Want to Keep Working? Tips for Newbie Cinematographers Beyond the Technical
Photo Credit: S & A
Filmmaker Toolkit

Want to Keep Working? Tips for Newbie Cinematographers Beyond the Technical


It seems like with the advent of affordable SLRs, everyone who can, will call themselves a Cinematographer. I say, claim it & do the work. There is no camera nor piece of equipment you can’t master. To quote the awesome Ira Glass “all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste”. So, even if there’s no tangible proof yet, I trust you also have an “eye” and aesthetic you are cultivating.

I’ve written enough articles on how producers and directors need to work with us. We also have responsibilities beyond showing up with crew and gear. There are basic expectations & a certain mind set that will make you easy to work with, make the job successful and lead to more work.

In other words: You can be an amateur…just don’t be immature.

With any article, there are details I’ve overlooked, thought obvious (don’t drink on set), too complex to tackle (working with your agent) or I’m still figuring out myself (going union). What follows is a compilation of the most recent advice I’ve given to young DPs.

It’s not your footage. I believe (?) Still Photographers own the rights to their images but DPs do not. Whether you sign a deal memo (contract) or not, the footage belongs to your client (director/producer/agency etc). If you do sign a deal memo, the wording will be something like (grabbed from the Filmmakers Alliance):

WORK-FOR-HIRE:  Production Company shall be the owner of all of the results and proceeds of employee’s services, including any copyright, trademark and any other intellectual property rights in any work or property created by Employee, or anyone under Employee’s direction.”  What your client does with the footage you shot is their prerogative. Your high key colorful hip hop music video is recut to be a black/white PSA for British Petroleum? Ideally, you work with teams and on projects you believe you will be proud of but ultimately your approval is irrelevant.

Collaboration with other Department heads not only makes your life easier but can make you look like a genius. I can’t imagine my beloved “The Conformist” with Storaro’s cinematography but without Scarfiotti’s production design.

DPs who bark orders at the Production Designer or Sound Mixer, for instance, might think they look authoritative. I find it immature and a hope to deflect from their own inadequacies. Production Designers help me hide my lighting set-ups and make them believable with extra practicals. Sound can devise an intricate placement of mics so the director gets the sound they need and I get to shoot my 360 degree crane up and dolly through a window shot.

Show your directors some compassion. They have it hard. They have much more to juggle than us: actor personalities, rotating producers, agents, rejections for grants, doubts of investors and praying for distro. While we’ve moved on to the next job & they’re still trying to finish this one. They’re not necessarily incompetent just dealing with industry BS. Learn to be patient.

In the same vein, appreciate but don’t assume loyalty from your directors or producers. As Lynda Obst said in her book, “Hello, He Lied”: it’s called show business not show friendship. I’m madly in love with my directors and crew but career needs, aspirations and pressures change. They may have to change who they hire as well. Focus on doing the best job now but recognize everyone is trying to make the best business decisions …for themselves.

No job is an insult. As I discussed in last month’s article on money, there are many ways a job can offer you value beyond your day rate. Instead of complaining that a job offer is beneath you, refocus your efforts to improve your craft and make sure potential clients know what you’re up to. People who “knew you when” (you were PAs together or met in film school) might treat you as if you’ve not advanced. Don’t take it personally. If you’re not being offered the type of work you want, then its time to improve your self promotion game.

Don’t let working with celebrities go to your head. Just because you follow them on Twitter & loved their last film does not make them your BFF. I’ve filmed celebrities, dignitaries, yet to be discovered actors and regular people. My job is always the same: support the director with creating the image they want & support production by doing everything in my power to stay within budget and on time. For the love of god do not ask for a photo, autograph or chat a celebrity up incessantly. Let actors or interviewees do their work, be focused & feel respected.

Dress appropriately. My typical on set look is some version of cargo pants, t-shirt & a hoodie (special S/O to that amazing hoodie related episode of “House of Lies”). However, covering certain events will require a conservative dress code. Ask your producer if you’re not certain. Possible jobs that will assume you arrive in all black are fashion shows, weddings and filming government officials. Always have an all black suit/outfit on standby. You don’t want to be surprised an hour before call time nor show up on set looking (in their eyes) foolish and unprofessional.

Working as a Camera Operator or shooting 2nd Unit for another DP is a great gig. It’s an excellent way to offer your talents and hone your skills. Just remember: stay in your lane. Even if you believe you know more than the DP. You have no idea what was discussed in prep nor will be handled in post. On a shoot, my 2nd camera operator repeatedly questioned my lens choice and made suggestions that he thought were better than the ones the director and I had tested, chosen and loved from previous shoots. Do you think I’ll be working with him again?

Suggest. Inquire. But if it sounds like you are correcting? Stop. It’s not your show.

Finding work is a creative process not a competitive one. Obviously, there are jobs that will pit you against another DP. I think you do yourself a disservice by calling other DPs your “competitors”. My fellow DP friends have frequently referred me for work, brought me on as 2nd Unit and helped me when I was overbooked. Never discredit another DP to a potential client. Even if you’re right, you look petty. If you feel you are not working enough, create work in other industries that may not realize they need a videographer. I used to shoot medical training videos when I was in film school. Not very glamorous but it paid my bills and taught me the fun of fluorescent lighting. Shooting videos for books has become a trend. My friend and fellow travel enthusiast, Kiratiana Fellon and I were chatting about how much fun it would be to shoot the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Those enthusiastic tweets might have just created another gig.

You can see my work at MagicEyeFilm.com and chat film @CybelDP.

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