C. Kim Miles, ASC, regarding his work on much-anticipated, heart-warming feature film 'Champions'

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Champions - which comes out tomorrow, March 10 - is the much-anticipated and heartwarming feature film directed by Bobby Farrelly and starring Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olson, about a minor-league basketball coach ordered by the court to manage a team of players with intellectual disabilities. The cinematographer C. Kim Miles, ASC, CSC, MYSC, who recently earned a prestigious 2023 American Society of Cinematographers Award nomination for Lost Ollie, overcame a myriad of challenges to deliver a gorgeous visual aesthetic that embraces the film’s feel-good story.

Miles dug deep into his experience and sense of innovation to deal with harsh conditions, such as working in the Prairies in the winter on days when it was 25 below zero in the wind. In addition, a good portion of the actors, many of whom had various intellectual disabilities, had never been on set before, and much of the protocols and the minutiae that filmmakers take for granted could have been obstacles. 

PH: Hi there Kim! Can you share a bit of your background as a cinematographer? What drew you to this profession in the first place?  

C. Kim Miles: I more or less fell into the business; my best friend in childhood  was the son of a couple that owned a commercial production  company; many an after-school memory includes stomping up  and down the spiral staircase in the lobby of their studio. After  high school, we both got jobs as grips and one thing then led to  another. It’s not lost on me how much I fell in love with the  business and that while it doesn’t feel like it, this year marks thirty  five years since the first commercial I worked on.  

PH: Can you share some of your first few projects and how these  have helped you grow professionally over the years?  

C. Kim Miles: That first commercial I mentioned above, on which I was a grip,  was for Anchor Beer in Malaysia and was photographed by a  British cinematographer named Ray Parslow, bsc. He was a kind,  respectful man and commanded the absolute respect of those  around him. I didn’t realize it at the time and although he was  generous with sharing his knowledge and experience, his job  mystified me. His demeanour on set, however, is something I’ve  never forgotten.  

Subsequent to that, another cinematographer came to town from  Singapore to shoot a commercial with our crew. His work was  stunning, but his misogynistic, dismissive, elitist arrogance left an  equally permanent impression on me. Those two early influences,  more than any other in the years since, have been the beacons  between which I’ve tried to steer my career.  

Since then, it’s been human relationships above all that have  helped me the most; Jerry McKenna giving me my first job as a cinematographer on a trio of 10-second commercials for Ayamas,  a KFC company that made frozen chicken products; David  Decoteau going out on a limb to let me shoot my first feature  “Killer Bash” with him over 8 days; Glen Winter asking me to  come aboard “Arrow” to shoot an episode that he was to direct.,  Robert Zemeckis asking if I was interested in making a movie  about a fellow that plays with dolls entitled “Welcome to Marwen”.  Each was what turned out to be the right project at the right time,  and without each, none of the others would have come along.  

Because of the pacing of each of those projects, I’ve found myself  at the point in my career each time at which I was ready for a new  challenge, so each has offered incredibly valuable lessons and  helped me build and fortify my skill set to continue to advance. 

PH: What drew you to your latest project, Champions? How do  you select which projects you work on? 

C. Kim Miles: Champions was an opportunity not only to work with Bobby Farrelly, whose co-directing work with his brother Peter has long  made me laugh, but to work with him on his first solo theatrical  gig. Couple that with the challenge of getting to know and quickly  fall in love a cast with intellectual disabilities, and you can’t help  but end up with a compelling movie.  

PH: Can you walk me through your creative process when  starting on a new project? 

C. Kim Miles: My process is pretty straightforward, and I would guess largely  consistent with other cinematographers. My first pass on the script is purely for story; is this a story that I  find compelling; does it have a sense of place and a vitality to it  that keeps it honest to itself? I’ll be honest; I love films that don’t  wrap themselves into a neat bow at the conclusion of the third act; 

I love stories that feel like a glimpse into the lives of the  characters, and I love having a sense that the story will go on,  because life is like that; it doesn’t stop and start in neat 30- 0r 60-  or 90-minute segments. If I can come out of a cinema dying to  know what happens next (and I don’t mean in the sequel), then I  know the story has engaged me enough to care about the well being of the characters.  

The second pass is when I let the visual impressions of the story  that I’ve suppressed in the first pass flow into my mind. I like to do  this without having seen a pitch deck or any other material from  the director that might influence my perception of the story in a  way that isn’t consistent with my own instincts. Then, when the  next discussion happens with the director, we get to see if we’re  even remotely on the same page, and the conversation then has  a foundation from which to begin.  

Subsequent to this, my focus then revolves around working out a  visual language for the film with the director; looking at reference  material, sharing Shot Deck folders, looking at locations, blocking  scenes together, shot listing, storyboarding, and so on. Once that  

feels like it has momentum and that we’re zeroing in on a  grammar for the show that we like, it’s time to let the technical  side of my brain start to gnaw at the edges of the creative and I  begin to research and apply the mechanical methodology  necessary to achieve all the “good ideas” that my creative side  has promised the director. Sometimes, when the show is  particularly VFX-heavy, the mechanical considerations come into  play a little earlier and leapfrog ahead to influence the creative  process on a more fundamental level.  

PH: How did you utilize your experience and sense of innovation  to bring this film to life? 

C. Kim Miles: I knew that I wanted “Champions” to feel honest, above all. We all  have our ingrained prejudices, and I really didn’t want audience  preconception to invade the visual presentation of a show centred  on characters with intellectual disabilities and read subtext into  the imagery that wasn’t intended. My biggest fear was that the  endeavour undertaken by the characters in the movie would be  perceived as whimsical, or - heaven forbid - cute in an “aww  shucks” kind of way. Above all, these characters are human  beings with real human lives, real human motivation, real human  insecurity, and everything in between. Layered on top of these  things that they have in common with able-bodied people are the  preconceptions, prejudices and judgements that are levelled at  them every single day that come from a place of ignorance and  misunderstanding. I wanted to make sure that the  cinematography in the movie never undermined or trivialized the  gravity of the very real existence these people have, and never  diminished the significance of the accomplishments that they  achieve, because they achieve them not only in a world that  doesn’t understand them, but in spite of it.  

That being said, we knew that because a large proportion of our  cast with intellectual disabilities was unfamiliar with being on set,  we wanted to make sure that the demands of the filmmaking  process did as little as possible to distract or intimidate the cast.  Most folks with intellectual challenges have a much more limited  social network than the average person; we wanted to make sure  that the transition from that sort of environment into one in which  several dozen people are continually interacting with them would  be as smooth as possible. What that meant for my crew in  particular was that we needed to light sets and design camera  positions that would allow the greatest flexibility to the cast in  terms of blocking and performing. I didn’t want to handcuff the  performance by imposing geographical constraints on their  playing field, so we lit sets broadly and softly to help with that; we  used dollies, telescoping cranes and Steadicam to keep the  cameras nimble and reduce setup time between shots. The absolute importance of having crew that you can rely on to  anticipate and to achieve cannot be understated. Without our  gang in Winnipeg, their innovation and skills, we wouldn’t have  nearly gotten the footage we did. 

PH: Can you share some of your biggest challenges and how  you navigated those? For example, some of the cast had  never actually been on a set before. How did this end up  becoming one of the most inspiring takeaways?  

C. Kim Miles: Most of that is in the previous answer, but working with a cast with  intellectual disabilities was, for me, the biggest surprise takeaway  from the experience. Watching Bobby nurture performances and  give each of the cast not just a character but an identity and a  never-look-back place in the world to call their own was  incredible. Experiencing life with folks whose emotional  expression is completely unencumbered by social artifice was  inspiring. I wish I could laugh with as much explosive joy or cry  with as much unbridled despair as each of our cast. As “civilized”  members of society, we deny ourselves the very unencumbered  expression of emotion that most makes us human.  

Herein lies the greatest fortitude of people with intellectual  disabilities; a complete and absolute disregard for what other  people think, despite what other people think. That, to me, is  inspiring. 

PH: What is some of your go-to equipment you used to make this  project come to life? (and why did you choose it?)  

I’m a frequent, almost exclusive, user of the Arri Alexa family of  cameras. This doesn’t really come from a place of brand loyalty  so much as it comes from a place of confidence and familiarity. I know how far I can push the extremes of exposure with an Alexa;  I know what I can anticipate and rely on in terms of accurate reproduction of the nuances of textures and illumination, so it’s a  tool upon which I rely on continually. In this case we chose the LF  series of cameras because I knew we were going to want to be on  wider lenses in order to capture arenas, for example, and I  wanted the expanded field of view of the larger format so that I  could achieve broader field of view with longer lenses in order to  keep wide angle lens distortion from contributing to any whimsical  visual representation of the story that we were trying to avoid.  

We also chose Arri’s Moviecam Primes for the show; their 80s  vintage characteristics, lovely skin tone reproduction and great  flare characteristics brought what I felt was the best blend of  nostalgia and honesty to the imagery.  

PH: As with many roles, the ability to adapt is incredibly important. Can you talk me through how you identified the specific needs of each project you work on based on the  script, cast and crew involved, and the overall goal for the  project?  

C. Kim Miles: The job of the cinematographer is essentially to populate that  bridge between the creative and the technical. That means  working with the director and designer to determine the textures  and locations most appropriate to the story, and then working with  the lighting, grip and camera departments to determine the  equipment necessary to achieve the desired look of the show, and  then how to apply that equipment in a practical, efficient manner.  We’re all creatures of habit, so in order not to stagnate with a  look, I do have to explore lenses, filtration, lighting and other  innovations in testing to try to find the combination right for the  show.  

The community of cinematographers is an infinitely valuable  resource in finding new ideas and new inspiration. I’m involved in  multiple membership and awards committees, which continually puts me in contact with new, innovative material in the form of  submissions that goes a long way in keeping me inspired and in  touch with what other folks are doing. Having a library of ideas is  critical in creating a visual vocabulary for a show, and having the  technical understanding of how to achieve that vocabulary is the  sum of all the parts. 

PH: In your opinion, what characteristics/skill set do you need to  be a successful DP?  

C. Kim Miles: This has been something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lately. You need a mastery of the technical skills, equipment and  procedures necessary to translate words into pictures. You need  to have a robust storytelling instinct and understand how to  translate that into filmmaking. The “Five Cs of Cinematography” is  a fundamental read. You need to be able to think in terms of the  finest nuance of a performance while never losing track of the  ever-looming spectre of consequence. You need to be able to  communicate effectively not only with your director and crew, but  with producers, with cast, with vendors, with post-production and  visual effects, and any number of other folks whose contributions  are equally critical to the show.  

Most importantly, I’ve realized of late, you have to check your ego.  This one is critical not only to the well-being of the show because  filmmaking is collaborative whether you like it or not, but critical  also to your own health, well-being and longevity in the business.  

PH: Would you like to share any upcoming projects? 

C. Kim Miles: If you haven’t already, please check out “Lost Ollie” on Netflix. It’s  not what it looks like and creator Shannon Tindle has embedded a  little something special in it for everybody. Give it a chance; it  won’t take you where you might think it will. 

Also, soon on Apple TV+ is “Still: a Michael J. Fox Movie”. Davis  Guggenheim takes you on a visit with one of the most iconic  performers of our generation. Not to be missed.  

Photos courtesy of Focus Features 

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