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How To Become A Cinematographer

How To Become A Cinematographer

There are a lot of careers out there, but few are as competitive as the film industry. Although from the outside making movies may seem like a really cool job. it’s also a tough occupation that isn’t for the faint of heart. Rising to the top and taking on a head of the department role, like a cinematographer, is no easy task.

Ladder to become a cinematographer

Today I’ll go over the two traditional paths that people take to become DOPs - going to film school, and working on film sets and talk about a possible 3rd option, the option I’m pursuing, to become a working cinematographer.

The 2 Paths To Become A Cinematographer

1st Path: Film School

When people discuss film school they usually only discuss two things:

1. Its role in teaching students about filmmaking
2. And about giving students access to gear.

Rarely do they talk about what I see as the most important aspects of film school:

1. Providing an environment which forces you to shoot a lot of films.
2. Introducing students to cultivate relationships with fellow filmmakers.

The only way to get cinematography work is through creating relationships with directors and producers. They are the gatekeepers of deciding which DOP shoots a project. So I’d say the biggest advantage of film school lies in the potential of meeting and forming a network of bonds with collaborators and future employers.

Take Emmanuel Lubezki for example, one of the most famous DOPs in the business. How did he start shooting for Alfonso Cuarón?

They studied at the same film school together. Having access to expensive film gear and being forced to shoot as much content as possible will also help your growth as a DOP. Taking the path of attending a film school can therefore potentially fast-track your career. Especially if you are able to shoot a project with some festival success during film school.

However, I think there’s a misconception that talented students coming out of film school will immediately start working as a DOP. There may be a handful of unusual cases where it occurs, but most of the time going to film school is only the first stepping stone on the way to working as a HOD.

There are also many boundaries to attending a film school, the most obvious of which is price. So, what other avenues exist for those who are not able to study in film school?

2nd Path: Film Sets

Another path to becoming a DOP is working up the hierarchical ladder on set as a crew member. Typically on a film set, you start at the bottom as a Production Assistant where you do everything, from making people coffee to driving around doing errands or helping out any department that needs it on set.

You can then slowly make your way up whatever department you desire - camera department, lighting department, grips department - until you begin to get work as a camera operator and eventually as a DOP. Because of its hierarchical nature, this traditional path is usually a long one that requires years of work and making connections to move up.

However, it also has its advantages. Working on a set teaches you an incredible amount. You learn about technical gear, how to interact with people, how to work quickly under pressure. You are able to observe various cinematographers and directors at work and you learn how to deal with working on set from an emotional standpoint.

It’s one thing reading up online about how to build a camera or rig a light, but doing it in person is something altogether different. I think regardless of what path you want to pursue to become a DOP spending time on an industry set should be a prerequisite.

People interested in becoming filmmakers should experience being on a set before deciding if it’s the industry for them because the reality is it’s not for everyone. It can be a tough job. It’s not as glamorous as people think.

As you start at the bottom, building relationships with crew members can take time, but if you work hard and are looking to learn and improve your skillset, the relationships that you do build will be strong ones.

Possible 3rd path

The reality is that although these are two starting paths on the way to a career in cinematography, neither approach is absolute. The third, and most common path, is one that is a mix of methods. Building your career through a combination of on-set experience, online or school-based cinematography education, and shooting as much as possible to build up relationships with directors and simultaneously build up a reel.

This is the approach I’m taking. I try to accumulate technical knowledge from working on a set, more philosophical knowledge from watching films or analyzing art, and practical knowledge from shooting films by myself or with directors that I’ve built relationships.

With this path it’s possible to acquire information and experience from many different sources:

1. Reading articles online
2. Watching videos on filmmaking
3. Going to film festivals and listening to Q and As
4. Making films with your phone, or talking to the gaffer on a film set about lighting.

Try to use all the resources you have available to develop your skills. Once you’re able to start a basic network in the film industry it’ll naturally grow through word of mouth and working on different projects.

Last words

No matter how you get there, the path to a career as a cinematographer has to be an active one. You have to constantly be striving to improve your skills, your knowledge, and your network of employers. Typically this should all happen simultaneously. In the advancement of any career, there’ll always be an element of luck, whether it’s replacing a college who is retiring or the company having a good year and expanding their staff. The film industry is no different.

People often talk about this idea of ‘getting a break’, but breaks can only be gotten if you’re skilled and put yourself in the right position at the right time. Some people make it early in their careers, many don’t. The path to becoming a cinematographer requires constant work and diligence. Gary Player, a South African golfer summed it up best by saying, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Thanks for reading this article. I’m pleased to see that there’s been increasing engagement in the comments recently.

Asking questions or presenting your theories in the comments is another avenue to improve your awareness and cinematic growth. if you know any other path to be a cinematographer or any suggestions let me know in the comments below.

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