The “Convergence” Issue
The myth and attraction of becoming a cinematographer
By Jeff Dunas
Afraid of being left behind? The only thing that you’re in danger of being left behind from is photography if you don’t carefully analyze how much you really need the appearance of being a cinematographer as well as a photographer in order to have a career in the new world.
Do you realize that for any cinematographer to add the Canon EOS 5D Mark II or the RED ONE to his or her arsenal is like a photographer simply adding a new lens or a new Photoshop plug-in? Do you really want to divert huge amounts of your precious time and attention from being or becoming a fine photographer to spend even more hours than you currently do in front of a computer? Do you really need to fully master new and very sophisticated motion software and study all of the current software packages designed to translate your HD into new codecs?
Think about this carefully. The great photographers are those who focus their full attention on becoming better photographers—not those who try to learn every new derivation and distraction that might help them to land a given job. You can hire a cinematographer; there are probably as many out-of-work cinematographers in L.A. and New York City as there are out-of-work photographers in this recession.
Now, it’s true that you can’t oversee someone’s work unless you fully understand the process. So, yes, you should have a working knowledge of shooting motion and all it entails to broaden your appeal to clients, but the key is how you plan to position yourself.
I notice some of the new hybrid director/photographers now list themselves first as “cinematographers” and secondly as “photographers.” Is this a step up? To me, the two disciplines are completely different. Just because your Canon camera sports HD motion capability doesn’t mean you’re now a cinematographer because you can shoot H.264 HD with it. This statement isn’t to take anything away from those who have seized the opportunity to move into motion from stills or those who now can add motion content to their portfolios using their existing still cameras. If that’s an exciting new direction for them, all the power to them. It’s the buzz circulating now that presumes to tell us we need to follow this path that I find disingenuous.
I’m not at all suggesting you don’t explore the capabilities of your new camera or that knowing how to add motion to your arsenal won’t possibly make you more versatile in your career. But trying to master both mediums will end with you being master of none. Of course, having enough knowledge of the process, being conversant with Final Cut Pro and being able to add web content to your client’s marketing program can help keep a client. Clients hire great photographers to shoot pictures. They’ll soon learn to hire DPs (directors of photography) to do what they do if their motion needs require it.
Yes, you should be able to add motion content—but I don’t think you need to be on your way to becoming a cinematographer. Remember, the 5D Mark II and the RED ONE are just new, affordable tools to a DP. They open the door for lower-budget productions and the ability to use lenses that can approximate the characteristics of cinema lenses for cameras like the Arriflex and Panavision on HD video. It’s a small and not particularly lucrative market segment for them. At a moment’s notice they can switch to full-on feature film-quality gear to get the job done if the budget permits. So we have to ask ourselves if we’re not positioning ourselves to get the small-budget jobs too small for clients to consider hiring a DP.
The DPs have already mastered their craft. There’s a convergence, of course, in the sense that there are now still cameras that allow us to shoot HD video, but we’re coming at the convergence from the still side, while all the DPs and camera operators available out there are coming at it from the motion side. Depending on the job, a client may decide that the motion component of the job is the bigger-budget side, and thus, hire a DP to shoot the job, including the stills portion. I don’t think they’d hire a DP if the still side of the job were the most important. Essentially, what we have to worry about now is the DP who fancies himself a good photographer. If the job requires minor motion, we might get the job; if it requires major motion content, the DP might be shooting the stills.
It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Do you want to divert yourself from the path you’ve already chosen in photography to start anew? If you’re in your early 20s and want to work on movie crews and are more passionate about the idea of shooting motion, then there’s no question you should follow that path. Without passion and determination, one can’t succeed at anything, in my opinion. If you want to leave your mark in photography, I think you should consider keeping your eye on the ball. Motion video is a choice, not a necessity, for your still photo career. I never understood those who assumed that still photography was a viable stepping-stone to being a cinematographer.
I’m hearing this “convergence” issue being equated to the digital photography revolution for photographers. Nonsense! The digital revolution merely gave us image-makers a new hammer, not a new career.