Hunter Hampton has made a name online for himself as a cinematographer and video artist. Now he's making a concerted effort to finally do the personal projects he's always wanted.
Amends is Hunter's first short film as a director, a passion project that began 7 years ago. I spoke to Hunter on a cloudy afternoon about coming up through music videos, how DVXUser was his film school and why shooting on film feels right to him.
Maybe I'm just stupid, or a rebel, but I got rid of my RED after shooting a couple things on it and bought a film camera. I got lots of hate on REDuser.
NFS: How did you start and how did it lead you to making narrative?
Hunter: I really liked music videos and skate videos growing up. I had friends with the VX-1000 with the fisheye attachment and I thought that was so cool. But I guess what really made me want to do film would be Radiohead music videos and MTV. There were just so many provocative music videos and things you wouldn't normally see on TV. And then after I watched Fight Club I thought this is the coolest thing I've ever seen. I want to figure out a way to do that.
NFS: How did the internet play a role in your becoming a filmmaker?
Hunter: When I found DVXuser, I lurked there for a long time, and I think that was a huge pivot point. Some of the work people were doing on there wasn't that great, but it was awesome because I didn't know how to do anything. You could always ask them questions and they'd tell me how they did it. It was like my little virtual film school, living vicariously through these people.
They had festivals like DVXfest, and you could win prizes for making shorts. It used to be a huge deal. I felt like if I was going to be a filmmaker I needed to get experience with different camera formats. I did a 12-hour film festival film with a guy on there, and that was probably one of the first films I uploaded to Vimeo. When Vimeo went HD it was cool because it didn't cost any money. You didn't have to know how to all this compression stuff, you could just throw it up there and people could watch it and it looked great.
That really started taking off was when I realized that I really wanted to shoot film. People said nobody shoots film because these digital cameras are coming out, but I just really wanted to do it. So I got a film camera and starting shooting little tiny tests. I put one up and Paul Korver at Cinelicious who was scanning the film said he really liked the stuff. Then he said he was doing a doc in Hawaii and asked me to shoot it with him. It kinda started from there.
So I realized I could do the stuff that I wanted to do, put it online and hopefully maybe someone out there would like it enough to have me do it for them for work. So I just got whatever professional camera I could get my hands on and shot stuff in the style I liked and would post it online. Maybe I'm just stupid, or a rebel, but I got rid of my RED after shooting a couple things on it and bought a film camera and people thought I was really stupid. I got lots of hate on REDuser.
I guess I realized that I didn't want to be on a screen all the time, so I took a break from my smartphone and deleted my Facebook and Instagram.
NFS: Seems like it worked out. How did Amends start, was it intended to be shot on film?
Hunter: When those DVX fests were going on I always wanted to do my own film on there but I couldn't get myself to do it. I found a storyboard online, it was a sequence of a couple exchanging their rings back over coffee. I told him I'd love to make a short film of this, but I've always struggled with resistance. I didn't realize what that was until I read The War of Art. I couldn't get myself to do some of these things that I really had to commit to, so I never made that film. But it was always in the back of my head as something I wanted to do.
Basically I realized that I'm never gonna do the things I really want to do unless I just do it.
So it evolved into where I was this past year. I guess I realized that I didn't want to be on a screen all the time, so I took a break from my smartphone and deleted my Facebook and Instagram. I'm just always on my phone scrolling through pictures, and kept thinking, "Why am I doing this? I'm just wasting time." It's addictive. With Amends I knew I wanted to do a scene where people give their rings back over coffee and just worked backwards off that. So it took like 4 years before I actually did it, but basically I realized that I'm never gonna do the things I really want to do unless I just do it. So I just made a decision to start making short films, to do them just as practice even. To be working towards something. I can't just expect some feature to fall in my lap.
NFS: Why film and how did you get your hands on the last batch that Fuji made?
Hunter: I was afraid that I wasn't going to make the film unless I really committed to it and spent a little money on it to make it feel like an investment. I love film, and I thought if I'm gonna make films I'm gonna do it on film. I thought it would be ironic since it's about technology and I did on film, plus I don't get bored watching film. Normally when I watch my stuff I hate it and I don't want to watch it. But it's weird; whenever I shoot film I don't get bored. I just like seeing what it does, if there's a little spec or dust, or the random things that happens with the grain. I could watch it a million times. So I thought that if I shot it on film I would at least see it through post and not get bored trying to cut it.
It's amazing how cheap film cameras are right now.
I was gonna shoot it on Kodak originally, but then I remembered that Fuji was discontinued last year. I thought I wouldn't get another chance to shoot Fuji, so I tried to find some. I didn't really care what stock it was, I just wanted the most recent stock they made so I knew it wasn't old. So I found this guy -- whose name was Guy, actually -- who was shooting multiple horror films on an S16. So he bought the last production run of Fuji; he bought everything he could because he loves Fuji. I asked if he would sell me some, so I bought 10 rolls of Eterna 250D, because I thought I could shoot exterior and interior with it, and even some lowlight scenes if I have a fast lens.
I was gonna rent a S16 camera and found that they are still kind of expensive. Shooting on a shoestring budget I wanted to be able to get pickup shots and not have to schedule a full day rental. NFL films switched over to shooting with Amiras and Alexas. They were the last hurrah for shooting film, so they dumped all their Aaton XTRs and their Arri XTRs, so I ended up buying an Aaton XTR from them for cheaper than it would've been to rent it for my shoot. It's amazing how cheap film cameras are right now.
NFS: What's the difference in the process of shooting film?
Hunter: It's a couple of different things. If I'm shooting something and I'm looking through the optical viewfinder it just feels different. You don't really notice this on video cameras anymore, but there's a slight delay in what you're seeing. It might be only 1 frame or 4 frames, but it goes back to looking at screens. I'm looking at my computer screen for hours a day, I'm looking at my phone for hours a day -- it's nice to not look at a screen. When you look through the optical, you're just looking at real life as it's happening.
Also, if it's a project that only has a certain amount of film, I'm a little more careful about what I shoot. I shoot a lot less but at the same time I shoot quicker. If you shoot a couple test rolls of movie film, you'll see that it covers your cinematography sins pretty well in terms of lighting and exposure. It sees so far into the highlights and shadows of a scene, so as long as you're in the ballpark of exposure it's hard to fuck it up. So you're not sitting on your monitor thinking if a window is a little too hot. You just kinda have the confidence that it will see everything that your eye can see. So that's important -- not fretting as much over the image.
Surprisingly it's not that expensive to shoot film in the grand scheme of things. I think I only spent $4,000 on film, processing and telecine, but I kinda shot a lot of film. It was a 9-minute short and I shot maybe 100 minutes of film. It's still expensive enough that you don't want to waste it.
For me it makes me care more about what I'm shooting and at the same time it makes me not care as much, because I don't have to worry about it not looking good because it's hard to make film not look good
NFS: How does it change how you approach a scene?
Hunter: On Amends I would rehearse a couple of things, like the fight scene in the kitchen. I didn't roll on that the first 4 or 5 times until I liked where the improv was going. So it made me more precious about getting what I really wanted, and once I got it I was able to move on to the next thing faster.
The other thing with film cameras is that they are just on. There's no boot time, I didn't have to think about changing batteries, switching cards. Obviously you can only run so many mags on a battery, but I already had my mags preloaded. So as we were walking around the beach, I could just see how they were naturally walking around and then during rehearsal I could just put my eye up to the viewfinder and click run, and get a detail shot as it was happening.
For me it makes me care more about what I'm shooting and at the same time it makes me not care as much, because I don't have to worry about it not looking good because it's hard to make film not look good. I guess it made me take it a little more seriously, but in a way that was healthy to think about. I'm not against digital, I shoot it all the time and it looks great. For my personal stuff though, if the project would benefit from shooting on film, I'll shoot it on film.
By just showing up and just doing it and practicing it became easier over time.
NFS: How weird has it been transitioning from DP to director?
Hunter: When I started shooting I didn't even know the hierarchy of things. I would shoot things and people would like it and then I just became a DP. A lot of cinematographers have this experience, and it depends on whom you are shooting with, but sometimes you find yourself in a situation where if you as a cinematographer are not making the project good then it's not going to be good. So sometimes you pick up a lot of slack to make things good. And over time that got me a little frustrated. On one hand I'm getting paid to do this, but on the other hand I've had experiences where I wish the director would give me more direction instead of making me make all the decisions.
I shot a lot of documentary projects, so that got me really quick with the camera and got me seeing how things naturally happen between people who aren't actors. So I like to put people in situations where they can act naturally because I'm still learning how to communicate with actors. From there, once you see something that you want is happening you can tell somebody how to get there. There's a different language to working as a director.
NFS: Any "ah ha" moments during the making of Amends in terms of directing?
Hunter: There's a quote by Chuck Close "Inspiration is for amateurs. I just show up and get to work." So I think about that a lot. Even with this being my first film on my own and directing narrative, I was definitely scared and not confident in myself. And I don't want to be overconfident, but by just showing up and just doing it and practicing, it became easier over time. And now after doing it I still feel like I'm not super comfortable with the whole thing, but I have more confidence and I'm excited to do another one.