Behind the Camera with Clint Howard II, Director of Photography

Posted on: Dec 21, 2022

Clint Howard II filming and describing the Director of Photography Camera Department Career Path.Photo courtesy of Clint Howard II (Clint Howard II working on location as Director of Photography)

By Kristyn Coutts

As he tells it, Clint Howard II was always going to end up behind the camera. “I wouldn’t even say it was my ambition, it was just what I was naturally drawn to. It was necessary. I felt I had to get behind the camera and tell stories.”

Connecting with cinema early has influenced his camera work from the beginning. “I loved the language of cinema. It was just always something that I felt was really subtle and powerful and could be speaking to you without even realizing what’s being spoken. It’s a direct emotional connection, which I’ve always really, really loved.”

Today, Howard is a seasoned director of photography with credits such as Love After Lockup, Black Wood and upcoming feature The Senior, and brings a keen understanding of the unique storytelling needs of filming different genres to his work behind the camera.

Can you tell us a bit about your background, who you are, and how you came to be director of photography?

​Originally, I got my start in live production. I worked as a camera operator and technical director in Texas and in other states for concerts, live events, speaking venues; that sort of thing. And started really early on because my dad, he minored in film and so he was working in that area on the side, honestly just for fun. I liked the cameras and I would watch other guys work the cameras and I thought it was the coolest part of the whole thing. I didn’t really care about the people on stage. I thought the guy who could run the camera was the rockstar.

Fortunately enough, at a very young age I was able to get plugged in with a couple of venues in Texas [but was] going in another direction. I actually dropped out of college to go back into film full-time. Went to Virginia, Alabama and then eventually went back to Texas and started doing more commercial work. By the time I was in my mid twenties, I had worked [in] live production for about 10 years because I had done it since high school.

It’s like I had had a whole career and I was ready to do more narrative work and television and things like that. So I just went back to Dallas, started working as a freelancer and got my start working [at] a [startup] incubator. I was surrounded by startup companies and so I became the video guy. You know, “Need a promotional video? Go see Clint.” I did that for a couple of years and then started doing some of my own short films, which I had done growing up, [using] my dad’s Canon XL 1. I’d make stupid videos, just with friends and for high school. Anytime I’d get an option to do a video assignment in high school, I would blow it way [out of] proportion and throw in production value and it was ridiculous.

Is there any sort of discipline that you particularly enjoyed doing or do you just love it all?

I definitely grew up loving it all. I think I really got drawn in by the last couple years when I was doing live production. Because I was the video guy, I was asked to do little documentaries and so I’d go and interview people and I would make very strong cinematic documentaries. I was so intrigued by that, [even though] I was less experienced. I knew how to run a camera, I knew how to expose, I knew how to do all the technical stuff, but I didn’t know if I could write a story or tell a story visually that wasn’t a live production.

As I started transitioning out of live production, I started doing more of those and trying to see, “all right, can I make this work?” I made a short film with a bunch of my friends for $75. It was even a silent film. I was too scared of dialogue, I didn’t even want to write dialogue. So I directed and shot that and it worked and it was a fantastic time. And that was like getting bit by the bug all over again. And so I was like, okay, I really want to see if I can make narrative, make that transition from live production to a more standard production.

Your first job, you were saying, was in a sort of startup environment?

After I left live production, I was in a coworking space, an incubator, so there was just nothing but startup companies around me. I was doing commercial work for them and it was really cool because even now, some close friends, their companies have taken off. And once a year they’ll call me back and I’ll still do commercial work for them because I love them.

From there, I got an opportunity to DP a movie in 2016. A friend of mine was an actor/director in LA and we had started our careers around the same time, him acting and me with camera. We were talking about this movie and he sent me the script, and I liked the script, and I basically just pitched him on me being the DP. We talked for about six months and I fought for it and eventually I got it.

It took awhile with distribution and reshoots, but ultimately it did get international distribution. It’s a cheap movie. It’s got lots of mistakes. But I like to think I put together a product that could sell. And I really loved working with a group of people that I cared about that closely for that long. It was about 30 days out in East Texas. And that was my first feature that I ever DP’d. That was a real pivot point where I was like, okay, I need to wean off the commercial work and go work towards film and TV.

Could you sum up what your job entails? What that looks like for you?

In general, I would say that my job is a balance between the creative, the technical, and the personal. The creative aspect, obviously, is understanding the language and emotion of a shot and of camera movement. The technical is, physically, how to pull that off and how to get the camera and the lens and the lights to communicate the story you’re trying to tell.

There are so many things that go into a story that are never communicated literally or verbally, but are communicated through the light. And there’s times where you’re watching a show and I feel like you’re just like, “I just don’t buy it, I don’t believe what’s happening.” And I think that is a failure of the creative being married with the technical.

And then the other huge part, probably the most important part, is the personal [aspect]. Developing a team, managing a team, and making sure that everyone feels like they have a vision for what we’re trying to accomplish and feel like a valued part of the project.

Those are my two core principles with my teams, because my teams are so important. I do a lot of non-union work and so it’s really important for me that people below the line get a fair shake and don’t get abused and don’t get overworked.

Who on the wider set do you work with?

For any project, usually I’ll be asked to bring in a few key people, sometimes a full team. If it’s a smaller job, then sometimes I’ll crew-up everybody.

The AC is an integral part of that technical aspect in making sure that the camera stays running, making sure that we are not losing time for media or batteries. And then gaffer, although it is a very technical role, [it’s] very much a creative role because you have to understand how to shape light in an effective way that meets the time restraints of the project.

So I would say the gaffer and first AC are the main people that I crew-up. Sometimes I’ll go beyond that, but a lot of times I’ll leave it to them to bring in their second PAs, that sort of thing. If I’m being asked to put together a project, those are my first two roles to fill.

Who else do you work with along those lines?

I work closely with the director, but if it’s for television then producers or showrunners are who I’m working with. For television, in reality, a lot of it is keeping things going and making sure that you’ve got your story beats and moving on as quickly as possible. Communication is a constant give and take. Like, “All right, what do we have to get, what can we take away?”

Then with narrative projects, I [am] working most closely with the director because everything is dependent on the director’s vision. That’s a huge part of it if I don’t want to be running in a different direction than what the director intended.

If I’m brought on to a project, ideally I believe in the project. My job is to get everything that’s in the director’s head out and then distribute it through all the technical avenues. Running rehearsals, running blocking, all that kind of stuff.

I just did a pilot series out here in Albuquerque and it’s a little mini-marriage between me and the director. We laugh, we fight, we yell at each other, we hug, we cry – we do all the things. But I do my best to try to always be fighting for the story and not for my shot or for what I think the story needs, but what I believe the story is.

How do you build and maintain good, working relationships with these people?

I think it was Roger Deacons, someone asked him, “What’s your most important tool you bring to set?” And he said, “My sense of humor,” and I loved that.

That really stuck with me and honestly changed the way that I DP. Because I am a very intense guy, I care a lot about what I do, I enjoy what I do and I definitely can steamroll if I’m not careful. And so to me, going to set with humility, humor, and with a service mindset sets the tone and gets everyone to take a breath, calm down a little bit and just enjoy the process.

Clint Howard II talks about his Director of Photography career path
Photo provided by Clint Howard II​

How do you go about crewing-up?

It depends on the project. Location is a huge factor for budgetary reasons. If I can go with people that I worked with before, that’s always my first stop. It’s pretty rare for that to happen all the time. I am a union member and part of the [Local] 600, so I try to go through the 600 and find people who are available that way. And then usually, honestly, my first stop is Staff Me Up.

I do post a ton of jobs on Staff Me Up. When I’m crewing-up, I’ll give names to production all the time. A lot of those names are either built [with] Staff Me Up or directly through Staff Me Up. Or sometimes I’m like, “I need an AC in Austin, who are my guys again?” I’ll go to Staff Me Up and I’ll search ACs and I’m like, “Oh, there’s Tom again. Let me go grab Tom.” If it’s someone that I haven’t worked with or I don’t have a close working relationship with, I usually go back to the Staff Me Up directory for that.

To me it’s more of a wink and a nod with the crew. If you show up, do your job well, you may not get the, “hey, we should work together again,” kind of thing. But you’ll get the wink and the nod and then a phone call in three months. I think that’s a big thing, presenting yourself on set as an asset and then following up afterwards.

I try to stay in contact with people that I’ve worked with every three to six months and just shoot them an email and be like, “Hey, here’s my new resume, here’s my new reel. Hope you’re well. If I ever can be a resource, hit me up.” And that’s a big part of maintaining those relationships because sometimes you have a great three days with someone and then they’re gone, and you can’t fault them for not remembering your name. We’re all doing this in 20 different cities, 50 different times a year.

What are the key skills needed to become a successful director of photography?

For me, the skills that I feel like have been most helpful are being resourceful and calm under pressure, being multi-skilled.

I grew up backpacking and playing ice hockey and doing a bunch of random things. And honestly, all those things have really played well into being a DP. Being skilled with knots and how to safely use a knife and being safety oriented, knowing how to safely rig a safety line. There have been so many times on set where I need to tie a knot or rig something up or safely mount a camera to a car. Those common sense skills that you develop in dangerous situations really help you to move into situations in film and do dangerous things safely.

In a more broad scope, I would say being positive on set is a big thing for me. When I work I always try to come with solutions, not problems.

Then I think probably the biggest one is just self-education. I read constantly and I look things up and I try to understand the nitty gritty of what I do and how the camera works, how the lens works, how camera movement works, how inertia works, all those sort of things.

Being a constant student of the craft has been the most beneficial skill that I’ve had. I didn’t go to film school and so I’ve had to work it backwards. And I feel like I kind of did film school backwards where it’s like I put a camera in my hand for years and then I went back and watched all the movies and then I went back and read the books. So now I’m getting into film concepts and studying, it’s like the stuff you do in freshman year.

What does an average day working on set look like?

For me, it’s having a script in-hand and understanding what’s happening for the day. What are we trying to accomplish to make our day?

My first step is usually checking in with the camera team and I might give them a general rundown of what I think we’re going to be doing for the day, what lens we need to be on. I try to give them some technical stuff to get ahead a little bit. It’s usually just some guesses because usually we’re not that far ahead.

And then I’ll get with the director and see where they are, where we try to get to blocking and start laying out the scene that we’re going to create. And then if I have some time, I’m reading over our scenes for that day and I’m making notes, I’m walking the set, I’m trying to visualize where everything’s going to be.

To me it’s understanding inside and out what’s happening, why is it happening, where were we just at, visually as the audience, and where are we going? It’s very much thinking three steps ahead and one step behind wherever you are currently at. Getting a full picture of that is how my mornings usually go. Then we go through blocking rehearsal with the director and we’ll mark the scene, block it out, see what works, what doesn’t work.

And then ideally we’ll have some time to prep, talent goes to makeup, and then we’ll bring the camera in, start working on some technical stuff, I’ll adjust lighting and then we’ll just start knocking out our scene. And that goes for each scene that we have, going through that technical prep, blocking, lighting, adjustments, shooting it.

Like I said, there’s a pattern to it and a flow that if you can get on, you can work very quickly. And that’s assuming nothing goes wrong or your time schedule is perfect, which never happens. And sometimes the director just grabs you and says, grab the camera and you’re like, all right, we have got to grab the camera, we got to just go.

I’ve shot with everyone from everywhere, from A-list celebrities to legitimately meth addicts and everything in between – alcoholics, athletes, roller derby skaters. You want to understand, “How do I create an environment for the talent to be comfortable so that the show can get the story that it needs?”

[I] get with a producer, talk about talent and then depending on how guerilla style it is, most reality is reality influenced. There are very few shows that are true reality through and through. A lot of times we’re going into a house or room, we’re pre-lighting and saying, “Tom and Lisa are going to have a conversation at this table. And then they’re going to talk about, he’s got a new girlfriend and she…” And so we have to create that scene and where we think it’s going to go.

We always start with that scene and they’re like, “How do we get out of here? Where are they coming from?” It’s definitely not as meticulous as narrative, but it’s creating an environment for our reality talent to play in. So whether that’s a living room or a bar, we create that scene. Lighting is usually pretty basic and then it’s just lots of shoulder work. You’re on the shoulder for 30, 40 minutes, an hour, hour and a half, and just stay with the action and try to stay in focus.

What do you love about your work?

I love when I can get a great dramatic scene on the shoulder rig with me and two actors and it’s intimate and it’s just this moment. And when you get it, everyone always knows.

It’s like when you’ve got the moment, and you got the shot, and you have that pause right before the cut, and then everyone just picks their head up and we all just lock eyes for a moment. Honestly, it’s my favorite moment. We know we told the story and I love that feeling of telling a beautiful story. I think that’s what I love so much, and also I love connecting with other people in that storytelling.

It’s really great when you get to see and feel that passion that actors bring to the set, and you give them the opportunity to deliver – that feels like why I’m here. That’s why I created the scene that I needed to create and I gave them the opportunity to bring their best. That’s a really strong connection point. It just feels like you’re serving a story, feels like you’re serving each other and it’s just a great teamwork, camaraderie moment that makes it all worth it.

Who else in your line of work or even in the wider industry do you admire and why? Have you ever had a mentor or something?

I’ve connected a lot with the DP, Shane Hurlbut. He has a film academy that he runs that he works with a lot of up and coming DPs to help them find their voice and navigate the industry. Shane’s been a big influence.

Certain DPs, like Hoyte Van Hoytema, are probably my favorite right now. I feel like he has such a subtlety and a boldness, which I don’t really know how you pull both those off. He just does unbelievable work.

What advice would you give to someone if they’re starting out on this career path?

I think the biggest piece of advice I would give is to be a student of the industry. It’s not enough to be good and I learned that too late. You need to understand how the industry works and who are the powers that be and how you can find a space where you can bring value to the industry.

Where can people see your work?

I’ve done ABC, NBC, Discovery – most of the major networks. I’ve got a couple of films on Amazon. The latest film I worked on that just came out was Black Wood, which actually got a limited theatrical release, which was great. And then I worked on The Chosen season three, which is in theaters right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Looking for your next job behind the camera? Staff Me Up has exclusive camera department jobs that you can apply for today. 


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