You know you love something when you’ve been doing it all of your life and it still feels like you just started.
That’s how Jay Hunter feels about working in the film industry.
As a director of photography (DP), every day feels like a day of discovery. Shoot a scene with distorted effects in a single take using a single camera on one set. Figure out how to make magic out of a broken props and untimely weather conditions on the next. It sounds simple to say, but the only way he gets through doing it is by actually doing it.
“Each day you get proven wrong, but that’s what makes it such a cool art form,” Hunter says. “Each new day is a new opportunity to learn your world and the tools you have around you. I think that’s why film tells such a powerful story—it’s the process that goes into each scene that really makes a story shine.”
It’s about being connected and making yourself available to experience art. To be motivated and activated by the wonderment that exists in our universe, and wanting to share it with others.
Hunter believes film is the culmination of every art that feeds into it. It combines so many mediums—writing, photography, music, everything. And it brings along the best storytelling devices and instruments from each of those mediums to help capture the real emotions and intensity of a moment.
“In storytelling,” Hunter says, “how you use your tools is the best way to expand the experience you want to convey. It’s about fine-tuning rather than overexpression. It’s like in music: do you want to listen to a song with a guitar solo that hits just the right note, or a guitar solo that never hits that note and never ends?”
Using the tools around him in an elegant way is what helps Hunter capture the powerful instances that last in his audience’s memory. And Lensbaby lenses are some of his most effective tools in creating the seamless stories that thrill.
Sometimes it’s hard to see that the simplest way to manipulate your shot is often the right way.
Hunter discovered that early-on in his experiences with Lensbaby lenses. It wasn’t necessarily a struggle to find what he wanted to communicate with Lensbaby; it was more a will of whittling down effects to challenge standard definitions of visual narratives.
“In the film world,” Hunter says, “where everything’s so complex and there’s so many cranes and people and chords, it’s nice to be able to hold onto something with your bare hands and use it to shape your story. Regardless of how it turns out, I always end up enjoying the feeling of working with Lensbaby.”
When he first started using Lensbaby, he instantly loved the chaos of it all. The surprising effects, the unintentional magic. It helped him reveal a distorted view of the world with a stripped-down, bare-bones quality. He knew he had to share his experiences to help everyone see what he saw.
During his work on Much Ado About Nothing, Hunter wowed director Joss Whedon by using Lensbaby lenses to help drive the connection between the actors and the message. Whedon was originally on the fence about the benefits of Lensbaby. But after Hunter pushed to use the lenses, Whedon left with a different impression.
“Joss had seen the effects of the lenses before, but had never been in the room with them,” Hunter says. “For all of us, it felt like a pure moment in filmmaking. It was like the Lensbaby lenses had a direct relationship with the actors all on their own. The shot just became more beautiful, and Joss was sold immediately.”
With the help of Lensbaby, Hunter and Whedon created a scene that felt as natural as it felt revolutionary and out-there, that put the tension of the story before the style of the shot. Lensbaby lenses took them out of the methodical in a way that turned the story into something more.
Lenses are what give DPs their own distinctive style. That’s why Hunter relies on Lensbaby.
He’s owned every Lensbaby lens ever created, and each time he gets his hands on a new one, he wants to immediately start playing with it, testing limits and learning how to use less for more. And the more he experimented with the way he could use the lenses, the more grounded he felt in the shot.
“It’s such a pure and beautiful thing when you use Lensbaby lenses in filmmaking,” Hunter says. “You really feel connected to the cinematography of the scene. When you move it around, it feels like an extension of your brain, but yet it’s so small and simplified that it immediately brings you back to the basics.”
In the web series Con Man, Hunter used Lensbaby to capture a party scene because he knew the lenses were particularly good at depicting an altered state of consciousness. Instead of scripting out the scene, he simply slapped on a Lensbaby lens and shot the craziness of the scene in the moment without a lot of start-and-stops. And he wasn’t the only one having fun.
“I’d walk around to my photographers shooting that day and grabbed their cameras to put a Lensbaby on it—while they were shooting. And when they saw the results, they couldn’t believe we had captured that level of distortion in real-time.”
Hunter feels there’s a strong balance between using Lensbaby intentionally and always being surprised by the revelatory results they produce. That’s why he always keeps Lensbaby lenses on the truck or in his pocket—you never know when you’re going to need a different way to see the world.
“The effects of Lensbaby appeal to a lot of audiences, and for good reason,” Hunter says. “You can play around and control the scene with sharpness, but also with imaginative distortion. You can make it completely clean, you can make it completely weird. Lensbaby lenses tell the story as it is. And if things are screwed up in a sense, then maybe that’s a good thing.”
Con Man Video Clip from Episode 103 featuring Lensbaby Composer Pro II with Sweet 50*
Tips from the DP.
“Using restraint to refine your shot as much as possible. These lenses are magic; of course you want to go all out. But sometimes by pulling back a little bit, you create more eye-opening results.”
“If you manhandle the lens to force the image you’re looking for, you’re never going to find it. One of the most delicate, subtle tools you can use to create wonder is a steady cam.”
What I learned:
“A mentor of mine once told me that if he could travel back in time to give his younger self some advice, he’d tell him to embrace his flaws—in life and photography. I think the same can be applied to Lensbaby lenses. Accept that the world is different and full of beauty and distortion, and don’t be afraid to make things ugly.”
*Lensbaby scene begins at approximately 2:00.