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Haskell Wexler and Other Veteran DPs on How to Break into the Business

Haskell Wexler and Other Veteran DPs on How to Break into the Business

So you want to be a DP? Then you’re in luck because The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) recently published a report from a Q&A with seven ASC cinematographers speaking with students from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology. The students visited the ASC Clubhouse earlier this month to speak with Bill Bennett, Patrick Cady, Peter Levy, Paul Maibaum, Peter Moss, Haskell Wexler and George Spiro Dibie, who also served as moderator. Topics ranged from how to make it in the industry, how to collaborate with gaffers, how to work best with actors and more. Below are highlights from the two-hour discussion:

READ MORE: 8 Female Cinematographers You Should Know About

On the best way to gain a foothold in such a competitive industry

“Ask yourself why you’re interested in telling stories through filmmaking. How does your work relate to your view? As ASC members, we want you to be more than good shooters who have jobs; we want you to be engaged artists. That will keep you going even if you don’t make much money.” – Haskell Weller

“Be that indispensable person on set. Also, keep your monthly nut low; live in the cheapest place you can tolerate. You want to be able to make some choices out of what drives you artistically, and that will be easier if your expenses are low.” – Patrick Cady

“You might only work one or two days a week, so watch every penny you make. It’s very hard in the beginning, but do it. And smell good! I’m not kidding — you’re working with stars!” – George Spiro Dibie

On collaborating with a gaffer

“As I’ve matured, I’ve given my gaffer more freedom and flexibility. I feel it’s very important that my gaffer and key grip watch the rehearsals and are not off having coffee. I recommend you hire the best people you possibly can — and then trust them. Also, it goes a long way to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when you ask for something.” – Paul Maibaum

The first thing I do when I get on set is shake the gaffer’s hand and the key grip’s hand, and at the end of the day I do the same thing and thank them for a good day’s work. Working with a gaffer is a delightful dance, one that only the two of you know you’re doing. Sculpting and creating light with a great gaffer is one of the sweetest parts of the job.” – Peter Levy

On fighting for a shot (or not)

“If time is the thing that’s making you lose the shot, I don’t think you can dig your heels in. You’ll just get fired. The skill of our job is creating something within certain budgetary and time parameters — and also creative parameters, because there are a couple of people who are more important than you creatively, and their parameters are going to stand in your way. You just have to be humble in this job.” – Peter Moss

You have to fight for important shots, but at some point you have to give up. Our job is essentially to say ‘yes’ to the director, but at the same time, we are the custodians of the visual style, the visual coherence of the piece of work. Once the cinematographer stops caring, there’s no one to pick up the slack. Where that fine line is [between] digging your heels in or acquiescing to the will of production, I don’t know, and I’ve been doing this for 46 years.” – Peter Levy

On working with actors

“I’ll move a light before I move an actor. This business is all about trust. It’s very important that your crew trusts you, your director trusts you and the actors trust you. They’re baring their souls in front of the camera for the audience, and they trust that it’s being recorded in the right way. I recommend you take an acting class if you haven’t already. You’ll have a lot more respect for what actors do.” – Paul Maibaum

“Now that we have really good monitors, directors tend to move farther and farther away from the set, and this is very disconcerting. The actor is standing there in front of the camera, sometimes pouring his guts out, and when the director calls out ‘Cut’ from a tent 200 yards away, the actor looks up and what does he see? Me, the camera operator and the camera assistant, and none of us can give him any feedback on that performance. I’m standing right there, but my concerns are whether the light was right, whether the shot was in focus. If any of you become directors, please work close to the set so that when the actors look up, they see you first.” – Bill Bennett

“I’ve made several films in various capacities with [director] Bruce Beresford. Back when there were no monitors on set, he would stand next to the camera, and now, with so many monitors all over the set that even the caterer occasionally tells you something’s too bright, Bruce still stands next to the camera. People will ask, ‘What about close-ups?’ and he’ll say, ‘I look through my binoculars.’ He’s right there, ready to greet the actors when ‘Cut’ is said and they look up. It’s fabulous. When their eyes first come up, they shouldn’t be looking at a bunch of grips and camera people.” – Peter Moss

Read the full report here.

READ MORE: Watch: Haskell Wexler on the Changing Role of the Cinematographer

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