James Bagdonas, ASC, was on hiatus from Modern Family when I reached him recently. Our conversation turned, as it often does, to how the business is changing, and how cinematographers are navigating uncharted waters.
Change is a constant in filmmaking, but Jim says that in his view, the pace has increased exponentially in the past five years. He recalls a time when camaraderie was more apparent on the studio lots.
“We were such a tight-knit group before,” he says. “They say the Fox lot, where we shoot, is absolutely packed, that every stage is rented, but you don’t see anybody. It’s strange. I can recall being on the Warner Bros. lot when everyone was out and about and talking. I’d bump into Connie Hall [ASC] or Owen Roizman [ASC], we’d mull over the problems, and I’d realize that even a godlike figure like Connie had problems like mine — on a bigger scale, but similar. Maybe it’s a mirror of our society; maybe a world of texting just includes less personal contact.
“The way I go about running a crew and a set is way different now,” he continues. “Much of our autonomy has been turned over to the production staff. It’s not an ego thing. We’re in a more corporate world, especially in the studios. Our job is more politically entwined now. It seems like a smaller community.”
Modern Family is Jim’s first foray into half-hour single-camera production. He has directed a couple of episodes a year. His directing experience actually goes back more than 20 years, to Lois & Clark, Chicago Hope and Boston Legal.
I point out that the history of cinematographers who direct feature films is checkered, but in television, the trend toward cinematographers directing appears to be accelerating. Jim says his experience shooting the show makes directing easier.
“Cinematographers have a big advantage over the visiting directors because we’re there every day,” he says. “We see how the actors respond to certain kinds of direction. We know how to navigate around direction that they have an aversion to. If you’ve fooled yourself into thinking you’re a great director and you go onto a different show as a visiting director, it would be a different experience; you’d have to negotiate a different landscape, one with unknown prejudices.
“I’m a good cameraman, and I can be a good director on the show I’m shooting because I know the landscape,” he says. “I know where the pitfalls are. I know which kind of scenes the actors have problems with. Cinematographers just bring more experience with the nuts and bolts, the physicality of moving actors around these particular sets. That gives the actors more time to work with the writers.
“On a feature, you really have to massage the scene,” he says. “On Modern Family, we have to rock ’n’ roll. When I first directed Modern Family, they said, ‘Your background is drama. How are you going to handle comedy?’ I told them I didn’t need to be funny. I’ve basically shadowed directors on more than 350 episodes of television. I know how to put the actors in funny situations. I know how to make them feel confident. They’re the funny people!”
Jim’s crew includes his sons, Noah, 31, and Michael, 26. “I never encouraged them to get into the business,” he says. “I knew it was changing so fast, and I was afraid for them. I felt it was important for them to work outside the business, at least at first. But they both went to film school and stuck with it. Nepotism in our business can be a good thing or a bad thing, but I find that any cinematographer’s or director’s offspring is almost always exemplary because they’ve been taught to respect the process and to be humbled by this business."
“I have tried to teach my sons the little things that are important: never sit down, and never be late. Be a collaborator. Listen to everybody. It’s an amazing thing to be on a set with your kids and drop little pearls of wisdom. The car ride home is interesting. I can explain the day to them, and I have a captive audience — that is, when they’re not texting! On the other hand, that’s part of networking and finding work today. And we share the driving. What’s better than that?”