Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Notes on getting into (and surviving) the moving picture business

Geoff Boyle, September 2021

This may seem negative at times but I don’t intend it to be. I’ve had a great time in the nearly 50 years in the business, both in terms of fun and in terms of money. In the 90’s I was, according to Kodak, one of the 10 cinematographers who shot 80% of national commercials in the UK. I’ve travelled to most of the countries in the world at someone else’s expense and had a great time doing so.

I want to be realistic but to some, I will sound negative. Tough.

This is a business that chews people up and spits them out. You will suffer rejection after rejection, grow rhino skin. In the words of Tom Petty, who has a track for every occasion…

You need rhino skin
If you're gonna begin
To walk
Through this world
You need elephant balls
If you don't want to crawl
On your hands
Through this world

If you listen long enough
You can hear my skin grow tough

So if you can’t take rejection and criticism find another vocation.

Your education will prove useful, but in the future, not when you leave Uni. In fact, it’s likely to be a liability in a lot of cases both because it will colour your attitude and the attitude of the person who may hire you.

You think you know what the job is, your potential employer knows that that attitude is going to be a liability.

You need real-world experience and contacts. You will not get this if you tell everyone that you’re a cinematographer.

To move up/on in the business you need to be in the business in the first place.

Get any job that will get you into contact with working crews, note, crews not cinematographers. This is a business of delegation, my operator chooses his AC who in turn chooses his 2AC. You need to be in contact with the 2AC’s and the AC’s. The best way to do this is to get a job in the camera department of a rental company or to drive a delivery van for a rental company. You will meet a lot of people who are in a position to recommend you, be helpful, be pleasant. Keep your eyes open, your ears open and your mouth shut.

Remember that you are wanting to join a team. OK, that team will vary in size and initially on corporate work that team will be small but it’s still a team. Fit in!

I realise that you may well have your personal style but if you’re too different you won’t fit in.

When I was running a small company in the early 80’s I was hiring and training AC’s. I rejected several because they just weren’t going to fit. I got a lot of grief for it, a Rasta accused me of being racist, but I wasn’t rejecting him on his race. I was rejecting him because he said he wouldn’t modify his hair or dress. We shot a lot of large company videos at that time and would have lost clients if we had a crew member who was radically different from the “norm”.

You may well find that objectionable, fine, work in another business.

You are going to be away from home a lot. Your hours/days will be totally unpredictable. You will lose all/most friends outside the business because they won’t understand why you just didn’t turn up as arranged or cancelled at the last moment. The business can destroy long term relationships, I’m a freak in that I’ve been married for 45 years. Very few people in the business make 5 years.

There is a hierarchy on a set, you are very near the bottom. It’s not a democracy, it’s a feudal system. The director is the King, the HoDs are the Barons and you are the peasants. If you can’t deal with that get a job in a different business.

I actually sent that in an email to the entire crew of the Swedish TV series Wallander after days of discussions where everyone had an opinion. It was costing us time, time we didn’t have. They responded really well, they got it.

Just a note for the future, when you become a cinematographer it is part of your job to fiercely defend your crew from rapacious producers. This has cost me a lot at times but I never stopped doing it. They are your crew, we always talk about family, we mean the family in the sense of the crew who will become a tight unit defending each other from the rest of the world. It’s why you need to be able to fit in.

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