David Waldman - TED Talk cinematographer and CSULB associate professor
Story Faculty

Dream Job: TED Talk Cinematographer

Jeanne Ricci

David Waldman, an associate professor at CSU Long Beach and professional cinematographer, has filmed more than 2,000 TED Talks. Here he shares an insider's view of this historical project.

David Waldman - TED Talk cinematographer and CSULB associate professor

David Waldman (left), TED Talks' director of photography and an associate professor at CSU Long Beach in the film and electronic arts department, talks with TED's Katherine McCartney and Scott Hinde about stage direction. Photo courtesy of David Waldman


TED Talks have become synonymous with the dissemination of cutting-edge ideas. TED began in 1984 as a conference combining Technology, Entertainment and Design with the slogan "ideas worth sharing." Today, more than 2,600 talks are available online, with well over one billion views. 

CSU Long Beach associate professor David Waldman has filmed more than 2,000 thought leaders — from Bill Gates to Ashley Judd — giving their powerful presentations; he shares a behind-the-scenes glimpse into this intellectual and cultural phenomenon.

How did you get involved with TED?

I got a call from a director friend in late 2007 who had recently taken a job as the Director of Film and Video for TED. He asked me to come to Monterey the following February to shoot TED. I asked, "Who's TED?" He explained that TED was not a "who," but a "what," and that it was an annual conference bringing together thought leaders in the areas of Technology, Entertainment, and Design and that he wanted me to head up the camera team. 

Initially, I told him that shooting conferences wasn't my forte, having just completed a feature film for MGM and wrapped a half-hour comedy season for Starz. He explained that he wanted to bring more cinematic sophistication to the lighting and camera coverage for TED. Almost 11 years later, saying yes to him turns out to have been a great decision.

How does filming a TED Talk differ from shooting film, TV or commercials?

TED is different from my other creative work in that we rarely get retakes — everything has to be perfect the first time. We get to plan for and rehearse each speaker, but the stakes are different when the director can't stop a Talk and ask to restart because of a technical mishap. 

On a narrative project like a film or TV show, it is expected that we will have multiple takes at each set-up, whether we need another take for technical reasons or because the director wants a performance adjustment. While a narrative crew strives to get it right the first time, adjustments are made on each subsequent take, and we generally shoot with only one or two cameras. 

We have to move them around the set to cover the same bit of dialogue so the editor is able to cut a scene together. This process takes time and we might only get through three to five pages in a single day of shooting. 

On TED, we have to have all of our seven to 10 cameras placed and lensed so that in one take we have all of the coverage the editor will need to post-create an emotionally appropriate and impactful Talk. 

In addition to the edited Talks posted to TED.com, there is also a simulcast livestream of the event that is being edited live by an on-site director, and her immediate needs are often different from those of the editors. My job is to make sure the camera coverage serves both the live audience and the online viewership.

Do you edit as well as shoot?

Recently, I have been the live director as well as the cinematographer on one-day, TED-curated events called TED Institutes. Directing cameras for a live event is essentially editing for the simulcast audience, so while I do not edit the finished TED Talks, the live-edit from a TED Institute Talk often makes it to the homepage as is. 


Do you have a preferred medium?

For TED, we work primarily in 1920x1080 24-frame progressive video. My preferred medium for anything other than TED becomes more nuanced and political. I began my career shooting 16mm and 35mm film, and I still love the opportunity to control the image in-camera that shooting film demands. 

These days, I shoot mostly TV commercials and smaller TV shows, which each has its own creative and technical requirements. An experienced cinematographer picks the acquisition medium based on the script and the technical delivery requirements, so I choose cameras and lenses based on the content. I have a business card that says "David Waldman Format Agnostic Cinematographer" — maybe that says more than my answer has.

It seems that quite a few cinematographers become directors. Does that interest you?

There are many cinematographers who transition to directing. I think it's important to note the difference in what each of those jobs requires on a narrative project. The director is the captain of the ship — he or she has the overall vision for the feel and message of a film or TV show. 

Counter to popular belief however, they usually don't have expertise in all areas of the production and post-production process. They rely heavily on collaborators who are expert in their own areas. For example, the production designer provides the elements of the physical world the film takes place in, like sets, locations, props, and provides the color palette for the film. 

The cinematographer is the director's key collaborator when it comes to photographing the emotional and physical world presented in the script, which is where I thrive. I have directed and thoroughly enjoy working with actors and delving into the human condition, but I also have two young kids so I'm not sure a career change is in the cards right now.   

We hear so much about how so many jobs are changing in the age of automation and artificial intelligence (AI). What's changing about cinematography that you want your students to know? 

It is imperative that cinematographers remain up-to-date on current formats and acquisition technology. There is so much out there that it becomes difficult to know where to focus your energy. For example, a few years ago shooting in 3D was all the rage, and now I hardly hear of films shooting in 3D (most of what we see released in 3D these days has been shot in 2D and converted in post-production). 

And while augmented and virtual reality are surely here to stay, their role in narrative storytelling remains to be defined. The emphasis in my classes is on students having a solid base in more traditional image acquisition and being nimble enough to evaluate and incorporate emergent technologies as appropriate to the project.  

In the world of cinematography, what remains the same?

I think there are skills that will always be invaluable in narrative visual storytelling, like script analysis, the ability to incorporate the emotional subtext of a scene into the lighting and camera decisions, and the flexibility to collaborate with and manage different personality types. Without these "soft" skills, it is difficult to lead a team of up to 30 people, and the likelihood of being labeled a technician rather than an artist is high.

What's your favorite TED Talk?

I have photographed over 2,000 TED Talks, so this is an especially difficult question. Here are three that I go back to often, and find endless inspiration in:

Visually speaking, what makes a great TED Talk?

Most TED Talks involve a single speaker confined to a 10-foot diameter red circle, which by itself, isn't a recipe for visual dynamism. We work hard to have the speaker "pop" out of the background by varying lighting intensities as well as using long focal lengths in order to have the subject look sharp and the background fall out of focus as much as possible. 

We work very hard to establish a lighting color palette that works with the speaker's wardrobe and appearance and helps make them look their best and separate them from their surroundings. 

If you could shoot one event in history with today's equipment what would it be?

Wow. This is the most difficult question. I lived in Japan for about two-and-a-half years studying Kabuki during and after undergrad, so it would be easy to pick something from Japanese history, but I think since I grew up in Massachusetts, I'd have to pick the beginning of the American Revolution, the events surrounding the Boston Tea Party through the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Does 16 to 18 months count as a single event? 

To learn more about CSU degree programs in all fields of entertainment, visit the CSU Entertainment Alliance site.

Photos courtesy of David Waldman

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