'So You Wanna Work in Movies?'


Page 1: From First Cameraman to Director of Photography | The Motion
Picture Cameraman | What Is a Director of Photography?
Page 2: Film vs. Digital | ALEXA | Digital Intermediate | D-Cinema
Page 3: Oliver Stapleton: 'So You Wanna Work in Movies?'
Page 4: A History of Aerial Cinematography [Part 1 & 2]
Page 5: Wizards of Visual Effects: The Golden Age [Part 1 & 2]


'So You Wanna Work in Movies?'

By Oliver Stapleton, BSC [2002]

 

 

Camera Department

 

This is called a department although in reality it is quite small. It consists of a Trainee, Loader, Focus Puller, Operator and Lighting Cameraman. In the USA the same jobs are called Loader, 2nd Assistant, 1st Assistant, Operator and Director of Photography [DP].

 

>>  The Intern or Trainee is just that - a learner. In some countries this person drives the camera truck, but only in sensible places like Australia. In the USA and the UK the truck driver drives the truck and then.. well.. hang out - usually in an unused star trailer playing poker or reading a bad newspaper. Recently some UK truck drivers have started helping out on set and learning to load the camera - so that they aren't truck drivers till death. I like this.

 

>>  The Loader loads the camera, oddly enough, with film made by either Kodak or Fuji. Agfa used to make film but gave up, which was a shame. Now they only make film for Prints. Loading may not sound like much of a job, but in actuality it is very important. If the wrong film is in the camera, or if it gets loaded twice, or lost, or put in the wrong can, then the scene which corresponded to: Scene 56 - The army advanced over the hill, the jets dropped their bombs, and the volcano erupted... could be lost. When this happens the Loader can become deeply unpopular very quickly. Director Stanley Kubrick fired one loader on his first day of work for walking across the set holding a magazine upside down. This was a trifle harsh, but there is a right way to do the job, and the rules are there for a very good reason. If you screw up the minimum cost is about $20,000 and the max any figure you might care to imagine. So this job is important, as well as being the bottom rung of the ladder to becoming a DP. There's at least one loader in the UK who is over 50 years old so it shows you don't have to move on.

 

>>  The 1st AC [or Focus Puller] has one of the hardest jobs on the set. And it’s one of those jobs that are never noticed until it is wrong. Focus pulling not only involves what it sounds like, but also the Focus Puller 'runs' the department, in the sense of taking care of all the camera gear, and making sure that everything is tickety-boo. A focus puller relies heavily on the Operator to tell him if the shot is out of focus - after all only the operator is actually looking through the lens.

 

>>  The Operator is a very different animal in the USA to the UK operator. And then again, many films in many countries are lit and operated by the DP, so it isn't a separate job. In all unionized places, it's looked at as '2 jobs' for obvious reasons - more employment. There's a lot to say about camera operating, and this isn't the place to do it. Operators often stick at the job and never move up to DP, as they like the job so much. Can't blame them, as I like it too, and often operate my own films. I look at being a DP as a two-part process, one mental and one physical. The lighting requires you to stand or sit and point your finger at lights and talk to your gaffer and key grip. Not much physical activity here. Operating means that your body is bent into all kinds of shapes, and made to endure the most uncomfortable positions for as many takes as it takes. This can be quite physical. Hand held work is very physical as the camera is quite heavy and you have to have good balance and strength to move a camera well. Steadicam is a device that means the operator can move about with the camera, but it is steady. The best Steadicam operators achieve a level of steadiness and exactness of composition that is virtually equivalent to a dolly shot. The worst ones make you feel as though you are on a cross channel ferry in a winter storm. I never learnt to use this device, as I never fancied it. Anyway, it's only for tough guys/girls.

 

In the UK the tradition has been that the operator sets up the shots with the director and the DP lights them. This means that the DP is essentially a Lighting Cameraman, i.e. a cameraman who does the lighting - and doesn't do the set-ups. This is changing as the new generation of DP's find this less acceptable as many of them come from Film School or documentaries, where they have operated their own camera. These people - and I include myself among them - find it hard not to be involved with the set-ups and so prefer either to operate themselves, or use an operator who is comfortable with the notion that the DP is the boss and will be happy to 'execute the shot' that the DP and director decide on. This is the accepted method of work in the USA, which is why I find it much easier to work with US operators than UK operators. But I still find the easiest operator to work with is myself: keeps the talking to a minimum. In the best situations, the DP, operator and director work in harmony - each contributing to the others ideas, and deciding to go with the best idea without 'scoring points' for 'your' idea being adopted. Sometimes there is a lot of competition between any two of the three people, and then it is very tiring. I get much less tired when I operate and light - which shows that the most tiring thing on a film set is stress.

 

>> The Director of Photography [DP] is the Chief Honcho of the camera department. In the past, the only way to get to this position was by going up the ladder. This meant that most DP's were over 40 in the UK and Hollywood, because it took that long to go up the ladder..... But then Film Schools started in the 70's, and suddenly there were people in their twenties and thirties appearing and saying: I am a DP. In the UK they were called 'Clapper Lighters', a jokey kind of insult. The camera department in the form of the union and the BSC took a very dim view indeed of Film School graduates. I don't know if this was the case in the USA, but I wouldn't be surprised.  It's very different now as there are so many well-known DP's who went to film school.

The DP on a film sets the 'tone' of the shoot. If he takes a long time to light, and is grumpy and surly then the crew suffer because of it. Some DP's have really bad reputations with film crews because they are egocentric, surly, arrogant and over-paid. These same people are occasionally a brilliant one. But more often than not, they just give the profession a bad name.

Because the DP is the only person on the set who has an idea of what the picture will look like, they have a kind of shaman-like power. This is because the picture 'disappears' into the camera, only to magically re-appear at dailies [rushes] the next day or next week if you're working in Guatemala.

The DP will continue to exert this power until film is a completely digital process. At this point the DP's power will disappear, as the image will be completely subject to post-production manipulation by editors and producers and film stars. His or her power over the image will be gone, and the job with it. This is why I feel lucky to have just got in my career before the door closes forever. So long as there is film in the camera, the DP has a job. Once the film is a chip, the DP becomes a video-person, because his or her power over the image is lost.

 

It is worth describing exactly what a DP does, as few people outside of the Industry seem to understand this. The word Director of Photography is really a title conferred only on Cinematographers who photograph feature films, as distinct from television films and documentaries. There are arguments about this, but essentially the role is different, not so much between TV and features, but very much between fiction and any other kind of filmmaking. This is because fiction filmmaking is drama, storytelling.. a movie. A DP's first requirement is to understand drama. Understand that his or her job is to tell the story in pictures.

There seems to be no 'right way' of making a film. Nor does the on-set atmosphere necessarily reflect anything about what the film will be like to watch. Bad atmosphere on the set can lead to wonderful movies and vice-versa and everything in between. Celluloid just has a life of its own that only starts when the projector rolls. When the actors and the camera are doing the right thing, there's a thread between them and the camera that sucks the audience into the experience.

 

The reason why I find it hard to let go the 'set-up', i.e. the choice of lens and camera angle, is that I see lighting as intimately connected with framing. Composition is often set before the shot is lit: but the way it is lit can have a profound effect on the composition - meaning that after lighting a shot it may be necessary to alter it in a subtle way to accommodate the change of balance because of the light. Sometimes I'll alter a shot to accommodate a lighting unit that I know is crucial because of the angle of the light in relation to the actor. When I'm operating myself, this process requires no discussion, but is internal: I just say, Let's change this mark [where the camera is positioned at a particular point on the Dance Floor] and that's the end of it. With an operator it's a discussion: hopefully short! And if I give myself a hard time with a lamp that is very close to the edge of frame that's my problem. Operators often request that you move a light out just that bit further - 'for safety'. This can make the difference between the light doing its job well and doing it OK.

 

There's nothing very mysterious about lighting. An old time Hollywood cameraman was asked how he lit the set and he said: 'You put a light up and turn it on. If you like it, you leave it. If you don't, you move it.' I like this approach because it undercuts a lot of rubbish that gets talked about lighting. It’s possible to read all kinds of intellectual symbolism into approaches to lighting, but I can't do that because I'm not an intellectual. [Someone once described an intellectual as 'someone educated beyond his or her own intelligence'.]
The only approach that makes sense to me is to become completely absorbed in the story in pre-production, talk to the director about films or paintings or novels or music or the script, talk to the production and costume designer, forget about any work you may have done in the past and then do what comes naturally. This is sometimes quite hard, because it's easy to get an image on the screen, but much harder to make that image uniquely belong to the film you are shooting.

If it's a genre piece, i.e. a romantic comedy or horror, etc. then there is an expectation of what the film should look like based on the genre, and generally speaking it would be foolhardy to go against this. But it's possible to stay in the genre and still make the film your own.

If the film does not obviously fit into a category, then life becomes all the more interesting as you then have a wider choice of possibilities. I always do a lot of testing in pre-production and some producers tell me that this is not generally the case - but they would say that wouldn't they? I like to start each film as though I've never shot a film before, so I have to look at everything that bears relation to the film at that particular moment. The types of lights available change, the film stock changes, the lenses change so each film has it's own possibilities both in space and time, so if I find myself just relying on some old formula to make the next movie, then I'll know it's time to quit!' [1999-2002]

 

See: Oliver Stapleton