SO YOU WANNA WORK IN MOVIES?
A response to people who ask: "How do I get into Movies?"
By Oliver Stapleton BSC
So you have to ask yourself the question:
Am I Any Good at Anything?
I'm totally useless at everything...
This is not necessarily a problem as some people working in the industry are totally useless. Some years ago I was rude about various jobs, but then I realised there is no point in being offensive! Some people who work on the floor, i.e. actually making the film, are totally useless but they usually don't last very long, unless they are either very enthusiastic, very entertaining, very pretty or all three.
I'm totally useless at everything but I am willing to learn...
Now this is much better. Unfortunately modern schooling means that most of us are never "first". So you may feel useless because people kept telling you from childhood that you could do better if you worked harder. So you worked harder but never got to be first. So then you got very pissed off, set fire to some things, smoked some joints and decided you were useless. Many successful film people started life like this. Film People are kind of outlaws anyway: it's not a proper job. So if you've got bored of being bored, then working in film might just prove to you that you're good at something, even if you can't figure out what it is. Yet.
I'm good with money...
This is easy. Films employ Accountants by the bucket load. When there's a few million dollars to control, or a few hundred million, the Accountant is a rather important figure. He or she (and it seems to be she quite a lot of the time) does the same job that accountants do elsewhere but they can say "I'm working with Meryl Streep at the moment" and stuff like that. Accountants rarely see anyone connected with the film, unless they don't pay them. So if they see someone, they are usually angry. This makes the job quite hard, as sometimes films run out money to pay people, then the crew turns quite ugly. The producer or the director will make some kind of encouraging speech - "The money is definitely coming next week..." that kind of thing. When it doesn't, the accountant is first in the firing line. You may not want to be a movie accountant. If you're good at numbers, you could ignore that and do something more interesting - but don't ask me what. On the other hand, film accountants are usually pretty happy because they get really well paid!
I like reading...
Well this opens up a host of possibilities. This might be the moment to confess that I am a Cinematographer, or Director of Photography, which sounds rather more grand. This means that I only really know about what goes on when we shoot a film: what goes on before and after is not something I know much about but I can guess, and I hear stories. Anyway, if you like reading then there are people who read, and get paid for it. Oddly enough, they are called readers, and work for studios and producers who attract more scripts than they can read themselves. There are some pretty amazing statistics for the number of scripts written versus the number of films made. I don't know what they are, but I know they are amazing. This need not put you off being a reader however, as it means there are plenty of jobs for readers.
Now as you may have guessed, after you read a script you have to say something about it, so just being able to read doesn't really get you the job - you have to be able to digest and regurgitate the material in marketspeak. Marketspeak may or may not exist as a word, but what it means is that some Studios don't really care whether you think the script is any good, they care if you think it might make money. This might also mean that it is good. There's some really complicated system of analyzing scripts that is all entered into a computer which is supposed to say whether the script is going to be a hit. It's usually wrong, but sometimes isn’t. If the producer you work for actually is interested in good films, then you're lucky. And he or she might be able to converse with you at a higher level than marketspeak.
This might be a good moment to remind ourselves that films are many things, from shorts, docos, nature films etc to Titanic type films. It's important to realise that the words Film Industry are significant. Film is an Industry, just like making cars, and on one level is rightly perceived as such by the major studios. At the big end it is: Big Industry. At the little end it may be pure art. And some big films are Pure Art because someone decided they wanted to make the Big Meaningful Statement and they had the money to blow. And they probably did blow it. And some little films are pure industry because they are conceived, shot and designed to make money. They sometimes don't. In between these things are most films, and most films have every combination of people working on them. It is all started by the Writer.
I like to write...
Well this is good. So do I, but I'm not a Scriptwriter. Scriptwriters kick-start the whole process. Directors like to think that they are The Business, but the truth is that Scriptwriters should be right there on the Pedestal with them. Directors get the media interest, because most Directors can talk, which is not a job requirement for a Scriptwriter. Being able to tell "partial truths" is very important for publicity, so if you don't think you can face the camera and say that you think the leading lady is an "Absolute Dream to work with" when you know that she is 9/10ths SuperBitch, then don't be a Director, (..or don't do publicity). But Writers can be any kind of personality, as they don't have to appear in public. And they don't have to tell partial truths.
Writing film scripts is very different from writing novels or journalism or any other kind of writing. This is because it's not really writing. It's a PLAN. Like an Architects Plan. The dialogue is the only bit that really survives, and even that gets changed by the Director or the Actor or both. So if you want to write and have what you write filmed exactly, then you have to Write and Direct. Lots of people want to do this, but God made very few creatures who are able to do this. This is because the personalities of Writers and Directors are so different: and even when such a person exists, usually one side of that person fails in the end. Unless they are one of the few i.e. A BRILLIANT ONE.
Anyway, back to writing scripts. There are people who write and re-write scripts their whole lives, get paid bucketfuls of wonga (money), and may never have had one of their scripts turned into a movie. This is strange but true. These people are usually rich when they are middle aged, and pissed off. They only live in Hollywood; other countries in the world don't appear to support this species. You could be one of these people if you like to read scripts, then go to meetings and say in a knowledgeable and forceful manner why it doesn't work and then suggest better ideas which you, naturally, would write after your Agent has asked for a suitable 6 figure sum. I guess the people who do this job started by writing original scripts, or adapting books and then got employed by Studios. Most of them have degrees in English Literature.
Then there is writing scripts because YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY. Now this is something else entirely. I have had the good fortune to photograph a number of films where the Writer has something to say. Sometimes the Writer may be a person of "First Order Originality". This phrase was coined by a friend of mine to define an Artist. (Not an Actor). The word Artist should be reserved for "A Person of First Order Originality". This means a person who HAS SOMETHING TO SAY and can say it in a way that has meaning for others. This idea can be applied to any Art, but it does mean that the only true artist working on a film is the Writer, or a Writer/Director, or sometimes a Director working in close collaboration with a writer. The rest of us are working to execute and contribute to THE IDEA. So if you think you have something to say and want to say it on Film, you may be a Writer or a Writer/Director.
Kieslowski famously said, when asked why he stopped making films:
"I've nothing left to say."
If the rest of the World's Directors were that honest, they'd quit tomorrow.
There is some intelligent and sensible information now available (2015) HERE if you fancy being a Writer.
I'm a good organiser...
This is something that Producers do. Well, some of them. Stephen Frears once said to me that a Producer is someone who organises Airline Tickets. I think he meant a Production Manager but I'm not sure.
Producers are the top of the tree for people who work In the Office as opposed to On the Set or In the Studio. Producers come in all shapes and sizes. I used to just not like them in principle because I must have been influenced by all the bad things I read about them, as well as the fact they employed me, and naturally I resent authority figures. Anyhow it turns out that now some producers are my friends and I not only like them but really admire them because they do something I could never do: persist through thick and thin for years on end believing in a film and getting it made. This is very very hard as well as often financially very precarious. This is because everyone thinks Producers are rich and whilst some of them are, many of them are not. There are other kinds of Producers too: lying, cheating nasty people who snort coke and mercifully go to an early grave. Try and avoid this kind.
If you want to work in the Production Office, you call the production (get the number from a trade magazine like Hollywood Reporter) and ask for the Production Manager. The person who answers the phone is called a PA or Production Assistant and is doing the job that you want. They won't put you through to the Production Manager who has better things to do than listen to another 18 year old asking for a job. So he or she will tell you to send in a Resume, which is hard if you haven't done a job yet. Blank sheets of paper don't go down very well.
Now a very useful phrase to use here is Work Experience (Intern in the USA) - providing that you can pass for under 20. The word Work Experience might get you through to the Production Manager, because they don't have to pay you. So you can only do this, if you can support yourself in some other way. But the Good News is that if you offer to work for free to GAIN EXPERIENCE, they might take you in, at least for awhile. Once you are through the door then the sheer CHARM and ENTHUSIASM of your personality may make you so indispensable to the production that they hire you forever. Or not. Or you may fall in love with the Accountant.
The bad news is that when you finally get employed as a PA, you work ridiculous hours and get paid really, really badly. And you have to use your own car. A lot. Here is a free guide on how to become a PA.
I interviewed a PA on the set of "Best of Me" in New Orleans (2014). Or you can just type "Film PA" into Google and you get ten zillion hits... but then you discover most of the hits are advertising for sites than advertise jobs for PA's... or something like - (2013) "Poverty Row Productions Inc. is currently casting for our first feature film!"... the name of the company is probably a good indication of what you are in for...(I didn't make that up!).
The other kind of Good Organiser is the Assistant Director (the 1st AD). To attain this lofty position you start as an On-Set Runner.
You apply for this by doing the same as above but phoning the 1st AD during pre-production. He or She won't talk to you for the same reasons as above, but you can pull the same Work Experience trick, only On Set as opposed to In The Office. The relationship between the First AD and the Director and Cinematographer is crucial to a good working situation on set.
I'm a good actor...
So am I... Or at least I thought I was until I went to Drama School and learnt that I wasn't. If you think you're a good actor then you've got yourself into a really tough place. Actors spend most of their time being rejected and, after rejection, Unemployment. "Withnail and I" was a hell of a Movie, but imagine actually being in that position. Acting for film is very different to stage acting, and seems to require different talent. I'm still puzzled about what makes a Film Star as opposed to a Good Actor. A Star is not necessarily a Good Actor, but sometimes is. To become a Film Star or any kind of Actor, you have to have totally one hundred percent conviction that this is what you are, and want to be. If you don't have that, GET OUT NOW! It's the lousiest life in the world if you don't make it. And it's sometimes pretty terrible if you do! Film stars somehow make sense of the phrase "Born to It".
If you just like doing some acting, and being around actors, then you might want to think about being a Casting Director, and doing a bit of stand-up at the local pub.
I want to Direct...
Doesn't everybody. It's the control thing, and the power. All those people doing what you tell them. Or maybe YOU'VE GOT SOMETHING TO SAY. Or maybe not. You want a career, power, and glory. The big question is: DO YOU SEE PICTURES IN YOUR HEAD? If not, forget about being a Film Director, or a Cinematographer. Directors and Cinematographers can string pictures together in their head, like a Composer can "hear" music and then write it down. Now some musicians (like me) tinkle about on an instrument until they work out a tune: this is not being a real musician. Real Musicians hear music in their heads, then write it down, or play it. The rest of us are just larking about, and a lot of fun it is too.
Some people say Directing is a vocation, like being a Priest or a Doctor. It's not remotely like being a Priest or a Doctor, but it may be a vocation, because no-one in their right mind would voluntarily go through the kind of hell that a Film Director has to go through.
Film Directors not only have to be able to visualize in their heads, but they also have to be able to deal with a lot of very demanding and very different types of people. Occasionally someone like Karasawa or Hitchcock appear. People like them are so brilliant that they clearly don't live in the same world as us mere mortals. And it is up to us to Protect and Preserve People like Them - the Brilliant Ones. In the Good Old Days (a phrase banned from my vocabulary, but I'm allowed to write it), the Brilliant Ones were revered by society: Philosophers, Writers, Composers, and Artists. Nowadays Film Directors of all kinds get the treatment, but most of them are not The Brilliant Ones, but are just Ordinary Mortals trying to get in the limelight and make a decent movie. Good luck to them.
I don't like working with Directors who don't have anything to say, and are horrid to everybody because they perceive themselves as being important. They don't like working with me much either (fortunately). Some Directors are really nice people but not very good Directors, and some of them are really Brilliant but not very nice. Occasionally you will find one who is really Brilliant and Really Nice. Try and work with these!
The thing to remember if you aim to become a film director is that it is not necessary to behave badly (unless you're a Genius, in which case you can't help it.) And also that the one person on the film set who doesn't have to know anything technically is the Director. He or She can have their heads completely immersed in the Script and the Actors and that's all right by me. Because that's what we do - the Crew: we supply the technical expertise.
Actually, when I wear a free T-shirt that says CREW on a film, I can't work out whether the DP (Director of Photography) is really Crew or Management. Anyhow, the DP, Operator (maybe the same person) and the Script Supervisor can work out how to shoot the film with the Director. Directors who dictate everything are really boring to work with - especially when they are nasty. If they are a Brilliant One people forgive them, but if they are just dull, then they don't.
Directors have 6 phases of collaboration to make a movie. This involves the following procedures, amongst a ton of other things.
- Collaboration with the Producer(s) (or themselves).
- Collaboration with the Writer(s) (or themselves.)
Pre-Production & Shooting
- Collaboration with the Production, Production Designer, Costume Designer & Make-Up...
- Collaboration with the Cinematographer.
- Collaboration with the Editor & Composer.
- Collaboration with Marketing (or not!).
Unfortunately Development sometimes takes years and doesn't get paid, so it's a good idea to keep that Cafe Job during this period. Pre-production is an exciting period because there arises the possibility that the film you've been working on for years might actually be shot. Shooting is even more exciting because it's the REAL THING, the PARTY. Some directors hate shooting because of this. They like to be holed up with the material and play with it in the peace and quiet of the cutting room. Shooting is exciting because you get to see what the writer wrote on the screen. You get to go on location, travel in Business Class, and stay for free in Nice Hotels (sometimes.)
There is a really good study of Directors HERE. Read this carefully and take notes if you want to be a Film Director!
I wanna work on the movie set but I don't know which job...
Good Directors and Cinematographers, Production and Costume Designers, are people who don't have a real choice. They know by the time they are 30ish that that's what they want to do. They may not know before this, if they are in the "I'm Useless" category from previous life trauma. It might be useful to describe what the other jobs are, to see if there’s one there that grabs your fancy. I'm sticking to the US system here, as I find the UK system completely confusing. The departments are alphabetical in case you think there is some significance in the order.
I used to hate Agents because they always struck me as everything that I despise in people: people who live off the talent of others. Then I discovered I really like my own Agents so whilst I still feel the same about Agents in general, I find it hard to be nasty about them.
I worked with a young actor doing his first job a couple of years ago and asked him what percentage his Agent took. "10%" he said, "but then the Business Manager gets 15% also." Getting out my calculator I realised this added up to 25% which I thought was outrageous for a young man doing his first job and probably not getting much for it anyway. I asked him why he needed an Agent and a Business Manager and he shrugged and said that all actors had them. So if you're thinking about being an Actor, take this on board now!
Agents work in large corporations like ICM and William Morris and spend a lot of their time on the phone and doing lunch. When you start out you will hear people saying "I need an Agent to get a job" and then "I can't get an Agent because I haven’t got a job." Agents won’t talk to you when you're nowhere and they won’t stop talking to you when you've arrived. The best way to start work is to work with your mates: hopefully you all get successful together then you pick and choose your agent because they all want a part of you when your WOM (Word of Mouth) gets to be on the ascent.
As far as I am concerned, Agents do my deals (and that's a great relief to me) but they don't usually get me jobs. During my months off in Deepest Darkest Devon they call me up to gossip which is nice. My English Agent doesn't want me to publish this in case people think I'm cynical and nasty... (I'm not). My American Agent thinks its just funny. Both of them would prefer it if I just stuck to Cinematography.
I left this job out for ten years for some reason: careless admission because not only is the job very important, but it can be done very very well and also very badly! Many an actor has gone sailing past a mark because the horse did not stop, and horse trainers never tire of telling you that no actors can ride. One guy told me that Clint Eastwood "is a lousy rider" - hard to believe! There are companies that specialize in this work in most countries that have any kind of film work: if this interests you then go and see them. Needless to say, you have to love animals - from Lions and Panthers to Scorpions and Rats.
The Art Department works both on the set during the actual shooting process, and "prepares" the sets. The jobs here are The Production Designer (chief Honcho), then Art Directors (they draw up the plans that he or she has visualised), Construction Managers who supervise the building of sets, Buyers who drive about renting or buying the props, then Propmen who actually control the props on set. This is the only Art Department On Set job (but see below), apart from someone called the Standby Painter. People who do these jobs are often quite strange. Particularly Stand By Painters, who are often very skilled painters who earn lots of money for the job but gain precious little job satisfaction as the job mostly consists of darkening down hotspots created by the lighting. If you're a good Artist, you’d be better off aiming to be a Scenic Artist who paints the backdrops that are used outside windows etc. It's quite a lonely job because you're not part of the Crew, but at least you get to paint some Really Big Pictures! And the Good Ones get to be Very Well Paid!
Clarissa Shanadan left this is the guestbook a while back so I've put it here:
I am a Production Designer in the US [East Coast!]. As the variety of PD that came up through the Art Department, I wanted to speak up about the world of being a Scenic Artist, as it still seems to be a rather mysterious position to some.
I was a Scenic Artist for many years, working on gigantic productions, as well as some smaller "good" ones. Here's a brief rundown of the structure of the department:
The Scenics work under the Charge Scenic, who corrals and purposes the whole department. The Shopman or Industrial (Union Category for this position) is the person who runs the scenic shop and fulfills orders, keeps track of bedgets and, sometimes, cleans the brushes... depends, of course, on who you are working for! The other specified postion is the Camera Scenic, or Stanby Painter as you have noted. This is inded the person who has to "tie in" anything that is "glaring"... very often waiting for hours and then during a quick bathroom break gets screamed at over the walkie! I never liked doing this... but it's a job that works well for a charming people-person with lightning quick reflexes and insane talent.
Back to the scenic crew... they are the ones that do everything from painting new construction to look like decrepid burned-out buildings to creating backdrops to use for exteriors to match interiors built on stage. Then there is re-producing paintings for film... this is the real payoff - jobs like these. Scenics have to know everything about materials, and they have to be able to amuse each other whilst rolling walls for days on end... to make anything look like anything...
On big Productions, these are Union positions... The Union is notoriously hard to get into and involves a lengthy exam. All this said, provided you know your way round a paintbrush it's a position that you can get into by trying out non-Union shops and the Work Experience Gag might get your foot in the door...
If you're a Really Really Good Artist, don't work in films, or work in films for the money then use it for your Art. Or become a Production Designer!
Production Designing is a fascinating job, and is what you get to be when you've either climbed the Department ladder, or are a Brilliant One who comes in sideways, or goes to Film School. Sometimes they trained as Architects. Production Designers do the same job as the DP - a one-to-one thing with the Director - only it happens in early pre-production. When the DP turns up, the emphasis turns to him or her, as the DP’s arrival means: We’re Actually Going to Shoot This Movie! People think the "look" of a movie is in the hands of the Director and the Cinematographer but that's not true. It's in the hands of four people: Director, DP, Production and Costume Designer. (Oops, Make-Up too!) You can't photograph something that isn’t there, no matter how you light it. (But see The Future).
I also copied this from the guestbook:
I am a Set Dresser, I noticed that you didn't mention my line of work. Most of the time "I pick things up and drop things off". This is the by far best part of my job. I am also called upon to think on my feet. I fix things, wire things, hang lights and over pack everything. I have worked as a scenic and a construction utility on many productions,I was also a wife and mom for 23 years, they don't call it the mother of invention for nothing. My experiences comes in handy since we are constantly thinking outside of the box. I was called upon to repair antique treadle sewing machines for a very large sweatshop scene on King Bolden. We are filming in Wilmington, NC. I made the mistake of admitting I can sew. I am now apparently an expert on antique sewing machines, nice. I am enthusiastic, a fast learner and apparently not hard to look at, as you mentioned advantageous to keeping my job for months at a time. it is my belief that we have the best job of all the crews, unless of course the Head Set Dresser hires his tiny, inexperienced wife, then her problems become my problems. If she can't do the job apparently it must be my fault because I am called upon to facilitate her, but her ineptitude is without bounds... oops I was venting. Oh did I mention set dressers have a lot of time to whine... hehehe.
Fix it in production...
So under the auspices of the Art Department come all sorts of people, and there may be a skill here you fancy. Painters, Carpenters, Scenic Artists, Construction Foreman, Riggers (Grips),etc...etc.
Here is a reasonable description of how to become a Set Decorator.
Here's a good link to a site that gives more detail about Set Contruction jobs: Howstuffworks
For an even more detailed overview of the Art Department see: Skillset
It would not be unreasonable to think that this department might be one you would enter if you thought you might direct some day. Strangely enough, this is not usually the case - with some notable exceptions. At the runner level, this job can be quite interesting for awhile, as the tasks you get to do are many and varied.
"Get me some Tea, get the Actor some tea, get someone else some tea and then... get COFFEE!"
That's about it. Well, apart from driving 30 miles to get a Starbucks Maciado for Mr Superstar, then putting up with being blamed for it being cold. If you survive a couple of years of this, you get to be a Third which involves trying to get the actors out of their trailers which can take considerable skill, then a Second which means you get more involved with the schedule and spend more time on set, covering for the First when he/she has to go to the Dentist etc. The First Assistant Director is probably the most under appreciated job on the set, and certainly in the wider industry. In a world where you can just about get an Oscar for Craft Service, it is surprising there is no AD Oscar. It could be because only those who work on the film know whether the AD did a good job - it's quite impossible to tell from looking at a movie, unless you are one of those strange people who look at background action, which is set by the AD, mostly. A good AD makes my life a lot more pleasant. The worst ones are mostly English (with notable exceptions as always). That's because there is a certain kind of Englishman who thinks anyone foreign is crap. They shout a lot and think they are very important, which is very tedious. A good AD makes everyone efficient by exerting quiet authority and competence, which makes everyone work well and enjoy making the movie. The First AD is chosen by the Producer and Director, but the DP needs to be involved or at least aware of who it is, because if they don't like each other it makes for a Bad Movie Experience (which of course has nothing to do with the result being good or bad). Remember that Making a Movie is a completely different thing from Watching a Movie. I sometimes wonder if they are connected at all!
I have had a very good experience with a "new generation" English AD (2007) which I am happy to say has transformed my opinion of English AD's. He didn't call anyone a nasty name and he and his team were a real delight to work with!
There is a fantastic piece of research HERE by Stephen Fellows about being an AD - looking at payscales etc and also some pithy comments made by working AD's. His website is well worth subscribing to.
This strikes me as rather a good job, as the people who i've come across who do it seem to have lives. In other words, they are not constantly on the road, working ridiculous hours and looking harassed. Quite a lot of women do this job for some reason - maybe the above reason. It involves reading the script and understanding which actor would be good for what role. This is not as easy at it sounds as you have to (a) know every actor in the world and (b) know which one fits the role. Once you've worked that out you have to find out if they are interested/available/affordable etc. You do all this in collaboration with the director and producer who naturally get the credit - or the grief - for the choices. Curiously you can only offer a role to one actor at a time, so movies frequently get hung up waiting for an actor to accept or reject an offer: naturally they hang on as long as possible to reply, knowing that the Producer can't move on till they have. I think this is completely ridiculous but what do I know. So Casting Director I would rate as an OK job, as long as you don't mind never being thanked and getting no public acknowledgement for your contribution. You have to like eating. A lot. And often.
I forgot to put this in until a friend pointed out it was the most important department on the shoot. I can't imagine people dream of being caterers when they are little, but maybe they do. It's a terrible job with absolutely no glamour attached in any shape or form. The actors don't usually talk to you as some hapless PA (maybe YOU) has to take their lunch to their zillion dollar pop-out (that's a trailer). But then some actors don't do this: they join the queue like ordinary mortals, call the caterer by their first names and ask politely what's on the menu. Then they come to the lunch tent - unless you're in the UK where you are more likely standing by the side of the road with your lunch balanced on a traffic signal box... then they sit with the crew i.e. us. I like these people!
All I know about catering is that they get to the set very very early in the morning (probably 5am) and never stop working for one moment in a hot cramped steamy hellhouse truck. They do Breakfast in 5 languages, then Morning Tea, then Lunch for 1pm which might be 4pm and then Afternoon Tea. Somehow these miraculous human beings remain cheerful and bright and often serve astonishingly good food in appalling conditions. Naturally half the crew always hate the catering which shows that people have different tastes.
I salute you if you decide that Catering is your thing.
A gentleman in the Guestbook went on a rant about "crafty". In case you are English and don't know what this means, it's a strange American term for "Craft Services" which for some reason refers to a talented and skilled person who, in addition to the actual Caterer, provides "on set" food. This can result in a minimum of 5 meals a day if you are not very careful, and might account for the size of American Film Crews. In the UK we can't afford to employ such a person, so you get Tea and Coffee, with the occasional biscuit.
One of the crosses I have to bear is that I’d rather be a Composer than a DP. Unfortunately I've only composed about 3 tunes in 50 years which wouldn’t really pay the mortgage. I am more jealous of Composers than any other person in film, because these people don't need a hi-fi to hear music — what a gift! Composing for film I would rate as qualifying for the word Artist, as Music for Film stands on it's own outside of the film, just as The Script does (and everything else doesn't). You don't need to think about being a Composer — you either are one or you aren't. And don't forget being a Composer is different to being a Musician, or mucking about on a Guitar. Strangely enough, some Composers can't write music, but rely on others to do it for them from their ideas. These people are more like Producers, and sometimes come from a DJ background.
If you look into the history of the great film composers, you will see that you have to have it "built-in" from birth, and then work very very hard to secure a career.
I had a Guestbook entry (2009) from Hannah Bernstein who said this:
I think you may have overlooked the position of "Music Editor" which I think is rather valuable in film. While this job is often performed by Sound Editors in smaller features, larger pictures tend to designate a specific "Music Editor" (and often multiple music editors) to cut a composer''s music to fit a film.
Often big name composers will have a designated music editor, much like a big name star will have a designated makeup artist. Tom Newman works with Bill Bernstein (my uncle), James Horner works with Dick Bernstein (my father)... I suppose perhaps it runs in families, like you say the prop department does. I have yet to see.
Oh, another thing. Sometimes big budget movies will have "temp dubs" where they'll have the music editor score a movie with bits and pieces of collected other works that suit the film, so they can screen it before a composer has completed original music for the film. It also can give the composer ideas for a film.
Hope that was illuminating to someone... be forewarned though, if you're thinking of breaking into this facet of the industry, prepare to spend a few years in what's essentially an apprenticeship with a specific composer. You'll get paid assistant's wages for learning a highly-skilled job, and probably have to deal with moody people and a lot of film politics (everyone has an opinion about the music... you have to do a lot of fancy footwork to both appease the director and not cut too much into the composer's fancy score). Oh, plus, there's very, very few of these guys actually getting reliable work, what with the fact that it's such a nuanced position. Basically, find someone talented and ride that train, or you'll be stuck in temp dubs forever.
You can see some illustrations of a studio recording in progress.
It's not hard to imagine what they do. If you're handy with a sewing machine or like laundering sweaty famous peoples clothes or are a Brilliant Costume Designer, there's a good job at the bottom of the "costume" ladder here. The Costume Designer is working behind the scenes, with an assistant who is actually responsible for the day to day fitting and maintaining of the costumes. Costume and Production Design is sometimes (but rarely) the same person. If so, they are kinda busy and may not be able to take your "I'm really handy with a knitting needle" type call. Dating a sewing girl may be the answer, or if you're not that way inclined, try the "I designed this dress myself" approach. But only if it's any good. Costume Designers for film definitely can be "I Like This Job" type people, as it is very creative and influences strongly the overall look and colour of a picture.
Costume Designers on the whole are pretty obsessed, and know more about clothes from every country and every century than any human being has a right to know. They usually come from some Art/Fashion background and are often good painters or musicians.
As you can guess, I don't know much about Costume Design, and wear the clothes to prove it.
Here's a clip with the fabulous Jenny Bevan.
Here is some of her advice:
Make lists. While making lists of each character, what clothes they may need, how many doubles and specifics, you will have to re-read the script many times and so begin to understand the characters. I think the answer to working with large teams of people successfully is to like them, appreciate them and tell them you appreciate them.
Very good note for fledgling Directors!
I would love to be a film editor (if I can't be a Director or a Composer).
I spent a year cutting a film of my own once a long time ago. It was absolutely fascinating! But I couldn't take being locked up in a room with monitors all over the place for weeks, months and years on end so it's not for me really. Editors are incredibly important to the film process as they can literally save a film from catastrophe. They don't get a lot of credit in Public but the industry really values a Brilliant Editor. If you like putting images together on computer and playing with sound/image combinations then you may be on the road to being an Editor. There are lots of very intellectual books written about film editing. Good luck reading them. Actually, there are a lot of intellectual articles written about film: this isn't one of them.
I have to love the editor who is cutting a film I shoot, because all my hard work winds up in his or her hands. Occasionally an editor cuts a film against the way it is shot, which is a catastrophe and never works. Mostly editors improve enormously what was shot in the first place by juxtaposing it in the right way and adding all sorts of ideas that were never thought of during the shooting. It's a fascinating job, but you have to like sitting down a lot, and persuading all sorts of people that your way is the right way.
The Sound Editor is also a crucial part of the editing process (there's an Oscar for this too!). All those sound effects that are added are sometimes very subtle and you'd have to turn the picture off to hear them. In this department all kinds of people contribute both in terms of recording effects for post-production use, and also skillfully blending the final music from the composer into the movie, so that it balances well with the dialogue and effects. It can be a technically very complicated job (lots of nobs and dials!) but also very rewarding if you like listening very very hard and are very smart. Here are some illustrations of a studio recording in progress.
Key Grip and Grips
This title seems to baffle the public more than any other - along with Best Boy. The Gaffer and the Key Grip both have a Best Boy, or should I say, employ a Best Boy. Sometimes the Best Boy is a Girl but she's still called the Best Boy. Now that really de-mystifies it doesn't it? Perhaps not. The Best Boy is simply the next one down the line in Seniority from the Key Grip or the Gaffer and is usually responsible for the paper work and liaison with the Production Office. They aren't either Boys or Girls but usually Real Men. don't ask me where the title comes from, but all things lead back to the Old Days in the Studio, - so ask someone who was there. A Key Grip said this:
The term Grip and Best Boy come from English theatre. The "Grip" is a term for a bag of tricks. So get the grip, or bag if tricks, became the guy with the bag of tricks. "The Grip". And the Best Boy as the first assistant was the best boy Apprentice of sorts, to the gaffer doing lighting with limelight.
The Key Grip is the Chief Honcho of the Grips. Grips, like it sounds, do stuff with their hands, and after a few rounds at the pub, occasionally use their feet. Carpenters, Riggers, Stagehands (UK) are all Grips in the USA. In the UK they are Carpenters, Riggers and Stagehands. In the UK they don't have an on-set boss, and are employed by the Construction Foreman who is not part of the on-set crew. This is the daffiest system ever invented and causes a lot of grief. In the USA all the people on set concerned with lighting the set either fall under the Key Grip or the Gaffer so everyone has a Leader. This is a good thing. Italy, Germany, France and Australia all have a kind of hybrid in-between system that is not as good as the USA but better than the UK. Note that I am talking about structure here, not people. Other DP's love the UK system and hate the US system. That's life.
The Key Grip accompanies the Gaffer and the DP - and representatives from all the other departments on the Recce from the word "reconnaissance" or Scout from the word er... "Scout"... before the film commences. This is where everyone finds out what is going on - sometimes. The Key Grip makes all the notes about Camera stuff, Tracking, Cranes etc and the Gaffer makes the notes about the lights. In the UK, the Gaffer is supposed to make notes about everything but can't because it's too much work for one person.
In most countries other than the UK, The Key Grip owns a truck full of Grip type stuff. These are things like Track, Speedrail (an improvement on scaffolding), Nets (for Lights), Reflectors, etc etc. This is called a basic package and you hire the man and his package - as it were. Then he has his Grips who often he will work with for years on end. This team is thus very coherent both in terms of equipment and personnel.
In the UK, this type of equipment is rented from Rental Companies, as we don't have Key Grips with gear. We have a Dolly Grip who pushes the dolly, but usually they don't own any equipment, and if they do it's restricted to camera type equipment, as the Grip in the UK has nothing to do with lighting. Because the Grip Gear is not privately owned in the UK, it's usually not in as good condition, nor as up-to-date as the equivalent in the USA. And it is "deployed" by Electricians, who usually don't like handling large sail-like sheets of plastic that have a habit of taking off in the wind. Nor do they have the necessary gear for holding them down, with the result that many more reflectors blow over in the UK than they do in the USA. This would just be funny if it wasn't dangerous and expensive. There is a statistical study on this available at www.blowndown.com.
Mark Vargo, ASC, made this video about Grips (2013). It's really good and explains the US system very well. Despite what I say above, in the UK everything you see in his film takes place but is done by a mix of Electicians, Dolly Grips, Stagehands, Riggers and even the Standby painter gets involved sometimes. Strangely it works just as well, and like all film crew everywhere people "lend a hand" if one is needed.
Some UK DP's like the US Key Grip system and some don't: like everything you get used to it and it works, just like the UK system, or the German system, or the Australian system etc.
"Sidenote" pointed out in my Guestbook (2009) that I don't say much about Dolly Grips. That was quite kind really, as I haven't said anything about Dolly Grips! Oops..
The job requires a delicate mixture of real physical strength combined with an almost intuitive understanding of what the actor is going to do. Although the Dolly Grip is following pre-laid marks (most of the time), there is a lot of interpretation that goes on during the shot when the Grip really knows what he is doing. A good Dolly Grip not only makes the Operators life a joy, but also the focus pullers. When the camera "lags" behind the actor and then "catches up", this makes pulling the focus - a tough job in the first place - much harder.
This was why Camera Teams often stick together: Operator, Focus and Dolly Grip sometimes for a team that can go on for years. "24" would be a good example of intense co-operation between these people: it is shot very fast with two cameras constantly on the move both on the Zoom and the Dolly. This "style" has become very popular today and is seen in all kinds of thrillers as well as TV: I think it is called "Edgy", or so it seems when Directors talk about it in Meetings.
A good sense of humour is almost a pre-requisite for a great Dolly Grip: it's a tough job...
One of the only people I ever fired was an Irish Dolly Grip. This was because he was a flashy fella who rode a motorcyle and knew nothing about the job, but pretended he did. If you're a Dolly Grip, you can't fake it.
On-Set Dresser/Standby Art Director (UK)
This is a post that happens on some movies and not on others. It's a position that is very helpful to the Production Designer as the On-Set Dresser looks after the "integrity" of the set. A good one also keeps a constant eye on the frame, and makes helpful suggestions to the DP about alternative ideas for the dressing. Some on the more anal ones make constant complaints about anything that is slightly out of continuity, like my teacup. This job is often done by women, and it's an important and vital part of the framing, composition, colour and "integrity" of the set... that's why I love it when there is someone personable, interested and creative doing this job. When a Production Designer wins an Oscar, the set-dresser shares this Gong which shows what an important job it is. On a smaller movie the same person actually organises all the furniture etc and then takes care of it when you shoot. On bigger films the chief honcho is not on set, but employs someone else to "look after" the set.
The Gaffer runs the lighting crew, who are called Electricians (UK) or sometimes Lamp Operators ("Lamp Ops" - US). In the UK an Electrician has to actually be a qualified Electrician, whereas in the USA they don't. The Electricians in the UK are responsible for not only putting up the lights, but also any reflectors, nets etc associated with lights. This is daft, and is sometimes slower than the US system. But British is Best and so no one appears to be interested in changing the system.
There are an increasing number of women working in the USA as Electricians, especially on the East Coast. They are really good, but have disadvantages in being shorter and less strong than men. On the other hand they work really hard, and have boxes they can stand on.
Grips and Electricians on location are not far removed from when the cowboys rode into town in times gone by. They work hard, play hard and are the worlds nicest people. A famous Make-Up artist said to me once when I was talking to her about Male Actors: "Of course, they're not Real Men. Real men are Grips and Electricians." Actors are highly paid, pampered and flattered. Grips and Electricians are moderately paid, work long hours often in appalling conditions and rarely complain. Real Men. But then some actors are real men too, so they're OK.
Lighting is an incredibly wonderful, complex, absorbing and creative part of film-making. A Designer friend recently told me that film is "Nothing but Light and Shade..." and in many ways that is exactly true. Prior to around 2012, lighting was solely in the hands of the Cinematographer because what we shot was mostly in the film the way we shot it. Then a revolution took place and images had the potential to be highly manipulated in post-production - and not necessarily by the Cinematographer. So suddenly Everyone could poke their finger into the image and change it, not just subtely but radically. Then films like Avatar, Hugo and Gravity started winning Oscars for Cinematography and a fierce debate broke out as to whether the Oscar for Cinematography should be be split into two categories...
Whether or not this happens is immaterial... in the real world. Cinematographers salaries have been in free-fall over the last 5 years and the power to "make the picture" is in the hands of a long chain of people - the Cinematographer is still the origin of that chain and this is important to remember. In fact the challenge of "managing people" is now an even more important part of the Cinematographers job than it was - it is only by his or her influence that the modern Cinematographer can have some hope that their crafted image will survive the process without too much cropping, zooming, re-timing and all the other ways the picture can be changed in post. I have had my first experience of a Studio telling me what Camera I should shoot the film with! I find this quite offensive: I'm sure those execs in the Studio would not appreciate it if I come into their office and suggest to them what kind of computer and software they should use! Our shrinking patch of power needs sturdy defense at this point, and we need to remind such people that Cameras are What We Do and there is no-one out there who knows more about them than we do.
It's interesting that Studio Execs don't tell me to use Arri Lights, or Mole-Richardson Lights... this is because lighting units are not something you have in your living room - but you might have a Canon 5D or a Red camera because it's trendy & maybe you bought one for your son. So they learn a little bit about cameras and suddenly they are experts... Don't listen to these people - be charming and dazzle them with knowledge and they'll soon shut up. Maybe all that techno jargon will come in handy here: just start a few sentences with the word "10-Bit" and they'll soon glaze over. I've found the word "reliability" quite useful here... especially in relation to a certain camera...
For a good overview of lighting units you could look at Mark Varga's 2012 video about lights Let There Be Light.
There's also a nice down-to-earth description of the Gaffer's job written by Lee Walters.
This department is one of the hardest working and the least rewarded in the industry, During the pre-production phase they have to come up with a thousand folders full of pictures which the Production Designer then chooses from and takes the Director to see. Getting the pictures involves extreme amounts of charm and ability to drive great distances for a very long time, with very little sleep. Just when you think prep is over and it's time to relax, you become responsible for parking the 8 thousand equipment trucks and star trailers, as well as all the crew cars and anyone else who cares to drop in. This means being on set hours before call (when you get there) and wrap (when you leave). Just in case you thought you could take a nap during the shooting day, the cameraman announces he or she needs a very large light on the balcony three stories up owned by some fella whose been yelling at you for half an hour to get the hell out of his neck of the woods. This is where the charm comes in. If you are mad enough to want to do this (and plenty are), call the production office and ask for the location department. Explain that you never sleep, don't want any money, know the area intimately and own a Ferrari. Who knows what might happen.
Make-Up and Hair
This sometimes is one job (like at the BBC) but usually separate on Big Features. This is a job that you can actually train for outside of making films. Successful "Star Attached" make -up and Hair people can make outrageous sums of money for some reason. Probably because they make the ageing female star more comfortable and flatter her with "youthful" make up techniques. Traditionally there is a kind of war between Make-Up and DP's - usually because the Make-Up People want every female to be lit with flat light near the camera to iron out the wrinkles, and the DP may be more interested in dramatic lighting. Usually it's the DP that gets fired, because the make-up people are "career dependent" on the Star, and they can whisper in their ear whilst they twiddle their hair.
Quite ordinary people do make-up and hair jobs in some quite fancy films. It's a good job providing you don't mind getting up very early in the morning and working long hours - albeit with many breaks. It's quite mixed in gender - more so than any other department. Some Make-Up Chiefs are very fierce and often quite Brilliant at what they do. And some of them should go back to doing manicures in a LA highstreet. If the Make-Up and Hair is full of good humour, the actors are more likely to arrive on set in a good frame of mind: something I very much approve of. But if they keep telling the actor/actress that "out there" is a bunch of no-goods hell-bent on making them ugly, then that makes my job a tad more difficult. I've only had a couple of nasty experiences with Make-Up people: as for the rest, I love them!
As a DP, it's very important to form a good relationship with this department, as you can work together to make the Stars look as good as possible: a good Make-Up artist will always take kindly to you calling them over to point our some imperfection that could be helped with a judicious application of some very expensive product...
This falls under Art Department really, although some Prop Men think they are working only for themselves, and act like Security Men for the set. These type of Propmen are basically a pain. There are not a lot of Propwomen, but I wish there were. On the other hand, a good enthusiastic witty and insane Propperson can liven up an otherwise dull shoot. Especially if they are Scottish. Props is often a family thing, so unless your great grandfather was a Propman, forget about it. Or make one up. You have to really like objects and knowing where they are: you may be a butterfly collector in your spare time.
Prop people are actually quite amazing: the attention to detail is extraordinary, and many an actor suddenly says "where's that pen I used last week" and seconds later it appears on set... I don't know how they do it. This guy got creative and these cup holders are appearing on trendy Hollyood sets... gotta do something in that downtime!
I just added some pictures to this section and noticed that all three have women in them! So I guess times have changed...
Publicity and Marketing
This is a very important element of making films, which can make or break the release of a film in terms of box office. I've shot a couple of really good films that no-one went to see because of inadequate marketing, as well as the reverse. Someone should e-mail me with something about this department because I know so little about it. There are people called EPK (Electronic Press Kit) who actually are humans (I think) who lurk about the set - usually on the day when you are shooting a close-up of a newspaper or a frog - then they aren't there the next day when you have 14 cameras and drain the Red Sea. The hapless video cameraperson (note the non-sexist terminology), endlessly rolls tape of people doing very mundane things - then when they try to photograph the Star they get shouted at. They interview the important people - and some of the less important people but they don't use that footage.
The "Making Of..." docos have become very popular on TV and DVD so Marketing people have more to aim for than they used to.
As a sidenote, 90% of the newspapers, magazines, TV stations etc etc are owned by the same few giant companies (who also own the film studios): if you work in this field you cannot, absolutely cannot tell the truth about anything. Publicity and Truth are not on the same page: but if you are attracted to Marketing: Good Luck - someone has to do it.
A "very unhappy projectionist" called Stephen Lowe pointed out in my Guestbook (Entry #225) that I omitted his job (2009) and he is quite right: I did omit his job and I apologise for this. Thousands of projectionists all over the world look after the increasingly complex projection equipment and whilst some of them do not seem to be paying much attention to the focus, others really do look after their machines and make the print or Digital Cinema look as good as possible. So thanks Stephen, and I hope this entry will contribute towards making you a happier projectionist: and whilst I am at it: THANKS TO ALL PROJECTIONISTS EVERYWHERE WHO MAKE BEAUTIFUL PICTURES ON THE SCREENS!
Script Supervisor (used to be "Continuity Girl" - UK)
For some reason a woman always does this job. Perhaps because it's a kind of "keeping house" type job. (Oops!) The script supervisor in the USA does a lot less work than the equivalent in the UK. In the USA the script supervisor doesn't appear to be responsible for continuity: this job is given to the relevant department - props for props, wardrobe for wardrobe etc. In the UK, continuity is taken VERY SERIOUSLY by the Continuity Girl. Some of them are the most annoying people that God has ever created. Many times as the Actors get themselves revved up to some pinnacle of performance, the hard and bitter tones of the English Continuity Girl chime in with some irrelevant detail of continuity which as often as not is not even in the frame! This drove Michael Winner to mutter the immortal line: Continuity is for Cissies! People who watch movies for continuity mistakes clearly don't enjoy watching movies.
Fortunately as the younger generation of UK Continuity girls take over, the old dingbats are retiring. Many of them of course are absolutely lovely and very very good at their jobs and I shall miss them dearly. And some of them... Well, enough said. In the USA, the job has a different emphasis, as they don't get involved in the Continuity of the different departments. But this drives me bats as well, as No-one seems to Care! So I find myself watching out for Continuity when I'm doing a picture in the USA, which definitely isn't my job.
As far as my job is concerned, the most important contribution that the Script Supervisor makes is listing the shots we have decided to shoot, then reminding the Director and I about what we decided, as well as pointing out Eyeline blunders, and occasionally making brilliant suggestions that everyone else has missed. Some do this really well and frequently save both the Director and me from terrible blunders.
It's a good job to do for a while if you are a budding scriptwriter, because you work closely with the script and see at first hand the triumphs and failures of the written word being translated into film.
Just recently some second unit shooting was all rendered unusable because the production didn't want to pay for a Script Supervisor for the second unit, resulting in a whole slew of glaring continuity errors that could not be consigned to the "never mind" category.
Oct 2005. Just finished shooting The Hoax directed by Lasse Hallstrom. The script supervisor (the Really Excellent Mary Kelly) took great delight in chuckling about my apparently bad attitude towards Script Supervisors as evidenced in this document. In re-reading it, however, I feel no need for apologies or changing anything as it really amounts to the same thing as any other job in the business: there are people who do the jobs well and people who do them badly. Mercifully, I mostly work with people who do them well!
People who record sound on pictures are often very eccentric. This could be because the job requires a great deal of technical skill, an "artistic" vision, and a thick skin. The latter requirement is very important because no one on the set really cares about sound. This could be for a variety of reasons. One would be that it can be re-done afterwards (called ADR), another would be that it is regarded as secondary to the picture despite the fact that it is 50% of the sensory input of Cinema. Above all the microphone just doesn't have the same "pull" as the lens - put a microphone in front of someone in a public place and you get a very different reaction to concentrating a lens on them. People tend to go mute in subtly different ways when confronted by the camera or the microphone for some deeply mystifying reason. The well known idea that the camera steals your soul applies just as well to microphones, albeit in a different way.
Yesterday (well yesterday a couple of years ago) we filmed a lot of love scenes (for Birthday Girl) and decided to do them without sound. The set was "off-limits" to everyone except the Director, DP, Focus Puller and Make-Up. This had a curiously liberating effect as all the razzmatazz of film technique was left outside the door. We didn't call for quiet as we shot, so everyone in the studio just carried on talking while we shot these breathy love scenes. This is how they shot before sound came along and people had to shut up during the takes. What is interesting is the process is less reverential to the Actors, allowing it to be just one activity on the stage amongst many others. So, over here we have a man sawing a piece of wood, over here the Producer and Production Manager discuss what is wrong with the Catering, and over here (behind the wall) the leading Actor and Actress are pretending to shag each other. Mmmm...
Anyhow, back to the Sound Department. The Recordist is the Chief Honcho, followed by the Boom Swinger who wields the microphone on a long pole across the set (and has long arms and big biceps), and on bigger pictures there is an Assistant who helps. Good Sound Recordists are a great asset to a picture through their good humour and temperament. When you are observing a film set and see someone standing behind the leading Actress with a hand up her skirt, this is only because they are placing a radio mike. This job is often given to the "Dresser" if she is a woman. Some Sound Recordists are permanently in a Bad Mood because they've had a lifetime of abuse, mostly from Cameramen who think they are Gods Gift to the Universe.
If you put headphones on your head for 40 years you might feel a bit strange too. A sound recordist called Will Masisak left a pretty funny rant in my Guestbook (Jan 2008) which you might enjoy reading.
For some reason, when people on set who do all kinds of jobs are asked which department they would most like to be in, most of them say the Camera Department. The Camera is the "focus" of cinema, so Sound always plays second fiddle. And, anyway, you can fix it afterwards (but... 2010... times they are a' changin').
On the other hand, here's everything there is to know about recording sound.
This is a very interesting department that is often maligned (special defects etc), but does require a wide ranging knowledge of all kinds of things from guns to building bridges to rigging explosions, flipping cars and, (ugh) making smoke. It often is populated with really talented interesting people who make everyone feel very safe and when they press the button, something goes bang in just the way they said it would. Occasionally, something goes bang in just the way they said it wouldn't and you have one less camera on the shoot and hopefully no injuries. You have to be the kind of person who got given a tractor when you were three and immediately pulled it apart to see how it works. There are very few (any?) women working in this area, probably because women have more sense and don't feel like pulling everything to pieces. Like props, quite a lot of families work in special effects, and a good job they do.
If you're interested in this department, drop by the effects lock-up (the place they work) and show the guys your latest radio controlled amphibious tractor/submarine that you built out of elastic bands and sticky tape. You might find they like you. If you can't figure out how to get past the gate at the studio there's easy ways to do this. Borrow a beaten-up old van, and put clothes on that you last used to decorate your house. Put a pile of old paint brushes on the passenger seat and wave as you go past the security guard. Find out the name of any of the productions shooting at the studio, and if they ask, quote the name and say you're "helping the scenic". Good luck figuring out what that means.
The above was written in 2001. Nowadays (2007) it might not work anymore. Now you have to wear a suit and look like an Executive. Go to security and tell them you are visiting "The Bond" or whatever else big production is on the lot. Find out what studio is making the picure. When the security guard rings the PA (remember this is the job you want!), have him say it is "Jeff" from "Disney" (substitute studio name). There are so many executives visiting these days: the chances are you'll be through!
Once through, change your clothes as Effects Guys don't wear suits.
Further Update: (2009). Unfortunately all of the above is no longer true as the gates of every studio are now patrolled by armed guards with sub-machine guns. In the USA you need a "drive-on" which means that someone needs to have pe-approved you to go through the hallowed gates. At the gate they ask for "picture-id" and once they've entered your entire life into their computer system they print out a series of permits - for the car, your case, your coat etc etc. Then you deliver this permit to another guy with a sub-machine gun and, on a good day, they might let you in.
So maybe don't try the old van thing: they might shoot you.
Somehow I forgot about these important people until now (2014). On a small movie you they wont be able to afford stand-ins... but they save a lot of time and a lot of trouble with Actors if you ask them to hang around whilst the lighting goes on. It is a road to acting (sort of...)... but very few actually go from being Stand-Ins to getting roles, but it does happen. They are supplied by the Casting Director and good ones make my life a lot better. If the girls are too pretty the grips stop work to gaze at them, so choose wisely... also if they look more beautiful than the "star" that can be a problem in more ways than one!
Curiously I left this section out on the first go: curious because that is how I started in the business way back when in Cape Town. A gentleman called Lightning Bear sent me an e-mail reminding me of my omission - so a thank you to him for taking me back to my own past.
This job is the most lonely on a film set, because you a department of 1, and you are not making the film, unlike the rest of the crew. You are, however, a vital and important contributor to the film, as publicity relies heavily on your work in promoting the film. The problems for the stills person are:
- You get in the way - to varying degrees.
- Most actors treat you like dirt for some strange reason.
- No matter how friendly you are, you still get treated like an outsider.
- No-one who you are working with sees your work, and those who do see it aren't on the set so they have no idea what you went through to get the photos they so casually throw in the bin (See Publicity above).
The good news is that if you have enough sense of yourself to get through a lifetime of abuse, they might give you a really big exhibition and a huge coffee table book full of your photos, although you may already be too weak to lift it! This is definitely the hardest job in the industry to pull off without falling into a full-time depression. I really respect still photographers.
I've started putting some of my Photographs in a gallery on the web.
The problem from myperspective is that very few of them actually know how to make a film, so discussion is limited to a few casual remarks about say... the weather? No seriously, I don't know anything about Studio Executives. Bear in mind that we don't really have Studio Executives in the UK because duh... we don't have any studios! A Director or an Independent Producer will have a very different perspective on Executives from anyone else, because they have to deal with them on a creative level which can be quite frustrating. Some Directors (usually already famous) refuse to deal with them at all. Here's a friend who is an Executive so I'll let her give a first hand account...
Here's what I do. Keep in mind that there are two kinds of "production executive" in a studio. One is "creative" and I use that terms loosely, and the other is "physical production" which is what I do.
The "creative" exec, purchases properties on behalf of the studio - scripts, books, plays, articles, pitches, etc. and develops them, with a writer or two, into a script. They will also attach the creative elements- writers, directors, lead actors to the project, with an eye towards getting it into good enough shape to get greenlit. They read a lot of stuff, do a lot of meetings and go to a lot of lunches. They're generally fairly articulate and somewhat charming, but usually know very little about film or production. Which is why most scripts suck. Nobody knows what makes a hit, so these folks follows opinion polls, screening cards, etc. and make wild guesses about what the audience wants, usually disregarding a writers original vision. They sit around inventing stuff for the writer to change, years will pass between drafts, and projects will be developed into the ground. Writing by committee basically.
Once a project is deemed interesting, it will be sent down to someone like me. I'll hire a line producer to do a schedule and budget and then we'll work on it to try to get it to a number that's acceptable to the studio (which is usually several millions of dollars less than it takes to actually make the movie). For example, I'll be given a script for a drama about a family - no stunts, no VFX, just straight talking heads. I will be given a budget number of $15 million to make the movie. Fair enough. Unfortunately, in order for the movie to be worth the studios investment, we have to hire Jack Costs-a-lot which is $10 million in salary and $1 million in perks. That leaves me $4 million to make the movie. Not possible. Nevertheless, I have to figure out some way of squeezing a production into that number. Usually, there's a lot of tugging and pulling and more often than not, the picture just doesn't get made. If, by some miracle, the budget is met and we go into production, then I'll talk to the producer on a daily basis to make sure they're OK schedule and budget-wise. If they're OK, then that's all I do, check the numbers, etc., talk to the producer - it's actually kind of easy. If they're not doing so well, then I have to show up on set and help solve the problems. Sometimes this is fun; most times it's not.
Luckily for you, dear reader, and my reputation with Executives, Gregor Jordan (The Director I shot Buffalo Soldiers with in 2000) sent the following to me (used with his permission).
Just read your article about the film business and was very impressed. It was a good read apart from anything else. I agreed with almost everything and was enlightened several times. At the end of the article you invited comment so here is mine. I hope it's welcome. The only thing I disagreed with was the description of Executives. The one thing I've noticed about all film executives is that they are film fanatics, often film school or Arts (Majoring in Film Studies) graduates. These are people who are passionate about the history and art of film. They are generally not practitioners but are somehow in awe of the people who do the actual work. Sometimes they are misguided but generally that's out of over enthusiasm. If it's out of incompetence then generally they don't last. It's interesting when you look at bullfighting; an essential part of that particular art (if you can call it that) is the aficionado i.e. the person who is an expert theorist or outsider who rates the matadors performance. This is an essential part of the whole process. In film, a skilled overseer is neither a producer or director but a creative and financial overseer who, when they are good, provide absolutely valuable feedback particularly during the final stages of scripting, the casting and the then the last stages of cutting...
Peter Weir said the hardest thing about being successful is finding people who will give their honest opinion about your work. It is so easy to surround oneself with "yes" men... I think one of the most important processes in the life of a film is in associating with good smart executives whose judgement you trust. The relationship between director and executives is key.
As more and more Making Of docos got shown on TV, the publics fascination with this department has grown. Interviews with wizened old cowboys who bounced off horses firing guns, got trampled underfoot and speared by whooping Indians, have fired the imagination of TV viewers. We used to kill more stuntmen than we do now, but it's still a very dangerous job - hence the fascination. The requirements to be a successful stunt person in today’s world are pretty hefty in terms of what you need to know about - and you have to be very fit and athletic, apart from the obvious skills of Karate, Driving, Diving off Cliffs and High Buildings etc etc. Most middle aged stunt people have either retired or become Coordinators - the chief honcho of this department. They usually have trouble with metal detectors at airports.
With so much emphasis on action movies, a young person interested in this department has a potentially bright future - but go and hang out in the bars where stunt men go after work - just to check this is the life for you. Stunts are a lot safer than they used to be, thanks to legislation, but there are still more accidents than there should be. Curiously, in an industry obsessed with awards, there are very few (any?) for Stunts.
You can get an Oscar for this, and it is a fascinating and growing area of Film Making, so you would still be working if no films go on location in 50 years because it's all done on the computer. I'm trying to get a pal to write for this section but they're all too busy working. The skills you need are high order graphic computer skills and a lot of patience: as well as the ability to draw painstaking frame-by-frame mattes around some actors wispy hair when they suddenly decide the monster should appear behind him instead of beside him. The latest Star Wars (2002) shows what happens when you shoot digitally and then scale everyone into a group shot. Each person's face "artifacts" in a different way. Very disturbing to me, but still makes a whole ton of money!
I recently shot Casanova (2005) for Lasse Hallstrom and there are 160 VFX shots in it, so times are changing. I also did my first 4k DI (Digital Intermediate) on this film which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The Waterhorse (2007) became my real intro to VFX. Lucky enough I worked with the Weta Digital team in New Zealand - the people who brought us Lord of the Rings and King Kong. This was a real break for me: to learn from and collaborate with the likes of Joe Letteri was a real treat.
Creating "Crusoe" (the Loch Ness Monster) was a truly collaborative process with a terrific end result. Again, it all comes down to PRE-VISUALISATION. All the decisions we made at the beginning led to all the good stuff that's in the film. There are some pictures if you click the link at the top of the document.
I have just finished "timing" The Proposal (2009). This was shot in Boston but takes place in Alaska (!). This is now "normal" for film-making. You go and shoot where the tax breaks are strongest and if the landscape bears no resemblance to where the film is set, you just change the backgrounds in post-production. This would have seemed insane just a few years ago, but now is common. The "Alaska" we created bears some resemblance to the "Real Alaska" but the film is a Hollywood Romantic Comedy: it's not a documentary. The Visual Effects Company naturally had a lot of work to do replacing backgrounds. These are now mostly shot on Digital Stills or a Red Camera if movement is required. It was a huge amount of work and most of it quite successful. However, whilst I love the scope and possibilities of Visual Effects work, there is still no substitute for planning it out properly in pre-production, and working out the best technical solutions for the particular film.
I went to Alaska for a week to shoot some second Unit: as it turns out I think it was a good decision not to go there with the main unit. The weather was terrible and actually the Alaska we created is a much more magical place than the Alaska I visited! Another experience that adds to my belief that there is nothing sacred in the world of film-making or photography: except to Get it Right!
The world of Visual Effects is the fastest growing, most important area of Big Budget film-making today. It is essential to understand what is possible and what is not... DP's and Designers have to take on the fact that the Visual Effects Superviser may have the last word on what is on the screen if you don't pay attention! Mark Vargo has made an interesting video which gives a good idea of how you make that special shot for a bigger budget movie.
Here is an amazingly detailed and terrific account of the VFX work for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Of particular interest is the way the "before and after" photographs are laid out as well as some very topical comments from Andrew Jackson, the VFX supervisor. This website is a fantastic free resource with real in-depth information about how things are done in the VFX world.
Here is an amusing account of working in the VFX industry.
The Director Robert Rodriguez is kind enough to share a huge amount of information on You Tube about how he executes his actions sequences quickly, safely and economically: Robert Rodriguez
Video Tap/Split Operator
There is a curious job available on Features which is recording the Video output of the film camera. In days gone by, the Director had to Trust the Operator. At the end of the shot the Director would turn to the Operator and say "How was it?" and the Operator would say: "OK", or "We need Another" or "I screwed up", or whatever. The point is the Operator was the only person who actually saw the shot through the camera, so he (it was always he) had a lot of power and input as to whether a shot was any good. The old style "A" camera operators were not just commenting on framing and operation of the camera: there often was a tacit understanding between them and an actor. If the Actor gave him the nod, the Operator would ask for another take saying there was a technical problem (hair-in-the-gate etc). And if the Director wanted another take but didn't want the Actor to know he or she gave a bad performance, the Operator would say "We need another for Focus" or some such thing.
This interesting 3 way event disappeared with the "Video Tap" coming into common use around 1984. In many ways this was a shame. Directors now remain glued to the monitor and few of them look directly at the actors. This strikes me as very strange as the Monitors are pretty low quality (not any more! 2014) and it's hard to see the subtleties of a performance. Unfortunately some "modern" Directors are more interested in the framing of the shot than the performance, so they watch "the shot" on a tiny monitor to make sure it's OK. So the Operator's opinion is often no longer required... so "Check the Gate" is called from the "Monitor Tent" before the Operator is even asked what he thought.
Anyhow, the job of the "Video Split Operator" (current 2009 terminology) - for better or for worse - is operating that equipment. It's quite boring to some people because of it's mechanical nature: but if you're interested in the process of making a film, it's a golden opportunity to be at the heart of the action and you get to stand right next to Mr Big for months on end. If Mr Big is an interesting individual it's a great job, but then...
oh yeah, I forgot, it's really badly paid because usually the Producers niece is doing it.(2005)
...and, then again, (2009) it's now a pretty big deal with large equipment rental, a lot of computer power, sometimes editing equipment, and several tents for all the different groups of people who don't want to have anything to do with each other.
This has now changed quite a bit (2014): at least at the "high end" of film production and commercials. It's become a real job, together with sophisticated and fancy digital recording equipment that enables Directors who have no confidence in what they have shot to cut it together on set and make sure it cuts OK. Great... another way of slowing down the shoot!
Actually, when a good person does this job, it makes "life at the monitor" a lot more tolerable as he (not many "She's" in this department!) is able to whizz around everything you have shot at lightning speed and print out little pics of the frames which can be very handy for reference later in the shoot. The "animatics" or pre-viz storyboards can also be played through this equipment and half-keyed on the monitor when lining up shots is important.
April 2015. With the more or less total takeover of Digital this job has become even more high-end and expensive than it was before. There's monitors everywhere and on many shoots there is the "Producers Tent", then the "Directors Tent" (usually with the Script Supervisor and DP). Whilst this was already happening towards the end of the film days (around 2012), today's sets have the additional "DIT" tent which is where DP's go when they can't take it at the monitors any more!
Digital Imaging Technician (DIT)
This post is now more or less manitory (2014) as most shooting is now done digitally. For the DP choosing the right DIT is very important...(sometimes literally called "Dit" but they like to be called "DeeEYEtees" as they find "Dit" insulting for some reason ...it means Digital Imaging Technician if you want to be pedantic.) Because you are going to spend a lot of time in the black tent with this person you have to be comfortable being up-close-and-personal in a small & smelly hot black tent: so not only do you want to interview your DIT for technical brilliance but take a good sniff at the same time... And if you're attracted to attractive members of the opposite sex then don't select anyone who might get you (and them) into trouble! Anyhow...
On a more serious note, the DIT has probably become the most important member of the camera team - in the sense that they can make-or-break your images for you and you are trusting them not only to tell you what is going on with exposure, focus etc but also with timing the output every night so that the editor and post-production people recieve images you are proud of. In terms of day-to-day your 85 hour week will be made a lot less stressful if your DIT is not only technically brilliant and helpful but also has a good sense of humour when the system crashes 'cause lightning struck the tent or somesuchthing.
A number of ex-video split operators made their way into being DIT's but be warned - the job is highly technical and demands a certain level of "geekiness" - especially when it comes to keeping up with the massive changes in cameras and workflow that happen every month. If being au-fait with the technical side of the whole Digital Process is what you love, this could be a job for you... and the easy way to learn it is to get a job as an intern or PA with the DIT or his or her company. Chances are you spend a lot of time on the internet scouring esoteric post-production forums where the phrase "bit-rate" happens a lot and people debate the merits of 2K,4K etc etc. We old-time DP's used to have our primary creative relationship with the timer at the LAB - now it is initially with the DIT and then with the Colourist at the DI suite.
If you've noticed that this heading is out of alphabetical order, then that might tell you something about the kind of mind you have. I've put it last because it's the only department I really know anything about.
This is called a department although in reality it is quite small. It consists of a Trainee, Loader, Focus Puller, Operator, and Lighting Cameraman. In the USA the same jobs are called Loader, 2nd Assistant, 1st Assistant, Operator and Director of Photography (or DOP or DP).
The Intern or Trainee is just that - a learner. In some countries this person drives the camera truck, but only in sensible places like Australia. In the USA and the UK the truck driver drives the truck and then... well... hang out - usually in an unused Star Trailer playing poker or reading a bad newspaper. Recently some UK truck drivers have started helping out on set and learning to Load the Camera - so that they aren't truck drivers till death. I like this.
The LOADER loads the camera, oddly enough, with Film made by either Kodak or Fuji. Agfa used to make film but gave up, which was a shame. Now they only make film for Prints. Loading may not sound like much of a job, but in actuality it is very important. If the wrong film is in the camera, or if it gets loaded twice, or lost, or put in the wrong can, then the scene which corresponded to: Scene 56 - The Army advanced over the hill, the jets dropped their bombs, and the volcano erupted... could be lost. When this happens the Loader can become deeply unpopular very quickly. Kubrick fired one loader I know on his first day of work for walking across the set holding a magazine upside down. Not Kubrick’s first day of work - the Loaders. This was a trifle harsh, but there is a right way to do the job, and the rules are there for a very good reason. If you screw up the minimum cost is about $20,000 and the max any figure you might care to imagine.
So this job is important, as well as being the bottom rung of the ladder to becoming a DP. There's at least one loader in the UK who is over 50 years old so it shows you don't have to move on.
The 1st AC (or Focus Puller) has one of the hardest jobs on the set. And it's one of those jobs that are never noticed until it is wrong. Then you get an almighty bollocking, or you get fired. If it's my focus puller I usually laugh, because my Focus Pullers are absolutely Brilliant so they rarely make mistakes. I only ever fired one guy, but he wasn't a focus puller. Focus Pulling not only involves what it sounds like, but also the Focus Puller "runs" the department, in the sense of taking care of all the camera gear, and making sure that everything is tickety-boo. I have my own camera, so it's treated very well! A focus puller relies heavily on the Operator to tell him if the shot is out of focus - after all only the operator is actually looking through the lens.
The Operator is a very different animal in the USA to the UK Operator. And then again, many films in many countries are lit and operated by the DP, so it isn't a separate job. In all unionised places, it's looked at as "2 jobs" for obvious reasons - more employment. There's a lot to say about Camera Operating, and this isn't the place to do it. Operators often stick at the job and never move up to DP, as they like the job so much. Can't blame them, as I like it too, and often operate my own films. I look at being a DP as a two-part process, one Mental and one Physical. The lighting requires you to stand or sit and point your finger at lights and talk to your Gaffer and Key Grip. Not much physical activity here. Operating means that your body is bent into all kinds of shapes, and made to endure the most uncomfortable positions for as many takes as it takes. This can be quite physical. Hand held work is very physical as the camera is quite heavy and you have to have good balance and strength to move a camera well. I trained in Pa-Kua (which is like Tai Chi) to help with Hand Held work, as well as cause I fancied it. I still do it now, 25 years later.
Steadicam is a device that means the Operator can move about with the camera, but it is steady. The best Steadicam Operators achieve a level of steadiness, and exactness of composition that is virtually equivalent to a Dolly Shot. The worst ones make you feel as though you are on a cross channel ferry in a winter storm. I never learnt to use this device, as I never fancied it. Anyway, it's only for Tough Guys/Girls.
In the UK the tradition has been that the Operator sets up the Shots with the Director and the DP lights them. This means that the DP is essentially a Lighting Cameraman i.e. a Cameraman who does the Lighting - and doesn't do the set-ups. This is changing as the new generation of DP's find this less acceptable as many of them come from Film School or Documentaries, where they have Operated their own camera. These people - and I include myself among them - find it hard not to be involved with the set-ups and so prefer either to operate themselves, or use an Operator who is comfortable with the notion that the DP is the Boss and will be happy to "execute the shot" that the DP and Director decide on. This is the accepted method of work in the USA, which is why I find it much easier to work with US Operators than UK Operators. But I still find the easiest Operator to work with is myself: keeps the talking to a minimum. In the best situations, the DP, Operator and Director work in harmony - each contributing to the others ideas, and deciding to go with the best idea without "scoring points" for "your" idea being adopted. Sometimes there is a lot of competition between any two of the three people, and then it is very tiring. I get much less tired when I Operate and Light - which shows that the most tiring thing on a film set is Stress.
There is an article on Operators at the end of this piece: Some thoughts about Operators.(1989). I mostly still agree with what I thought back then. I have, in fact, now stopped operating myself (in 2004), as I now find it a bit much. Luckily I have worked with great guys (and girls) in the last couple of years, so my opinion of Operators in general is on the UP: especially with the now-normal "A" Camera/Steadicam combo which makes for a very versatile way of shooting. People like Mike Proudfoot (UK), Daniele Massaccesi (Italy), Larry & Jim McConkey (USA), Pete Cavaciutti (UK), Peter Mccaffrey (NZ) etc make such an enormous contribution to a film that it is a shame to find their names in a rolling title when they should be listed along with the DP.
The Director of Photography is the Chief Honcho of the Camera Department. In the past, the only way to get to this position was by going up the ladder. This meant that most DP's were over 40 in the UK and Hollywood, because it took that long to go up the ladder... A lot of gravity I guess. But then Film Schools started in the 70's, and suddenly there were people in their twenties and thirties appearing and saying: I am a DP. In the UK they were called Clapper Lighters: a jokey kind of insult. The Camera Department in the form of the Union and the BSC took a very dim view indeed of Film School Graduates. I don't know if this was the case in the USA, but I wouldn't be surprised. It's very different now as there are so many well-known DP's who went to film school.
The DP on a film sets the "tone" of the shoot. If he takes a long time to light, and is grumpy and surly then the crew suffer because of it. Some DP's have really bad reputations with film crews because they are egocentric, surly, arrogant and over-paid. These same people are occasionally a Brilliant One. But more often than not, they just give the profession a bad name. Because the DP is the only person on the set who has an idea of what the picture will look like, they have a kind of shaman-like power. This is because the picture "disappears" into the camera, only to magically re-appear at Dailies (Rushes) the next day or next week if you're working in Guatemala. The DP will continue to exert this power until film is a completely digital process. At this point the DP's power will disappear, as the image will be completely subject to post-production manipulation by Editors and Producers and film stars. His or Her power over the image will be gone, and the job with it. This is why I feel lucky to have just got in my career before the door closes forever.
So long as there is Film in the camera, the DP has a job. Once the film is a chip, the DP becomes a Videoperson, because his/her power over the image is lost.**
** Actually (2010) this is not really true and I am changing my mind (slowly!) about the whole Digital Thing. I still think it is much much harder for the DP to retain control when shooting on Digital, but it is possible. In a sense the "dilution" of our control over the image is now as much about post-production as it is about the format that you shoot on. Perhaps the same kind of strong personality that makes for a good DP is just the same as it always was: the difference is that now you need to allow 2 weeks to supervise the Digital Intermediate (DI for short), and make sure that you do...! This is the hard part as you might not be available and also a Producer or Director might want to do it themselves... or even the Editor. Like all things in the modern world, it's sort of the same but... more complicated!
It is worth describing exactly what a DP does, as few people outside of the Industry seem to understand this. The word Director of Photography is really a title conferred only on Cinematographers who photograph Feature Films, as distinct from Television Films and Documentaries. There are arguments about this, but essentially the role is different, not so much between TV and Features, but very much between fiction and any other kind of film making. This is because Fiction Filmmaking is Drama, Storytelling... A Movie. A DP's first requirement is to understand Drama. Understand that his or her job is to tell the story in Pictures. This isn't as simple as it sounds. Every day at 7.30 AM I go into the Studio or on to a location and bleary eyed Actors and the Director turn up on set with their scripts, and try to make sense of Scene 128 on Page 54. Yesterday was some other scene from some other page that was before or after the scene we are currently doing. It's like a jigsaw puzzle, except that the pieces haven't been cut, but you know which bit of the picture has to go on it. The shape of the piece is what you decide, and as you continue to make the film, the shape of other pieces gets to be more restricted, because some of the pieces that you are joining it to have already been cut. Fortunately, the Editor can take a hacksaw to the whole thing and recut stuff if you got it wrong. But the truth is that if the Script is wrong, or if the Actors don't get it, or if you shoot it badly, then no amount of tinkering is ever going to fix it.
If the script is right in the first place, and you have the right Director and Actors, then the film seems to shoot itself - like playing the jazz piano and becoming unaware of what you are playing.
There seems to be no "right way" of making a film. Nor does the on-set atmosphere necessarily reflect anything about what the film will be like to watch. Bad atmosphere on the set can lead to wonderful movies and vice-versa and everything in between. Celluloid just has a life of its own that only starts when the projector rolls.
When the actors and the Camera are doing the right thing, there's a thread between them and the camera that sucks the audience into the experience. Altman talks about Real Cinema, meaning that Celluloid delivers a Real Cinematic Experience which is Not Artificial - unlike Remote Cameras, Digital Effects etc. He won't use mechanically operated cameras as he maintains that it distances the audience. I've noticed an increase in Critics reviews talking about "digital effects" in a generally negative way.
The reason why I find it hard to let go the "set-up" i.e. the choice of lens and camera angle, is that I see Lighting as intimately connected with Framing. Composition is often set before the shot is lit: but the way it is lit can have a profound effect on the composition - meaning that after lighting a shot it may be necessary to alter it in a subtle way to accommodate the change of balance because of the light. Sometimes I'll alter a shot to accommodate a lighting unit that I know is crucial because of the angle of the light in relation to the actor. When I'm operating myself, this process requires no discussion, but is internal: I just say, Let's change this Mark (where the camera is positioned at a particular point on the Dance Floor) and that's the end of it. With an Operator it's a discussion: hopefully short! And if I give myself a hard time with a lamp that is very close to the edge of frame that's my problem. Operators often request that you move a light out just that bit further - "for safety". This can make the difference between the light doing its job well and doing it OK.
At this particular moment (June 99) I'm having a rather interesting experience on Birthday Girl, shooting the Russian Dialogue sequences. It has really underlined how the process of deciding how to light and shoot a scene is completely dependent on understanding the nature of the scene. When Nicole Kidman rehearses a scene in Russian I find myself completely at a loss as to how to shoot it, because I don't know what she's talking about! So I ask the actors to play it once in English then it all falls into place - but Jez Butterworth (the Director) doesn't like it because the actors fall out of character when they play it in English! The cinematographer is the person on set who has to translate the Actors performance into pictures, and understand what is the right shot with all its elements of movement, size and lighting. There's always a shot that's the right shot for that moment in the film: the trick is finding it. I seem to find it by allowing the rehearsed scene to flow as a series of pictures in my head: and if that doesn't happen I'll work with the Director until it does.
There's nothing very mysterious about lighting. An old time Hollywood Cameraman was asked how he lit the set and he said: You put a light up and turn it on. If you like it, you leave it. If you don't, you move it. I like this approach because it undercuts a lot of rubbish that gets talked about lighting. It's possible to read all kinds of intellectual symbolism into approaches to lighting, but I can't do that because I'm not an intellectual. (Someone once described an intellectual as: "Someone educated beyond his own intelligence").
The only approach that makes sense to me is to become completely absorbed in the Story in Pre-Production, talk to the Director about Films or Paintings or Novels or Music or the Script, talk to the Production and Costume Designer, forget about any work you may have done in the past and then do what comes naturally. This is sometimes quite hard, because it's easy to get an image on the screen, but much harder to make that image uniquely belong to the film you are shooting.
If it's a genre piece i.e. a Romantic Comedy or Horror etc then there is an expectation of what the film should look like based on the genre, and generally speaking it would be foolhardy to go against this. But it's possible to stay in the Genre and still make the film your own.
If the film does not obviously fit into a category, then life becomes all the more interesting as you then have a wider choice of possibilities. I always do a lot of testing in Pre-Production and some producers tell me that this is not generally the case - but they would say that wouldn't they? I like to start each Film as though I've never shot a film before, so I have to look at everything that bears relation to the Film at that particular moment. The types of lights available change, the film stock changes, the lenses change so each film has it's own possibilities both in space and time, so if I find myself just relying on some old formula to make the next movie, then I'll know it's time to quit!
THE FUTURE (1999)
The Photographic Process is at the heart of Cinema, and it is this process that may be about to change, and with this change Cinema is about to turn into a different medium from the one that has existed for the last Hundred Years. This is because the "fix it afterwards" mentality is invading the filming process because of Digital Post Production. When you transfer a photo of your sister on to the body of a donkey on your home PC, you are performing a manipulation that only 5 years ago was only able to be executed by a skilled artist/photofinisher. Computers have put an end to this skill: the skill is transferred to the programmer and computer technician. When George Lucas makes Star Wars Prequel 6, he probably won't bother to go to any location as he will be able to make the whole movie right there on Skywalker Ranch. He'll pay a license fee to the actor, haul them in for a couple of days to do a computer model of their face and body and that's that. Actor goes home. This process will only exist at the expensive end of cinema for the next few years, but after that the technology will become cheaper and cheaper to the "crossover" point where it will be cheaper to make a film on a computer, than go on Location. At this point "Real Cinema" will only apply to films made on location, and "Real Cinema" will be a minority thing for aficionados. The main reason, apart from economics, that this will come about is that it gives the Hollywood Moguls more control over their films, as they will be made right there in the office, and subject to endless Previews, meetings, marketing and all the committee forces that are the antithesis of creative film making. Studio Executives right now are sidelined by the technical and logistical nature of filmmaking. When they visit the set, they are the outsiders - only granted access to the rushes the day after (until circa 2008). Once the on-set process is digital, or film has disappeared altogether, then the Executive will assume more powers and have more influence. The non-filmmakers will become the filmmakers. Scary. Why is this? Because the FilmMaking Process right now is so technical in nature that it takes years of training and experience for Directors, Cinematographers and Editors to learn their craft. But once the process is on a computer then the following catastrophes are " No Problem".
- Actor wears wrong clothes and no one notices.
Solution: Change in Post.
- Actor eyeline is wrong - Doesn't match.
Solution: Change in Post.
- Single is needed but only 2 shot available.
Solution: Cut singles out of two shot, re-orientate in 3D to Singles, and cross cut.
- Shot is "Too Dark" or "Too Light" or "Not Contrasty Enough" or "Not Warm enough" etc etc.
Solution: Change in Post.
This list could go on and on, and cover about every available catastrophe that occurs during current filmmaking. The real problem is that the people who do the "Change in Post" scenario are Editors who not only work alongside the Directors, but, more scarily, are employed by and subject to the whims of the Producers. Some Producers have no taste at all when it comes to the Film Process, and are hopelessly swayed by Public Opinion and the Marketplace. If you'd come up with $50 Million, you might be interested in a result too. For every producer who has an Artistic Soul, there are 100 who don't.
At the moment, the only constraint on doing the things outlined above, are Cost and Quality. To their credit, most Producers are very concerned with quality and want their film to Look Fabulous. At the moment, they turn to the Cinematographer to achieve this as the Timing Process at the Laboratory is quite technical and most Producers do not have the confidence or expertise to go into the Lab and tell them what to do. But within the next 10 to 20 years, the Labs may close and the Timing Process may take place within the PostProduction Computer and I suspect the Cinematographer will not be invited. This is because he or she will not be the hallowed figure that we are now, but mere technicians who turn up with the digital camera and say "What's next Guv?" The only way to prevent this situation from occurring is to get the Cinematographers Right over the Image enshrined in our Contracts. But this will be a tough fight to win, as the Producers have made sure for years that your work is bought outright at the time of shooting, with the Cinematographer having no right or control over what happens to it after that. In practice, the majority of Producers still seek the advice of the Cinematographer when it comes to printing for the reasons outlined above - but...
Roger Deakins has written a really good article on this subject: The DI, Luddites and Other Musings
This is what happens after the Principal Photography has wrapped (finished). It's a daft name, come to think of it, as the Production is really the whole thing, from the Writing to the Release. But traditionally it means the period after shooting. It should really be Post Principal Photography, but that doesn't sound right.
After shooting, the Crew go home (sometimes), or move on to other jobs. The Director has a short break whilst the Editor completes his Rough Assembly. This is the first time that the material that is shot is seen in its entirety. When film is edited on a Steenbeck or Movieola, it is quite a slow process to move from one version to another. Some Editors and Directors still like doing this, as it gives you more time to consider each version - like the difference between a typewriter and a word processor. But when it is on "Avid" or Electronic, then each version is easily stored in the computer, and so the Director, Producer etc can easily see this or that version. One thing still remains the same - when it comes the time to show the film to an audience, it has to be "conformed" which means turning the actual Film Print into the same order as the Electronic Pictures. This is still a pain, and expensive, and of course the problem will go away once films are projected electronically.
But once films are projected electronically, the film lab won't be economic anymore and will close its film processing division. This is because over 80% of the film going though a lab is for release prints (the movie): so take away projecting on film and hey presto you can't print a hundred years of cinema anymore. No lab to print it in. This doesn't seem to bother all those advocating electronic projection, because they are obsessed by all things digital. Sound recording went through the same hoops, but after going to digital recording, some of them decided they didn't like it much, and changed back to analogue for the first recording (like shooting on film) and digital for editing (like Avid etc). Unfortunately, if Film goes through the same process, i.e. shoot everything digitally, then after the labs close there will be no going back, it's too expensive. Moral of the Story: Shoot On Film!
Anyhow, I'm supposed to be talking about Post-Production but it's easy to get sidetracked into more important things. Actually, EDITING is part of Post -Production and a fine and important job it is too. (David Lean was an Editor before he became a Director). The Editor like everyone else is subject to the whims of the Director (and often the Producer), and you have to be a super-hero of Politics to balance all the egos involved. But apart from all that is the fascination with the heart of film construction: deciding what shots have to go where and for how long. And then figuring out the sound and music to go with it (with the Sound Editor and Composer). This can be very exciting and fascinating, and I deeply regret that I only got to do it once (so far).
I received this interesting question/comment from the IMDB site so thought I’d put it here:
From: Bryce E. Prewitt
It has been years now since the first iteration of "So you Wanna work in the Movies" was written and posted for all to read. Then, you seemed to have a stigma in regards to digital "film." Since, more and more folks are recording in digital (Lucas being the most well known to do so) and fully digital movies (Sky Captain and Sin City) have been made where living, breathing actors were the only real piece to the entire film. While many young (some respected) filmmakers are embracing digital filmmaking as a way to ease production, (seemingly) the old guard (some respected as well) still staunchly supports traditional film. Most notable (see: vocal) among the proponents of film-over-digital is Quentin Tarantino, who quipped "Mission Accomplished" when asked how he felt digitally filming a scene for Sin City. On the set of King Kong, Peter Jackson said part of the beauty of digital filmmaking is to fix the inevitable mistake which is made on set, yet he adores film as well.
With the foresight to have seen it purely digital filmmaking coming and the experience in the industry that you have, how do you feel about digital filmmaking nowadays? As someone who wants nothing more than to pay his dues to the system, be abused by the production staff, and one day (after many long days) hopefully be a DP myself, is the job I want doomed?
It seems that some directors (Lucas) feel that digital filmmaking is the wave of the future (and then turn around and predict doom for cinema because of it). Others(Tarantino) feel that a vivid film can only come from true reels of film. Still, some (Jackson, Spielberg, Fincher) seem to believe that a happy medium can exist. All of this talk comes from directors. Where do the people who actually film the movie, who get the shots, who control the initial look and feel of the film, where do they stand?
To the untrained eye, the pro-digital-everything camp might seem to have a total control of their movie obsession going on, and with millions of dollars bankrolling a film, who cares about the cost? On the other hand, if the shot can be done with a smaller, less expensive, still high quality digital camera, what is the film-over-digital proponent's argument aside from personal preference?
Thank you. Your articles have always fascinated
me and are a wealth of knowledge.
Thanks for your thoughts: very apposite. It probably is time for a revision of SYWWITM, especially the digital section. As you say time has moved on, but also little has changed. My own theory is that when the first Digital Star Wars came out it looked so terrible that the industry was really shocked - especially after all the hype. The irony is that the next one looked OK (not great but OK), but it was too late - the damage was done by the first one.
I am not sure there is a single top DP who prefers digital over film, although it may be that we just don't hear from them as the journalists think Directors make the photography and we are just assistants. When was the last time you saw a DP interviewed in the National Press? The “talk” comes from Directors because they get quoted. The move to Digital will not damage the job of Directing and some would argue that it will make it easier, freeing them from the “tyranny” of the DP. I sympathize with this as I have heard that a number of members of my profession are power-hungry noisy bastards who get their rocks off by mistreating those not as powerful as themselves. A director might get put off the profession after just one film with such a person: go to Digital and the DP suddenly loses power as the picture is right in front of you for all to see (and comment on!).
Although I think the job as it has existed in my lifetime is doomed there is another job slowly emerging. This job is kind of the same but has not been defined yet. At the moment you have the DP and then the “colourist” who is slowly becoming a co-maker of the image. And then there is the Visual FX supervisor who is slowly becoming a Designer as more and more images are composite. This affects the world of the Production Designer as the images are shot by the Cinematographer but in a sense are designed by the Production Designer. The Director may or may not have a key roll in all this: some pay great attention to the visual landscape of a film and others do not.
As Directors become more aware of the post-production possibilities, some are embracing it and making the most of it, and others get lazy with a fix-it-afterwards mentality. The challenge for me is to stay current with what is possible and what it costs so that I can make intelligent decisions on a daily basis as to what I should spend time on and what I shouldn’t.
As an example, there is a location in Casanova which is Heath Ledger running down a very very long hall which was impossible to light. Instead of rejecting the location (which a number of other DP’s had done for other movies!), I was able to place the lights in shot on one side of the hall, and then remove them with a relatively simple digital split screen shot where the one side was joined to the other - also halving the cost of the extras!
Being aware of CGI and what it can do is now a very important part of the DP's work, and a part that will become increasingly important. In effect, on a smaller film, you become the Visual FX supervisor as the production doesn't employ one because they are so expensive.
So I guess my rather dour thoughts about Digitial 5 years ago have been a little elevated by the thought that the DP may become the "image maker" which of course he or she always was: but this time it embraces the post processes also. It is vital that DP’s today take control of the DI and CGI processes otherwise the job really will slip into the hands of editors, producers and VFX supervisors.
So the challenge for the younger generation is to train in both film and digital and be very aware of all the possibilities of the post house. In the old days many DP’s would do time at a lab to learn about the chemistry. Today’s equivalent would be to do time at E-film or one of the other post houses to get to grips with the post processes. In a sense exposing film is not the arduous task it once was as film is now so forgiving and with such extraordinary latitude that some DP’s are just putting their meters away and shooting it by eye, knowing that all the controls are post controls. I don't see much wrong with this: as was the case 20 years ago, every time Digital thinks it is catching up with film Kodak and Fuji produce another amazing film stock which re-writes what film can do.
I think Digital will eventually take over, just as it has in the stills market. The timescale is not the one that Sony and Lucas envisaged but it's coming...sometime. The studios spend $50M on a film and they are very interested in archive and the effects of time on their $50M investment. The first thing they do when a Digital Film is shot is transfer it to film: strange huh?
2011 - Update on THE FUTURE
When I first wrote about The Future it was 1999 - over ten years ago. Film was doomed long ago (1985) and again was doomed in 1999. It is still doomed (2010) but now it is getting serious. The reason for this is that TV is now made almost completely with Digital cameras of one sort or another, and only some Drama is shot on film.
A contributing factor in the UK is that the BBC technical boffins announced that Super 16mm was not "good enough" for HD TV (Ha Ha) but it turned out to be a bandwidth issue and the ensuing row has made for a very confused scenario. Ironically (2010) the Oscar for Best Picture this year went to Hurt Locker which was shot on, guess what, Super 16mm! So I guess Super 16mm is good enough for the Academy?
The ASC for Cinematography award this year went to The White Ribbon which was not only shot on film, but in Black and White! What is the world coming to! Not only was it in Black and White but some shots actually lasted longer than 3 seconds and sometimes the Actors actually went out of frame! Whatever next?.
So here we are in this exciting interim phase where Film is still on the way out and all things Digital are super-groovy. Producers now ask DP's: "What kind of camera do you have??" - a question that has nothing whatsoever to do with whether they should hire that particular person or not.
I read this nice story somewhere: although I cannot remember the names.
A famous DP is at a dinner party. The hostess turns to him and gushes about a film she has seen that he shot. "What kind of camera did you use?", she asks. The DP chooses this moment to ignore her and does not continue the conversation.
On the way out of the door, he compliments his hostess on the fabulous meal that he has just eaten and follows it with: "What kind of Stove did you use?".
That sums it up nicely.
Most DP's are not hired for their technical expertise: a technician can provide this. We are hired to contribute to the ideas for the film, as well as actually (in collaboration with many others) execute the lighting and camera moves. The "gear" comes a long way down the list of required skills and whilst its a good idea to have an idea of what is around in terms of "units of light" and "cameras", just so that techy-types can't bamboozle you with digibits, it's not the real skill. What you do with the ingredients is the Skill of the DP, just as it is the Skill of a Chef.
So lets continue to focus on making good movies, and not get hysterical about "stuff".
2010 - The FUTURE is here... FINALLY
I sent the article below to the cinematography.net website and it wound up in the Local 600 online magazine. I guess that's good. Article below: the link above has pics (and advertising!)
Well the future is here, finally. And it's not looking good for film, I have to admit. Recent developments by all the manufacturers means that most of the limitations that previously existed in Digital Photography have gone away and film is starting to look like yesterday's technology. Some DP's are being encouraged to remove things shot on film from their reels as it looks "old fashioned..." So the future is here, finally.
What has made the difference? Mostly a lot of small advances, mainly in relation to highlight clipping - always the "signature" of digital but now a thing of the past. It appears that both advances in sensors, dynamic range (with HDR looming...) have enabled this to come about. Both Alexa and Red supposedly have a dynamic range "greater than film...". Of course, what is on the tin is not necessarily in the result, but I am seeing work that indicates astonishing range of tones and colours and all the other hallmarks of "modern" photography.
So where is all this going? Plainly for the "next generation", learning film might be a thing of the past, or just a teaching tool. A number of teachers have written online that they want to continue teaching film for as long as possible: not for the "result" but for the process. "Pre-Visualisation" was an essential tool of film which is also an important part of learning to fashion images. This would seem to make sense if Cinematographers are going to continue to have a job: Directors can, after all, just hire a technician to take care of the camera and "work flow" and then do their own lighting, as many do. So what will be the role of a Cinematographer in 2020?
A pessimist might argue that since the control is plainly slipping from "on-set" to Post Production, it is more likely that the final image will be controlled by the Director and the Colourist. But I think this is to miss the point of what a DP for feature films is actually doing... There is a long "job description" on the ASC site which is worth reading because it reminds everyone about both the overall aim of the job as well as the minutiae. So does this "DoP" job have a future, and if so, what is that future?
I have noticed recently an increasing number of "announced features" on IMDB which list everyone except the DoP. I can only conclude that these are films where the Director has assumed the role of DoP also, since Gaffers, Operators etc are on the list but no DoP. This has come about through the de-mystification of the image making process. No longer do you need to understand the Zone System, ASA and Films Stocks - now you can see the image on a Monitor and, if you like it, Shoot It! (well, assuming someone has lined it up properly). As others have pointed out on CML, the new cameras are like different film stocks - choose a camera and you've chosen your "stock".
I actually found that most of the hundred of stock tests I have done were of not much interest to the Directors I worked with. They would participate in the process - even express some enthusiasm for the differences (if they could see them!) - but in the end almost always go for my preference. Why? Because they TRUSTED me to do my job: Cinematography. If we did a Casting test and I offered a comment about a particular actor, they might agree or disagree, but in the end make their own decision - because Casting is the Director's job. Cinematography is the DoP's job and whilst it is a "team job", the team has a leader and the leader needs to show what he or she is made of to have some influence. So in 2020, will we still have a job?
YES is the answer, providing we continue to show strong leadership in the collaboration with Producers and Directors. We DO have to know about the Cameras, the Post-Process, the Lights because without the Knowledge of what is going on Producers and Directors will think: Why do we need this Guy? They do not have the time or the technical expertise to REALLY know how it works, but they will be keen to "posture" a position and influence you down the cheapest path. Our job is to DO IT RIGHT. This, in the end, is always the best option because that is how you make money for the Producer, and make a great looking picture for the Director - by DOING IT RIGHT. On a picture with a budget of over $10M, the Camera budget (whether Film or Digital) represents 6% to 8% of the budget. So when a Production Manager starts splitting hairs about this or that Camera costing "less", the overall affect on the Budget will be fractions of 1%... for a choice that will affect the ENTIRE LOOK of the picture. In these situations the DoP has to be "as one" with Director in these choices, and then the choices will be the right one for the Film.
When Scorcese chose Richardson to shoot his current picture (2010), he did not choose him because "he knows about 3D" - which I am sure he didn't! He chose him because he has worked with him before and he is an exceptional and brilliant DoP both in terms of lighting and framing as well as, and most importantly, Collaborating.
Good Directors will almost always return to DoP's they have had a good experience with: obviously they have to like what they did with the Camera and with the Lighting, but the most important factor for a Director about working with a DoP is - do I TRUST him/her to get WHAT I WANT? Collaborating is a very different thing from "Agreeing" which is never going to be very interesting for a Director. It's more like a Debate and might sometimes get rowdy or adversarial, but if it leads to Doing it Right then those altercations will be quickly forgotten. In the wider field of Education, the brightest minds are focusing on the fact that Creativity is probably the single most important quality in the education of the next generation because one thing is for sure: we have NO CLUE about the world of 2020. So in our little specialist world of Making Pictures, Creativity will be the one single quality that future DoP's can continue to offer.
A Director I worked with a while back would come in at 7.30am and look at the set and announce he wanted to start with a high wide shot in the corner. He would mumble this whilst cursing the late arrival of his coffee. I would say something polite, knowing it was better to fight the good fight after rehearsal, and the actors would come in and start work. Once the scene was nailed down, a series of shots would present themselves to me and I would discuss these with the now woken-up Director. We never did shoot that "high wide-shot" despite the fact that he mentioned it every morning. That's because there was a always a better, more appropriate shot that came from the scene, and not from laziness. A Director who elects not have a DoP on set might, like Stanley Kubrick, actually know what he is doing with the camera and get a good result. But a Director, like Stanley Kubrick, might also benefit from bouncing his ideas off the likes of John Alcott.
The Cohen brothers story-board their work - so why do they continue to use Deakins when they could have a Gaffer and an Operator do the job? Need the question even be asked...
So if we DoP's are going to be out there in the world of (3D?) film-making (I guess "film-making" would be a very retro term in 2020!), we need to continue to provide the same essential ingredients that we have been doing for a century or so. Creativity, Collaboration and Inspiration. Talking about technical stuff might be OK amongst our selves and our equipment suppliers, but don't bring that to the Director/Producer Meeting. By then you need to know what you are recommending and why...
And if the Director fires a technical question at you, which they will... and you don't know that particular arcane bit of work-flow modernism, just reply how interesting it will be to figure that out together during pre-production and make sure (if you get the job!) that you are fully informed when it next comes up! There are new technical ideas on a daily basis - I even heard of an iPhone app that removes the Rolling Shutter effect... how FABULOUS is that! There are bleak days when I cannot understand a single thing written about the latest "tech idea" - but I know enough to know who to call when I need to!
Our challenge - as DoP's - is to continue to make ourselves INVALUABLE in the process of Making Movies. There's lots of other jobs out there that use MovieCameras (and iPhones...) but the one I love, the one I have been doing for 30 years is being a DoP. So all of you who are doing that job now, or would like to do it in the future: Make Sure your Opinion is Heard... otherwise... it won't be required. Producers and DIRECTORS sometimes know a bit about your job, but they will never know enough. It's a bit like Patients who turn up to the Doctor with an armful of internet print-outs. The Doctor (DP) listens, nods, agrees and then prescribes what they consider appropriate, based on years of experience and training. Not many Patients get rid of their Doctors (although some do!) and so it will be with our profession.
We are at a crossroads: time to Stand Up and Be Counted!
Well the future really is here! Fuji has stopped making film for motion pictures and Kodak looks sure to follow suit in the not too distant future. The Arri Alexa somehow struck the right note and DP's who had been reluctant to embrace digital suddenly became it's biggest fans. Film is still being shot by a few die-hard holdouts (like Stephen Spielberg) but even he will have to give up when the last lab shuts it's doors - which Technicolour is doing this year in the UK.
Am I sad? Yes. Is it a disaster? No. It's always tough to face the end of an era, and there is no doubt that it what this is. Film is Dead, Long live Film! From the perspective of the audience, they barely know that anything has happened in the Cinema: they think that projection looks better and the sound is much better... but under this perception are some haunting truths. Sound has indeed got better and the new "space" system being rolled out this year is going to make it better still. For the picture, we are still struggling to reach the exquisite beauty of 70mm projection: 2K projection is nowhere near it and 4K which is coming now is better but still nowhere near it. Forgetting the arguments about projector weave and grain being "more like life", 2K digital projection has really been a backward step from 35mm, but one could argue that 4K more or less brings it up to scratch. When digital projection was first introduced there was a lot of talk about No More Scratched Prints and Crappy Projectors, but, of course, the standards of Digital Projection also vary widely and although I have not personally seen anything terrible, there are plenty of terrible stories. When the film broke in the gate, the projectionist spliced it back together and carried on... unfortunately you can't splice a hard drive back together... you just go home and call in a very expensive technician.
I am not too concerned about the technology: I am more concerned about the content. In the Cinema we see less and less interesting movies and more and more "Dead Cert" blockbusters. Any Agent will tell you that the films being made either cost under $10M or over £100M with very little in between. Unfortunately this is where the interesting films were, but the perception from the financiers is that they are not a safe bet (they are, no doubt, absolutely right). Rates of pay for all crew are going down as unemployment in the sector creates a Buyers Market and scriptwriters have fled to TV as the only place they can actually get their scripts on the screen without a whole bunch of college kids advising them on how to improve their writing. The whole industry is undergoing a massive shakeup and out of it will emerge the "new cinema" - different but the same...
The blazing light in all this change is distribution which now goes straight from the film-maker to the audience via the internet. No more narrow-aminded distributor to tell you what you can watch: film-makers like musicians can just post their films onto the net and find an audience. U-Tube has shown that a multi million strong audience can be found very very quickly for the right film, although so far that film seems to be a girl in a bikini washing her car in LA. Quite why millions of people around the globe find that fascinating beats me...
Today the 12th April 2013, "How Animals Eat their Food" has 11 million hits (in 3 days!) - it's a very funny short video made by 2 comedians. It's fun to watch but of course makes very little money for the film-makers... but... they get to be famous and then what - fortune? The point here is that the whole process of film costing millions of dollars to make is breaking down: anyone can make a film and distribute it on the internet... and if the work is strong it will find an audience and once you have that audience the money will flow. It's a very different way to do things and for a while both the old and the new will exist together: right now the studios already pay to show their trailers on the front page of U-Tube because they know this is where their potential audience is (ie not watching TV). For the moment we have a bit of a golden age of free stuff, but one can sense the advertisers and corporations doing there best to harness this massive audience and make us pay... one way or another. And soon enough governments will start viewing the internet as a taxable item and will, no doubt, start to slap massive taxes on ISP's etc. So NOW is the time to use this transition stage to best effect - take the tools that are there and FLY! There's no excuses anymore...
Practicing what I preach, I went out last year (2013) and made a film on my own. I've enjoyed making it and I think has some value: it's not designed to find a massive audience because it's not that kind of movie. It was something I just wanted to make for myself: it's challenging and very different from working as a "gun for hire" DP. IF you'd like to see it, it is posted here: VEGA. Please leave a comment if you like it!
It's hard to say what the future of film production will be. Some things are clear: it's possible to shoot a film on digital and do it very cheaply which is a very good thing for obvious reasons. Less clear is the future of film itself, and the "location" experience. As computers become cheaper and cheaper and more and more powerful, convincing images of just about anything can be produced right in the studio in California. Executives love this because they have total control and it's cheap (relatively). But it's still Animation however you look at it, and those of us who believe in photographing real people - actors or otherwise - in real places may become increasingly marginalized by the super computer. But this has a way to go so I wouldn't put anyone off entering the industry right now as there is at least another generation who will experience the real world, or what's left of it.
If you're thinking of the Camera Department and you're 19 years old, you might want to get real familiar with video and digital, as well as learning the traditional film process. And understand that the Director Of Photography job only exists in its present form because it's film i.e. not seen on set. If you're thinking of one of the other departments, they should continue more or less in the form they are now, so long as the locations are not added on the computer. A student asked me the following question on the IMDB “"Ask a Filmaker" site (now discontinued):
(Question submitted 2006 or so...)
Do you think that a young wannabe cinematographer should learn all the stuff about shooting with film (is film gonna be a thing of the past?) or concentrate his energy on video?
This is what I replied:
This is a very tough prediction to make, as you can see by reading the many articles about "the future" and digital etc. However, the good news is that if you learn to shoot with film, you won't have any problems shooting with video, as it is a "reduction" in skill requirements. This is what I mean by this.
- Whatever image making/recording technology you use, the skill of selecting compositions and lighting them remains the same. The skill of working with the Director and the Actors to determine the shots stays the same.
- The Lighting requirements for video are mostly a question of lowering the contrast to the point where video can deal with it. The dynamic range of film is something like 10 times that of the best currently available Digital Video format. Some say it takes longer to light Digi, as the image has such a a low dynamic range that it takes longer to balance the lighting. (2014: this is no longer true - in fact Digital now has more dynamic range than film).
- When you learn with film, you learn to "pre-visualise" the result since it is not available to you on the set. You do this by imagining how something will look if you light it in a particular way, then you light it and when you see it the next day, compare what you got with what you imagined. Slowly the two will come closer together. Then if someone wants you to work on video/digital, you can light the scene by eye and then look at the monitor to confirm what you are doing... as opposed to "lighting by monitor".
- When a Lighting Director from TV wants to go into shooting films it is a very traumatic process as they are suddenly cast into a world where the result is not available. This tends to make them very nervous! When the reverse happens, a DP finds it a breeze to shoot with a monitor available as when, for instance, you can see no detail outside a "hot" window, you just reduce the lighting outside until you can, or put some ND on the window.
Real Film is a passion: once you shoot on it, you'll never want to let it go... but (2014) it's now looking increasingly likely that we are in the last couple of years of being able to obtain film. For me, despite what I have said above over the last 14 years, I actually now love what is achievable with Digital cameras. Some cry "traitor" but life's too short to be a luddite. I think some of the finest cinematography is happening right here right now and it's Digital through and through... There still is a problem with archive, and there still is a problem with inadequate and poor projection but things are always improving... kind of. My biggest issue right now is with the monitor and camera makers who think it is all about resolution whereas it is all about aethetics... but that's another story for another time... coming soon... to these pages...
35 years of shooting films has enabled me to lead a really interesting life, I've got a family I love and a really nice place to live and - wait for it - I only work 7 months of the year! I've done this for a long time now as a way to stay sane and shoot films at the same time. As someone pointed out, the hours I work are probably still more than someone with a normal job; even with 5 months off. Now that I'm the right side of 50, I see younger people on set having a really good time, and really appreciating that they are in a world that is unique and quite wonderful for its absolute mixture of people. If a production is a brilliant experience it's made the more wonderful by its brevity, and if it's a disaster, well it ends soon doesn't it?
So if you wanna work in the movies, I hope this has been helpful.
PS (Post Script)
All the creative jobs on film require intense co-operation with your colleagues. This is part of what makes it so fascinating, so you need to understand that if you want to work in Movies, your ideas will be just added to the pool, and will generally go unrecognised, except by the few that know what you are doing. So you have to congratulate yourself when you get it right and try not to be miserable when you don't!
Need more to read?
Occasionally I write an article for either myself or someone else.
Here are some of them.
- Quotes from Cinematographers(2015)
- How I started in the Movie Business...(2015)
- Confession of a Digital Virgin (2014)
- Sundance Directors Lab 2013
- Thoughts about Career v Family...(2013)
- The Future is here... finally (2010)
- Shipping News. (2001)
- The Role of the Cinematographer. (1990)
- Coke - George Michael Commercial (1989)
- Some thoughts about Operators.(1989)
- Absolute Beginners (1985)
- Journey to South Africa (1966)
Here are some Websites for all concerned with film-making:
- American Society of Cinematographers.
- "CML" - vast forum of information.
- 100 Resources for film-makers. Amazingly comprehensive!
- "NFTS" - Terrific NFTS website outlining all the jobs.
- "Robert Rodriguez" - Here is a Director who can really explain how things are done.
- "Film Skills" - This series of videos has all you need to get started.
- "Stephen Follows" - Really original research & articles.
Here's a "proper" list of jobs in the UK industry, and a ton of other useful information.
The IMBD has now stopped doing the Q&A in Independent Film.
I started writing for IMDB "Independent Film" in Dec 2000, and the latest additions to the list below was made May 2009. Below you will find collected answers I have written on particular topics. If you ask me a question and it doesn't exist in the archive, I will answer direct to your email address and also add it below (eventually!)
- Animation Techniques
- Bleach By-Pass
- Blue Screen/Back Projection
- Books to Read
- Budget Considerations
- Car Photography
- Cider House Rules
- Clubs etc
- Digital, Scanning & Archive
- Director/DP Relationship
- DP's - where to get them
- Exposure Techniques
- Exterior Shooting
- Film versus Digi
- Filming Monitors
- Frame Rates and Digi
- Framing Techniques
- Future Outlook
- Jobs in the Industry
- Learning Film Technique
- Lighting Issues
- Multiple Cameras
- Panic Room
- Picture Quality
- Pre-Production Testing
- Production Designers
- Slow Motion
- Special Shot Techniques
- Super 35 versus Anamorphic
- The Look
- Timing/Grading Issues
- Women's Issues
- Home (top of the page)
- Art Department
- Assistant Director
- Camera Department
- Casting Director
- Costume Department
- The Future
- Key Grip and Grips
- On-Set Dresser/Standby Art Director (UK)
- Make-Up and Hair
- PS (Post Script)
- Props Department
- Publicity and Marketing
- Script Supervisor
- Script Reader
- Sound Department
- Special Effects
- Stills Photography
- Stand In
- Stunt Department
- Visual Effects
- Video Split Operator
- Working on set...
Feel free to e-mail me with a question (no CV's please!), CONTACT ME if you want to use any of this material
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Copyright © Oliver Stapleton 2015