'Answer those Mandy ads' Lucifer DP Tom Camarda on how he got started and shooting hit TV shows

Tom Camarda is an award-winning TV and film DP known for hit shows Lucifer, Training Day and The Mentalist. Here he tells Mandy News, in amazing detail, how he started out in the industry, what his process on Lucifer is like and what aspiring cinematographers can do to succeed in the entertainment industry.

11th July 2018
/ By James Collins

Actor Tom Ellis in Lucifer WARNERBROS

Tom, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the industry.
Well I kind of came up through the ranks. I went to film school, graduated from Santa Barbara, UCSB and got a job as a PA on a Warner Bros feature after college, which happened to be shooting in Ireland. I was the only American on the crew so I had to work extra hard and extra long. It was a great experience, very rewarding and very hard work.

I became really good friends with the camera trainee, who was the DP’s son. I was older than him by a year and, halfway through that shoot, he had to go back to school to finish off his studies leaving a position in the camera department open. I saw an opportunity to no longer be a PA directing traffic in the fields of Ireland, getting bitten by flesh-eating midges, when I could be on the camera truck which is really where I wanted to be. I guess I’d proven to the producers that I was a hard enough worker, and so they gave me the opportunity and that was pretty much it. I’ve just stayed in camera ever since and have come up through the ranks.

Flash forward a few years, I came back to the States, worked as a camera assistant and, as I was doing so, I had a friend who was working in 3D CG animation. He was working for a broadcast design company in Hollywood called Pittard Sullivan and he said they are always looking for people with production experience to work there. I thought “why not? It can’t hurt.” I’d just done a really horrible 3D job with a bunch of stunt guys in really unsafe conditions, and nearly got blown up. So I was thinking of a future way forward.

There was this position in the mailroom at this company, but soon I saw there was this opportunity to do a lot of really cool stuff and work with a talented team of designers. They were at the cutting edge of green screen at the time, and they were working on big compositing machines; the Henrys and the Harrys.

So I decided I’d take a step back, work in the mailroom then learn all about tape formats, how to process work at this company, how to do broadcast design and how they integrate live action with graphics. It was great. I committed to it and, two months later, I got promoted to the design department. In the closet, of what would become the camera room was a Bolex that had been sitting in there covered in dust and gel scraps. I saw it and thought “that’s my ticket right there! That’s my opportunity!”

I pulled it out, fixed it up, jumped on that thing and started shooting for all these designers, doing anything I could to incorporate into their designs. A couple of those designers really gave me good opportunities, and over the course of about four years I’d shot four Emmy-nominated main title sequences for the company. The whole time, the owner of the company didn’t even know who I was. He asked “who is this guy that works for us and has shot four of the main titles we got nominated for this year?”

I went up to him in his office and met him, and he said: “So Tom what do you want to do here? There's all these designers, but you’re really the only one shooting.” He said: “Create your job description, write it up and bring it back to me.” So I said “In-house DP, that's what I want to do,” and he said “OK, great, that’s what you are.”

I was there for about four and a half years and it became my training ground. I shot a tremendous amount of stuff. In that time, we built a big beautiful stage with a 55 x 70 foot cyc which I oversaw. The projects just got bigger and bigger. It went from table top to all live action stuff and I became the go-to guy for all the in-house designers because I was cheaper than a day rate. And there would still be big jobs that I would do as second unit. It was an amazing experience.

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Eventually the .com bust happened in 2001 and that's when all that came to an end. The company shut down and I was out on my own. I had all this amazing footage, befriended an editor and he cut together a reel for me. With that, I managed to get an agent and slowly started getting commercials, a music video here and there, or a promo or 3D or PSA. I was scraping by, however I could. It was many years of building promos into commercials, commercials into indie features, probably over five or six years getting into indies.

My go-to place to find jobs was Craigslist, as well as Mandy by the way! In the mid/late '90s Mandy.com and Craigslist were how you found gigs. So I found this low-budget indie feature and did it with this really talented writer/director – and it turned out he had written a pilot.

After we’d shot our feature, he called me to tell me his pilot got picked up by MTV and asked if I wanted to shoot it. I said yes and he made me promise that if the series got picked up I’d shoot the whole show. So we shot the pilot and three months later it went to series for MTV. So I packed up and moved out to Philly for the summer. It was called The Block, took place in Philadelphia and it was great. 

We shot 13 episodes of the show for Nickelodeon then ended up doing it for their new network TN. It was their teen drama channel. It was good writing that dealt with serious issues; sexuality, drugs, real stuff. It was a big budget deal for them, all union, in Philly, and I got to use M. Night’s crew – who were great – because he was in between shoots and shoots in Philadelphia all the time. We shot that and I waited and waited and it never aired and suddenly I found out that the network got scrapped, and not only is it not going to air but the other six shows that got shot to launch the whole network were never going to air. So I thought “screw TV," and decided I’m never going to do TV again.

That’s when I did an indie feature called Leave It On The Floor, that got into Berlin, and Los Angeles and Toronto. I was doing the indie feature push when I met my neighbour in Mount Washington, California, Geary McLeod. He’s an ASC member. He's a director now but was a DP on The Mentalist – a very popular show that ran for seven seasons. I got talking to him and we had common interests. I showed him the MTV show that I did, he was impressed and said “I have a third camera day on The Mentalist, come be my second unit guy.”

I did it, got along with everybody there and the producers were nice and liked what I was doing, so they started throwing me more and more third camera work. Eventually Geary got an episode to direct, and he turned to me and said “I want you to shoot the episode.” I said “that’s crazy because this is your first opportunity to direct, and I have never shot an episode for a Network show on TV.” He told me not to worry and that it was going to be great and that we’re going to make it work.

The show was still shooting on film, on 35mm at the time. I was nervous to say the least but I said "look I’m ready, let’s do this". I put everything I had into that episode, obviously, and our opening shot was straight out of The Third Man. We did a Steadicam shot, then did a walk-off, a maverick crane, crane down off a train pulling into the station. As we came down, the Steadicam steps off the actor as he walks all the way through the crowd into the crime scene right up to the body on the floor. Right off the bat we went for it, and it totally worked.

That summer, after the show, I got a call from Geary. He said "let's go to lunch" and told me they were going to offer me the job to come in as the alternating DP, and he’d love for me to come on. Sure enough, the next day I got a call from the producers saying, “Hey we loved everything you did last year and the other DP is going to be leaving, and we love for you to come on full time and alternate”.

That’s how I got into TV. That was between season four and five of The Mentalist. I was there for season five through seven. After six, Geary left so I got bumped up to the main DP position on season seven. That was shooting at Warner Bros and I got on the official “He’s OK, DP-wise” list for the studio. Then the show ended. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but that’s what agents are for; they start sending things out and get you meetings. Eventually, I started having meetings for network shows and landed The Player with Wesley Snipes.

Every episode was a James Bond film. Huge action. It was over the top, and I think, once I did that, and pulled that off successfully, I officially became on the list of people who can do this. The Player went for nine episodes and I was the only DP on the show, so actually, I was really relieved when they cancelled it because it almost killed me. It was that hard of a job to do.

Not long after that, Training Day came about. That was my first opportunity with Bruckheimer and that went really well. That was with Bill Paxton. Sadly Bill passed away halfway through that shoot. That was tragic but it was a great experience. The Bruckheimer folks were on board after that, and they contacted me when Lucifer moved from Vancouver back to LA, and here I am. That’s my life so far!

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Amazing story and congratulations! So for Lucifer, how is that different from some of the other shows that you have talked about? How many cameras do you use on it? What’s your turnaround for an episode? How does the whole thing come together?
It started as an eight day show but we are typically shooting nine days and the occasional 10, so we’re doing double ups. I alternate with another DP, Christian Sebaldt, who’s an ASC guy. He’s fantastic. It makes it doable. It’s a big show, but having the ability to prep with the director is invaluable. I can go to locations and really plan. I can sit with the director, talk about the angles and the lights.

Having the prep is really important on a show this big. We’re on stage 16 at Warner Bros, which is the biggest stage, and stage 11. They’re big beautiful sets. The production designer, Alex Hajdu, is amazing. They go big every time and always give us something great to look at.

We don’t do more than 13.5 hours. We split to 12s, that's the one thing I can say. I know the schedule, you just have to pick your battles, you have to say “look this scene is going to be on screen for a maximum of three seconds, is this the shot I want to spend all my time lighting?”

Sometimes you just have to cut your losses because in the end it’s Network Television. You’ve just got to say “I know I could do this, but we don’t have the time, and we’ve got to move on,” and producers know that. They give me all the tools necessary to make the day, so when I say "this is going to be a lot faster if we put this on a Technocrane" then they’re going to give me it, because their job is to keep it to 13 hours or under and they trust me on that.

And what do you actually shoot on? What kind of camera is it? Is Lucifer shot multi or single camera?
They call it a single camera show, but we have two cameras, A and B, and also a C body that’s on Steadicam all the time. We actually have a fourth body that we carry with us, but we don’t often use it unless it’s a stunt and I do a lock-off kind of thing.

We are always using two cameras. We’re using the Arri Alexa Minis And Leica primes. This is actually the first show I’ve shot that uses primes exclusively. We carry the zooms just in case, but I’ve used them once on a crane this season.

I’m shooting at a 2f to really get that cinematic, fuzzy background, even in broad daylight a 2.8f max. The crew came from CSI and have been around for a while. They know the drill, so it’s a pretty well oiled machine, and they’ve been very welcoming to me because its the first time I’ve worked with a lot of these guys.

Lucifer actor Tom Ellis WARNERBROS
Actor Tom Ellis in Lucifer

What are the challenges you face on a show like Lucifer? We were under the impression that the nightclubs was actually on location but they’re sets?
That's right, they’re sets. Challenge-wise, yesterday we were looking at a helicopter landing pad on the top of the 45th floor downtown. There’s going to be some challenges shooting there, and of course the director wants a crane shot. So now I’ve got to bring a Luma Crane in pieces and assemble it on the roof.

Out of a nine day schedule, we are probably out on location five of those days, and we’re on stages for four of them.

Is Lucifer something that you’re still shooting at the moment? What's coming up for you? Is it more Lucifer?
I’m currently prepping right now for the season finale, which is episode 20. Then they’ve added two stand alone episodes. So I have an episode after that, which Kevin Alejandro, one of the actors, is going to be directing.

For me, if we get another season and they want me back, I would happily come back to Lucifer. I’ve had a great time on this show, and the cast are fantastic. Tom Ellis is such a joy to work with and it really makes a huge difference when you are working with talent who are happy to be there, who are fun, who are enjoying the process and know the crew. It just makes it a joy, as opposed to a struggle every day, because I’ve been on those jobs too!

We’ve had some amazing opportunities. There’s always some kind of an event. We did roller derby one episode, a surfing episode this year, all under water and we shot at the Hollywood bowl. There’s always some kind of a gag, so there’s always an adventure. We have to figure out a way to do it, and the show keeps it fun. They just go for it so, absolutely, I’d do it again.

Do you have any advice for would-be DPs?
I would say, answer those Mandy ads, keep your resumé current and get your stuff online. You just never know what little indie project you’re going to shoot, who that person might be and what pilot they wrote that gets greenlit. You might get a call three months later.

It’s about perseverance. Even when you think there is nothing left, you’ve just got to trust your gut and keep going for it, and eventually you’ll get your break. All the struggle and the work is just preparing you for that opportunity, because when that opportunity comes to shoot an episode, like with me for The Mentalist, I was ready for it.

That's what you want to do, you want to do all those Mandy jobs to cut your teeth, and build the reel and be prepared for the opportunity that will eventually come.

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