How ‘Kung Fu’ Cinematographer Chris Kempinski Grounded Fantasy in Camera Work

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Chris Kempinski, is the cinematographer behind the CW’s hit series Kung Fu. Season 3 follows Nicky, still reeling from her abrupt breakup with her boyfriend Henry, and the shocking death of her nemesis-turned-ally Zhilan, dealing with new struggles and meeting new allies and enemies, all while fighting a growing crimewave in San Francisco. The series stars Olivia Liang, Eddie Liu, Tzi Ma and Shannon Dang. 

Chris shot seasons two and three of Kung Fu, working closely with directors to bring forth his knowledge from music videos, commercials and indie movies to fit the tone of the series. Drawn to the show's underlying fantasy and sci-fi elements, he aimed to keep those aspects of the show grounded and believable with his camera work rather than rely on CGI in post-production. 

PH: Hi there Chris! Can you share your production background? How did you get into cinematography? 

Chris Kempinski: I grew up in the 80s on a skateboard, holding a video camera with my friends. I ended up going to film school at Capilano College. At the time, but, during and right out of school, I was pulling focus and loading camera mags, volunteering on commercials as a grip and even was a DGC PA on the Christmas movie Elf. I somewhat quickly found "my people" in the lighting department, and even though lighting was fascinating, physically demanding and technical, I always DP'd and shot side projects on weekends. I spent about 5 years as a lamp op and gaffer on big features and commercials, mostly which led to being a rigging Bestboy and gaffer for TV, also a commercial and music video gaffer.  

PH: Can you share some of your first few projects? 

Chris Kempinski: I found early success in web series work as a DP. I'd say my first bigger show was a web series called Riese. I'd shot a couple of short films with Ryan Copple, Kaleena Kiff and Nick Humphries that became a very successful youtube hit in early 2010. We made a pretty cool steampunk show with limited resources and a great cast. It later moved on to the SyFy Channel home page and was also cut from a 10-episode web series to a feature-length TV movie and aired on Space and AXN in Asia.  Kaleena went on to produce Death Do Us Part and No Men Beyond This Point (Amazon Prime), which were my first 2 full-length features that, again, made on a shoestring budget but managed to go on to success and full distribution deals. 

I did another web series called Devine which did great in the festival circuit with Ivan Hayden (post-VFX supervisor from Lost and Supernatural). He would later be my shoe in the door for many other opportunities later in my career.   

All of this was what I called weekend warrior work that we did between shows or on weekends while I was in the lighting department. This included music videos and shorts too.  

PH: What drew you to work on Kung Fu?

Chris Kempinski: Kung Fu was interesting to me for a few reasons. It was dark and broody for a network family drama, which I really liked. I really wanted to work with this particular stunt team, and the fighting really intrigued me from a camera and choreography perspective.  

PH: What was your creative process? How did you infuse your own creativity and personality on screen? 

Chris Kempinski: I would read each script as its own entity. I'd try and leave out the rest of what had happened and what was going to happen in the next episodes. I think the beauty of the show is that the script reveals itself as the cast encounters what's happening next, placing the audience in the exact same perspective. The entire show feels like you are just going along with the characters in their everyday life. I'd meet the director and literally, start talking out scenes piece by piece and see where I could push the limit with either camera movement or lighting or finding a location that would add another dimension. 

PH: Speaking of creativity, how do you continue to push creative boundaries for your projects? 

Chris Kempinski: I'm always trying to push camera and lighting on every project. Knowing the boundaries of the technology, lenses and mediums is half the job description, in my opinion. Like I remind myself, and I tell my entire crew to never settle for the ordinary and always make things more interesting. I'm always open to suggestions and initiative from all departments because it makes for a collaborative final product. Something everyone has a hand in and can be proud of. 

There are many times I have a specific goal in mind, so I might shoot down ideas, but more often, I'm excited when anyone goes above and beyond what's expected. If you ask anyone in production, I'm a sucker for a good camera test and creative zoom meeting pitch to Christina Kim and Bob Berens. In this show, in particular, I felt the effects and realms needed to be grounded, like the subject matter and family. I wanted as much "in-camera" practical effects as possible. And we did our best to use many old camera tricks and keep the visual effects down to a minimum. 

PH: How challenging is it to balance creativity as a cinematographer - knowing how much of your own process vs. what the director wants? 

Chris Kempinski: It's harder on TV, I think. Some directors come in with big visions and expectations, which I applaud. I always do my best to try and facilitate their vision. However, it's my primary role to protect the visual continuity and integrity of the show. TV is very fast-paced. We film 2-3 times the amount of a full-feature film per day. And the show already has a flow and feel to it. Season 3 of Kung Fu was very much all about moving the camera. Either moving to the action or the action coming to the camera. As we looked at location and broke down scenes, it was my place to make suggestions to keep the scenes moving and enhance the script visually. But then again..... sometimes people are sitting eating, or at a computer, or tied to a chair. I like taking photos.  And trying to plan for success in terms of schedule. I've been very lucky to have been paired with some great ADs over the years who've saved my behind with clever tricks or already seeing the river ahead. There's usually one sequence per episode that I really try and push creatively with the directors. Either with camera movement or light and shadow play or with in-camera effects like flares, crazy angles or continuous oner shots. 

PH: On that note, what did collaboration look like? How would you describe that process? 

Chris Kempinski: I love working with different directors. Trying to get into their heads and facilitate how they see the show. Trying to find fun ways in and out of scenes, ways to transition between scenes and ways to move the camera that we haven't before. I don't think it ever changes. It's what keeps me coming back day after day. The job is pretty much the same every time, but it's the obstacles in the way and the people that make it different and interesting. 

PH: How did you bring your own knowledge from music videos, commercials and indie movies to fit the tone of the series?

Chris Kempinski: I think all my indie movies made me able to work fast, also to use a minimal amount of gear in an effective way. Music videos and commercials let me experiment with lens flares, color, crazy angles, unmotivated strobes or flashes, shutter speeds and angles and extreme slow-motion shots. It lets me push sensors, film stocks, lenses and cameras to the breaking point. Then, for drama, I know where my 100% extremes are, and it allows me to be confident when pitching ideas for "realms or afterlife portals," knowing that I'll likely only go to 30% of what we did for the arthouse commercial or music video. 

PH: Why did you intentionally choose to rely on your camera work vs CGI in post-production?

Chris Kempinski: For Kung Fu especially, I felt we needed to keep the mysticism and fantasy grounded like the show. After all, it's a family drama, mostly with some amazingly good fighting.  I'm not sure that the average viewer going into this show would expect the level of mystic realms we encounter, but the people still watching after 3 seasons, I think, thrive off of it, from what the Twitter machine says. So my job is to keep it all believable, and our visual effects team have done an amazing job collaborating and really enhancing this show into delivering something more. 

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

Chris Kempinski: This kind of ties into the last few questions. We used an Arri Alexa mini with G Series Panavision 2x anamorphic lenses along with a set of CloseFocus Primo Sphericals.  This had already been established in the pilot, and season 1, I came on board for S2&3 but couldn't have been happier. I have been working with Panavision for years. Their selection of glass is what I love the most. Their ability to modify lenses or equipment to achieve looks and shots is like nobody else in the business. Joe Menendez and I considered switching to all sphericals for Season 3 as we would always end up in small locations with a 6-8 cast as the Scooby gang was growing. I'm glad we both decided to find a balance with the hybrid variation of both CloseFocus Primos and G Series, as the anamorphic lenses basically had the look of the show baked into the glass, and the close focus lenses gave me wider options and was fast glass for slow-mo or dark rooms.  Lighting-wise, I kinda went old school this season. Lots of big fresnels and racks of par cans and 2k Blondes in softboxes.  Not to say we didn't have some modern LED toys. With these new sensors, I find the secret these days is turning lights off and bringing in negative fill for contrast.

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? 

Chris Kempinski: You are 100% correct. I think being able to read people, read the play, and anticipate where the struggle and the ease will be is not something that can be taught easily. It's something that is learned over time. Each project is different. I'm always given references to how the creatives want things to look. Not only would I never copy something directly, but I also don't want to redo something I've already done myself.  This is where being a commercial lamp op was everything for me. I got to watch 500 top DPs do the job their way, cherry-picking the ideas I thought were handy and disregarding the things I didn't like, though those have come in handy at times as well. I think coming in fresh, watching the world and what looks good to you. When I read a script, I see it in my head and get a chance to start bouncing ideas off the writers and directors. As we choose locations, I'm always looking for depth, and foreground elements, either colorful or monotone. But really, for me, sometimes an actor shows up and delivers their lines in a way I wasn't expecting, and that completely shifts the tone of the scene. Or something about the natural light at a certain time will throw my entire plan in the garbage, and then being able to throw out the plan and embrace or adapt to what that becomes is sometimes magical.  

PH: Can you share any of your upcoming projects?

Chris Kempinski: I'm looking for an indie movie to bite my teeth into. I'm sure I'll do some music videos and commercials until then, but I'm really trying to find a director and a script that's a great visual calling card and an even better story.  

Main image courtesy of the CW 

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