wonderful trailer for those who are enjoying their HDSLRs.  What is the basic technique for creating slow motion, such as the scenes of the men waiting for the ball?  In addition, you are moving through some trees, I assume with a handheld stabilizer for smoothness?

David McLain: All of that footage is 5k and was shot at 96fps which can't be done with a DSLR right now.  That's what gives it the slow motion effect.  The images where the camera floats or moves were shot with a Zephyr Steadycam which is about a $15,000 piece of equipment that takes a lot of practice to use.

A still from the documentary "The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game"

Pictureline:  What does your equipment list look like for this project?  How have you decided to capture sound for the documentary?

David McLain: It's pretty serious cinematography gear designed to shoot high-end motion pictures.  It really shares little in common with DSLR's.  Basically, we're shooting everything with a 5k Epic camera, Zeiss glass , a Zephyr Steadycam, and Sennheiser mics.  We're in the field with about 150K worth of gear and have about another 200K of hardware and software for post production.

Pictureline:  Tell us about your main inspirations on a daily basis.  Do you follow other photographers' or directors' work in stills or in motion?

David McLain: I'm a big Neil Young fan, and I read a long time ago that Neil does not listen to that much music.  It's completely counterintuitive, but it makes sense to me.  I'm a voracious reader of the New Yorker, New York Times, and books.  In my opinion, ideas have always been the most important currency in photography.  I think nowadays, this is more true than ever.  So I guess my visual inspiration and ideas come from looking at words rather than pictures.  The exception to this is National Geographic.

Pictureline: Thank you so much for this, truly.  There are so many things to learn, and your project is very inspiring.  We can't wait for it to come out.

Stay connected with David:  Website  | Aurora Photos | Merge on VimeoThe Ball:  Discovering the Object of the Game


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4kAurora photosBounce: the movieCinematographyDavid mclainEpic redJerome theliaJoel addamsJose azelLearning videoMay 2012Merge productionsNational geographicPictureline