Finding The Right Mix In Your Soundtrack

Field Notes Interview #37: Chris Fenner, Cinematographer

Editing is everything. Sometimes what would otherwise be the perfect pairing of music and picture can be derailed by an unbalanced mix. Cinematographer, Chris Fenner certainly understands this dilemma and uses music in subtle ways to let his stories speak for themselves.

Throughout Fenner’s work, including his powerful film for The Atlanta Outreach Project, his use of music relies a lot in how it implies the emotion of a film without forcing it. A critical element in making his vignettes so impactful is how the soundtrack is mixed, letting the story breathe and flow naturally.

We caught up with Chris Fenner about his work, his relationship with filmmaking and how music plays an important role in telling an immersive story.

M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

CF: When I was in college as a Political Science major (goal at the time was to teach and coach soccer), I attended a summer camp as a chaperone. At this camp there were a bunch of cool videos and content that were used each day and I thought, “you know that’s pretty cool,” and I started learning my own way. when people ask me how I learned, i tell them “Google,” which usually gives a laugh, but it’s true; I Googled everything. I also started eating ramen noodles and buying camera gear with my student loans. I thought I was getting this past my parents (Mom later told me she knew, I should have known that, Mom’s know everything!). I started out with a HVX200 with the 35mm adaptor and then jumped on the 5d/7d train. I guess I had some natural talent because I started working at some non-profits part time while still in school, and eventually went full time. Looking back at it, going to the movies was a big thing with our family when I was younger, and with 2 relatives working in Hollywood, I guess I had it in my blood but just never knew it!

But to nail down a specific experience that I said to myself “I really want to become a filmmaker” has to be when I was fired from a non-profit organization that I realized that I really wanted to be a filmmaker. I want to tell amazing stories and that wasn’t until three years ago. It will always be an interesting journey, but I feel very fortunate to know without a shadow of a doubt what I want to do with my life.

M: What’s your favorite moment in the filmmaking process?

CF: My favorite part of the process is actually two parts. One is pre production and the other is when I can stuff my eye in a viewfinder and everything I hoped for happens. Pre Production is so so important. Locations, people, and time of day makes a huge difference in quality of footage. Casting the vision to client and crew on why getting up at 4am will be worth it and why this location and not this other one (that could be easier or not so bloody early) makes such a difference. When things are pre produced well and a plan is in place the day of, production and post should be much easier (everything is relative, I know :). And working off a solid plan allows one to capture those honest moments because the whole story and end goal is in his/her mind.  

M: What do you think defines an artists’ voice?

CF: This is such a hard question to answer. And you will probably see me trying to figure it out in my answer as I write. This is hard for me because I think its not my place/business to tell people their style/voice and I’m also still trying to find my voice. What I think I’m settling on is “Can people trust you?” and this is both on screen and off. Is the vision you cast for your client the one they get? Do you pay your PA’s, 1 AC, team, when you say you will? Do you spend time with your family and loved ones? I think when we are honest in our lives and treat others how we want to be treated and expect to be treated, we then start creating out of an honest place, and an honest place is where great art comes from in my opinion, and thus your “voice”. Its a beautiful, hard, tough, unexpectant, fruitful, circle. I want to live beyond what I create/do, I want people to see something bigger in what I do. 

Photo courtesy of Garrett Reid

Photo courtesy of Garrett Reid

M: Do you always have a clear vision in mind when filming?

CF: I have images that I start with, and as I shoot I try and see the whole edit in my mind. But once I have a “plan” I’m always looking for the unexpected. The “plan” is just a fall back. The unexpected moments are the best. But to answer your question, it depends.

M: Have there ever been any happy accidents when filming?

CF: Had a cool one this year. In Atlanta we have a public transportation system called Marta, and they HATE people filming on them without permission, like hunt you down and make you delete the footage. We were doing some life style stuff by one of their bus stops. Just a guy walking then sitting down. It was raining which was adding some great atmosphere, I was on a movi about to get an establishing shot, our talent was sitting at the bus stop reading a paper. Then from around the corner a Marta bus pulled up to the bus stop, thinking our talent was getting on the bus. So I moved forward at the same time yelled “Act like you are getting on the bus!” The talent folded up the paper and pushed forward and we got a sick shot. Bus driver wasn’t very happy, but oh well. haha. It was a moment were planning/luck/working hard all lined up and the moment rocked.

M: What’s the most nerve-wracking part of filming?

CF: Expectations/failing. This will never change. Expectations from yourself, the clients, peers, and the fact I always want to be on that line of “this could be amazing or a failure” haha. 

M: What role do you think music has in film?

CF: Music makes/breaks a piece IMO. Now I know people reading this will be like, “of course you would say that, this is on a music site.” But seriously the music, dialogue, and mix are soon important. If you haven’t seen the film “Whiplash” go buy it now. Its my favorite movie from this last year. Watch a band scene, then watch it again on mute. Totally different feel and music/mixing adds so much. It can also take away from your film, so be careful. When in doubt ask someone who’s work you respect for feedback. 

Photo Courtesy of Chris Fenner

Photo Courtesy of Chris Fenner

M: When do you know you have something ready to show the world?

CF: When the deadline hits! haha. For something that is a passion piece/personal I ask people whom I trust, not everyone, to give feedback, once it’s close to something I’m happy with, I then tweak tweak tweak the last 10%. But at some point I have to ship it or trash it. I tend to release more passion projects/personal stuff than stuff I get paid for. I’m trying to be more conscious about what I put out there will be the type of work I will get. 

M: What’s coming up?

CF: We shall see, hope its commercials and narrative this year! 

Share your story with us at We’ll choose our favorite and feature it on our journal next week. Winner will be awarded a Marmoset shirt and Field Notes notebook. Sharing is caring!

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