Cinematographer Jason Joseffer constructed a pinhole lens to create his music video for Seth Lael entitled On The Road. We talked with him about his hands-on process and what he did to achieve such a unique quality in his video.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
I’m a cinematographer based in San Francisco who occasionally dabbles in directing. In the year 2000, I started out in the cable-access world and found my way into working as a Film Loader, then Focus Puller and later as a Director of Photography. My favorite aspect of my job is shooting films and documentaries. Long form story telling is where I find myself most inspired.
This video has such a unique, vintage quality to it. How/why did you decide to shoot this piece with a pinhole?
Ever since digital cameras began to perform well in low light, I’ve had this burning desire to shoot pinhole in motion. It was an idea I’ve had for a long time, but was reserving it for just the right project. When my good friend Seth Lael played me a track off his new album, Bird Strings, I knew this would work. The abstraction of pinhole and its organic aberrations were well suited. Before committing to the look, I brought a camera over to Seth’s backyard with a piece of foil taped over the lens mount and performed tests.
Seth sang and danced as I experimented with focal lengths and frame rates. We settled on pinhole as the choice lens and 18 frames per second as our preferred frame rate.
Tell us more about how you made your pinhole lens.
I have a background in machining and in an effort to over complicate the simplicity of pinhole, I set out to design a pinhole lens that would allow different focal lengths and apertures. The simple foil taped on a lens mount wasn’t precise enough for what I wanted to do and was frustrating to work with. I drew up a design for a PL mount lens with multiple apertures and three focal lengths (25mm, 50mm and 85mm). A spring loaded mechanism holds the desired focal length in position and is easily swapped. Attached to each insert is a turret style disc that rotates between 5 precision drilled micro apertures. I built the lens over the span of a week on a lathe and milling machine.
What inspired the aesthetic and story line behind this video?
The title of the track is On The Road and it’s written about people Seth has encountered in his work life as a Production Sound Mixer. I liked the idea of a road movie feel where Seth would pass through San Francisco and would have brief encounters with a wide array of characters.
What did you learn while shooting this piece?
Clean sensors are king. I don’t want to know how many hours I spent cleaning the sensor prior to each shoot day. The most miniscule spec of dust shows up as a black dot when you are shooting pinhole. The depth of field is so great that it literally focuses from the sensor towards infinity. I never truly got the sensor perfectly clean and had to live with specs, but the aim was to get rid of the offensive ones.
I also gained an appreciation for the science of optics. Things I’ve read about came to light (pun intended) when I had to figure out how to measure the focal length of the inserts and how their placement within the lens housing further determined their focal length. The level of precision was an insight and makes me want to build a primitive lens from glass someday.
Do you plan to use the lens more in your work? What things can we expect to see from you in the future?
I certainly do want to explore pinhole cinematography further, but will wait for the project that warrants it. It’s such a specific look that is only right for select projects. I have an idea for a revised version of the lens, but need to find the time to build it.
In regards to future projects, I’m always on the lookout for good films to shoot and want to work on projects with strong story and opportunities to grow as a cinematographer.
On The Road
Check out more of Seth's music on his website.