How to Make a Living from Cinematography

Seven years ago, I transitioned to making a living purely as a director of photography on drama. I’ve since added writing and making an online course to my repertoire, but drama is still paying most of the bills. If you’re doing bits of what you love around a day job in an office, or freelance corporate videos, being able to leave those things behind you and pay the rent with stuff you enjoy doing can seem like the Holy Grail. So below I’m going to list the three things which I think, in combination, allowed me to make that transition.

 

1. Quantity of experience: putting in the hard graft

When I stopped doing corporates in 2014, I had been in the industry for a decade and a half. I had made two no-budget features off my own back, and photographed half a dozen other no-budget features and countless shorts, as well as the rent-paying work on participatory films, training videos and web video content. (Whether this kind of stuff really counts as being in “the industry” is debatable, but that’s a subject for another post.)

When I apply for a job I always start by introducing myself as a DP with x years of experience, because I think it speaks volumes about my passion and commitment, and proves that I must have talent and be pleasant to work with, if I’ve been able to keep doing it for so long.

The number of IMDb credits I had is also important. I had almost 50 at the time I made the jump, over half of those as a cinematographer.

How many years of experience and how many IMDb credits you need before you can make the jump could be more or fewer than I needed, depending on the other two factors on this list and the quality of the contacts you make. (I haven’t included contacts as a separate item on this list because it comes naturally out of the jobs you do. Artificially generating contacts, for example by attending networking events, does not lead to jobs or career progression, at least not in my experience.)

 

2. Quality of experience: getting that killer production on your reel

I first noticed a change occurring in my career when I added material from Ren: The Girl with the Mark to my showreel. There was a noticeable increase in how often I was getting short-listed and selected for jobs. And The First Musketeer, in conjunction with Ren, led directly to my first paid feature film DP gig.

What was it about these two projects which enabled them to do for my career what fifteen years’ worth of other no-budget projects couldn’t? Production value. Simple as that. They looked like “real” TV or film, and not in the way that your friends and family will look at anything you shot and go, “Wow, that looks like a real film!” They looked – even to people in the industry – like productions that had serious money behind them. And people are lazy when they’re looking at showreels. If they’re hiring for a job that has serious money behind it, they want to see material on your showreel that appears to have serious money behind it.

Most scripts that you will read for shorts or no-budget features will be written to make them achievable with little or no money. Often they will be set mainly in one house (the director’s, or a bland-looking Airbnb) in the present day, with no production design and only three or four characters. If the script is well written, and you’re an actor, then working on such a project could be great for your career. For most crew members, it’s a waste of time.

For DPs in particular, quality production design is incredibly important on your showreel. Most people who watch your reel won’t really be able to separate the cinematography from the overall look of the piece – the art, the costumes, the make-up, the locations – so getting showreel material that is visually stunning from all departments is the only way to kick your career up to the next level.

 

3. The Fear: making a living at it because you have to

Before I stopped doing corporates, I thought I was making every effort to get work as a drama DP. But I was wrong. As soon as I gave up the safety net of corporates, my whole attitude to drama work changed. Suddenly I had to do it, and I had to get paid reasonably well for it, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. It made me drive a harder bargain when negotiating my fee, it made me turn down unpaid projects and as a consequence it changed the way producers and directors saw me, and the kinds of projects they would consider me for.

Do not underestimate the value of The Fear. It’s not a magic wand, and you do need to have the experience and the killer production(s) on your reel before you make the jump, but The Fear will give you wings and help you get to the other side.

How to Make a Living from Cinematography

6 Things to Beware of with Vintage Lenses

Ever since digital cinematography became the norm, DPs have sought to counter the format’s perfection with characterful vintage lenses. Having just completed a feature film shoot, Hamlet, on Cooke Panchros and a Cooke 10:1 Varotal, I’m over the moon with the beautiful, creamy, organic look they brought to the production. However, I can’t deny that they have some disadvantages over modern glass which you should take into consideration before choosing the vintage approach.

 

1. Softness

Vintage lenses simply aren’t as sharp as their modern counterparts, particularly at the edges of frame and particularly when the iris is wide open. On Hamlet I deliberately shot with the Panchros wide open to soften the image, rather than adding a diffusion filter like I’ve often done in the past, but that look is not for everyone, and it does make things a little harder for your focus puller. Be sure to test the sharpness and view the results on a large screen before committing.

 

2. BreathING

Breathe is the phenomenon whereby a lens appears to zoom slightly in or out when the focus is pulled. The Cooke Varotal is especially prone to this. As a result, my focus puller Aristide Russo had to be very gentle with his pulls otherwise the breathing was distracting.

 

3. Veiling

Many DPs love lens flares, and beautiful, natural flares were one of the reasons I picked the vintage Cooke glass. But look out for veiling flare – a milkiness and lift in the shadows affecting the whole frame. I noticed this a lot when shooting under the practical fluorescents in Hamlet‘s stage set, especially with handheld shots where the veiling would appear and disappear depending on the camera’s angle to the lights. I decided to embrace it and make it part of the film’s look, but if maintaining high contrast at all times is important to you, lenses without modern coatings may not be the right choice.

 

4. Vignetting

Check for dark patches in the corners of your image. The Varotal I used vignetted at certain parts of the zoom range and not at others, so the dark corners would appear and disappear during a zoom. Although not ideal, it isn’t noticeable most of the time. Besides, I figured that most colourists add vignettes to most shots anyway, so I was simply saving them a little time!

 

5. Mechanics

Older lenses are, quite naturally, less reliable. Even if they have been rehoused, like our Cooke “Century” Panchros had been in 2000, you may find that the iris and/or focus sticks sometimes. Our 25mm started to play up halfway through our shoot, forcing Aris to use the rosettes to support the matte box, otherwise the motor wasn’t powerful enough to turn the focus ring. This possibility was flagged for me during testing when we had a similar issue with the 50mm. Even if all your lenses seem to be fine during prep, know that a vintage lens could start misbehaving at any time, and your rental house may not have another on the shelf to replace it with.

 

6. Uniformity

Don’t expect a set of vintage primes to all have the same maximum aperture or the same external configuration. The iris ring might be buried in the matte box, the matte box might not fit on at all, or it may be impossible to engage both iris and focus motors at the same time.

 

All this sounds quite negative, but the flares, softness, breathing and vignettes can be absolutely beautiful. Be aware of the downsides of using vintage glass, absolutely, but if they suit your story then embrace the flaws and get ready to be blown away by your dailies.

In case you missed them the first time, I’ll leave you with some highlights from my Hamlet lens tests.

6 Things to Beware of with Vintage Lenses

Undisclosed Project: Culmination

Today filming begins on the Shakespearian feature I have been prepping since early February. All of last week was again spent in rehearsals, this time focusing on the second half of the script.

By the end of the week I had storyboarded almost the entire film, using Artemis Pro. The production designer was able to print these out and go through them looking for any backgrounds that he might not yet have dressed, or any obtrusive existing objects that should be removed. The 1st AD was also using them to help him plan, as he had not been present at rehearsals. This led to a minor panic when I erroneously included some characters in the background of a shot that those actors were not scheduled for!

Aside from producing these storyboards and getting a fantastic understanding of how all the scenes are going to be played and blocked, a big benefit of the rehearsal weeks was the opportunity to get to know the cast. Normally I have to wave a big camera in an actor’s face the first time I meet them. It’s much better to ease them and me into the process the way we’ve done on this production. A particular highlight was when the well-known lead actor performed some of the famous soliloquies – in the absence of a camera – right into my eyes.

It was a very busy week for all concerned. When the cast weren’t in rehearsals they were in costume fittings or make-up tests, or training for the sword-fight, or doing press interviews.

The gaffer started work on Wednesday, and was joined by the best boy and spark on Thursday. After loading in the equipment, their first task was to re-globe all the sconces and ceiling lights in the auditorium. Later they gelled all the emergency lights to make them dimmer and warmer in colour, ran distro to various convenient points, and cut poly-boards to size.

The camera kit also turned up on Thursday, a slightly surreal event for me after so long working in the building with just my laptop and iPhone. For a few scenes Sean wants to create a kaleidoscopic effect, so I had purchased some cheap kaleidoscope party glasses, a 6” teaching prism, and a set of crystals which can be hung off the matte box. Ironically the cheap glasses give the best effect! These will be hand-bashed in front of the lens, whereas the prism can be clamped to a noga arm for a more controlled effect.

I gave the focus puller a tour of the building so that he could start to think about monitor positions. That will definitely be a tricky aspect of the production with all the cramped backstage spaces.

I feel better-prepared now than I have ever felt going into a feature. It is such a contrast to, say, Heretiks, where I had just one week to get up to speed, and the gaffer had no prep time whatsoever. Nonetheless, there are some things you just can’t work out until the day, and that’s where the stress and excitement come from!

I’ll continue to write a blog during production, but I won’t be publishing it until the film is released. So there will be no new posts for the next few weeks, but normal service will resume in May! See you on the other side.

Undisclosed Project: Culmination

Undisclosed Project: Observation

Well, it’s all very real now. For six weeks I’ve been documenting my non-continuous prep period on a feature film adaptation of a well-known Shakespeare play. It won’t be announced to the press until it is close to release, so I still can’t share the title or any other identifying details. I’ll go so far as to say that it’s being shot in a theatre (though not all on stage), and the director is from a theatre background

On Monday I checked into the hotel and began the first of two full-time prep weeks. Unusually, these two weeks are filled with rehearsals. I may, once or twice, have worked on a film that had perhaps a single day of rehearsals. Two weeks is unheard of, but of course it’s perfectly normal in theatre.

The strange thing for me is that just when a scene is taking shape – the point where I’d normally get involved, when the blocking is nearly final and it’s time to think about shots – we move on to the next one. The last bit of the rehearsals will be done, as normal, on the day of shooting.

As the actors explore the spaces, I do too. Some of them have changed quite dramatically, thanks to the efforts of the art department, since I last reccied them. It’s an unprecented opportunity for me to check many potential camera angles. Before we move on from a scene, I run around frantically with Artemis, trying to take enough shots to make a storyboard. A large part of today (it’s Saturday as I write this) has been taken up with selecting the best shots, scribbling annotations on them and outputting them as PDFs into a Google Drive folder where the director, 1st AD, 1st AC, production designer and others can see them.

During quieter moments, I’ve slipped off to discuss things with the production designer or the stage lighting designer, or just to sit in one of the spaces by myself and think through shots and lighting.

On Friday afternoon a tech recce took place, which I led because the director was still busy rehearsing. This was followed by a Zoom meeting to discuss issues arising.

Less fun but equally important things last week were completing a camera department risk assessment, and taking Covid tests, which leave you feeling like you jumped into a swimming pool without pinching your nose.

Undisclosed Project: Observation

Undisclosed Project: Organisation

By the time you read this I will have entered the Covid bubble for the still-as-yet-unannounced Shakespearian film, the beginning of two weeks of full time prep before cameras finally roll.

The week just gone has been something of a calm before the storm. It started with two important Zoom meetings: one about practicals, the other about the schedule.

The first meeting involved going through all the locations with the production designer explaining what practical lamps he planned to put in each, and me sometimes asking for additional ones. Practicals are going to be a big part of our lighting, and this sort of collaboration with the art department can make a real difference between a smoothly-running shoot and a world of pain wherever you’re trying to hide film lights because you don’t have enough practical sources.

The second meeting, coming shortly after I saw the shooting schedule for the first time, was an in-depth discussion of it with the director, producer, line producer and 1st AD. Most of my concerns – other than some days which felt uncomfortably heavy, and even one or two that seemed wastefully light – were around times of day and equipment. For example, one daylight interior scene was scheduled for the end of day, when we might be losing the light. (The next day I went through it all again by myself and made sure that any night scenes scheduled for daytime could be reasonably done with blacked-out windows.)

We also talked a lot about how things could be rejigged to get as much value as possible out of the two days that we have the crane. It’s expensive, and no-one wants it sitting around while we shoot little dialogue scenes in tiny rooms. Nor do I want one or two scenes in the film to have lots of crane shots and the rest to have none; a sprinkling of them throughout the film would be preferable, though it would mean lots of costume and make-up changes.

Another draft of the script was issued , with pretty minor changes, though one extra room has been introduced, so that will need a proper recce next time I’m there. Reading through a new draft and updating my notes takes the best part of a day, and though it can sometimes feel like a chore, every reading helps me understand the story and characters better.

I did a little more shot-listing later in the week, but it will be much better and easier to do this at the rehearsals over the next fortnight, when I can see how the actors are approaching their characters and how they’re going to use the spaces. I can even take Artemis photos if it doesn’t interrupt their process too much. Roll on rehearsals!

Undisclosed Project: Organisation

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

The main event of last week’s prep was a test at Panavision of the Arri Alexa XT, Red Gemini and Sony F55, along with Cooke Panchro, Cooke Varotal, Zeiss Superspeed and Angenieux glass. More on that below, along with footage.

The week started with Zoom meetings with the costume designer, the make-up artist, potential fight choeographers and a theatrical lighting designer. The latter is handling a number of scenes which take place on a stage, which is a new and exciting collaboration for me. I met with her at the location the next day, along with the gaffer and best boy. After discussing the stage scenes and what extra sources we might need – even as some of them were starting to be rigged – I left the lighting designer to it. The rest of us then toured the various rooms of the location, with the best boy making notes and lighting plans on his tablet as the gaffer and I discussed them. They also took measurements and worked out what distro they would need, delivering a lighting kit list to production the next day.

Meanwhile, at the request of the producer, I began a shot list, beginning with two logistically complex scenes. Despite all the recces so far, I’ve not thought about shots as much as you might think, except where they are specified in the script or where they jumped out at me when viewing the location. I expect that much of the shot planning will be done during the rehearsals, using Artemis Pro. That’s much better and easier than sitting at home trying to imagine things, but it’s useful for other departments to be able to see a shot list as early as possible.

So, the camera tests. I knew all along that I wanted to test multiple cameras and lenses to find the right ones for this project, a practice that is common on features but which, for one reason and another, I’ve never had a proper chance to do before. So I was very excited to spend Wednesday at Panavision, not far from my old stomping ground in Perivale, playing around with expensive equipment.

Specifically we had: an Arri Alexa – a camera I’m very familiar with, and my gut instinct for shooting this project on; a Sony F55 – which I was curious to test because it was used to shoot the beautiful Outlander series; and a Red Gemini – because I haven’t used a Red in years and I wanted to check I wasn’t missing out on something awesome.

For lenses we had: a set of Cooke Panchros – again a gut instinct (I’ve never used them, but from what I’ve read they seemed to fit); a set of Zeiss Superspeeds – selected after reviewing my 2017 test footage from Arri Rental; a couple of Cooke Varotal zooms, and the equivalents by the ever-reliable Angenieux. Other than the Angenieux we used on the B-camera for The Little Mermaid (which I don’t think we ever zoomed during a take), I’ve not used cinema zooms before, but I want the old-fashioned look for this project.

Here are the edited highlights from the tests…

You’ll notice that the Sony F55 disappears from the video quite early on. This is because, although I quite liked the camera on the day, as soon as I looked at the images side by side I could see that the Sony was significantly softer than the other two.

So it was down to the Alexa vs. the Gemini, and the Cookes vs. the Superspeeds. I spent most of Thursday and all of Friday morning playing with the footage in DaVinci Resolve, trying to decide between these two pairs of very close contenders. I tried various LUTs, did some rough grading (very badly, because I’m not a colourist), tested how far I could brighten the footage before it broke down, and examined flares and bokeh obsessively.

Ultimately I chose the Cooke Panchros because (a) they have a beautiful and very natural-looking flare pattern, (b) the bokeh has a slight glow to it which I like, (c) the bokeh remains a nice shape when stopped down, unlike the Superspeeds’, which goes a bit geometric, (d) they seem sharper than the Superspeeds at the edges of frame when wide open, and (e) more lengths are available.

As for the zoom lenses (not included in the video), the Cooke and the Angenieux were very similar indeed. I chose the former because it focuses a little closer and the bokeh again has that nice glow.

I came very close to picking the Gemini as my camera. I think you’d have to say, objectively, it produces a better image than the Alexa, heretical as that may sound. The colours seem more realistic (although we didn’t shoot a colour chart, which was a major oversight) and it grades extremely well. But…

I’m not making a documentary. I want a cinematic look, and while the Gemini is by no means un-cinematic, the Alexa was clearly engineered by people who loved the look of film and strove to recreate it. When comparing the footage with the Godfather and Fanny and Alexander screen-grabs that are the touchstone of the look I want to create, the Alexa was just a little bit closer. My familiarity and comfort level with the Alexa was a factor too, and the ACs felt the same way.

I’m very glad to have tested the Gemini though, and next time I’m called upon to shoot something great and deliver in 4K (not a requirement on this project) I will know exactly where to turn. A couple of interesting things I learnt about it are: (1) whichever resolution (and concomitant crop factor) you select, you can record a down-scaled 2K ProRes file, and this goes for the Helium too; (2) 4K gives the Super-35 field of view, whereas 5K shows more, resulting in some lenses vignetting at this resolution.

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

Undisclosed Project: Elevation

Prep for the yet-to-be-announced Shakespearian feature continued last week. Tuesday and Wednesday saw me on Zoom calls with the producers – discussing camera kit quotes – and the costume designer. “Will we see enough of his face through this headgear?” was a question for the latter. She in turn asked how white a white coat should be, and how dark surrounding characters should be to make one person in black stand out. Difficult things to quantify, but important.

The week’s main event was another two-day recce with the director and production designer. The designer had produced beautiful and detailed mood-boards for every room, and had even started to bring in the right furniture and test paint colours. The main aim of the recce was to discuss and sign off on his decisions so that decoration and dressing could step up to full steam.

As we moved from room to room, trying to keep in story order whenever possible, the director revealed lots of his thoughts about the tone and key beats of each scene. I was pleased to find that these were largely in a similar vein to notes I had amassed on my own spreadsheet. And when they weren’t in sync, that was very useful to know at this stage! For most scenes I showed him a reference image or two, again from my spreadsheet, to double-check that we were on the same page.

We were visited during the recce by a grip who had come to see whether a crane would fit into our main location, and if so what kind of crane and whether it could achieve the shots we wanted. I had envisaged using a Giraffe like the one we had on The Little Mermaid, but the grip suggested we would be much better off with a 23ft Technocrane and a basic remote head, as this can telescope and retract rather than only sweeping around in an arc. We measured the distances to see where the camera could end up, and then I used Artemis Pro – a director’s viewfinder app – to see what framing that would translate to with various lenses. One of our most important shots should just be possible at the full extent of the arm, combined with the full range of a 25-250mm zoom.

Whether the budget can afford the crane, however, is yet to be confirmed. This week I am due to conduct camera and lens tests, and once I’ve made a decision on those then we will know what is left for fancy grip equipment!

The only other thing to happen last week was the hiring of a data wrangler. Since I lined up the 1st and 2nd ACs quite soon after my own hiring, the camera department is now complete.

Undisclosed Project: Elevation

20 Years of Blogging

Today is the 20th anniversary of my first ever blog post. On March 4th, 2001 I wrote the inaugural “journal” entry on the-beacon.com, a website about a terrible no-budget action move I was writing, directing, producing, etc, etc. (clip below). My blog continued across two other project-specific websites for the next few years before they all got integrated into neiloseman.com in 2011.

There is a history of my blogging exploits in my 1,000th post from January 2015, and if you’re interested in blogging yourself, I shared some tips not long afterwards. (The post you’re reading now is the 1,261st, in the unlikely event that you care.) If you visit the Blog Archive page you can delve back into my old posts, either by month and year, by production or by topic.

It is strange to think how different the world was when I wrote that first post. The Twin Towers were still standing. Buying a take-away latte was swanky and cosmopolitan. Ordering something remotely meant getting a catalogue, then filling in a form and posting off a cheque and waiting up to 28 days. Your choice of filming formats came down to celluloid or standard definition DV. Everyone still took their holiday snaps on 35mm. The internet was all dial-up. VHS was still the dominant home video format, though DVD was on the rise. “Netflix” was probably something fishermen did. Superhero movies were rare. Flat screens and touch-screens were a sci-fi dream. I for one didn’t own a mobile phone. There was no social media. The term “blog” had been coined but wasn’t widely known. And the idea of a pandemic shutting down the world for a year, keeping us from our loved ones and making us all mask up in Tesco’s was utterly inconceivable.

Blogging has certainly been useful to me. It helps me to organise my thoughts, and I frequently check my old posts to remind myself how I did something so that I can repeat the trick… or avoid making the same mistake again! It’s even got me work, writing for RedShark News since 2017 – a website edited by none other than Simon Wyndham, fight choreographer for that blog-starting film of mine, The Beacon. That in turn has led to me writing for British Cinematographer magazine since the end of last year.

It’s quite fitting that now, as back in March 2001, I am prepping for a feature film, and sharing that process on this blog (albeit in vague terms, as the project hasn’t been officially announced yet). The budget may be a tad bigger, and I may only be DPing rather than doing pretty much all the major jobs myself, but some things haven’t changed; in my second ever post, I complained about my main location being closed due to a disease outbreak…

20 Years of Blogging

Undisclosed Project: Iteration

I continue to saturate myself in the script for the yet-to-be-announced Shakespearian film. Some other little projects I had going on have now wrapped up, leaving me free to concentrate purely on this production, which is due to start shooting a month from now.

I spent the best part of last Monday reading a new draft of the screenplay and updating my spreadsheet of notes to reflect the changes. Going back over this spreadsheet and the script and re-evaluating them from different angles formed a signficant part of the rest of the week. On Thursday, for example, I focused on the swordfight (narrows it down, Shakespeare fans!), scouring YouTube for reference videos and noting which camera angles seem most dangerous and engaging. In fact, watching references was another big part of the week. I worked my way through the whole Godfather trilogy (above), some more episodes of Servant, bits of several action movies that have a specific type of night exterior, and a couple of the lead actor’s recent films, to see how other DPs have lit and lensed him.

At the end of the week I went back over the spreadsheet and filled in at least one idea for every scene that did not yet have an entry in its “camera” or “lighting” column. Sometimes this would be an idea for a specific shot – e.g. “angle from outside the window looking in”; sometimes it would be a general vibe for the camerawork – e.g. “close, handheld, intimate”; sometimes a specific source – e.g. “soft top-light rigged to ladder”; sometimes a more general lighting note – e.g. “group in a patch of light, surroundings dark”.

Production sent over the quotes they have received for my camera list. At least one of them was within the budget, so that’s good! This week I’ll discuss that with the producers and hopefully decide which rental house we’re going with.

Speaking of equipment, a cheap novelty optical item arrived from eBay. I used this and my iPad to shoot a very rough demonstration of how we might achieve a special effect in camera, sending the video to the director for his feedback. He liked it, and wants to add in a few more instances of it throughout the film.

Another idea I proposed was a lighting effect, for which I sent the director this video I’d found online (below). I don’t intend to do something exactly like this in the film, but I saw a way it could be modified to our story. I ended up shooting my own rough test that is closer to how I see it working in our film.

Less exciting than any of the above, but very important, was taking an online Screenskills course in Covid awareness. I’d done the Basic Awareness course already, which takes about 30 minutes including a brief quiz, but Screenskills were offering free places for HoDs on a more in-depth course, so I signed up. This consisted of a three-hour presentation about the virus, how it can spread on set and what can be done to mitigate it in various departments, followed by another quiz. I learnt a few new things and my awareness was indeed raised.

Undisclosed Project: Iteration