A graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, Sean joined the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG) in 2005. He has traveled the globe lensing commercials for clients including Coca Cola, Gillette, and Verizon.

In addition, he has worked extensively on narrative and experimental projects, including several feature length productions. He’s also a cofounder of RAMPANT.

Check out all of Sean’s work on his website and rent his gear in KitSplit right here!


How did you get into film? What’s your background?

My father is a cinematographer, and his father was an agency producer, so I was introduced to film production from a young age. Throughout college I worked as a PA whenever I could, and shortly after graduating I was able to join the ICG as an assistant. As digital began to take over, I transitioned to working as a DIT with cameras like the Panavision Genesis and Arri D-21. I also came to work with early versions of the Phantom high speed camera. While working as an assistant/DIT I continued shooting my own projects on the side, and eventually those projects grew to the point where I was shooting full time.

Photo of Sean DonnellyAnd you’re a member of the ICG–how did you end up joining and what has that experience been like?

I joined the guild in 2005 by taking the entry exam, which is a written and practical test typically given once a year. Beyond providing health insurance and a pension, guild membership infers a degree of experience and knowledge that producers look for on larger jobs. A big part of this is the training and support the guild provides to its members.

What have you been working on lately?

In addition to shooting commercials for brands like Coca Cola, Gillette, and Verizon, I dedicate a good amount of time to The Sparrow Film Project, a short filmmaking competition I help to organize in Astoria.

How would you describe your style?

People have described my style in the past as painterly, although I’m not quite sure why. If I had to take a guess it would be because of my tendency towards using compression and geometry in composition, and away from unmotivated camera movement. I also tend to work with highly motivated lighting sources, trying to stay as close to one theoretical source as possible.

Tell us about a recent project you were excited about. What was your role in this project?

I recently shot a campaign for a City of Hope, a leading cancer research hospital in Southern California. It was truly inspiring to help tell the story of people who have survived against incredible odds, and to learn about researchers and physicians who made that possible.

Can you tell us about your process?

If I’m working with a new director, I try to spend some time early on developing an aesthetic vocabulary. My role as a cinematographer is to bring the director’s vision to the screen, and it’s incredibly important that we are communicating clearly so we can plan efficiently. Pre Production is often not given the time and attention it needs. Discovery is where a lot of truly inspired ideas come from, but without a solid plan, and a backup, you rarely have the time for that magic to happen.

A still from the film White Creek

A still from the film Dead Light Glory from writer/director Rudy Mungaray. Sean shot this on a Sony F3 with a Gemini 444 recorder and a 21mm Zeiss Master Prime.

What kind of gear do you usually use?

Every job has it’s own requirements, but as far as cameras go most of the work I do these days is shot on either an Arri Alexa or a Red Weapon. I personally prefer Arri’s skin tone rendition, although Red has made some large improvements in recent years. If I need the field of view that comes from a larger sensor, the Red Weapon is a great choice. The wide assortment of high quality glass available these days, and the choice of lens determines so much of the look that cannot be replicated in post. Personally I’ve always loved the look of Leica’s optics, so much so that I purchased a set of Summicron C’s a few years back, along with a set of rehoused Super a Speed R’s.

What’s your absolute favorite gear?

I have a Nikon 35mm f1.4 prime from the early 70’s that could be one of my favorite lenses of all time. It’s one of those few pieces of gear that almost has a personality, even compared to other lenses of the same make and model. It’s a bit tough to explain, but consistently some of the most interesting photographs I’ve ever made are with this lens.

What is your most-used piece of gear?

These days I’ve gotten quite accustomed to using an Odyssey 7q+ as an onboard monitor. I suffer from astigmatism so newer electronic eyepieces can sometimes be difficult to use if the camera positioning isn’t optimal. The exposure tools are excellent, and I can toggle between a number of custom LUTs without affecting the feed to the director’s monitor or video village.

What’s the best advice you got when starting out?

Someone early on told me to always try to think in terms of preparation rather than reaction. If you can anticipate the needs of who you’re working for you not only do your job better, but also learn a lot about the role that you’re probably trying to move up to.

What advice would you give to filmmakers just starting out?

Shoot everything you can. Every project is an opportunity to practice, and also to learn. A great deal of what I know about cinematography comes from experience, both successes and failures. This is an incredibly exciting time where cameras are more accessible than ever.


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