The photographer-turned-cinematographer talks with Tenba about the delicate art of Steadicam operation, producing branded video content, and his collaborative personal video project called “Monologue”—and explains why Tenba’s video backpack is good for your health.
All photographs and videos © Richard Patterson.
Aimee Baldridge: You started out as a photojournalist, right?
Richard Patterson: I did, at the Miami Herald. I got offered an internship there, which turned into a staff position. The culture is pretty diverse in Miami, and it’s also a very corrupt town, which made for interesting newspaper stories. There was always something different to do. I took a liking to portraiture, so I was doing everything from profiles on the business side to things for the front page. I also enjoyed sports quite a bit, because I did track and field in college and always stayed pretty active. At professional games I used to only be able to get the seats up in the nosebleed section, and a year later I was sitting down in front with Charles Barkley using my leg as a backbench. It was an all-access pass. I got my friends into the nightclubs they always wanted to go to. So it was pretty good.
I didn’t realize that I had a freelancer’s spirit in me, but working for the Herald got me into communicating with a lot of top PR and marketing people, and that got me very comfortable with selling myself. When I left the paper, that parlayed into an easy transition into freelancing. Then I started working for The New York Times down in Florida.
AB: How did your transition from photography to motion come about?
Richard Patterson: I always loved film. I studied it in college. Around 2006, I started working at a local channel in Miami Beach, which covered entertainment and nightlife. It was another great opportunity to combine my likes and passions with being paid. And I learned the basics of editing, Final Cut, and shooting. Learning motion, especially sound, was exciting.
In 2007, I came up to New York, and that’s when I really started to attack film. I would still do magazine portraiture, and I was doing commercial and advertising work.
When I could, I would actually just walk up to film sets and say, “Who’s the line producer?” I would introduce myself and then tell them, “I don’t have much experience, but I will help in any way I can.” In one production, I walked onto a film set and I worked almost 30 days for free. The longest week I worked was 108 hours. I remember that because I had incurred a parking charge, and they paid me for parking. I never cashed it because I just thought it was great to have this 108-hour work week with an $8.00 check to show for it. But it was such an education that it was worthwhile.
The first time I saw someone come onto a set with a Steadicam, I said, “That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Not only did I love the whole gadgetry look of it—because you do look like Robocop when you wear it—but it requires a combination of grace, being fit, and being strong enough to carry the camera in the ways the director requires on a shoot. Since then I’ve been pursuing that, and also cinematography.
AB: What kind of motion work do you shoot these days?
Richard Patterson: I’ve done three documentaries now. I do commercial work and branded video content, working with production companies shooting broadcast television, luxury automotive brands, and technology companies like Google and Cisco. I do a lot of short-form narrative stuff. I’ve also been working with photographers to help them shoot video. The photographer will play the role of director, and then I’ll come on as DP [director of photography] and camera operator. It’s too much for a client to ask a still photographer to shoot video on top of what they’re doing on a tight production schedule, so we’ll double-team.
AB: How is branded video content different from an ad?
Richard Patterson: An advertisement is completely different. It usually involves an advertising firm that represents the client. You’re not really working directly for the client; you’re working for the advertising company. In branded content, you’re dealing with a lot of internal marketing. It can be for a big company or a small mom and pop manufacturer that has a product and needs to get a video done for the Web.
You think of an ad as having a hook. It has to have a concise message within your 30-second time-slot. With branded content, most clients are asking for two to three minutes, and there’s a story to be told about the newest initiative the company has taken.
AB: How much of what you shoot ends up on mobile devices like tablets and phones?
Richard Patterson: Probably about 80% of what I do is for Internet distribution, including those outlets that you mentioned.
AB: How does doing so much shooting for digital media work out money-wise?
Richard Patterson: In video you have your set day rate. There are industry standards. It’s really important to know what the industry standards are for a videographer, a cinematographer, or a Steadicam operator. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s completely for iPhone distribution or is going to be used in a different fashion. Whereas in the still photography world, you come on and you’re really playing more of a role of director, producer, or creative director. You’re saying to the client, “Okay, I’m going to shoot this gig. What are you going to use it for? In which regions? How many mediums do you need it for?” And you really get in there and negotiate a higher fee, because sometimes in commercial work you make more on the usage versus the shoot itself.
In the videography and cinematography world, you have a set wage plus overtime based on the size and length of the production. You also have the rental rates you’ve established for your gear that you’re providing to the production. The various usages are negotiated by the producers and directors, swirling brandy and smoking Cuban cigars in dimly lit rooms, or at a taco truck slurping Diet Cokes. I’d like to imagine it’s the first scenario.
AB: Do you travel a lot for your work?
Richard Patterson: Yes, I do. I’ve even done four or five countries in Latin America just for one shoot, and that was pretty great.
AB: Are there places you’ve found especially tricky to get in and out of for a job?
Richard Patterson: I had to fly into New Zealand for the show “Survivor” to document it and shoot portraits of all the contestants. This was when everyone had “Survivor” fever. I thought everything would be fine. I was like, “Okay, it’s New Zealand. It’s an English-speaking country.” But Immigration was really tough, and I didn’t have a proper carnet for my equipment. I was detained at the airport for six hours.
Ever since then, if I’m traveling internationally and taking anything more than what a tourist would be taking, I definitely fill a carnet out. It’s a government form. When you leave the U.S., you have to go to the U.S. Customs office, where they inspect your gear. The gear that you’re traveling with has to match identically the gear that you’ve listed on the carnet. The immigration officer looks it over and stamps it. Then when you get to the other country, the immigration officer there has to look it over and stamp it. When you leave, it’s the same process in reverse. It’s a way for you to prove you’re not pretending like you’re going in as a tourist and selling or buying camera equipment abroad without having to pay taxes. If you’re a big production, it’s absolutely necessary.
AB: Is there anything that you always carry with you when you’re traveling for a shoot?
Richard Patterson: Besides a granola bar or a Clif bar? Grip gloves. It’s always nice to have them because you’re able to handle hot light fixtures without burning your hands and screaming on set. A color checker is always a good thing to have. And a slate to do your takes. A light meter is good for double checking exposures instead of relying on the camera’s internal meter. My iPad has turned into a very handy production tool because with the various apps that you can load on there, you know you have your reference material and manuals, you can do comparative shots between lenses, and if someone forgot the slates, the iPad can work digitally as a slate.
It’s always good to have the right gear to pack your gear in too. It makes your life so much easier traveling with a good case.
AB: What do you look for in a case or a bag?
Richard Patterson: Good construction, because there’s a lot of wear and tear. I try to be careful with the camera but the TSA sometimes brings out the worst in me. Like if I’m bringing five bags through and then the TSA guy goes, “OK, can you open them all?” It’s always good to have reliability and good manufacturing, because when zippers or things like that break, it’s just so annoying. And functionality is important. You want to be comfortable working out of it, and be able to reach things quickly. In New York, sometimes it’s nice to have things in a backpack that people can’t access directly from the back while you’re on the train.
I have the Roadie video backpack, and my bigger camera collapses down into that. I personally don’t like to distribute all the weight on one side. I know too many older videographers who have back and shoulder problems. So I want to distribute the weight evenly. I love the harness that goes around and clasps in front of your chest. The construction is very durable, and it’s got room for audio gear. I like the way it’s distributed because with the cameras these days, even if you’re shooting a DSLR or some of the smaller cameras like the C300, you have to use a shoulder mount and rig, and all that breaks down into smaller pieces. It’s nice to be able to distribute that in a case that’s not putting the metal stuff against delicate camera bodies or screens. The backpack offers a lot of places to do that.
AB: You’ve done a lot of traveling. Do you think it’s important to the development of your work to see things that are new?
Richard Patterson: Yes, definitely. It’s always great to step outside the world that you’re familiar with, whether it’s in terms of ideas or places. There’s a lot of great work being done by visual artists, by multimedia artists and painters and sculptors. Being exposed to that makes you not only a richer person but also more fun to talk to at dinner.
I once read in an interview of a DP who’s shooting major motion pictures that when he does a project or feature film in a different country, he makes it a point to visit the local fine art museum, because every location has a different color palette. So if you want your look to be authentic you kind of have to absorb that. That’s why India is on my top five list of places where I need to go, because it’s just so diverse in terms of the colors.
AB: Where do you want to take things next, aside from India?
Richard Patterson: In terms of Steadicam operating, I want to be working on more Hollywood productions, more large-budget film productions and commercial work, and really just honing that craft as much as humanly possible. If I’m not being hired to shoot or DP, I’m working on a personal project called “Monologue.” I ask actors to prepare a monologue or a soliloquy, I bring my Steadicam and audio gear, and we do a scene. They can be experienced actors or students. It gives me insight into the mind of an actor, and working with an actor. It’s good to interact with them and learn body movements, and challenge myself to do what I do well enough to remove the mechanical element.
It’s not every day that an actor is offered an opportunity to shoot a monologue of their choice for free with a Steadicam and professional gear, so they’re really enthusiastic about it. It’s a collaboration. In a year, I’ll have 52 performances of 52 actors, because I’m planning to post at least one each week in New York City. I want to do similar things with dancers and voiceover. The scope of it will change over time. But that’s good. It keeps things fresh.
To see more of Richard Patterson’s photography and motion work, visit his website.