Absolute Beginners

How I got started in the Movie Business..

I most likely got started because my parents made 8mm home movies of the family, and also their travels. We would gather in the sitting room every few months and watch these: this was one of the highlights of childhood. My mum gave me a Brownie Box Camera for my 10th birthday and I became a passionate photographer.. teaching myself darkroom skills and founding a photography club at my all-boys boarding school.

I remained with Stills Photography right up to my 27th birthday when I decided to stop being a Photographer and enrol at the NFTS (in the UK) and do a 3 yr course in film-making. I had a first degree from Cape Town University (in Psychology) and had become a spectacularly unsuccessful photographer in Cape Town. I had 2 partners and we all three had way too many restrictions on what we would or would not do.. We were immersed in the world of Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt etc so using flash, doing fashion, being illustrators was all ruled out.. so.. basically we got very few jobs and made no money! My partners left and I shut down the studio and continued for a short time on my own with one significant difference. I got a job on a movie set as the Unit Stills Photographer and suddenly I was experiencing the world of film-making and knew right away this was what I wanted to do. It all seemed too complex and technically difficult for me at the time, but I knew I had to leave South Africa and go somewhere where they made real movies.

I headed for Canada, because of their film board (back in the early 70's) was making amazing films. However, I decided to go via the UK and see my parents & family because I had been in South Africa for 7 years and had lost touch.. So I arrived in 1974 and got swept up into life in London and then discovered the NFTS and knew this is where I had to go. This period was like entering a Monastery for Film. The school was outside of London, so none of the city distractions got in the way of immersing myself in the whole process of film. I wrote, I edited, I shot, I directed - we all did it all in a fantastic atmosphere of free exploration put together by the schools founder Colin Young. You hired your own tutors from a "tutor budget" and made your own films from a "film budget".. There was no "MA" or whatever at the end.. you just left and entered the industry.

Now this is the hard part, and what you might be waiting to read.. How did I get into the Industry? First of all, the Union was a "closed shop" in 1980 when I got my first job. But the School had negotiated a deal (somehow!) with the Union that if a graduate got a job, then the Union would give him or her a ticket in the "grade" of that job. So if you got a job as a camera assistant, then that's the ticket they gave you.. If you got a job as a DP then that is what you got. We heard from previous graduates to make sure you did not apply for an assistants ticket if you wanted to be a DP as you would become stuck in that grade for years!

As luck would have it, a man called James Garrett had seen my graduate work as a DP at a show at Bafta. Of course I did not know who he was, but I got a call to meet him for breakfast in a fancy hotel in London. This was not something I was accustomed to, but as a Public School Survivor I had good table manners.. James gave me a 1 yr "exclusive" contract to be a DP for his commercials company.. and I was able to present this contract to the Union to apply for a ticket. Little did I know the shit-storm that would happen..

The Camera Department of the Union (called ACTT then .. now BECTU), decided to call me in to one of their meetings. 8pm in Soho.. So I went down and was shown to the room where the meeting was taking place. I was asked to stand outside the door. At 10pm someone put their head round the door and said they had no time to see me. So I went home. I then discovered a Union delegation visited the film school and was telling the staff that they had interviewed one of their graduates who was "clueless" and there was no way they were going to give him a ticket, contract or not.

I was then asked a few weeks later to attend another meeting. I went down again and after keeping me standing in the corridor for an hour or so I was asked in. I stood at the end of a long table populated by the Committee Members of Camera Dept 1980. At the head of the table was a man known as "Basher Beeson" whose nickname I believe came from his liking of a light on the camera which was then known as a "basher". He proceeded to ask me a series of technical questions which not only were simple to answer but were insulting to me: a 32 yr old man who had been involved with photography since childhood. One particular question was so idiotic that I quipped that he should answer it himself since he was of the generation that did such things, but it was no longer relevant! He then threw me out of the room and shouted that I would never work in the industry.. "over my dead body..etc..etc".

Weirdly enough I was at Shepperton years later and he was working on the stage next door. I went over to see him: he had forgotten all about our previous encounter and was as charming as could be, showing me all around his lighting grid and generally waxing enthusiastic about his own place in the world. To save embarrassment, I didn't mention our previous encounter in any detail..

As it happened, I only did a couple of jobs for James Garrett as I think his producers thought it was just one of his eccentricities to try and hitch the services of an "up-and-coming" DP - and anyhow his star Directors all had their own DP's they liked to work with. I also did not like working on commercials as I found the people pretentious and most of the scripts uninteresting to shoot. As I was mostly shooting Rock Videos during my first few years as a "professional", this was far more exciting to me than commercials as it combined all the things I liked - Music, Theatre, Dance etc etc.

So in the period 1980 to 1984 I was mostly shooting music, but sometimes a documentary or a TV drama. My first break to shoot a feature was in 1984 on a small film called "Restless Natives". We shot in Scotland in the cold and wet and the film started a lifetime relationship with the Director Michael Hoffman: we shot our fifth film together in 2014 in New Orleans. After 1984 I only shot features and left the world of Music Video and Commercials as my time there was done.

I am reading a thread on CML that educators are increasingly in despair about the apparent arrogance of young DP's.. In some ways I see a similar process to us "Film School Brats" who were so hated by the "Professionals" in the early 80's. Whilst I was lighting sets, I would sometimes overhear the monologue of some wizened middle-aged man yattering on about the "good old days".. his audience would be mostly young people my age, and I made a note at the time to never become that person. There is nothing more dispiriting for a young person to hear: the world was a better place "before", and somehow his or her future is just a side-note in a dismal future: "It was so much better then..". What of course this really means is that it was so much better for the 60 yr old when he was 30.. and he's droning on about it because he is uncomfortable with his age..

For 5000 yrs this dialogue has taken place in one form or another. The stunning arrogance of individuals who consider their legacy to be so much more important than a young life starting out always amazes me. Sure that's what built the Pyramids, but why would I want to see such an example of power, corruption and ego? I don't think an objective assessment about a particular period in history can be made for many decades, and possibly centuries later. I don't suppose "The Dark Ages" were known as that at the time - people just got on with what was in front of them, and died in their 30's.. My generation (b1948) could look at their own history through the 1960's to present day 2015 and see that 911 marked a turning point.. but in a hundred years time I am sure there will be many other measures of what was going on in the 20th and 21st centuries.. like recovering from 2 world wars and coping with a vast increase in global population… as well as all the mediaeval religious madness.

So how I got started in the Film Business is not how you will get started.. the world is a different place and the ways we can make movies has changed out of all recognition, and mostly for the better. Instead of "closed shop" any youngster can make a movie.. The challenge as always is to make a "good movie" and that does not get any easier just because the technology is cheaper and more available. Movies are about Ideas and you can't buy Ideas… they just happen in the minds of those that have them. Sure you might rent the individual, but he or she might come forth with the ideas in a good situation, but might not if the "zeitgeist" is not right. For us Cinematographers we have the job of translating ideas into coherent visual form, as well as adding our own ideas. It remains the same job it always was: those that can do it will succeed and those that can't will look for alternative employment.

In a thread about "the younger generation" on cinematography.net (in the "pro" section) there is one statement that stood out for me: Teamwork. It is possible that the current education system in the West is having a disastrous effect on the ability of people to work in teams. It is not surprising if you remove playgrounds & sport (which is where you learn to be a "team player") and put kids in front of screens and make them compete.. the result is a population who stares at their smart screen and does not know how to act in a team. However, it will change and people will look back and realise that in the 21st century we lost the plot as far as education is concerned.. but in the long run this is nothing to worry about..so..

To get started in the Movie Industry I have the following concrete suggestions:

1. Work with your contemporaries on the "cutting edge".. don't just mimic the older generation: but remember they have a lifetime of experience that you might find handy.
2. By all means have a "day job" but above all work on whatever is offered and do the best you can. You can refine your choices when you are in demand.
3. Don't whine and complain: your Ancestors did not die in wars so you can be miserable.
4. Work with the team, but above all serve the Director and if he or she is not so hot, just do the best you can and keep quiet about the shortcomings of your fearless leader.

Oliver Stapleton
July 2015.

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