Indie Filmmaking – A Hard Habit to Kick and the Challenges of Making It To The Big Screen

by | Apr 7, 2024 | Essays | 1 comment

Indie Filmmaking – A Hard Habit to Kick and the Challenges of Making It To The Big Screen

JM Headshot2014Med

by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the April 2024 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)


I love shooting movies, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to indulge the habit.  To paraphrase Steven Spielberg, it is not heroin, but filmmaking that is the most expensive addiction in the world.  The budgets for the films I have worked on over the years have been infinitesimally smaller than his, but I can still relate.  I shot my first narrative indie feature in 1987 and since that time I have photographed over 40 of them.  Although many have been commercial successes, very few have ever gotten a domestic theatrical release or much lasting notice, and sadly, many are never released at all.  

I was asked recently what was my favorite film to work on, and in fact, it was never released.  Zadar, Cow From Hell is a wacky comedy featuring an improv group called the Ducks Breath Mystery Theater about an inept low-budget film crew that goes to Iowa to make a horror movie only to have the production taken over by the local town’s people. It premiered out of competition at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival and it was well reviewed.  The Hollywood Reporter had this to say about my work: “Visually, Zadar is superb, James Mathers’ panoramic cinematography captures both the quiet grandeur of the Midwest and the stifled confines of the Iowa town.” However, it was shelved soon after and never distributed.  We had a lot of fun shooting on location in Iowa and I think it is reflected in the movie. Those who have managed to view a bootlegged copy over the years, have always told me how much they enjoyed it, so it is a shame it was not more widely seen.  

If a movie goes unreleased, and no one gets the chance to view your work, it is hard to get any recognition.  So I was very surprised to recently be awarded the Best Cinematography Award at the 2023 London International Film Festival for a movie I shot in 2008.  Montana Amazon Redux stars Alison Brie, Haley Joel Osment and the late great Olympia Dukakis.  It was one of the very early features to be shot with the original RED One camera.  Again, people that see the movie give it good marks and compliment my work, but when it takes 15 years to hit the festival circuit, it doesn’t make a very effective calling card.  

A beautiful, romantic ghost story presciently entitled The Forgotten One, starring Terry O’Quinn and Kristy McNichol, was shot in 1989.  Quickly released to home video, (VHS or Betamax at that time,) it probably returned a decent profit to the producers.  However, ask anyone today who wasn’t on the crew, and they will not recall ever hearing of it.  Although it was captured on 35mm film, and stipulated in my employment contract that I would get a demo copy, the best quality sample I could obtain at the time was a standard def version on 3/4” cassette.  HD and 4K didn’t really exist at the time, and very few features from that period ever had the archival value to be remastered.  Although it is work that I’m proud of, I can’t show it to anyone today as a demo due to the poor video quality of the best available copy. 

Of course there are a lot of movies that I’m happy that were never widely distributed; horror sequels or “erotic thrillers” that were only ever intended for home video.  As with actors, there is a danger of cinematographers getting type cast, and I never wanted to be known for those genres, so I guess I should count my blessings.  They helped pay the bills along with a number of documentaries like The US vs John Lennon that usually got much bigger releases than the features I was shooting.

This brings me to The Windigo, my last feature, which is currently having a small theatrical release.  I took my family to see it this weekend in Hollywood. There was no red carpet reception, and I had to buy the tickets, but it was nice to see my work on the big screen for a change with nice finishing work by my Colorist friend, Mark Todd Osborne, CSI of MTO Color.

I can still call The Windigo my “last feature,” even though it was shot in 2018.  As is not uncommon in the world of low-budget indies, the producers had more passion than resources or experience.  They made a couple of miscalculations and ran out of funds before the picture could even be wrapped.  I found myself stuck on location in Michigan responsible for most of the camera, grip, and electric gear we used to shoot the movie which I had driven there myself from L.A. along with 2nd Unit DP, Cameron Cannon. I didn’t have much choice but to try to make the best of it and finish the movie. 

In an effort to ensure that those crew members that didn’t walk off would eventually get paid, I held onto the camera original media.  They could cut the movie with the available proxies, but if they ever wanted to finish it, they would have to come for the OCN files.  I figured it would only be a few months before they got their finances straightened out, and accounts settled, but for over three years, I only heard from anxious crew members, wondering when they would get paid, and only crickets from the producers.  Apparently, the distribution deal they were counting on fell through.

When I was finally contacted for permission to access the files after several years, I figured that if they were able to finish the movie, at least there would be an asset to go after.  Once they provided a promissory document to pay the crew out of an escrow account from the first monies received, I turned over the footage.  I think I made the right choice now that the film is getting distributed, although myself and the rest of the crew that remained, along with some of the local vendors, are still owed funds.  After all, it is better to have a movie being seen and generating income than never seeing the light of day with no chance of anyone ever recouping what is owed.

As I was disappointed to find out, work going unseen can also happen in television.  I shot North Hollywood. a comedy pilot for ABC that was written, produced, and directed by Judd Apatow in his early years before the success of his features like The 40 Year Old Virgin.  It had a cast that was mostly unknown at that time  including Jason Segel, Amy Poehler, Kevin Hart, Colin Hanks, and January Jones along with veteran actor, Judge Reinhold.  The script was great, and as you can guess by the later success of the actors, the performances were hilarious.  However, I supposed that ABC was just not ready for Apatow’s brand of humor back in 2001, (but I’m sure they were kicking themselves only a few years later.)

I had high hopes for another pilot I shot in 2013, only to have it disappear into the television ether when Relativity Media, the studio behind the project went into bankruptcy just as it was going to market.  The project did give me the opportunity to explore the burgeoning technology of shooting in virtual production volumes. There were no LED walls as backgrounds in those days, but we used the same type of technology to shoot the live action in front of blue screen.  We used Lightcraft, a revolutionary system back then, for realtime compositing in a volume.

The camera and lens metadata, along with geo-positioning details gathered by reading markers precisely placed over the set, were all fed into the volume to tell it frame by frame what the camera was doing. I was able to zoom, focus, and do any manner of live, physical camera movement with my jib, or even handheld, and the background followed in lockstep.  This was a big advantage over standard Greenscreen type shooting where the camera either has to be locked and the data manually recorded for later compositing, motion controlled, or by using tracking markers actually placed in the shot, which then need to be painstakingly removed in post.

Cinematography is an extremely competitive field and it takes a combination of talent, determination, and some good fortune to be successful and get noticed while photographing indie projects.  Adding to that challenge is the fact that very few ever make it to the big screen.  It’s not impossible to break out of low-budget into bigger projects, but it is rare.  Perhaps a movie you shoot wins the distribution lotto and manages to get a large theatrical release.  Or maybe a director you work with makes it big and takes you along.  None of that has happened for me…yet.  However, looking back at my career, I can’t complain too much; I have managed to make a decent living doing work I love, and have gotten to work with a lot of interesting new technology.  It might have been nice to work on some higher profile projects, but that would only be icing on a cake that has long since been baked, and I’m no longer holding my breath.  The occasional shooting jobs that now come my way, along with my work for DCS, keep me engaged, and when the industry gets back to full swing, or if Spielberg should happen to call, I’ll be ready.  I might even like to shoot another Indie feature, because like Spielberg, I’m addicted to filmmaking.  

In the meantime, if you would care to be among the relatively small group that has ever seen my work, you can view the trailer for The Windigo, (currently in release,) here:

And, here’s a link to my DP Demo Reel, (which has not been updated now for over 10 years):


Although late to the screen, I got a lot of help in the production of The Windigo from a number of companies to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. They include, (in alphabetical order): Anton/Bauer • DADCO/Sunray • Detroit Power & Light • DMG Lumière/Rosco • Fujinon • K 5600 • Key Code Media •  OWC • Panasonic • SIGMA • SmallHD •  Stratton Camera • Teradek

1 Comment

  1. Laurence Joseph Thorpe

    Quite a saga, James !
    And, one you should be very proud of.

    Larry Thorpe


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