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Clifford Gibson

How to start out in cinematography?

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Stuart I know of a few people who have taken the same route as Mr Mullen into music videos and commercials. It seems to be rarer on dramatic work. Far from being the lazy man's route it is probably harder in many ways as you will spend years shooting no-money crap, working your arse off at night in the freezing cold with no crew, no gear and no food, and getting not a ounce of respect from anyone for doing it. Many people would consider a cushy position as a loader (when they existed) on a union-type shoot a joy by comparison. You'd certainly make more money.

 

The risks of the direct approach are obvious but especially that there is a great risk of there simply being nowhere to go afterward. I found that the career path suddenly narrowed very abruptly, somewhere around the lower-to-middle level of music videos, which is well before it becomes sustainable financially. This is probably true in most parts of the world that aren't LA.

 

At some point a country like the UK probably only needs half a dozen people that you or I would recognise as a true director of photography and this needs to be considered in terms of anyone's local situation. People need to be more willing to accept that they can't have things and that's true regardless of the route you take to get there.

 

P

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Phil, I'm not suggesting that it's a 'lazy man's route'. I know from personal experience that it is not. I have done the zero budget shoots in freezing weather in the middle of the night. I've done endless freebies and student shorts. I'm also not suggesting that there is nothing to be learnt from this approach. What I'm saying is that when you are inexperienced, and you only ever work with other people who are inexperienced, there is a limit to what you learn. When I moved back into 'mainstream' drama production after a few years shooting low budget promos and shorts, I was amazed by what I didn't know. I considered myself to be a pretty good DP & Operator, but I very quickly found out that I was hugely lacking in experience and knowledge. Suddenly, I was working with people who were much more experienced than I, and it was a steep learning curve.

 

In my experience, people who become DPs straight out of film school do not have a complete skill set. It's not their lighting, it's their time management, their man management. I know of DPs who like to scream at their crew when things aren't going well, because they don't understand their own crew's jobs. I know DP's who cause overruns regularly because they have no conception of the idea that they are paid to work within 12 hours. I know of one DP who consistently ignored a long running conflict between 2 of his crew, because he thought it was nothing to do with him, despite him being head of the camera dept.

 

As David says, at some point you have to step up and start shooting things, and low budget promos and short films are an excellent place to learn, but you also need to learn professional skills, and professional sets are the best place for that.

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As always this comes down to a definition of the term "director of photography", which, lacking a standardised assessment, is not something that's easy to do. Opinions on this tend to be defined by peoples' own experiences, and it tends to be the people with the loudest voices and biggest wallets who define that sort of debate. Being a loader on nineteen Transformers sequels might be profitable and look good on your credit list, but it is not going to prepare you for the way most, by sheer number, of the films and TV shows in the world are actually made.

 

So to answer the original poster's question we need to know what his desires and expectations are, and, especially, where he is.

 

More importantly, yes, I too have seen (and more than once been the victim of) absolutely appalling management during production work. People tend to achieve high office in filmmaking with absolutely no experience or training in management at all, and I think most people have experience that indicates simply throwing people into a working environment and expecting it to happen via osmosis is not sufficiently reliable. People who have indeed come up through the ranks fail at this all the time, to the mutual disadvantage of everyone involved. Most industries specifically train people for management, as a vocational or even academic discipline. For reasons I don't fully understand, filmmaking doesn't.

 

 

P

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More importantly, yes, I too have seen (and more than once been the victim of) absolutely appalling management during production work. People tend to achieve high office in filmmaking with absolutely no experience or training in management at all, and I think most people have experience that indicates simply throwing people into a working environment and expecting it to happen via osmosis is not sufficiently reliable. People who have indeed come up through the ranks fail at this all the time, to the mutual disadvantage of everyone involved. Most industries specifically train people for management, as a vocational or even academic discipline. For reasons I don't fully understand, filmmaking doesn't.

 

hmmm. I think you have a point that courses that teach cinematography and directing and the like could maybe have more of an emphasis on people skills.

 

HOWEVER...

 

I notice a lot of talk in the film and video world that suggests that the world outside of film making is different and somehow better, and this is definitely not the case. Not just about this but about a lot of things.

 

It's very common in the wider world for people to be promoted to managing people without any training beyond learning on the job. Often it's people who are obviously really ill equipped for the task but have worked their way up there through some unrelated thing, in a lot of cases they are just the people who are born into the right background. You are right that there are of course courses in things like Management even at universities and the like, but this gets you a job in management just as much as a degree in film gets you a job as a top cinematographer or director. Also whether sending someone on a management course instantly gives someone the people skills to be able to deal with all kinds of management situations is debatable at best. A lot of companies basically do little in the way of management training beyond what can be acquired on the job.

 

On the whole its a fairly random thing in some respects, just as it can be on movies sets.

 

A lot of the things that people talk about in relation to the film and video world are actually wider problems, people just assume they are limited to their own little patch.

 

Freya

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Phil, I'm not suggesting that it's a 'lazy man's route'. I know from personal experience that it is not. I have done the zero budget shoots in freezing weather in the middle of the night. I've done endless freebies and student shorts. I'm also not suggesting that there is nothing to be learnt from this approach. What I'm saying is that when you are inexperienced, and you only ever work with other people who are inexperienced, there is a limit to what you learn. When I moved back into 'mainstream' drama production after a few years shooting low budget promos and shorts, I was amazed by what I didn't know. I considered myself to be a pretty good DP & Operator, but I very quickly found out that I was hugely lacking in experience and knowledge. Suddenly, I was working with people who were much more experienced than I, and it was a steep learning curve.

 

In my experience, people who become DPs straight out of film school do not have a complete skill set. It's not their lighting, it's their time management, their man management. I know of DPs who like to scream at their crew when things aren't going well, because they don't understand their own crew's jobs. I know DP's who cause overruns regularly because they have no conception of the idea that they are paid to work within 12 hours. I know of one DP who consistently ignored a long running conflict between 2 of his crew, because he thought it was nothing to do with him, despite him being head of the camera dept.

 

As David says, at some point you have to step up and start shooting things, and low budget promos and short films are an excellent place to learn, but you also need to learn professional skills, and professional sets are the best place for that.

 

I really like the fact there are so many different viewpoints in this thread, all of them kind of making good points from different points of views, because of course the film and video industry in not a homogeneous one like we might be led to believe at times.

 

Here in the UK I have been on big sets for local productions and was to be honest, VERY unimpressed by what I saw on set and by the finished product. Having said that they did have very nice equipment but as Adrian suggests, maybe it's not so much about the equipment.

 

The amount of "professional" sets with "professional" crews in the UK is very limited and I see it probably narrowing down further rather than expanding. Here at least I get the impression that the skills learnt on tiny low budget productions are probably the most useful ones to have. It's possible that the states will manage to continue to make quality high end productions but the rot is already setting in over there. It's more of a matter of how long things can be spun out for right now I think... but we shall see.

 

Certainly as Phil suggest the vast majority of productions over here don't fit into that category.

 

Freya

Edited by Freya Black

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There is a lot to learn as a DP as everyone here has mentioned. Stuart is right, at some point you have to learn how a professional set is run, you have to learn to hire and manage a crew, you have to know your options in terms of equipment.

 

Coming up the budget ladder as a DP, you gain certain skills like working fast on tight budgets with small crews and equipment packages -- skills that are still useful on bigger shows because, honestly, they never give you enough time, equipment, or manpower because the shoots always get more ambitious as the budgets climb. But you do have to play catch-up in terms of learning the ins and outs of a bigger shoot. The thing is that even if as a DP you haven't worked on the bigger shows with the bigger logistics, etc. generally your crew has at some point, your gaffer, key grip, and camera assistants, so they will be a big help to you the first time you have to light a soundstage or a huge night exterior or put a camera crane on a boat, etc.

 

And occasionally I see the problem with some beginning DP's who have come up as crew people on big shows, they have a hard time getting used to working with smaller equipment packages and crews once they move to becoming a DP -- they sometimes think they have to have a Technocrane on the set every day, or several Dino lights, four camera packages, etc. And of course, coming up the crew ladder doesn't necessarily mean you'll develop good crew management skills or treat people nicer, etc.

 

So there are unique weaknesses to every path taken that every DP has to figure out how to compensate for, because the overall skill set needed is what it is, it's up to you to learn the stuff any way you can.

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Honestly, I don't thing cinematography lies in the camera. It lies in looking at the world of light, shadow, and motion. Light shadow and motion can be learned on any image device-- even an iphone. ............ get into the thinking-- not just how to light or frame, but why you're lighting and framing because truthfully, while we all like to pretend we're the tops in visual importance, our gaffers, acs, ops, and the other department heads which we work with are all there to support us, and often have ideas and methods we'd never of thought of.

 

Well said statement ..In agreement ..

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My experience is that working up the ladder from Loader to AC to Operator ends at AC or sometimes Operator. . . very rarely have I seen people who spend many years making a living in the trade successfully push on up to DP. They get too old and too financially comfortable. If you want to see the business from the bottom up I suggest you not be very good at it. It can be very hard to walk away from good jobs and great money in order to shoot no budget music videos!

 

To be a good DP I would suggest the best thing you could do is to learn how to draw well. If you can truly see what is there well enough to make a sketch that represents what YOU are seeing then I think you would be way ahead of most peers. Go to museums. Buy art books. Take drawing, painting and art history classes. Develop your own style and taste.

 

Maybe instead of buying expensive cameras, build your own lighting instruments. Home Depot or Lowes can be a huge toy box for an aspiring DP. Do a project with home made hard light. Then soft light. Then mix it up. Can you light a scene that looks like a Rembrandt using $100 worth of Home Depot lighting? I'll bet Mr. Mullen would make short work of a challenge like that!

 

A DP really needs ONE thing. That ONE thing is a Director that believes in you and trusts you with her project. How you develop a relationship with people who will end up as working Directors is up to you. If you have a Director that wants YOU to be the DP on her film then everything else can be bought, borrowed or bluffed.

 

 

Best of luck,

 

Neal Norton

 

 

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