Lighting Techniques

Frames Per Second: Kyle Alexander’s Year of Filmmaking

January 1, 2020

By Holly Stuart Hughes

It’s happened to everyone. You’ve been booked for a job, so you block off time on your calendar for the shoot, then the job gets canceled at the last minute. When that happened to photographer/director Kyle Alexander in January, he was not only frustrated to have lost out on work. Facing two empty weeks on his calendar, he wanted to put them to good use. He recalls some advice he received when he launched his career in photography: “You’re going to have ups and downs; when you have down time, utilize that either to shoot or to learn.” Alexander, who lives in Los Angeles, found a two-week cinematography course happening during the period he was free, and he enrolled.   

His experiences at the Global Cinematography Institute launched Alexander into a creatively fruitful period. Applying the skills he learned from instructors and classmates, he shot a dozen short films in the eight months after he took the course. Since August, he has landed two assignments as the director of photography on commercials—jobs that didn’t require him to shoot any photos. But he says that he wasn’t thinking about future assignments when he enrolled in the cinematography class. The question he had in mind, he says, was: “How do you keep moving forward and growing as an artist?” 

Alexander was involved in filmmaking before he became a professional photographer. After college, he shot surfing films, then went to work as a production assistant on films and TV. Since launching his career in commercial photography, he has directed short videos both for himself and for lifestyle advertising clients. But cinematography, he says, has been “a lifelong passion.” Watching the films he loves, he says, “I never understood: How do they do that?”

A ballet dancer from Kyle Alexander's short film.
A ballet dancer from a short film by Kyle Alexander. © Kyle Alexander

The cinematographer’s role is to decide how best to achieve the ideas the director proposes. “The cinematographer then says: Judging by what you’re saying, I assume you want a wider lens,” Alexander explains. “Is this a frame you like? What lighting do you want?” The cinematographer is in charge of the camera, the gaffer and grips, and the electrical department. He describes the cinematographer as “the photographer on the film,” but adds, “You’re scaling up: The crew is larger, and the budget is bigger.”

GCI’s curriculum is similar to UCLA, New York Film Academy and other film schools. Co-founded by Vilmos Zsigmond, cinematographer on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other films, GCI is focused on continuing education for people in the film business. Alexander’s classmates had worked on a variety of films and commercials, and they were as happy to “nerd out about cameras and your favorite lenses and your favorite scenes” as he was. “I’d try to hang out and talk to anyone in the class. Those conversations taught me as much as school and those relationships now have value,” he says. They still talk and share feedback on their filmmaking ideas.   

The classes provided a wealth of practical and theoretical information. “Right away I was thinking: How do I apply this?” Alexander says. He decided that, rather than rent a camera for a day at a time, “I’m just going to buy a camera and just shoot, shoot, shoot, I’m going to learn that camera.” A friend sold him a used RED Helium 8K, and he bought some used Leica lenses. Having his own kit, “I could push it and learn its limitations.” 

At first, he put himself into different situations, testing the camera in varying light. He had been taught techniques in school, he says, “but until you try it, you really don’t know it.” 

“If you’re home not working, you’re not feeling good about yourself and you’re not using your muscles or skills…One of my core beliefs is that if you do nothing, nothing happens.”

After shooting some tests, he moved on to creating narratives around people who interested him. He had filmed a friend and motorcycle buff riding one of his bikes, then approached him for an interview about his back story: why he loves motorcycles, how long he has been riding. “Even if I didn’t have a camera, I’d want to know that story because I’m curious,” Alexander explains. He recorded interviews himself, using a sound recorder, and used each interview as voiceover.

He has found his subjects in a variety of ways. He contacted a ballet dancer after seeing him in a video. When the dancer traveled to Los Angeles, they blocked out time in a studio so Alexander could try different techniques in capturing dance movements. Alexander’s wife, a stylist, recommended another subject for the series—a young model. “I thought, Don’t just shoot her. Tell her story,” Alexander recalls. He discovered that the model became a mother at a young age, “and she and her daughter are always doing cool stuff together.” He shot what looks like a sun-lit, happy lifestyle commercial of the daughter with her parents, and interviewed the mother about how central her daughter is in her life. In the voiceover, “She talks about her daughter’s confidence. She says, ‘I never had that,’” Alexander notes.

A frame from “Poppy.”
A frame from “Poppy.” Alexander says all 12 films he’s made are driven by an interest in a person’s story. He records interviews and uses the audio as voiceover. He © Kyle Alexander

Despite limited experience in editing, he has chosen to edit his short films himself using Adobe Premier. Through the process, he has been able to see and learn from his filmmaking mistakes. “It’s like editing your photos: If you don’t edit your photos, you don’t know what you’ve got.”    

Grabbing whatever free time he has, he made 12 films, and posted nine of them on Vimeo. He says of making films, “It’s like giving myself homework.” But it’s homework that he enjoys. “If I’m doing a project, it’s not to get more work. It’s to make something cool and just be creative. I just enjoy making stuff.”

He shot his most recent video while he was in Argentina, working as a DP on a commercial. He was interested in the gaucho who was working with horses on the set, so during a lunch break, he made time to interview the man and also shot footage of him training a horse.   

The job in Argentina was his first as a DP since he had taken his cinematography course. Thanks to his new skills, he says, “everything was elevated.” He shot much of it in a run-and-gun style, he says, and his grasp of techniques gave him confidence to incorporate drone footage and try other techniques. 

The DP jobs wouldn’t have come to him, he says, if he had simply remained idle or frustrated anytime photo assignments he had tried to get fell through. “If you’re home not working, you’re not feeling good about yourself and you’re not using your muscles or skills,” he says. “One of my core beliefs is that if you do nothing, nothing happens.” 

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