As a father, I am always proud watching my five-year-old daughter discover and accomplish things that, while innate or simple to me as an adult, are milestones for her. She is a beautiful piece of veined marble that I enjoy watching as the sculpture deep within is slowly revealed. She believes she can be anything she wants to be when she grows up and my wife and I encourage that. Right now she wants to be a 'Fire fighter Doctor', an honorable profession if there ever was one.
I am envious of her, because here I am, almost 33 and nearly 14 years into my career in the industry as a freelance Director of Photography and while my five-year-old is happy and carefree, my 'teenager' is confused and concerned.
I do what I love and I love what I do, but my freelance career was 'born' while I was a young single man with no responsibilities, or people to care for, feed, or support. If it did not work out, no harm no foul, I was the only person who would fall on their face and be affected by it. This is no longer the case, but what I have learned in raising a real and tangible life form (mostly thanks to her mother being the stay at home mom superstar she is), is that the metaphysical being of your freelance career parallels a child’s life.
You begin like an infant, unable to speak the language, unable to be left on your own, requiring constant 'parental' supervision and being fed or having shiny, noisy things dangled in front of you ('exposure', promises of Sundance and fame) to silence every cry or noise you make.
You grow. Now you are crawling, you learn the language and you can identify things. Maybe you cannot identify hazards yet (do not touch the hot light!), but experience will teach you through trial and error. Now your first steps (a paid gig, a referral, repeat business), but still full of innocent naiveté, you learn the hard way this world can be cruel (stiffed on getting paid, jobs fall through, your first work drought). You fall, scrape your knee, your ego is bruised, your feelings are hurt, but it is all for the greater good, you know it. However, it does not make it sting any less and there is no one to kiss it and make it better.
You grow older, you learn to play well with others and share. You have to; nobody wants to play with the spoiled brat. You make friends, you lose friends and you have crushes (maybe it is a make-up artist or an actor, but inevitably it does not work out, it is not you, it is them). You go through your growing pains and enter the adolescence of your career and 'the change'.
Time to develop into a man/woman of this industry. You start doing less weekend warrior 'passion projects', realizing the opportunity costs. You develop the ability to see through the mass of BS that is paraded before you and seek out opportunities that are real and results oriented.
You begin to develop a professional repertoire and client base. You are your brand and all you do, knowingly or unknowingly, affects it in either a positive or negative manner and goes on your 'permanent record'. You go through 'phases' (art department, camera, lighting, sound, etc) and find your 'clique' to identify yourself by (DPs rule, ADs drool!).
Then the big question, the one that my career has decided, as most teenagers do at this age, that it is having difficulty answering. What does it want to be when it 'grows up'? Because at this stage in my career and my life, it is sink or swim and sinking does not only affect me anymore, like it would have that young man 14 years ago. There are innocent bystanders now and I would sooner use my bloated, water-logged corpse as a life raft, than see them suffer by any fault of my own.
The youthful (and optimistic) enthusiast in me says, "Do not worry, we will overcome, shoot feature films and you'll be rubbing elbows with Roger Deakins before we know it". The seasoned (not so optimistic) realist in me says, "We will shoot what pays the bills and hope for the best, but if it has not happened yet, it may never happen". Lastly, the weathered and tired pessimist in me says, "Any day now, the 'experiment' will end and you will end up having to explain to the assistant manager at your Walmart interview why you have been out of the work force for over a decade and probably choke out the first customer who looks at you sideways".
More importantly, my wife asks why I am talking to myself so much.
Occupational hazard is my best guess.
What I am trying to convey to you (yes, there is a point) is even after nearly 14 years as a freelancer, a career that has included theatrically distributed films with Academy Award nominated talent and many other accolades, there are doubts and there will always be doubts. There has to be.
Doubting yourself, if you are strong-willed and determined to really make a go of it in this industry, pushes you to try harder, learn more and be better. Complacency and comfort stunt your growth artistically. The photographers shooting children’s portraits against stock backgrounds in the mall every day, aspired to be and to do more I promise you.
I am saying this not only to sustain my own sanity within the framework of these words and justify my continuance unto year 15 and beyond, but also to speak to anyone out there that is either just starting as a freelancer, thinking about becoming a freelancer, or is a seasoned freelancer like myself in hope they can relate.
We all struggle from time to time. There is an ebb and flow to our lives as freelancers. We will all experience the concept of feast or famine. Our professional lives as freelancers can and will interrupt, disrupt, or even destroy our personal lives. You start freelancing thinking that being your own boss, you will plan work around vacations with your family or time with your friends, you quickly realize that you will have to start planning vacations around your work and that your friends are the people on set with you.
So why do it?
Why risk everything to pursue this?
Because we love it. Because it is everything to us.
It provides a sense of liberation from the mundane of the nine to five cubicle grind. The variety in our workday cannot be found in any other industry. One day we are on a car commercial, the next day it’s an industrial shoot with leading nanotech big wigs. The day after that it is an action film or a music video.
Perhaps the day after that it is an infomercial for a product you never knew you needed until it’s 2 am, you are just waking up to get ready to make that 4 am call time and you see it on television. Whether it is the sleep deprivation, because you just got in at midnight from the gig the day before or because you realize you worked on that infomercial, so you feel a sense of brand loyalty to the product, the menu of the project du jour is always a flavorful buffet that we will gladly feast upon, because we know it’s better than reheated chicken in the break room at the office.
Freelancers are a special breed of crazy. We are the functioning workaholics. Work 13 straight days? Sure. A 15 hour day? As long as there is overtime, even if there is not, in certain cases we will do it. Work outdoors in temperatures ranging from 20 below zero to 115 degrees? Absolutely. Would you do the same in an office setting if asked? “Hey John/Jane, could you fire watch the copy machine for the next eight hours? You will get great exposure. Almost everyone in the office walks past that copy machine at least once a day.”
What we do is special, people sometimes forget that. Sure everything we do is not our best work, even though we would like it to be and not everything we do will be seen by the entire world or anyone ever again after that one screening if it makes it that far, it does not matter. You made something unique, either directly with your fingerprint on it like a Director of Photography, Director, Set Designer, or Actor, or indirectly as a member of the crew. You have an ownership to it, just like that product in the infomercial at 2 am. The part you played in its creation, however big or small, led to its creation.
That is what freelancing has meant to me at every stage of my career and every position I have filled on a set in that career, from Production Assistant to Director of Photography. It is not being a cog in the machine of a production; it is being a piece of the whole, it is about learning, connecting and creating.
So through all this, in talking with my ever rebellious and confused teenaged freelance career about what it wants to be when it 'grows up', we have decided that while the stakes are high, we are confident in ourselves and our abilities living and operating in such a high risk, high reward industry and that we are not ready to take portraits against stock backgrounds. We are not ready to wear a suit and tie. We are not ready to stand at the water cooler discussing the prime time television offerings from the night before. We are not ready for reheated chicken for lunch.
We love doing what we do. The high we get from lighting and composing a great shot, a great scene and seeing it come to life on the monitor is better than any drug and we look forward to always growing and to growing old together in this industry we love so much. We (including my wife) also think we may be schizophrenic, but that is a discussion for another day and another blog. Until next time, cheers everyone!
About Shawn Schaffer
Shawn has been in the Film and Television Industry since 2002. Beginning as an actor and production assistant, he took the road less traveled, opting not to attend film school and head out on something of a prolonged apprenticeship to learn the ropes.
Over the next five years, he worked as a production assistant, working for a cold slice of pizza, shadowing the grips and learning techniques and tools of the trade in the field, then as a grip himself, shadowing the Key Grip and Gaffer, learning their responsibilities and the working relationship they have with one another on set as well as the working relationship they both have with the Director of Photography.
In 2007, he began working as a Camera Operator and Director of Photography when the opportunity arose, all while learning lighting techniques by doing, by trial and error, by observation of others and by observation of his favorite films. By this time, he was also able to sustain a living working solely in the industry and left his day job to pursue a full-time career working in an industry he loves and he is grateful to have been able to make his living from and support his family.
Since then, he has served as the Director of Photography on a number of feature films, most notably 'Fighting for Freedom', starring Kristanna Loken (Terminator 3, Bloodrayne) and Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee Bruce Dern (Nebraska, Monster, Big Love) and 'Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor', featuring the talents of Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover, Due Date), Lewis Black (Daily Show, Root of All Evil), BJ Novak (The Office), Bob Saget (Full House, Half Baked), and more. He has also served as the Director of Photography on over a hundred short films, commercials, corporate and industrial projects and television projects.
When approaching a project, he works closely with the creative forces involved in the project to make a harmonious collaboration. This is his preferred method of working, it ensures a singular, unified vision when production begins and an end product that is representative of all the creative collaborative at it’s best.
Like this blog post? Please share it on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email etc) by using social media buttons at the top of the blog. Or post to your personal blog and anywhere else you feel appropriate. Thank you.
As always, we welcome thoughts and remarks on ANY of the content above in the Comments section below...