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#1 Cody Cuellar

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Posted 04 December 2009 - 06:57 AM

Hello Everyone,
I am a young DP with a handful of music videos, a SAG drama short, and a commercial under my belt. I would say I have a solid knowledge of camera techniques and lighting, but I am nowhere near the level that would be required on say a big budget feature, mostly due to my lack of "lingo knowledge" and just standard production protocols. I've never worked on any big features either. What would you guys say would be the best way to advance as a DP? Should I be trying to get onto big productions as a camera PA and slowly working my way up? And if so, any tips on how to get a job like that? I've been in LA for a year, but don't really have any contacts that are working on really big productions.

What are the chances of just shooting independent features and music videos/etc and then suddenly transitioning into shooting big budget features without working your way up from PA? Like I said, I have a very strong knowledge of cameras and their technology, lighting, framing, camera movement, etc., I'm just not very good with some of the lingo, and I would not be able to communicate well between departments, because I haven't been around those big productions, and I know they are very different than shooting an indie production.

Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
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#2 Serge Teulon

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Posted 04 December 2009 - 07:26 AM

Hey Cody,

There is no right or wrong path in the ways that you've proposed.

What you've seemed to have understood that it is all about WHO you know.

Knowing the lingo helps but doesn't cover the cracks. I've come across plenty of people that have know the lingo but when it comes to what really matters, they've known F all.
Great for a chat but not for being practical.

Man, I think that if you can afford to take the "I'm a dp and I'm just going to dedicate my working efforts on doing loads of freebies" route. Then good luck to you.
It's a tough road, not impossible but tough.
You need to network in places where you don't know anyone, you need ALOT of patience and also need a very THICK skin. (the thick skin bit just applies whatever route you take in our industry)

Otherwise, I would say that you have to juggle between being an assistant and doing (not as many) freebies. But meeting lots of assistant producers, assistant director, runners, etc on sets.....some of these guys/gals might be giving it a go as on their own projects in the future and will need a good dp.

I hate this saying but its true.......It's all horses for courses!

Good Luck

Edited by Serge Teulon, 04 December 2009 - 07:29 AM.

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#3 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 04 December 2009 - 01:01 PM

Hello Everyone,
I am a young DP with a handful of music videos, a SAG drama short, and a commercial under my belt. I would say I have a solid knowledge of camera techniques and lighting, but I am nowhere near the level that would be required on say a big budget feature, mostly due to my lack of "lingo knowledge" and just standard production protocols. I've never worked on any big features either. What would you guys say would be the best way to advance as a DP? Should I be trying to get onto big productions as a camera PA and slowly working my way up? And if so, any tips on how to get a job like that? I've been in LA for a year, but don't really have any contacts that are working on really big productions.

What are the chances of just shooting independent features and music videos/etc and then suddenly transitioning into shooting big budget features without working your way up from PA? Like I said, I have a very strong knowledge of cameras and their technology, lighting, framing, camera movement, etc., I'm just not very good with some of the lingo, and I would not be able to communicate well between departments, because I haven't been around those big productions, and I know they are very different than shooting an indie production.

Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!


Hi Cody!

I don't like to do this, but I want to point you directly to the book "What I Really Want to Do: On Set in Hollywood" for the most complete answers to your questions. There may be a lot of short answers given here, all of which are valuable, but to really "know" the best answer for YOU, the key is knowing how the professional industry works as a whole so that YOU can make the wisest choices for YOU. What is best for one person may or may not be best for you based on what your own background is, what your financial situation is, and what it is you want for the rest of your life outside of the industry. For instance, a single person with absolutely no responsibilities outside his rent and utilities will have the freedom to make more "risky" career choices than someone who has financial and personal obligations.

So, I urge you to please read at least Chapters 1-5 and then the entire section on the Camera Department. THEN, you'll have a better idea of the entire "arena" you're considering. More information at http://www.whatireallywanttodo.com and http://www.realfilmcareer.com.

Good luck!
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#4 Brian Rose

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Posted 04 December 2009 - 02:13 PM

Cody, I wish I had advice for you, but I am much in the same place as you, so I lack the benefit of experience, or success to guide you. But I can definitely empathize. I want to craft beautiful images. I want to paint with light and shadow and colour and compose startling images that will stick with people. I get a thrill out of the process of creation, and relish the challenge a director presents me when he/she says, "I want to do this. Make it happen." I love bringing to actuality the visions that, before, existed only in the head of a dedicated filmmaker.

But when you're so sure about what you want to do, it becomes downright terrifying when you think of all the things that have to go right, that could go wrong, to derail everything.

"What if I never find that opportunity?"

"What if no one will give me a chance?"

"What if something happens, like I get fired, or hurt, and I have to give it all up?"

"What if I'm not good enough?"

I for one have had to struggle mightily with all these fears. I thought I had found the road. I had a good job with a great production company. I was meeting people, making connections, and then one day, without warning, I was laid off at what was supposed to be a production meeting. Suddenly I was thrust into a hostile economy, forced to compete against other camera ops and DPs with more experience, more connections and better gear. Half the clients I came into contact with didn't want to pay even for travel or tape stock, while the other half that could afford to pay sought out the established DP. I felt without a niche, useless, worthless, a failure.

I'd be lying if I said I had conquered these doubts. I haven't. I've thought about teaching to support myself, but I fear I won't be any good, and that I will be sacrificing my aspirations. I'm terrified of waking up to find myself twenty years older, and having not done a damn thing with my life. I don't have the comfort of believing in a heaven, because I don't. I believe this life is our one shot, and the thing I fear most is living an utterly ordinary, unremarkable life, and leaving nothing of merit or note behind to prove I existed at all.

Things are supposed to be better this spring. At least, that's what every production company I call has told me. I'm trying not to get my hopes up too much. In the mean time I'm looking to shoot weddings to make extra cash, and I'm looking forward to the start of the next semester, when a new round of students at the area schools will begin their films, and might need a good DP to help.

At this point, it's all I can do. All anyone can do is what they're able at that time and place. The work is often unrewarding. You get humiliated and strung along and taken advantage of. Often times, you have very little real control. I don't believe in a god, but I'm growing convinced that there is a fate. Some people have all the luck, and others have to fight and claw for even the smallest bit of advancement, and for every step forward, it seems you fall back three or four.

In the mean time, when I'm low (which is pretty damn often these days), I say to myself, "It's for the memoir. It's all for the memoir." Because what good memoir doesn't have stories about all the bad things endured in order to achieve something greater than one's self?

BR
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#5 Serge Teulon

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Posted 04 December 2009 - 02:52 PM

Hey Brian,

I'm really sorry to read that you are feeling so low.
There is at least solidarity amongst all of us....because if someone is not going through the same, they will have certainly done so in the past.

If there is one advice that I could give to someone starting out, is to have a 2nd job that is flexible.
For example, I know of a producer/director who is also an art dealer. When the film side of things are not working, then he leans on the art dealing.
Not only does it keep him sane but it also allows him to pay the bills.

Chin up Brian
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#6 Cody Cuellar

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Posted 04 December 2009 - 03:09 PM

What you've seemed to have understood that it is all about WHO you know.

Knowing the lingo helps but doesn't cover the cracks. I've come across plenty of people that have know the lingo but when it comes to what really matters, they've known F all.
Great for a chat but not for being practical.

I definitely know what you're talking about with this, I come across people that sit there and will babble on about lingo, or worse, cameras and technology, throwing out all their "knowledege" but wouldn't know what to do or how to apply any of it if they got behind a camera and were supposed to shoot a feature. I can get into solid discussions about theory and camera tech, its just the standard "procedures" i guess or just lots of tips and tricks from the pro's that I am missing out on.

I don't like to do this, but I want to point you directly to the book "What I Really Want to Do: On Set in Hollywood" for the most complete answers to your questions.

I have actually read most of that book! It is good, which is why I asked the question, because it mainly just shows the "work-your-way-up" path.

But when you're so sure about what you want to do, it becomes downright terrifying when you think of all the things that have to go right, that could go wrong, to derail everything.

"What if I never find that opportunity?"

"What if no one will give me a chance?"

"What if something happens, like I get fired, or hurt, and I have to give it all up?"

"What if I'm not good enough?"

I for one have had to struggle mightily with all these fears. I thought I had found the road. I had a good job with a great production company. I was meeting people, making connections, and then one day, without warning, I was laid off at what was supposed to be a production meeting. Suddenly I was thrust into a hostile economy, forced to compete against other camera ops and DPs with more experience, more connections and better gear. Half the clients I came into contact with didn't want to pay even for travel or tape stock, while the other half that could afford to pay sought out the established DP. I felt without a niche, useless, worthless, a failure.


You should write a book! This sounds like a perfect story of my life. Every day is a battle of what to do to advance your craft vs. make money to live, and even the side jobs out here are hard to find and take you further away from getting where you want to be. Then you have personal issues to deal with, and trying to figure out simple decisions becomes so difficult when the money isn't steadily flowing in. Luckily I have youth on my side and have practically no bills. Also, most people my age are still in school. I have quickly realized in my year out here that this industry truly is for the toughest or most talented souls, and getting where you want to go means you are going to get trampled, walked all over, used and abused, taken advantage of, etc. Only time will tell I guess where I really fit in, but I battle with a lot of the same things you were describing. I ESPECIALLY agree with the whole they won't pay for you, and expect you to bring a camera for free (who can't afford one because they won't pay you well) but then if they have the money they just go to the seasoned DP, who has all the equipment and more stable income and can afford to take a little hit in the rough times just to make a little money and keep shooting. There's no niche for the new talent it seems.

Anyway, thanks for all the great advice guys! Maybe anyone who has DPed any big budget features on this forum share their experiences getting where they are?
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#7 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 05 December 2009 - 07:22 AM

Well, the established DPs don't really have their own gear. They rent.

I can't speak for big budget, but I can for my 4 features that came out of nowhere; over about 2 months....

I got one of them right here on the board. I did do that one for free (well, I got paid in a camera, which is Fine by me) just because it was to be shot all on 35mm, Documentary, no lighting (c'ept for maybe 5 setups?) all natural; with film stocks, some of which were Pre-Vision! In short, it was a challenge, and that's why I did it.
My big break came when my 1AD friend Andrew got hired on this tiny budgeted feature. 10,000$ for production, but we all got paid something. We shot it in 5 days in 1 location with 2 main actors. It was fantastic, painful sometimes (long days) but we got it done. And, in reality, it came out of nowhere. They had a DoP hired, and I had heard about it vicariously, until one day, they met up with the DoP, it didn't work out, he got fired, and next thing I know, the script drops in my lap.
My 2nd Feature came out of that. It was a pretty bad horror film thing that's campier than, well, camp. It'll be hysterically funny to watch if you consume large amounts of pot-- but since I don't... I don't think I'll ever be able to watch the whole thing. But, it came from an actor who worked on the first feature, and out of nowhere just brought it up. Again, there was a small budget (under 100K), but again, it was paid! This one was 14 days, though, so a slightly more relaxed pace. Again, just one thing leading to another.
The 3rd feature I just had found on Film.org (Philadelphia film office site). I don't know how much the budget for it is, but they asked for my rate, and approved it for the shoot, no negotiation, no haggling-- I was lucky. Granted, we're still shooting that now sporadically. In fact, I'm waiting for my ride to set for the day right now.

Now, I havn't yet shot a big budget feature, and in truth, big budget for me is something where I can afford a lighting truck... that'd be nice, as opposed to shoving 2Ks into the back of my '87 Ciera...But there is talk of more shoots coming out of all of these smaller shoots. Now, talk is talk, and it's cheap; I'll be thrilled when there is money. The point being, all of these shoots came from a synthesis of luck, timing, and networking. And yes, You certainly can go from shooting indies to shooting something larger. And that's what you do; a slow building of larger and larger shoots. This takes a long time. I started really shooting as a DoP while still in College, on the side, back in 2004. Before that I had worked for 10 years with my dad who also did film. I did a lot in the G/E department, eventually being a rather too young gaffer on some low-budget local TV shows, but hey, it paid the bills. When he passed away I sold the house and only then bought my cameras (this was about 3 years ago) and more lighting, and I was on my own. That whole network I had traded on was his, not mine, and got me work often as a courtesy. But, you keep surviving and keep on working and you'll make it. Work wherever! that's my little didy.
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#8 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 05 December 2009 - 11:01 AM

I have actually read most of that book! It is good, which is why I asked the question, because it mainly just shows the "work-your-way-up" path.


Well, thank you! :)

The "Just jump in and do it" method isn't really a "path" per se, so there's not much to say about it. It is addressed in the DP chapter as the alternative along with the potential downsides.

Essentially, it comes down to who you know, who knows you, and them knowing what you're capable of. I know great Cameramen who never really get that "break" to move into the "big time" so it unfortunately isn't all about your skills. There is a significant amount of luck coupled with random opportunity involved. Be in the right place at the right time with the right skill set and if the movie you work on does well enough, then hopefully you and that Director will move up and up and up. If you work on projects that never really go anywhere, then you may have a steady stable career, but never really work on big movies where you'll get the respect, attention, and paycheck that bigger projects can offer.

All you can do is just keep working, try to choose projects that bring you satisfaction and enjoy the "path" as you try to "improve" the career and bank account. :)
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