How can I become a Camera Operator / Director of Photography / Cinematographer?
May 13, 2009 8:57 PM   Subscribe

Career Change Advice: How can I become a Camera Operator / Director of Photography / Cinematographer?

So, I've always been a still photographer, and because of my work on the internet tubes I've gotten more and more into video production for the web. It's been a steep learning curve, but, I'm getting the hang of it. I've been feeling that I want to take my love of photography into the realm of film, but, I'm having a hard time figuring out how to get started.

I have a love of good light and fairly specific extracurricular skill set that I feel is helpful working in the outdoors and on location. I work in the ski industry currently and I've grown up rock climbing, hiking, surfing, and skating and photographing all the way. So I'm familiar with rope work, helicopters, the mountains etc...

My question is how do I get started in the film and video production world. I need education, but, I don't want a lot of film school B.S. I don't want to be a director, I want to run cameras. I want to get my hands on good equipment and learn how to operate it. Becoming a better editor along the way would be great too. But, as a 34 year old with a wife and a child the amount of time I have to dedicate to being a flunky on movie sets is pretty thin. We live in Utah, but, relocation could be considered if there is a good chance of a payoff at the end.

What kind of schools and programs should I look at? How can I get my foot in the door? Does anyone on Metafilter have relevant experience? I working on compiling a pretty decent B roll of HD ski and snowboard footage and when I finish this new still photography portfolio I feel that it will impress. Any advice on how to get started on this career path is greatly appreciated. Thanks for your input.
posted by trbrts to Work & Money (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you own a nice camera you can start working as an operator on indie short films pretty much immediately. Indie camera operators often have their own gear, although you can also rent gear as long as you take the time to learn to use it before getting on set with it. You can rent gear or take classes from filmmaker resource groups- I dunno about Utah, but in my city, for instance, you could get gear and take weekend classes from places like this or this. Perhaps there's something similar in your area.

If you decide to learn as you go, you could put ads describing your gear & skillset on Craigslist, Mandy, and anywhere else non-union filmmakers congregate. Pitch it like, "Camera operator available, extreme locations welcome. I have XYZ gear, ABC skill set, and want to do some shooting. Here's my portfolio & demo reel. If you need an operator drop me a line." You can work for free at first to figure things out with no pressure, and then gradually raise your rates and consider going union later. Good luck!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:37 PM on May 13, 2009

AFI has the best respected cinematography program in the world. It's a two year program focused solely on cinematography. Here's a list of their alumni. Caleb Deschanel, Robert Elswit, Janusz Kaminski, Matthew Libatique, and Wally Pfister are among them.
posted by paperzach at 9:51 PM on May 13, 2009

1) Study films for technique, read books and trade journals
2) experiment on small films until you're good
3) try to break in to pro work on commercials, music videos or budget features as a camera assistant and pay a lot of attention. Don't pursue industrials or corporate videos or youtube.
4) look for a low budget writer/director and be his/her DP for no money/or just points.

Do 3 and 4 simultaneously until one or both catch on. But don't do either until you really know your stuff, all of the terminology.

If you can afford it, go with 16mm film. Film is automatically movies -- with video/digital, the burden is on you to prove you're not just a Flip camera wannabe.
posted by msalt at 12:26 AM on May 14, 2009

It depends on what you mean by director of photography..There are many different paths and almost none of them intersect. Do you want to do HD Low Budget Features, Hollywood 35m films, corporate video work, hardcore HD documentary based stuff? Hollywood is still based on apprenticeship, so you can get on sets and learn the camera if you have a camera assistant "in".

You might be better off trying to dig out a niche in Utah, cause the thing is I know people trying to break into being a DP and have been doing camera assist work for 15 years.. the same goes for a lot of jobs in Hollywood. Its not something that comes quick.
posted by mattsweaters at 1:34 AM on May 14, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice everyone. I think what I really want to get trained in is the new R.E.D. cameras. That seems like where it's all heading. Any thoughts on that?
posted by trbrts at 9:11 AM on May 14, 2009

I wouldn't worry about specific cameras, especially not digital ones. Make sure you are solid on light, composition, shading, lenses, depth of field and color. That knowledge will always be valuable, on 35MM, digital animation or hand-scratching of 8mm stock.

The Red looks cool but I don't think there will be much expert knowledge of it you can claim, even if you own one, and it it doesn't live up to its hype -- or if the project you want to work on doesn't use it -- your specialized knowledge won't be worth a thing.
posted by msalt at 5:22 PM on May 14, 2009

Everyone I know who shoots on RED also owns one. But several filmmakers I know won't use RED because the data gets corrupted and the drives overheat, which causes workflow issues. I think red has a lot of potential, though. You might be able to find a red owner via craigslist or a filmmaker hub and pay him/her for some private lessons on it to see how you like it before jumping in with both feet.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:47 AM on May 15, 2009

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