EXCLUSIVE: Inside shooting Cobra Kai with DP Cameron Duncan
Cobra Kai is the Emmy-nominated The Karate Kid spin-off series that debuted on YouTube Premium, received rave reviews and has been described as "outrageously fun", "poignant" and "delightful". Here Mandy News sits down with the show's DP Cameron Duncan to learn about his journey to becoming a cinematographer, the challenges of shooting Cobra Kai and more!
Cameron, introduce yourself and tell us how you got into the film industry.
I got involved in the film industry initially through curiosity of how films were made. I enjoyed watching the behind-the-scenes aspects of the movies. I always found it fascinating. I went on to college to study film.
I recently uncovered a photo of myself that my dad had taken at Christmas time, it was when one of the Star Wars films had recently come out. It must have been The Empire Strikes Back as I received a Snow Walker and created a backdrop put a camera on a tripod and took photos. I was maybe nine years old at the time.
I had completely forgotten about this memory but here this picture was in a box and it kind of all made sense at that time. I thought “oh yes, you always were going to do this, you just had no clue”.
Now I have it pinned on my desk to remind me of where it all started.
How did you start moving into working in film and TV?
I went to university to study film, Cal State Northridge. Upon graduating, I was still working on my senior thesis and a gentlemen in the same editing suite as me was the cappuccino worker at Panavision and he mentioned that they were hiring. I had never even thought about Panavision as being an opportunity, it just always seemed like a massive company that worked in the business.
At that point, I had no family in the business and no idea how I was going to take my next step forward but I needed a job so I applied and it ended up being one of the easiest interviews I’ve ever had. I was offered the job about two days later. I started working at Panavision in the shipping and receiving department and, from there, migrated into lense service and repair. I watched Dan Sasaki, who is a world renowned optics engineer, at Panavision as designed the lenses, taking optics and lining them up. It was a fascinating experience.
During the whole time that I was there, I was constantly using their gear: shooting short films, shooting projects for people at Panavision itself so I was honing my skills using their gear.
After about four years there, I was given the opportunity to go out as a film loader on my first film which was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. At the time, I thought I was just going to be using the gear and be a DP. I never had the intention of being a camera assistant but it got to a point where I needed to make a change. The benefit of being a camera assistant and working on large films is watching some of the big DPs work and how they make the magic happen so that in itself was also a priceless experience.
During that whole time, even on weekends while I was working as a loader and a second AC, I was always shooting independent projects when I could so I was constantly keeping my eye on the prize of being a cinematographer even while being a camera loader.
How did you get involved with Cobra Kai? Were you around for The Karate Kid?
I was about 9 or 10 years old when The Karate Kid came out. It has the legs to create a legacy and it’s a lasting film. Any time it comes on TV, I can sit and watch five minutes of it or end up watching the whole thing. You can always jump right into it.
When I was approached for Cobra Kai, I worked with the line producer on a previous job called Queen of the South. He put my name up for it along with a couple of other cinematographers that he had worked with. When I took the meeting I was fairly excited because these guys are about my age and they’re huge Karate Kid fanboys. They’re living the dream by creating this world.
When I walked into the room in their office, they had a massive Cobra Kai banner hanging up on their wall and I just thought “these are the kind of guys I could get along with”. Sure enough, we hit it off right away and I found out shortly after that meeting that I got the job and was thrilled.
How did the style choices come about?
The show runners’ background is mainly in comedy. There’s three individuals that create the showrunner pool and two of them are director/writer partners that did the Harold and Kumar films and the other came from Hot Tub Time Machine as a writer. Both of those projects are funny films but they’re definitely a step away from The Karate Kid world in many ways. They wanted to add elements of drama within the comedy and didn’t want it to look like a comedy which is how they got in touch with me because of my work up until this point.
They wanted more of a realistic, natural look to the show and so, in knowing that, opened up the opportunity for me to bring some ideas forward to them. Before I met with them, I started watching The Karate Kid right away and fell in love with it again. Not only with the movie but with the way they shot the film. John Avildsen was a huge fan of zoom lenses and they have some just absolutely masterful camera moves that encompass a wide shot and then starts to morph into coverage with the zoom, using dolly track kit and the zoom lens. All that really spoke to me.
What I wanted to do was actually use the same glass they used on The Karate Kid. The lighting will certainly be different, just because of the way technology has changed and the way the aesthetics of lighting have evolved, but I wanted to use the same glass.
I’m a fan of older glass anyway because it seems to play better with the digital sensor. They were all for it! They thought it was a great idea and basically gave me the greenlight.
Is that common with projects you work on or is it quite unique for someone to give you the greenlight like that?
It really depends on the project. There’s certainly been times where you’re working in more of a box and you do whatever you can to get out of it any time that you can, both as a cinematographer and artist. But these guys were definitely open to all kinds of suggestions because they’re all pure writers. The visuals did not come easily to them.
I was very willing to show them examples of images that I was thinking of and, even on shooting days I would, in a sense, pre-shoot some stuff just so they would understand what I was trying to give them.
I think for the most part it was 99% go. There were a couple of times it wasn’t: they thought maybe it was a little too dark or just not the right tone but for 90% of the time we were all on the same page.
What were the biggest challenges of shooting Cobra Kai?
One of the biggest challenges was that we shot the series in Atlanta and the world of The Karate Kid takes place in the San Fernando Valley. You couldn’t have two more different environments than that. There’s not one palm tree in Atlanta and it’s very hilly, very green and lush. That was a challenge for myself and Ryan Berg, the production designer, to try and hide some of those aspects. I think we did a wonderful job.
We had two days of filming in LA which helped heighten those elements. Certainly going back to the original apartment building towards the end of the season helped to cement ourselves in the valley.
Beyond that, there wasn’t a lot to be honest. It was a really fun process and project. Just the amount of time we had to shoot because it was a show that didn’t have a lot of money. It was a challenge just to make the days and to be efficient and make sure that we got what we needed.
The guys also didn’t overshoot, they weren’t in to doing a ton of coverage which I’m also a fan of as well. I think you can usually tell your story in minimal set-ups as long as the writing and the aesthetic warrants it and, for this project, it did.
In this digital world, people have gotten away from that and they seem to overshoot because they can and that’s just not always the answer.
Do you think watching a pioneer of lenses at Panavision has maybe influenced your style of shooting?
Absolutely, since I’ve been away from there they’ve developed so many more different series of lenses specifically in the anamorphic region.
I definitely know about certain lenses that aren’t always on the menu. When I go in there I’ll ask the guys “How about these old baltars, are they still around? Or “Remember there’s some flare lenses that we’ve used before?” Having that relationship with Panavision and knowing what’s on the back of the menu has been a huge benefit to me for sure.
Working with Dan Sasaki (Optics Designer at Panavision) when any project comes up you can go to him and start talking about what you’re looking for he will throw out ideas as well. He’s the guy that everyone sees whether it’s for the recent Star Wars films or whatever. He’s got such a library of visuals that other DPs have also worked with that he can kind of throw those out as talking points.
What are you currently working on or working on next?
Earlier this year, I finished up an episode of Preacher and then, more recently, I came back from a trip to Thailand working on a documentary.
I'm currently in Toronto prepping for a mini series for Nat Geo called The Hot Zone. It’s based on the acclaimed book about the Ebola outbreak in 1989 in Reston, Virginia.
Right now, I’m taking meetings so I’m not too sure what’s next but there’s a lot of work on the horizon which is exciting. In the meantime, I’m actually spending a lot of time at home working on construction on our house so it’s been nice to have some downtime to be thinking about what’s going on here at home.
There’s season 2 of Cobra Kai, actually, which happens in the fall. It’s brilliant. Every aspect. Even the acting with Billy Zabka and Ralph Macchio somehow, after 30 odd years, are able to hone these characters again and own it. It’s been so fascinating to see Billy play Johnny Lawrence now because no-one really got to know Johnny Lawrence. You really saw him as this superficial a**hole and now you kind of see why he’s like that and where it came from. He absolutely killed it.
What advice would you give to aspiring cinematographers?
It’s an interesting time right now because I feel like there’s so much production going on and digital cameras are so accessible: you can shoot a movie on your iPhone literally. It all really comes down to hard work and persistence.
This even goes back to when I was a film loader on World Trade Center and talking to the gaffer, Randy Woodside, I remember him saying that: “If you wanna shoot, just keep shooting. Just shoot.” I always took that to heart and I never let go of that. So even if I had a temporary job as a camera assistant, I was always shooting what I could whether it was a free job or a small paying job.
Even the free jobs have come back to benefit me in some way. It’s not always about making money doing a shooting job. It’s always about the experience and the people that you work with and building that network.
It’s really valuable just to keep your eye on the prize and and to always be shooting and to be kind out there. No-one likes to work with an a**hole and if you’re a kind person, people are going to see that and are going to want to work with you.
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