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Andrew Ko

Film Graduate to First Paid Gig as a Cinematographer

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Hi there,

I've been finding it a little hard to find practical advice about acquiring a first paying gig as a cinematographer -- key word, practical.

So I'd like to throw it to you guys and ask, how would you go about finding your first paid gig as a cinematographer in medium-high level productions.
(this discludes one-man team type content such as wedding videos, videos for small businesses, etc.)

Here are the assumptions:

Student X:

  1. Has just graduated film school with a decent reel with at least a base "sellable" quality.
  2. Does not own a cinema camera, and in fact has some school debt to deal with.
  3. Does not have any "free-ticket" connections, such as a family member or friend in the industry.

Now, I have some guesses. Let me know if any of them ring true:

  1. Join the local camera union, and work as an 2nd/1st AC for 10+ years until one day you get thrown a bone to work as a cinematographer.
  2. Do something else for a living for 5+ years until you acquire $40,000+ to start with your first camera package, then sell yourself with that.

But the thing is, both of these paths seem rather unreasonable. I've worked on sets as an electric/camera trainee and I've seen fairly young cinematographers just out of film schools doing shoots for music videos and the like. Are these all rich heirs to cash that have managed to get themselves an ALEXA mini?

There must be a better way!

Furthermore, lets say you do manage to get yourself a decent camera package and a solid reel. Where do you even look for work? Kijiji? Facebook? Seems unprofessional.
 

Anyways, what would you tell Student X? I would love to know!

- Andy

 

Edited by Andrew Ko

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Trouble is that I got out of film school 29 years ago, so I doubt my experiences apply anymore.

After graduation, I worked for two years part time at a sound effects company doing data entry.  Meanwhile I was shooting short films for people still at my film school or having just graduated.  One year after graduation I shot a 35mm independent feature for a fellow graduate, unpaid labor. Two years after graduation, I got lucky when I was introduced by a fellow graduate to a director he was helping get a feature off the ground. This was 1993 and the director was considering using betacam video equipment, which was not common for feature films, but suddenly he found investors and a budget of $900,000, enough to shoot on 35mm. Even though his new-hired production manager told him and his investors to fire the inexperienced cinematographer he hired, he stuck with me and the feature came out well as a professional piece of work.  Same guy who introduced me to this director was helping another set of producers get their first film off the ground. First I shot a short film for them and then the feature, again in 35mm for a budget of about $350,000.  It got stuck in post for a decade. Then the editor of my second feature introduced me a director who hired me for my fourth feature. It was a thriller, like my second, to be sold overseas to German TV and go straight to video in the U.S.  The producer of that thriller hired me for five more features.  All 35mm, all rented equipment.

I wasn't making much of a living in this decade -- these features paid the DP about $1000/week and they were shot in 3 weeks, with a week of paid prep, so I'd make $4000 per feature, and I'd shoot two to three a year, so $8000 to $12,000/year income.  For a few years, I padded this income by shooting some EPK's and infomercials on video.  I had some friends who were cinematographers who invested in Super-16 equipment and were shooting independent features with their camera.  Trouble was that I couldn't afford to buy an Aaton or ARRI-SR with lenses, etc.  But by not owning equipment, I had to get hired on shows that rented the cameras, and they were all 35mm shoots (I only ever did one Super-16 feature out of about 25 features in 35mm).

By 1997 or so, I was worried about getting stuck in the non-union straight-to-video genre market because it wasn't really much of an income and I didn't want to still be doing those sorts of films when I was 50, so I took a chance and started going out for more art film fare that might get seen at a major film festival.  That's when I shot "Twin Falls Idaho", made in 35mm for about $500,000 in 17 days I think -- my 13th feature at this point. It got into the Sundance Film Festival, it got me an agent, and it got me an Independent Spirit Award nomination. And it got a theatrical release.  I did several more of these films, joined the union finally (after 23 features, in 2003), started shooting for cable TV (HBO's "Big Love" in 2006).  Never did end up buying a movie camera.

The market today is different because decent-quality digital cameras are semi-affordable, so more and more producers just expect the cinematographer to have one.  I know some people who will buy an Alexa Mini or Red Helium in a joint venture with some other people and park the camera at some rental house when they aren't shooting. But I think it's a bit of a merry-go-round you are jumping onto, having to keep buying the latest camera -- at some point you are going to want to jump off.

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I will add that I didn't have much student debt -- CalArts was only $9000/year in my first year, and even though tuition went up $1000 every year, by my second and third year, I had a 50% scholarship.  Don't remember what I borrowed, maybe $25,000 total, but my parents helped me pay it off.  And my wife helped support me for that decade after film school when I wasn't making much.

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22 minutes ago, David Mullen ASC said:

I will add that I didn't have much student debt -- CalArts was only $9000/year in my first year, and even though tuition went up $1000 every year, by my second and third year, I had a 50% scholarship.  Don't remember what I borrowed, maybe $25,000 total, but my parents helped me pay it off.  And my wife helped support me for that decade after film school when I wasn't making much.


Wow, thanks so much David for your detailed reply. Actually, I was hoping for a reply from you!

Times may be different, but I like to think there are some universals that are always relevant, so I'll definitely keep everything you've said in mind. Reading through your answer, it did light up some bulbs in my current thinking for what I plan on doing this next year when I graduate, so your advice is very much appreciated.

- Andy

 

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Owning gear has always been a trap, in my opinion. Do you want them to hire you because you come with "free" gear, or because you're good cinematographer? Here's the followup to that, if they do hire you because you come with gear, then they're loyal to that "free" gear, not to you. So when they get the bigger job with the better budget down the line that's much more creative, they'll get the DP that has the good reel, not the DP that has gear.

Now, I'm not saying you can't get ahead with a little gear in the beginning. But it shouldn't be viewed as the ticket into it - your talent is that.

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Those 24 year old DPs fresh out of film school tend to be the outliers, and I'd put money on them all either coming from the AFI or similar school, or somehow owning their own Alexa package. In my experience, a lot of them tend to end up shooting themselves in the foot because people find out very quickly that they don't actually have the ability and the experience to do the job.

You mention looking for work on "medium-high level productions". I'm not quite sure what you mean by that, but I think that even when looking for work on something like lower budget TV movies, you're going to find that a nice demo reel isn't enough. It may impress the director, but the producers are going to be more concerned about your experience. Can you help the director with blocking ensemble casts? Can you manage both the camera and G&E teams effectively? Can you light quickly without having all the latest gear? Can you get through 8-10 pages a day, every day? Producers are often willing to take a risk on an inexperienced director, but almost never on an inexperienced DP.

I'd say the best approach is to find work as an AC, or perhaps in G&E, so that you have a steady income, and then to shoot as many short films, passion projects or whatever as you can on the side. Working on professional sets will teach you a lot about how other DPs work, not just in lighting and camera, but in how they manage their crews, and how they deal with other departments. You'll be learning more every day, and at the same time practicing your skills on your own projects.

Throwing yourself in the deep end as a DP with no other income will put you under a lot of pressure to say yes to every job. It's easy to find yourself stuck in a rut, doing work you don't enjoy, just to pay the rent.

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On 1/31/2020 at 2:38 AM, Adam Frisch FSF said:

Owning gear has always been a trap, in my opinion. Do you want them to hire you because you come with "free" gear, or because you're good cinematographer? Here's the followup to that, if they do hire you because you come with gear, then they're loyal to that "free" gear, not to you. So when they get the bigger job with the better budget down the line that's much more creative, they'll get the DP that has the good reel, not the DP that has gear.

Now, I'm not saying you can't get ahead with a little gear in the beginning. But it shouldn't be viewed as the ticket into it - your talent is that.

True, talent and knowledge does seem to be the most important. I guess when I look around I just see that people require a certain standard for what you have experience shooting with (ie., it might be hard to get work if you only have experience on Canon prosumer DSLRs no matter how good the work is). In other words, it seems like a requirement, not necessarily your selling point.

 

On 1/31/2020 at 8:15 AM, Stuart Brereton said:

You mention looking for work on "medium-high level productions". I'm not quite sure what you mean by that, but I think that even when looking for work on something like lower budget TV movies, you're going to find that a nice demo reel isn't enough. It may impress the director, but the producers are going to be more concerned about your experience. Can you help the director with blocking ensemble casts? Can you manage both the camera and G&E teams effectively? Can you light quickly without having all the latest gear? Can you get through 8-10 pages a day, every day? Producers are often willing to take a risk on an inexperienced director, but almost never on an inexperienced DP.

I'd say the best approach is to find work as an AC, or perhaps in G&E, so that you have a steady income, and then to shoot as many short films, passion projects or whatever as you can on the side. Working on professional sets will teach you a lot about how other DPs work, not just in lighting and camera, but in how they manage their crews, and how they deal with other departments. You'll be learning more every day, and at the same time practicing your skills on your own projects.

I guess what I mean by "medium-high level productions" would be anything with an AD. In other words, nothing like small corporate videos that you would make with a DSLR where you do every job including editing.

Interesting, yes I do plan on joining the union (just got in as a permittee) as an electric so good to know that it comes as such a recommended route. Thanks!

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The key thing for most trades is experience. Tricky part is; how does one get experience when there aren't many opportunities in general to even do free labor on professional sets? Start self producing shorts to build that experience up as well as building portfolio.
Film school (at least in this era) gives you a baby-level workload compared to what's actually required to have competent knowledge.

Doing everything on your own is the only way sometimes. Recently had my first 1stAC gig on a music video shoot among some media school graduates and was head and shoulders more knowledgeable than anyone there when it came to the camera/lighting departments.

You can't wait for knowledge or experience to come to you.

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It's also just hard

There are many more good DOP's then decently paying gigs.

Even with a good portfolio it can be tough.

Building a career takes a lot of work.

Either get trainee/assisting work and move up. Work for a equipment rental company

Tips would be:

- Get your portfolio looking as good as it can, if you have to do personal projects/unpaid work to get it looking nice, do that. No one will pay you to work if you can't prove you've done it before. You may have to set up a project to demo a skill - e.g offer a business a freebie if they are photogenic.  

- DOP portfolios have to be relevant to the job your applying too. If the job is Documentary/corporate video, you need to show you can shoot a nice interview, sending a drama reel would be a waste of time. As a director I have a seperate drama, corporate and music showreel and I'm working on pulling together a food photography reel, because I've done a few food things recently and it seems to be a growth area in demand in my market. 

- Cast your net widely when applying for jobs - look at jobs sites, freelancing sites (maybe avoid upwork), facebook groups - find all the networking areas. Apply to many jobs - early on you hit rate might only be 1 or 2 %, so it's very much a numbers game. Send every local production co your CV and Reel, follow up. Anything that pays is professional and lots of prod co's use facebook groups. I'm writing a BBC Worldwide documentary series at the moment, A job I got by sending my CV to a facebook advert. That sort of thing doesn't happen often but when it does its nice. 

- Once you have some clients, remind them you exist - touch base, show them new work etc... I sometimes got jobs from a prod co just because I emailed them to tell them about something else, it just puts you on their radar. 

- Be excellent on set/job etc... The work needs to be good, your attitude needs to be good, timescales and deadlines should be hit.

- It is possible to get jobs from cold applying and sending CV but its rare.

- Develop a range of skills/clients so your not dependant on one thing.

- Network and talk to people.

And when your not busy make opportunities, make personal projects get your work out there, be visible.

You have to hustle to make it work. Having kit is less important than attitude. 

But at the end it's just difficult, lots of people want to work in the media (particularly the camera department), many of them will be really good, some will have advantages of money/connections/time.  There are a finite amount of jobs and it seems freelance fee's have been driven down in many markets.  Its hard to get work, it's hard to get paid - it's not impossible but takes time and work. Hopefully you can find a way to make it work and build up enough of a reputation that people start coming to you. Otherwise, you might find it's not worth it, there are easier ways to make a living (like brain surgery)  

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like you, I'm still in the very beginning of the road and I seriously have the same concern. 

 

Well, a cinematographer is the head of the departments of camera, lighting and grip. this is why being a DP is a very tough profession and I highly doubt that a fresh film graduate can be up to the task.   

 

I have read all the previous comments. you guys have answered my concerns and gave me a great exposure of how things should be done. But there is something I'd like to add. In my humble opinion (please correct me if I was wrong) the one who truly has the ability to evaluate the DP is not the director or the producer, but the Gaffer. Yes directors and producers are the one who hire you but the gaffer  is your most important tool that helps you to get your job done. An experienced Gaffer has worked with many DPs before, and he/she may have a lot to suggest but most probably he/she will not bother himself/herself to say these suggestion if he/she sensed that the DP he/she is working with doesn't really know craft. 

 

What I'm trying to say is that before worrying about being hired as a DP you have to obtain a very strong knowledge (both theoretical and practical ) about lighting and griping.  And perhaps the way to get this knowledge is to work under a very good DP for about a couple of years. and then you may confidently start your profession as a cinematographer.

 

Cinematography is a craft, to learn it you must have a mentor.

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Also, be aware that you might fail (I hope you don't), but you might not be talented enough or have a personality the fits or unlucky or get ill.

Sometimes (especially in film) you here the mantra - if you want it enough and work hard enough you'll get there. That's nonsense, look at actors, the vast majority of them fail to have a sustainable career. You could be talented, but unlucky or personal circumstances get in the way, not getting to the top of the profession, isn't because you didn't try hard enough. 

You can do everything "right" and it still won't work out for you. It's important to know when to cut your losses or switch it up.

This isn't to be negative, just realistic, sometimes we can discover the thing we are good at when we are failing at something else. 

There are absolutely things that I attempted that I discovered that I'm not talented enough to really excel. I like the director Shane Meadows anecdote about how he attempted to make films only after he met a really talented musician(Gavin Clark). The meeting demonstrated, why Shanes dream of being a musician was a dead end because he'd never be as good as Gavin. 

 

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Developing the network is all that matters, if you came out of film school without that, its gonna be tough. Just focus on building the network from the ground up.  Instagram is key nowadays, take high quality stills,  follow directors and production companies, comment on their work, start discussions, its like dating, start slow, ask to work together after they have gotten to know you.  Learning the skills won't really get you hired at the level your at, friendships will though.  Just know that a producer will hire a cinematographer with not as good work, if they are easy to work with, if you can make people laugh, you'll get rehired most likely.  At the top end humor might not be more valuable than knowledge, but for the low to middle level it is. People are on set with each other up to 6 days a week 12-16 hours a day.  You can be the most knowledgeable person, but if you can joke around and do some small talk things will always be tough. You can always learn through doing, don't spend the free time studying, spend it reaching out to new people. Go to the level right below your level of work, to make quicker connections.

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Well, if the discussion expands to why some make it and some don't, I have to mention one big elephant in the room: social skills. I don't know how many PA's or new-to-the-business people I've met where I after 5 minutes can tell they won't last. Not because they're not good people at heart, but they just lack social skills, or don't have an ease with people and can't see spontaneously what needs to be done. Intuitive, I suppose. Add a little laziness to it, and you're sure to not last long.

I shoot in all corners of the world and one thing that always strikes me is that they all have social skills and play well with others, they're collaborative and they're hard workers. You have those three attributes - you'll make it.

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Hi Andrew! I'm still in the non-union narrative world and haven't shot a feature beyond a $500k budget, but here's my story so far:

I graduated film school in 2014, moved to LA in early 2015. During film school, I was lucky enough to shoot a micro-budget feature for a directing student in-between semesters (summer break). It was a learning experience, but gave me an actual feature credit. Up until that point, my work was weekend-warrior features, shorts, and music videos. All of it was student level.

After film school, I worked odd jobs to save up for the move to LA after advice from older DP's that it's one of the best US markets to get started in as a DP (albeit incredibly competitive, more later). During this time before LA, I actively built my online presence via social media, film industry job sites, and my personal website. I didn't gain a following, but maintained consistency in my online profiles so that when people "googled" me, I would pop up quickly.

Before my first feature in LA, I was crewing for other people and picked up freelance work as a tech at a local rental house in LA. Through Production Hub, director Scott Dunn reached out to me to shoot his first feature, Schlep. It was a modest pay, I think I got $200/day for a 12 day feature. Before then, my first DP gig in LA was a pro-bono three day shoot for a pilot that never got picked up. After Schlep, I returned to freelancing for the rental house while picking up crew gigs where I could. I would occasionally get a DP gig, but it was usually free work or very little pay (typically $200).

In 2016, a friend from film school, Barri Chase, secured funding for her first feature and I shot it during the summer (this had a budget of $500k). I eventually stopped freelancing for the rental house early in the year, but 2016 was my first good year because I was slowly getting DP work either through referrals from film school friends, applying online (more later), or from good ole fashion networking. I shot a third feature later on in 2016 for director Ryan Mitchelle, but at a much more modest budget and schedule of $50k and 8 days. This was also the year I started freelancing for a YouTube channel called Mixed Makeup, which paid I think $250/day. I was still crewing for other DP's.

2017 was a lot more work freelancing for Mixed Makeup while shooting small shorts or music videos. Because I maintained an active online presence, director Logan Stone followed my work and reached out to shoot his first feature Noise and Color. It was a budget of $250k shot over, I think, 15 days? One notable thing is that I was shooting much more than crewing in 2017, but I was still crewing when an offer came. Money is money!

2018 was an interesting year because I shot another feature for Scott Dunn early in the year and another feature for Ryan Mitchelle later in the year, both small budgets never topping $50k and schedules max 10-13 days. I've definitely noticed that the micro-budget feature market has grown significantly, but the schedules are incredibly difficult. What was interesting is that I did receive an offer to shoot a feature in 2018, but foolishly (or maybe not) turned it down because I didn't believe they were paying me enough (they offered $300/day).

The film was for a well established movie series, but wasn't a particularly well regarded franchise critically. The production was trying to skirt the union by shooting in a foreign country and secretly shooting in LA. Additionally, the director warned me that it was going to be a short shooting schedule (I think 12 days abroad and 5 in LA?) and an incredibly difficult film to make. The cherry on top is that the movie was just going to be terrible (the producers, director, and production company knew this). I didn't think the credit and money were worth the time, energy, and stress and turned the project down. I kind of still regret it because it could've meant I would maybe be shooting more features for this production company, but they don't put out good movies and I wouldn't want to get stuck in that world. Plus, I don't think these credits would help me much at all.

Regardless, 2018 was more shooting for YouTubers, crewing, and the occasional short paying DP gigs.

2019 was my first year in LA without shooting a feature. However, I feel lucky that I "filled the void" with substantially more short films and shooting work via YouTube. Again, the pay is low for the DP work in 2019 (roughly $300/day), but hey they're all narrative projects. 🙂

It's 2020 and I've got another feature with Scott Dunn shooting at the end of February. It's another micro-budget film with a short schedule, but I love the story and working with Scott and his killer wife+producer Gina. After that onto another micro-budget feature!

Here are some notes to fill in the gaps:

  • I've been full time freelance in LA since March 2016. The work I did at the rental house was freelance as in I could take as much time off as I needed as long as I gave them enough advance warning. However, I was eventually taking too much crew or DP work that I didn't feel comfortable leading them to believe I was still available as a tech.
  • I've received a lot of work via Facebook, ProductionHub, StaffMeUp, Craigslist, and indirectly instagram. There are no professional websites for finding work, all of them are just mediums to meet potential employers that you waste money on. Facebook has been the best success because it's simply the most common way of people meeting people. Instagram works as a great portfolio and way for people to find me, but I've had friends get work because of their stuff on Instagram. So, if you see a job posting on Facebook or the other sites I've mentioned, apply! It's just as risky as taking a job from a complete stranger who emailed, texted, or called you.
  • If you don't have a website and demo reel yet, then get them. Virb.com is great, so is Square Space, GoDaddy, etc.
  • Some experienced DP's recommended I move to LA because it's the best market to get started in as a DP. It's also true for NYC because of the sheer volume of indie films, commercials, TV, music videos, etc that are being made there. LA and NYC have the highest concentration of new, slightly new, and small budget directors than any other market in the US. These are the people who will hire DP's fresh out of film school. Productions that shoot on budgets higher than $500k seldom hire new DP's and rarely higher DP's that aren't in LA/NYC. Sure, films with $2mil budgets shoot in Atlanta, but the department heads are almost always from LA/NYC simply because that's where they got hired. That's where the producers and directors are from, where they met the DP's when the director/producer's weren't shooting larger budgets.
    • LA/NYC is a notoriously competitive market for DP's. There are so many of us here. There are those, like me, who don't own a camera package and shoot with what the production can afford. There are those who own an expensive camera package and shoot a lot more for a lot bigger budgets. There are those who are somewhere in the middle.
    • The biggest hurdle you'll face is your income to debt ratio. A lot of grad students leave AFI/USC/UCLA/Chapman with $100k+ in student debt. The monthly payment alone is as much or if not more than your rent in LA. Imagine having to pay that on a freelance income. If you're one of the lucky ones, then school is paid for by your family and you get to enjoy all of the benefits from these school's alumni network without the headache and career inhibiting student debt.
      • Healthcare is also an issue in the US since it's private. Some grads are lucky and can stay on their parent's insurance until their 26. Regardless, eventually all grads will need to have health insurance. If you don't, then you're dooming yourself to financial debt when you do get hurt on set. (It's not if it's when)
  • These are not my money making years. My wife supports me a lot right now and I wouldn't have turned down that movie if my wife wasn't working or was living by myself.
  • I'm actively trying to meet new filmmakers all the time. On a good day, I try to make 3 new connections. The internet, particularly social media, has made it easier to meet more people. I have an excel sheet of everyone I interacted with who became a new connection. This sheet has when we last spoke, what we talked about, how we met, and who introduced us. This sheet takes time to fill out and is tedious, but allows me to keep track of everyone I've made a genuine connection with.
    • It's difficult to maintain quality relationships with friends, imagine trying to maintain professional relationships with 150 (and growing) people.
    • If you keep this sheet updated, it gets easy to manage.
  • Micro-budget features are becoming more common because how of cheap cameras and gear are today and how easy it is to sell a movie. However, the budgets are naturally tight, the schedules difficult, the locations tiny, and the crew non-existent. I've done features where it's just me, the director, actors, sound person, and producer.
  • A DP career takes a long time. The best description I was given about the first ten years out of film school is this: An financial and logistical wasteland and an emotional wildfire.
  • Should you own a camera? Yes, but get the one you can afford. My mantra is that if a production can't afford to rent an Alexa, then they'll get my GH4. I want productions to hire me because of my expertise, not my cheap Alexa rental.

I hope this helps!

Edited by AJ Young
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On 2/15/2020 at 6:26 PM, AJ Young said:

Hi Andrew! I'm still in the non-union narrative world and haven't shot a feature beyond a $500k budget, but here's my story so far:

Holy poop. Thanks so much for this! I was looking for something like this, but never thought someone would give such a detailed post. Wow, a lot of your story is very enlightening and helps a lot!

Much much much thanks for taking your time to write this.

I will be studying this post for awhile.

Edited by Andrew Ko

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I hope it helped! I had conversations like this with working DP's when I was in film school and it really set me up for less heartache when I graduated. This kind of conversation goes on for hours.

Every career path is different, don't compare yours to others as a measure of success. Just keep networking, shooting when you can, and putting yourself out there. 🙂

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