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Advice for getting into camera department.


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#1 James Malamatinas

James Malamatinas
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Posted 08 February 2010 - 02:49 AM

I have worked as a runner on several UK short films and features over the last year however my real desire is to get into camera department so that I can get more hand-on experience of cinematography and the skills needed to be a DOP. I am extremely keen to learn and build up knowledge of all aspects of cinematography including knowledge of cameras, lighting methods, equipment, colour grading etc and think working in one of these roles will be by far the best place to learn.

I was hoping people on this forum could share their experiences of how they got jobs being camera assistants, focus pullers, Loaders etc and whether you can recommend any advice that would help me get myself in such a positions i.e. training or qualifications, knowledge of certain equipment/procedures that you must need and so forth.

All replies are much appreciated.

Thanks,
James
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#2 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 09 February 2010 - 01:12 AM

[Excerpted from "What I Really Want to Do: On Set in Hollywood"]


I don’t know anybody. How do I meet the right people?
As you bravely step out into the world, you will be doing what is known as NETWORKING. Just as a spider’s web has a single starting point, your contact list will begin with a single person and expand outward into an ever-growing network of people who know you, like you, and want to hire you.

If you do not live in Los Angeles and plan to make the move, you should start your journey by asking absolutely everyone you know if they know anyone who might be involved in the entertainment and/or movie industry. You might be surprised to find that an English teacher you had a class with in high school just happens to have a second cousin who works in Hollywood doing “something.” Or maybe your best friend’s mom is friends with somebody who works at the local TV station. At this point, you’re just looking for anyone with real experience in media or entertainment. Even if that person isn’t actually in the film industry, chances are he’ll know somebody who is. You need to act much like a detective, tracking down leads until you end up talking with somebody who can actually help you get on a real movie set. Unless you have family in the business already, your biggest challenge is going to be breaking that bubble and getting inside the industry. You never know who will do that for you. Really.

And once you’ve made your move, you cannot be afraid to approach people or to talk to them. If you get a name and phone number, do not hesitate to call. You might be nervous because your leads don’t know you from a hole in the ground, but dial the number and explain who you are, how you got their name, and what it is you are looking to do. If they can help you (and they haven’t had a bad day), most people in the industry will be more than willing to lend a hand by inviting you to observe for a day, to work with them directly, or by referring you to someone else that they know. People working in the entertainment industry are normal folks, just like you. Don’t be afraid to talk to them. Chances are, you will not be the first person who has ever asked them for help.

Another option is to take a leap and call an established “name” directly. Watch the end credits of your favorite movies and make note of who is credited for doing the jobs that interest you. Then track them down via the Internet (www.imdb.com) or by calling their union (IATSE, SAG, DGA, Teamsters) local office. One way or another, you should be able to find a way to contact them. Sometimes they will help; sometimes not. It all depends on the individual, but all you really need is one “Yes!” to get going. Don’t let the “No’s” discourage you. Regardless of their responses, thank them for their time, because even if they don’t want to help you now, later on down the road, once you are established, the chances are very good that your paths will cross again and they may want to bring in you onboard. Burn no bridges.

Anyone who is already in the business is a potential source of work for you. However, depending on the job you want, there are limits as to how much others will be able to help. For instance, Producers and Directors are generally not the ones who will get you work as a Camera Assistant, but you’ll need them later when you want to be a Director of Photography. You need to meet other people who work in your department of choice. Those contacts will be the key to sustaining a lasting career.

To complicate matters somewhat, crews move in different circles. Some crews only work on features, while others stick pretty much to commercials, music videos, or low-budget projects. This isn’t to say that once you’re hooked into one circle that you can’t get out of it. Most crewmembers find themselves working on different types of productions at one time or another.

Depending on your luck and timing, your networking will lead you to one of two things: an unpaid trainee spot on a big-budget studio film or an unpaid “actual” position on a low-budget student film. Your career will progress from there.

I just got a call from somebody who wants me to work on her film! She says it’s a “great project.” Should I do it?
When an aspiring Producer/Director scrapes together the resources to finish her latest ultra-low-budget epic, she also needs to find a qualified crew. Because of severely limited resources (read: not enough money), the shooting schedules on these types of projects can range from a few consecutive days to being spread out over several weekends. And typically there is little to no money available to pay you or anyone else on the crew. This is where you, the young enthusiastic aspiring filmmaker, come in. Naturally, the Producer/Director wants the film to be as good as possible, so the first calls usually go out to people who are very qualified and well established in the industry. Generally because of the money issue, those people will politely turn the “GREAT PROJECT” down and leave the Producer with other recommendations. If you have worked with any of these people in the past, either on other low-budget projects or perhaps as a PA, then this is how your name and number get spread around town. Because you are just starting out, the hope is that you are qualified enough to do the job and are willing to do it for very little money or for free. Their promise to you is that they’ll “remember you on the next one.”

Okay. So they get a warm body who they hope can do the job well enough. What do you get out of it? You’re looking for two things on a project like this, and money isn’t one of them. If nothing else, you’ll walk away with more experience. Even the worst projects will teach you things that you will take with you throughout your career. Your other hope is for somebody else on the crew to notice and like you enough to call the next time he needs somebody. Of course you’re also hoping that the next job pays better than the last.

So before you say yes or no to the strangers on the phone, you need to ask some questions of yourself and of them first. Number one is whether you can afford to take the job. If your bank account is low, a job that pays nothing or next to nothing may be out of the question. If you can afford to take it, then you need to figure out if it will be worth your time. Is there anything unique about this project that you haven’t experienced before? Maybe there is new equipment to use or the locations are challenging. Or you may decide to take the job because of other people who are working on it. Maybe the person calling you is destined for great things (you hope), so by working for her, you’re banking that you’ll be invited along for the ride.

If you can’t take the job or decide not to, politely decline (“I’m sorry, I’m just not available right now...”) but don’t close the door on the relationship (“...but please keep me in mind in the future!”).

If you do decide to take the job, go in with a positive attitude and give the project 100 percent. Even if you are being paid nothing, you’ve made the choice to do the work under those conditions. This isn’t to say that you’re there to be abused, but complaining about the money or the hours won’t help you impress anyone. You’ve decided that there is something to be gained by agreeing to work on this project, so go in and accomplish that as best as possible and leave the set every day with a smile on your face.

When you wind up on a studio project, you’re in luck. While indeed your position may be less than flattering and your skills are underutilized, you’re now on the “inside.” That is to say, you’re working with established crewmembers who can teach you the right way to do things and who can recommend you to their friends. You still need to put in the time and fulfill the union requirements, but at least you’re now close to people who are truly making a living in the film industry.

The other (and more likely) project is a student film. The downside of this seems obvious: you’re primarily working with other amateurs or wannabes. But this isn’t always the case. Frequently, when students set out to make a small film, they manage to employ the help of skilled union members who are looking to advance their own careers. For example, a union Camera Operator wishing to move up to Director of Photography may practice on a student film.

However you get your start, keep showing up on as many sets as it takes until somebody actually puts you on the payroll of a real movie. You might get lucky and it will only take a month or two. For some people it takes significantly longer. As long as you have patience and maintain the means to survive, you will most likely reach your goals.


I’m not getting where I want to be in the business. What can I do?

If your entry into the paying world of movie production isn’t happening as fast as your bank account is dwindling, you may have to find some temp work. If it comes to that, try to find work in the industry as close to the job you want as you can get. For instance, if you want to be in the Camera Department, a job as a Prep Tech (a staff employee who prepares a camera package) at a rental house will put you in contact with working professionals and give you access to all the equipment you need to learn about anyway.

Remember...the key is to meet the right people and be prepared when you sense a genuine and appropriate opportunity to sell yourself.


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