Single Shot Breakdown From A Sundance Feature Film

We asked Jeremy Osbern, a filmmaker and writer who’s work has been viewed by over a hundred million people, to pick a single shot from his cinematography reel and break it down for us.

Now, we didn’t ask Jeremy to do this because we think he has nothing better to do with his time, but because we believe that the care and considerations that go into every single shot of a beautiful, visually coherent film shouldn’t be taken for granted. There’s a reason why your favorite film looks the way it does – it’s because creative minds and keen eyes made it so.

Here’s what he had to say about this shot – chosen by Jeremy himself:


The image comes from the feature-length period western, The Only Good Indian, which was written by Thomas L. Carmody, directed by Kevin Willmott, and had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. I worked as cinematographer on the film alongside my longtime friend and collaborator Matt Jacobson.

To get a feel for the look of the film as a whole, you can find an image montage of shots from the movie here.

The film follows a Native American boy who is stolen from his parents and placed into a boarding school to assimilate into early 1900s America. He escapes and is tracked down by a Cherokee bounty hunter, played by Wes Studi. After an unfortunate encounter with a group of outlaw cowboys, the bounty hunter becomes wanted for murder and a war-scarred Sheriff, played by J. Kenneth Campbell, goes on the hunt for both men.

The shot from the demo reel takes place when the Sheriff questions the other Native American children working outside the boarding school. He corners one boy, douses him with liquor, and then threatens to light a match if he doesn’t give him the information he wants.

This very shot is the moment when he holds up the match to threaten the boy.

Shooting the scene, we found ourselves in a working rock quarry in one hundred plus degree heat. In addition to the sun, the white rock was bouncing all of the heat back at us, and most of the crew walked away with sunburns under their chins as a result. Several people passed out from the heat, and one crew member was even taken to the hospital to receive an IV bag of fluids.


To start the scene, the Sheriff rode in on a horse, and we captured the wide shots from a thirty-foot jib.We swapped out the horse with a padded ladder for the actor to sit on for a more stable closeup, and then moved the jib forward, locking it off one foot from the ground. We shot on 35mm Kodak Vision 2 Film, and I knew that I had a lot of latitude in color timing, but for this particular shot, I wanted a proper exposure on both the sky and the actor’s face, which meant I would need a lot of light on the actor. Having previously talked with Ken about different lighting scenarios he’d encountered, I asked how comfortable he would be with me bringing in a 42” shiny board as the key light for this shot, and his response was, “Hell, son, I started in the day of arc lights. You can’t blind me.”


I took him at his word and placed the reflector three feet from his face and blasted the intensity of the sun right back into his eyes. As an added layer of difficulty, I wanted the wooden match to look like it was catching on fire as he held it up against the sun. Though partially blinded and wearing a full coat in the summer heat, Ken kept his gaze, let his hand shadow fall perfectly in and out of the camera lens and we ended up with exactly the shot we wanted.

What are my take aways from this setup? First, always be conscious of an actor’s comfort level and the limits with how much light they can work with. Actors who started with Arc Lights, which were like little suns on rolling stands, have a higher working threshold than actors that have only worked on sets with newer cameras that can shoot under low light.

And second? Go out and make a western! They’re fun!


Be sure to check out more of Jeremy Osbern’s work on his website.

Set stills by Franco Leng.

Mads Black

About Mads Black

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Mads is a Scandinavian-born, Los Angeles-based actor and aspiring film maker. He's dabbled in stunt driving (no one got hurt) and once rescued a baby bunny from his garage.

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