It’s a perfect shot—the pounding of horses’ hooves, the round up of a pack of cattle, and focused gazes under cowboy hats—all set against the unruly mountains and vast blue of a Montana sky.
It’s all a choice.
Every small glance and perfect capture of a golden sunrise is a distinct part of the whole creation of the TV series “Yellowstone.”
As a cinematographer, Mike Parry understands these small detailed decisions well.
Coronado High to around the world
The Coronado High School graduate and now prominent cinematographer in the film industry has worked as a camera operator, director of photography and cinematographer on the hit neo-western show “Yellowstone,” created by Taylor Sheridan and starring Kevin Costner.
Parry chose cinematography as a profession because he wanted his vocation to inform and enrich his life, which he said has certainly been the case for the pieces he has worked on.
As a member of the International Cinematographer’s Guild, his job has taken him all over the world.
His list of projects include working on documentary projects in the the Gaza Strip, working with the Wounded Warriors project, creating a biography piece about a UFC fighter, traveling the world with podcaster and producer David Chang for a food series called “Ugly Delicious,” and working on a documentary called “Finding Oscar,” which gives a testimony of a Guatemalan genocide.
I loved having the opportunity to be the conduit through which these learning opportunities arrive and then get shared with a larger audience.”-Former Coronado resident Mike Parry.
“I loved having the opportunity to be the conduit through which these learning opportunities arrive and then get shared with a larger audience,” Parry said.
All began with “Apocalypse Now”
All of these projects and his newest endeavor with “Yellowstone,” did not fall from the sky, however.
Parry’s journey to make it in the film industry took a lot of perseverance, and it all started in his senior English class at Coronado High School in 1993.
Parry said he grew up with films that were objective from a cinematography perspective.
They represented the world the way that people were used to seeing it without asking the viewer to question why something looked a certain way.
This perspective changed when he watched the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now.”
“When I saw the film ‘Apocalypse Now,’ it just dawned on me that everything you see in a movie is a choice,” Parry said.
Right of passage
As a right of passage in Bud Mayfield’s senior English class at Coronado High School, students looked forward to watching the film after reading “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, which “Apocalypse Now” was based upon.
Parry and his friends beat the class to it, rented the movie junior year, and watched it together in his living room.
He knew at that moment that he wanted to go into cinematography.
After watching the artwork and craftsmanship of the movie, and learning that the crew went to the Philippines for months to film, Parry was sold.
The journey to success
“It’s like a war of attrition,” Parry said. “You have to keep going and going and going without any promise of being able to pay your bills, let alone thrive.”
Any true aspiring actor or filmmaker knows that Los Angeles is the birthing grounds for success in that industry. Yet, success is not guaranteed.
So after graduating with an MFA in cinematography from the American Film Institute in 2003, Parry began the methodical climb to his dream position.
Tireless grind pays off
His first job out of film school was on a set lighting crew that would rotate to the different Hallmark movie productions.
I would go from movie to movie to movie, working 14 hours a day, six days a week for what amounted to 200 dollars a day.”
“I would go from movie to movie to movie, working 14 hours a day, six days a week for what amounted to 200 dollars a day,” Parry said.
The tireless grind paid off.
Parry both learned the ins and outs of a film set and joined the set lighting union which connected him with well-known gaffers, or chief lighting technicians.
These connections brought him to work on the production of “Changeling,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie.
Both from an aesthetic and managerial sense, Parry said his work on this film was extremely formative for his practice.
He soaked in every lesson about filmmaking as an artistic medium and as a collaborative endeavor, and utilized those skills as he moved forward.
Out of all of his projects, Parry said working on “Yellowstone” has been his favorite.
“There’s a tradition of mentorship and apprenticeship in LA,” Parry said. “My desire to learn from the best possible people I can learn from in the lighting world, while at the same time pursuing a camera career in documentary, those two things converged perfectly in ‘Yellowstone.’”
He has worked on the show for two seasons, starting in season four as a camera operator and working as one of two cinematographers in season five.
Parry is credited as the cinematographer on episodes six and seven of season five and has shot scenes in many other episodes.
His background in documentary work prepared him well for the true-to-life rodeo and roundup scenes featuring an unruly Montana landscape with unpredictable weather.
Even with extremely adept animal wranglers, filming roundup or rodeo scenes takes a certain flexibility in the way the camera needs to operate.
Similar to documentaries
Parry said the task is akin to documentary work.
“I feel very fortunate that many of the opportunities I have had have landed me on ‘Yellowstone,’ which is just a tremendously satisfying experience all done in a beautiful, unparalleled natural environment,” Parry said.
Parry continues to work as much as he can on projects by Sheridan, co-creator of “Yellowstone” with John Linson.
He said the show is really a dream scenario with Sheridan’s high standards and equally matched support for his crew.
Unparalleled in support however, are Parry’s family members— his parents Bill and Carolyn Parry, his wife Shannon Parry, and two kids: Asha, 12 and Bodan, 8.
Parry’s parents live in Coronado, and he still visits them frequently with his wife and kids.
“Having the support and knowing that my success is their success, that’s huge,” Parry said. “That’s something without which maintaining this lifestyle would be extremely difficult to do.”