Advice for aspiring cinematographer. (7 replies and 1 comment)
Hello Mr Deakins, I'm a humongous fan of your work. I'm a 16 year old student from Manchester, currently studying film and broadcasting at level 3. I'm aspiring to become a camera operator/cinematographer. Are there any tips that you can provide me with, it would mean a lot coming from the best cinematographer in the world.
Extra Question: What do you think is best for an aspiring cinematographer, going to film school, or getting straight into the industry. I know that you went to film school but I'm still curious to what your opinion is on the dilemma I spoke about above?
Obviously I am not Roger, but I have had to give advice on this type of topic many times to aspirant students in the creative industries and audio in particular.
There are several massive advantages to going to a really good college. In music recording, you either attend the five-year Surrey 'Tonmeister' course, or you are better off just forgetting the whole thing! The pressure to get a career going is enormous and there are about 130 music production courses at graduate level in the UK alone - and only three studios that can take a full orchestra! Only the very best get anywhere! Cinematography is more of a mixed bag with many, many successful directors and cinematographers just picking up a camera and getting on with it.
However, there are other advantages are that a formal education will fill-in all those gaps that a DIY approach may leave neglected. Another advantage is that you get to network with all kinds of fellow students and also get work experience at key film and broadcast studios.
The cinematographic equivalent of the Tonmeister course would be the NFTS. You may also like to consider some of the English language courses at foreign universities and film schools, such as Bejing and Lodz.
Am not Roger, a Cinematographer/Camera OP is a combination of technician and artist. In my opinion film school does not help the art side but it does give you the exposure to a broad range of equipment knowledge you need to be a decent cinematographer.
There is of course the alternate, self study. When I was 15 and decided that cinematography was my passion a Director told me you either go to film school, or read every book, watch every video, listen to every interview and so on. This sounds simple but unlike school where a teacher or professor gives you material. It requires discipline of finding your own material and always striving to be better.
My personal experience is being self taught. I left school and worked in a rural area close to a city. I was lucky enough to be close to an Oscar winning DP and studied from him and his work. Spent all my time studying and the money I made went to living and renting/buying equipment to experiment with.
The point about going to film school is to have that time to experiment and find your own 'way of seeing'. I know that sounds like a pretentious way of saying it but I can't think of another. My time at the NFTS gave me confidence in myself and in my own way of doing things. In fact, I never had any formal training there or anywhere else. I never watched another cinematographer light or work on a set. The first time I was even on a feature set (apart from a couple of days of second camera) was when I was the cinematographer.
"I never had any formal training there or anywhere else. I never watched another cinematographer light or work on a set."
That amazes me. How did you ever find out that soft light is created by bouncing a light on a larger surface? How did you learn about lighting ratios (background two stops under, to let faces pop out)?
I also want to know how to control the lighting ratio. I recently encountered this problem in filming. lighting a character with a larger area of soft light will illuminate the white wall of the background, while the face will be darker than the background because of its low reflectivity.
Just look around you! Don't you look when the sun bounces off a wall or a floor, when it hits the water in a pool and creates patterns on a ceiling or when it lights a person by a window and sends the background into darkness?
As Roger suggests, use your eyes. It all starts with seeing light patterns, whether in real life, or in paintings, or in photography. You respond emotionally to them, you like them, you remember them. Then you start to break it down into its elements of color, contrast, direction, texture, etc. Maybe keep some sort of notebook of lighting ideas. When I was a film student, I had a binder of film frames copied by pointing a still film camera at a TV monitor (pre-digital days...). They were all just images that I liked. The back of the binder was filled with postcards from art museums of paintings I liked.
You learn things like how a lit face against a dark background will have more dimension, or that shadows lit by skylight are bluer than objects lit by direct sunlight in the late afternoon.
The technicalities like how many stops under to put the background or what sort of flags or wall paints or light levels to achieve this come later and they aren't that hard to learn (though they can be hard to physically implement sometimes.) If you are shooting film, for example, it isn't uncommon before a production to simply shoot an over and underexposure test, maybe even a lighting contrast ratio test, just to know how the stock behaves. So you'll know how many stops under you can expose a face before it drops to black on a certain print stock or with a certain display gamma for digital. And if you are shooting digital, you would see that immediately on the monitor anyway.
But it all has to start with an image in your mind of how you want something to look, even when shooting in natural light.
Yes, I do look at light in real life - I do it all the time. But to replicate it and catch it with a camera is difficult.
A camera translates contrast differently compared to the human eye. Our eyes see a different contrast ratio. When something to my eyes look good, it's mostly too contrasty on camera.
Roger and David, is this translation from eyes to camera something that your mind does automatically now?