Some time ago, we issued our all-encompasing guide to all the weird and wonderful jobs that exist within the film industry.
We’ve already heard from a few students that are attending NYFA later this year that it has helped them figure out exactly which area of the film (and the business thereof) that they’d like to specialize in, but there’s one career path that we didn’t cover in that guide…
… and it happens to be the one career path that causes the most intrigue and confusion.
Today, we’ll be addressing that issue by talking up:
Great Starting Jobs for Getting into Cinematography
Make no mistake about it; cinematography is a fascinating field of work and the routes to becoming a professional cinematographer—or director of photography—are numerous. But for the uninitiated, we’ll briefly answer the important question of…
What Exactly Does a Cinematographer Do?
In a nutshell, the cinematographer on a film project is responsible for bringing the vision of the project to life. The skills necessary to do this are extensive—a good cinematographer will know his or her camera and lighting inside out, and be able to fulfill a director’s (often spurious) ideas using an encyclopedic knowledge of shooting techniques.
In addition to being mindful of the best film stock, filters, and lenses for the job, a cinematographer will often be charged with hiring and getting the best out of the other camera operators and lighting professionals working on the project.
Truly, over the course of a professional career, a cinematographer will understand more about filming than most people in the industry could ever hope to learn.
So, how do you get to that level? Here are three starting jobs that form the first stepping stones to fairly-well established paths:
1) Camera Assistant
There’s no more direct path to becoming a fully-fledged director of photography than to work in the same field, albeit in a more junior position.
The good news about becoming a camera operator is that, while you’ll still have to put in the hours in order to progress, there’s a fair amount of reasonably paid work along the way (as long as you don’t mind working on a freelance basis.) As you progress, focus on expanding your network in order to build up contacts and keep that snowball of progressively bigger jobs rolling—sooner or later, once you’ve built up an incredible amount of skill behind the camera, someone will inevitably call on you to use those skills in your first cinematography role.
A good source of starter camera operator jobs can be found here (though you’ll have to sift through the random machine operator entries to find film work in your area.)
By electrician, we mean those who work as lighting technicians at the bottom rung of the department (with grips, key grips, best boys, and gaffers forming the hierarchy above them, in that order.)
Given that the gaffer—or chief lighting technician—works in lockstep with the director of photography to manage a hugely important part of the film’s cinematography, the skills learned on one job are fairly transferrable between each other… though it’s a slightly indirect route with a few extra hurdles along the way.
A quick link to the various starter lighting/rigging technician jobs on Indeed (hit the box at the top to filter by location.)
And speaking of long routes, becoming a director first before jumping into cinematography is arguably the longest. Even still, given that some directors are often experts at cinematography themselves (telling their DP exactly what to do and how), a director is often in the best position to jump the career gap. The reverse is also true—some notable cinematographers have made the jump to the director’s chair, including Barry Sonnenfeld, Jan de Bont, and Wally Pfister.
There’s no set way to land your first gig as a director other than just getting out there and making your own shorts, though graduating through filmmaking or cinematography school can put you way ahead of the game and attract producers who are looking for someone with experience.
Whichever way you go about it, rest assured that there’s a lot of job satisfaction to be had both on the way to becoming a cinematographer and once you’ve finally made it. Best of luck!