Teacher Marla Baker was looking at the credits of the movie “Greater” when she saw the name Gabe Mayhan, a former Vilonia High School student’s name, listed as the cinematographer.
“When I saw the name, I knew the name. I looked it up and there he was,” Baker said. She contacted Mayhan, who currently lives in Little Rock, and invited him to come and speak to the students in her classroom at the Vilonia Freshman Academy regarding his career path. Tuesday, he obliged.
“I am what is referred to generally as a camera man,” he told the students. “It has been 20 years since I was at this school. I have been down a lot of roads since then.”
Mayhan was in the graduating class of 1995-96. His first “grand plan,” after graduation, he said, was to work on a fishing boat in Florida. His second plan was to go to the University of Central Arkansas and pursue any career where math didn’t have to be a factor. Neither plan played out. He didn’t move to Florida and math, he said, is a necessity for a cinematographer.
At UCA, he decided to major in history. Ultimately, he ended up in mass communications. His first break, he said, was landing a job with Channel 4, shooting a PBS series for gardener and designer P. Allen Smith. He left that job to shoot commercials. Later, he began shooting documentaries. In 2011, he shot a feature film and has shot five since.
Over the course of Gabe Mayhan’s career he has received numerous awards for his cinematography. Many of those films have been screened at film festivals such as Slamdance and Tribeca, as well as broadcasted on networks such as HBO, Showtime and PBS.
“Greater,” is the story of Brandon Burlsworth. The story line describes Brandon as the overly-fat kid who was once an embarrassment to his teammates and an annoyance to his coaches, who ended up becoming the most respected player in the history of the Arkansas Razorback program, changing the lives of all he touched. Eleven days after being drafted into the NFL, Brandon was tragically killed in a car accident, crushing all who knew him.
Gabe named two other feature films he has been working on including All The Birds Have Flown South, Greater and Lazy Eye. Situated against the picturesque backdrop of Joshua Tree, California, Lazy Eye is a bittersweet romance about reconnecting with a lost love.
Other notable works include 2nd Serve, a romantic comedy about a has-been tennis pro on the rebound professionally and in love. And, Bayou Tales, a horror anthology film of folklore, set in the Deep South.
In 2012, he shot All About Ann, a documentary chronicling the life and legacy of Texas Governor Ann Richards. It was released by HBO in April of 2014. He also shot and directed Champion Trees, a documentary that explores the relationship between art and nature for PBS in which he won two 2014 Emmy’s for Best Cultural Documentary and Cinematography. He also served as director, producer and cinematography on the documentary feature Dreamland - the history of an African American neighborhood during segregation and the lasting impact of Urban Renewal.
He just finished Antiquities. The story line is about a young man (WALT) who moves to his dad's hometown (after his father’s death) in order to learn more about his father. Walt decides to stay with his awkward aunt and her family, whose denial makes his search nearly impossible. He accepts a job in a local antique mall where his boss quickly offers him the possibility of a management position; however, BLUNDALE, a mean-spirited co-worker, isn't pleased by his new competition and proceeds to sabotage any chance Walt has. Walt then meets Ellie, an eccentric and crude free-spirit who still manages to be irresistibly charming. He finds himself completely enamored, though hesitant to pursue a relationship with her because of a secret that only he knows. Walt ends up not only finding out who his father really was, but learns more about himself than he ever thought possible.
Mayhan said he loves his job. Yet, he said, there are some frustrations. It might take two days to shoot a one-minute shot, he added. The worst part of the job, he said, is shooting outside shots.
Also, when you finish one project, you don’t have a job for a while. It also requires a lot of travel. Currently, he said, he is exploring the idea of moving west with his wife and 15-month-old son.
He encouraged the students to begin now to prepare for their future. Put school in the forefront, he said. Also, he encouraged the students to do their research and follow their dreams.
“If you want to do something outside of the norm, make a calculated decision to get where you would like to be,” he said. “Go somewhere and go big. You can always come back here.”
While it is possible for cinematographer to make big bucks, Mayhan said, he hasn’t made an “extreme” amount of money. Yet, he said, he has been on the other side—the broke side. He was able to pursue his dreams, he said, due to the support of his family.
Students questioned him regarding the Hollywood stars he has met. Jokingly, he said, he has met Tom Cruise, “one of the famous short people in the world,” who not wearing shoes is still taller than Mayhan.
Prior to leaving the campuses, Mayhan walked the halls visiting with his former teachers.