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Interested in becoming a DP, am I on the right track?


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#1 Chiyeung Lau

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 12:11 AM

Hi guys, I was wondering if anyone here could give me some advice. I am relatively young and based in New York City. I plan to graduate next year from an university that isn't a film school.

 

I was hoping someone here can give me some insight. I understand that the people on this forum have various opinions on the best route to become a DP, some believe one should work up the electric department while others believe in working up the camera department. I understand a few, such as David Mullen, worked their way up through the budget ladder by continuously shooting until they reached higher budget productions.

 

I was hoping to also work up this budget ladder, but I don't want to be completely clueless about lighting. I have been working on a few low/no budget short films, and I have a few small paid gigs (small music video and kick starter video) coming up soon. I was hoping to do these type of small productions until I improved my camera work, lighting and overall production knowledge. Due to the low budget of these productions, I won't have much access to lighting equipment. Thus I reached out to some people and hopefully I will be able to work on a g&e crew for a small student thesis shoot coming next week.

 

When I graduate, I hope to apply to a few graduate programs for cinematography, in hopes of making connections, shooting more organized productions and getting more hands on experience with lighting equipment. 

 

I was wondering how viable of an option would this be if one wanted to be a DoP?


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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 12:24 AM

Sounds fine, everyone makes their own path.  The main thing is that you practice lighting -- you don't need a lot of equipment either, just learn the basics of creating mood, lighting faces, etc.


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#3 Chiyeung Lau

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 12:29 AM

I just have a few clamp lights, when is it a good time to move up to perhaps buying one's own kit? I am assuming after a few paid jobs?

 

Sounds fine, everyone makes their own path.  The main thing is that you practice lighting -- you don't need a lot of equipment either, just learn the basics of creating mood, lighting faces, etc.


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#4 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 01:51 AM

It's a good time to buy lights when you have figured out what units you personally always like to use and find most useful for your particular style. And also when you can afford them.

So it's best to borrow or rent when you're just starting out, keep a low overhead, and learn by imitating more experienced filmmakers until you pick up enough craft to start making images that fit your taste. It's a long process, but there's really no other way to do it.

No matter what path you take, you have to internalize the principles of film language, exposure, composition, lighting, set dynamics and politics. You'll learn the most about film language by shooting and climbing the budget ladder; exposure and composition in camera department; lighting in G&E; set etiquette in production. But to be a DP, you need to learn it all. And that simply takes time, effort, and persistence.
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 11:08 AM

I sort of learned one light at a time.  At first, all I had was a 650w open-faced tungsten lamp made in the 1960's for Super-8 shooting that I found in a garage sale for $5 (when the bulb finally burned out years later, i found out that those bulbs themselves were much more expensive...)  I also had paper lanterns and reflector dish fixtures with various wattages of lightbulbs.

 

So I had one really bright light for creating strong lighting effects like hot backlighting or for bouncing / diffusing, and I had smaller lighting fixtures.  From this, I learned most of my lighting technique.

 

You could rent a small ARRI kit or something similar if you want, or buy something like a 650w fresnel as a starting point in learning about movie lamps.  The thing is that you can learn a lot with one strong light and a few small ones.  After that, it's mostly a matter of scaling up.  You learn when a 650w isn't enough so that next time you may try a 1K or 2K, etc.


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#6 Chiyeung Lau

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 01:51 PM

Thank you guys for all the advice. On my next short, I will try my best to rent out a lighting package, or at least a 650 watt Arri fresnel (they seem relatively affordable). That way I can practice lighting with a bigger light, along with some smaller lighting fixtures.

 

The only camera I have is currently a lower end t3i dslr, but the images it creates are more than enough for the level of work I am doing at the moment.

 

Just one last question if you guys don't mind me asking, what is the best way to market oneself when just starting out? I understand honesty is the best policy.


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#7 James Martin

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 01:58 PM

Honesty is ALWAYS the best policy, and never say you can do something until you're certain you can.

 

Try and find people at a similar level to yourself, so you can all learn together.

 

Alongisde this, see if you can trainee for any more established DoPs to see how they do things.


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#8 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 06:12 PM

Honesty is ALWAYS the best policy, and never say you can do something until you're certain you can.

 

Wish I could wholeheartedly agree.

 

There are two problems with this:

 

- Lots of people are willing to claim they can do things they can't, which means you'll be terribly left behind, and

- Sometimes, you've been recommended by someone who may have exaggerated what can reasonably be achieved with the available resources.

 

 

Naturally, honesty is still always the right approach. But don't think it will get you anywhere professionally. All too often, it won't.

 

In any job worth having, ruthless self-promotion is probably at least as important as ability. What am I saying, it's almost always much more important than ability.

 

Sad but true.

 

P


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#9 Chiyeung Lau

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 07:05 PM

Doesn't reputation matter, I've heard some horror stories of DPs being fired because they claim way more than they actually knew

 

 

 

Wish I could wholeheartedly agree.

 

There are two problems with this:

 

- Lots of people are willing to claim they can do things they can't, which means you'll be terribly left behind, and

- Sometimes, you've been recommended by someone who may have exaggerated what can reasonably be achieved with the available resources.

 

 

Naturally, honesty is still always the right approach. But don't think it will get you anywhere professionally. All too often, it won't.

 

In any job worth having, ruthless self-promotion is probably at least as important as ability. What am I saying, it's almost always much more important than ability.

 

Sad but true.

 

P


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#10 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 07:14 PM

I'm just trying to make it clear that you're looking at getting into a line of work which is intensely political and within which people are likely to claim abilities they don't have in order to get ahead. This isn't particularly unusual, at least in rich western countries where the culture increasingly permits and even promotes that sort of behaviour, but it does particularly crop up in situations where everyone's self-employed and the value of the work is a matter of opinion - like filmmaking.

 

Being an honest and upfront human being is unfortunately likely to get you walked all over. I have personally been required by my immediate superiors to lie to their superiors to make my immediate superiors look good. The only times it's ever been a problem is actually when I refused to do it, which is of course the exact opposite of what you would hope for, but that's the way the world works. Life, work and the world is not nice or fair, especially on a film set.

 

Just fair warning. 

 

P


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#11 Michael LaVoie

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 08:29 PM

As someone who's been called in a few times to replace DP's , I will say that speed matters a lot.  That's where you need to be honest about your experience level because its' only experience which makes your own process streamlined and efficient.  Time matters a WHOLE lot to the production co-ordinators and the A.D.'s who can recommend you to others and if you bring in a film on time and under budget, that's something that people remember.  Where the actual look of the film nowadays isn't finalized till months later after lots of color correction and by then no one remembers your work.  But they'll remember that you kept the days short and finished on time.  They'll also remember if you were friendly and nice or a pain in the ass.  So demeanor and speed are two things that are of high value but yeah, it's only lots of experience that will hone both of those skillsets in you.  So don't practice on someone else's dime.  Produce your own shorts and learn from your mistakes.  Don't learn basics on someone else's set. Not recommended.  


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#12 Chiyeung Lau

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Posted 04 August 2014 - 09:57 PM

As someone who's been called in a few times to replace DP's , I will say that speed matters a lot.  That's where you need to be honest about your experience level because its' only experience which makes your own process streamlined and efficient.  Time matters a WHOLE lot to the production co-ordinators and the A.D.'s who can recommend you to others and if you bring in a film on time and under budget, that's something that people remember.  Where the actual look of the film nowadays isn't finalized till months later after lots of color correction and by then no one remembers your work.  But they'll remember that you kept the days short and finished on time.  They'll also remember if you were friendly and nice or a pain in the ass.  So demeanor and speed are two things that are of high value but yeah, it's only lots of experience that will hone both of those skillsets in you.  So don't practice on someone else's dime.  Produce your own shorts and learn from your mistakes.  Don't learn basics on someone else's set. Not recommended.  

 

Thanks a lot! Yes, I will keep that in mind. The small low/no budget shorts are kind of my way to practice. I am the one providing the camera for these low budget shorts, so I end up learning anyways. Though I think every new set is some form of learn experience, but I understand where you are coming from. Keep it fast and efficient!


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#13 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 05 August 2014 - 01:52 AM

As someone who is overly nice sometimes-- ok most times-- it has quite often bitten me in the ass. I wouldn't change a thing. I think it's important to maintain a good sense of humor, a polite manner (never interrupting the director while they're talking to an actor, never overstepping your own bounds-- i can't tell you how often I see or hear stories from others about Dps essentially directing. This makes sense to me).

Keep in mind, most of the time simpler is better, except when you need to do something complicated. And, for me, the most important thing I've ever had as a DoP is to have some knowledge of as much as possible-- and I don't mind film things.

For example, I got hired for a little sci-fi shoot because I knew about the physics behind some FTL drive NASA is working on at the Eagleworks. This was important to the director that I got that aspect of the story. I got hired on another gig recently because i was able to summarize the script in a simple sentence to the writer/director (and he used that blub later on to market the film). I even got hired once because I knew how to cook-- not perfectly well, but well enough.

My point is that beyond all the tech, which is very important to know, you need to have some kind of outside view of the world to be able to approach the stories you'll make. You'll need some way to personalize them for you, as a basis for forming your own ideas about the look and feel. Hopefully this will jive well with the director with whom you're working-- or it won't. When it doesn't, and this happens often, and they pass on you, never take it too personally.

Also some of my favorite shoots have been slightly adversarial in private between the director and I in as much as we both approached the film very differently. Somehow it worked, and never in front of anyone mind you, to really tear each others idea's down a bit. Takes a special type of collaborator for that though.

 

Ok, ramble over.

 

Kit wise, never turn too blind an eye to the dizzying array of types of normal household lightbulbs and a few dimmers. With today's faster cameras you can get away with a lot more.


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#14 Freya Black

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Posted 05 August 2014 - 06:03 AM


For example, I got hired for a little sci-fi shoot because I knew about the physics behind some FTL drive NASA is working on at the Eagleworks.

 

 

Oh wow! Could you build one for me maybe? Theres a few things I might change if I could go backwards in time! :)

 

Freya


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#15 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 05 August 2014 - 10:41 AM

In this case, the Alcubierre drive, doesn't violate causality (in theory) as it exploits the fact that space itself can be "warped" to provide apparent FTL travel in a global sense while locally there is no real movement.  Sadly no grandfather killing for you Freya (though ever wonder why they focus on grandfathers in that paradox? In all honesty, grandmother would be a more interesting idea.)


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#16 Chiyeung Lau

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Posted 05 August 2014 - 03:14 PM

As someone who is overly nice sometimes-- ok most times-- it has quite often bitten me in the ass. I wouldn't change a thing. I think it's important to maintain a good sense of humor, a polite manner (never interrupting the director while they're talking to an actor, never overstepping your own bounds-- i can't tell you how often I see or hear stories from others about Dps essentially directing. This makes sense to me).
Keep in mind, most of the time simpler is better, except when you need to do something complicated. And, for me, the most important thing I've ever had as a DoP is to have some knowledge of as much as possible-- and I don't mind film things.
For example, I got hired for a little sci-fi shoot because I knew about the physics behind some FTL drive NASA is working on at the Eagleworks. This was important to the director that I got that aspect of the story. I got hired on another gig recently because i was able to summarize the script in a simple sentence to the writer/director (and he used that blub later on to market the film). I even got hired once because I knew how to cook-- not perfectly well, but well enough.
My point is that beyond all the tech, which is very important to know, you need to have some kind of outside view of the world to be able to approach the stories you'll make. You'll need some way to personalize them for you, as a basis for forming your own ideas about the look and feel. Hopefully this will jive well with the director with whom you're working-- or it won't. When it doesn't, and this happens often, and they pass on you, never take it too personally.
Also some of my favorite shoots have been slightly adversarial in private between the director and I in as much as we both approached the film very differently. Somehow it worked, and never in front of anyone mind you, to really tear each others idea's down a bit. Takes a special type of collaborator for that though.
 
Ok, ramble over.
 
Kit wise, never turn too blind an eye to the dizzying array of types of normal household lightbulbs and a few dimmers. With today's faster cameras you can get away with a lot more.


Thank you for the advice! Yes I understand. I try to learn as much as i can of everything. Cinematography had made me really interested in the art world, something I never had been interested in before. Now I am trying to analyze paintings of old Dutch masters and it amazes me how well they actually light their paintings
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#17 David Henry Brooks IV

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Posted 05 August 2014 - 11:46 PM

Cinematography had made me really interested in the art world, something I never had been interested in before. Now I am trying to analyze paintings of old Dutch masters and it amazes me how well they actually light their paintings

 

This. I've been doing this a lot more recently than I did when I first became interested in cinematography. I now have much more of an appreciation for art and paintings than I did in the past. They really were the true masters of composition and lighting.


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#18 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 05 August 2014 - 11:49 PM

Painting is a good first step-- though honestly, for me, never much did hold too much interest. Honestly, what I become hyper aware of is the way light looks in my every day life and how it makes me feel, or how i'm feeling, at that moment. Perhaps it's just differing schools of thought on films, you know. My personal issue with emulation of paintings-- not that it's right nor wrong-- is that it often times becomes very overt, and sometimes very much so disconnected from a reality (if that makes any sense.) That said, though, the one great thing about being a DoP is the ability to really theorize light and shadow and color however you want. So long as directors keep on enjoying the result-- like cooking-- the grand masses won't care how you get there (and most probably don't want to know what went into it.)


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Aerial Filmworks

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