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Cinematography Work flow


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#1 Chris Walters

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Posted 23 February 2008 - 11:55 AM

I'm just about to graduate from Cal State Northridge and I'm trying to determine the best route to become a cinematographer, but also be able to provide for myself on the road to my goals. I have worked on over 60 shorts and features mostly on the lighting side (gaffer, BB Electric, lighting tech), but have recently been getting into camera side. My question is should I intern at panavision and possibly work there, earning steady income but away from sets, but with equipment? Or (and there are several of those) should I use my contacts and just work on sets immediately? Or should I purchase a camera and just start shooting smaller projects and hopefully work my way up the totem pole that way? I know its a complicated question and depends a lot of what I personally choose, however I was wondering if anyone has had a similar decision to make and chose a certain path or if anyone has any say on the matter, all opinions are appreciated. Thank you and good luck to all of you in all your endeavors.

Chris
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#2 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 23 February 2008 - 01:37 PM

Hey Chris. our question is exactly the reason I wrote the book that I've been working on for the past five years or so. As you guessed, it's a complicated answer and there isn't just one perfect solution. If you can hold out until June (when the book is released), then you'll see how the various alternatives can affect your career. I'd be happy to share it all with you now, but it's just too much information to cut and paste here (which is partly why I wrote a book!)

Anyway, if I had to summarize the answer, I'd say that if you truly wanted to spend your life as a DP, then you are better off just going out and doing that from the get go. Working your way up the ladder as an Assistant definitely has its advantages, such as learning about the equipment, getting watch experienced crews (and other DPs) work, creating contacts, etc. Starting out at the bottom also isn't quite as difficult as throwing yourself out there as a DP, so you're more likely to start earning a living wage quicker that way.

However, starting out as a Loader/AC is no guarantee that you'll EVER move up. There are plenty of career Loaders, Seconds, Firsts, Operators who never move up from their positions. The reasons for that are varied. Each move up can mean a pay cut, at least temporarily, while your network learns slowly that you're one notch up. Or the opportunities to move up may never materialize because those around you don't give you the chance or because work is slow for everyone. There are a lot more reasons to keep you from moving up the ladder than there are for you to get to the DP level.

Starting out as a DP, you'll be behind the learning curve and you'll have to rely on experienced camera, grip, and electric crews to support you. Having an experienced Gaffer to help you solve lighting problems will be key. Getting yourself known as a qualified DP won't be easy or quick. Be prepared for low income for a few years as you build your reel, likely first on student films and other no/low budget projects. In time, you may have enough experience and contacts to get a job as the DP on a low budget feature, music videos, or even a Second Unit on an episodic TV show.

At some point, you'll want/have to find an agent who will represent you. But know that most agents work harder for those clients who shoot very high budget films, primarily because those are the clients who make more money. You'll be low-priority and they may only give you low-budget shows (if any). It'll be up to you to try to find worthy projects with up-and-coming Directors and Producers. With any luck at all, one of those people or projects will "take off" in some way, either as an award winner at a festival or financially at the box office. It's really a crap shoot. There is no one-way to find success. The "cream" does NOT always rise to the top. There are plenty of qualified people who never make it to the top purely because of circumstances beyond their control. By the same token, there are some less-than-qualified people working at the highest levels because they have fallen into the right circles or other "schmoozing" skills.

The path you choose will depend greatly on how well you can maintain the rest of your life, primarily financial. Keep your overhead low and you'll have more freedom to pick and choose the work you want to do. Having debt or other obligations can trap you into work you don't want to do just so you can pay bills.

Good luck!

Edited by Brian Dzyak, 23 February 2008 - 01:37 PM.

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#3 Frank DiPaola

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Posted 24 February 2008 - 09:25 AM

Many beginning directors ask this question with "DP" replaced by "director." The answer I hear the most from the people I respect seems to be that its different for everyone and there are no set ways. It seems to work well enough for them, why not borrow the answer for us too? Some DPs rise up through the ranks, some shoot a short that wins awards, some just get lucky; there are as many reasons as there are cinematographers. If you feel you have something artistically to gain from interning/working at Panavision then why not go for it? If you're just looking for a nine to five it sounds like thats already possible for you in the electric department. Personally, I've found there's no substitute for being on set.

Do you feel the need to commit to one particular option? Why not juice on the bigger budget sets to expose yourself to the tools and the trade while seeking out worthwhile lower budget projects to shoot?
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#4 Jimmy Browning

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Posted 24 February 2008 - 04:00 PM

Hey Chris,

I'm pretty much in the same situation as you (except I haven't worked on over 60 projects!)

I thought very seriously about getting a job at Panavision after my internship was over, and I'm still thinking about it. Ultimately I probably won't, for a lot of reasons. I think it all boils down to seriously sitting down and analyzing what your ultimate goal really is, thinking about the pros and cons of different ways of getting there, and figuring out what path you would most enjoy. Think about what your day-to-day life will be like during that path, and decide whether that's something you can live with or enjoy.

As for making a living while finding work, yeah that's an annoying problem. For me, I want to be on set as much as possible, because like others said and I'm sure you know, there's no substitute for that kind of experience. It might be a matter of finding a decent day job that allows for a flexible schedule like I have, and trying to keep your expenses low.

Working at a rental house like Panavision is a tremendous opportunity, and if anything, I highly recommend at least interning there. As for working there, that might be the right path for you, or it might not. It might be a good idea to call up Tommy (if you can get a hold of him!), he might have some a better perspective from that angle.

Good luck man,

Jimmy
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