Not everyone wants to be a director (Splat! Half of my readers faint in disbelief).
I decided at age 19 that I would be a Director of Photography. Having been raised by very cool and artistic parents, I was surrounded by art, film, music, advertising, theater, books and understood each as a possible career. However, it wasn’t until I took Amos Vogel’s film theory class at the University of Pennsylvania and dissected “Taxi Driver” to the minutest detail that I realized it was cinematography specifically that enchanted me.
I asked the Twittersphere what my next article should be. Donald Dankwa Brooks suggested “Why Be a DP?” targeted at young filmmakers unsure of their proper place on set. I was also inspired by Flavorpill’s “20 Brilliant Filmmakers on Why They Make Movies”. Instead of focusing exclusively on being a director, I expanded the conversation to my other brilliant film friends and asked why they became editors, production designers, script supervisors etc. Their words are below. It’s obviously only a dent in all the possible crew roles but should inspire.
What attracted me to Cinematography?
Realizing that Scorsese/Chapman told the same narrative through lenses, angles, lighting and motion was a huge revelation for me. It wasn’t just dialogue. It wasn’t just actors. I needed to know: whose responsibility was it to tell a story through framing and painting with light?
Around the same time as Professor Vogel’s class, I did a rather geeky thing: compiled a list of experiences I enjoyed vs ones I did not. I listed my favorite subjects: Communications, Physics, Shakespeare, Psychology, Painting and Photography. I added other aspirations: being with like minded people. Having a social life. International travel. My love to build things (and rip them apart). Artistic projects with definitive end dates and rotating collaborators. VARIETY! Recognition from my peers (but virtual anonymity in public).
The “not for me” column included: 9-5 work schedule, predetermined vacation days, office setting, working alone, having to wear a suit and following in my parent’s footsteps.
Why did this translate best into being a DP? A great script and passionate director allow me to combine the science behind cinematography: my meters, shutter angles, trusses, dolly track, footcandles, color temperatures and film chemistry with the emotional thread of a painting I just saw, while sneaking in a Joseph Campbell or Bruno Bettelheim reference. I call my approach to cinematography: “treating the technical philosophically”. Most of my time is spent with other film geeks. I travel constantly. No need for an Ann Taylor sweater set. My hours aren’t 9-5pm, more like 9-9pm. However, a day on set never feels like work – circus maybe – but never work.
The Abridged Version of my path to becoming a DP: While in college, I worked in the Art Department on a feature film. I spent my senior year in Paris, studied film at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, shot a documentary and returned to NYC to attend film school. While at Tisch, I worked my summers and weekends on professional shoots. I was a Grip/Electric on features and Assistant Camera on music videos and commercials. A DP friend offered to sell me his Arri SR2. I often regret not taking him up on that offer, but my financial gamble had already been cast on my MFA. I shot student films and documentaries while in school. I graduated with my first feature and first agent.
Random list of some of my best decisions:
– Internship at Kaufman Astoria Studios in the Rental and Repair department. My boss, Bob Schulman, was the best. Working on student or no budget films will groom you to think small. My time at KAS exposed me to big budget equipment orders, taught me how to repair light units and gave me the confidence to add these items to my orders when my budgets grew.
– Cinque Northern, an excellent director/editor, shared this advice: a reel should only reflect the kind of projects I want to do. When I first started, a veteran DP told me to shoot everything and anything. I still think this is excellent advice. Eventually experience defined my strengths and preferences as a DP and I was able to tailor my reel and self-promotion in that direction. I now know when a director seeks me out, the project will resonate with me. (Although I’d really LOVE to film more explosions and car chases. Hint. Hint.)
– Reading the book “Masters of Light”. I was inspired by how many frustrations and doubts the greatest DPs had and yet didn’t let that stop them.
– Working with directors who encouraged experimentation. Two examples: Inspired by DP Harris Savides’ work on “The Yards”, I wanted to see what I could create by shooting Kodak film stock 7277 “incorrectly”. I underexposed it one stop and pushed it two. I knew this low contrast stock would handle the push process differently than traditional stocks and had to see for myself. My often collaborator, Stacey Holman, directed a film and gave me free reign to experiment with this process. The result is her beautiful film “Lumiette”. Another example: I had the pleasure of shooting on Black/White reversal film for performance artist, Zachary Fabri. He embraces change in his performances and extended that freedom to me. The piece, “Forget Me Not, As My Tether is Clipped”, is currently on exhibit at the Studio Museum of Harlem.
Enough about me…
Lana Garland, Writer/Director
“You just put your lips together… and blow.” And that was it. These words uttered by actress Lauren Bacall in the Bogey classic “To Have and Have Not” jump started my love affair with movies. I watched Bernie Herman’s Movie Classics on TV in Philadelphia on summer school breaks, Monday through Friday from 10am to 3pm in the afternoon. I discovered tough broads with hearts of gold who were sexy, smart, and in control. These were qualities my 10 year-old self lacked, and I thought maybe, if I could be like that, I too could go from ashy to classy. I wanted to be a femme fatale like Bette Davis, and of course, Bacall. In the meantime, I had developed by the age of 12 a knowledge of America’s golden age of film that could kick Roger Ebert’s ass.
Nevertheless it still never occurred to me that black people could really be filmmakers. That is, not until the advent of Spike Lee. “She’s Gotta Have It” was my personal game-changer. While it broke the mental construct I didn’t know I had about being both black and a filmmaker, I still hesitated about fully moving towards my passion. For me, the call to action didn’t happen until I watched “Do the Right Thing.” There’s one shot (that nobody remembers but me) of a little girl in the middle of the street, using chalk to scratch out a name – LANA. Lana??!! Why Lana, and what did it all mean? I looked around in the movie theater to see if my friends were struck by this. Nothing. Crickets chirped. But it didn’t matter. In my mind Spike Lee’s art was the vessel that God had used to move me towards my calling. I’ve been trying to make a pretty picture ever since. It’s an itch I’ll be trying to scratch until the end of time.”
Karama Horne, Editor
“My grandmother was a seamstress and my aunt was a tailor so I kind of feel like I’m using the same side of my brain when I edit. The thing is, I never originally set out to be an editor. Like most twenty-somethings in film school, what I really wanted to do was direct.
When I graduated, I realized that if I wanted to eat, I was going to have to find another area of filmmaking to get involved in.
When the editing bug first bit me, it was at my first job in the business, working the night shift at a local TV station in Chicago. I remember creating my graphics on the Chyron infinit! and flying them around with a Grass Valley Switcher on a CMX 3600. (Google it kids). I tried my hand at editing a news open one evening and the next day, the GM wanted to know where the producer had found the money to hire an outside editor.
I was hooked.
In a way, editing is like directing, but with less people. I love how I get a chance to shape the film and the story and to get to know the footage in a way that the director, producer or writer can’t. It’s really gratifying to sit with a director, DP or agency creatives and have them say “Oh my God. That looks wonderful! I didn’t even think of that.”
You’ll never hear an editor complain about getting too much footage. I love taking a large amount of material, holding it up to the light, cutting it and tailoring it to fit the project. And just like my aunt’s suits, my cuts are unique.”
Jeremiah Kipp, 1st Assistant Director/Director
“The 1st AD is not an “assistant to the director” in the sense of taking phone calls and making coffee runs. You’re a general, a cheerleader and a chess player navigating the vast perils of film production, wildly artistic temperaments of artists and the discipline of craftsmen. It helps to know what all of the departments do, which can only be learned over time. During that time, you’re on the front lines of every creative decision.
I’ve learned as much from watching great directors as horrific ones. I’ve occasionally taken jobs because I’ve known the DP and felt privileged to be working with them again (that relationship is closer than the outsider might realize; you’re a cop buddy team, sometimes the good cop and sometimes the bad). I’ve seen the gift of beautiful acting, where someone like Melissa Leo or John Turturro finds a moment so truthful and daring, it makes you know something more about yourself. I’ve seen art departments scramble at the last minute, when the cinematographer and director decided to point the camera in the opposite direction, and work a miracle where the very landscape is transformed into something new. As the 1st AD, in the middle of shouting orders, planning logistics, crossing items off a list and quarterbacking an endless barrage of difficult choices, it’s important not to forget that what you’re protecting is a magic so precious. I’ve mostly left my Assistant Director career behind, now climbing the vaster mountains of film directing, but all of those experiences have informed me about the art, the craft, and about living life.”
Rose Lagace, Production Designer/ Filmmaker
“I was a really shy kid with a big imagination, full of stories I was unable to express, until my attention shifted to the fine arts. My high school art teacher explained to us on our first day of class that she could not teach us how to draw, she could only teach us how to see and the rest was up to us. She did just that and I began to see space for what it was- infinite. I suddenly saw every line, shape, shade and texture in the universe as an entity unto itself. It’s the most important lesson I’ve ever learned.
That same year I made the resolute decision to become a filmmaker to explore these concepts. Martin Scorsese quickly became an inspiration as I began to notice how he played with space, light and movement in films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Every frame of his films were designed for ultimate storytelling impact. It should have come as no surprise at all when I fell in love with production design on my first set, but it did.
The art department became a huge part of my life where I could think visually, tell stories through space and collaborate with other filmmakers on styles and themes that would evolve from a blurb in a script, to drawings and models, to a fully built and decorated set. There is nothing better than reading a great script with honest characters and knowing as you break it down for the first time that you are responsible for the space in which each character will live and breathe and ultimately suspend disbelief. When my job is done right, you stare blindly at my artistic choices splashed upon the screen and allow your mind to disappear into a world you’ve never known. For that reason I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Adam Richlin, Camera Assistant/Cinematographer
“I tend to AC on larger shoots some weeks, while DPing on smaller shoots during others. I’m carefully listening and learning from older DP’s, gaffers and art directors while I change lenses and move the tripod. I ask questions and take mental notes on what lighting designs I like, how to use tools I’ve never seen before, and why older DP’s chose certain lenses over others. That then gets filed and stored, and you can bet it shows up again when I get to DP. Too many people work in this industry to make a paycheck and go home. I listen, learn, and adapt to make myself a better filmmaker.
Cinematography came to me in a search for a career that would let me travel and explore the world. I’ve never been a 9-5 desk job guy, and I’m glad there’s a world of people who feel the same. Cinematography has granted me access to shoot in the White House, in helicopters, riots, and lots of other fascinatingly intense places. I’ve always been enamored with spectacles. I grew up in musical theater tech, then moved into opera, music videos and then film. Action movies, explosions, opulent sets … They all make me happy with a deep enjoyment. It’s my job to capture that fantasy land; to decide what it looks like with lighting, how it feels and how the camera will temper it’s appearance on the screen. I am part of the magic for a short time, from call through wrap, and that makes me just as happy as theater used to when I was younger. Because for a moment I can get lost in the magic.”
Jordyn Ruth, Camera Assistant
“The book “Film is Hell: How I Sold My Soul to Make the Crappiest Movies in History” by Matthew Howe has become the most relatable book on the subject of my young career. Matt’s a gaffer and cinematographer that I’ve worked with a few times. His book is about his experiences with a low budget film company and all of the horrifying hijinks that ensued thereafter. Matt equates working in film production to being a migrant worker. In an industry where I’ve come to expect twelve-hour days, infrequent meals, and six-day weeks, I have to wonder why I keep doing this to myself. Honestly, I haven’t come up with an answer to that question. Between jobs, restocking my kit, grappling my finances, and trying to maintain some semblance of a personal life, I have not been able to come up with a reason for my continued work as a camera assistant. But I am still doing it, and that must count for something, right?”
Wendy York, Script Supervisor
“I love script supervising because it fits all of the important criteria on my list. The biggest and most important was that I work outside at least half the time. I hated being inside all day long. I was a project manager by training and default, I had been to graduate school and I wanted to transition careers not necessarily go back to school. A friend said I’d be really good at script supervising. Essentially that I’d be project managing on a set and providing notes for the post production process. I was thrilled with that idea, we both agreed I would be good at it. I got two books, “Script Supervising and Film Continuity” (aka the Pat Miller book) and “The Role of Script Supervision in Film and TV” by Shirley Ulmer and started working for free. I worked for free for two years.
My first paid job was with Melissa Gilbert, when she was president of SAG. She had a cameo in one scene. I got paid $100. I was totally happy about it. Laura Ingalls! Little House on the Prairie! Pretty dope.
The thing that I love about my job is, I have to be explicitly thorough every moment, no downtime, from when we’re in to when we wrap. I have to be completely absorbed in what we do. It’s always the same and always different no matter what we are doing. I even like to cater to big egos that are completely thorough in their creative process (it’s part of the job). It’s good to work with people who are so focused on the goal. We can reach people, we have the power to do it.
In some respects, it’s like being in a nightclub without drinking. And they pay me to do it! The more pleasure people take in their work the more fun it is for me. It’s a grueling job, but somebody has to do it!!”