Even more notes from the AMA that I recently conducted on Reddit:
On being asked my advice for breaking into the industry:
Everyone told me it would really hard to break in. It’s not. You need to be three things:
(2) A fast learner
(3) Willing to learn
(4) Able to pay attention
We hate know-it-alls, because–trust me–until you’ve worked on real sets for a while you don’t know shit. We do love to teach people, though, and if you get it then we notice–because so many people DON’T get it. (After being on a crew for a while you habitually learn not to stand in doorways, because someone’s always trying to go through them with equipment. Then you notice that everywhere you go outside of work NOBODY ELSE GETS THIS. It’s interesting. :) )
When we see someone who wants to learn, and who works hard to pick up the knowledge and fit in… we give that person a lot of attention. We love that.
I did a job in Phoenix years ago and I had production hire a cousin who lives there as a PA. The first time we laid dolly track he watched but didn’t help much; the second time the grips laid the track they turned around looking for the wedges and a level and he was standing right behind them with both. He got so good at anticipating what the crew needed and being there for him that everyone asked for his phone number at the end of the shoot. That’s what it takes.
When starting out I was taught four rules:
(1) Do your job. (Don’t do anyone else’s job. Focus on yours first, because you don’t know enough about how to do it yet.)
(2) Show up early. (This is the only industry in the world where showing up on time is late. I always try to get to the set a half hour early. Most of the rest of my crew do the same.) [Addition: I research the location of every coffee shop in the area so I have something to do while I wait for everyone else.]
(3) Punch in on time. (Even though you show up early, that’s not on the clock. That’s just you reassuring the producer that you’re there to start work when they need you. If you’re late you cost them money in lost productivity, and that’s bad.)
(4) Keep your mouth shut. (Film sets are very political. It takes a while to learn what to say when. Until that time, listen more than you talk.)
Do all this and you’ll be just fine.
On finding those first jobs:
You gots to work for free. I hate to say it, but no one will hire you until they know you. Look on Craigslist or look in other places online for low budget productions that will take you on as unpaid help. Or find a production company that will let you intern. Then keep track of every crew person you meet and call them once every month or two to say hi. If you’re at all competent you’ll start getting work.
On taking the next step, from working for free to working for pay:
If you have a great reel then keep shooting, I guess. Otherwise you need to start at the bottom by doing free work and meeting crew people. One method is to hang out at rental houses (if they’ll let you) and offer to help assistants prep gear.
It’s hard to know when it’s time to move on sometimes. Other times… it just comes to you. I developed a lot of back problems as an assistant so I had to move up quickly. I just wasn’t built to carry around extremely heavy film gear, and I managed it for a while but at some point it just became too painful.
As for when you should stop working for free… at some point you’ll realize you’re getting a lot of free work and the quality of job is getting better, so it’s probably time to stop being free. People only value you as much as you do, though, so don’t expect people you’ve worked with for free to “bring you along” as they get better jobs. That only works about 20% of the time as they figure that once they have more money they’re better off hiring more expensive crew, and that’s not you. As soon as you have some connections and some experience for the resume and you feel you can do what the other people on the crew are doing at the next step up, find out what they charge and then charge the same on the next one. You may have to find new people to hire you but you’ll have the experience and references.
On who to approach for work on camera crews:
Call assistants. Cinematographers won’t get you work. First camera assistants are usually the ones with the crew lists.
Also get on Craigslist and search similar places for freebies to work on. Professional crew often do favors for each other on freebies so you can start networking that way. You won’t get hired unless they know you, and this is the only way to get to know you safely.
Lastly, sometimes you can hang around the rental houses and offer to help assistants prep, or get a job at a rental house for a year or two and be a prep tech. You’ll meet ALL the camera crews.
A professional AD asks how to “get through” to a DP who seems to have lost all sense of time and money:
It’s tough, because DPs can very quickly end up being the bad guy when telling directors that their shot lists are overly ambitious. I ultimately lost a director as a client by telling him that… and being consistently right. He didn’t like that. He found another DP who didn’t tell him that… even though the same thing consistently happened. That DP lasted quite a while because he didn’t kill off the director’s dream of doing too much in one day… even though they couldn’t do that much in a day.
We’d regularly end up with ten pages to shoot in a single day with a small crew and a lot of location moves, and the director would simply tear pages out of the script when he realized he was in a corner. One shoot, though, involved a multi-level interactive decision tree where NOTHING could be cut out, and we ended up with 70 pages to shoot in three days. It ended up being 4 1/2 days, and the director’s budget took a bath.
[Addition: I told the director in advance that his schedule was unreasonable, but I only told him once and after that just tried to keep things moving as fast as possible. Afterwards he went to his client and asked for more money to cover the overages and they responded, “If it was going to cost more money than you had you should have told us ahead of time. Our answer now is ‘No.'”]
Still, even though I tried to help him by telling him that he was screwing himself, I was the one who got replaced because I got in the way of the dream. (Eventually the director got replaced himself.)
One DP I know says he doesn’t worry about scheduling at all. He makes it your problem to tell the director. :)
I do look for ways to streamline things as much as possible and work as quickly as possible, but at the same time I’m working harder on insisting on doing the shots reasonably well. Shooting rehearsals sometimes works but I also don’t want to shoot crap because that’s not what I’m hired to do. I’ve also worked in episodic television (as an assistant and operator) and I like that pace, and I strive to approach that way of working while still doing good work. I see it as a challenge. I also don’t see it as being entirely about me and my work, so I can prioritize, let stuff go and recognize when a project needs to reach an artistic standard that is only so high. At the same time… I’m only as good as my last project.
In my opinion you and the DP should focus on scheduling, and if it’s ambitious then you should tell the director and the DP should back you up. If the DP doesn’t back you up then they are simply doing what happens in the construction world: the lowest bid wins because they say they can do it in the time allowed but the reality is otherwise… but by then they already have the job.
My telling a director that their schedule is impossible is not a good way to get a job. (I’ve learned that the hard way.) You teling them, and me “reluctantly” taking your side, works a lot better. That means you and the DP need to have a collaborative relationship instead of a combative one, which doesn’t always happen but I love it when it does.
On being asked if I made a lot of mistakes as a student and early in my career, and how to get into shooting commercials:
I made a lot of mistakes. Sometimes I still make mistakes. The trick is that the mistakes I make now are often so subtle that I’m the only one who notices. :)
There are definitely projects where I walk away feeling like I should go into accounting. Those don’t happen often, and they are usually clusterfucks in one way or another, but I still take the quality of my work very personally and it’s hard when I can’t do my best for whatever reason.
Ultimately we are hired not just for our vision but for our reliability, so as we get better at our craft we get to be much, much more reliable. When a producer or director hires you they are buying your personal guarantee that you’ll deliver something that will keep them employed. It’s our job to make that happen. It’s also our job to tell them what we need to do what they need us to do.
If you want to get into commercials you need to shoot commercials. I’ve shot a lot of “spec” spots, which are basically fake commercials, in order to build my reel over the years. No one will hire you to shoot spots until you can show that you can shoot spots, so ally yourself with a number of directors, pool your resources and start shooting.
Makes sure each of those projects is something you can use, because directors don’t always remember you when they become successful. Usable footage is your payment. Don’t work for free.
Being a DP is an interesting mix of confidence (“Throw anything at me! I’ll make it work!”) and insecurity (“I need to figure out how to make this look great, otherwise maybe I’m not much of an artist!”).
On whether it’s better to break into the industry at the bottom or just start creating work:
I think you’ll do better working in the industry first. I describe it like this:
Every time a crew is hired a producer is basically building a movie-making machine. Each part knows what it needs to do, so the machine can be made of parts that have worked together before or haven’t worked together at all, and the machine will still run. You put it together, fire it up and now you can focus on creating instead of making the machine work.
Inexperienced filmmakers don’t know how the parts work, so when you put them all together you spend more time trying to make the machine function than actually using it to create images.
Also, there’s a century of filmmaking knowledge out there that you can learn that will do nothing but help you create. If you just start creating you skip all that, and it puts you at a real disadvantage because the people with that knowledge can beat you at your own game by doing it better and faster.
On whether it’s better to work your way up to DP as a camera assistant or through the electrical department:
You can develop an eye for lighting as an AC. I did. And if you have a strong gaffer you can also learn while being a DP. As long as you can describe what you want a good gaffer can make that happen.
Cameras are a lot more complex than lights. It’s also complicated to learn composition, how shots cut together, how different frame rates interact, how to use depth of field, how to work with an assistant how pulls focus (most gaffer/DPs suck at this–they’ll light to T2 and then wonder why all their handheld “shoot the rehearsal” shots are soft)… cameras are, honestly, a lot more complicated. Lighting is complex, yes–and the gaffers who become DPs tend to be extremely good at it. But it does take them a bit longer to figure out the camera side of things.
I learned to light because I was interested in it and I watched what other DPs did. When I work I always hire a gaffer who is better at their job than I am, and then I tell them what I want for a setup and how I think it should be done and then let them tell me if they can do it a better way. If so, great!
It’s not my job to micromanage all of that. I have a lot of chess pieces to manage, so I tell them what I want and let them make their own moves.
On being asked what I see in the future for visual effects, and where I stand on the controversy surrounding “Life of Pi”‘s VFX award at the Oscars this year:
I think the VFX industry is getting shafted, but I think they brought it on themselves by being so competitive with each other. Unless all the VFX companies take a stand and start saying “no” they’re going to be further marginalized.
What’s happening to them is happening to all of us: the tools are becoming more accessible, therefore the perception is that what they do is becoming worth less money. It can be done more cost effectively, sure, but what you’re ultimately paying for is people and talent. Ultimately if you aren’t willing to pay for that those people will go off and do something else, and then you’ll be screwed.
I do like that we can do VFX more cheaply now, as I do a lot of spots where VFX are normal and I find that a lot of fun. I do think people should be paid well to do them as they are still not easy to pull off well.
I think the lack of appreciation shown by Ang Lee toward his visual effects team is shocking and reeks of ignorance.
A VFX professional asks whether I see my role overlapping more and more with VFX, and do I worry about losing control over the image:
I see my control slipping away as I’m often not invited to the color grade anymore. People think that since they have tools that can manipulate the image that means they have better taste and more skill than I do… and how can that be, when this is all I’ve done for a quarter century? (Crap, that sounds impressive and wrong all at the same time.)
If it has to do with the image, I should be involved as the point person. That doesn’t mean that I usurp the role of the VFX team, but I should definitely be consulted and have input. It’s a team effort, and if I’m photographing the live action and you’re doing the plates we really should be talking a lot so our work meshes better and more easily. I’m a big fan of doing what I can on the set to make your job simpler, so I try not to cut any more corners than I have to. I’m also pretty good at saying, “We can do that, but your VFX company will have to charge more.” :)
I think this is part of the modern erosion of the industry caused by how easy it appears to be to do certain jobs: there’s no gratitude for the human factor anymore, and everyone thinks they can do as good a job as you can and possibly better and cheaper because they aren’t as picky as you are. Of course the pickiness, and knowing when to pull it out and when to put it away, is what results in great images and craftsmanship…
I like to point out that you can put a camera on a stage with some lights and a bunch of actors, leave for a few hours, come back and NOTHING WILL BE SHOT. This is important to know. The camera is relatively useless on its own. Same with software.
The quality of the results has little to do with the equipment.
I’ll try to wrap this up in Part 4. Wow, I wrote a lot.
Art Adams, Director of Photography