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Tim Ford

Advice on becoming a DP

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Most film schools have an application process. Some are very tough to get into. Others, all you need is a credit card. So do your homework on the programs, faculty and alumni and choose wisely. My advice specific to this topic discussion is to actively pursue classes and education in the business and legal aspects of film development and be able to independently produce. It's something most aspiring DP's may not consider but is a very useful skillset when you are faced with the task of shooting underfunded microbudget indies. Being able to develop a great script and provide a solid budget along with distribution will give one an advantage early in their DP career.

 

Are there any good ones that are of the credit-card type?

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Assuming one has lots of experience in Super 8, or regular 8, a bit of DSLR maybe, or 16mm, and whether or not has gone to film school but either way has done a lot of good film making, learned how to shoot film, and most importantly is something of an artist with a camera/lighting etc .... and over time at a 'real job' has saved enough money ..... I wonder if those whose dream is to be a DP/cinematographer in cinema release feature film production (or whatever else in the professional film world working with actual film not digital) would be at a distinct advantage if they got themselves an 'entry level' 35 mm film camera and gear, and started putting together, say, a 5 minute portfolio reel of 35 mm. I speak from a position of total ignorance, so am casting around for truth, that I may learn more. I'm middle aged, and am probably fast running out of time to be thinking of getting into cinema release movie production. Especially in a world nearly all gone over to digital.

 

Maybe the camera might be ancient/not very good, have a few image stability problems, and the film stock expired or otherwise not top notch. But has anyone ever been taken seriously or been given an opportunity as a feature film DP who has never shot on 35mm? Has any cinematographer been hired for a 35mm shoot who only every used maybe S16 in the past? Okay, the chances of being 'hired' aren't great, perhaps because of networks/nepotism, etc in the arts world, but nevertheless, I wonder if getting (comparatively) low-priced 35mm gear and saving up like mad for film stock might be the way to go, as soon as practicable (as soon as affordable) - which, of course, might take many years to get to a position where you have disposable income to spend on your true artistic interests. So, to cut a long story short, get into the actual technical work as soon as you can of the medium you are long-term aiming to use (not including 70mm, which I think would be impossible for any individual to afford, unless maybe they were Richard Branson or someone similar).

Edited by Jon O'Brien

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My discussion, above, is obviously aimed at 35mm film production. Apologies to all professionals who don't use this medium or are not interested in it. New here, and forgot I was now in a general forum area, not exclusively film oriented.

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Man it would be nice to have a few film cameras and constantly be shooting film, but those days are long over. People don't want to see film on demo reels anymore, they want to see RED and Alexa material, that's what "sells" today.

 

Also, for the cost of making a decent demo reel on 35mm, owning your own equipment, you COULD buy a pretty good 4k cinema camera.

 

So it's kind of a catch 22... if you want to work in the industry today, you've gotta know the current tech and market yourself as knowing it.

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Yes, I'm certainly not one to advise young film makers. So, young film makers, don't listen to me. I'm just in love with film, like nearly everyone else, and keep thinking up ways to keep those old cameras purring away. I'm not saying I don't like digital. I think it's great. It's opened up so many opportunities.

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I dunno; most of the producers who've seen my reel and hire me are often quite happy to know I've come from a film background and that I still shoot it on occasion. It perhaps adds a level of "i know what i'm doing" beyond the days of people buying their way into the field-- or perhaps it's that I'm more likely to try to get the right camera for the job as opposed to what I have on the shelf.

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It perhaps adds a level of "i know what i'm doing" beyond the days of people buying their way into the field

These days, using your light meter can have a similar effect.

Edited by Michael LaVoie

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Yes, I'm certainly not one to advise young film makers. So, young film makers, don't listen to me. I'm just in love with film, like nearly everyone else, and keep thinking up ways to keep those old cameras purring away. I'm not saying I don't like digital. I think it's great. It's opened up so many opportunities.

Well, I don't like digital very much. Knowing that the future of filmmaking on motion picture film is hazy, I decided to start a charitable foundation based around educating our youth about using film. I also teach senior filmmaking at a local arts high school on 16mm and 35mm. We're building a phenomenal program that I'm hoping in a few years, can be taught by other instructors at different schools.

 

So I'm with you on the whole film thing and there is a lot of validity to what Adrian says about having a film background. He's also a talented, hard working guy with a great reel... so does it really matter that some of the reel is film, or that he's just a good fit based on who he is, talent and experiences?

 

Becoming a cinematographer is difficult because in many cases, you can't pick your jobs, you've gotta go with whatever is available and being able to convince some random low-budget filmmaker to shoot on film vs digital is very difficult. It's even harder to find a job that's already slated to be on film because in most of those cases, the filmmaker already has someone lined up, hence the reason they're ok with going film. You may get lucky and find a few shoots per year that need a film cinematographer and in that case, having that "specialty" does help for sure. I also always suggest cinematographers first learn how to shoot on film, especially 35mm because that knowledge will translate perfectly into the world of digital cinema from field of view to shutter angle. Yet, it's even more important today to have MORE experience with the modern cinema cameras AND have your own digital package ready to go. I've lost many jobs in the past because I don't own a 4k digital cinema camera. When you graduate into bigger films, its less important to own a package, but those low-budget guys, thrive off the DP bringing their own package.

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What is the difference between a cinematographer and a camera operator? No, this is not the first line of a joke. I've always wondered. I guess I could google it but some insider knowledge would be good. Also, another question: how do young camera operators who might be somewhat self-trained get knowledge and experience with cranes and things like that - I suppose the only way it can be learned is on the job .... assuming you get a job in film.

Edited by Jon O'Brien

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The cinematographer works directly with the director to put their vision on screen. This "CAN" include; composition, lighting, stock selection, camera selection and support. The cinematographer also works with the gaffer to create the films look, they are the ONLY direct connection to the lighting department. The director only talks with the cinematographer when it comes to what's on screen, not the gaffer/lighting, or even operator/assistant operator.

 

The camera operator basically works the camera during the shot. They take direction from the cinematographer and work the camera as directed. A lot of cinematographers enjoy running the camera as well, so the position of "operator" may only be available on bigger shows or shows where the DP doesn't want to operate.

 

When I young, I got experience by starting on the ground level and learning things through hands on experiences. Yes I stepped on a few people's feet, yes I was awfully excited to be shooting on 35mm and would jump at the opportunity, but that's to be expected when your just starting out. Most of that learning needs to be done on set however, its hard to really learn those things without getting hands on experiences.

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Always a question on my mind as a student... I often hear of the "ladder" that is intrinsic to the industry and the grind working your way up is. With how I'm currently working on stuff as a student, it seems viable to keep honing my skills as a DP, and trying to find my way freelancing in and out of college. Has anyone had experience/heard stories of DP's jumping right into the role? Or purely doing self-marketing and promotion in a "I think, therefore I am" sense?

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Nobody comes to mind. Not saying it's impossible. Just not that that common. Career producers and UPM's tend to have a pretty full stable of "seasoned" (a word you'll hear a LOT) DP's and then all the 2nd Unit DP's chomping at the bit for that lead spot. It's so much safer to go with people you already know then it is to trust a new DP or any crew member for that matter.

 

You can jump several rungs on that ladder after graduation if you meet equally new and up and coming talented directors in school who are really pushing their careers forward and making a future for themselves in the business. That's the real trick. You move at the pace of the work and the directors. So make those connections with other really good writers, directors and if there's anyone in your school who is business savvy and following that producer track they can be a great connection down the line. Good luck

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Always a question on my mind as a student... I often hear of the "ladder" that is intrinsic to the industry and the grind working your way up is. With how I'm currently working on stuff as a student, it seems viable to keep honing my skills as a DP, and trying to find my way freelancing in and out of college. Has anyone had experience/heard stories of DP's jumping right into the role? Or purely doing self-marketing and promotion in a "I think, therefore I am" sense?

 

To be honest, from what I'm seeing (in my market at least), I think it's pretty equal over all - whether you start shooting immediately, and have to build up from zero budget projects to the bigger things; or whether you start out as a trainee, 2nd AC or video split operator and work up from there - it seems to average out as a ten year grind regardless before people seem to really get established or start moving up in the world.

 

Obviously there are always going to be exceptions to the rule, but it would seem unwise to count on being one of those exceptions.

 

 

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