Rob Gardner’s “Lamb of God” concert film is a three-hanky event as it celebrates the last days of Jesus’ life. Part of the power lies in the cinematography, created by Wes Johnson, who magically seemed to know just how to capture those moments of emotion that brought us all with him.
Cinematographer Wes Johnson is passionate about his work and there is nothing else he would rather be doing. A graduate of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, Wes began his career as a still photographer before making the transition into film as Camera Assistant and then Director of Photography. He has found much joy in his work overseeing the camera and lighting crew and is ultimately responsible for framing and camera movement as well.
So far in his young career Wes has worked for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYUTV, Deseret Book, Excel Entertainment and many other independent production companies with credits that include “Jane and Emma”, “Trek: The Movie”, “Shoelaces for Christmas” and “Lamb of God: The Concert Film”.
Wes is obsessed with his work behind the camera and has immersed himself in the use of light and shadow as he works to constantly perfect his craft.
I had the opportunity to do an in-depth interview with Wes and listen to him as he talked passionately about cinematography, light, collaboration and his work on Lamb of God.
Meridian: Tell us about your progression from being a Camera Assistant to a Director of Photography (DP)
Wes: I started as a still photographer with a bachelor’s degree in Still Photography and then I succumbed to my dominating love for cinema. I became a camera production assistant on T.C. Christensen’s film, 17 Miracles and then went to work for long-time DP Reed Smoot
Reed always believed in me and has been an incredible mentor, he probably put in a real good word for me with the Church and I was hired to shoot the Latter-day Saint temple films in 2013.
I didn’t spend a lot of time as a camera assistant because I said to myself, “If I’m going to be a DP then let me be a DP”. So I spent a year reading, writing, shooting, lighting and directing a ton of short films.
Meridian: Tell us about your first job in the film industry and as a DP
Wes: After I graduated from AFI (American Film Institute) in 2011 and after having children we moved to Utah and started from absolute zero I was technically a DP with no credits or credibility and when you are a young DP you do anything for anyone and say yes! yes! yes! for any amount of money.
I was starving, making no money and hadn’t done anything while I was at AFI, I literally scraped by doing still photography until I was hired by the Church to do the temple films.
It became known that I did those films for the church and it was like “yes lets hire Wes Johnson he shot the temple films”!
I try to be wonderful to work with and incredibly grateful for that opportunity, and then that spreads through word of mouth.
Meridian: What inspires you?
Wes: PASSION! Passionate people inspire me.
When I see anyone in any industry that just knocks it out of the park, I say to myself, what is this person doing that makes this a unique experience, it’s passion that produces this exceptional thing. It takes passionate people to take it to another level, anybody that takes pride in what they do inspires me.
Let me share an experience I had when I attended a U2 Concert in 2005. It was about two thirds into the show and I had one of the great revelations of my life watching Bono, he was bringing 110%. The way he was performing was like a lightning bolt and almost felt like it was his last show. It felt like a farewell show, but it was not; this man was bringing his entire soul and throwing into that audience every single night happy or sad, sick, or exhausted.
That show changed my life, there is something magical about hard work, gratitude, and passion.
Meridian: How did you first learn to light a set?
Wes: Trial by Fire! I tip my hat to the hundreds of crew members and peers that have helped me to learn as I go, and I give a huge amount of credit to Nick Vidros a commercial photographer that I interned for. He is a master of light and when I worked with him that became the first time that I was not acted upon I actually had the opportunity to create.
Light is my single favorite thing in the Universe, I almost have ADD when it comes to light. When I walk into a room, I immediately notice the quality of the light, the color of the light, the contrast of the light and the directionality of the light. I have learned so far throughout my career that not everybody is as sensitive to light as I am, it is just who I am. Because I have this unique sensitivity it is fortunate that is what I do for a living.
I have been consciously looking at light for 25 years since I first started studying photography.
I look at light all day and I learn from the sun and the way it can skip off a window or bounce off any object and refract and diffuse at different longitudes and latitudes. I also learn from looking at hard lights, soft lights, flashlights or anything that produces illumination I am so fascinated by it.
Meridian: How did you get hired to do Lamb of God: The Concert Film?
That is an interesting story.
Years ago, when I was growing up my family moved to Lehi, Arizona across the street from Jim and Ellen Gardner and their son Rob. Rob was older so we didn’t hang out much, but I knew him. I would hear things about Rob from my parents like, “oh Rob is in college now and he is composing and becoming well known in the Latter-day Saint community.” So, the pendulum swung and our paths diverged and then converged.
At the end of last year Arthur Van Wagenen from Excel Entertainment along with Brandon Purdie and Purdie Distribution let me know they had been stewing and scheming to bring Lamb of God to the big screen and release it before Easter.
I knew right then that this was going to be extremely ambitious and a Mount Everest of a project but because Rob was all in, so was I.
People love this movie, I have attended 4 screenings and there has not been one that hasn’t been filled with sniffles, tears and audible gasps. It is a powerful spiritual experience.
Meridian: How did you decide on the lighting scheme for a production like this? How do you create the right mood?
Wes: I am so immensely satisfied with the way we lit the set, we created 7 completely unique looks with every element and every casting choice being a thoughtful choice made to create a more visceral and more real experience.
After a meeting at Denny’s we decided to let Mother Nature be our guide on the lighting scheme with the sun the moon and the stars working as our anchor elements.
After the general lighting scheme, we turned our attention to the instruments; the cello, the flute, the harp, the percussion, then it was all about Rob and the choir to get as many dynamic shots as possible. Rob was so dynamic I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Meridian: What was the daily on set experience like during the making of Lamb of God: The Concert Film?
Wes: Controlled chaos! I kept thinking how will it all work together? Rob had to generate a momentum to keep the performances at a very high level and that meant I had to adjust the way I worked to keep that momentum going so we would shoot and convene over and over during the day and that became the process.
Rob Moffat saved me; he was like our script supervisor. While I was talking to the camera operators in one ear, Rob was talking to me in my other ear to let me know what was coming next, I couldn’t have done it without that collaboration and help.
Meridian: How was working at Utah Film Studios in Park City?
Wes: It was just fabulous, absolutely the right location to produce this specific project and provided the canvas that we needed to produce the awfully specific staging and lighting and to do it in a very efficient manner. Everyone facilitating the use of the studio was enormously helpful.
Meridian: Tell us about the importance of collaboration.
Wes: The rule for me is I love collaboration more than anything in the universe, solitude can be very nourishing but as human beings and as a society we need each other.
The film industry is the greatest single industry on earth for synergy and collaboration, there is not an industry that begins to come close that combines more skill sets from more walks of life under one industry umbrella, it’s truly unbelievable.
There are hundreds of occupations coming together under the exact same roof for the same purpose, where else do you see that? It shows us the power of unity when the strength of all these people and departments working together for one purpose can actually make miracles happen. You can do things that would be otherwise impossible, to be collaborative means to be greater than the sum of the parts you may have 100 people working together but it feels like 500.
I am a born collaborator and the DP is the bridge between the Director, Actors and Producers and those that are working on the front lines to achieve the creative vision. I feel I must be the personification of the bridge that bring both ends of the spectrum together.
Meridian: How do you bring the spirit in to your work?
Wes: Many times and on many productions I feel like I am working for God in His praise and for His glory so it is a lot of pressure because I love our Heavenly Father and I love the Savior and I want to please them.
We are either building bridges or building walls so the first thing I do is to make sure I’m in a good place mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as I come to work. Each day before I leave home I get on my knees and pray that I will be able to do my best work that day.
Many times, the subject matter begets the spirit; however, I must come in fully attuned with the utmost reverence for the work, you just can’t fake that stuff because it comes from the deepest, purest part of the soul.
With Lamb of God: The Concert Film the audience reaction has let me know we didn’t mess up, when I am doing my best work all it should do is convey the strength and the power of the moment that is happening in front of the camera.
Currently Lamb of God: The Concert Film is one of the top faith-based films nationwide and appeared in the Top 10 of all films on its opening weekend. In order to truly appreciate the work Wes Johnson did on this concert film go and see this movie in theaters while it’s still there. Go to www.lambofgodmovie.com for theaters and showtimes.