Staying Uncomfortable

Staying Uncomfortable

featuring Dustin Miller

Along the shores of St. Augustine, Florida you will find cinematographer Dustin Miller. His journey into filmmaking has been anything but traditional, which makes his current body of work all the more commendable. Having never lived near a major production hub, he's had to work that much harder to connect with the directors and production companies he’s been keen to work with. He's as equally dedicated to his family as he is behind the lens, which is never an easy balance to strike. As a self-proclaimed kook, Dustin has a lighthearted approach to almost everything - which has got to make him a blast to be on set with. We caught up with @dustmiller to hear more about how he’s carved his unique career path and how staying uncomfortable seems to be the right recipe for creating images that move an audience.

Dustin Miller on set with the Aaton XTR Prod Super 16mm camera. Staying humble as always

Born Rival: What was the first spark of interest in filmmaking?

Dustin Miller: I saw a friend making a skate film while we were in college, shooting on a miniDV Handycam and I thought it was so cool and immediately I was intrigued. I can’t explain why. At the time I was a business major in school. It wasn’t an instant obsession, but it had my interest and I was curious to explore it further. So I convinced my folks for Christmas or something to get a Handycam so I could just start shooting. My wife’s little brother still shreds but at the time he was 11 or 12, like a kid sponsored skateboarder and I was like oh, I’m gunna make skate films too. But I had no clue what I was doing. No clue. I was a complete kook because I'm not a skateboarder or a very good surfer, plus this was 20 plus years ago so it was nothing like it is today. There weren’t kids with iPhones or even DSLRs ripping around. I was it [laughs] So when I said I was going to film skate or surfing they couldn’t be more stoked.

So that was the initial pull and then I continued to figure it out and learn. I remember seeing a skate film called Hallowed Grounds and it didn’t have any of the traditional skateboarding noise, and I was like wait, what? Why doesn’t it have the typical noise of the board and wheels? I later learned that it was shot on film, so there was no sound. So then from there I knew I had to get a Bolex and figure this out. I ended up shooting a skate film as my student film senior year, but without a light meter. I did not have a light meter and somehow it turned out, I don’t know how. It was amazing.

BR: Must be pretty crazy to look back on.

DM: I remember just being so jazzed because there weren’t any of the resources we have now. I remember watching behind-the-scenes on DVDs just to get hints of anything I could see, you know? And then I just slowly started building the work up, figuring things out and made what I could. I got on set however I could as a camera PA. I had worked with a small editing agency for commercials and they were still shot on 35mm and I was like ‘oh my gosh I’ve made it, this is incredible!’ And then once I got on set and there was the RED ONE, again I was like ‘I am killing it right now’ you know? [laughs]

Dustin Miller on set

BR: How did you take that initial interest and turn it into something that you felt like could be made into a career?

DM: I actually had some interest and success with that skateboarding film in local film festivals. So it got me thinking and even my professors asked if I had considered going to film school. My wife and I got married really young so obviously that was going to be a huge part of any decision I made but we then found out we were going to have our first child at 23. So because of that and having a family to take care of I worked at Home Depot for a long time getting carts. I was the cart guy, and also helped people with loading heavy stuff into their cars.

I was constantly day dreaming about making films and what that meant. I remember the day I quit Home Depot. I was at my in-laws backyard and I remember just calling it. I had a two year old and a baby on the way which wasn’t the most logical thing to do [laughs]. Its funny looking back at some of these life decisions I made being so young and being like oh man, adult me would not approve of those decisions but it just doesn’t happen so I had to make those risky decisions I guess.

I realized quite quickly that I was more interested in telling stories than I was shooting skating or surfing. I started doing little documentary work for an agency, then getting on set and seeing all the tools it takes to do things on a bigger scale taught me how to be as excellent as I could be even on a smaller scale, whether its surf or skate stuff or your own little story doc or whatever you’re working on. It’s all about using the tools you have and learning and continually trying to be a better storyteller, a better filmmaker. And more importantly just being excellent as a person, being rad, and understanding how important every single relationship is.

You start believing in yourself, you start to get this little bit of confidence and your work starts to grow. I started getting more brave and sending my work out to people. Farm League for example, I remember seeing their work because a lot of those guys came from surf films. They were kind enough after a year of me hounding them to give me a meeting. They took a chance on me. They were such a huge relationship because they gave me a chance, they went to bat for me, and that was also when I was trying to figure out where to be.

Dustin Miller's Aaton XTR Prod Super 16mm
Dustin Miller frames up  from the trunk of the car

BR: What is your approach to cinematography now?

DM: I think my personality is like, I'm all in. If I'm gonna do something I wanna give it everything I can possibly give it. I know I speak for a lot of other cinematographers that I'm friends with, it's like an obsession, right? We're thinking about these things all the time. We're always thinking about better ways to tell stories, better ways to embrace a light or change the light or move a camera to make people feel something. 

There's so many things out there now that people are watching all the time. You know, being a cinematographer, being on set, people think it's cool. And I think it's easy to make that our identity, right? Like we do something cool, so 'oh that's my identity.' Instead of bringing your identity into what you do. And that's why it's special. The people that I look up to, whether I know them or not, when I listen to them or see what they're up to, 9 times outta 10, it really does come from them. That's it. Whether it's the culture they bring on set or the images they create or the way they make you feel, it's so special.

BR: What are the types of projects that really make you tick? I guess maybe just describe that feeling that you have on set when things are working out and you just think to yourself, this is why I got into filmmaking, this right here.

DM: I think right now I like when it's a little uncomfortable in terms of like, oh man, can we do this? Or when we gotta work to tell this story. I like when I get pushed by a director or challenged by a director, I really like that. I like having those conversations. I like talking through things. I think we all know when we see an image or if we read a script, there's something there that we feel. And we can't normally describe that. I don't think anyone really can. You know, in the commercial world it's hard, right? Like when you're doing commercials, there's so many moving parts and there's obviously a bigger agenda, whether it's a product or a brand or whatever. I think music videos are still really fun because in a sense there's no rules.

I think Mike Mills is such a beautiful human filmmaker. Bennett Miller, Derek Cianfrance, those guys can really break it down and make you feel it. I've seen some commercials like Lance Acord's Procter & Gamble Moms commercial, where I like wanted to cry at the end. I'm like, gosh, okay, you did it. And I love it. I wanna be there. I wanna be on this project. I wanna push myself and I wanna get pushed. You don't grow when you're comfortable. Hopefully it translates to any project, big or small, that we always bring who we are into it. We want to grow, we wanna get pushed, and it's not about us. It's about making something with the people around you and impacting the people watching it.

Dustin Miller and family
Dustin Miller always keeping an easy going vibe

BR: I'm curious what it's like to live outside of a major film market. Did you ever feel the pressure to make the move to LA or New York to get yourself established?

DM: I never felt the pressure that I had to live in New York or LA. I never felt like I had to uproot everything and move my family. But I did feel the pressure that I had to have some sort of presence in the industry in one of those major cities. Because of that, I asked myself, what does this look like? And it was years, years of asking questions and talking to people. Honestly I don't think I could have afforded to live in LA, especially at the time I was asking these hard questions, I didn't have the resources to do that.

I jumped on an airplane a whole lot to meet with people. There was a director that I was interested in working with in Portland, so I flew to Portland. I once flew to LA only to have a meeting canceled. Not kidding. I wanted to build relationships, and I knew that it wouldn't happen immediately. It's hard feeling the pressure to have a presence in one of those cities or build up your work without being there as well as being patient, knowing that it doesn't just happen. It's years of working on relationships, it's years being on set, working with different directors. Again, I felt more so the pressure that I had to have a presence in one of the cities, more so than living there. I was never not honest about it. I'd say, yeah I live in St. Augustine, Florida with my family and commute here [laughs]. I know I miss out on some day to day stuff by not living in LA all the time, but honestly, I'm okay with that. I do love the fact that when I'm home I can be more present.

BR: You seem like a real family man, just from our previous conversations you seem to really make an effort to be present when you are home, and you want to be just as good of a dad and husband as you are a DP. Can you talk a little more about your family?

DM: We got married young, gosh it'll be 20 years now. We have four kiddos, our oldest is a senior this year, which is wild. I always say, they don't care what commercial I'm on. They just want their dad, right? They just want me and that's it. And I think that's taught me so much about being present, being present as a dad, being present as a husband. I think it's cool too, because when my wife and I first met, I wasn't doing this. As hard as it is for me to travel so much, she's been with me through this whole process and she knows that it's something that I love to do. And in the same way, she loves kids and she loves to teach. The year she got hired to teach was a big year for us to figure things out. That meant so much to me, for her to have her dream job. If I'm away or if school's in session, we work really hard to make sure the kids are good.

I'm the same dude I am on set as I am at home. I always wanted to make that a point because I didn't want to live this double life. I don't think anyone has the balance figured out, if we're all honest none of us know what that means. When you love your family and you love what you do, that's a dream. It's always making sure everything's healthy. There's times where I said no to projects, even though maybe the money was good or it was a good project, but I knew I needed to be at home for whatever reason. It's really easy to make what we do our everything. But it's like, man, I want to raise rad humans and I want to look back and go, we had a lot of adventures and I've made a lot of great friends and we made some rad stuff. And I think that is more important to me than any awards or accolades.

Dustin Miller on set
Dustin Miller between takes with Arri 35mm

BR: What helps inform your process? What are the things you do off set that kind of get you in a creative zone, or help train you to have a better eye?

DM: Lately I've been really nerdy and jazzed on photo books. I love that they're tangible. They've really helped me a lot over the past handful of years. I listen a lot. I like listening to what other people have to say, whether they're filmmakers or photographers or artists. I'm really nerdy about other people's process. I like hearing how people get to where they are, how do they do their thing. I think that's so special.

I used to take tons of notes, write all this stuff. But I've learned you gotta leave room for your intuition. You gotta leave room to let who you are take over at times. You take the tools and the skill set that you have, you take the parameters of whatever project may have, and then you bring who you are into it. And I think that's when the most rad stuff happens.

I remember last year, you know making a list of cheesy goals for the year. My first one I think was don't make cool images. I'm not here to make cool images. I'm here to help tell a story, no matter what it is. Harris Savides talks about that a lot too, he's said "I don't think you can ever make a movie that looks amazing when you're trying to make it look amazing." But it's true. It's so, so true.

BR: In parting, what's your outlook on the stories you have yet to tell?

DM: I mean the honest answer is I still get very discouraged, because I want to shoot features. I want to shoot long form. And that hasn't happened yet and that's okay. I know there's a season and a time for that and I'm still pushing and working towards that goal. But you know, I often look back and I'm like this the coolest thing ever, I can't believe I got to be on set or I can't believe I got to be with these people and to make what we were able to make. Even now, it makes me smile thinking about all this.

Just with anything, there's been many peaks and valleys... a lot of peaks, but there's definitely been valleys and there's still discouragement. I think as an artist, we're always trying to figure it out, right? I saw a quote recently.. Do you know why birds sing just before dawn? Scientists believe it's to tell their mates that they made it through the night, as a way of saying, 'I'm still here.' Maybe that's why we sing, too, why we create art -- as a way of saying, 'I made it. I'm still here.' Maybe that's why we make music and take photos and make art, to let people know like, Hey, I'm still here, I'm still doing it. I wanna be in this with you. And I thought that was such a beautiful way to say it. You can't compare yourself to other people, there's no other you that's gonna bring what you bring into this project. I'm just so grateful for the projects, the sets, the relationships, the adventures, and all these things that I've been able to be a part of. It doesn't feel real at times.

Dustin Miller keeping it real

Check out Dustin's work at: www.dustinmiller.co