Jay Holben is an independent director and producer in Los Angeles, California. His most recent work is the feature romantic drama Before the Dawn.
A former cinematographer, he is an author of three books on cinematography, a contributing technical editor for American Cinematographer Magazine, faculty instructor for Global Cinematography Institute and international lecturer, an Associate member of the ASC and the chair/co-chair of several of the ASC Motion Imaging Technology Council Committees.He’s also the author of The Cine Lens Manual (available now!)
We recently spoke with Jay about his 30+ years in the industry, the lessons he’s learned from all of that experience, and how he’s constantly reinventing himself. You can learn more about him on www.jayholben.com and find him on Instagram @jayholben.
ProductionHUB: With over 30 years of professional experience in the industry, you had to start somewhere? How did it all begin for you? Did you foresee this as your career?
Jay Holben: I sometimes feel like I’m still starting… But the real beginning was the summer of 1977 when I was just five years old. My parents took me to see Star Wars and when we walked out after the film I told them I wanted to direct movies. They took it with a grain of salt, but I’ve spent the entire rest of my life focused on that goal.
I started actually making “movies” (really just shooting film of my friends playing Star Wars) at 7 years old after finding my mother’s Kodak Brownie 8mm camera tucked away in a desk drawer. Then I moved into acting, mostly in theater until high school when I started working in television and theater. Also in high school I moved behind the scenes and started learning the technical aspects of entertainment.
PH: Director, producer, cinematographer, writer…the list goes on. Is there one role you are/were most drawn to? When (and how) did you decide to try your hand at all of them?
Jay Holben: As noted above, I’ve been focused on directing films since I was five. However, I realized at a very early age that in order to be a good director I needed to know what everyone else was doing on the set. To that end, I started as an actor and then moved behind the scenes – first in theater and then in film. I made a concentrated effort to professionally embody every role in production and post (at least every major role) and have succeeded with the exceptions of stunts (I’m way too old, that isn’t going to happen), catering (I’m a terrible cook), music composition (not likely, but I’ve done some studying) and makeup/hair (I’m actually in the process of learning now.
Before I moved to Hollywood, I was mostly working as a lighting designer and master electrician in a theater in Arizona, so I thought it was natural to move into the Hollywood production arena as an electrician. I moved up the ranks to Best Boy (for a short period) and Gaffer. I also was producing small projects on the side and realized that I was pretty good at that so it became a means of controlling the path of my career. I started producing projects for me to shoot and that was how I built my reel as a cinematographer and made that transition. It also helped greatly that I had my own production company and often had to take on multiple roles in production and post and learn skills to keep my overhead down. When I couldn’t afford a graphic artist to create credits for me, I learned After Effects and did it myself. The same is true for many more roles.
I found a secondary passion in cinematography and I stayed in that role as a primary vocation for nearly a decade before hanging up my meter to concentrate on directing and producing full time. I still am deeply involved in the world of cinematography a I’m an associate member of the American Society of Cinematographers, I chair several committees for the ASC Motion Imaging Technology Council, I’m the contributing Technical Editor for American Cinematographer Magazine and I’ve just published my third book on cinematography – so it’s hard to get out of that world when your heart is still there.
PH: Who are some of your biggest influences?
Jay Holben: In spite of Star Wars being the impetus of my life’s journey, my biggest influence is Steven Spielberg. Others include Peter Weir, Danny Boyle, Robert Zemeckis, J.A. Bayona, Sidney Lumet, Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, James Cameron, Peter Hyams. In the world of cinematography I grew up deeply inspired by the works of Allen Daviau, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC, Dariaus Khondji, ASC, Gordon Willis, ASC, John Seale, ASC, ACS, Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, and today it’s undoubtedly Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS, Janusz Kaminski, Paul Cameron, ASC and many more.
PH: What goes into your decision making regarding working on a new project? What “boxes” does the project have to check?
Jay Holben: When I’m directing, first and foremost, it has to be something that I want to see. It has to grab my heart and imagination and curiosity. I have to read it and say “yeah! I wanna go see this!” and then I’m in. I have a penchant for suspense and thriller, but I’m open to any genre except comedy. Turns out I was fine as a comedic actor, but I can’t do comedy as a director. I look for stories with heart, that have some substance to them. I want to be challenged, but I also want the people around me to be challenged: actors, cinematographer, production designer, sound mixer, etc.
PH: Throughout the years, how (in a few examples) has the industry changed the most?
Jay Holben: Technologically this is easy. The transition from film to primarily digital is a lot like the early transition from silent film to sound or from black and white to color – major transformations. I was fortunate to embrace digital technology very early on when many of my contemporaries were scoffing at it. Although I had my time of scoffing as well as I was “exclusively a 35mm cinematographer” for many years. But digital technology goes a long way to providing more options for the filmmakers and I’ve embraced it fully. Another big change was the availability of “inexpensive” professional digital cameras, which truly changed the landscape of production. In the film world, it was $250,000 to get into a high-end 35mm camera package and when the Red One was introduced, it became $30,000 and that number keeps dropping. Streaming has changed a lot – and not necessarily in a good way. It’s increased the divide between huge studio tentpole theatrical releases and tiny independent films. There used to be a middle ground, but the Wild West of streaming has caused that to nearly disappear. It’s a lot harder for independent films to make a profit in this marketplace and the streaming services do not treat them well.
On a human level, I’ve seen a massive change in the industry when it comes to providing opportunities to previously underrepresented individuals. I’ve seen a revolution of women cinematographers and directors and incredible opportunities for individuals of color, disability and underprivileged. The Me Too movement made a massive change to the misogyny and toxic workplaces – and I openly embrace and applaud all of those changes. There’s no doubt there’s still a long way to go, but we’ve seen a true revolution in the last few years.
PH: How important has collaborating with other members of the crew on projects been in your roles? Can you share a few examples?
Jay Holben: Critical. It’s all about collaboration. While I had it in mind for many years to be a hyphenate director/cinematographer, I also find it wonderfully liberating to work with an extremely talented cinematographer. I didn’t learn all of the roles so that I could do them myself, I learned them all so that I could better communicate with each department head and trouble shoot faster and clearer. Communication is the key to smooth working relationships with everyone. I’m happiest when I can work with someone who brings their own talents to the table and elevates the work I’m doing. It’s a bit cliche, but films are truly more than the sum of their parts – and that’s all due to the people I work with.
Examples happen every day. An actor who will suggest an alternate performance or different interpretation. A cinematographer who will recommend a different angle, a different way of lighting than I would have. A production designer who builds a set that allows me much better coverage than I would have imagined. I love it when a dolly grip adds a move during a shot because it adjusts the composition to the actors missing their mark… Every member of the crew can bring something special and something new to a production. As a director, it’s my prime directive to take all of these ideas and input and pick and choose to make sure we’re all headed in a singular direction.
PH: Can you share some of your most notable projects, and some of the biggest lessons each taught you?
Jay Holben: The title that I worked on as a cinematographer that often seems most exciting to people is Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. I was brought on in pre-production to help Steven realize his vision for the “Precog” images, to see what these psychic beings would see in their minds as they predicted crimes. After several weeks of iterations, I proposed an extremely elaborate rig that involved 30 DV cameras to create a Matrix-like Bullet-Time with motion cameras. We shot a day of test scenes that Steven wrote and he absolutely loved the effect. A lot of time and money went into this idea and I was incredibly proud that I had helped solve Steven’s problem. The very first day of shooting we brought this huge rig out and built it and Janusz Kaminski, the film’s cinematographer, tried a couple setups with it and flatly rejected it. It was too cumbersome, too large and heavy and time consuming. He knew it would never work. They couldn’t get the shots they wanted, they couldn’t have flexibility and worse, it took too much time. That was a major lesson for me that sometimes the simplest solutions are the best ones. You can over complicate an idea and derail a production. Janusz’ decision was, absolutely, the best one.
I just finished directing and producing a short film for the American Society of Cinematographers with help from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Amazon, Disney, Dolby, Samsung, Sony, Warner Bros. and many more. It’s a film that will be used by theatrical projection, professional monitor, consumer monitor manufacturers along with post production image manipulation software manufacturers to test and evaluate their tools. That was a very complicated project that took over three years to put together and taught me a lot about the technology of high dynamic range and modern exhibition formats.
PH: How do you consistently reinvent yourself and revamp your skills?
Jay Holben: I never stop learning. I’m constantly reading, studying and researching/testing. I’m constantly at the cutting-edge of technology to understand the tools that are available for storytelling. Although I’m rarely an adopter of technology for the “cool” factor, I’m always looking for the most efficient method to tell a story. I’m an eternal student and that allows me to keep revamping my skills.
PH: From a technology standpoint, how has the tech improved over the years? What is some of your favorite equipment you like to shoot with?
Jay Holben: We could talk about this for days… Digital post production has massively changed the landscape of films. From digital visual effects (overt or subtle) to digital color correction to digital exhibition – all of those have provided a massive renaissance of film production. Just starting with digital non-linear editing, which was an invention during my career, changed the entire landscape of cutting films. The proliferation of digital technology in post is a massive change to our business over the last 20-30 years for the better. Honestly the only thing I miss of film is the smell…
As cheeky as this may read, I’m a fan of shooting with the best tools for the job. I never put a limitation or mandate on my cinematographer about what tool they want to use. I’ve pretty much shot with every kind of camera invented during my lifetime (except 65mm film) and I find every tool from an Arri Alexa LF to an iPhone has merit for what it can do when you need it. I’m typically working with Arri or Red cameras these days, but there isn’t any bad camera out there. Nor is there a bad lens. EVERY tool has a place and a job and can help tell a story if used right.
PH: This may be a bit controversial, but is there a production or tech trend that’s emerged that you find a bit overrated? Why?
Jay Holben: Any new technology has a tendency to be overused. It happened with color film, sound, 3D, zoom lenses, etc. Today we see an over usage of drones and camera stabilizers. These are wonderful tools, but they need to be used properly to tell the story, not used because they’re cool. As LED virtual production stages continue to pop up, this technology can start to be overused and misused. It’s a wonderfully powerful technology and can be extraordinary, but it can also be highly unnecessary and poorly exploited. For a few years (and even to a degree today), independent filmmakers would say “were shooting on a Red!” like that was super special and would guarantee a successful film. The truth is, a story can be told with almost any tool and as long as you’re telling a good story then you’ll find the right tools and the right use of them.
PH: Is there a role that you have yet to try—but have always wanted to?
Jay Holben: Makeup and hair. It’s something I’m working on learning the basics of now. One of the few I haven’t done and would really like to have a better vocabulary and knowledge of.
PH: Favorite scene from a film and why? Too hard to answer?
Jay Holben: Oh wow… So many… The first that came to mind is the bank robbery scene from Heat. The entire Well of Souls sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Cadillac of the Sky sequence from Empire of the Sun, the climax of What Lies Beneath, Ripley’s journey to save Newt in Aliens, communicating with the MotherShip in Close Encounters, the air traffic controller scene from Close Encounters, the destruction of Fat Boy in Mosquito Coast… That’s a really hard question to answer and these are just the bare tip of the iceberg…
PH: What’s on the horizon for you? Any upcoming projects down the pipeline?
Jay Holben: I’m currently working with writer James Cole to update a screenplay he wrote nearly three decades ago and that I’ve been attached to for almost two decades. It’s a script I’ve loved, LOVED, but been a little afraid of. It’s a beautiful time-travel coming-of-age period piece and this will be my next feature project. The ASC MITC StEM2 project “The Mission” will be released to the world at the end of April and my latest book – The Cine Lens Manual: The Definitive Filmmaker’s Resource to the Design, Implementation and History of Motion Picture Optics has just been released (after 8 long years of work!), so I’m doing a lot of appearances, lectures and signings related to that over the next few months.
I always stay busy. It’s the only thing that keeps the voices in my head quiet. Just kidding. Not really.