A cinematographer (or Director of Photography) is the person responsible for turning the Director’s creative vision into a production-feasible reality on screen.
The cinematographer or Director of Photography (DOP) is regarded as one of the most senior and most important people in the film creation process. The cinematographer must interpret the director’s instructions for obtaining a certain aesthetic for a film production, and use their technical skill to deliver against these demands by using specific film production, camera and lighting techniques to achieve a certain mood for the film.
Cinematography literally refers to the combined art and science of using a moving image camera. The cinematographer will take charge of camera and lighting crews, general responsibility for lighting the set, filtration and composition. The camera operator will still make their own calls on lens choice, but the DOP will consult with the Director to make final decisions on all visual aspects of the film.
Salary is negotiated per project, and so is not remunerated annually. Cinematographers with regular work and a decent reputation can expect to earn around £1300 per day for mainstream distribution releases. The entry rate for paid work may typically be around £500 per day for cinematographers commissioned to a studio-funded shoot, although some freelancers working on small, independently-commissioned corporate films will offer their services for around £275 per day.
- Interpret instructions given by the director for the required mood, theme and feel
- Relay instructions and describe project-specific demands to the camera operators and production crew
- Manage a crew of up to 50 people
- Advise director on suitable composition and use of lighting, shadow and fill
- Listen to feedback from the camera operators and decide how to improve their performance
- Work closely with the director to make decisions on aesthetics and visual representation
Whilst some cinematographers have worked their way up literally from the bottom (beginning as a runner on a film set, or perhaps shooting their own indie project), most pursue the university route. It is usually only through correct schooling that the candidate will be able to display their certified skill-set to potential employers, and candidates who wish to join well-known TV companies will be checked thoroughly to make sure they have appropriate academic certification. A BA Honours in Film is the generic industry qualification which facilitates subsequent specialisation, although many opt for post-graduate courses in a specific area such as cinematography.
The Met Film School of London is notable as the only UK film school based within a working film production studio. Candidates should note that the film industry on both sides of the Atlantic is extremely fickle and contact-driven, so qualifications don’t guarantee success, and a lack of them will not prevent somebody from achieving in the industry if they are hungry (and lucky) enough.
- An eye for detail and a mind for fast invention
- Thorough understanding of lighting techniques, light colour, shade and manipulation
- Strong technical knowledge of cameras and the film production process
- Strong communication skills
- Strong team management skills
- Excellent listening ability
- Flexible approach to adapting knowledge already accumulated to achieve an improved result
A typical film set is a highly charged and demanding environment where a number of skill sets and egos clash full-force within a very time-pressured arena. It can be a challenge for new entrants to adapt to this unique theatre of opportunity. Those who can, though, will find that there is nowhere else in the world that delivers this same level of excitement, challenge and adrenalin rush. One of the key things to being able to deal with “the set” is a flexible attitude to teamwork, and subsequently, an understanding of detailed feedback and respect towards the wishes of others.
Film-related courses at university are very hands-on, with a huge amount of classroom time taking place either in the university’s production studio or in the field, working on projects with others. This is a natural breeding ground for knowledge growth and the development of team management skills required to be successful later in one’s career. Many courses will enable the student to complete short placements with production studios or with independent companies; this is crucial to securing work once the course has been completed.
Despite the ad hoc (and luck-dependent) nature of the film industry, many careers in this sector benefit from quite linear development paths. This means that the candidate will begin working in assistant roles on small projects before moving up the scale to becoming the executive DOP on other (small) projects. Progression in the industry is exceptionally portfolio-driven, meaning that candidates are only as good as their last project. It follows that the quality of the last project should improve with each new job undertaken, in theory.
Pinewood Studios is the UK’s most renowned media production facility, with an international reputation for being able to deliver award-winning blockbuster movies. The studio is located west of London, and is host to an overwhelming number of TV shows, films and productions which have gone on to be internationally recognised.
Eduard Grau is a celebrated cinematographer with credits including Lady Gaga’s music video for Born This Way, and highly successful commercials for FCUK, Credite Suisse and Mastercard. His feature film credits include Buried, A Single Man and The Awakening.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
An unstoppable will to tell stories with moving images, a passion for films and a bit of craziness too! If you have the vision and the desire to be able to communicate via the film medium, then this is a career that will find you, and not the other way around.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of 'exercise'?
No, every day is a new day. Every day, things change, and there are new challenges to overcome. I am always somewhere new in the world, with a new director shooting a different project. You cannot tell what the next project may be. I’ve done almost everything in the past, including documentaries, music videos, feature films, short films and advertisements. Every type of job throws up different types of challenges, and I find it constantly exciting for precisely that reason.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
Dealing with my crew (they are normally between 5 and 30 people that depend directly on me whilst we are on set), with all the personal issues, the professional demands and all the technicalities which are entailed in the process of achieving a certain artistic approach. This is part of the process of being able to deliver the results you require and demand.
What do you like most about the job?
Travelling and meeting new people, the fact that it is never the same, and also the fact you are constantly surrounded by creative people, often at the peak of their professional and creative careers. This is incredibly inspiring and makes you push yourself and your vision more firmly.
What do you like least about the job?
Travelling! It can be a real killer sometimes, especially being away from home on a busy or long schedule, or when it involves back-to-back trips. Also, the politics of the industry can be a real pain; we could best describe this as professional barriers to the creative process. Whatever you want to call it, it can be infuriating at times, especially when you are just trying to deliver your creative vision. You know what you want and how to do it, but there are logistics, admin and political issues which seem to keep cropping up. This makes the mental process quite tiring at times.
What are the key responsibilities?
I am in charge of the visual aesthetics of a movie, especially the camera and lighting decisions so I choose all the tools to make a certain ¨look¨ happen. I am in charge of the biggest crew of a film set and normally I am the “right hand” of the director in creative decisions.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, e.g. A Levels?
No, not really. You just need to go up the range of the camera team. I did study in a film school, which obviously helps as well. But I know people that started at the bottom without academics and progressed to become successful DOPs and producers in their own right. Where Hollywood is concerned, and to a lesser extent the international film industry as a larger entity, there is no right or wrong way, and with that, no guaranteed path to certifiable success.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
As a DOP, you get paid depending on the job and the budget for it, and so every job is unique, depending on who is producing it, for which studio, and for whichever eventual audience. You can earn more than $2000 a day for a commercial, but with a movie it is typically less. It increases as you progress, of course.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
You have to be a bit crazy to do it, and very passionate about filmmaking, but I think I have one of the best jobs in the world. And in respect of this, the grass is never greener on the other side!
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
A real passion, patience, leadership, taste, and a bit of luck.
Any closing questions, comments or additional advice?
Just do not get into this because it’s cool. Big mistake! You really need to love films to surmount all of the long hours, hard work and unpaid shorts to get somewhere in the film world. And, like in many other good jobs, there are a lot of people that, for one reason or another, do not make it. Just bear that in mind but do not get despondent.