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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 12:16 AM

It's tough to navigate a career and not just let oneself drift aimlessly, one job to the next.

I haven't shot a feature since "Stay Cool" almost two years ago (2008, a record year when I shot "Jennifer's Body", "Manure", "Stay Cool" and the TV series "United States of Tara".) This spring, I got hired to shoot a TV pilot, "Ride-Along" for FOX, with the same director who did the pilot for "The Good Wife" with me the year before.

But my focus was to get hired on a feature film for the summer and let that determine what I did in the fall (i.e. whether I returned for a third year of "United States of Tara".) I interviewed for a couple studio features when I got back from Chicago, but it seemed that every DP in town was in competition with me... I guess that is inevitable since we are coming out of a big slowdown in feature production. I should also mention that four scripts were to be filmed in Michigan for the tax breaks.

While I was in the middle of this, I got a call from the series "Big Love" asking me if I was interested in coming back, but this quest to get hired on a feature came first in my mind. I then got called to see if I were interested in shooting the series "Ride-Along", having been picked up, but the fact that I'd have to be away from home for such a long stretch and that I was looking for a feature, again it seemed like I had to pass. Then all the studio features I interviewed for picked other DP's. But soon afterwards, I got a call from producer Mark Mathis, who did some of the Lee Daniels movies and also "Stay Cool", about an indie feature in Texas about golf. The script was very warm and wholesome, a good family movie, and I decided to go for it.

This left me free to go back to "United States of Tara" in the fall, but just as I was about to call them to say that I was definitely available... I got an email from the Polish Brothers about a project they were negotiating to direct based on someone else's script. This was going to be a serious literary adaptation, set in the 1950's along the California coast, partly in a cabin in the woods by the ocean, very atmospheric. Only trouble was that the project is in the final stages of being put together, it wasn't 100%, more like 90%.

So this week I found myself with the problem of turning down a sure thing, a TV series, for an indie feature that was still getting put together, but for a director that I've shot six features for, and most of them containing the best work of my career. Add to this that this has been a slow couple of years in Los Angeles for production work, and my decision to drop out of the series meant that some dozen crew people, and riggers, would possibly not have a job in the fall because whoever did replace me for the series would likely bring his own people in. And consider that I turned down two other offers on TV series for various reasons.

A lot of people think I am nuts to keep pursuing this dream of being a feature-film cinematographer of some note someday, not when I can be making good, steady money in television. Anyway, I suspect that there will be more pilots next year, and perhaps more series work if I want it again, but this Polish Brothers movie just seems too good to pass up, even if it's an indie budget.

I'm filled with guilt though at the thought of letting down so many people -- the cast and crew of a series that I've been a part of for two seasons -- to follow a personal dream with some attendant risk, and a smaller movie that is out-of-town and won't allow me to hire as many people as was on the series. On the other hand, this may be another widescreen 35mm anamorphic production, and it's dramatic, it's set partly in nature, and it's a period story.
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#2 Freya Black

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 02:24 AM

Is there anyway you could do both? I mean could the polish brothers work around your schedule a little seeing as they don't have everything finalised yet?

The Polish brothers film does sound like a VERY interesting project to work on however.

It's a tricky thing and these are difficult times where I'm sure a lot of people are looking to find some stability which is why people are probably looking at you like you are crazy, however I'm sure it helps a lot to have a lot of diversity on your CV.
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#3 Rob Vogt

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 02:45 AM

If the schedules do overlap would it be possible to get Uta Brieswicz (who shot the pilot) to cover for you on the USoT or hire a trusty 2nd unit DP for the Polish bros? I'm sure one or both of these people would be willing to work with you, I know studios are hard to convince to do anything- especially because they have definite deadlines...


Do both or either projects have a deadline for committal?
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#4 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 09:48 AM

That's a tough one.

Life is short. Sometimes we have to take work just for the money. Work that isn't particularly fulfilling in any artistic or "career" sense. But doing so, keeps our lives and finances together so that we can afford to do those more fulfilling projects.

I guess if it was me, I'd look at my bank account first and determine if I could afford to turn down a "sure thing" with the possibility that the feature wouldn't come through either. It's a gamble that could end up with me (you) sitting at home for a few months while someone else is working on the episodic.

But, life is short. Taking the safe route is certainly a way to go and many people choose that willingly or have to for one reason or another (mortgage, children, excessive bills, etc.) But if we don't have to always just work for the safest money, then why not go out on a limb every once in a while? With an impressive resume, it's not likely that you'll never get called again, so while you might sit at home because the gamble didn't work out, it likely won't be forever.
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 11:39 AM

The projects currently happen exactly at the same time, I can't do both. And the deadline was last week for deciding on going back to "Tara".

That's the thing in this industry, rarely are decisions neat & clean between A and B offer and you just decide between them. Often you lean in one direction towards one prospect, for whatever reasons, and then the second project comes along, and just as you are about to tell the second one that you are going with the first, the first tells you there is a delay and they'd like a few more weeks before they can decide, or they then tell you that you are at the top of the list but they have one other person that they are also interested in, so you go back to the second one but now they tell you that the money is lower than they said or the location has changed, but they need an answer by tomorrow so you call back the first one that you want to do more and they tell you that they will decide in three days, so you get the second to wait three days, and then the first asks for another three days and on and on and on.

For me, this is actually the most stressful part of the job, the lack of neat borders and definitions and schedules. Especially when the conflicts happen between people I've worked with before and am friendly with. I once had a falling out years ago with a director I had worked with before because of an offer from another director I had worked with before, forcing me to chose between two people who wanted to believe I was more committed to them than the other. Turns out that the director whose job I didn't take didn't even end up shooting his movie after all (and he ended up forgiving me.)

That's the other thing, half these conflicts end up going away if you can wait long enough because most people push or don't end up shooting. But often you can't wait because people want commitments. For example, let's say that the feature I'm going to do ends up casting a famous actor who says he's only available after December. So they push and it would have been possible to do both jobs after all. But they could easily cast someone with a limited window in October, for example, right when the other project would be in its second week of shooting.

What's interesting in the people I've polled for advice, is that crew people who see this as more of a job say take whatever pays the best, shoots the longest, and is the surest to happen. But cinephiles and indie filmmakers tend to say take the job that gives you the most personal satisfaction and is the most creatively challenging. I guess I'm worried about taking the easy choices because it can cause some stagnation in my career; the thing with features is that they either disappear without a trace or they cause some temporary commotion that focuses a lot of people's eyes on the project. Now you can argue that TV is watched by even more people, though I've found from reading reviews, blogs, and forums, that nobody ever notices the cinematography in "Tara" (maybe that's a compliment because it is so well-integrated and understated, I don't know...)
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#6 Justin Hayward

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 11:53 AM

Whoa. Well, you already are a feature-film cinematographer of note, so... Obviously it’s an extremely tough call, but I’ve noticed the past few years I feel far stronger about things I shouldn’t do rather than things I should – if that makes any sense.
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#7 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 12:19 PM

You're right about that, David! I've found, also, that when faced with a scheduling conflict, the best course of action is to do NOTHING until forced to make a choice. Typically, in the interim, the situation solves itself and I don't have to choose one or the other. People want commitments, but not usually because they need one from you, but because it's just one more thing off their desk. It's more a convenience thing for them, not because it is imperative that they have a DP on-board TODAY!

I'm the farthest thing from an "indie filmmaker" but I do see the value in not just taking work because it's "a job." The fact is that life is short and while we may be "Shooting" something, it is nice to be able to actually enjoy what we're working on and have the satisfaction of looking back to something we can be happy with.

Money is nice, but as they say, you can't take it with you. And, I've found, the further you reach, the more you get. Staying safe on the trunk of the tree keeps us "safe" and going out on a limb could lead to doom. But if we don't reach for the unknown, then we'll never know how much more we could have achieved.
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#8 robert duke

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 01:43 PM

this is the SECOND hardest thing about filmmaking. The first being away from family, home, and friends. The jobs come and go, some better than others some worse. Each adds its own take on your life. Its hard but follow your heart. I have found that following your heart always leads to the best choice. I have made sacrifices for work wished I hadnt. I have passed on jobs that I really shouldnt have. Indies are great, studio stuff can be filled with the corporate doldrums. series can be nice or brutal. It is all how you want to go.

As my wife said "forget the money, be happy we'll make it work."
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#9 Freya Black

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 07:33 PM

. I guess I'm worried about taking the easy choices because it can cause some stagnation in my career; the thing with features is that they either disappear without a trace or they cause some temporary commotion that focuses a lot of people's eyes on the project. Now you can argue that TV is watched by even more people, though I've found from reading reviews, blogs, and forums, that nobody ever notices the cinematography in "Tara" (maybe that's a compliment because it is so well-integrated and understated, I don't know...)


Personally I do pay attention to the cinematography in TV, in fact I got into watching Melrose Place (silly soap opera thing) on the online demand service of a UK TV channel for a while. I realised that I was just watching mostly for the cinematography when I couldn't be bothered to watch the final episode as it was rated guidance and you had to register to see it. I thought it was quite interesting because the cinematography was better than the older UK productions that were shot on film. I think Melrose Place was shot on a Genesis and an EX3 or something like that. Maybe even a Sony F900 and an Ex3, I can't remember but it was really well shot.

OTOH, I don't own a TV!

Having said that I don't think most people are conciously aware of the cinematography even in movies. It still affects them tho. However critical attention in cinematography tends to focus more towards movies and there is often a lower expectation for TV than for cinema movies.

The major issue from a career viewpoint that you maybe havn't considered is the fact that shooting another series of U.S.T. makes no differencce to your CV. Right now your CV says series 1 and 2 of UST and if you had done the new series it would say series 1,2 and 3. Most people will just read that and think "he worked on United States of Tara".

The main arguments for going back to UST would be

1) money
2) fun B)

Money is a significant one given the economic situation. Fun should always be significant. However in terms of career, it actually makes no difference.

love

Freya

Edited by Freya Black, 26 June 2010 - 07:34 PM.

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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 June 2010 - 07:44 PM

Oh, I have plenty more reasons to go back to UST other than just money & fun... the cast wants me back, the production people are great, it's a very well-presented show, carefully shot for single camera using prime lenses, few close-ups, a style started by director Craig Gillespie that I really appreciate in this day and age of multiple cameras, zooms, ECU's, and a huge shooting ratio where you go for volume rather than quality. It's an actors's show. But the trick is to find new cinematography challenges other than the new locations or sets that individual episodes can bring, because half the time you are shooting on the same sets week after week, then year after year. It's a great way to hone a style, find subtle improvements every day you go back, etc. but at some point you wish you could just knock a new window into the old set just to be able to light it radically differently. But it's hard because there has to be some stylistic continuity. I remember doing one of the big dinner table scenes in "Big Love" and wanting to add some small table lamps to the long dinner table, but being told that I couldn't because it would change the look of the dinner scenes too much and that it was never established that they had table lamps at dinner.
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#11 XiaoSu Han

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 03:42 AM

It's good to hear that even in 20 years and 20 times the budget, I'll have the same problems as now, that is deciding for projects, letting people down, taking risks etc. - which does not help you of course. It sure is one of the hardest aspects in the industry it seems. Thanks for sharing with us David, really appreciated.

In my opinion if there's a 90% chance that you might do another artistically fulfilling feature with directors that you have done 6 features with, you should go with it. I remember you writing about how you've taken the safe route quite often, so maybe you have to try another one this time.

Sometimes, 10% makes the difference between a feature DP and a TV DP. So in the end, the gut feeling always is right. If you want to be a feature DP, you have to go for it, and 90% security for an indie movie is as good as it gets, isn't it? :)

Edited by XiaoSu Han, 27 June 2010 - 03:44 AM.

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#12 Vincent Sweeney

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 04:52 AM

The Polish Brothers.... serious literary adaptation, set in the 1950's.... may be another widescreen 35mm anamorphic production, and it's dramatic, it's set partly in nature, and it's a period story.



Seems like a no-brainer, at least to me.
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#13 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 27 June 2010 - 09:56 AM

David, you are, as you know a features DP, I think you thrive in the type of environment which is in flux-- that isn't to say I know you at all aside from this vestige online, but I've read your posts and your production journals when they come along and there is a great pride and joy and sense of accomplishment which is there when you're talking about the features you've shot. If that is what you wish to do, then go for it- try it. Succeed or failure in this moment isn't as important as no matter what you'll wake up tomorrow, and still be David Mullen ASC. It sucks letting people down, but sometimes we must. Buy them a beer, a sincere apology, and attack the other issues which'll come up.
my 2 cents. Good luck.
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#14 Ben J

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Posted 04 July 2010 - 11:16 PM

What's interesting in the people I've polled for advice, is that crew people who see this as more of a job say take whatever pays the best, shoots the longest, and is the surest to happen. But cinephiles and indie filmmakers tend to say take the job that gives you the most personal satisfaction and is the most creatively challenging. I guess I'm worried about taking the easy choices because it can cause some stagnation in my career; the thing with features is that they either disappear without a trace or they cause some temporary commotion that focuses a lot of people's eyes on the project. Now you can argue that TV is watched by even more people, though I've found from reading reviews, blogs, and forums, that nobody ever notices the cinematography in "Tara" (maybe that's a compliment because it is so well-integrated and understated, I don't know...)


Some of my favourite cinematographers have worked mainly in TV. I don't work as a cinematographer (not yet anyway) but I'm guessing there isn't as much freedom when your rotating with 1 or 2 other guys? Watching HBO shows like The Sopranos was one of the reasons why I ever considered this as a career. I love the work of Phil Abraham and Alik Sakharov and also find myself looking up who shot what after watching episodes. I do this with other current shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Big Love all the time.

Edited by Ben Herbertson, 04 July 2010 - 11:21 PM.

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FJS International, LLC

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Visual Products

Opal

Aerial Filmworks

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Technodolly

Media Blackout - Custom Cables and AKS

Broadcast Solutions Inc

Paralinx LLC

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Willys Widgets

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Glidecam

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