Careers in Film: Lessons from a Successful Director of Photography

You don’t typically find many big feature Cinematographers that started out in nature photography. The nature people typically stay in that niche for their entire career. But Will R. is an exception. How you manage your career in film makes all the difference.

I asked Will R. how he became a big feature Director of Photography and this is what he told me.

It came down to 2 things.

1.  He worked on some high profile documentaries with people that could hire him for their bigger projects

2.  He didn’t pretend to know it all. In fact, he openly admitted he didn’t know it all. As he got hired on bigger and bigger features, he insisted on having a team of very experienced people work directly underneath him. The two positions that work directly under the DP is the Gaffer and Key Grip. In fact, his Gaffer and Key Grip were even retired, but very very experienced.

The first point is an excellent one: One project leads to another. Like-minded people attract each other. This is how opportunities come around. Will does an excellent job and is a pleasure to be around. When a project is looking for a Director of Photography, Will’s name often comes up. He meets with the producer and director, shares his vision for their project, and they hire him.

Secondly, he knew he was getting into bigger shoots that he’d never done at that scale before. The thing to do is to hire people who have been in those shoes before, perhaps for 30 years!  After 30 years, there isn’t much that they haven’t seen.

He gave me an example. He told me about a movie he was doing with Meryl Streep. The Producer on the movie didn’t want an ‘old’ Gaffer and Key Grip. They thought they’d be too inflexible. So before the movie started, it was a bit of a battle. Will got his way, but the Producer wasn’t happy.

On one of the first days of the movie, they were going to shoot a scene with Meryl Streep. As Meryl arrived she made several comments about the set, which was a therapy office, and wanted things changed. The Production Designer was scrambling and everyone was a little nervous.

The Director was especially nervous because he’s got to direct Meryl Streep, and what if she doesn’t take his direction? Everyone wants to make a good impression with such a huge influence within the film industry.

Then Meryl sees Joe, the Key Grip Will insisted on having. She comes running over screaming in joy and jumps on him, so happy to see him as they had worked on a feature a long time ago. She says, “Since you’re here I know everything is going to be great!” All the concerns about the set went away.  Everything went smoothly and the movie went great!

The Producer came up later and thanked Will for making the right decision.

To sum it up, work with the right people that are already doing the kind of work you want to do and hire the best people you can find to work under you! Will’s formula for success.

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