During a panel discussion organized as part of the annual CineGear Expo held in Los Angeles on the Paramount Pictures lot over the weekend of June 6-7, a panel of 13 cinematographers, all of whom are members of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers, shared tips of the trade, which we, in turn, share with you below:
Use an app to calculate the position of the sun – and keep it handy.
“These days the best thing to have in your kit is a way to calculate the sun — one of these little apps that are handy, which we didn’t have [when I was coming up the ranks]. We had some cumbersome things that we used — compasses and calculators and stuff — to figure out where the sun is when you scout something and you don’t get to see it for real until you get there.” — Tom Houghton, A.S.C. (“Elementary,” “American Horror Story”)
Resist the temptation to check your phone while you’re on set.
“I’m going to say the most important thing is what you don’t have, and that is your smartphone. Leave it off the set. One hundred percent concentration, that will get you everything.” — Daniel Pearl, A.S.C. (both versions of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” the 2009 version of “Friday the 13th”)
“When you’re coming up the ranks, put your cell phone away and listen on set. I think sometimes the best skill when coming up is [to] listen to the DP and the gaffer talking about stuff. I learned so much while I was operating by just sitting there and listening and paying attention. You absorb a lot [that way]. Now I look around my set sometimes and everyone is so busy on their phone that they are missing all this great stuff. They’re not paying attention to why the gaffer is doing [this or that], and if they want to start shooting that is [the] perfect [place to learn] because you’re watching people do stuff that you’re going to want to be doing. [So] pay attention and listen. It’s really helped me a lot.” — Cynthia Pusheck, A.S.C. (“Revenge,” “Brothers & Sisters”)
Know more than you have to know.
“I started sweeping floors in a non-union studio. I did grip/electric, set construction, set decorating, a little bit of everything — editing room — and then I ended up as a producer in commercials for five years. So I kind of know everybody’s job and I find it helpful to know everybody’s job to a certain extent. Know more than you need to know. Don’t show off with that, but know it. Just be true to what you really believe in. Trust your gut instinct.” — Roberto Schaefer, A.S.C. (“Quantum of Solace,” “The Kite Runner”)
Stay on your game.
“I think you have to perhaps swallow your pride and find the biggest production and get [hired] in a much lower capacity than you think you are and then never be late, always have a smile on your face, never roll your eyes at the decision that somebody is making, always be the last one there, be reasonable and be noticed.”
— Peter Moss, A.S.C. (“Flashpoint,” “House of Lies”)
It’s not about equipment, it’s about your eye.
“I think the most important piece of equipment that you need is your eye. Nothing else is as important or changing on a daily basis. So if you start thinking about what equipment is going to help you make a better cinematographer, it’s not really equipment, it’s your eye.” — Suki Medencevic, A.S.C. (“The Pixar Story,” “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell”)
Follow your passion.
“Expanding on the eye, I would say, the heart. What are you passionate about? What really speaks to you? And the head. You’ve got to have a heart, a head and an eye. Gear is gear — we’re at CineGear, there is a lot of it — but it’s a lot about what is personal. Each person has a vision and a different take on life and what they see, so just know what really speaks to you.”
— Nancy Schreiber, A.S.C. (“The Celluloid Closet,” “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”)
Keep a still camera with you at all times.
“I would say the most important thing to have when you are starting out is a still camera. Just have it with you all the time because you’re not going to be shooting films all the time, you’re going to be wanting to shoot these films. What you want to do is shoot frames that matter. Shoot frames that resonate. Shoot frames that tell a story. Notice where your eyes go in that frame and try and tell the story with that. And when you get the chance to shoot something, you’ll already be prepared because you’ll already have that skill honed.” — David Perkal, A.S.C. (“Hit the Floor,” “The Vampire Diaries”)
Find a group of collaborators that you can continue to work and grow alongside.
“You asked about what’s the most likely way to get your first gig and I think sticking together with the people you collaborate is a great start. It’s probably the most likely place for many cinematographers to get their first movie — from the people they make their short films with while they are in film school or whatever journey in the early parts of their career. Stick with those people and make yourself invaluable to them and then you’ll get out there and get a movie shot and keep it going.” — Amy Vincent, A.S.C. (“Hustle & Flow,” 2011 version of “Footloose”)
“Many of us on this stage…we’re all here because of maybe one director. It’s the relationships you build early on in your career, where you trust somebody and they do good work.” — Matthew Libatique, A.S.C. (“Noah,” “Black Swan”)