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Becoming a DOP


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#1 Josef Heks

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 05:52 AM

Is the only real way to become a DOP to start from the bottom, as a camera assistant or something? Or are there other ways? Which would you recommend?

Also, is it possible to learn to be a DOP by starting out using digital as opposed to film?

Thanks a lot for your help and opinions
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#2 Delorme Jean-Marie

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 09:06 AM

to be Director of Photography, why don't you start to learn Photography? and light? it'll give you plenty of time to become a "Director"
i can be a good start
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#3 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 09:16 AM

Is the only real way to become a DOP to start from the bottom, as a camera assistant or something? Or are there other ways? Which would you recommend?

Also, is it possible to learn to be a DOP by starting out using digital as opposed to film?

Thanks a lot for your help and opinions


The truth is that you get where you want to be anyway you can. There are two ways to become a DP. One is to work your way up through the ranks, as you mentioned. The other is to just put yourself out there as a DP. There are benefits and downsides to each.

If you want to work your way up through the ranks you begin your career as a Film Loader. Expect to spend at least a year or more doing this job until you have enough experience and know enough people to allow you to move up to becoming a Second AC. Expect to do this job for several months to many years before you get the chance to hone your skills as a Focus Puller. Being a 2nd is essentially a lesson in equipment management. To pull focus you'll need to practice on B-camera or C-camera shots when those opportunities arise. Or you leave your well paying position to go work on low-budget jobs for a while at a higher position. Once you've become a First AC, expect to do that for over a year to the rest of your life. Moving up to becoming a Camera Operator depends upon your relationships with the DPs you've been working for. You may get the chance to shoot a 2nd unit which may or may not showcase your skill to be a DP. The farther up the chain you go, the harder it becomes to move up to the next level so you may never find the opportunity to become a DP.

The other option is to just put yourself out there as a DP. The downside to this is that you won't get the experience with equipment, crews, and situations that someone working through the ranks will. The upside is that instead of waiting for an opportunity that may never occur, you're just out there hopefully doing the job you want to do. You may have to linger in low-budget land for awhile or forever unless you hook up with a successful Director or Producer. Choosing to work as an assistant doesn't necessarily mean a lot of money right away or at all, but you have a better chance at better paychecks sooner by beginning as an assistant.

Which path you choose depends upon the kind of life you wish to lead. There is no right answer as some people work hard all their lives and never achieve what they hoped for. Other people hit gold right away and never look back. There are highly qualified people who never "luck" into the right opportunities and some fairly mediocre people who work all the time on the biggest projects. There is no one recipe for success. With that in mind, whatever you choose, you have to enjoy the journey and not just count on the destination. Choosing a career in the film industry isn't just about finding a job...it's about choosing a lifestyle.


More on all of this and more in my book. Check out the link below. Good luck!
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#4 Richard Boddington

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 11:06 AM

Finance your own projects and elect your self DOP for life.

Problem solved, next.....
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#5 Daniel Stigler

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 11:25 AM

Is the only real way to become a DOP to start from the bottom, as a camera assistant or something?



Damn, i'm at the bottom!
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#6 Josef Heks

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 08:04 PM

thx for the very helpful reply brian. Personally, I think the choice to start as an amatuer DOP sounds better..it seems like both paths do not really result in a lot of money in the beginning, and at least that path allows you to always be in the creative role you want. And i'd imagine it'd result in u become a better DOP cause youd get much more practice?

thx again
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#7 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 09:39 PM

thx for the very helpful reply brian. Personally, I think the choice to start as an amatuer DOP sounds better..it seems like both paths do not really result in a lot of money in the beginning, and at least that path allows you to always be in the creative role you want. And i'd imagine it'd result in u become a better DOP cause youd get much more practice?

thx again


Uh, well, I guess. I can tell you what I did and you can take what you want from it.

I began my illustrious career way back when as an editor at a small PBS station in Ohio. I think I was in the edit bay almost every day for about 5 years having to cut a myriad of things, some of which I shot and a lot of what others shot. To this day, I still get "compliments" (?) from Producers who can tell when I've been shooting for them over other cameramen who clearly never stepped foot in an edit bay. The lesson here, I guess, is that if you have the opportunity, edit whenever possible. It will make you a better cameraman. It's not all about lighting pretty shots.

Anyhow, I shot for about four years on video. It was 3/4" at the time when the Audio guy/gal had to carry the deck. I can't imagine any of them agreeing to do that anymore. I look back at the stuff I shot then and it was okay. Nothing that would win any awards, but it got to air without any complaints.

I moved to LA and truly fell into Loading by accident. I wanted to work on movies and my first cold call landed me on a UCLA student film loading Aaton mags. I went from there, ACing on various low budget films until I landed on Murder in the First as a Loader. That put me in the Local and I went from there...eventually getting 2nd AC work and the occasional Focus job. Some features, a lot of episodic. I dayplayed a lot, all the while keeping my foot in the video arena whenever something came up that didn't take away from my film pursuits.

About three years or so ago I got a call to shoot some EPK on SWAT. I was burning out on AC work anyway and wasn't moving up to Operator as I had hoped. I did a couple more AC jobs and haven't looked back. Now that I'm back to shooting video full time, I get to observe DPs more closely on set than I ever got to as an AC. While what we shoot isn't quite on the scale as a large feature, when I look at individual shots that are being set up, they really aren't too far gone from the setups I have to do. I've found myself watching some absolute BS going on sometimes as it takes five guys to figure out something I have to do all by myself in thirty seconds. Not that I wouldn't like to have the luxury of three departments and oodles of gear to command, but those things aren't necessarily signs that someone really knows how to do something better than someone else. It just means that they got there and others didn't.

Anyway, the point is, I've learned a lot from established cameramen at all levels (both good and bad) and have been able to take those lessons with me when I am in charge. Often, it is just me against the world, but on occasion I do get to figure out larger puzzles like the big boys. After being in the trenches and then getting to work out of them (sort of), I feel I've personally gained a somewhat more univeral understanding of what I am out there trying to accomplish. Had I just jumped in and tried to become a big time DP maybe it would have worked. Maybe not. All I can speak about is what I have now. So because I'm borne out of the quicker video production sensibility but have some experience within the (supposedly) more meticulous film sensibility, I try to combine the best of both worlds and deliver a product that hopefully goes a step beyond what they might have gotten had they hired someone else to do the job.

I hope. I can't prove that that's happening, but my Microsoft Outlook calendar tells me that I've been almost nonstop since at least last October. I must be doing something right. In reality, I am just another warm body who knows where all the buttons are and most Producers don't give a sh** about the extra effort I take just as long as they get what they came for. But I know from looking back at stuff I've shot in the past that I am better than I was. And I know that I'm better because of the career path that I've taken. I could be a big time DP right now (maybe...the foreign sounding last name should help!), but would I be a good cameraman? Who knows. I don't think there is one right answer to that question. Do what's right for you and enjoy the journey. :)
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#8 Josef Heks

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Posted 17 August 2006 - 05:12 AM

once again, thankyou very much brian, ur story was very interesting
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