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The Real Poop

Man, what a beautiful shot!

You only hear such words uttered in reference to a few jobs. Basketball players. Snipers. Golf pros. And Cinematographers.

Cinematographers live for hearing that phrase. Also known as Directors of Photography (or DPs if you want to sound cool), they are responsible for how a movie looks. They run the lighting and camera department and make the creative and technical decisions that decide whether a movie is bright and beautiful or dark and gritty. They're also the guys to blame for making it impossible to tell what's happening during the action scenes in the Transformers movies.

Cinematographer is one of the key creative positions on a film shoot. Along with the writer and the director, the Cinematographerhas 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. There are fewer and fewer movies being made every year and the handful of big name DPs seem to get hired onto all of the major ones. Everyone else fights with each other for what’s left, like the contestants at a Biggest Loser wrap party.

To add injury to insult, they get paid about a tenth of what the Director makes and no one, not even the most diehard film geeks, will probably ever know their names. All they have is the shot. To be fair, they get paid so much less than a Director because they’re spending less time on the project. Whereas a Director will come on board very early in the project and see it through until the end, the DP will typically come on board only two weeks before shooting starts and then leave a week into post-production. So while Directors work on one or two projects a year, a DP may be able to do as many as seven or eight. However, it also means that a DP spends much of his time hustling for work. Imagine if half of every year was spent going on job interviews. Probably only sounds like fun to you if you're a few f-stops short of a full exposure.

The best way to ensure solid work is to buddy up to a specific Director. If you connect with a Director and work well together, then you'll be "packaged" with the Director on any films they do. This "packaging" element (which is Hollywood-speak for "this movie will work best if all of these specific people work together on it") means that every time the Director is hired, you'll be hired as well. You'll still need to find the occasional supplementary job to keep your family in Nikes, but this deal definitely gives you a leg up over the competition.

And if you have a bad relationship with a Director? Well, it can possibly kill your career. Even a lukewarm compliment like "his shots are gorgeous but he works slow" can be the nail in your coffin. When most Directors or Producers hear the phrase "works slow," it translates via the Babel fish in their brain to “this guy will cost me $250k a day when we fall behind schedule.”

Of course, it's worse for those who aren’t working on big budget studio films. Most DPs will be doing indie film passion projects for no pay and less recognition.

Thank goodness for commercials. Commercials are a DP's bread and butter. Not only is there much more work, but the pay is pretty good. Maybe not Brad Pitt money, but still pretty good. Commercials also have the added benefit of giving a DP the chance to direct. Advertising agencies will often hire a DP to pull double duty in both positions. It has less to do with laziness and more to do with the fact that the ad agency makes all of the major creative decisions on their commercials. They simply need to hire someone to execute those decisions well. They're kind of like the guy who gives Solid Snake all of his missions, while the DP gets to be Solid Snake. Minus creeping around inside of a cardboard box.

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.

As opposed to other creative positions on a film, the DP not only has to have an artistic eye but a technical one as well. They have to know the ins and out of lighting equipment, cameras, lenses, dollies, Steadicam rigs, and enough knowledge about how light travels and bends to make your Science teacher's head spin. He has to know how to set up lights, grid lines, offset backgrounds, and whether he needs to use an ND grad bleed filter lens, or cover that in post. In short, they’re giant geeks.

Only a geek would play "Chez Geek."

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 a General, then a DP is the Colonel out there in the field making decisions that affect all of the grunts. Their teams can be huge (especially on a big budget film), but some of the key positions you should be familiar with are:

• GAFFER: Chief electrician for the shoot. He makes sure that the lights are set up to the DP's specifications and also makes sure that the set doesn't burn down.

• CAMERA OPERATOR: Sometimes the camera operator IS the DP. In fact, there's an argument amongst those in the know that a DP can only be called a Cinematographer if he's also the camera operator. To most, though, DP and Cinematographer are interchangeable terms, whereas the Camera Operator is the guy who knows the camera inside and out and, well, operates it.

• FOCUS PULLER: Yeah, you do a pretty good job of pulling focus in class with those paper airplanes of yours, but in Hollywood a Focus Puller is an actual job. They are responsible for determining the proper distance of the camera from its target and for making sure that all shots stay in focus.

• BEST BOY: No, your best friend will not ask you to be Best Boy in his wedding. Not unless he gets married very young. The Best Boy is the Gaffer's chief assistant and foreman for the lighting crew. He's responsible for all electrical hookups.

KEY GRIP: Head of the grip department, the Key Grip, helps both the lighting and camera departments. They rig lights, move cameras, handle dollies and cranes, and deal with other equipment.

He's a smooth crane operator.

There are more, but those are the biggies.

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. (Reminder: Close your MySpace account.) In the early 1980s the style involved lots of small lights and high gauze (gauze is often used as a filter over a lens to create diffusion and soften the image). In the 1990s it was one bang light with ND grad lenses (a type of filter that darkens the brightest lights in an image) so every sunset looked magical. In the 2000s it was all about politicking with post production tech people to make sure they didn't radically alter and change what you did to suit their own needs. The worst part is that, even if you can adapt, you may become known for doing a style well that everyone thinks is old and boring, and then you'll have about as easy a time finding work as Charlie Sheen has of convincing people that he's sane. (The jury is still out, but only because they're afraid of him and are hesitant to re-enter the courtroom.)

It’s no wonder that education is paramount. Most successful DPs graduated from top film schools. Not only do they have that nifty little piece of paper (known as a "degree" in professional circles), but they also usually apprentice for a few years with a working DP. Many start off with other jobs in a similar vein—lighting or working as cameramen—before moving up. Regardless, they have to put in their dues.

Literally, sometimes. 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. There are all sorts of prerequisites you have to have to even qualify for the Union. Prerequisites like working Union jobs (jobs that you can't get unless you’re in the Union. Hmmm…?

And just in case things didn't seem tough enough, the current American job market is overrun with cinematographers from Italy and Eastern Europe. Still wanna be a DP?

If you want to get that beautiful shot, you do.