Visual Storyteller: Jonathan Chapman

By Harrison Jacobs

On location in San Francisco for Target C9. Monopods were essential to the handheld look of the project.

Jonathan Chapman is wearing many hats today: photographer, cinematographer and director. He and his crew are staring up at a thick oak tree, trying to figure out how they will turn the single shot requested by their client, Lowe’s Home Improvement, of a boy looking out from his treehouse, into a short brand film he can sell to his clients later on. Chapman is shooting, and—as always—he is capturing extra “in-the-moment” shots as well. He’s known for going above and beyond—it’s the reason clients hire him. 

Jonathan Chapman
© John Fontana

He starts looking for angles and moments that will build to the climactic shot of the boy. There’s a behind-the-trunk shot of the boy running toward the tree, the low-angle shot of the boy putting his hands on the first rungs of a makeshift ladder, and a shot from above as the boy climbs. In almost every instance, as Chapman finishes shooting stills, the talent repeats the shot so that he can grab motion clips with his second camera. Later, either his in-house editor or a separate post-production house will cut the clips into a one-to two-minute highlight reel. Right now, Chapman is displaying the type of visual creativity and efficiency that has made his cinematography services as popular as his photographic ones. 

The lines between photography and cinematography are blurring, in no small part due to photographers like Chapman. The Minneapolis-based photographer, who has done still and motion campaigns for worldwide brands such as McDonald’s, Target and Samsung, prefers to call himself a “visual storyteller.”

“In the future, I believe that there will be less of a definition between a still photographer and a filmmaker,” Chapman says. “It’s all about the way you see the world.”

Since he first began taking on motion commissions in 2009, Chapman has steadily grown the cinematography side of his business. At this point, clients often ask him if he even shoots stills anymore. He is still hired frequently for his still photography, but somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of his projects include a motion element, with a percentage being entirely motion.

The Lowe’s campaign is typical of the shoots Chapman and his crew produce today. Going back to the first motion campaign he ever sold (for McDonald’s), Chapman often takes a still campaign and adds a motion component with or without the client signing off on it. He then sells the option to the client later. According to Chapman, the client opts to buy it 75 percent of the time. For him, the payoff is worth the risk. Being able to offer extra content six months down the line “opens a ton of doors,” says Chapman. 

While many photographers might have trouble with a production schedule that is already tight, Chapman always includes time for extra shots—it’s part of his style. He captures details, as well as secondary and lifestyle shots, for every campaign he shoots. While certainly more complex, adding motion was almost as simple as hitting the record button.

Chapman’s approach also allows him to be more visually daring. When it comes to advertising agencies, every shot is storyboarded and debated in conference rooms for months before Chapman arrives on the scene. By taking shots and clips that the client didn’t ask for, he has more control over the end product. The shots end up far more fresh and engaging. 

“It’s the stuff that clients haven’t spent weeks thinking about in offices or conference rooms that people get excited about. It shows them the creative latitude of how you see,” says Chapman. 

Courtesy Jonathan Chapman
Chapman preps his gear for a personal project, using a Cine Star Octocopter for aerial shots.

As the demand for Chapman’s cinematography services has increased, the complexity of the assignments has increased as well. Over the past year, he has shot motion-heavy campaigns for Samsung in Los Angeles and Target in San Francisco, and a full commercial for the Minnesota Twins Community Fund. All three were far more reminiscent of a film shoot—complete with grip trucks, broadcast and line producers and a Los Angeles director of photography—than a traditional photography shoot. 

Chapman’s studio adapts to the changing demands of each shoot, and the equipment, like the crew, changes accordingly. For example, the Samsung campaign was shot on a combination of Canon 5D Mark IIIs and broadcast cameras such as the Sony FS700, modified to accept Canon lenses, which Chapman describes as his “workhorse.” Meanwhile, the Twins commercial was shot solely on broadcast cameras, and the Target campaign was shot exclusively on Canon 5D Mark IIIs. 

When using an HDSLR like the Canon 5D Mark III, Chapman often uses cinema or “cine” lenses, which are specifically created for film and video. The main advantage of these lenses is the longer throw on the focusing ring. To shift focus 10 feet on a traditional lens, a photographer would slide the focusing ring about half an inch. On the cinema lens, a 360-degree spin of the focusing ring will cover the same range. That’s important in film in which you need to follow focus manually.

“You don’t have to be quite as precise,” explains Chapman. “There’s more room to track subjects.”

One of the biggest changes for Chapman has been the broader, more specialized range of crewmembers on motion-based productions. While traditional still photographers may be used to having complete control over the visuals of a shoot, it’s a much different playing field in the film world. According to Chapman, when clients hire him to shoot motion, they are used to larger crews, including broadcast producers, line producers, a director, a director of photography, second and third unit camera operators, grips, gaffers, ACs and often many others.

Motion-based productions also require a longer production schedule, allowing time for post-production and editing, which involve another layer of creative partners including editors, graphic animators, audio engineers, and colorists.  While that collaboration was jarring at first, Chapman now finds this to be one of his favorite aspects of the shoots. 

“I simply can’t imagine having gotten to where we have without the level of collaboration required in the realm of film.  It’s pretty thrilling when you find people that can help interpret your vision but also bring something else to the project,” says Chapman. 

For the Target campaign, Chapman was asked to create a “day in the life” short film of an urban athlete in San Francisco wearing Target’s C9 athletic apparel. Shot over the course of four days, Chapman and his crew composed a series of interlocking shots, as the film switches from morning joggers to midday soccer players to afternoon cyclists before linking back up with the joggers at dusk. According to Chapman, because of his studio’s versatility, they were able to shoot in four days what would have taken a traditional film crew between one and two weeks.

© Jonathan Chapman
Chapman and his team shot the Target C9 campaign with up to four cameras at once, using a vast array of camera mounts to provide different point-of-views for the athletes’ action sequences.

Chapman, who directed the shoot and ran the first “A” camera, brought on filmmaker Eric Schleicher and two shooters from California-based Stillmotion to help capture multiple points of views for the shoot. During each shot, all four shooters would take different angles. After each take, Chapman and his fellow shooters would often compare the footage and find it a refreshing and inspiring challenge to see who had the best point-of-view. 

“It was competitive in a great way,” says Chapman. “By the end of it, we were all pretty psyched. We all learned from each other and came away with a wide range of options for each shot and sequence.”

Chapman got into motion early, and while there is a continual path of refining and learning, he has nearly made a full transition to the film world. But now, as he watches the next wave of still photographers make the switch, he’s not sure all are doing it the right way. 

“We’ve seen a lot of [traditional still photographers] who are starting out in the film world…and they’re often taking it all on themselves,” says Chapman. These shooters, according to Chapman, work to shoot, edit and produce. “If you really want to elevate [your work], you are going to have to bring other people on.”

It was on the recent Samsung campaign that Chapman fully embraced the film approach. The concept was a lifestyle shoot featuring families and couples using Samsung products in their everyday lives. The client hired Chapman to direct and shoot stills, but they also gave him a budget to bring on a director of photography out of Los Angeles. This director of photography, Patrick Lawler, required that they also hire his assistant camera, Rich Hawkinson, whose job is to “pull focus,” or make sure that wherever the camera is pointed, the subject is in focus. While working with the two traditional filmmakers, Chapman picked up on how the symbiotic relationship between Lawler and Hawkinson made the shoot far more efficient. It’s a concept that Chapman has now begun to work into shoots where he is behind the camera. 

© Jonathan Chapman
Still images from the Samsung still and motion campaign, shot on both the Canon 5D Mark III and Sony FS700 with Canon lenses.

All this talk about the film world might make some think that Chapman has eschewed his title as a still photographer altogether, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Chapman maintains that he isn’t looking to replace traditional film crews. Rather, he approaches motion purely from a still photographer’s perspective. 

“It’s a different look,” explains Chapman. “[Our look] is more organic…People are looking for more of that natural, less-polished, still-finessed, but less locked off and more handheld look today.”

For those thinking of switching over, Chapman recently received some advice from a veteran film editor. “Hold on to your name as a still photographer because you are known to have visual sensibilities that a director of photography might not quite possess,” the editor told Chapman. 

That’s good news for other photographers looking to throw their hat in the motion ring.

Target C9:

Samsung / Los Angeles:

Minnesota Twins / Winter Baseball:

Minnesota Twins / Behind the Lens (making of video Winter Baseball):



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