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Cinematographer? Fake it till you make it.


Stephen Sanchez
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So I've recently had a chat with a much more experienced local DP, who told me something disheartening. Our area is a boomtown for infomercials and commercials, with lots of players. Well regarded. Some experienced, some new. I'm a new kid on the block. And I'm curious about others' lighting approaches, because I don't have a mentor or education. So I've been looking up the local shooters to form a sort of chat. I found their websites.

Composition in their shots were great. But I saw inconsistency in lighting or strange decisions. I'm talking about up-lighting, unrealistic light source locations, deep black shadows (symptom of harder sources), blown out windows (symptom of available light), deeply underexposed artsy style (symptom of available light), front lit hard fill (like a reflector on the face).

The DP I talked to told me that the majority of the DPs got corporate or client jobs through their reels or other form of convincing. But most don't know how to light. And on set, the gaffers would light because they didn't want to redo the setup through trial and error. DP's entire careers have been made through reliance on the gaffers. And in particular cases, a DP who wanted to be in-charge would approach the gaffer for the lighting plan then dictate that out-loud to the gaffer in front of the crew.

A newer shooter, who my friend has experience with, makes a living shooting inspirational documentary-style ads. For colleges and tourist spots. My friend said the guy didn't know what IRE or ASA was, and didn't know how to expose the image. He's represented by an agency and well regarded. His images are dark and artsy and shot with available light. I can tell.

I've witnessed an experienced DP set up a book light on either end (both frontal) with a 5k in each and called one a key light and the other fill light. No backlight. It was flat.

I recently ran audio on a pickup as a favor for people who turned out to own their own media company, and were moving a 1k tungsten around inside a diner (next to a window) for face lighting, and repositioning the frame a thousand times before recording. The light was clotheslining because they brought no stingers. They've been in business for 2 years.

It's the epitome of "fake it till you make it," a mindset I abhor. Truly. I've heard that on set once and was quick to stop it, and encouraged questions or admittance rather than leaving bad work on set.

I don't look down on those who can't light or are learning, in-fact I try to teach on the subjects I know, but pretending or faking your knowledge or expertise is a sad situation that I don't find respectable. It's false advertisement. I've heard of smaller freelance (non-client) jobs resulting in bad footage from some of the shooters. Remember, this is for commercial projects where the product or idea is being sold and must be presented in best light.

It's like that quote from John Cage that Tim Tyler posted: "It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch onto things. You can fool the fans, but not the players."

Surely someone's ran into other workers like this. Or seen this mindset. Is this this elsewhere?

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This does seem to be the general trend in our business. In some ways, each successive generation is a bit less knowledgeable than the past one, simply due to improving technology in displays, lenses, film stocks, and digital cameras. You simply had to be more skilled to be successful when imaging technology was less sensitive, less malleable in post, and when you couldn’t see exactly what you were getting on the day.

Today, we are all beneficiaries of that technology - I probably wouldn’t have had the same career opportunities if the Red One hadn’t come out right as I was entering the workforce. At the same time, I know I lost out on some more in-depth training and mentoring I could have gotten as a 2nd AC had 35mm and 16mm film production persisted a bit longer in my market. It is what it is.

I suppose you could argue that these young DPs are learning how to light on the job from their more experienced gaffers and key grips. It is a bit galling that they are still getting calls for those jobs I suppose, but who knows what their rates are. I doubt they are making $3k/day in labor, without gear rental.

On the other hand, simply having the knowledge on how to do something doesn’t automatically make the work better. In the case of the available light doc-style DP who didn’t know ASA or IRE, it’s possible that they are producing beautifully shot work anyway, just judging the image off of a monitor on the fly. Of course, there are pitfalls to that kind of approach, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. That’s probably how Christopher Doyle started out in his career...

Edited by Satsuki Murashige
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In the old days, on big productions, they did lots of lighting and film tests. This was done way before the actual shoot using stand-ins. Nothing was left to chance.

Deakins said he did something like 56 takes for one scene in 1917. Nowadays you pick up a cam and boom you are in biz. It is not like the old days where you worked your way up.

Times change. If you get a gig and are over your head, hire a consultant to help you out. Or do some tests!

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In the past I'd attempt to make that point to producers that if they're looking for a "lighting designer" for their crew then they need to fire their DP.   That never worked unfortunately.  Inexperienced producers often mistake the role of gaffer for a lighting designer and assume that the DP only has to  know about the camera and lenses.  Attempting to school a producer in this area is a war of attrition.  Don't bother.  

There are some producers who  hire cinematographers based on their ability to properly evaluate lighting levels across the set and set the lights according to the camera settings rather than the other way around.  That's the difference between a DP and a videographer.  A videographer adjusts the camera to the environment.  The DP adjusts the environment to the camera.   But again, we're talking about DP's who probably don't know how to use a light meter.  There isn't much to gain in pointing it out to them.

Producers hire based on reputation and resume.  Stating the obvious or calling someone out on their bullshit rarely ever makes you look correct.  Especially when you are.

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The first time I noticed this sort of thing was many years ago when I was doing the very occasional bit of Steadicam work. I hasten to add, I was never really a Steadicam operator and never had the potential or the ability to be, but I really gave up on it after one particular instance of a sports event being televised. It wasn't a long-duration job and the operator would have been fresh. Steadicam was used to show the trophy being held aloft by the winner, a simple shot requiring the operator to do nothing but walk in a straight line, forwards, past the arrayed people, with the camera facing sideways. Very basic; absolutely elementary.

It was an awful, drunken, bouncing mess, the sort of thing you'd expect from someone on day one of strapping the thing on, live on BBC 1.

The problem, certainly in the UK, was that the standard was often so low that you couldn't succeed by being any good at anything because it was never about ability (here's side-eyeing you, early Doctor Who reboot episodes). Yes, my grapes are sour as hell, and justifiably, I think, although there was until recently at least some hope for improvement thanks to the the Netflix era. American producers have money and demand competence and it was a breath of fresh air, with opportunities for the best people to advance.

But it's not even just the competence issue. What prompted me to finally throw in the towel on camerawork almost completely was being asked to do an indie movie (it was produced, shot by someone else, and is on IMDb, though I'll spare the blushes of those involved). Said indie movie wanted gear and a month's work for free, and bear in mind that "indie movie" mean something far different - far worse - than what that tends to mean in the USA. In the end it was shot by a BSC - an actual working member of the British Society of Cinematographers took it, for free, supplying gear. It looks utterly terrible, but that's irrelevant.

I can't compete with that. I don't want to compete with that. Self-producing the occasional short film is more fun than that and produces objectively better results. What's hilarious is that me now has access to things that me then didn't, things that might really help in that situation - and I'm just not even putting it out there anymore.

Anyway, if you're someone with letters after your name, shooting huge Netflix shows, you're having a blast and making a fortune, great. At almost any level lower than that, it's an absolute cesspool.

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Sounds to me like there are lots of LARPers in cinematography. Then again, as Tyler said, it's everywhere. 

The solution is to encourage people to think more about light and lighting. It's actually very enjoyable and not a chore at all. Cameras and lenses are glamorous, but lighting isn't seen that way. It should be, because it's so interesting.

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I feel this.
 

I’m a new guy myself and I’ve been learning everything about everything and mostly going at it alone. My best education has been working on set, YouTube university, and places like this. 
 

I’m all-in when it comes to this stuff and I absolutely nerd out on it. I feel that it’s our responsibility to do so. But yeah, I’ve noticed that a lot of people where I’m from throw “DP” and “cinematographer” around and I think “come on dude”. 
Who am I though? I’m a nobody. But as a nobody, I feel a lot better about myself and I will probably be taken more seriously if I have the ability to at least admit what I DON’T know. And this is why I felt like kind of a heel making a “camera op/cinematography reel”. It kind of had to be done in order for me to get the (appropriate) attention that I need. But I definitely know what’s up and I am ok with the fact that I’m a nobody and there are better filmmakers than I. 
 

fake it ‘til you make it is ok, but you MUST know you’re capabilities and limitations. Otherwise you look like a jackass. And I don’t want to be that guy.

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I use to study mainly commercial works by DOPs from their website or from the Ad itself . This happen to include DPs from my country as well and I quite go through their works a lot. However , I started noticing that the direction and overall intensity of light on set look exactly same in almost all (I mean Ads in same Genre) . Only some difference in set design is there to confuse you . My only guess is what Stephen mentioned ,that the light setups are already there and they just go there and roll the camera. Most of them just show off with the cameras they touch ,which are eventually setup by some other guys . There is a DP ,working in high budget commerial ,said that he uses False Color to get perfect color in his works when asked in an interview.

However, this might happen because of the unnecessary deadlines by client or agencies and also the fact that these guys take everything for granted . Their 'people-won't-find-mistakes-anyway' attitude is also a big concern . 

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1 minute ago, Matthew J. Walker said:

The "fake it till you make it" mindset is not very beneficial in the entertainment industry. It just wouldn't work. Maybe for Soundcloud rappers.

Where this really is a disaster is when you have the production positions filled with first timers.   Like a 1st A.D. who's learning on the job.  That's truly ridiculous.  You need to be a 2nd, 2nd A.D. for a while and work up to being a 1st.  Ideally doing it for someone who is experienced and good, otherwise you'll have no idea what that job actually is.   The same holds true for most positions in film and tv.

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On 1/21/2021 at 6:04 PM, Michael LaVoie said:

A videographer adjusts the camera to the environment.  The DP adjusts the environment to the camera.

Oh that's an interesting point of view. That description makes sense.

 

On 1/21/2021 at 1:15 PM, Satsuki Murashige said:

Today, we are all beneficiaries of that technology - I probably wouldn’t have had the same career opportunities if the Red One hadn’t come out right as I was entering the workforce. At the same time, I know I lost out on some more in-depth training and mentoring I could have gotten as a 2nd AC had 35mm and 16mm film production persisted a bit longer in my market.

Yes, I think you're right Satsuki. Available technology is no doubt the root cause. And I agree, that I wouldn't be in my position had only film jobs existed. I know I benefitted from my DSLR which began my lighting intrigue snowball. But then I missed out on being AC and picking the brains of established shooters. Today, I only have Instagram to inquire on techniques and it's so anonymous and limited.

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3 hours ago, Matthew J. Walker said:

The quote "Fake it 'till you make it" mindset is not very beneficial in the entertainment industry.

You would think so, but man do so many people do it. There is a lot of on-location hands on training going on with rookies. 

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A lot of salty takes here...

Unfortunately, this genie is not going back in the bottle. This is where we are now, and for the foreseeable future.

The ‘moving picture’ business has expanded exponentially with the advent of web content and streaming services. The audience has simultaneously increased and split into various niches, and as a result overall budgets have fallen dramatically. Anyone can crowd-fund, self-produce, and self-distribute their projects; anyone can start a production company; anyone can be a filmmaker; thus, anyone can be a cinematographer.

This is where we are now. There are way more shoots happening now than ever before. The vast majority of them are not traditional studio/union film narrative projects bound for theatrical/broadcast/prestige streaming.

But we all knew that already, right? Because most of us here have worked on those sets. Most of us probably make the majority of our income on those sets. When I said that we are all the beneficiaries of the technological shift, I meant that literally. Most of us, including me, would not have careers in the ‘moving picture business’ today without it. Food for thought while we’re casting stones...

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On 1/22/2021 at 3:15 AM, Satsuki Murashige said:

This does seem to be the general trend in our business. In some ways, each successive generation is a bit less knowledgeable than the past one, simply due to improving technology in displays, lenses, film stocks, and digital cameras. You simply had to be more skilled to be successful when imaging technology was less sensitive, less malleable in post, and when you couldn’t see exactly what you were getting on the day.

Today, we are all beneficiaries of that technology - I probably wouldn’t have had the same career opportunities if the Red One hadn’t come out right as I was entering the workforce. At the same time, I know I lost out on some more in-depth training and mentoring I could have gotten as a 2nd AC had 35mm and 16mm film production persisted a bit longer in my market. It is what it is.

I suppose you could argue that these young DPs are learning how to light on the job from their more experienced gaffers and key grips. It is a bit galling that they are still getting calls for those jobs I suppose, but who knows what their rates are. I doubt they are making $3k/day in labor, without gear rental.

On the other hand, simply having the knowledge on how to do something doesn’t automatically make the work better. In the case of the available light doc-style DP who didn’t know ASA or IRE, it’s possible that they are producing beautifully shot work anyway, just judging the image off of a monitor on the fly. Of course, there are pitfalls to that kind of approach, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. That’s probably how Christopher Doyle started out in his career...

Christopher Doyle I think likes to put over this image , of the wild artist , but actually sometimes he lets slip, or its very obvious , that he actually knows alot of the techie / lab  stuff about film and Digital .. but it doesn't suit his image so he hides it .. he's quite clued in ,in relativity ..

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On 1/21/2021 at 6:15 PM, Satsuki Murashige said:

This does seem to be the general trend in our business. In some ways, each successive generation is a bit less knowledgeable than the past one, simply due to improving technology in displays, lenses, film stocks, and digital cameras. You simply had to be more skilled to be successful when imaging technology was less sensitive, less malleable in post, and when you couldn’t see exactly what you were getting on the day.

You also have to be _more_ knowledgeable in many other ways. 

 

Cinematographers now potentially have most of the control (and responsibility) that used to be taken by the film manufacturers over how light is converted into recorded colour values. But they need to know about LUTs, noise, dynamic range and maximising analogue to digital conversions (and therefore discrete binary representations of continuously variable analogue values) in a way than previous generations didn’t.

To be fully competent nowadays they also need to be able to setup and balance a gimbal, fly a drone, use apps to wirelessly control lighting, understand autofocus modes, work with log footage, understand in-camera stabilisation, know about file backups and transfers, card read speeds, bit depth, many more types of light source... the list endless because it grows every year  

 

And they are competing with everyone who can afford a camera, not just those who happened to have a family member in the business, were rich enough to afford film stock, or were lucky enough to get into film school. 

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21 minutes ago, Mei Lewis said:

Cinematographers now potentially have most of the control (and responsibility) that used to be taken by the film manufacturers over how light is converted into recorded colour values. But they need to know about LUTs, noise, dynamic range and maximising analogue to digital conversions (and therefore discrete binary representations of continuously variable analogue values) in a way than previous generations didn’t.

One of the slightly scary things about this is that a lot of them actually don't have that knowledge and ability and rely heavily on other crew members, particularly DITs. There's nothing wrong with this - the crew is there to assist the head of department - but it's worth being aware of who's actually responsible for what here.

This is changing, frankly as the people age out of the industry, but there are still a lot of people in very senior positions who are much more dependent on fairly junior crew than is widely admitted.

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7 hours ago, Robin R Probyn said:

Christopher Doyle I think likes to put over this image , of the wild artist , but actually sometimes he lets slip, or its very obvious , that he actually knows alot of the techie / lab  stuff about film and Digital .. but it doesn't suit his image so he hides it .. he's quite clued in ,in relativity ..

In the interviews where Mr. Doyle talks about not knowing anything technical, I believe he was referring to his early days (which is why I said ‘when he was starting out’). Obviously, by the time he was shooting ‘Chungking Express,’ he knew what he was doing.

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This is the only reason I miss anything considered professional having to be shot on 35mm film.  There was a technique to it that had to be learned and the person that could put film into a camera and spit out a beautiful image the next day was thought to be a magician in the eyes of the layman.  Those days are GONE... Gone... gone...

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