One of the most common questions I get from readers of this blog is “How do I break into the industry as a cinematographer?” As you might imagine, there’s no easy answer to this, as there are countless factors that contribute to your success as a DP.
For starters, you need to have an incredible understanding of the science of lighting, and the creative chops to harness that knowledge in a way that will make your work distinctly your own. You also need to have a deep technical understanding of cameras, lenses, codecs, and color – more so than ever before.
But you probably already know that. And you may already be a very talented DP in your own right, capable of capturing beautifully cinematic images, yet you are still struggling to find your footing on professional sets. If this sounds like you, I’ll bet you have overlooked what I believe to be the most important determinant to the success of any working DP –
You must have an incredibly strong ability to run a set, and must truly understand that doing so is part of the fundamental nature of being a DP.
If you don’t have a lot of experience on professional productions, you might incorrectly assume that running a crew is strictly the job of the director, 1st AD, or producer. And while each of these key players plays a pivotal role in keeping the operations moving on any given set, there is no crew member more called upon for this task than the DP.
As a cinematographer, being able to hustle your crew together and keep the day moving on set isn’t going above and beyond your job description – it is your job description.
Yes, you may be responsible for the creative look and feel of the film you are shooting… But part of that responsibility means you are doing everything in your power to keep the train moving when the director is pre-occupied. If you have done your prep work, developed a solid creative relationship with your director, and spent enough time in pre-production, you should never need to wait around for someone to tell you what to do.
You need to be in sync with your director and understand that when he or she is not around to call the shots – that responsibility is largely going to fall on you.
The 1st AD is tasked with keeping the day on schedule and moving the train ahead in many respects. That said, other than the director, you have a deeper understanding of what needs to be done at any given moment from both a creative and logistical stand point. This is why even the 1st AD may need to defer to you to make critical choices and lead the crew. If your crew is standing around (or worse you are standing around), chances are you aren’t doing your job and you should be taking action to keep the set moving.
This doesn’t only apply to the camera crew either – this applies to the entire crew. If the makeup department is out having a cigarette while the actors are standing around doing nothing, say something. If you see an issue that has absolutely nothing to do with your department but that it taking time away from shooting, speak up to the producer, department head, 1st AD, or whoever it is that needs to know. You aren’t overstepping your boundaries. You are just doing your job and being the eyes and ears of your director when they are off rehearsing actors, revising the script, or otherwise off set.
By the same token, there are boundaries on every film set and naturally every production has it’s own unwritten rules. You need to adapt to the productions you are on and take as much initiative as possible, but at the same time avoid stepping on anyone else’s toes.
If you don’t understand this responsibility and don’t start taking the initiative to lead the crew when the director needs your most, you may never sustain a professional career.
There are so many talented budding cinematographers out there. It’s actually pretty amazing to watch reels today of young DPs, and see just how high the bar has been raised for independent cinematography over the last few years. And while this is fantastic in many respects, it also means the playing field is more competitive than ever.
I have seen many DPs come and go since I started working in the industry, and the few that have excelled, jumping leaps and bounds above other DPs of their same age, are the ones that understood their responsibilities as a leader from early on.
They are not the ones that simply showed up with their RED camera and some lights and started rolling. They are the ones that showed up months before production began and met with the director time and time again to develop the necessary visual language for the script. They showed up on set over-prepared, and as a result were able to over deliver, not only creatively, but also logistically.
Conversely, I have seen countless talented DPs give up on the craft of cinematography because they weren’t getting enough work. In many cases these individuals had as much or more raw talent than DPs I know that are now working on very high level projects. What they didn’t have though, was the ability to lead and take initiative.
At the end of the day making a movie is still very much a job, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. And like any job, it is someone’s responsibility to hire you and potentially call you back in the future for other productions.
If you are the needle in the haystack that steps up to the plate and rallies your troops, making the set run smoother and the lives of the rest of the team easier, you will be invaluable to any production.
On the other hand, if you just show up on the day of, underprepared and armed with only a broad knowledge of the craft of cinematography and a camera, you’re in for some trouble.
So next time you’re on set as a DP, look for opportunities to make things run smoother and make the day more efficient. It may not be the most creative facet of the job, but I guarantee you it’s what will get you more creative work than anything else will… Even more than your reel.
I can tell you this from first hand experience, both as a director and a DP. Although I often shoot my own material, when I look to hire a DP on any of my directorial projects, work ethic and leadership play just as much into my decision as the quality of a reel.
Always remember, this is a referral based business. Nobody cares where you went to school or what your cover letter looks like. All that matters is your talent, your initiative, and your leadership. If you have all three, you have the combination for success.