John Simmons Talks about His Emmy-winning Cinematography

John Simmons dives into his Emmy-winning camera work for Nickelodeon’s Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn

John Simmons, ASC, is a 3-time Emmy-nominated cinematographer whose 30-year career spans television, film, and music videos. His third Emmy nomination (and first win) comes from the Nickelodeon series Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn in the “Go Hollywood” episode. That episode, which features the central kids journeying to Hollywood to seek their deepest wish, offers several opportunities for unique lighting and camera work not often seen in multi-camera setups.

Simmons is also known as a celebrated photographer. He recent series “It Started in the 60’s” captures 50 years of his life as influenced by the attributes of the era. As he states on the series’s Facebook page, “1960’s Chicago had to be one of the hippest scenes in America. It was at the height of the civil rights era and everything was filled with passion. Poets, painters, jazz musicians, scholars, hippies and revolutionaries mingled. Such a perfect time to grow up, trying to find myself. For me, it started in the 60’s.”

John Simmons

Even though we were brought together to discuss his well deserved multi-camera Emmy nomination, our conversation ultimately led to this breathtaking series and the power that capturing a single moment in time can have.

You’ve worked in the industry for over 30 years. How did you get your start?

Well, as far as cinematography goes, I went to USC film school, but I started as a camera assistant and a camera technician. Shortly after that, I started doing documentaries. Documentaries led into commercials and music videos, so I had a long history of doing all kinds of rap videos. That went on for some time. Then, I started doing movies for TV, mostly for Disney and Showtime. A friend of mine had me take over his multi-camera sitcom, which was called The Hughleys. That basically began my relationship with multi-camera, and I did a pilot for the Jonas Brothers for Disney. Then I went on to do the series, and they just kept calling me. I just got one Disney show after another, and that was a good thing because consistent work as a cinematographer is something to feel good about. That’s basically how I started.

For people who don’t know, tell me how you approach a multi-camera setup.

It’s very different than a single camera setup. When you’re dealing with multi-camera, you’re doing with four cameras, and the show basically takes place in a proscenium – a 180 degree proscenium. The challenge for me as a cinematographer coming from single camera, episodic programming is to be able to create a certain ratio in the lighting so it doesn’t feel like a flat-looking show. I like to work with the art director to create sources of light and have them put windows in the right places so that you can actually feel like the light is coming from a natural place. There has to be a bright side and a shadow side so that people can actually feel like the scene is real and not so sitcom-y like the ones most of us grew up with. I try and light for the environment, and I light in a way that takes advantage of where people go in the scene. I don’t over-light. I don’t light where the actors aren’t going to go. That’s basically the challenge. When you’re doing four cameras, you have to shoot to each side, so the dark side has to only be dark enough to make you believe you’re looking at a ratio – a sunny side and a shade side, a bright side and a dark side. That’s really a challenge in multi-camera – to be able to give a scene some kind of texture.

You’re Emmy nominated for the “Go Hollywood” episode of Nickelodeon’s Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn. What about that episode in particular made you submit it for Emmy consideration?

Well, when we submit for Emmys, the challenge is that you have to submit four minutes uncut, and, if you’re doing an episodic show, within four minutes the cinematographer can show you a lot of different things. You can go through a lot of scenes in four minutes. You can go a lot of places. With a multi-camera show, because it’s pretty much dialogue driven, you don’t always get to go that many places. People may work in the living room or the kitchen, and you don’t get to see a lot of stuff. In “Go Hollywood,” we went outside, they’re in a car, they’re in a warehouse. We will approach it in a multi-camera fashion, but we’re in different environments. Within those four minutes that I chose, you get to see some lighting and some camera movement. That’s why I submitted the clip from that episode.

The episode involves a recreation of a fictional TV show called “Kidney Punch.” What techniques did you use to so accurately recreate this B-movie action film look and feel?

The sequence that you see at the top of the show I just tried to make it a B-rated quality of a movie, and then it cuts to the interior of their house. I tried to make it feel painterly with a nice contrast with the sun on the actor’s face coming in through a window. Basically, I wanted to contrast those two environments to make it feel like you’re actually in this movie, and then suddenly you pull yourself out into this bright, living room.

This is your third Emmy nomination for cinematography. Tell me about this year’s Emmy nomination morning.

Well, I think that to be nominated is a very special kind of honor, and it’s a special kind of recognition. There are lots of submissions that go in for the various categories. In the end, it comes down to about 12 to 15 entries, and we have to go to a screening and watch multi-camera, episodic, one-hour, miniseries – all the various categories that have been nominated. When it comes time for multi-camera, all the cinematographers have to leave the room. Nobody knows that it’s your show. They watch 4-minute sections of 12 different shows, and there’s a lot of stuff go through. When you come out of there as a nominee, it speaks volumes because you’re being judged by your peers, by cinematographers. That’s a big deal because we’re very critical of each other’s work. It’s quite an honor to be nominated. It makes you feel good about what you’re doing. Everybody is elevating their game. There’s so much stuff on right now, and everything is done so well.

You have a fascinating photojournalism project called “It Started in the 60’s.” As you looked back over the 50-plus years of photos taken, what did you learn from the history captured?

You know, it’s really interesting because I look at my own evolution as a photographer with a certain kind of sensibility to an undisturbed environment. What makes me feel pretty good about the work is that, in the evolution of my eye, it still looks like the same person takes those pictures. There’s a continuity there that says something about how we see things, about how we perceive the world as people. The thing that’s most amazing to me is that I get to be a witness to little undisturbed things. I don’t take a lot of pictures. When I go into an environment, I take one or two pictures.

There’s a photograph in that collection called “Nazi” that was taken at a white supremacist rally where there were protestors. I take the subway, walk onto the yard where the protesters are, and I take a picture of a t-shirt with Martin Luther King on it. In the background is a dude carrying a sign protesting the Nazis, and he has a Nixon mask on. I took that one picture, and it said everything about why I was there. So I left. I didn’t take any more pictures because there wasn’t going to be another picture there that could tell a better story for me. Maybe there was one there, but that image spoke to me enough. I try to take just a couple of pictures and try to tell a story that can live beyond the frame you’re looking at. That can raise certain questions about humanity and relationships.

Examples of John Simmons’ brilliant photography are available on his website.

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