Kris Kachikis, known affectionately by friends as “Cheeks,” is the director of photography on John Hamburg’s new R-rated family comedy, Why Him?. Starring James Franco, Bryan Cranston and Zoey Deutch, the film is about a Midwestern father who discovers that his daughter is dating an internet millionaire, leading to a bitter rivalry, all told with a deft sense of visual storytelling. The director credits Kachikis—a total newbie in the world of big-budget Hollywood films—for having brought a lot to the party.
Why him? When No Film School asked Kachikis how a relatively unknown DP was able to make the impressive leap from shooting commercials to a high-stakes, $40 million narrative feature, he was disarmingly modest.
"I'm this commercial guy who nobody knows except for Christopher Guest," Kachikis laughed. "But that helped."
"Comedy is much harder to shoot than drama."
In fact, Kachikis started out as a writer. He grew up in Milwaukee making films for fun, then moved to California, working as an on-set electrician by day and writing at night. "I'd always loved photography," he said, "but I saw myself as a screenwriter... until I found myself gravitating towards the DP, asking questions, making suggestions. And people liked my ideas."
Then fate stepped in. "Spike Jonze was going to make this Julian Lennon video," Kachikis recalled. "Lance Acord was supposed to shoot it with me as his gaffer, but then Lance couldn’t do it. He said, 'Have Cheeks shoot it.' So I did, and it turned out well. Then I did some skateboard movie stuff for Spike, and when people hear that you’re shooting for Spike, well, you get called to do other stuff."
Kachikis hasn’t stopped since. "I was like, 'This DP job is awesome,' and I still feel that way," he said. "It’s a great job."
Kachikis found his niche shooting commercials for big brands like Apple, Nike, and Toyota. He experimented with narrative shorts; his first foray into narrative features was the Sundance indie drama, American Son (2008), starring Nick Cannon. Then came Christopher Guest. Intrigued by Kachikis’ visual style, Guest asked him to shoot Mascots (2016), a $17 million mockumentary feature for Netflix.
That was a steep learning curve. "Comedy is much harder to shoot than drama," Kachikis admitted. "Drama can rely on beautiful imagery, whereas with comedy you need to concentrate on performance."
He was up to the task. His work on Mascots impressed Scott Robertson, a first AD with an extensive Hollywood resume (The Revenant; Moneyball; I Love You, Man; Zero Dark Thirty), who then connected him to Why Him’s director, John Hamburg (I Love You, Man; Along Came Polly).
"Starting out as a camera assistant is not the only path.... I'm grateful I got to start out as a gaffer."
"Robertson knew it was a long shot," Kachikis remembered. "He said 'I know you’ve never done anything this big, but you’re good, you’re fast, you’ve done cross-coverage—which is important for comedy—and I’m gonna recommend you.' He told me I’d have to bust my ass to get that job. And I did."
According to Kachikis, ass-busting is the secret to his success as a cinematographer. He breaks it down for us below in his six commandments for a would-be DP.
1. Think beyond the camera
"Mastery of the camera is only part of what a good DP needs," Kachikis said. "And starting out as a camera assistant is not the only path. Think about it: the life of an AC on a shoot is that they’re stuck in a closet prepping the camera, then they show up on the set and have no idea what’s going on. I'm really grateful that I got to start out as a gaffer."
"The writer part of me didn’t really stop. I simply became a visual storyteller."
Why did that make such a big difference? "Unlike camera assistants," he explained, "gaffers are part of the problem-solving process. They’re in on the tech. They’re working with the production manager, the producer, the director, and the DP. They’re participating in conversations about vision, they’re there for the big compromises and negotiations. They’re also practicing the alchemy of lighting, that hidden thing that people may not know much about compared to cameras or lenses."
"But the main thing that’s good about working as a gaffer or key grip is being there with the producers," added Kachikis. "Figuring out how to solve problems in prep. How to enhance the story. When you’re on the set, you’re learning all that. For me, that was invaluable."
'Why Him?'Credit: 20th Century Fox
2. Shoot like a storyteller
"Anybody can follow someone around with a camera, but that doesn’t mean you’re telling a story." This is Kachikis’ personal mantra: story is king.
"Do I wish I had started out shooting movies instead of commercials?" Kachikis said. "Maybe. Commercials are great because you get to experiment so much; you can try something different every week and you learn so much. But even so, I tell would-be DP’s to shoot something narrative as soon as possible, to get those narrative chops down and really work on story."
Kachikis' introduction to narrative was through early stabs at writing. "The writer part of me didn’t really stop," he said. "I simply became a visual storyteller." At the wrap party for Why Him?, Hamburg gave Kachikis an award: "Most Vocal DP," for his tendency to offer suggestions about dialogue and story in between takes.
"The ability to edit your own material—or at least to think like an editor—is crucial to visual storytelling."
For Kachikis, storytelling requires practice. "Another way to work on those narrative chops," he continued, "is to learn editing. The ability to edit your own material—or at least to think like an editor—is crucial to visual storytelling."
Kachikis cited Pete Riski, a director from Finland he worked with on Toyota commercials: "Pete was wonderful. The weekend after we shot the commercial, he went and cut the footage together himself into a rough edit. He had that skillset, and that’s why he’s at where he’s at. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty."
How to do that without spending years as an editor? Kachikis suggests the following: “Come up with a short film idea, something doable with the resources you have, and shoot a tiny little film, a 30-second film, a 20-second film. Cut it together yourself. You’re gonna learn a ton from editing your own material. All is revealed when you cut your own footage. And then take what you learned from that experience and apply it to the next little 30-second film. Get out there with your cheap little camera and do it!”
Nick Cannon in 'American Son,' dir. Neil AbramsonCredit: Miramax
3. Focus on prep... or else
Kachikis is militant about this. "You can never be too prepared," he said. "You can only be underprepared."
He first learned this when he was shooting commercials. "Commercial DPs are trained to think on their feet," he explained. "When you come into a commercial as a DP, you have very little prep time. One day to see the location, plan the lighting, get in your camera, lighting, grip order. Come in the next day and execute it. Every minute counts."
"But features are different," he continued. "On a feature, you have three-to-four months of prep—not shooting, just picking locations. Every minute is spent just making decisions. Which location will give us the most shooting time, so we don’t get stuck re-writing or changing set-ups? Which scenes will be the most difficult? Which ones will merit rehearsals? Which lights will help tell the story?"
"It was like the best film school you could ever go to, in terms of prepping and making a feature."
Kachikis lauds his original mentor, Robertson, for teaching him the importance of preparation on features. "Scott is passionate, devoted, and never stops," said Kachikis. "He’s never not prepared. The two movies we worked on together, both Mascots and Why Him, were like Scott Robertson film school for me. It was like the best film school you could ever go to, in terms of prepping and making a feature."
Robertson taught him that if you focus on prep, production is easy. "He told me to keep asking tough questions: 'What can go wrong? What alternatives will I have? What lens or what piece of grip equipment will make my life easier when stuff does go wrong?' Once we’re shooting, it’s just executing."
Perhaps most important of all, Robertson helped Kachikis learn how to improvise. "This is where a sense of story really helps," he said. "There will always be things that come up where you have to think on your feet, but if you stay true to the narrative, and you’ve done your prep well, you can roll with almost anything."
"Don't improvise with lighting on your shoot day. Go out ahead of time and play with the lights."
For Kachikis, it’s simple: "Anything you can do to bring the stress level down and the preparedness up helps people help you," he said. "Whether it’s a $40 million movie or a student film, preparation is key. For example, don't improvise with lighting on your shoot day. Go out ahead of time and play with the lights. Do a lot of testing, try different stuff; take notes, remember what you did, look at the results. You’ll be more experimental, you’ll have more fun, you’ll learn more—especially because the stakes will be lower and there won’t be so much pressure."
Bryan Cranston and James Franco in 'Why Him?' (dir. John Hamburg)Credit: 20th Century Fox4. Communicate your vision
Kachikis sees communication as part of preparation. "A DP’s job is as much about working with people as it is about artistry, lighting, and camerawork," he said. "You have to interface with production, stick up for the gear you want, ask for crew and labor, communicate your vision, your sense of the story... so that when your shoot day arrives, everyone is very clear on what has to happen and it all works like clockwork.”
Different DPs have different approaches, but Kachikis’ tool of choice is photo-boarding. "It’s a great first step for DPs and directors," he said. "It helps us get a rough draft of the movie under our belt before we come out guns blazing with the whole crew waiting for guidance. It helps us refine our vision."
How does Kachikis do it?
"I basically shot the entire movie on stills and created two thick binders of every scene."
"When I approach a film, I do what I call the 'DP Boards,'" he explained. "For both Mascots and Why Him, I basically shot the entire movie on stills and created two thick binders of every scene in the movie, on location. Organized, annotated, close-ups, wide shots, whatever. Then we uploaded it all onto DropBox, so the FX guy can see how many houses will be visible in a particular shot, so wardrobe can see a particular color scheme. Boom, send them the link. Those pictures are worth 1,000 words to every department."
"When you look at those pics, it’s almost like a first edit," he continued. "You suddenly find yourself saying ‘Why do I wanna shoot in front of that big white wall? Let’s change it.’ It’s also like writing. I started in Hollywood as a writer, and I soon found out that the real writing is done in the rewrite."
Kachikis' commercial cinematography for ToyotaCredit: Toyota / Pete Riski
5. Choose content over style
On everything Kachikis shoots, his visual approach is determined by content. For Why Him, it was improvisational comedy—an actor-driven approach that required naturalistic lighting and cinematography.
"In the old days, comedies were overlit," said Kachikis. "They had a flat look, that Cheaper by the Dozen style where everything was predictable and you could see the jokes coming. But nobody wants that anymore. People want real. You don’t want a comedy to feel like it was shot in a studio; you want the characters to feel genuine and the jokes to catch you off guard. I know that’s what John Hamburg wanted.”
"We never zoomed in on a shot," Kachikis said. "We just used the zoom lenses for recomposing the frame, instead of wasting time on lens changes. We also did a fair amount of Steadicam shooting, plus occasional handheld, depending on the situation and tone of the scene."
As always, Kachikis is modest, but he’s clearly pleased with the results of his labors. "Personally, I was going for an indie film look, in the style of Silver Linings Playbook, or anything by Woody Allen," he said. "He is a big touchstone for me, the way he and his cinematographers shoot comedies: both beautiful and real."
"We had to have cross coverage: two cameras on both sides of the action, just out of frame, shooting in two directions at once."
His biggest challenge was that Why Him required two-camera coverage. "The comedy was both scripted and improv and in order to capture the unexpected—to make sure that no moment was lost—we had to have cross coverage: two cameras on both sides of the action, just out of frame, shooting in two directions at once. I had done that before on Mascots, but I still have to say: when you’re lighting a two-camera shoot, it's tough to place the equipment without it popping up somewhere onscreen. Shooting single camera is a lot easier.”
To solve the problem, he shot many scenes onstage. "Probably two-thirds of it," said Kachikis. "We built our own sets, we stacked the deck in our favor with stage lighting, actual lighting fixtures, and lamps that gave us both eye-lights and fill, both highlights and darks, within a single frame. And we fooled ‘em. Both Bryan Cranston and James Franco were pros; they always hit their marks even though they kept changing the dialogue. We got long takes full of amazing improv."
'Why Him?' dir. John HamburgCredit: 20th Century Fox
6. Stay flexible
Kachikis doesn’t "do comedy improv," but he does know how to improvise with a camera.
"Back when we were prepping Why Him?, John Hamburg made a comment I’ll never forget," said Kachikis. "He said, 'This is the plan for what we’re doing... until we can make it better.' This was a testament to how open he is to input. It underscored the importance of flexibility."
"We had a powerhouse of talent on that film, all of them going for the same goal: to make a funny-ass heartfelt movie. Hamburg had his vision, both Cranston and Franco were working directors, all of them had a great love of improv, but there were a lot of ideas bouncing around, and the script kept evolving. So I made sure that I didn’t decide anything until I heard everyone else’s ideas."
Even then, stuff kept changing.
"We’d go into a scene and do blocking, but then Bryan and James would have these amazing ideas. We used a lot of them. The collaboration was truly awesome. And we laughed a lot. Keegan-Michael Key is a constant crack-up. Bryan Cranston is hilarious. Franco doesn’t come off as hilarious until the camera’s rolling, but then crazy shit comes out of his mouth. That’s what I take away from the Why Him? experience: be a part of it. Riff with it. Stay flexible. Learn by doing."