What is a Cinematographer?

Hi and Welcome to my blog about Cinematography!  My name’s Graham Futerfas and I’ve been in the film industry for over 20 years now.  I often get asked for advice by new filmmakers or people interested in becoming Cinematographers, and I figured some people might find this blog useful.

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I’d like to start by defining what I do as a Cinematographer, also known as a Director of Photography or DP or DoP.  You’ll see me use those terms interchangeably, and they refer to the same job.

I had a young photographer meet with me recently and he said he was interested in becoming a Cinematographer.  After talking with him for a bit, I figured out that the things he likes about Photography are actually more in line with becoming a Director than a DP.  I don’t work with the actors to get a certain performance, and I don’t write the scripts.

As a DP, I officially work for the Director.  I also work for the Producer.  I’m responsible for the ‘look’ of the picture, the camera compositions and movement, the lighting, and the general photography of the movie.  There are three aspects of my job that I constantly have to juggle:  Creative, Technical, and Management.

On the Creative side, I work with the Director to create a look and feel for a movie.  Should it be dark and moody, or bright and cheerful, or sullen and drab?  Do we want lots of flowing camera movement or static shots, or handheld camera?  I often pull visual references to photography or other movies or videos to help establish a common creative ‘language’ with the director.  The Director also will send me references to things he or she likes.  At the same time, Directors will often hire me for the ‘Look’ that I tend to favor and specialize in.  I have a certain taste for things I like and dislike in cinematography, and that creates a set of parameters that I tend to work within.

My job is also that of a Technician, or Craftsman, if you will.  This is because I have to employ techniques and equipment to accomplish the production’s Creative goals.   I use cameras, dollies, cranes, lights, grip equipment, generators, aerial lifts, and trucks full of gear to craft these images.  I’m the official head of the Camera Department, but I also direct the lighting so the Gaffer and Key Grip, heads of the lighting and Grip Departments, report to me and I’m usually the one who hires them.

This leads me to my role as a Manager.  I have a lot of crew that expect me to lead them, including the Camera Assistants, Operators, Grips and Electricians.  I also have to look out for them and make sure the job is doable, safely, with the manpower and equipment we have.  I often mediate between the Crew and the Producers.  At the same time, I have a responsibility to the Producers to execute the production on time and on budget.  I have to work within the limitations of tight schedules and even tighter money and create quality work.

This is why a Director and Producer want an experienced and talented Cinematographer on their production.  It’s a complicated job and takes a while to master.

I think I have the best job in the world.  I go from project to project, and there’s always something new to shoot or a new technique to try.  I’m constantly overcoming unique challenges, both on set and in pre-production.  It has its ups and downs, but being a Cinematographer is a pretty cool gig.

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About Graham Futerfas

I'm a professional Cinematographer working in Los Angeles.
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One Response to What is a Cinematographer?

  1. Omega User says:

    In my experience the most important advice is to learn business, learn your rights as a worker, never work for free on productions that clearly have money. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you are going to get used, hurt and setup for failure. Get a good contract that states you will be getting final copies of the product, along with how your name is displayed on the film and DVD’s etc. Work into your contract saying you have final say on editing as far as color correction and effects. Nothing worse then seeing some half-ass editor ruin all your work. I have been on hundreds where I never got even a clip for my reel. That is your life-line.

    Unfortunately that is most productions in LA. Avoid Craigslist jobs like the plague. It really comes down to meeting that right person that will open a door for you or you will be begging for scraps your whole career. Never be afraid to walk away because you are not getting paid. Producer is a nice title but don’t let that fool you, they will try every chance to screw you. Don’t be a gear hound, most productions try to get DP’s with gear, they don’t care about you and your creative eye. You are simply tagging along because of your gear thus lowering the standards and rates of DP’s everywhere. If the director wants to take control of your job then walk off set or don’t sign up for the show, do your research on what it takes to be a DP, run the crew, organize and get the shots that will make a great production. Get a good lawyer, you will unfortunately need one more than you think. If you can handle all that then you might have a chance to use your actual creative skills.

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