Photo courtesy of Justin Hamilton

Up-and-coming artist Finneas has one rule for each of the music videos that Lake Highlands alumnus Justin Hamilton works on: They must be recorded in one take.

Hamilton has nailed it about 8 times now as director of photography for Finneas, and he plans to continue taking on these creative challenges with director Sam Bennett.

In the making of a music video, the director and artist agree on a creative concept or story. It’s then up to the director of photography to execute it visually. This requires lots of technical skill and creativity, including lighting and choreography behind and in front of the camera, as well as the occasional need to build a contraption for carrying the camera through certain frames.

For a Finneas song called “Shelter,” Hamilton used a crane mounted to a Ford F-150 Raptor truck that drove through the Los Angeles River. He operated a remote head with the camera on it while riding in the vehicle. Shot at “blue hour,” just after the sun has gone down but continues to brighten the sky, Hamilton says they had one take to get it right.  

“We rehearsed, and we got it,” he says. “Everyone was very excited when we pulled it off.”

A train also happened to cross over the bridge at the end of the video, making for an unexpectedly perfect ending frame, he says.

Hamilton says he and childhood friend James Daniel used to run around Lake Highlands making movies. He knew from that age that he was all about film. He also spent some time in the band FTTR while attending Lake Highlands High School.

“I’ve always had a love for music, so it’s been fun to merge my love for filmmaking and my love for music,” Hamilton says.

Hamilton says his background in documentary film prepared him for these projects. 

“You have to very quickly figure out the best lens choices and what the best camera position is to tell the story,” he says. “It helps you think on your feet quicker, and that serves you in almost every shooting situation I can think of.”

Hamilton went on to the University of Southern California to study film after graduating from LHHS. Straight out of college, he began working as an assistant for a commercial director and took on personal projects on the side. Eventually, this led to documentary and nonprofit work that required a lot of travel.

“After a long stint in Dubai, I decided I just wanted to focus on cinematography and doing more things like commercials and music videos,” Hamilton says.

Through those projects, he met Bennett, who heads up Finneas’ music videos. 

Hamilton also recently worked on rising star Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour Prom concert video. Rodrigo rose to fame during the pandemic and hadn’t been able to give an in-person performance of her debut album, making the concert video the concept of choice. The 28-minute film had multiple cameras running on a single take, with live vocals and specially designed lighting setups made by Hamilton.

He likes to mix some of those skills into his ongoing film and commercial projects as well. 

“When it comes to narrative filmmaking, feature films, short films like storytelling, I do always enjoy films that use the camera to edit the film, rather than cut between different shots,” he says.

An indie film of Hamilton’s, The Alleys, recently premiered in Switzerland and is working its way around the festival circuit before being released for distribution. The Arabic language film was filmed in Jordan in 2019. He is looking for his next feature, but they’ve been harder to find since the pandemic. A possible future film might even land Hamilton back in Lake Highlands next year, he says.

Music videos also have a special place in Hamilton’s heart and will likely continue to be part of his journey as a filmmaker.

“It’s always a creatively rewarding genre of filmmaking to work in … There’s no product to sell other than just the image of the artist, and you get to be pretty experimental,” Hamilton says. “It’s a fun space to work in.”

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