Jason Elias Takes on the Amish Mafia for Discovery

February 3, 2014

By Barbara Goldman

© Jason Elias

&nbsp;<em>Amish Mafia</em> for Discovery.

Sometimes discovery and adventure that comes with food and travel photography can lead to bigger assignments that you might never have expected. Photographer and cinematographer Jason Elias of Venice, California can attest to that.

Elias is a portrait, food and travel photographer who did a lot of work several years ago for a major client, House of Blues.  House of Blues is a chain of 13 live music concert halls and restaurants in major markets throughout the United States.  Elias was also running a travel photography tour company, which was funding his passion for travel.  Over time he decided to make a documentary and stepped back into the film business to fund it by doing lighting on commercials and promos.  He started lighting dozens of promotions for Discovery Channel, where he met the SVP of Marketing Lara Richardson.

“My big break came one day when Lara called me and said a National Geographic photographer she had booked to shoot a campaign for “Moonshiners” had to back out due to an NG job in Africa,” says Elias.  The job started in two days and Elias had to fly to the Carolinas to shoot for close to a week.  Discover was so happy with the work that Richardson called him after the shoot to see if he was willing to change careers.  

Since then he has shot stills campaigns for TLC and Destination America, as well as coming back to the film business as a director of photography for commercials and promotions for The Disney Channel, Investigation Discovery, The History Channel and series of spots for Google.  For most of the Discovery jobs, Elias works with their in-house agency that has now split off with Creative Directors Dan Cavey and Andrew Heckel, in addition to Richardson.  He has also done a lot of work with Photo Producers Susan Wetherby and Jenny Lim and has always enjoyed the work and all the creative team.

Over the past year, Elias has shot eight or nine jobs for the  Discovery Channel.  He was hired by SVP Marketing Richardson to shoot new assets for a number of shows in the field.  He has been to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska with Supervising Producer Jason Turner to shoot a campaign for Deadliest Catch, where he was asked to show a more intimate side of the captains in contrast to their harsh working conditions.  For another campaign, he headed to Fairbanks, again under Richardson and Turner, to shoot a campaign for Yukon Men. On all the campaigns, Elias was brought in to emphasize the character and personalities of the talent in their environments.

Recently, he was brought in for Discovery’s network rebrand of a dozen shows that included a stage shoot of their new show Amish Mafia  with emphasis once again  on character.  

Elias was on one of two huge stages going at once, one for motion and one for stills. Both stages were exactly the same with the director of photography on the motion stage and Elias on the still set .  Since Elias  had worked with Richardson in the past,  he knew exactly what she was looking for and the simultaneous sets gave Elias and the DP the chance to discuss and coordinate  the mood and style.

Amish Mafia is a series that provides a first-ever look at the men who protect and maintain peace and order within the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As the Amish are mistrustful of any kind of outside law enforcement, a little known fact is that for many years they have turned to a small organized group of men for protection and justice.

The concept for the Amish Mafia shoot was originally to be done in a warehouse style set showcasing all talent from every show.  The set was to intimate the raw and worldly feel Discovery presents for many of their shows.  On the still side, Richardson, Cavey, Heckel and Elias, as well as Photo Producers Susan Wetherby and Jenny Lim also decided to add a backdrop set so that they could do comps later.  But Creative Directors Cavey, Heckel, Richardson and Elias discussed the idea of turning it into a more painterly style shoot with beautiful lighting and vintage props that echo the rough and raw feel of the warehouse set.  The creative team liked the concept so much that there was talk of doing more of the backdrop set in the future.

One of the big challenges for Elias was figuring out which personalities from every show they cycled through on the sets to be different enough so that distinct characterization came through.  Elias and team did this through a deep understanding of what each character on the show was like and relied heavily on the astute Discovery Talent Relations Team.  They also propped each show with slight differences that would make that character comfortable.  Elias also did some personal investigation and found out in advance what type of music each person liked from each show and played the soundtrack of choice the moment they walked on stage. As any director knows, costume, music, lighting and props always help the actor step into and become the character.

The other challenge was figuring out how to make to both sets for the film and stills match each other, especially with lighting and style. Years of lighting experience helped Elias in being able to talk to the director of photography from the other stage, and produce what everyone wanted and envisioned.

Elias shot with a Hasselblad H4D-60, with a 35-90mm, 100mm and a 150mm.  But most of the time he was on the 35-90.  “We pushed to my Digitech’s system, which was running Phocus.  We then also pushed to iPads around stage so that the clients could always be watching no matter where they were,” he explains.  It worked well, and Elias I credits Damon Loble, as the best Digitech out there.

For lighting, Elias who is sometimes frustrated with the stills lighting tools available,  ended up going all film-style and put a large Elinchrome with no diffusion through a large 8×8 Half Light Grid with a soft LCD Grid on the front.  This gave a beautiful soft but directional key that could cover four or five talent individuals at the same time without destroying the background.  He then we added some overhead strobes through Chimeras to give an overall ambiance and finally accented with lights over the wall to produce hotspots around the set.

Elias likes to give credit to his team and gives a call out to Ron Loepp, his lighting assistant, who did a great job trying to understand the film lighting ideas through his own stills lighting experience.  “Having done lighting on the film side for years, and now playing with strobes, I find a huge difference in control between the two.  I feel like on the film side we have a far deeper tool set than on the stills side,” says Elias.  This is not to say beautiful cannot be done lighting with strobes, but he finds that he is continually looking for the control film-style lighting gives. As he says, perhaps this is simply because he does not know all the tools yet. For example, when he asks most assistants (and even still rentals houses) for Half Soft Frost Diffusion as an overhead, most have not used it before.  But on the film side it is widely known to give beautiful yet direct overhead diffusion in direct sunlight.  

He  would like to work with a strobe company to develop a range of tools that could echo what film lighting has had for years,  starting with something like a full set of fresnel housings so he can light with direct streaming light.

The images from the Amish Mafia campaign are in full-page magazine spreads, online, on billboards, even in lower thirds on TV.  Elias trusts his instincts and his confidence has grown because what he envisions is also what the client likes and ends up using.

As Richardson puts it, “Jason’s work had exactly what I was looking for in terms of how he can take everyday things and make them look epic, while also being able to find the everyday in the epic. I had known Jason’s work ethic and creativity as a gaffer and a documentary filmmaker. Once I took a look at his prior still photography, I knew he would be able to capture the style Discovery was looking for.”

Directors know they get the best from their talent when they communicate and that communication also makes for great directors. Elias has that unique characteristic of being able to make his talent feel comfortable in a studio by explaining what he wants, giving feedback and just by listening.

You can see more of Jason Elias’s portraiture, travel, food and film work at his site,  He is currently directing a documentary feature about crew members from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  See the trailer here.

© Jason Elias/ Amish Mafia