How to Become a Cinematographer

As a child, were you awed by Star Wars so much as to know every scene backwards and forwards? Do you have an unusual hobby such as knowing arcane movie trivia or spending your spare time drawing storyboards for the movies in your head? Are your favorite movies Lawrence of Arabia and the Bicycle Thieves as opposed to something more akin to Transformers? Well, if you were (and still are) a bit obsessed with the art of film-making, then perhaps pursuing a career in cinematography is for you!

Though you might be drawn inexplicably to this visual art, you might still be unsure as to exactly what cinematographers, otherwise known as DPs (or Directors of Photography) do, and is there a difference between the two? Many prefer to be called a cinematographer because that suggests a grander scope of responsibility and creative expression. However, in Hollywood, you will be most likely referred to as a “DP” as it is the ubiquitous and shorthand term used in the commercial world. No matter what you may call yourself, your job is to utilize all the tools available to create with light and the smart exploitation of camera position and movement to further the script’s story and ensure the director’s vision. You are a “recorder of movements” which is the Greek basis of “cinematographer” (from kinema “movements” and graphein “to record”).

The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) defines cinematography as:

A creative and interpretive process that culminates in the authorship of an original work of art rather than the simple recording of a physical event. Cinematography is not a subcategory of photography. Rather, photography is but one craft that the cinematographer uses in addition to other physical, organizational, managerial, interpretive and image-manipulating techniques to affect one coherent process.

Well, no wonder many prefer the title of “cinematographer” over that of “DP”!

In a nutshell, the cinematographer’s purpose is to take the screenwriter’s words and the director’s vision and actually craft images from scratch. Of course, film making is a collaborative art and no cinematographer would be successful without the help of the art department, a fine cast, and others such as costume designers and wardrobe folks –the list goes on and on.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Nick Royer

Royer Films – Owner

Quick Look Bio

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My interests in film-making and cinematography began in high school, where I produced over 40 short films. I learned how to write, shoot, and edit through trial-and-error, as well as reading and talking to industry professionals online. I started to pick up some paid jobs and went to work for a wedding videographer at 16. By the time I graduated high school, I was producing videos for several local companies.

Finding the right path in college was tough. I went to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, starting out with a major in business management. I continued to work professionally, getting onto my first TV documentary as a cameraman in my freshman year. I transferred to the Art College at UNO and got the opportunity to practice my skills on the projects I worked on there. Late in my sophomore year, my professional work started to gain some traction, so I left school to pursue my career full-time.Though my school didn’t have a film program, they did allow me to shoot some of my early spec-work on their campus, and they even sponsored the production of my first feature film thru a grant program. While I didn’t graduate, the experiences and connections I gained at UNO, especially in the Art College, are a big part of who I am today as a professional.Being on productions is my favorite part of the job, but most of my days are spent working at home, prepping for shoots and reaching out to potential clients. In an ideal world, I would be on-location more, but a freelancer must spend a lot of time doing the back-end business work that makes the fun parts possible.I spent a lot of time early-on trying to build up my portfolio on the paid jobs I was getting, but a very successful cinematographer advised me to go out and spend some of my own money shooting quality footage that I could use to build my reel. I was able to showcase my talents much better than the low-budget corporate work I was getting at the time, and that first show-reel jump-started my career years before it would have otherwise. It was a very smart investment.

Advice

Practice as much as possible
I suggest that one practices as much as possible and to read as much as one can. With the Internet, we have access to information unlike any generation before –use it! Realize that it will take a long time, years, for your work to match your vision – stick with it, learn from everything you do, and you will get there. Be humble, willing to learn from others, and open to suggestions. Productions can be a stressful environment, have thick skin and don’t take anything personally. Don’t be afraid to change your path. There are many different careers in the film business, and you may find one you like better. Most importantly, never stop learning and trying new things.

Education vs your portfolio
Education is a tricky subject in the film world, especially when it comes to the technical jobs like cinematography. A film school education can be a great way to learn if you don’t have much experience or access to productions and equipment, but your portfolio of work is far more important than your educational background in this industry. A lot of people come out of film school expecting a leg-up over those without degrees, but this is usually not the case.

Stick with it
I’ve met some of the top guys in this industry and, though they can seem larger than life, in reality they are just regular people who started at the same place you are –only they didn’t have anywhere near the resources and knowledge we have available to us today. The film industry is a lot like a marathon –if you stick with it, you will eventually get there.

Tim Ryan

TAR Productions – Founder and Director

Quick Look Bio

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I earned a Bachelor of Art from Loyola Marymount University and a minor in business administration. I cut my teeth in the action sports industry by shooting surfing and skateboarding videos. I worked as a freelancer for a lot of the top brands and was able to travel the world for 3 years after finishing school. I didn’t make much money doing it, but it was the time of my life, and I learned so much about the world, people, and unique cultures.

These days it’s a little bit different running a production company. I have a family now so I don’t get to travel like I used to, and I have overhead and bills to worry about. It’s very rewarding, however, to hire on friends for different jobs. We operate under the Hollywood model, meaning we’ve two full time employees, and everyone else is a specialist freelancer. Since we’re a small company and I wear multiple hats, this means I’m Director and Cinematographer on most shoots we have.

I am based out of a co-working space and have to focus on top level business needs on a daily basis. When we’re in pre-production on a project, I’m figuring out how we’re going to shoot a project and how the cinematography (light shape, light color, light quantity, lens choice, camera movement, etc.) will play a role in our story and connection with our audience. I then take these attributes and put them in our production documents which I’ll share with our team. We usually work with fairly small teams (2-4 others), and everyone will have their specific role, but at the same time it’s all hands on deck since most the jobs we’re doing are not under union jurisdiction. I review during our pre-production meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page when on set. You have to move fast on set, and if you can’t, you’ll have a hard time finding work.I love the ability to solve problems and be creative at the same time. Each project we take on has its own set of restraints (most common are time, budget or geographic location), and it’s fun to explore and exploit ideas. In terms of my dislikes: Being in client services can be really tricky and hard. I put so much into each project emotionally that I can take everything personally. The good news is that if you find your niche, find what you’re really good at or enjoy, you’ll find the people you work with to be much more pleasant and your life will be easier.

Advice

Don’t invest in camera equipment
I suggest that you don’t invest in camera equipment. The camera is a tool; the better your camera doesn’t make you a better cinematographer. Cameras can get dated pretty quickly. Also, light is the most important thing. Focus on where to add light, where and how to remove light, the intensity and color of it. It’s amazing how much you can say with just light.

Be prepared for it to take time
Keep in mind that cinematography is largely a freelance career. It will take time to build up a network and get work. You’ll find the more you work the more work will come your way. It’s fairly typical to be on set and get hired on your next project via someone else on your current set. If you’re looking for a full-time gig internally somewhere you’ll most likely have to have some editing skills too. That’s the way everything is going.

On education…
Film school is great but not a requirement. After being in business for 10 years, I haven’t once asked if someone has a college diploma, and if so, if that diploma is in film/tv production or studies. There are a ton of resources online and you can get an incredible amount of insight through these. Shane Hurlbut, a renowned cinematographer, has a great education blog and is probably the best resource around. Nofilmschool.com has a ton of news and industry tips.

Best way to get your foot in the door
The best way to get your foot in the door is to do, make, create and learn. You have to get down and dirty, and do not fool yourself into needing certain equipment or money to accomplish your goals. I’d much rather see someone’s reel over his/her resume/diploma if I’m looking to hire. A diploma is great and shows me that you can put in effort to achieve something, but what matters most is what you can put on screen. Create a network, and don’t be afraid to network. I encourage you to take on projects and stories that you want to share.

Guillermo Navarro

Director of Photography and Camera Operator

Quick Look Bio

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I have a BA in film from Centro Cinematografico Buenos Aires of Argentina, where I am from. I started working with an NGO that did relief work all over the world, so I got to travel doing documentaries and news style reports. I traveled to over 35 countries and several times got to document Hurricane disasters or other difficult situations. One of the first ones was the Iniki Hurricane in 1992 on the Island of Kauai (Hawaii). I also covered Hurricane Mitch in 1998 in Honduras, Street kids in Brazil, Saharawi refugees in the Sahara desert in Algeria, the Amazons, etc.

When I’m not filming, I use my time to learn about new technologies, network and market myself for future jobs, maintain my equipment, etc.I particularly like to work in cinema because there is always an artistic and creative edge. Other types of work, like reality shows or interviews, don’t seem to be as exciting. You have to be very efficient and professional, but there is little creativity involved.I was initially trying to decide between film school and architecture. Architecture looked like it was going to take me 6 to 8 years. I wish I would’ve known that becoming a good cinematographer would take 10 to 15 years of dedicated hard work!

Advice

Be sure you love this job
Be sure you love this job. You have to always be learning, always perfecting your style and always working long hours. But if you are passionate about visual storytelling, lighting, composition and visual arts in general, you will love every minute of it.

On education…
As far as schools, I believe some film schools are great and some are not so great. What defines a film-maker is when you make films; therefore I don’t understand some film programs in which students hardly ever get to shoot anything. Everything seems to be theory. To be a cinematographer you need a technical foundation and an artistic foundation. There are some good programs that will give you a good starting point. Then, you have to continue studying for the rest of your life. Keep up with every new technology, and keep developing your artistic eye. Going to art museums, studying new trends in visual design, popular culture and arts in general is always helpful. Even music has an influence in cinematography since you can create a rhythm with your camera style. Being knowledgeable with technology is a must, but developing your own artistic style is what will make you unique.

Know what you’re getting into
Most people will tell you to start as a camera assistant or a grip to learn the basis of it. Even though this is good advice and you will learn the basics, you have to be aware that this is not a vertical career. You don’t start as 2nd AC, and then become 1st AC, the camera operator, and then director of photography. The cinematographer is usually hired because of his visual style and what he can bring to the project. Therefore developing your own demo reel is perhaps more important than anything else. You can do your own demo reel starting with student projects and freebies. Music videos are great vehicles to show what you can do with the camera. If you have a great demo reel, it will open doors for you more than any other thing.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Cinematographer?


As one of our interviewee’s states, a film school education can be a great way to learn, but ultimately, what you have created (your portfolio of work), is what will speak for you and be far more important than your educational background in this industry. One of our professionals went so far as to say that degrees barely matter to him but that the quality of the reel and experience are the most telling. A lot of people come out of film school thinking that they have an edge over those without degrees, but this is usually not the case. However, note that a good education is way to acquire that which is important to the aforementioned employer!

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE IN CINEMATOGRAPHY?

Schools such as the American Film Institute (AFI) are great places to learn the craft, to network and to build a portfolio or demo reel. The Hollywood Reporter has a great article on the top film schools available here. The first 10 are listed below:

  1. University of Southern California
  2. New York University
  3. University of California, Los Angeles
  4. American Film Institute
  5. California Institute of the Arts
  6. Columbia University
  7. Chapman University
  8. Loyola Marymount University
  9. Emerson College
  10. University of Texas at Austin

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

What time and again seems to be a common theme in our research and interviews with professionals is the following: Practice, perseverance, and a great reel are what leads to more work and more work leads to –yet more work. A fire in the belly to pursue that which you love is another necessary ingredient to success as a cinematographer (or any artist for that matter).

One of the first steps is to perhaps seek out those already established for advice and perhaps mentoring. Schools are often a great place to find mentoring, and many are indeed extraordinary helpful in a myriad of ways from developing skills to networking. Often professionals are open to assistants to work on set as PAs (production assistants). Should such an opportunity arise, take it, but be ready for long hours, arduous work and little pay at first!