The Real Poop
"Man, what a beautiful shot!"
You only hear such words uttered in reference to a few jobs. Most of them have to do with hitting a target—pro basketball and hockey players trying to score, or an archer or sniper hitting their mark. Then there are those who use the phrase in the movie-making world: directors and cinematographers.
Cinematographers don't get to shout "Action!" before every new take, but they still have a pretty important job on the movie set. Also known as directors of photography (or DPs if you want to sound cool), cinematographers are responsible for how a movie looks—literally.
They're in charge of making sure the cameras work, are top notch, and can handle whatever special effects the director throws their way. They're also the guys and gals to blame for making it impossible to tell what's happening during the action scenes in the Transformers movies.
Along with the writer and the director, the cinematographer has massive input on what the final result will be when making a movie. But don't get too power-happy just yet. DPs fight tooth and claw for jobs in their field. They also only get paid about a tenth of what the director makes, coming in at a median annual salary of about $49,000 per year (source).
The upside? DPs typically come on board only two weeks before shooting starts, then leave a week into post-production. That's right—they get to show up late, leave early, and let everyone else do the dirty work. So while directors work on one or two projects a year, a cinematographer may be able to do as many as seven or eight. It's good work, but only if you can get it.
The best place to get work is on commercials. Commercials are a DP's bread and butter. Not only is there much more work, the pay is pretty good too. Maybe not Brad Pitt money, but still pretty good.
Then there are television programs. There's a good amount of work to be found in television, but only the DPs on the very first episode of a show get to make any creative decisions. As a result, DPs on television shows get about as much respect as the school lunch lady. And we're not even talking about pizza day.
The DP's position is a creative one on the film set, but before the creativity comes the technical expertise. They need to know enough about how light travels and bends to make your science teacher's head spin, and have to keep up with technological advancements when it comes to lighting and lenses.
They set up lights, grid lines, offset backgrounds, and know whether it'll be beneficial to use an ND grade bleed filter lens for a particular shot. In short, they're huge geeks—but, like, in the cool way.
And they have a team of other technical geeks that they have to manage. As head of the lighting and camera departments, they're on the front lines. If a director is like a general, then a DP is the colonel, out there in the field making decisions that affect all the grunts.
Their teams can be huge—including camera operators, gaffers, focus pullers, grips, and something called a "best boy"—and the DP is in charge of making sure everyone stays in line. Those titles might sound like gibberish, but just know you can demand a cup of coffee from any of them and they'll go running to fetch it immediately.
DPs also have to be very adaptable. The styles of cinematography change fast. What's hot one minute becomes as dated as MySpace the next. The worst part is that even if you can adapt, you may become known for excelling at a style everyone thinks is old and boring.
With all that responsibility, it's no wonder that education is paramount for cinematographers. Most successful DPs graduate from top film schools. Not only do they need that nifty little piece of paper (known as a "degree" in professional circles), they also usually apprentice for a few years with a working DP.
Many start off with other jobs in a similar vein, as a lighting tech or camera operator, before moving up. Regardless, they have to pay their dues.
And sometimes they have to literally pay those dues. Joining the union (the International Cinematographers Guild) is one of the most important things an up-and-comer can do. Getting into the union isn't as easy as just paying the dues, though, and those dues can be pretty expensive. But once you're in, it makes it a lot easier to stay employed.
So, does cinematography still sound like something you might want to do? Well you better get started with your studies—kids are dreaming their cinematographer dreams pretty early on these days.