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Sunday, August 5, 2007

Becoming A Hotshot Cinematographer

RULE NUMBER 1: Tell someone you are a Cinematographer. Or say "DP" and then have them ask you what that is. What is it? A Director of Photography.

What does a DP do? I don't know, but I've been one a number of times. I'm pretty sure you're supposed to have some kind of technical training, and understand the properties of various lenses and lights and color temperatures and wattages. I don't have any of that crap. But you do need a point of view.

IN PRACTICE WHAT A DP DOES - DAY ONE

You tell someone to set up a light. You've told someone else to do it because, if you're a DP, you probably have at least one underling. By telling this supposedly qualified person to set up a light, you've achieved step one of being a DP, which is DELEGATION.

STEP TWO: Figuring out why you are a DP.

You are probably a DP because you wanted to be a director, bought a camera, and then some friend of yours who is going to a school you didn't get into asks you if they can borrow your camera. "Sure," you say, "but I want to be the guy operating it." This other director guy agrees and says that you can be the DP, then. Do you know what a DP is? No. Does he? He thinks he does, because he's in film school. He thinks it means a guy who owns a camera and presses Record. You think it means you get to choose all of the compositions. You're both wrong and you both will end up hating each other.

NEWSFLASH, BUDDY!

A Director of Photography oversees the lighting and camera departments on a film. You hire the Camera Assistants and the Gaffer, and the Gaffer usually hires the Grips. You tell the Gaffer what look you want to accomplish, the Gaffer physically executes it by telling the Grips where to set up lights. Also, most likely the Gaffer was in charge of actually choosing and renting the equipment.

YOU AREN'T IN FOR ANY OF THAT CRAP

You're a DP because you owned a camera. There's no budget and this shoot is just for a class assignment. There's one hanger-on guy who wanted to help with the film because he couldn't think of a good one of his own. You get to tell that hanger-on guy what to do while the Director spouts quotes from "An Actor Prepares" at the actors in another room. In the meantime, you're left alone in a living room with this hanger-on guy and some 500 watt lights that the Director checked out from school.

WILL THESE LIGHTS EXPLODE THE HOUSE? That's an important question right? Wait, let me read back over this blog so far and edit it for proper organization and bulletization. YEAH, RIGHT I'M NOT DOING THAT. Chances are that if you plug in all of the lights at once and turn them on, you'll blow a circuit breaker. Tell the hanger-on guy to guy find the box and fix it, if this happens.

DELEGATION. If you want to BS your way into a high ranking spot on a film production, AIM FOR THE TOP.

That's the OTHER Rule Number TWO: AIM HIGH.

The higher you go, all the way up to the Director, the less actual technical knowledge you require. REAL DPs will think this is bad advice, and it is. Ideally you should've gotten to your position by slowly working up from a Production Assistant to a Second Assistant Camera to a First Assistant Camera to Camera Operator to Director of Photography. That takes like 15 years. F THAT IN THE A, B!

Here's why anything with Director in the name is good. You get to be the artsty-fartsy guy. You have underlings. The underlings were hired because they ACTUALLY have technical experience, but they're too honest and didn't want to BS their way higher, or they're not confident in their creative abilities. But as a DIRECTOR of Photography, all you have to do is say "THIS LIGHTING SUCKS, MOVE THAT LIGHT OVER HERE" and someone else will do it, and they'll have to worry about whether or not the building explodes because of it. Then you go out, hold up a light meter, and pretend you know what it says. I have done this. I have no idea what it was telling me. I just looked through the lens and when it looked good, I said, okay, done.

Being the Director of an entire picture is even better. You say, "I want it to look like this painting." and then it's up to your poor minions to figure out how to do that. Then you scratch your chin and look thoughtful for two hours and sometimes you're asked for your opinion on things you have no opinion on. I usually pick the left one.


BACK TO BEING A DP. IF YOU READ EVERYTHING BEFORE THIS, SORRY, HERE'S THE PART WHERE YOU ACTUALLY LEARN HOW TO BE A DP AND HIDE YOUR LACK OF ANY KIND OF TRAINING WHATSOEVER

First off, never BS about being a DP unless you're shooting on digital. On digital, you can tell if it looks like garbage right away, and if it looks like garbage, you can usually figure out why. If you shoot on film, you'll never know until way later when they've already spent $20,000 making prints.

So you have a digital camera. Hopefully, it has some kind of zebra function. Remember that light meter someone told you that you need? CHUCK THAT, FOOL! Turn on the zebra function. Adjust the lighting so that there is no zebra showing up. TADA, MFer! You've just lit better than half of all commercials made for local businesses.

Oh, how do you adjust the lighting? Just put crap in front of the lights. Usually they come with little metal grates called scrims. Tell someone to put a scrim in a light. Is that light still causing zebra? Tell him to put another one in. You look decisive now, don't you? Bam, you're done, you're a DP. Try to keep the angle of light from being too similar to the camera angle. Side-lighting is best.

Okay, you're a DP.

WHAT A DP DOESN'T DO.

He/She doesn't decide the compositions. The Director should be telling you that. The DP doesn't tell the actors where to go, unless it's slight adjustments such as "Can you turn a little to this light, please?"

Wow, this is like a book. I should make up a T-Shirt that says "Wow, this blog is like a book." A BOOK WITH NO EDITOR, MFER! BULLET POINTS!

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