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Adam Johnson

Ok, so, on an unusual path. Is it for me?

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Ok, so, first and foremost, I need some advice, maybe someone can help.

 

I've considered myself a screenwriter for a long time. I've been writing then around 12 or 13 years, had a few nothing-options. Not successful but there's some hope there, maybe, someday. I got to the interview stage at AFI for screenwriting. Flew to LA for the first time. Time of my life.

 

But, and here's where it gets weird, my Bachelor's Degree is in Photography. I wanted to "broaden my horizons" I guess.

 

So anyway, now I have this weird career indecision happening where I'm trying to maintain being both a writer and a photographer, and now I'm kind of thinking, Hey, there's gotta be a way to marry these two. Which of course there is, which is also why I'm here.

 

Anyway, I need some advice here. I wanna go back to school, get my Master's, move to LA, and make enough money between writing and shooting and slinging coffee. But I've been riddled with this terrible indecision about which one, because I love both.

 

In my photography work, I always wanted a "cinematic" style. Most of my favorite memories about films are specific images, not sound, not acting, etc. But the way it LOOKS.

 

So I figure, why not go get my Master's in Cinematography?

 

I'm scared as hell by this though, as it means almost entirely giving up on being a writer, at least at this pace. And I'm scared about the huge technology curb - I was a self-professed analog film lover in college, when digital was just getting going. I know next to nothing about the technical side of being a cinematographer.

 

But I do think that, given enough time, I could "plan" how I WOULD shoot a film, even draw storyboards of every shot, I'm at least confident in that, reasonably.

 

Anyway that's a lot of information. I dont know where i want my life to go and I need help deciding, ha. Really, I'll take any advice.

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To be a cinematographer; you certainly do not need a degree. You'd probably be better off spending the money on camera "X" whatever is "new, hip, hot," learning how to work it, and getting onto a project or two (or smarter still would be renting cameras). At first, try to partner up with some students looking for a DoP, get a small rate for your time, gas, ect, and shoot. It really is the best way to learn.

 

Good lighting and composition is good lighting and composition; you just now have to do it with very few (one really) shutter speed-- 1/48th of a second. Hell you coudl get a DSLR and shoot on those these days and if it doesn't work out, keep it for your own photography, and get your masters writing if you'd like.

 

The technical stuff is important to get a handle on, but it's nothing that can't be gleaned from a few books and bruises on set. And, when you're a DoP you're really reliant upon the crew who is there to back you up. I can't tell you what a great joy it is to have a crew who "gets," how you work and what you want, need, and how horrible it can be when you have a crew who doesn't. With a strong enough gaffer, grip, and AC behind you, you'd really not have to worry about a lot of the technical minutia.

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To be a cinematographer; you certainly do not need a degree. You'd probably be better off spending the money on camera "X" whatever is "new, hip, hot," learning how to work it, and getting onto a project or two (or smarter still would be renting cameras). At first, try to partner up with some students looking for a DoP, get a small rate for your time, gas, ect, and shoot. It really is the best way to learn.

 

Good lighting and composition is good lighting and composition; you just now have to do it with very few (one really) shutter speed-- 1/48th of a second. Hell you coudl get a DSLR and shoot on those these days and if it doesn't work out, keep it for your own photography, and get your masters writing if you'd like.

 

The technical stuff is important to get a handle on, but it's nothing that can't be gleaned from a few books and bruises on set. And, when you're a DoP you're really reliant upon the crew who is there to back you up. I can't tell you what a great joy it is to have a crew who "gets," how you work and what you want, need, and how horrible it can be when you have a crew who doesn't. With a strong enough gaffer, grip, and AC behind you, you'd really not have to worry about a lot of the technical minutia.

 

I feel that being in a uni environment would be good for me, in more ways that one. So that's really my stance there.

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It really depends on the level you want to work at, although there's nothing to stop you writing during downtime as a DP. Writing combines easier with directing, although it's best not to rely on directing only your own scripts if you want regular work.

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It really depends on the level you want to work at, although there's nothing to stop you writing during downtime as a DP. Writing combines easier with directing, although it's best not to rely on directing only your own scripts if you want regular work.

Yeah, it's a bit weird. I doubt there's been many writer/cinematographers. I would probably keep my writing separate from any movies I was actively working on, UNLESS it was that passion-project script, but that I would just direct, yeah. But I could certainly see a benefit to being writer, director, DP on a low-budget student film.

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There are a few cinematographers who write scripts, but the roles are usually separate. Both Jack Cardiff and Nicolas Roeg wrote scripts.

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Skip straight to it...

 

Direct ;)

Ok now this is a revelation. I had never *really* wanted to direct before. But my background on both the story-side AND the visual-side seems to make sense as a director.

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go figure ^_^

 

I've noted that people in many positions of both film and theatre direct on the side - at least in their heads - when at work...

 

"Oh, I would have handled that differently"

 

(The trick is to keep ones mouth shut and keep an eye on your own bag)

 

 

Do you find yourself doing that? (no shame in saying so, I do it myself)

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go figure ^_^

 

I've noted that people in many positions of both film and theatre direct on the side - at least in their heads - when at work...

 

"Oh, I would have handled that differently"

 

(The trick is to keep ones mouth shut and keep an eye on your own bag)

 

 

Do you find yourself doing that? (no shame in saying so, I do it myself)

 

Well I think so. I think most movie fans have the capacity to re-make movies to their own liking.

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There are some with a simple passion for exactly what they are doing (DoP, gaffer, 1st AD, driver, whatever...) and nothing else really gets them going ... Often its the very same passion that got them involved in the good jobs.

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I have a good buddy who struggled for about 10yr as an editorial photographer. He'd work good magazine gigs every month, but the majority of his income came from assisting commercial photogs. Oftentimes, as I'm sure you know - in the commercial world the photographer is more of a shmoozer, grand ideas sort of person. The assistant builds the rig, sets and tests the camera and presents it ready to shoot based on reference images the photog gave earlier. Essentially, the photo assistant acts as DP and AC, the photographer as Director.

 

When the 5D II came out, my buddy wanted to shoot a couple bizarre shorts - 1 min max, just to play around. He understood nothing of continuity at the time - just a vision of what sort of final product he wanted. I DP'd for him 3 projects, and another guy DP'd 2. His agent took those 5 minutes of footage and booked him a huge ad campaign - as Director. At first he felt like he should be called the "DP" but realized rather quickly that the translation from commercial photographer in our world really is Director. He's been doing it since, quite successfully, working all the time. So yes, perhaps the most natural translation is director - but it can't hurt to learn anything and everything you can about the various elements of filmmaking to enhance your abilities as a director. There's a world of difference between lighting a still image and lighting a space that actors can move through in 3d, and maybe that is or is not your passion? But knowing what you want in an image - visually and emotionally - is the directing half of the battle - the Cinematographer is the bridge between that idea and the screen. Not to say that cinematography isn't creative, just that you have options in terms of how much or what responsibility to take.

Edited by Jaron Berman

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You know, when I Watch movies , I understand all the elements, not just in shooting and acting, but the music and editing, all that. I pay attention to the whole thing and when one of them sucks, I think we all say "Oh, well, the score was the only weak part." Etc. You know I'm a huge movie buff - but I NEVER liked reading scripts, often times they read like stereo instructions. So I guess that's a clue I shouldn't be a screenwriter full-out.

 

The biggest fear with cinematography has always been the technology curve, which is a big reason i'd want to go to school, and a very hands-on one at that. Somewhere with RED and a commercially-steered curriculum. With some practice and a little guidance, yeah I could probably toss together something that manages to work. I've taken a few courses and I've watched a ton of BtS special features (ha). But you'd know, I'd really want to not leave school before really learning everything and being confident I could step onto a set.

 

Directing, yeah, I have opinions on a lot of directors and their styles. I know enough film history to have studied the masters and the really awful ones. I've soaked up every film documentary and behind the scenes I could. But i have NO idea how a set works. I have some knowledge about a couple things just from observation, but I don't know everything I know I would need to.

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Cinematography has little to do with what camera system you are on, and a whole lot more with how you use a light. Best camera in the world won't mean much if you havn't a clue where to place your heads.

Also I think you'd learn a lot more as a DoP, if you want to go that way, being saddled with a DSLR and trying to make that look good (or a little crappy DV Camera) then something like a RED or an Alexa where you're leaving the choices and need to get it right till post and color correction.

You also probably won't learn how a set works in a Film school. I'd look for jobs as a PA instead.

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Cinematography has little to do with what camera system you are on, and a whole lot more with how you use a light. Best camera in the world won't mean much if you havn't a clue where to place your heads.

Also I think you'd learn a lot more as a DoP, if you want to go that way, being saddled with a DSLR and trying to make that look good (or a little crappy DV Camera) then something like a RED or an Alexa where you're leaving the choices and need to get it right till post and color correction.

You also probably won't learn how a set works in a Film school. I'd look for jobs as a PA instead.

But certainly theres value to it. I didnt learn the most recent technology in my photo degree, and it hurt - a lot - later on.

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Not really. Yes, it's important to understand how the camera responds to light-- and that's why DoPs do Camera tests, but it's not like RED will be the only camera you're working on as a DoP, assuming it's even still in use when you're out of school. Film has changed, the lifespan for the new "cool" camera is about 2 years, maybe 3 before a new beast comes along which productions want to often jump on. By the time you get out, the RED will be outdated or updated and you'll be back to square one anyway in terms of how it'll work with light, doing camera tests.

This is discounting as well all the other cameras out there, Alexa, Film (and ever stock), DSLRs, Sony Cine Altas.

 

As a cinematographer, you're not learning a camera system, per say, but how to use lighting, framing, and motion to tell a story.

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Not really. Yes, it's important to understand how the camera responds to light-- and that's why DoPs do Camera tests, but it's not like RED will be the only camera you're working on as a DoP, assuming it's even still in use when you're out of school. Film has changed, the lifespan for the new "cool" camera is about 2 years, maybe 3 before a new beast comes along which productions want to often jump on. By the time you get out, the RED will be outdated or updated and you'll be back to square one anyway in terms of how it'll work with light, doing camera tests.

This is discounting as well all the other cameras out there, Alexa, Film (and ever stock), DSLRs, Sony Cine Altas.

 

As a cinematographer, you're not learning a camera system, per say, but how to use lighting, framing, and motion to tell a story.

I shouldnt have said red. I should've said *pretty things*. Modern digital workflow.

 

Anyway.

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Best learn the principles, everything else changes and you have to keep up to date, (that applies to film and digital media) but knowing how to use light, framing and using the camera to tell the story doesn't. You can still read how Gregg Toland shot "Citizen Kane" and use that to shoot a digital film.

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For the digital work-flo part, that's really up to editorial. It's nice to know, on the face of it how it applies, and how you get from what you shot through the post chain; but that's not really your job as a DoP, outside of what can and can't be accomplished on x or y camera in the DI suite--- which again, goes back to the whole camera testing. Digital work-flows aren't set in stone, and they are dependent upon what camera you use, and where it's going when and through which facility. How you treat Black Magic, or ArriRaw, or a 5D, or 7219 in a digital workflow will all vary and yet also all be modern digital workflows.

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There's something to be said for working for other people. Yes, people go to film school and successfully transition immediately to their chosen career. But it's rare, and it's not always the most "well rounded" approach. Watching a lot of final products, like you said, doesn't mean you know a lot about how things work on set. And even in an academic environment, it doesn't always reflect a professional set. I'm not referring to technical details or knowledge even - there are plenty of students who know more than old dogs, and there are plenty of schools with better gear than most productions. But there's a lot of nuance to how things "politic" on a real set that depends on budget and personality. The more personalities you work with and for, the better you develop your own style. And maybe before deciding to go back to school, try getting on set for bigger or smaller productions than you're accustomed to. Every director has a different style, and even if you never want to direct it's still priceless to feel that leadership first-hand. Maybe you take away one or two things from each production, but it all adds up be it "I would NEVER" or "I really love the way" - positive or negative, you learn a lot about real-world production from real-world production.

 

I've worked with brilliant adversarial directors and also clueless though slick and friendly directors. And from either I learn different things about my own role in the grander picture. You mentioned that you don't love reading scripts - but in the end even if the director chooses to throw out a lot of what's there, it's still a guideline for the underlying story. And in the end - that's what we do. We tell stories, even down to the PA's - all part of the machinery, all on the same team. And any time it gets tough on set I try to remind myself of that - we're all on the same team and in the end we're trying to tell a good story. I think a lot of "big" directors/dp's/writers/actors enjoy the refreshing feel of indi production from time to time for that very reason (some great interviews with Coppola ) - when the production is small it's easier for EVERY person to feel some ownership and hence pride in the project at every turn.

 

I agree with those who say to just go out and shoot something, it's a great experience. But so is working for lots of other people - it all helps to develop your own passion. The benefit of school is that you get to do both.

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There's something to be said for working for other people. Yes, people go to film school and successfully transition immediately to their chosen career. But it's rare, and it's not always the most "well rounded" approach. Watching a lot of final products, like you said, doesn't mean you know a lot about how things work on set. And even in an academic environment, it doesn't always reflect a professional set. I'm not referring to technical details or knowledge even - there are plenty of students who know more than old dogs, and there are plenty of schools with better gear than most productions. But there's a lot of nuance to how things "politic" on a real set that depends on budget and personality. The more personalities you work with and for, the better you develop your own style. And maybe before deciding to go back to school, try getting on set for bigger or smaller productions than you're accustomed to. Every director has a different style, and even if you never want to direct it's still priceless to feel that leadership first-hand. Maybe you take away one or two things from each production, but it all adds up be it "I would NEVER" or "I really love the way" - positive or negative, you learn a lot about real-world production from real-world production.

 

I've worked with brilliant adversarial directors and also clueless though slick and friendly directors. And from either I learn different things about my own role in the grander picture. You mentioned that you don't love reading scripts - but in the end even if the director chooses to throw out a lot of what's there, it's still a guideline for the underlying story. And in the end - that's what we do. We tell stories, even down to the PA's - all part of the machinery, all on the same team. And any time it gets tough on set I try to remind myself of that - we're all on the same team and in the end we're trying to tell a good story. I think a lot of "big" directors/dp's/writers/actors enjoy the refreshing feel of indi production from time to time for that very reason (some great interviews with Coppola ) - when the production is small it's easier for EVERY person to feel some ownership and hence pride in the project at every turn.

 

I agree with those who say to just go out and shoot something, it's a great experience. But so is working for lots of other people - it all helps to develop your own passion. The benefit of school is that you get to do both.

 

That's more what I'm leaning to. Go somewhere and get my mfa and focus on commercial photography, take/audit any film.video courses I can to get a basic-intermediate understanding of what's going on, and get to LA and work on some sets.

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Hey Adam, I'm in a similar situation. I decided to dedicate the next 1-2 years to writing with the goal of submitting my best work to a number of contests. If nothing comes out of it other than the pure rush of the process itself, I'm going to put the writing on standby and dive into cinematography. By standby I mean stop writing. It's all about time management. Some people say you can do both at the same time, I find it virtually impossible. When I'm in "the zone" it commands 100% of my focus and passion. Nothing else matters, not even having a social life. I had to quit my band because I couldn't stop thinking about writing during rehearsals and gigs, I used to space out on my bandmates all the time lol :P. If you're the type of person who can juggle between two passions then go for it, give it everything you have and don't look back. If you can't, you should take a week off and really think about what you'd rather pursue as a potential career -- then go for it.

 

The only bad thing you can do is to become so torn between the two you end up wasting years doing nothing. I wasted 5 years of my life doing just that - nothing. As long as you're honing your craft you're in the right direction. I could be wrong about all of this but that's my $0.02. Anyway, good luck dude and keep us posted!

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Yeah, it's a bit weird. I doubt there's been many writer/cinematographers. I would probably keep my writing separate from any movies I was actively working on, UNLESS it was that passion-project script, but that I would just direct, yeah. But I could certainly see a benefit to being writer, director, DP on a low-budget student film.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wq1DQdIEYAg

 

11.54

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