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The life of a DP


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#1 Tyler Leisher

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 12:14 PM

So I'm a student looking to get into Cinematography and I'm curious what the average day of a DP is, how many times you have to work more then 14 hours, what you're responsible for and what you do between jobs... how do you pay the bills, when do you find time to see your family? What are the weeks like, (6-day shoots, 5-day shoots, etc)?
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 12:22 PM

Unfortunately for you, if you are writing a school paper, there is no such thing as a "typical" life of a DP. My life doesn't won't even resemble itself six months from now, let alone some other DP's. The only constant is change.

At the most you could compare two DP's lives both working on a TV series at the same time, which is the closest thing to a regular job a DP could have. Otherwise, since we are all freelance, it's a variety of things that we all go through for work -- or sometimes we don't work at all.

I think the question is too broad. Maybe if you narrowed the parameters: type of DP (commercial, TV, features, industrial/EPK, etc.), budget-level that they are working at, are they in a major production city or are they regional, etc.
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#3 Tyler Leisher

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 01:06 PM

It's not for a paper, just for my own personal mind. Right now I'm planning on going to film school but I don't know if it'll be a worthwhile degree, and I don't know if I want to go into cinematography or producing. My worry about either, but mainly DP because thats what I love to do, I'm worried that I won't ever get to see my family because of 14+ hour day shoots, or not being able to pay the rent because I don't have any work to do.

So I guess in response to your question, I'll say feature or commercial DP's.

Mainly what I'm worried about is, how is the pay, how are the hours and how do you manage your family?
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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 01:16 PM

I don't have kids, just a wonderful wife and an aging dog. But our decision not to have kids has nothing to do with me working in the film industry.

I don't want to discourage you, but it would be a good idea to not have a family (i.e. children) before you attempt to start a career, because you will have to put in long hours in far away locations with uneven pay. You need to keep a low overhead at first in order to get through the slow times (and there will be slow times) and that's very hard with kids to feed, schools to pay for, etc.

Once you get your career rolling and have a sense of where you can live, how much money you can hope to make on average, how you will be dealing with health insurance, etc. then you can work kids into the mix.

But unfortunately, many people don't plan things that way. Certainly it's possible - I know some young camera assistants with families that are managing to make ends meet, mainly because their wives work full-time. But they also work long hours away from home, which can be stressful on a marriage. There are a lot of divorces in this industry; on a film set, you can't believe how many 30-year-old divorced people there are.

On the plus side, when you are not working -- which can be half the year in total hours sometimes -- you can have a lot of time at home to spend with your family. So it's more feast or famine rather than slow & steady.
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#5 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 01:24 PM

If it's stability you want, don't go into filmmaking...that's the easy answer.

TV is a different monster, but I agree with David, there probably is more stability in it (providing the show you're working on has a long run)

Don't let the "14 hour days, exotic locations, etc..." scare you, it's not as if you'll be working those hours away from home all year round.

You'll probably have more "vacation time" than any of the other fathers on your kid's soccer team!
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#6 Frank Barrera

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 02:01 PM

i don't remember who said this or where i read it but some old timer type dp was asked this type of question and his answer is something i think about a lot.

he said (and i am loosely paraphrasing here) that when embarking upon a career as a dp one should look at it is as if you are a fine arts painter. for years you will struggle to find your voice, your vision and to sell your work. and if you are lucky you will pay your bills by creating commerical work that you hate. and then if you are even luckier someday when you've been at it for 20 or 30 years you will be discovered and finally be able to put your years of experience to good work and create some great art.

i would add to this that as with being a painter or musician or writer etc it is not about the end goal of being a "success" but rather about the journey. indeed a good philosophical strategy is essential to go forward with this pursuit and not destroy your life.

this makes a lot of sense to me and somehow i have convinced my wife that this is actually a good deal for her and our two little kids. lucky me.

f
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#7 Tyler Leisher

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 03:11 PM

That's part of what scares me, the mass amount of divorces and whatnot in the industry... That and that I won't be able to pay the bills, or I'll be in a different country to much, or that I won't get to see my family with only a 10 hour turn around that only leaves 1-2 hours of driving/family time and 8 hours of sleep...
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#8 Hal Smith

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 03:28 PM

........this makes a lot of sense to me and somehow i have convinced my wife that this is actually a good deal for her and our two little kids. lucky me.

Sounds like the little woman knows that it's better for her and the kids to have a husband and dad whose soul gets a chance to dance once in a while.
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#9 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 03:47 PM

That's part of what scares me, the mass amount of divorces and whatnot in the industry...


Hey, I know accountants who go through divorces as well, and that's the most secure, least exotic and time consuming (except for tax season) career there is, basically.

If you're passionate about being a DP, can focus on your projects while still giving your family attention through phonecalls,etc., then immediately shift focus back to your family once it's done, your chances of success at your marriage only get better.

Just make sure you've established how passionate you are about cinematography, and test the waters to make sure she's on board with what you want to do. Because if you're wishy washy about it, and if you're approaching it more as a hobby than a career choice, that's going to cause tension and she nor anyone else is going to take you seriously.

Point is, if you're set on being a DP, then start working and shooting projects and show you're working towards SOMETHING that can be lucrative. It's better than just sitting around going "I'm a filmmaker" while not having made a film in recent years.
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#10 Daniel Carruthers

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 03:49 PM

Well you can also find a good part time job, so you can pay the bills in between shoots. Im a strugling DOP myself. Ive made some great money and alot of times I work for free or virtually nothing to build up my resume and reputation.
But since I also work part time in a box store I can pay the bills in between film jobs. Ive taken weeks off to dop a movie or music video, and I still have that job to come back too when the shoot is over, Im actually surprised they havent fired me, for all the work I miss, But they seem to like me, and they understand my situation.
Now alot of places wont give you the time off to work on a set, if thats the case look for another job untill you find one that is flexible for your unpredictable lifestyle
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#11 Chris Durham

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 04:46 PM

I won't pretend that I'll ever make a competent Cinematographer; but it's a point of interest for me - particularly now, when I'm working with my own resources to produce my stuff. I'm more interested in writing/directing which is, I gather, an equally perilous career path. I think there's a degree of sacrifice that folks like us will have to deal with and that's all there is to it. In fact, as my current 'day job' creates massive instability in my schedule vis-a-vis a lot of business travel, I'm currently working at changing my day job career, so that I can dedicate more time to my 'dream job.' I'll be giving up a lot of travel, fun, and a decent chunk of money, probably, but I'll be moving forward toward the dream - or so I hope.

Figure out what your goals are and prioritize accordingly. Spend 5 or more years on your career before having a family - assuming you don't have one already. Most important, find a wife that believes in you absolutely.
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#12 Brad Grimmett

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 08:53 PM

That's part of what scares me, the mass amount of divorces and whatnot in the industry... That and that I won't be able to pay the bills, or I'll be in a different country to much, or that I won't get to see my family with only a 10 hour turn around that only leaves 1-2 hours of driving/family time and 8 hours of sleep...

In order to make it in this business you have to stop thinking about all of the downsides and start thinking about the good things and why you really want to be in the business to begin with. If you look at the downsides there is really no reason to get into the business. There are much easier ways to make money and spend time with your family. If those are the things you're concerned about then that's what you should be concentrating on, but if you want to be a DP you should be concentrating on how to achieve that goal. Think about the positives and not the negatives.
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#13 Tyler Leisher

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Posted 09 January 2007 - 12:53 AM

Do you guys often work 7 day schedules, or do companies/shoots give Sundays or something off?
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#14 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 09 January 2007 - 01:26 AM

Do you guys often work 7 day schedules, or do companies/shoots give Sundays or something off?


It hasn't happened to me really. I mean, one weekend on "Astronaut Farmer" when we were supposed to be off, I agreed (with my AC's) to go shoot a county fair in town on a Saturday night, but we still had Sunday off.

The smaller features I've done were 6-day work weeks, and occasionally I might have to meet with the director on my day off, but these were also pretty short shoots, like 3 or 4 weeks total, so that's not many weekends in between anyway.

Most of my recent union features have been 5-day weeks. The TV show I'm shooting right now is a 5-day week, 10 to 11 days per episode, then about 5 to 8 days of prep in between before I begin shooting the next episode, but prep days are not always full days.

Of course, when you're away on location on a feature, it's hard to see the family even when you have the weekend off. If the shoot is a couple of months long, I try and make a trip home after a month, hopefully over a 3-day weekend if there's a holiday -- and at some point after that, my wife will make a trip out to see me for a few days.
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#15 Rupe Whiteman

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Posted 09 January 2007 - 12:12 PM

... There are many downs trying to survive in this business but I would always rather be in it than anything else.

- I'm 41, the work is still (and will always be) erratic and planning ahead is impossible, I have a 3 year old son and a great partner (we've been together 18 years) who are always on my mind but I've travelled a lot and get to go to places and meet people you don't do in any other walk of life. For me when you get stuck into a interesting project there's nothing better. Making a film is almost an alternative reality you live in as you work. It's intense, sometimes difficult and pressured, but often very rewarding (occassionally financially too) and I always have a little bit of a low when a decent shoot ends. You might be knackered and sleep deprived but you always want the next gig to come along soon.

Probably one of the hardest jobs I did was a doco' shoot over Christmas several years ago. The job started late in November and culminated in a 12 hour shoot on Christmas Day!! - During the whole of December I was working 6 days a week, getting up before my (then) 5 month old child and girlfriend were awake only to return late and after they had gone to bed! - That was hard and it was made doubly so because the production was not a happy one. I and the other cameraman were on a buyout and being the senior cameraman I'd always said I wanted extra money for the Christmas Day shoot (wouldn't you?!) but the extra money promised never came...

- Though I don't think I'd ever shoot on Christmas Day again (unless I was shooting a feature), doing the job did mean I could live well through the quiet months of January/February and I had a good ten weeks at home with the Family. Now anybody who has a regular job would never have that. You realize a lot of guys with normal jobs only spend quality time with their families on their annual holidays...

David's advice about not having a family early is sound advice but life isn't always like that... Your best chance of having a good start in this game is knowing someone who can help you out or being lucky enough to have had rich parents!!

There's no set path to success at all, but decide what area you want to get into and don't give up. When you're not working read, watch and learn, and ask questions when you're on shoots.

Regards,

Rupe Whiteman
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#16 Nate Downes

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Posted 09 January 2007 - 12:21 PM

Well you can also find a good part time job, so you can pay the bills in between shoots. Im a strugling DOP myself. Ive made some great money and alot of times I work for free or virtually nothing to build up my resume and reputation.
But since I also work part time in a box store I can pay the bills in between film jobs. Ive taken weeks off to dop a movie or music video, and I still have that job to come back too when the shoot is over, Im actually surprised they havent fired me, for all the work I miss, But they seem to like me, and they understand my situation.
Now alot of places wont give you the time off to work on a set, if thats the case look for another job untill you find one that is flexible for your unpredictable lifestyle


I work for a company that is quite accomidating in that regards. The only times they demand me to be there is in December. Otherwise, so long as they have plenty of notice, I can take months off. Not the only DP that works for them either.

As for family, my wife is a good bookeeper, and I've negotiated to have her be the sets bookeeper on one project, so the family went with me. Son's preschool has a passport program, to allow him to attend at other branches of the same school, so he came along as well.
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#17 Brad Grimmett

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Posted 09 January 2007 - 06:50 PM

Do you guys often work 7 day schedules, or do companies/shoots give Sundays or something off?

The only time I've worked 7 days a week is when I book myself on back to back jobs. One may end on Sat. and the other may start on Sun., but that's my choice. I could turn either of the jobs down if I wanted. I can't imagine doing 7 day weeks on a feature or for an extended period of time. I've worked for months on features on a 6 day a week schedule and it's pretty grueling, especially considering that the last day of the week generally includes night shots, so you wrap at 4 or 5 AM and have to be back the next day at 6 or 7 AM, so you barely have 24 hours off.
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#18 Bob Hayes

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Posted 10 January 2007 - 01:30 AM

There is no consistent DP?s day. But based on my career and a 14 hour day I would say I spend 2 hours shooting union television work, 1 hour shooting independent features, 2 hours working out of the country in some exotic and cool location, 4 hours depressed wondering why I am not working more or on better jobs, 2 hours networking and looking for work, 2 hours taking classes or watching films, and 1 hour recovering from working.
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#19 Jim Feldspar

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Posted 11 January 2007 - 08:08 PM

... There are many downs trying to survive in this business but I would always rather be in it than anything else.

- I'm 41, the work is still (and will always be) erratic and planning ahead is impossible, I have a 3 year old son and a great partner (we've been together 18 years) who are always on my mind but I've travelled a lot and get to go to places and meet people you don't do in any other walk of life. For me when you get stuck into a interesting project there's nothing better. Making a film is almost an alternative reality you live in as you work. It's intense, sometimes difficult and pressured, but often very rewarding (occassionally financially too) and I always have a little bit of a low when a decent shoot ends. You might be knackered and sleep deprived but you always want the next gig to come along soon.

Probably one of the hardest jobs I did was a doco' shoot over Christmas several years ago. The job started late in November and culminated in a 12 hour shoot on Christmas Day!! - During the whole of December I was working 6 days a week, getting up before my (then) 5 month old child and girlfriend were awake only to return late and after they had gone to bed! - That was hard and it was made doubly so because the production was not a happy one. I and the other cameraman were on a buyout and being the senior cameraman I'd always said I wanted extra money for the Christmas Day shoot (wouldn't you?!) but the extra money promised never came...

- Though I don't think I'd ever shoot on Christmas Day again (unless I was shooting a feature), doing the job did mean I could live well through the quiet months of January/February and I had a good ten weeks at home with the Family. Now anybody who has a regular job would never have that. You realize a lot of guys with normal jobs only spend quality time with their families on their annual holidays...

David's advice about not having a family early is sound advice but life isn't always like that... Your best chance of having a good start in this game is knowing someone who can help you out or being lucky enough to have had rich parents!!

There's no set path to success at all, but decide what area you want to get into and don't give up. When you're not working read, watch and learn, and ask questions when you're on shoots.

Regards,

Rupe Whiteman


" I and the other cameraman were on a buyout" What is a buyout? Thanks.
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#20 Richard Boddington

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Posted 11 January 2007 - 08:44 PM

I'll get into trouble for saying this...but I'll throw it out so that a younger person entering the business can at least give it some thought. Having residual income from your work frees you from employers and the burden of always having to find new work. You do the work once, and get paid for it over and over again.

The last two years my residual income has passed 300K. Of course it took eight years of work to get it there, but now it's well worth it.

And I don't just mean stock footage, I mean feature work as well. He who owns the end product stands to make the most amount of money.

As for family....I have a wife and two kids, three years and nine months. My wife was a teacher, but she was able to quit that job once my income ballooned. She really liked that. But she HATES my long production days. I just finished three days of shooting additional scenes for the feature I'm making, each day was about 13 hours. So I usually have to hear the perverbial, "I'm stuck at home all day with these kids," comments.

My only solution has been to hire a staff of housekeepers and nannies to take the pressure off my wife and lower her complaining rate. It helps, but it's not a complete solution. I think I have the typical wife of a filmmaker, they love the lifestyle the income of the husband provides, they hate the hours it takes to earn it.

I think living in Canada is an advantage because my family has healthcare whether I work or don't work. Most of the guys I know working in the biz in LA have wives with "real" jobs so that the family has access to health insurance. Since that's not an issue in Canada, there was no need for my wife to keep working.

The internet allows a worldwide group of buyers to access my products, so where I am physically located makes no difference. My biggest problem right now is that my office is at home. With a wife and two kids this is not a very good idea. People say to me, you're so lucky to be able to be at home with your kids all day. Yes I suppose, but zero work can be done with them around :)

I usually start "work" around 11pm and go until 3-4am. At least then the wife and kids are asleep and they won't bug the heck out of me and drive me nuts. I'm not trying to sound cruel, but imagine trying to do your work and there's a three year old jumping up and down right beside you screaming, "daddy! daddy! daddy!"

A few occasions a year I have to travel far to get footage, and I often take my wife on the trips she might enjoy. I'm taking her on my shoot to the Bahamas on Feb 1st. But then I'll hear, "you're always gone shooting and diving." I can't win :)

R,
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