Cinematography as a career choice is changing drastically. Is it still as viable an option as it was 10 years ago?
Copy the link below to share this page:
With more content being created than ever before, I think it's more than viable. Filmmakers like to work with their "tribe", so I suggest networking, being active and visible and making as many connections as possible.
Most experienced producers working on shows you've heard of or commercials you've seen have a pretty full stable of seasoned DP's that they know already and can call to crew up a show. Then there are all the eager 2nd Unit DP's that they owe a chance to move up. So bypassing all of that without family or friends in the business already is very, very tough. That's like trying to dig your way through the mountain rather than climbing it. So climb, don't dig. Just be sure to be extra nice to everyone you meet on the climb up. What's changed in 10 years? Well, now you really have to treat everyone on set as the potential producer on your next project. Good or bad that's the reality.
You've got a good looking reel. Nice work. It's a great time to be a Cinematographer. It's also a tough time to be a Cinematographer. Digital cameras and media have exploded the market so there's more work out there than ever and more demand for DP's with a reel and not necessarily twenty or thirty years behind the lens. On the other hand, anybody who used to just be a Videographer can now be a DP by virtue of having a camera package and enough knowledge to use it and undercutting the competition in cost. I'm not a Camera guy, but I have lots of IATSE friends. It used to be very hard to move up. A 2nd AC might spend ten years loading film before getting a shot at pulling focus. A 1st AC might pull focus for his entire career without getting a shot at the wheels as a Camera Operator. And then a Camera Operator might spend his whole career with one DP and never get the chance to move up. Being a DP could take twenty to thirty years of apprenticeship because the Studio system was that rigid. And it was a nepotistic boys club. It's much better and more open now. You're taking the right steps in your career as far as I can tell. If you want to be a Cinematographer, be one. Shoot any opportunity that becomes available and make it awesome and keep building the reel and the contacts. Also remember as a DP, you're a brand as much as a director or an actor. Don't be afraid of putting yourself in your reel working with a director, operating a camera or instructing a camera operator or gaffer. Quick, silent pops, just like your sizzle reel but putting your face and style out there and showing you taking charge and backing up the director (who is usually the first person you have to sell on hiring you).
Tremendous post, David. Actionable information. Favorite line: If you want to be a Cinematographer, be one.
Amazing perspectives guys, thank you! I agree Richard, networking does appear to be key and Michael's point about climbing up the mountain rather than through supports it. David, your points all feel really valid. I do think its a great time to be a cinematographer but as well its an even better time to be a "brand". Especially in an era where notoriety seems to have as much impact as talent. I'm a fan of the work. I love to work. I love the effort that goes with true success. I'd love to build further with you guys!
Your personal brand is everything these days, Bizzy. Who you are, what you stand for, what you bring to the table.
Hard question to answer because the reality is that, for the most part, no. Camera or any other below the line endeavors in our industry are no longer a reasonable career choice currently or, sadly, in the foreseeable future. The “democratization” of the industry has emphasized the race to the bottom. Yes there are a lot more productions, but if you are making really low rates, is it a career choice? Is the return commensurate with the what you have to put into it? The disregarding of quality as a major driver, a major expectation, of what we create has been one of the biggest casualties in our industry direction. If quality is not a concern, why pay those who deliver it what they are worth? If you will not be paid for delivering quality why take the decades to learn, and the continuous classes to keep up with, what is needed to deliver it? Personal motivation to excel is wonderful but doesn’t pay the rent. I am an IATSE DP. While there are negatives in the union it is not the “studio system”. The knowledge base needed to qualify and work in union positions is somewhat of a guarantee that members are qualified to fill the positions. In the past there were impediments to joining, but never to moving up in qualifications that I know of. Not everyone wishes to move to other positions. I know many people who are very happy and very very capable at fulfilling the requirements of positions they have worked in for decades. Our long varied experience is probably the most important thing that we as professionals bring to a shoot. The resulting knowledge is the example we put forward as what is needed and what it takes to do what we do. That is why it takes 20 years of experience to become a Director of Photography. But it is also what unsettles people who do not have it. Instead of being viewed as a benefit, experience and knowledge is seen as a threat to all too many new directors and producers. Common shared experience is no longer being cinema but instead being YouTube, why does anyone need anything beyond an iPhone and to have been shown how to turn it on? As YouTube is the seeming de-facto standard why pay anything for something everyone can do? Without payment, cinematography is not much of a career. There will always be a few people who will do very very well, but the simple mathematical odds are increasingly against that desired outcome. “if you wish to be a DP, be a DP”… sure thing. Absolutely. No question. You bet'cha. Anyone who says they are a DP is a DP, and everyone says they are a DP. Since I am a DP that makes them the same as me. Same knowledge, experience and artistry. Has to be ‘cause they say they are a DP. This attitude has resulted in me and so many others no longer teaching. A few years ago a group of us were talking about selling ourselves and reels. To a person, none of us had ever been hired because of a reel but everyone had not been hired because of their reel. If you were so unfortunate as to not have the qualifications to be a nepotism nominee, then personal contact is the only sure way that you get jobs. You know the person who is hiring or were introduced to the person by someone they trust. No cold calls, no email deluges. Face to face discussion will tell you most of what you need to know about a person within 10 minutes over coffee. That gets you the job. Knowledge and experience create the images captured on the set which keeps you from getting fired. And gets you the next personal introduction. No reels needed or asked for.
It actually depends.
So it's back to being a poor lonely artist...40 years and a full circle.