So you want to make pretty pictures for a living?

Why not?  Cinematography is one of the most highly respected and fascinating trades in the entire film industry!  Also known as a DP or Director of Photography, a cinematographer is responsible for managing the team of people who create the image you see on screen. Sometimes that team can be just one or two people – sometimes it’s a couple dozen!  But no matter how complex the shot, the DP or cinematographer is solely responsible for understanding how to compose it, how to make it beautiful, and most important, how to make it fit into a larger pictorial narrative.

Here at Forster-Thomas, we meet aspiring filmmakers with a range of dreams, among them cinematography. Clarence was just such a dreamer. He had a love for photography and illustration, and a knack for technical things – unfortunately his grades weren’t so stellar, which meant that traditional film BFA programs like NYU and USC were out of the question.

Clarence had questions about some lesser-known film programs in places like Arizona, Illinois and Pennsylvania, the specific names of which I won’t go into here. He wanted to know, are these good places to learn to be a cinematographer, also known as director of photography?

At least, that’s what Clarence THOUGHT he was asking me. But here’s what I heard – I’m not a great student. Is college the right route for me?  And if so, what kind of college?  A conservatory?  A two year degree?  A sequestered liberal arts institution?  What, Clarence wanted to know, is my PATH?

First, I gave him the narrow answer to his question – a “cinematography BFA” from some obscure school in an unknown part of the country won’t buy you bupkus in Los Angeles or New York – IE, it won’t be seen as any kind of a plus.  Will it be seen as a minus?  Depends on how snooty the client is / how high level, but there’s certainly a chance that it will be held against you.  Overall, though, it’s a truism that the Hollywood unions (and yes, cinematography is in most cases a Union career) don’t really care where you went to school, or how strong of a student you were. Ultimately, the most important thing that a film school can offer a cinematographer are connections, and at obscure film schools, there aren’t a lot of alums in high places, which means less opportunity.

Of course, there are always exceptions proving the rule, and a spectacular talent will stand out anywhere and anytime – but a person like that doesn’t need a second-rate film program to prove his talent anyway.

Then, I proceeded to answer the question Clarence SHOULD have been asking all along – what do I do?  For a serious cinematographer, it really doesn’t matter where you go to school. It’s much more like being a grip or electric than it is like being a writer or director – in other words, I told him, it’s a trade. The number one predictor of a great cinematographer is innate talent, and that, you either have or you don’t. It’s just an eye for framing and narrative composition, some people can do it, some not. But the number two predictor is how many really talented director friends you have, because talented young directors make the reputation of talented young DPs. A DP gets to be well known by working on something everybody sees, and no one trusts a first time DP with a high-stakes project … so finding talented friends is a must.

 

Therefore, I told Clarence, your best bet is going to a highly reputable LA/NY school in a non-film degree such as art history or photography, while simultaneously working constantly on sets and spending all your nights in trendy bars or socializing on Insta-Chat or whatever you kids are using nowadays. Find your people, in other words Volunteering to do free work for DPs he admires, I added, is the best way to develop his core skills, and build a reel.

Nothing about the film business is easy – too many people want too few opportunities for careers to be anything other than grueling, demanding and relentless. But if it’s what you want, I advised him, this is how to go about it.

Clarence has since gone on to DP his first feature – working with somebody he met in college. His story had a happy ending, and so can yours – if you work hard and refuse to take no for an answer.

Do you have more questions about how to become a DP?  Let us know and we’d be happy to answer them.