Cinematographer John Engstrom and owner of Scheimflug—a grip house based in New York—doesn’t believe in big breaks. Instead, he credits his success to discipline and hard work, which has landed work with notable clients like Pepsi and Vimeo. “It’s always one step at a time,” he says of his burgeoning career.
Engstrom’s drive to take pictures and tell stories started early. At age 9, his father passed away. His grandfather, in an effort to ease some of the pain, taught Engstrom how to make multi-media slideshows with a 16mm film camera and projector. “I was an awkward kid who had been devastated,” Engstrom recalls. “I was having a hard time communicating verbally with my peers, and photography became my voice.”
Engstrom’s high school photography portfolio landed him a full scholarship to Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. After just a few months of school, he dropped out to assist photography icons such as David LaChapelle, Peter Beard and Patrick Demarchelier. Most of the jobs came his way via word of mouth, but it was his can-do attitude that kept getting him hired. “I work my heart out, and I don’t stop working,” he explains. Eventually, he gained enough experience to break out on his own, ultimately landing film and commercial gigs for clients including Ray-Ban, Macy’s, NBC Sports, Nike and Van Heusen.
While discipline helped Engstrom land jobs, he admits that he wouldn’t be nearly as successful without having reliable gear. Today, his primary equipment is ARRI and it would be hard to find a piece of gear not made by the brand in his gear kit. Staples range from the ALEXA Mini camera to a range of SkyPanel soft lights. “My team uses ARRI gear all day, every day,” he says. “We beat on the stuff. We break it, and fix it, and then we break it again, and fix it again.” Assignments have taken him to over 60 countries around the world, and ARRI has been along for the journey. “I’ve never been disappointed in the brand,” he says. “They make things right, right away.”
For a recent assignment from Vimeo, Engstrom was tasked with shooting 50 different portraits in two days. “It was crazy,” he notes. But not impossible. With the use of the SkyPanels—compact, customizable ultra-bright LED soft lights—Engstrom was able to project different colors on a single white backdrop. In doing so, he got 50 unique images. “We just kept shooting and shooting and shooting,” he says. To add variety to each frame, he explains, “One of my crew would climb the ladder and tune the SkyPanel to get the lighting we wanted.”
Engstrom notes five or 10 years ago to get the mood that he wanted on a shoot, he would have had to spend hours setting up strobe packs and configuring gels to match the lighting with the colors on set. Even after scouting a location, he would still be unsure if he could get the color he wanted from a light. With the SkyPanel, he no longer worries. “Now I don’t need to order thousands of dollars worth of gels because I have this amazing knob on the SkyPanel that can dial whatever color I need,” he explains. “I can match the color of a dress, or I can change the color of a background almost instantly.”
Something else Engstrom loves about the SkyPanel is that it is a single mass—there are no bulbs or pieces that can rattle around and break during high-intensity shoots. On a recent shoot for Kotex, for example, he rigged two SkyPanel S60-Cs on a small Honda motorbike. The gear was stable enough to withstand the rough forest terrain, and Engstrom easily got the shots he wanted. Even better, he could adjust the intensity and color remotely, which allows him to capture the footage he needs without constantly having to restart the action.
The SkyPanel, along with the rest of the ARRI equipment Engstrom relies on, will accompany him throughout the year as he continues to work on new commissions both routine and extraordinary. “My schedule has been relentless,” he says. “Nine out of 10 days are fairly mundane. But there’s always that one day that is fun and insane—the day where everybody wants to try to live their whole lives.”
Learn more about ARRI LED here.
—Sponsored by ARRI