The Sea Cliff, L.I., native has hung out of helicopters filming a flood in Mississippi, an earthquake in California and glaciers in Alaska, but his work as a cameraman on the world-famous children’s show brings particular satisfaction, not least because it has led to numerous Emmy awards and nominations.
“Everyone jokes around on the set,” he said. The camaraderie sees them through the occasional glitches — such as when O’Donnell blows a shot.
“You haven’t been bawled out, you haven’t been really yelled at, until you’ve been screamed at by Big Bird or Oscar in character,” he said, laughing.
Said Lewis Bernstein, executive producer of “Sesame Street”: “Jimmy is not only a pleasure to work with in terms of his personality, he has an incredibly artistic eye that can only reflect a very deep soul.”
The show has brought recognition in a tough business that has allowed freelancer O’Donnell traverse the globe several times.
“Time is money, so when you’re on the job, people want to you to perform and to really deliver,” he said. “And no matter how good the work, even when they’re very happy with it, they rarely call to tell you.”
This explains the appeal of award ceremonies for industry professionals.
“It makes you feel really good,” he said.
O’Donnell has won six “Best Show” Emmys as part of the “Sesame Street” team, which will shoot its 35th season in the fall. He’s also won a technical Emmy for his camera work on the show and has been nominated for three others, and picked up another nomination for “Best Single Camera Photography” for field segments in “Reading Rainbow,” another PBS children’s show.
His start in the business came 20 years ago when, as a high-school student, his photography for a local newspaper caught the attention of a well-connected neighbor of his grandfather. “Hey, you have a really good eye,” he told him.
That contact at age 17 landed him a job at Rebo Studio in New York City, the first high-definition production company in the United States.
It was in the avant garde too, with people like Yoko Ono and famous experimental video-makers passing through.
He swept the floor and fixed lights, but every once in a while he was tapped to film a low-end commercial. “Jimmy’s going to shoot this one,” a boss would say.
O’Donnell had one advantage over his friends going off to college: he knew what he wanted to with his life. “It was one obstacle I didn’t have to get over,” he said.
He also knew that if he didn’t work hard he would continue to do just menial work around the company’s premises.
“I sacrificed a lot at that age,” he said. “I worked my ass off. No partying, no hanging out with my friends. I really immersed myself in that world.”
His work ethic gave him an edge over other young people joining the company.
“College kids had a real attitude coming in,” he said. “You [must] show people that you are willing to work hard for them to say: ‘Hey, we’re going to give you an opportunity to do the next thing.’
“I grew up in a very hard-working Irish family,” added O’Donnell, whose parents still live in Long Island. “All four of my grandparents made the trip from Ireland.”
His father’s parents were from Limerick, his mother’s from Cavan. O’Donnell and his two brothers worked from an early age in the family’s construction business.
“At 10, 11, 12, we were out doing driveways and tennis courts,” said the cameraman, who lives in Fairfield, Conn., with his wife. Darryl, a Web designer.
After a seven-year apprenticeship at Rebo, he was ready to go out on his own as a freelance director of photography and lighting cameraman.
His old company hired him for important projects involving high-digital camera work, in which he was now a veteran. The sharp, crisp, three-dimensional images of the new technology were impressive and even today, he said, most people have not seen programs on high-digital monitors. “It blew people away,” he recalled.
For one assignment in 1994, he flew to Paris to begin work on a documentary entitled “Doctors without Borders,” about the group also known by its French abbreviation MSF and which in 1999 won the Nobel Peace Prize. He worked on that film for several weeks in Azerbaijan.
“It was harsh, but one of those amazing experiences,” O’Donnell recalled.
“You really have to trust yourself, trust your equipment; you’re setting up shots so fast,” he said of work on location, adding that work in the studio has its own challenges.
Filming in remote villages from Brazil to Vietnam is physically demanding too.
“You’re up at the crack of dawn. It’s a 14-16 hour day, then a quick bite and a beer,” he said.
More recently, he’s worked as director of photography on several of the “What’s Going On?” series, which explores issues such as conflict, poverty, racism and the environment through the eyes of children in difficult situations. It’s co-produced by the United Nations and RCN, and broadcast on Showtime.
Bernstein described the cameraman’s work on the series as “just powerful.”
“He clearly has a love for children,” he said.
Work on one episode, narrated by Meg Ryan, brought O’Donnell to Northern Ireland.
Another, shot near Bombay, told the story of an 11-year-old who was being prepared for a life as a shepherd. As a result of the program, the young girl went back to school. “We literally changed one person’s life,” O’Donnell said.
These days his adrenalin shots come from his world traveling and also from his hobbies of rock climbing and motorcycling.
He hasn’t, though, done any filming from the air in five years. New technology such as space cams, attached to helicopters, do aerial photography for the bigger companies in the 21st century. But in the 1990s, the Long Island man got a great deal of experience in this area. For instance, he shot footage over the redwood forests of Northern California, over the Canadian Rockies and above volcanoes for a Japanese museum documentary on the history of the planet.
He particularly liked filming glaciers in Alaska for a documentary about the Make a Wish Foundation. “It was pretty cool flying above and along side of the deep blue ice walls,” he said. “I also had the opportunity to shoot glaciers calving, huge parts of the glacier wall falling into the ocean.
“It’s really difficult when you try to get a pulse as to where technology is going,” said O’Donnell, who himself has invented a piece of equipment known as a jimmybox. “What camera to buy for the future, no one can tell you; no one has any idea.
“A lot of the reality shows that are out there, the real down and dirty ones, they’re shot with the low-end, cheap cameras.”
He’s not a fan of the trend toward reality television or of tabloid news shows.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff I would never want to go back and do again. Along the road you do steer yourself toward the projects that you really want to be involved with,” O’Donnell said, adding that a cameraman can stay mentally focused over long hours if the jobs are interesting to him.
He’s delighted to have been done so much children’s television together with child-centered projects such as “What’s Going On?”
He would be happy to work mainly on the sort of programs he watches on the Learning Channel or on PBS, such as “American Experience,” “Frontline,” or “Colonial House,” which he spent last summer shooting.
The freelance life can be “pretty nerve-wracking,” but he believes he’s too independent to be tempted away from it.
“You can go through some serious pockets of time where you don’t have anything,” he said. “Almost no one’s untouched by that.”
O’Donnell, however, is inspired by fellow professionals who are still cameramen in their 70s.
“That’s an amazing thing,” he said. “If I could be that lucky, to get enough work and to still be working in this business, to be able to work to that age — to me, that’s it.”