I’ve come to a crossroads in my life and I’ve decided that I simply cannot go on without fulfilling my desire to pursue the art of cinematography. The only problem is that I’ve now been a year out of university with only a degree in English literature to show for it and my only choices to study cinematography are various respected masters programs based in Los Angeles.
Not only do I need three references (recommendations) but I also need to show a 10-minute demo-reel.
Having read various books on cinematography and having taken a litany of classes on the history of cinema, I feel that I understand cinematography from the intellectual standpoint but am quite lacking in terms of my professional knowledge (lighting vocabulary, knowledge of different lenses, etc.).
What is the best way for me to create my demo reel in terms of finding equipment and hiring or not hiring actors…? I don’t have a camera at the moment that I would consider worthy of filming a demo reel with… it is a Canon HD camera that is permanently auto-focused (yes, I know, quite annoying)…
What is the process with renting equipment? Is there a stigma against amateurs and those who know little about cinematography going into a rental house and just ‘giving it a go’ and trying different set-ups out? Also, I know rental of equipment can be quite pricey… is there any way to get around this?
I already have a basic script worked out; yet, I want the piece to be more image-focused (instead of dialogue-based) for obvious reasons.
Ah, and also, in terms of grip-equipment… is there any sort of low-priced package option for the beginning renegade filmmaker that anyone can recommend?
Oh and also, how can I get around this references requirement? All of my experience is PA/administrative related… thus, irrelevant. Any ideas here?
I recommend using the money you would spend on college to buy your own equipment and teach yourself. I went to an art school for video production and found it to be a rip-off. I didn’t learn anything I couldn’t have learned on my own by reading books and trying things out. Granted, it was a crappy school, but still. College is a waste of money in this career field.
I’d recommend getting an SLR (Canon T2i or 60D) and a fast lens like the cheap canon 50mm 1.8 it shouldn’t run you more than $1500. Then just start shooting as much as you can, anything and everything. Make shorts with your friends or join a filmmaking co-operative etc.
The benefit I found, from my experience, in film school was finding people to collaborate with. The best part about going to school was it allowed me to find people who were just as dedicated as myself to the various streams of production that they were interested in. I met the majority of the crew I currently work with from my program.
If you’re in LA, you can rent camera equipment from Samy’s and lighting/grip equipment from Wooden Nickel pretty cheaply (and they won’t require insurance). For crew, post on Craigslist and you’ll get lots of people willing to help for free.
If you’re trying to get into a MFA program, creating a reel is only one thing. You need on-set experience – start out PAing for free on short films, see if you can establish relationships with people in the camera or lighting departments so you move into gaffing or camera assisting. Everybody has a reel – if you want to go to an elite school like AFI, you need a lot more.
You’re gonna need to do a LOT of shooting to get 10 minutes of cinematographer-worthy shots, especially if you’re not an experienced photographer and/or videographer. Knowing theory and rules of composition is VERY different from being able to actually find and capture compelling images, which you can only get through practice, critique, and experience. And I suspect that you’ll be competing with people who spent the last 2-4 years making short films, often collaboratively.
I haven’t tried to get into cinematography per se, but I’ve tried to break into various creative scenes, and it’s always harder than it looks — you’re always competing with some pretty incredible talent, and the gatekeepers are ruthless about rejecting people. Not that you can’t do it… but you’ll have to be patient and persistent. Just be prepared.
I’d recommend devoting as much of your time as possible to being an amateur filmmaker/videographer, and be prepared for at least a year of rejections while you develop your skills and your reel. Use this time to rent equipment as often as possible, and try lots of different stuff out. If at all possible, collaborate with people who you can learn from. Ask the people at rental places for some advice/instructions. Use Google to find rental places near you, and the process for renting something should be pretty self-explanatory… but you’ll be barred from renting real expensive equipment because you need deposits and/or insurance, so don’t be discouraged by that, either. Use whatever you can get.
Thanks for the response. Always nice to hear about good experiences people have had with film school.
I’ve heard good things about the SLR from a few people, so hearing those sentiments echoed here makes me think quite seriously about checking it out and giving it a go.
Thanks so much for the info about Samy’s and Wooden Nickel! I’m definitely gonna try out renting some gear from those guys. Also, thanks for the advice about the MFA programs.
I was actually, funnily enough, aiming for UCLA or AFI, so, your advice being concerned with beefing up my résumé beyond creating a demo-reel is quite helpful. I think I’ll really (as much as I don’t want to) go out there and start PAing for free on some no-pay/meal and credit gigs.
@ Jesse M
Yeah, thanks for that advice. I think what you’re saying is pretty true and it’s always good to remind oneself to be ready for a rough road including lots of rejection when first getting into a particular sort of craft or skill.
I’m ready for it. Gotta get busy!
“I think I’ll really (as much as I don’t want to) go out there and start PAing for free on some no-pay/meal and credit gigs.”
This is pretty much your best bet. It also can lead you into a career without even going through school… maybe. I do not want to get your hopes too high on that concept. I may actually go back to school after already spending two years working in a production office as a videographer and editor. It all depends on how people respond to my reel when I go home, if they say, “That’s a nice start but you need…” then I will pursue whatever is contained in “…”. My goal is to become an editor.
The nice thing about this career path, however, is that though it is as competitive as people point out and the complaints about ego are not lies, if you show interest in helping out and getting good, professionals will respond to you and provide you guidance. So start networking now and find productions to be on, try to get into the camera department as a PA, ask questions and always pay attention to the guy you are assigned to.
Always appreciate your thoughts.
Thanks for your advice about the nature of the biz (or shall I say beast?), it is a long/hard struggle to work in a field that you truly love, isn’t it?
I am certainly going to get out there and starting working for (::sigh::) free. :)
Thanks everybody for your responses!
I think there are a lot of aspire filmmakers out there who feel the same way you do: what do I have to show for myself? You’re degree in English is more beneficial than most film degrees, especially if you constantly and consistently read books of all kinds. Most filmmakers would say that reading is your best education.
BUT there’s the question of technical proficiency and gaining practical knowledge to crew in the real world. What kind of films do you want to make? If you’re a Herzog or Lynch kind of guy, you can start just by filming what interests you. Get a crappy digital camera and go talk to people and, as Herzog would say, travel by foot and read read read read read read.
BUT if you’re like me, you appreciate the technicalities of film too, not just the ecstatic truth. You probably appreciate Bergman, Scorsese, HItchcock and Kubrick. In cases like that, you need a budget, knowledge, distribution, etc. There’s no being “the next Scorsese” without actual Hollywood system experience.
If you want to be a cinematographer and want to shoot at the highest possible quality, come to LA and get around cameras. Get around crews. Make friends with film students.
I’ve generally found most people highly unhelpful when it comes to “how to do it”. They either don’t know, don’t want to tell you, or are simply insecure about their own talents, or one can’t get in touch with them. Filmmaking has to be the most competitive, most politically charged, rough careers to actually attain.
I’m not satisfied wanting to be a guy who makes low-budget documentaries and short films. So when someone tells me, “just go buy a camera and start shooting”, it doesn’t help. Though there is some truth in practical, real experience. I guess what I’m saying is there’s a giant cavern that comes between the twenty something year-old kid with little experience and being a great director. Some wise person once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
My suggestion would be to get around people of talent. If you can ACTUALLY get into a USC film program, do it. Otherwise, apply at camera shops and contact professors at film schools and get on student crews. Read like mad. Figure out how to get a job and like 3 roommates. LA’s not cheap and you can’t get an apartment out here without proving 3xs the income.
And it helps if you actually like movies. A lot of people don’t really. I do. I always have. And if you figure any of this out, let me know, as I’m trying to.
Your degree in English
Thanks so much for the detailed response.
I appreciate your words about Werner Herzog and English degrees — it’s always nice to find someone who can understand the benefit of being well-read.
In regard to what sort of films I’d like to start making — well, I’d like to be trained to be able to shoot any sort of genre or subject matter but I think, in my beginning stages, I’ll start with documentary and experimental short films. Once I’ve gotten to a point that I’m happy with, I’ll then go on to worry about big budget productions and what not… at the moment I just want to get my hands on a camera and start shooting! I feel like so many years I’ve been carefully analyzing the great auteurs taking notes of effective techniques, style, etc, etc.
I feel repressed without being to express myself!
As far as your words about getting around people of talent, I totally agree, and that suggestion has been brought up earlier in this thread so it must have some sort of validity. I think my chances of getting into an AFI or USC for cinematography with no demo-reel to speak of at the moment are pretty slim, in fact, it is almost 100% that I wouldn’t get in. I think that should be my goal in a couple of years of working odd jobs and building up content. Then, once I’m finally there, comes the problem of how to pay for the MASSIVE tuition fees… but, hey, I’ll deal with that when I get there.
As for working on student crews, I’m working on it, despite the fact that I am dreading it a bit… I’ve worked too much for free in the past few years! …. Now working for students probably younger than myself… This should be a humbling experience! Regardless, it is all for the greater good — like you all say… this is the most competitive industry there is… I should EXPECT to take shit my first few years!
Anyway, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and cheers! I certainly will let you know if I do figure it out!
You’re welcome! I’m in the middle of trying to figure all this out myself! Consider this: There’s no time like the present. I highly recommend reading Alexander Mackendrick’s “On Film-making”. It’s the BEST book I’ve ever read on the subject. He says not to let theory substitute for actual, practical experience. But his book is the Bible as far as I’m concerned. Here’s my affordable and intensely educational film school syllabus:
“On Film-making” by Alexander Mackendrick.
“True & False” by David Mamet
“An Experiment in Criticism” by CS Lewis
“Voice and Vision” Focal Press
Citizen Kane (Roger Ebert Commentary)
Sweet Smell of Success (To accompany “On Film-making”
Fargo (Roger Deakins commentary)
American Beauty (Sam Mendes commentary)
Bergman 101 (By Peter Cowie on the Seventh Seal blu ray)
The Third Man
Raging Bull (Scorsese commentary)
Black Narcissus (Scorsese commentary)
Casino (Scorsese commentary)
Canon EOS T3i
50mm f4.1 lens
Tokina wide lens
Fluid head & Tripod
Shot Gun Mike
Final Cut Pro
For less than the cost of one semester of film school, you would have the entire world at your finger tips. Getting involved with friends, co-workers and film people can only help- especially if they are willing to finish projects. What they don’t teach you is drive- basically dedicated obsession to making all this TALK TALK TALK TALK TALK come to life: into a movie that hundreds and thousands of people will see, giving you the opportunity to do it again.
All knowledge and wisdom is in men, but not everyone has the patience or dedication to sift through it.
Thank you so much for you detailed and highly informative response — especially helpful was your advice on a starting audio set-up. I will definitely give it a shot!
My goal is to rent an SLR (either t2i or t3i) in the next couple of weeks and start interviewing people and just creating random content. I’m also going to be shopping the idea of shooting of a music video to a number of my musically inclined friends… hopefully, this will give me a good place to start getting the feel of the equipment and the general process of planning, shooting and editing.
I will give Mackendrick’s book a look, certainly! Thanks for the tip.
As for all of the commentary suggestions, I’ve definitely listened to some of them. I’ll do my best to give the others a listen!
I love what you say about less TALK and more ACTION. This is truly how I feel at the moment.
Time to quit the bullshit and head out into the world and start taking risks.
Cheers for taking the time to offer up some good advice.
the perfect catch 22:
you need a reel to attend school to learn how to be a dp but you can’t be a dp unless you’ve shot so you don’t have a reel. classic.
lot of good advice on this thread. i’ll add to the general chorus and say, yes at a certain point you need to just take the leap.
i’m kind of split about film school. on the one hand yes you can – at great savings – buy/rent some items and start shooting. however i also see some merit to learning in a classroom environment with actual experienced professionals who have been on bigger movies. also at film school you can make connections that can last a long time (aronofsky/libatique eg). often have i cursed the time/money i ‘wasted’ going to film school but i think if i’d been out in the world at that point in my life i would have drowned. ambition alone is not enough. talk is cheap. theory is meaningless. you have to set out and when you do prepare for a long road.
is your goal just to be a dp? as opposed to directing say? if yes then just focus on the camera and shooting. you can take classes and seminars at the AFI on shooting and cameras. or probably multiple other places. you can put yourself on craigslist and offer to shoot spec commercials or videos. shoot everything. make friends. put yourself in a community of like-minded, like-ambitioned people. don’t worry about editing any of it yourself. don’t worry about audio. don’t worry about direction. worry about the shots. and in between get on as many sets as possible in any capacity whatsoever and get close to the camera department. there is a hierarchy in camera. assistants, clapper/loaders, operators, dp’s. you’ll need to know it, live it, breathe it. when you’re not doing that look at painting, photography, composition. when you’re not doing that watch everything. and subscribe to AC if you don’t already.