Through the Eye of the Cameraman: Mike May

Mike May has over 30 years of experience in the industry working on episodics from the X-Files, Twilight Zone and Ned and Stacey to movies like Uncommon Valor, Jeepers Creepers and The Presidio. He’s held every position from grip and focus puller, to camera operator and cinematographer. He is currently working as an operator on Rizzoli & Isles and continues to pursue a directing career.

What led you to cinematography and how did you get to where you are today?
Basically, I’ve spent my entire life on sets! I’m fourth generation in the business and have been visiting productions since my childhood. At 20, I got my first job as a PA on Staying Alive. My father, Tommy May, was the key grip and got me the job. My dad and I were together again on the Gene Hackman film Uncommon Valor, where I also worked as a stuntman and got my SAG card. Then I doubled Jimmy Smits on the film Running Scared. In 1984, I took a job as a camera assistant on Playing for Keeps, learning from Don FauntLeRoy (ASC) and the late Mike Wheeler. That’s where I learnt how to remain calm in the eye of the storm!

My break into the union came on the new Twilight Zone TV series in 1986 where I worked with my cousin, cinematographer Bradford May, as a 2nd AC. Bradford, operator Tim Wade and focus puller Buzz Feitshans and I continued on to the cult hit Monster Squad. Shortly thereafter, I had the privilege to work with focus pulling legend Baird Steptoe on a film called Like Father, Like Son that also happened to be the great Jack Green’s (ASC) second film as a director of photography.

In 1987, Baird and I ended up on the film The Presidio (directed and shot by Peter Hyams), a project where my father was key grip, so it felt like coming full circle. The next step in my career came when they asked me to pull focus on extra camera while shooting a high powered foot chase through Chinatown in San Francisco. I guess I was pretty good at it because I was able to land a full-time position on the TV show Quantum Leap with Michael Watkins (ASC)!

For the next decade, I continued working on movies, TV, rock concerts, commercials, videos and sitcoms with everyone from the famed John Alonzo (ASC), to legendary commercial director Joe Pytka. In 1996, while working on a sitcom called Ned and Stacey, the camera operator got sick right before taping a live show and they asked if I knew how to operate. That night, they offered me a full-time operating position and the next phase of my career had begun.

Can you give us a quick outline of how you work with the director, other cinematographers and crew when setting up a shot?
As we block the scene, I stand in the most optimal spot from which to tell the story and add the necessary visual elements for the dialogue. I look at the scene from all aspects: how I would light it as a DP, what has the best production value, and what’s the easiest way to cover it.

On interior day scenes, I’ll always look for windows. For night interior scenes, I’d use practical lamps whenever possible. On exteriors, both day and night, I compose shots that have architectural elements to add another layer and connect the setting with the story.

When I work as an operator, I find there are two different schools of directors and cinematographers. Some are very specific and set every shot. Others (mostly UK and foreign) let the operator set shots with the director and concentrate on lighting. I am happy to set the composition and ask if they like it (and most of the time they do). I’m proactive and work closely with the actors in terms of lighting and positions. Fixing the subtleties makes the shot work and tells your story better.

Is there a scene or shot in which you are particularly proud of your work?
I’m proud of the opening shot in Jeepers Creepers, a 2001 horror film written and directed by Victor Salva. It takes place on a deserted two-lane highway and the camera is positioned directly behind two teenagers who are driving. We used a process trailer to tow the car, so we could lay dolly track along the side of the car.

I used an OConnor 2575 fluid head on a 2-foot offset that was connected to another offset, and a JL Fisher ratcheting offset that was connected to a Fisher dolly. The two offsets allowed us to extend from the dolly (in an “L” shape) into the backseat of the car (seeing out the front). As we began our dolly move, we exited the backseat of the car. I panned the camera and at the same time, with the Fisher offset loose, moved the offset to a parallel position (straight) so we could move alongside the car toward the front of the vehicle. As we did this, I had to keep one hand on the camera and continue operating off an on-board monitor, then lock the Fisher offset in mid shot for stability and, when we got to the front of the vehicle, unlock the Fisher offset, move the offset left, pan the camera right, centering up on our two actors as they continue the scene. It was quite a move.

Why that shot and was there anything tool-wise that helped you make that shot happen?
It was one of those seamless shots where you wonder, ‘How did they do that?’ Normally you might use a remote head but, because of budgetary concerns, we did it manually with the OConnor 2575 fluid head, a Fisher dolly and offsets (two). The shot was difficult because we were going down the road at a certain speed, dealing with wind and slight G-force. Technically, it was a difficult shot to capture, but it was fun to do and turned out beautiful.

What are your favorite tools on set?
Since I am also a Steadicam operator, it’s a tool that I’m very fond of. Different shots have different needs. I love Technocranes, remote heads and Chapman cranes. The shots you can do with those tools can be majestic and dynamic all in one. I’ve done many shots with a camera stabilization system on a Chapman crane where you start high, the crane arm drops, and you step off the crane and follow someone walking into a house.

My other favorite tool is the OConnor 2575 fluid head. It gives me freedom while I’m shooting to operate the camera with one hand and give hand directions to the dolly grip or grab the focus knob and help out the focus puller. I can do my own zooming. It makes doing whip pans, or tilting straight up or straight down easy and seamless. It’s a great tool.

What would you tell a young person about the path to becoming a cinematographer? What skills are crucial?
First and foremost, hire good people, learn the craft, learn the art, study the masters and especially look at the subtleties of lighting. There’s an old saying, ‘It’s not the light you use when you light a scene; it’s the light you don’t use.’ Light is like clay, it needs to be sculpted. Take the time to understand what everyone’s position is and learn the challenges that come with their positions. Always be professional and respectful towards everyone on the set. People will always work hard for you if they know they’re appreciated.

What are you working on now?
After spending almost eight months out of town last year, I am working in Los Angeles on the show Rizzoli & Isles. I wanted to be in town to see my son graduate from high school and it sure is great to sleep in my own bed.

What does the future hold?
I’ve written several scripts that hopefully will see the light of day with me as the director!

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