XXL Freshman Freestyle with DP John Schmidt

John Schmidt is a cinematographer who recently shot a series called Freshman Freestyle for XXL.

Hey John, so tell me a bit about your background and how you got into the film industry?

John Schmidt: I dabbled making movies, instead of writing papers, in high school but got to college and told myself I’d major in something “realistic” which ended up civil engineering. I always loved architecture and design and didn’t want to be in an office, but I soon realized I didn’t have the patience for it and found myself leaning towards the film program.

The undergrad program produced a feature film every year for credit and I didn’t really know what any of the roles were so the program chair made me a grip. I picked up lighting fast and was especially interested in planning a strategy and seeing the way it affected the quality of light. I became the “lighting guy” and soon found myself Gaffing and Key Gripping indie features in the bay area before moving down to Los Angeles. I pushed further towards shooting as I found the plan all started at the script and was rooted in story.

How did the “XXL Freshman” project come together?

JS: Travis Satten, the director, reached out about this and asked if I had any large studio work, clean white cyc, etc he could see. More often than not, a director needs to vet you to their client and on larger jobs, they are really making recommendations and the client makes the call. It’s understandable from their point of view as there is a lot of money involved and heads can roll if you’re planning on just bringing on a buddy and they don’t deliver.

The catch-22 is that you’ll rarely get hired for a commercial job if you don’t already have on your reel examples of what the agency or client expects this one to look like. That being said I had some white cyc, lots of studio experience, yet not something quite like this, So I gotta hand it to them for putting me forward.

Cine Designer Matt Schmidt

What was the creative brief?

JS: Travis described the approach as classy and intimate portrait shots we’d push in or pull out as our talent performed to camera. Black and white was key from the start and he wanted the looks to be unique for each artist. He referenced a photographer named Platon, who’s portraits are very personal, yet powerful, and wanted the lighting to wrap and shape in different ways as we moved in and their performance unfolded. He spoke about the look “unfolding” as we learned more about each artist. It’s always great to collaborate with a director looking to elevate what could have been just simple profile captures.

Cine Designer Matt Schmidt

What were the production challenges?

JS: The freestyles were shot along side a lot of content (interviews, promos, etc) on the same day and XXL has been putting this together for many years so they were already sure where and how it works. We shot at Dune studios in lower Manhattan as it offered production several floors for the different stages, and greenrooms. It is mainly a MOS photo studio but works well for their purpose as they can take over everything and have several units running at the same time.

However the stage presents a few issues to someone like me, used to larger stages, the main one being that there is no overhead grid for rigging lights. My task was to create a unique, changing, clean look for each artist and I wanted it to be quick and seamless to change from look to look and not have to move in lights on the ground.

How did you approach the pre production for this project?

JS: We would BUILD a grid. And we’d circle our talent with soft lights that I could bring up or down based on the design. And all the lights would be dim-able. I had a pretty good feeling that my approach would be costly, yet I knew that the initial time investment early in the day would save us in between set ups and still give us the class and unique looks Travis was looking for.

Cine Designer Matt Schmidt

Did the Cine Designer renders help communicate your plan?

JS: This would be a perfect project to use Cine Design for as it would correctly describe my vision and justify the extra costs to production. Instead of just drawing it out and asking people to trust me, it would make it something they could actually see. Through many years of trial and error, you realize that everyone in the industry is just like you, they are all growing at some point in their career.

So when describing a plan to people you may be working with for the first time, and the resources are limited, you better be able to describe not only the what, but also the how and the why. If you give them just a gear list without any other explanation, they wouldn’t understand why you can’t do it with less. And why should they, they are not DPs with your experience.

Of course you can’t teach everyone you work with every reason behind every choice as it takes years to learn, but people tend to understand things they can see better and Cinedesign looks so nice and professional, everyone can understand and even send it to their boss when they start asking.

Cine Designer Matt Schmidt

How did the shoot day go?

JS: We shot for only one day and although it was a slow start building all this, it was built into the schedule and the time investment up front meant no one had to wait for lighting for the rest of the day, and that’s pretty powerful when you have many people too shoot. You can let the director focus on the performance and never feel like you’re cutting into his time.

What did you take away from this production?

JS: This project was really an exercise in lemons to lemonade. I was faced with a tough location that didn’t offer me an easy way to pull off the plan. The look may be subtle but sometimes it takes a lot of planning to design it and execute it with full confidence that It would work. It was nice getting to know Cinedesign for this and use it to inspire confidence with a new client. I’d consider myself a beginner with the program and it couldn’t have worked out better.

Cine Designer John Schmidt XXL Freshman Freestyle

What projects do you have coming up?

JS: I have a couple commercial spots coming up. Moving from branded content to broadcast stuff. It’s really nice to be able to work with decent budgets and get a big crew or gear or lenses but there are SO many great DPs doing good work. I’m really still finding my voice and focusing on developing my skill set to bring something unique to a project. My next job is kinda an older brand trying to do something new, so for the next week I’ll collect as much material references and focus on showing them everything I’d like to bring to it and make sure we’re all on the same page.


XXL Freshman Freestyle 2016


John Schmidt

John Schmidt

John Schmidt | Website | Instagram



Production Company: APK
Executive Producer: Daniel Navetta
Head of Production: Sydney Fisher
Director: Travis Satten
Production Manager: Nik Sipolins
DP: John Schmidt
1st AC: Kevin Jacobsen
Gaffer: Jason Duffett
Best Boy: Keagan Fuller
Key Grip: Chris Wiesehahn
Grip: Max Ellis
PA – Driver/Set: Lamar Williams
PA – Jumper/Set: Adam Soltis
PA – Set: Justin Abenchuchan