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

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

Finding the Positive in 2020

This year hasn’t been great for anyone. It certainly hasn’t for me. Even as I’m writing this I’m hearing the news that, in a staggeringly foreseeable U-turn, the Christmas bubble rules have been severely restricted. So how to wrap up this stinker of a year?

I considered making this article about the pandemic’s impact on the film and TV industries and speculating about which changes might be permanent. But who needs more doom and gloom? Not me.

Instead, here are six positive things that I accomplished this year:

  1. We shot the final block of War of the Worlds: The Attack in February/March, and I was recently shown a top-secret trailer which is very exciting. There is plenty of post work still to do on this modern-day reimagining of the H.G. Wells classic, but hopefully it will see the light of day in a year or so.
  2. After a couple of lax years, I got back to blogging regularly. This site now has a staggering 1,250 posts!
  3. I completed and released my first online course, Cinematic Lighting, which has proven very popular. It currently has over 1,000 students and a star rating which has consistently hovered around 4.5 out of 5.
  4. I made a zoetrope and shot several 35mm timelapses and animations for it, which was a nice lockdown project. Even though the animations didn’t come out that well they were fun to do, and the zoetrope itself is just a cool object to keep on the shelf.
  5. I wrote my first article for British Cinematographer, the official magazine of the BSC, which will be published on January 15th. In the process I got to interview (albeit by email) several DPs I’ve admired for a while including David Higgs BSC, Colin Watkinson ASC, BSC and Benedict Spence.
  6. The lockdown gave me the time to update my showreel. Who knows if I’ll ever work again as a DP, but if not, at least I can look back with pride at some of the images I’ve captured over the years.

Despite the restrictions, I hope all my readers manage to find some joy, love and comfort over the festive period. And if not, just consume a lot of mulled wine and chocolate; it’s the next best thing.

In a tradition I’ve neglected for a few years, I’ll leave you with a rundown of my ten favourite blog posts from 2020.

  1. “The Rise of Anamorphic Lenses in TV” – a look at some of the shows embracing oval bokeh and horizontal flares
  2. “5 Steps to Lighting a Forest at Night” – breaking down how to light a place that realistically shouldn’t have any light
  3. Above the Clouds: The Spoiler Blogs” – including how we faked a plane scene with a tiny set-piece in the director’s living room
  4. “Working with White Walls” – analysing a couple of short films where I found ways to make the white-walled locations look more cinematic
  5. “10 Clever Camera Tricks in Aliens – the genius of vintage James Cameron
  6. “The Cinematography of Chernobyl – how DP Jakob Ihre used lighting and lensing to tell this horrifying true story
  7. “5 Things Bob Ross Can Teach Us About Cinematography” – who knew that the soft-spoken painter had so much movie-making widsom?
  8. “5 Ways to Fake Firelight” – a range of ways to simulate the dynamics of flames, from the low-tech to the cutting edge
  9. “A Post-lockdown Trip to the Cinema” – an account of the projection sacrilege commited against a classic movie in my first fleapit trip of the Covid era
  10. “Exposure” (four-part series) – in-depth explanations of aperture, ND filters, shutter angles and ISO
Finding the Positive in 2020

Should DPs Own Equipment?

Recently I discovered Tailslate, a podcast by DPs Ed Moore, BSC and Benedict Spence. The second episode focuses on equipment, and the two men discuss the pros and cons of having your own gear. I have some pretty strong feelings on this myself, so I thought I’d share them here.

I owned equipment for the first 17 years of my career. I was fortunate that at the time I first went freelance (late 1999) I had a small inheritance which I was able to invest in the wonderful new Mini-DV/Firewire technology that had recently emerged. I bought my first semi-professional camera, a Canon XM-1, along with a decent Manfrotto 501/520 tripod, a basic tracking dolly, sound gear, and for editing a PowerMac G4, Mini-DV/VHS deck and a pair of Yamaha MSP5 active nearfield speakers. (The speakers are the only things I still have, and I’m using them as I write, 20 years on. They are the best thing I’ve ever bought. Nothing else has ever served me for so long, so frequently and so reliably.)

Shooting on my Canon XL1-S back in 2003

Apart from the speakers, everything else got replaced every few years as it fell into obsolescence or simply packed up. The XM-1 was replaced with an XL-1S, then I moved onto HDV with a Sony A1, then onto DSLRs with a Canon 600D/T3i, then a Blackmagic Production Camera, which turned out to be my last camera.

Immediately you can see one of the key problems with owning equipment: the fast pace of technological progression and the need to upgrade regularly to keep up. But owning equipment had disadvantages even before the fast-paced digital revolution. In a fascinating Clubhouse Conversation from the American Society of Cinematographers, M. David Mullen, ASC recounts his own experience with gear:

I ended up never owning a camera package. Because of that, I shot mostly 35mm in my early days… People I know who bought a [super]-16 camera, they ended up shooting [super]-16 films for the next ten years or so. So you can get tied to your own equipment.

But there are benefits to owning kit, of course. Corporate clients expect you to provide the gear yourself or to hire it in without any fuss. Clearly the former allows you to make more money from these jobs.

My last camera, the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

For creative jobs, things aren’t so cut and dried. Owning a camera will certainly get you more work of a certain type. That type is unpaid and low-paid. If you expect to charge a hire fee on your gear, forget it. The type of productions that want you to have your own gear is the type that can’t afford to hire, either from you or from a facilities house. They’ll expect you to come along and bring your gear for free.

We all need to do this type of work at the start of our careers, which is why owning equipment is great at that point. But ultimately I sold my Blackmagic in 2017 and didn’t replace it because I no longer wanted that type of work.

I think things are a little different if you can afford to own a high-end camera. I’m pretty certain that I’ve lost jobs in the past, despite being a better cinematographer than the successful applicant, because they had a Red and I only had a DSLR or a Blackmagic. If you can afford an Alexa then you might well be able to get quality jobs off the back of it, but most of us aren’t in that position!

A camera that I could never afford to buy

The best thing about not owning gear is that you’re free to select the best equipment to tell each particular story (budget and production mandates notwithstanding). Each production is different, and there is no single camera or lens set that is best for all of them. Resolution, high frame rates, colour science, contrast, sharpness, weight, size, cost – all these factors and more influence a DP’s choice, and it’s a critical choice to make. If you’re pushing your own camera or lenses to the production just so you can recoup some of the cash you spent to buy them, you’re doing the story a disservice.

In conclusion, whether or not to invest equipment depends on your budget and the type of work you want to do. But if you’re shooting a drama, even if you own equipment, you should be asking yourself what camera and lenses will best set the tone and tell this story.

Should DPs Own Equipment?

This Morning With Richard Not Judy

20 years ago today, I was on TV. I had my fifteen seconds of fame on a slightly obscure BBC2 Sunday morning show in the late nineties, primarily watched by stoned students. Yes, I was a King of the Show on Lee & Herring’s This Morning with Richard Not Judy.

The year was 1999. All anyone could talk about was The Phantom Menace and the Y2K bug. I had a rubbish beard that looked like the strap of a helmet. (Thank God beards have gone out of fashion, eh?) And I worked as an admin assistant for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Worcester.

On Sunday mornings (or sometimes Friday teatimes, for the edited repeat) I would turn on my comically huge cathode ray tube TV, receiving its hilariously archaic analogue UHF signals, and watch Stewart Lee and Richard Herring squeeze as many blasphemies and euphemisms as possible into what was most definitely a pre-watershed slot.

Trying on the Curious Orange head

Broadcast live, TMWRNJ (“TMWRNJ!“) was a surreal, sketch-packed affair loosely hung on the format of a spoof daytime show. Memorable characters included the Curious Orange, Simon Quinlank and his weak lemon drink, Jesus (“Aaaaah!”/”No, not ‘aaaah’!”) and an inexplicably jelly-obsessed Rod Hull.

Each week Lee and Herring would crown someone “King of the Show”, a largely ceremonial office with no real power. Usually it was a random member of the studio audience, but in an episode which saw Rich taking a shady product placement deal from Ian Cress of the Cress Marketing Board, a competition was announced. The next week’s King of the Show would be whoever could make the best advert for cress.

Immediately I picked up my amusingly quaint landline and tediously placed a call to my friend Matt Hodges by pressing a sequence of numbers associated with his own, equally quaint landline, a sequence of numbers I had to remember using my actual brain or possibly pen and paper. Do you remember the nineties, Stew? Weren’t they hilarious? Ahahahahahahaha!

Matt and I backstage with the Curious Alien, TV’s Emma Kennedy and Darth Maul

Matt was one of the poor unfortunates who regularly got roped into appearing in my amateur filmmaking efforts with my Video-8 camcorder. A massive Python fan, Matt’s influence had ensured that I churned out many surreal comedies in those halcyon days.

We quickly came up with four ideas for cress commercials, each one spoofing a different type of ad: McDonald’s, army recruitment, charity appeal and gay exchange. Sadly I no longer have copies of the latter three. I recall the army one involved a punnet of cress with a cardboard machine gun glued to it, abseiling down ropes to a bombastic voiceover (“Be the best!”). The charity appeal, shot in the sandpit of our local primary school, featured a cardboard cut-out of Mark Hamill pathetically farming in a desert. (“If you give Mark a punnet of cress, he can feed his family for a day. But give him the means to grow his own cress…”) The less said about the gay exchange one the better.

Matt contemplates his upcoming moment of fame in the glamorous BBC B&B. “I’m going to be on television,” reads the sign.

We sent off the four ads on a VHS tape (imagine Netflix but… oh, never mind) and crossed our fingers.

A few days later, I was sitting at my desk at MAFF, probably trying to skive proper work by writing macros in Excel, when the phone rang. I couldn’t quite believe it when the voice at the other end told me he was calling from TMWRNJ (“TMWRNJ!“), they loved our ads, we were going to be on the show on Sunday, travel and accommodation all paid by the BBC.

That Saturday, Matt and I caught the train to London. Even the decidedly-unglamorous Bayswater B&B we were booked into couldn’t quell our ex-like-a-bird’s-eggs-citement. We spent most of the evening trying to come up with witty proclamations to make when we were crowned. “I’d like to see Jamie open a passage with his magic torch,” was the punchline, but I forget the set-up.

The following morning a taxi dropped us at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, where we felt very important muscling past the queueing audience and into the backstage area. I remember awkwardly hanging around Stew and Rich, agog at meeting actual famous people in real life.

Awkward

The show itself seemed to go by very quickly, and we didn’t get chance to deliver our hilarious Jamie gag. But afterwards we got to hang out and properly meet the cast, having lunch with them in the studio canteen.

Less awkward

Then we were given a tour of the studio and allowed to sit and watch – just the two of us, the rest of the audience having departed – while sketches for the next week’s episode were pre-recorded. These included an instalment of Histor & Pliny, a spoof children’s series featuring a pair of time-travelling crows puppeteered by Stew and Rich, whose dialogue on set that day was considerably bluer than what would ultimately be broadcast. (“Eat the fucking eggs, you cunt!”)

I vividly recall TV’s Emma Kennedy walking past us, dressed in some typically outlandish costume, remarking that she might have just farted a baked bean out of her bumhole. What a great day!

With TV’s Emma Kennedy

Later that year, Matt and I bumped into Stewart Lee on the platform of Worcester Foregate Street station while on our way to the Reading Festival. I asked Stew if we could have a regular slot on the next series of TMWRNJ (“TMWRNJ!“) and he replied in his usual lugubrious tone, “Firstly, we don’t know if we’re going to get another series. And secondly, no.”

We may not have become the next Adam & Joe, but my brief moment in the spotlight did have an impact on my career. It was only when I told the Rural Media Company’s head of production that I had appeared on TV because of a spoof advert I’d made that she agreed to look at my amateur showreel. She saw some potential and started hiring me, kicking off two decades of freelancing.

Egg egg egg-egg egg egg egg-egg-egg egg.

I’ll leave you with Rich’s own thoughts from his blog at the time…

Thanks to everyone who sent in cress photos etc. The lads from Malvern were actually two of the nicest people we’ve had as king and to be honest the clip we showed was not the best thing they sent us, but it was the shortest and most TV friendly. They did a great Gay Exchange parody which was just a bit too rude. We were also very impressed by the editing and choice of shots. Those 2 guys will go far, but I’ve already forgotten their names! Sorry!

This Morning With Richard Not Judy

7 Female DPs You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Watching

We’ve all heard the shocking statistics about the tiny proportion of DPs who are women. So when you watch film and TV, sadly, you might assume that you’re always watching the cinematography of a man. Today’s post encourages you to think again.

To mark International Women’s Day, I’m highlighting the work of seven female DPs who are lensing mainstream productions, and whose cinematography you’ve probably seen. All of these women are great role models for aspiring DPs.

 

Sharon Calahan, ASC


Raised in the USA’s Pacific Northwest, Calahan studied advertising art, illustration, and graphic design. Her first job was at a TV station, where she worked as an art director but also got involved in lighting sets. She joined Pixar just as the company was starting out, becoming the lighting supervisor on Toy Story, before graduating to director of photography for A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo. In 2014, Calahan became the first DP working purely in CGI to be admitted into the American Society of Cinematographers. By this time, her extensive experience of studying and mimicking natural light had led her to take up landscape painting, and for Pixar’s next release, The Good Dinosaur, director Peter Sohn used Calahan’s landscapes as the visual template for the entire look.

 

Anna Foerster, ASC

 
 

A German cinematographer and director, Foerster is perhaps best known for her collaborations with her fellow countryman Roland Emmerich. After working as an FX unit DP for him on Independence Day and Godzilla (1998), then second unit DP and director on Tomorrow and 10,000 BC, she graduated to first unit DP on Anonymous and White House Down. Anonymous is an independent historical thriller suggesting Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Lord Oxford, while White House Down is of course an all-out action thriller. On the latter, Foerster came up with a number of clever tricks to hide the lighting units from the wide lenses she favoured. She also worked hard to sell the sound-stages that most of the movie was shot on as real day-lit interior and exterior locations. Foerster’s directing credits include Underworld: Blood Wars, and episodes of Outlander and Criminal Minds.

 

Sue Gibson, BSC

Derbyshire-born Gibson developed an interest in photography at the age of fourteen. She studied at Newport College of Art, then at the National Film and Television School (NFTS), graduating in 1981. After starting out in commercials, she shot her first feature, Hear My Song, in 1989, which won The Evening Standard Award for Technical Achievement. Her other feature credits include Mrs Dalloway and – in a very different genre – second unit on Alien vs. Predator. She worked extensively in British TV, particularly murder mystery, lensing episodes of Poirot, Marple, LewisSpooks and The Forsyte Saga. In 1992 Gibson became the first female member of the British Society of Cinematographers, and later served as its president between 2008-2010. She passed away last summer, and was posthumously awarded The Philips Vari-Lite Award for Drama at The Knight of Illuminations Awards for two of her Death in Paradise episodes, her final work.

 

Ellen Kuras, ASC

Born in New Jersey, Kuras studied photography and 8mm filmmaking after university, with a view to becoming a documentary filmmaker. After lensing the award-winning short doc Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, her career diversified to eventually include such big-budget features as Blow and Analyze That. Kuras has also collaborated twice with French director Michel Gondry. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she used her documentary background to put the realism into Gondry’s magical realism, with handheld cameras and naturalistic lighting. But she brought the magic too; for example, using a camera-mounted spotlight for a tunnel vision effect during the sequence in which Jim Carey and Kate Winslet try to hide within Carey’s memory. Although more classically composed, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind was similarly creative, featuring low-fi VHS recreations of big movies, and a memorable montage captured in a single developing shot. Kuras’ many awards include an unprecedented hat-trick of Best Dramatic Cinematography gongs at Sundance, and an Oscar nomination for The Betrayal – Nerakhoon, a documentary feature she directed.

 

Suzie Lavelle, ISC

Lavelle is an Irish DP who studied at NFTS before entering the TV industry as an AC. Her sumptuous, colourful and contrasty lighting has featured in some of the BBC’s most high-profile TV dramas. “The Abominable Bride”, her Sherlock outing, was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 2016. “Cold War”, her contribution to Doctor Who‘s 2013 season, is one of the best-looking and most atmospheric episodes the venerable series has ever produced.  And, along with James Mather, she swept away the dull photography of Ripper Street‘s first two seasons and established the much moodier style for season three that would continue for the rest of the show’s run. Lavelle’s other TV credits include VikingsThe Living and the Dead, Endeavour and Jekyll & Hyde, and she photographed the award-winning features One Hundred Mornings and The Other Side of Sleep.

 

Urszula Pontikos, BSC

Hailing from Gdynia in Poland, Pontikos has photographed a number of indie features, including Weekend, Second Coming and Lilting. The latter won her the Cinematography Award for World Cinema (Dramatic) at Sundance 2014, but she’s also shot some of the most interesting British TV shows of recent years. Despite a self-confessed nervousness about the scale of the show’s night exteriors, Pontikos delivered confident, slick and atmospheric cinematography for BBC 1’s Cold War spy thriller The Game in 2014. The following year she photographed the first two episodes of Humans, setting the style for this hugely popular C4 sci-fi drama. She employed unusual eye-lights, symmetrical composition and linear camera moves for scenes featuring the robotic “synths”. Her other TV credits include the crime dramas Glue for E4 and Marcella for ITV.

 

Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC

Born and raised in Melbourne, Walker got her first industry contacts from a short film course she took after graduation. Persistently calling these contacts yielded some unpaid work and her first feature at the age of just 25. More Aussie features followed, until a Chanel Nº 5 commercial with Baz Luhrmann and Nicole Kidman propelled Walker into the big-time with an epic drama, entitled – of course – Australia. Since then, Walker has lensed the likes of Natalie Portman (Jane Got a Gun) and Robert Redford (Truth). Her latest release is Hidden Figures, an inspiring and important drama about African-American women who worked on Nasa’s space programme. Walker used subtle techniques to enhance the themes of racism and sexism, like placing the camera below the heroine’s eye-lines so that they were always looking up at the white men. Hidden Figures is in cinemas across the UK right now, and I highly recommend it.

 

That’s all for now, but some other great DPs to check out are Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on the Train), Uta Briesewitz, ASC (The Wire) and Cynthia Pusheck, ASC (Magnolia).

7 Female DPs You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Watching

Goodbye 2016

2016 has not been the best of years, at least not according to the sinister algorithms that run my Facebook feed. The year has been kinder to me than it has been to seventies and eighties celebrities, however.

Ren: The Girl with the Mark, the short-form fantasy action series I photographed in 2014 and spent parts of 2015 postproduction supervising on, met with great success in 2016. The series was released on YouTube in March, and episode one has to date had over 100,000 views, with overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Alongside the series, I released Lensing Ren, a set of companion videos that broke down the lighting design and other cinematography choices in each episode. I thought it would be interesting to make frame grabs part of the lighting diagrams, so you can really see the effect of each lamp. It’s an idea that I’ve carried through to my Instagram feed, so if you’re the kind of person who often looks at a shot and wonders, “How was that lit?” then be sure to follow me and find out.

We’ve lost track of how many awards nominations Ren: The Girl with the Mark has received at festivals this year, but the tally of wins stands at a dozen, including four Best Series and Grand Jury Awards. And although a trio of nominations for Best Cinematography didn’t yield me a win, Ren has already been selected for several 2017 festivals, so there will be plenty more chances!

2016 did supply me with my first ever Best Cinematography award though, courtesy of  the Festigious International Film Festival and Sophie Black’s short film Night Owls. This was one of three awards which Night Owls collected this year. And two other shorts I photographed have scooped awards during the year: race drama Exile Incessant, and supernatural drama Crossing Paths. Congratulations to everyone who helped make all these projects such a success.

As regards new productions, my 2016 was dominated by two feature films: family fantasy The Little Mermaid, and comedy road movie Above the Clouds. You can already read my daily blogs about the latter film, and I hope to publish plenty of content about the cinematography of the former film when it’s released next year.

The Little Mermaid was the perfect follow-up to last year’s Heretiks, going from my first six-figure-budget film to my first seven-figure-budget film. It also gave me the opportunity to light and shoot Oscar-winner and Hollywood royalty Shirley MacLaine, film in an incredible 1930s circus, go swimming with an Alexa, and gate-crash Baywatch‘s wrap party. There were tremendous challenges and lessons to be learnt along the way, and I came out stronger, far more experienced and eagerly anticipating the release of what should be a really magical family film.

I also got to work on my first eight-figure-budget movie this summer, although I only did two days as pick-ups DP, recreating the lighting and camerawork of the extremely experienced cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, which was very instructional. Again, I hope to post a blog about that when The Etruscan Smile is released.

Meanwhile I have continued, as ever, to both acquire and share knowledge of the craft of cinematography. For example, in September I attended Cinefest, Bristol’s International Festival of Cinematography, while the same month I published a series of posts covering all the main types of lighting unit currently available. I learnt quite a bit while researching those posts, and hopefully readers got a lot out of them too.

And in that vein I’ll be releasing a new YouTube programme in January 2017. Lighting I Like is a 6 x 3 minutes series that aims to raise awareness of the contribution which cinematography makes to a film or TV show, while educating aspiring DPs about the hows and whys of lighting design. Each week I’ll look at a scene I’ve picked from a major movie or series, explaining what makes the lighting so good and how I think it was achieved. Simple as that!

Lighting I Like will be released on Wednesdays starting January 4th, with the first episode discussing a scene from the Netflix series Daredevil. Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel so you don’t miss it.

And with that I will sign off for 2016. Enjoy your new year celebrations, and I wish you all the very best in 2017.

Goodbye 2016

24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

img_1220Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Bristol International Festival of Cinematography: five days of masterclasses and panel discussions with a range of DPs from Oscar-winners like Chris Menges, ASC, BSC and Billy Williams, BSC, OBE to emerging cinematographers like Rina Yang. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Williams lighting the purpose-built set and explaining his decisions as he went. I learnt a huge amount, so I decided to share some of the opinions and nuggets of wisdom I collected.

  • Everyone agrees that the role of the DP is being diminished. Films are more collaborative than they used to be, often with lots of input from the VFX team right from the start.

Getting Work

  • You have to create your own luck. (Rina Yang)
  • Going to LA parties and schmoozing helps. (Roberto Schaefer, AIC, ASC)
  • Each clip on your showreel should make the viewer feel something. (Matt Gray, BSC)

Prep

  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe and Gray, her DP, spent weeks of prep getting on the same page when they worked together – chatting, exchanging photos, films, and so on.
  • Spend as much time as you can with the director in the early stages of prep, because as you get closer to the shoot they will be too busy with other stuff. (Schaefer)
  • Start with ten ideas about how you want to approach the cinematography of the film. If you hang onto five of them throughout the shoot you’re doing well. (Gray)
  • Hire a gaffer who knows more than you do. (Schaefer)

Equipment

  • On Gandhi, co-cinematographer Billy Williams, BSC, OBE was granted only half of the lighting kit he asked for. That was a $22 million movie which won eight Oscars!
  • Schaefer usually carries a 24’x30′ mirror in his kit, in case he needs to get an angle from somewhere where the camera won’t fit.
  • Schaefer doesn’t used OLED monitors to light from, because the blacks are richer than they will ever be seen by an audience on any other device, including in a cinema. He won’t judge the lighting by the EVF either, only a monitor calibrated by the DIT.
  • Focus drop-off is faster on digital than on film. Hence the current popularity of Cooke lenses, which soften the drop-off.
  • Nic Knowland, BSC uses a DSLR as a viewfinder to pick his shots. He also likes to record takes on his Convergent monitor so he can review them quickly for lighting issues.

On Set

  • You have to give the actors freedom, which may mean compromising the cinematography. (Nigel Waters, BSC)
  • Gray would never ask an actor to the find the light. The light needs to find them! As soon as actors are freed from marks, they can truly inhabit the space. [Note: in my experience, some actors absolutely insist on marks. Different strokes for different folks.]
  • On digital, everyone wants to shoot the rehearsal. (Schaefer)
  • Digital encourages more takes, but more takes use up time, drains actors’ energy and creates more work for the editor. Doing fewer takes encourages people to bring their A game to take one. (Williams)
  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe prefers a DP who operates because there is no filter between the ideas you’ve discussed in prep and the operation of the camera.

Lighting

  • Sometimes when you start lighting a set, you don’t where you’re going with it. You build a look, stroke by stroke, and see where it takes you. (Knowland)
  • Williams advocates maintaining the same stop throughout a scene, because your eye gets used to judging that exposure.
  • Knowland relies more on false colours on his monitor than on his light meter.
  • Schaefer often foregoes his traditional light and colour meters for an iPad app called Cine Meter III.
  • Knowland will go to 359º on the shutter if he’s struggling for light.
  • It’s worth checking the grade on a cheap monitor or TV. That’s how most people will watch it. (Schaefer)
24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

My camera and lighting crew for last year's feature
My camera and lighting crew for last year’s feature

I’ve been working in the film business for 16 years now, but until very recently I hadn’t really worked on a ‘proper’ production, one that had a budget above five figures. Here are some differences I noticed stepping up from micro-budget to low budget…

  1. Formal crew structure. There is a proper separation between departments, even between camera and lighting (which is quite strange for the DP, in charge of both). Woe betide anyone who moves set dressing without asking the art department, or who plugs something in without checking with the sparks, or who stores equipment in a room without asking locations.
  2. Proper production and locations departments. The feature I worked on last year had two producers, a line producer, a production manager and a production co-ordinator, plus a locations department. I’m used to productions where one person does all those jobs, and often directs as well. Figuring out which person to approach about any given issue was fun! (Creative Skillset’s website is a good place to check if you’re not sure who does what.)
  3. Advance prep. With a large crew, time cannot be wasted waiting for things that could have been pre-rigged. Heads of department are expected to think ahead and splinter their crew if necessary to be ready for things coming later in the day or week. For a DP this most commonly means pre-rigging distro and/or lighting.
  4. Delegation. Aside from operating the camera, I did little hands-on work on the recent feature shoot. Lens changes, grip rigging and lighting set-ups are all handled by other people on the instructions of me, and of the gaffer and the 1st AC. Sometimes this means the DP can go and have a cup of tea, but often it provides important thinking and planning time – an opportunity to reccie the next set and design the lighting, or to review footage in the edit room, or reccie a possible location with other HoDs, or discuss the afternoon’s shots with the director. It’s impossible to do this sort of forward planning if you’re changing your own lenses and setting your own lamps up.
  5. Hard wrap times. On micro-budget shoots the wrap time is a theoretical concept, with no more relevance to reality than an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants. On a bigger production, you wrap at wrap time, because if you don’t then the gaffer might pull the plug. Occasionally the crew will be asked if they are willing to go over by half an hour, say, in order to complete a scene. But everyone must agree, and that half hour must be deducted from the next day.
  6. Lunch break, not just lunch. In micro-budget land, getting lunch at all is not a given. But when you do get it, you’re often expected to eat as quickly as possible and get straight back to work. On a bigger production you get your hour lunch break come hell or high water. And there’s proper catering. With desserts!
  7. Reliance on the crew. If you’re working with a small camera and mains power, you can stay late with the director and steal a few extra shots, if necessary. But when everything’s run off a generator, which only the gaffer is qualified to operate, and your camera package is almost too heavy to lift onto your own shoulder, and you have no idea how half the bits and bobs connected to it work because your ACs always deal with it, you really can’t do anything on your own.
  8. Permissions and qualifications. For insurance reasons you must have qualified people overseeing the electrics and the rigging. You must also check with the locations department before using any space or equipment or filming in any area that was not discussed and signed off in preproduction.
  9. Paperwork. Most HoDs seem to have some kind of daily paperwork to do on a larger production.The DP happily escapes this (the ACs handle the camera reports), though they do have to complete a risk assessment before shooting commences.
  10. People management. Because of the size of the team under you, people management becomes a major part of an HoD’s job. I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post.
10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

10 Tips for Meetings

Did this t-shirt get me the job?
Did this t-shirt get me the job?

Late last year I secured a great feature film job as DP, on the basis of a personal recommendation followed by a meeting with the director which went really well. Making a good impression at a meeting like this is clearly crucial. But although such meetings are essentially job interviews, they are much less formal and rely much more heavily on the director and DP having similar tastes. Here are a few tips to help you give your next one your best shot.

  1. Be prepared. This means reading the script and any other documents provided, ideally more than once if you have the time and you’re serious about wanting the job. Look up the director’s previous work to get a sense of their tastes.
  2. Dress to impress. What you wear to a meeting can influence its outcome, just as wearing a smart suit to a traditional job interview can. During the shooting of the feature, the director commented that the Highlander t-shirt I wore to the meeting reassured him that my cinematic tastes were broadly in line with his own.
  3. Be willing to travel. If you don’t live in London, you’re going to have to travel there for most meetings. Don’t complain about it, don’t even mention it if you can avoid it. But also don’t do it if you have doubts about the quality of the production and what it’s going to do for your career.
  4. Bring showreel footage. The director will likely have seen your showreel before you meet, but it doesn’t hurt to bring additional clips or stills that are particularly relevant to this project. In my feature meeting, frame grabs from Ren: The Girl with the Mark helped demonstrate what I could do with a period setting.
  5. Bring some creativity to the table. Put some reference images together to show the visual ideas that came to your mind when you read the script, and how you think the cinematography of the project could be approached. I found an image of some monks with a shaft of light coming in the window that perfectly summed up how I saw the feature, and the director really responded to it.
  6. Be flexible. Be prepared to listen to the director’s vision and bounce off their ideas.
  7. Bring people and/or kit to the table. What do you have access to that puts you ahead of other applicants? Often in the micro-budget world this will be your camera, or maybe a drone or a jib, but once you get into the realm of more reasonable budgets, directors and producers appreciate skilled crew more. The feature director really wanted to use a lot of steadicam in the film, so before being offered the job I contacted a talented steadicam op I knew and got an expression of interest from him which I was then able to go back to the director with. I think this was a big part of the reason I got the job.
  8. Be OK with the budget. If it’s late enough in preproduction that the crew fees and the kit hire budget are fixed, don’t grumble about them. All you will achieve is to make the director think you’re going to be difficult to work with. Instead cite examples of how you achieved great results with similarly limited resources in the past.
  9. Don’t be cheap. Offer to pay for the drinks. I’d probably take it as a bad sign if the director allowed me to, but offer nonetheless!
  10. Follow up. We all think of great things we should have said when we’re halfway home. Send an email with those extra thoughts, any links you may have discussed in the meeting, and a thank you for their time taken in meeting you.
10 Tips for Meetings