Daniel Kneece is a KitSplitter and veteran LA filmmaker who has worked as a Steadicam operator, Director of Photography, and screenwriter. He has worked Steadicam operator and A or B camera operator on many major motion pictures, television series, commercials and music videos including Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, Zoolander, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and more. Dan also founded, with David Allen Grove, the Steadicam Guild in September 2002 and has served on the Board of Governors of the S.O.C. (Society of Camera Operators).
Tell us a little about your work and background.
I grew up in a small South Carolina town of 2000 people surrounded by swamps and alligators. When I was 13 my Mom bought a Super 8 camera and I started filming everything. Studied at both USCs: University of South Carolina where I received Associate, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Media Arts and at the University of Southern California where I got a certificate in Cinema. My professional career began at WIS-TV in Columbia SC where I was a news cameraman. Moved into motion pictures from there and in December 1982 was trained by Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown to operate the Steadicam which, according to Garrett, placed me in the first generation of Steadicam Operators. That led to a 28 year career as a Steadicam Operator. This also evolved into gigs as A or B camera operator on many major motion pictures, television series, commercials and music videos including Beyonce’s Crazy in Love. I’ve also worked on films like Zoolander, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and more.
That’s quite a list of projects; we’re a little starstruck by your IMDB! What are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on (and/or directors to work with)?
That’s a tuff one as I have many favorites. The one that changed my life was a film called Blue Velvet for director David Lynch. That led to an ongoing relationship which continues to this day. I also did two films, Jackie Brown (A Camera/Steadicam Operator) and the Death Proof segment of Grind House (Steadicam only) for Quentin Tarantino; two for Joel Schumacher; Phone Booth and The Number 23 and two for Wes Craven; The People Under the Stairs, and Scream, among others. Wes said the opening of Scream with Drew Barrymore on the phone popping popcorn was the best first day’s dailies he’d had on any film, and it was played by the major TV outlets for 10 years whenever they talked about horror movies.
What’s your favorite piece of gear and why?
Right now, my two favorite cameras are Arri and Canon with the Alexa Mini being a particular love interest at the moment. Steadicam still has a special place in my heart, of course. Technocranes have their uses, but you have to realize any of this stuff is useless if you don’t have a story to tell. Editors note: You can rent Dan’s favorite gear on KitSplit!
At Cinegear you mentioned a Shakespeare retreat you did recently. Can you tell us more about that? How does your love of literature inform your love of, and work on film?
I was lucky enough to attend The Shylock Project, a month long Shakespeare intensive in the San Giorgio Maggiore monastery in Venice Italy through the Fondazione Giorgio Cini. We mainly studied the Merchant of Venice with 46 of the greatest Shakespeare minds in the world. There were 20 of us they called the scholars and I was the only filmmaker. It was an amazing experience! Spending time studying an amazing story ties into my work because I am a story driven cinematographer. The photography has to be good, but it also has to be an integral part of the storytelling process—not just pretty pictures for no reason. Sometimes the photography needs to be less than pristine to tell the story in the way it demands to be told. Today, there is too much emphasis on technical perfection, and not enough on storytelling, which I think is a mistake. Sometimes visual flaws serve the story more faithfully than sterile, boring images.
Any favorite crazy stories from your years on set?
Working with David Lynch is never boring of course, as David knows how to make films that can’t be ignored. The same can be said of Quentin. Wes Craven was a master of horror and will be sorely missed. I cherish them all and the amazing talent I’ve been bless to work with over the years. I mean, I’ve photographed Robert De Niro. How many people get to do that? There are so many stories that I think those are best told in person than print.
Fine, in that case can we hang out soon please? And…what have you been working on lately?
I have several project in the works. Am sitting on 12-13 scripts at the moment waiting on someone to pull the trigger. This year so far I photographed a feature called Magic Max and did some work on a film in Cuba which was an amazing experience. A bit historical too as my parents had taken me there when I was 2 years old. I have at least two projects in the next few months that are goes at this point so we’ll see what happens. Last year I shot three features, one on the life of Mary Pickford, one Lifetime film called Bad Stepmother and a horror film called Gothic Harvest starring Horror icons Lynn Shaye and Bill Moseley.
Tell us more about the Mary Pickford project and your role.
I really loved working on the that film, called “Why Not Choose Love: A Mary Pickford Manifesto,” as I was challenged with making the footage of Arri Alexas look like 1909 film cameras. I think we succeeded as this film looks like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Even went to History For Hire and got an old camera matte box iris so we could iris down in the shots, causing a moving vignette to black like they did in the old films. During prep, I got to go to the nitrate vaults and view 1912-1914 Mary Pickford nitrate film prints with winds and a light bulb. The nitrate is so beautiful to this day. Such deep rich blacks. Much nicer than safety film, but it catches on fire easily, so each vault is made of concrete with a smoke stack in the ceiling in case the place goes up in flames.
Who are your favorite filmmakers?
My favorite director hands down is David Lynch. His take is very special to me. Quentin is another gifted guy. He and David both make their own movies and put them out with warts into the world. Most others do test screenings and change their films to suit test audiences. What kind of art is that? Artists need to have the courage to leap off the cliff like lemmings, not knowing if they will survive or not. Sometimes you splat on the rocks, but sometimes you achieve greatness. The alternative is mediocrity and we have too much of that already.
What advice would you offer to other folks just starting out?
Be a professional, apply yourself, and be on time. Work hard and you will succeed. It’s not brain surgery or rocket science most times. You just have to make the day with the quality and performances the story requires. Remember that story comes first. The script is your roadmap. Follow the script and you have a chance—if the script is good—of making a good film.
What’s the best piece of advice you got when starting out?
When Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown taught me Steadicam, he told me to stay out of helicopters…it has saved my life a few times!
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