Most veterans in the film industry might tell a new filmmaker, ‘Run away from this business as fast as you can and don’t look back!’. I’ve jokingly said that many times to young people looking to break in. It’s a tough career and I’m not sure if it ever gets easier. It has it’s ups and downs for sure — there are times when I’m overwhelmed with work (and paychecks!) and other times when I’m struggling to pay bills and desperate for a job. It can be like this for everyone in a freelance industry, and while it’s manageable when you’re in your 20’s, as you get older and married and want to have a family, it can be difficult not really knowing how much money you’re going to make in a given year.
Now that I’ve gotten my up-front warning out of the way… I’m often asked, ‘How do I become a Cinematographer?’
There are many paths to this career and it’s literally different for everyone. A few people come right out of Film School and start shooting and I know several people who’ve found great success this way. Others start at the bottom and work their way up, either starting in the Camera Department as a Loader or Camera Assistant, or they can also come up through the Lighting or Grip Department.
In my case, I was in high school when I figured out I wanted to be a Cinematographer and spent my Junior and Senior years as an intern for a local DP in Dallas where I grew up. When I arrived at USC, I already knew a bit about lighting so I worked on a ton of student films as a gaffer and electrician. I was able to make a living doing this eventually, so for several years after college I worked in the lighting department, eventually joining the Set Lighting Union Local 728. I would also shoot short films and little projects when I could.
This period was very formative for me. I learned a lot by being on set and watching other DP’s work, and I also trained under very experienced crew members like Camera Assistants and Gaffers and Operators. I was able to make money and be paid for gaining experience, which was invaluable. I got to handle the lights and learned how to create with them and I could ask tons of questions or learn new techniques.
Eventually I started working as a Cinematographer. The transition from electrician to DP took 4 or 5 years in fact, and it was not easy. I made less money as I had to walk away from being known as a Lighting guy to being known as a DP, and I shot smaller projects as I built up my reel. I was definitely happier shooting smaller jobs than setting up lights on bigger jobs though.
I often tell people who ask where to get started that they should look for work in one of the departments, Camera or Lighting, and start meeting people. Get on set and get some experience. If you have to, go on Craigslist or Mandy.com or whatever the current Low-Budget site is for filmmakers and get to networking, even if you have to work for free for a bit.
I also lovingly berate people when I ask for their business card and they don’t have one. How am I supposed to contact you to hire you if I can’t get your number? Print some business cards!! Some people are smarter and more manipulative and get their number programmed into my phone either via text message or VCard. Then I don’t have to enter it myself! Others just friend me on Facebook.
Networking is the Key to success in this business (or any business). Make as many friends as you can and ‘groom’ your network by calling, emailing, texting, social networking or whatever. I actually have a list of names in my office that I make sure I’m in occasional contact with. I tell people that Networking is the most important aspect of film school, much more important than what you learn there, because those friends you make will hopefully eventually be the ones to hire you.
So, if you want to get started in Cinematography, get on set and network!