How to Become a Cinematographer
Getting Started as 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.
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:
- University of Southern California
- New York University
- University of California, Los Angeles
- American Film Institute
- California Institute of the Arts
- Columbia University
- Chapman University
- Loyola Marymount University
- Emerson College
- 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!