What Does It Mean To Be A Cinematographer?

In light of the trends of the world of "cinematography" that I notice on Instagram, blog posts and basically everywhere I look these days, I thought I'd share some thoughts on what I think it is to be a cinematographer. 

You walk into a room. Where's the light? Where's "the shot"? Over there....by the window....next to that lamp.....along side that wall....we've all got an "eye". We can practice using that eye. The more we use it, the better it gets...the better WE get at seeing. You've developed your eye and can now see beauty, even in mundane looking, boring places. This is what it means to be a cinematographer. 

NOPE! But it's a great skill to have.

You're on set. It's early, you're tired. What's the shot? Scene 2, shot 11 "Kitchen - Morning". I remember talking about this scene...and here's the story board. Starts with a wide at the kitchen bench? Got it. Grab the HMI, throw it through that window. Tweak it a bit, morning sun, DONE! Let's go in for the closeup, gimme the fiddy (50mm). This is what it means to be a cinematographer. 

NOPE! But it's important to be able to work quickly and work to a schedule. 

We have the Ronin for this one. Perfectly balanced, wireless focus, wireless video, an experienced operator. The director suggests that we shoot the entire scene on the Ronin....because we have the Ronin. What? But why? Just because. The Ronin is sick. Ronin shots are sick...especially if they're one take shots. This irks you, and although your practiced "eye" get's excited with the idea, you know there needs to be a better reason. You fight it somewhat, but agree it could be an effective storytelling tool for this particular scene. "What if we use the Ronin as the couple leave the house as a means to show their journey forward, that they're now moving forward, together...we could use the moving camera to help not only show their changing, dangerous environment (which is an essential part of the story), but also how that environment impacts the difficulty of the conversation at hand, and highlights the REAL strength they have as a couple, outside of the seemingly important argument they were having moments ago". 

The house was burning down, of course ;) This is what it means to be a cinematographer. 

GETTING THERE! But don't get too carried away convincing yourself it's a good idea to do something just because you want to / the director wants to do it. Maybe this scene would have worked better hand-held?

You get a call, it's on speaker...the producer and the director ask if you're available to recce a few places. You've got a well developed "eye". You're on board with the script and understand the goals of the story. You have ideas in your head about how things could look and cannot wait to see the locations. You also know that as important as locations are, they can be so much more fitting and better suited to the story if you take into account the time of day, the colour of the walls and furniture, the clothes and props the actors are interacting with, the ability to use practical light sources and the option of using your own lights, the power requirements of those lights and logistical requirements to rig them, the sounds of the space...the hum of the fridge, the buz of the fluros, the crashing of the waves or the passing traffic. You're excited about seeing these locations because your know that it's not only YOUR eye that will be inspired by them, but the eyes of others too. This is what it means to be a cinematographer.  

ALMOST! But you still have to put all of this knowledge into action, let other's make decisions about the film and come to an outcome together that works for the story. That's a lot harder than it might sound.

It's 3pm. You've been shooting for 12 hours. You only have 2 hours at this location and people, including yourself, are stressed. Stressed about the time pressure at hand, stressed about interpersonal relationships that have declined over the past week, stressed about when their next meal is coming and what it might be. You're Stressed about the fact that your vision of how things were supposed to look, is not going to plan. You're stressed about the fact that the power just went out and now we need to find the fuse box....stressed about the neighbors dog who's incessant barking is ruining the shot, stressed about your own ability to manage a team of people who are also stressed and are looking to you for guidance.  

The First AD storms into the room and gently asks "How long until we're ready to go mate?" Meanwhile actors are still in makeup, the power is still out and you've just realized that you've accidentally been shooting at 25 frames per second, for the whole day, instead of 24. You feel like replying with "How long? Are you fucking serious!!? Let's say, (200% sarcasm) give or take, 3 days. That should be enough time to sort out all of this shit.....but let's go 4 hours just to be safe, and where's that pizza BTW? I'm starving!".

Instead, you focus on what IS possible. You respect the fact that the First AD is only trying to bridge communication of events between yourself and other departments (one hell of a job). You come up with an idea that doesn't necessarily fit the original brief, but could work considering the circumstances. You gently let the camera and lighting departments know that you're going to have a chat with the Director about what to do next, preparing them for a potential Plan B. You speak frankly with the director, taking into consideration the time restraints and unforeseen circumstances. You communicate to the Director that as much as you're disappointed things haven't gone as planned, you're confident that this new idea could work but you're also open to any feedback. You present the idea as a solution - a solution that you know you can pull off. You work together and formulate a compromise that feels achievable and workable for the film. The First AD announces the new plan. You return to your department and explain in more detail what needs to happen. You're feeling good about the situation, even though you're completely shattered that your original idea about how this scene was to be shot...isn't going to happen.

This is what it means to be a cinematographer.    

YES! Although it's not always that challenging. On the other hand, sometimes it's worse! 

So, we see that looking deeper into the question, "What does it mean to be a Cinematographer" reveals that it's also about being a leader, a problem solver, an excellent communicator, a collaborator, someone with the ability to see beauty in the mundane and know how to create it but more importantly, someone who can motivate, delegate and collectively pull together a broken situation whilst staying true to a script and working with a team.  It's a big ask.

There are other, less hierarchical but still important skills that I mentioned earlier, including the more obvious, ability to SEE light. Seeing the light that is already there is an important part of developing your own style, along with framing and exposing it of course ;) Taking that a step further is the ability to create and shape the light, from scratch. There's an entire blog post about that I'm sure. It would describe in great detail the arsenal of lighting fixtures we have available to us today, where and when to use them, how to modify them and why - and even then, it would only be MY opinion, which is not the answer. What is the correct way to light and what is tasteful? Do those two things even exist when it comes to true collaboration and self expression? Where do we find inspiration and what is acceptable in that realm? How can you refine your craft if you don't have access to expensive and high end equipment? What are some practical tips when looking to improve your eye and ability to light? The list goes. It's almost an impossible ask to refine such a thing into a palatable, single post, which is why I started sharing my lighting breakdowns at the blog in May, 2013. Meanwhile, I still look at my lighting and shudder at times...not knowing what to do or how to improve. 

There's other things I haven't mentioned either. Things that deserve pages and pages of thoughts and discussion - deliberate lens choices, camera angles, coverage decisions, exposure techniques, etc, etc, etc. I don't mean to come across as knowing it all either, I just know that all of those things are important! I'm still experimenting and learning and enjoying the process :) 

Meanwhile, if you're rocking a decent beard, have 10K followers on Instagram, own an RED and insist on shooting anamorphic, you've still got 10,000hrs to put in ;) That's not to exclude the ladies! I just couldn't think of the female equivalent of a beard.... 


Posted on August 10, 2018 .