Cinematography: An Introduction
If you have a passion for capturing moving images, cinematography may be a career option. Cinematographers or Director of Photography (DoP or DP) are the people who make the screen come alive. If you were wowed by the beautiful leading lady sensually singing on a virgin mountain peak or if you liked the dimly lit frames of a gritty movie you should thank the Cinematographer. They are the people behind the scenes who determine the feel of the film.
How do you become a cinematographer?
Like most trades in film making, learning on the job is the most valuable part. However, a good education will shorten your learning curve and will guide you in exploring the trade. There are some very good institutes where you can hone your skills – Film & Television Institute in Pune, Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute in Kolkata, Whistling Woods in Mumbai and MGR Film & Television Institute, Chennai offer two/three year courses after High School (grade 12). There are other institutes, many of them aligned with production houses. You can find out more about what they have to offer by visiting them directly.
Most institutes will first develop the basic knowledge by teaching about various aspects of film making like direction, set design, sound, editing, production and various other aspects. Make sure that the institute you join has a mix of theory classes and project-based practical experience. Watching movies of different genres with an eye on the way the scenes are presented will help in understanding the craft. Some suggest that watching a movie sans sound helps in observing the shots. Once the basics are covered, most institutes will put students in actual studio setting along with theory classes. It is imperative to get hands-on experience in an actual shoot.
Depending on the length of your course, you should have a few projects (documentary, music videos, short films, etc.) under your belt before you head out to look for work. Also working knowledge of computers is important as they are extensively used in post-production work.
Getting a break
Your best bet is to assist a Director of Photography. Hopefully you would have networked during your training projects to land an assistant’s job. Do not expect to make a lot of money in your first few jobs. You are learning (even though you finished school) and you will be expected to be grateful for the opportunity. Use this opportunity to network, work hard and go the extra mile to show your excellent work ethic. You will be appreciated and be the top-of-the-mind candidate when an opportunity comes along.
What is expected of me once I get a project as DP?
You are many things combined into one. First and foremost you are the person who transfers the Director’s vision to the screen. You may have your own ideas, but the director is the ultimate captain of the ship. If there is a difference in the vision among the two, the Director will prevail. You will use your creativity, techniques and knowledge of craft to achieve the Director’s goals. Along with the camera, you will use other equipment like cranes, lights, aerial lifts, grip gear and many more. You will also manage people including operators, camera assistants, electricians and grips. Many a time, you will plan the shot - the camera angle, the lens, the filters, how it will be lit and the camera assistants will actually operate the camera. You will be asked to produce quality product in limited time and budget. You must assess the resources available before shooting and convey your needs to the producer/director beforehand to avoid showdown on the sets.
If you are married or have a partner, make sure they understand the nature of your job. You may be sitting at home for months waiting for a project and be gone for days when a project comes. There are no set timings for filming, it can happen late at night in a god-forsaken place far away from home. There will be periods when money will dry up while you wait for projects.
If you have a shooting schedule, your long planned vacation or dinner date may have to be cancelled at the last minute. Even when you are not actively shooting, you will need to invest time and money to keep up with changes in the trade or location scouting or post production, often without any payment. When you are filming, relationships will be ignored. Make sure you partner understands the nature of this job and doesn’t hold a grudge.
The work is demanding, so a cinematographer should be highly paid, right?
Depends. There is a wide gap between the earning potential of cinematographers depending on their experience, kind of project and location. An Assistant can make Rs.20, 000 –Rs.30, 000 per month. Some estimates put a junior’s annual income to be between 6-7 lakhs, mid-level salary between 14-18 lakhs and seniors making upwards of 25 lakhs. Of course big name cinematographers can earn much more. In Mumbai, an in-demand cinematographer may charge up to 2% of the film’s budget. Freelance can fetch between Rs.10, 000-Rs.15, 000 per day. Again there is no defined salary band and it depends on the demand for the person and his negotiating skills.
Like any other profession, cinematography has its pros and cons. If you want to take up this profession for the glamour of the film world, you will be disappointed and disillusioned pretty soon. If you have passion for the craft, you will thrive. Of course along with talent and passion, you will need to work hard, persevere and communicate effectively to leave your mark.
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