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.  I also like to share solutions I’ve found to some of the many challenges we face every day on the job.

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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, we 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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2 Responses to What is a Cinematographer?

  1. Prem says:

    hi,,,very nice to read ,,,,please add more and more..

  2. Chukwudi says:

    It is a good write up. Please what are skills or talents that someone should have in order to follow the path of cinematography

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