SO YOU WANNA BE A CINEMATOGRAPHER?.. or maybe you are already...

Without doubt the thing that has helped me the most in my 40 years of being "on-set" (with about 20 years of time-off), is a strong family life and an internal discipline, which in my case is Pa-K'ua (which is a form of Tai-Chi). Although I no longer practice the "form", the many years I spent learning and practising internalised the "state of mind" to the point where I can "call it up" pretty much anytime, anywhere and especially when the going gets rough. The challenges of Cinematography are many and great, but an equal challenge is that of "personnel management" which can range from contrary Film Stars and Directors, to bolshy Crew (rare) and Bad Catering.

A curious costume assistant walked up to me yesterday (9/2009) when I was in the middle of it all on set, and said: "How do you deal with what is going on: can you jump to the top of the room and look down?" "Oh yes!", I said, "I certainly can!".

She had a rare insight into the process of Cinematography. The strange mixture of Art, Science and Personnel Management is not suited to everyone, and certainly not to the narrow-minded. On Internet Sites the technical side receives a lot of attention, perhaps because it is easier to define and discuss: the many and varied ways of Individuals approaching the creative process on set is more difficult to put into words. I was never an assistant, so I can't speak for anyone else, as I have never seen another Cinematographer working: but I can have a go at defining what it is for me.

Breakfast on a film set is a particularly unpleasant kind of "hung-over people at the trough" event, so I use the time to go to the set or location and soak up the atmosphere. I tell the AD's not to talk to me before call and I will remind them courteously if they do that I am not "at work" until the bell chimes. Sometimes I will see natural light that I like so I have to figure out how to re-create it to last all day which is often very difficult! God's light is the inspiration when you are outdoors so you'd better learn the lessons which are there for the observation. On the other hand it might look completely wrong for the scene, so then the challenge is that of pre-visualisation which is the most important tool in the mind of the Cinematographer. Ansel Adams, Minor White, Cartier-Bresson - all the masters are there in the past to learn from.

I used to be a lot more aggressive and contrary than I am now. I think this was partly just "youth", but it was also a lack of understanding of the DP's role. Because part of me sees myself as a Director, I would strongly argue for many things that were technically outside the scope of a Cinematographer: ie Script, Performance and some would say Camera Movement and Lens choice. I have never been shy to say when I think a scene does not work, because I don't want to spend all day shooting something that I think is bad. There are many pitfalls here and it can get you fired (yes, I have been fired), but honesty of opinion is important otherwise you will turn into a whinger and/or alcoholic. If you can't say what you think, you might get stressed out and go to an early grave.

Cinematography can be performed well by technicians: Great Cinematography pretty much always comes from people with Artistic Vision. Some become "names" and get lots of prizes and many don't: some of the finest work I've seen comes from people I've never heard of in foreign countries who have never been nominated for anything and probably get paid very little.

Others have mentioned "Zen" as part of what we do. Zen will mean something different to every person, but for those westerners who are 55+ Zen came speeding across from the East to remind us crazed, materialistic teenagers that there is more to life than a new Transistor Radio. Drugs, Cigarettes and the Pill coincided with my young years, so my twenties went by in an unhappy haze of Pot Smoke, Squats and Artistic Integrity. "Career" and "The Future" were dirty words since we all figured we would be dead by 27 anyway.

If I could do it all again, I would avoid the entire period from 19 to 27 when I got back on my feet. But out of it all did come some "key lessons" which have helped me the rest of my life and do so on a daily basis "on-set".

Here is a short summary of things that mean you can "look down from the ceiling" when you need to.

1. Learn an internal Discipline and Practice the Discipline for at least 10 years until it is part of the fabric of your being. It might be Running, Walking or the Gym: these are better than nothing but do not encourage "inner peace" in the way of the Eastern Masters. Tai-Chi is the greatest of the "moving" external/internal disciplines in my opinion (and that was after 2 years learning Karate). Yoga is clearly an option.

2. Drinking and Drugs have fuelled many an Artist's life. I know of several brilliant Cinematographers who drink on-set and party all night. You have to decide if this is "you" - or more likely it won't be a decision but an addiction. Whatever it is, don't copy anyone else's life: invent your own.

3. Remember that Actors are publicly "Directed" and have to modify, sometimes against their will, what they do to conform to the Director's "Vision". So if a Director makes a suggestion about the Cinematography, don't "react" but use it as a Discussion. We have a tremendous amount of autonomy in what we do, so guard it jealously but don't behave like a painter in a loft.

4. Only you can judge your work. When I was looking for a sailing boat, an old Sea-Dog said to me: "A boat only has to please it's owner." We all inevitably are affected by and listen to the opinions of others: but opinions are right about the same amount of time as weather forecasts. Take a long hard look at people who set themselves up as "Gurus".

5. If you can't abide working for Directors then the only choice is to be one yourself. If you are not going to do this, then get with the program and make the Director's film as well as you possibly can.

6. Remember that the movie exists "for all time" ** and You, the Director, the Pesky Film Star and Creepy Producer do not. The names become meaningless, the Movie Lives. So make the Movie well, and who knows, maybe others will like it.

I often get asked how I balance Family Life and Career - as in being away a lot on location.

The truth is that it is not me who achieves this, but me and The Family. My wife is a very independent person, with a strong personality and no fear of being on her own - in fact she rather likes it! It gives her space to develop her own life without me which is important in any relationship. Whoever your Partner is, if he or she "resents" you being away when you are working, it is time to sort it out once and for all. There are many elderly Solo Sailors floating about on the world's oceans who have chosen their boats over their wives: I am not saying they are happy, but they made a choice which is sometimes what has to happen. Take your time with this: it's a big decision and will have a major impact on the rest of your life.

So if you think you are perfectly suited to each other, maybe you have young children and it is still stressful the following observations might be useful to you.

1. It will be stressful - especially in the first five years of the children's lives. So come up with a "strategy" that you and your partner can agree on. Mine was this:

2. I guaranteed I would never take 2 long jobs in a row. If I came back from a 3 month shoot I would NEVER take another movie that "followed on" - NO MATTER WHO OR WHAT IT WAS. (I turned down a number of "famous" movies because of this).

3. I vowed to be at home for approximately the same amount of time I was away. I more or less stuck to this with minor variations.

4. Your home should be where your partner wants to live, especially if there are relatives/friends in the area that he or she can rely on when you are away. We who travel are used to making a home wherever we are - as my Mum (RAF travelling background) used to say: Home is where your Heart Is.

4. Base your financial calculations on working half the year and live accordingly.

5. Do not buy "Gifts" when you are abroad because your children will greet you at the door with "where is my present" as a way to avoid all the emotion of seeing you again.

6. When you leave, focus on the "special things" that you are going to do when you get back. Children under 7 have very little understanding of time as they live in the present (something we can all try to remember!). So don't try to impress them with the enormous amount of time you will be away, but rather focus on some special event that will happen when you get back "soon". If they come to visit you, then this can be the exciting thing to look forward to.

7. When my children were young, phone calls were expensive and there was no Internet. So I recorded stories that I read onto a cassette recorder and sent them home in instalments. "Charlotte's Web" and other stories now exist in my cassette archive and my grown-up children tell me it was a huge thing for them when these cassettes arrived at home. I would also make up stories and record them. Even with today's Skype etc, I think this is a valuable thing to do as they love Stories and are not very good on the phone quite often.. but just hearing Mum or Dad reading a story is, of course, a very comforting and secure thing for Children.

8. I was working in Scotland on my first Feature in 1984 when my second child was born. I was really upset about not being there for the home-birth and was talking with an old actor on the shores of Loch Lomond. I asked him if he had any regrets about his career. "No", he said, "None really.. except.. I lost my children because.. I was obsessed with my career.."

That was when I invented Rule 1.

So now you've decided you have the right partner, or you have become a confirmed single-person-for-life (what is the non-sexist term for "Confirmed Batchelor??"). So how do you deal with the thorny question of DCOL (Doesn't Count of Location) Sex?

If you are single this is not an issue so I will not discuss it further.

If you are in a committed relationship, with or without children there are a load of pitfalls and problems associated with our lifestyle. I have always been blessed/cursed with a high level of testosterone which has landed me in near-disaster on a number of occasions.

The turning point was this.

In 1984 I was shooting in Brazil with Mick Jagger doing a "long-form promo" ie short film called Running Out of Luck (appropriately!). One of our Children was 2 and the other 3 months old. It was a very stressful time in my relationship with my wife as we were living in a Community at the time with 22 adults and about 20 children.. but that's another story. Sex was not something I had had a lot of for quite a long time and my young hormones were spinning out of control. There was a particularly beautiful Brazilian Prop girl on the shoot and, without thinking, I started flirting with her whilst we were in Rio de Janeiro: we didn't go out but there was clearly a lot of "vibe" on the set between us. We then moved to a location where we were all in hotels..

At the bar the first night we were there she invited me to her room. My head was spinning as my wife and children were arriving the next day.. so after a lot of soul-searching I respectfully declined her invitation. She left in a blaze of anger.

Next day on the set I was going about my business trying to see out of the corner of my eye if she was around, when out of the blue she stormed across the set and delivered the most almighty blow to my head that knocked me off my feet! The crew feel about laughing and the Producer (Siobhan Barron) told me I deserved it!

A long time later I discovered that the very same girl was trying to find a way out of Brazil by "snagging" a man with a US or UK passport.. which she did eventually.

But the point of the story is that I then vowed NEVER to do that again ie Flirt with a member of the film crew UNLESS it was a HURRICANE.

Various men and women have tried to convince me over my life that Fidelity or Faithfulness to One Person is essentially a "bourgeois trap" and that no "true artist" would be interested in being Faithful because it is a denial of Desire and essentially an Emasculation. A female member of the Jury at Cameraimage one year detested my attitude so much that she wouldn't talk to me any more (she was late thirties.. single..). "Life is for Living"? "Take your opportunities where you find them?" etc etc. There have been many moments in my life where I have "walked away", but by adhering to the "no flirting" rule, I have managed not to be hit again!

The HURRICANE theory is that IF the ONE came along and you were blown off your feet, then SO BE IT. In other words, I have tried not to deny the possibilities of change, tried not to become a hen-pecked Husband and Father because of the possibility of a Hurricane. I know it's kind of feeble, but otherwise I might feel "trapped" by Family .. there has to always be an acknowledgement of the unpredictability of life. So far I've only encountered storm-force winds, so I am still together with my wife and more in love with her now than I ever was in the past, if such a thing is possible.

Sexual attraction is a very powerful force and like other powerful appetites, it can be used and shaped for your own ends to get you where you want to go. I am quite jealous of "free-spirited" men and woman who do what they like when they like: I just know that it is not for me in this life. It is not a moral judgement: just a process of finding out who I am and what works for me. All paths in life carry their own complications: I am not sure where the idea of a "perfect life" came from, but it might have something to do with Advertising!

So for me, TRUST is the key between partners when you are separated for long periods of time. If either of you "misbehave" it is not the end: but it needs to be "worked out" otherwise the relationship will slowly rot away. Fidelity IS an essentially bourgeous concept, but it does suit a lot of people. Swingers and "Free Spirits" might be having a lot of fun (are they?), but in the long term it doesn't seem to work too well. As I often say, you can only work these things out for yourself and your way of life.


There's 13 Million People on the planet who don't get enough food everyday. Exaggerating our "problems" is a particularly irritating part of the "rich world". If you are blessed with the background, education and desire to be a Cinematographer, then start from a position of Thanks. Thanks to the many before you that struggled and sacrificed to bring you into this world, and remember that every image you make is "out there" influencing and shaping the world to come. Cinematographers are droning on (me included!) about the images being "out of our control": but remember that if and when you get to a point in your career where you may be in demand enough to make choices over what you do, then these choices are "in your control". Choosing WHEN to work (if you can!) is important in balancing Career/Family Life and choosing WHAT you work on will tend to lead you in certain directions. The Industry (as we all know) loves to re-employ you to shoot what you have already shown you can shoot, so try to avoid being "trapped" in a particular genre. This will happen anyway to a certain extent, but some Cinematographers manage to avoid the trap better than others.

When I was shooting Absolute Beginners in 1985 there was a very annoying "old man" (he was probably in his mid fifties!) who told long stories about "the good old days". It was very irritating to everyone under 35 who were being informed that their world was rubbish and all the best things were in the past. There is, once again, a lot of that sentiment around from my generation: I think the old have always thought the world was better "back then" for obvious reasons. Personally, I think it is a very exciting time not only for Film Makers but for the world in general. Sure, times are tough, but.. did we forget.. our Parents and their Parents had World War 1 and World War 2 to deal with!! Times are always tough one way or another: My father used to say "Don't swear for no reason: what are you going to say when you loose a leg?"

It is all Story - all reporting, conversation about "When I was.." it is all STORY. Stories inspire us and defeat us. Stories can make us wistful, angry, superstitious and all the other human emotions. Fellini said: Fear is what makes us Human (ie Alive). He liked to tell stories which were absolutely and completely ridiculous and fantastical but.. conformed to the Truths of Story - which is an undefinable and magical thing.

I left the Documentary field a long time ago after 3 months in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea, and on another occasion narrowly escaping being locked up in South Africa making an anti-apartheid film. I have a lot of respect for some Documentary film makers, and particularly for today's "undercover" reporters who risk life and limb to bring us news about Regimes that don't want you to know what they are doing about their own people.

However, for my life I realised I did not feel comfortable pointing cameras at people who had not agreed to be filmed, so hence my decision to only work in Fiction Film. I also like the Theatrical and "Mass Audience" aspect of Feature Films. Providing "Entertainment" is frowned upon by the High and Mighty "Art World", but I know for sure that a window cleaner would far rather go to a good Comedy at the Movies than sip a Glass of Chardonnay at an Art Gallery Opening.

I recently uncovered a collection of photographs I took in a squat in the mid 70's. We were a dedicated band of ex- South Africans engaged in "meaningful" Theatre.

I also recorded (I had some money from the Arts Council) the conversations. On re-playing the tapes I was struck by the extraordinary level of complete rubbish that was masquerading as meaningful "artistic" debate. I think it was after this experience that I decided to re-join the human race and move away from Artists Seeking Truth.

The people involved were my friends and I still respect them and love them as I did then. But I think we all became misguided at that time by smoking too much "weed" and more importantly missing one of the essential truths of life which was brought home to me by my father when I eventually caught up with him after a 17 year gap. "You can only truly influence events from the Inside", he said. "If you marginalise yourself from Society that is what you will be: Outside." Thanks Dad: you said this just in time!

As you might guess, I don't like to tell "War Stories" (ie stories about other movies) when I am working. Perhaps I am writing some of this down now because I am aware that there may be others continuing the job who are becoming lost or distressed because of the apparent heartlessness of the Industry. Blogs are full of stories of Trust and Betrayal in our field and many others. Whether or not you are a Fatalist, Attitude is all-important and even the most brilliant and talented people will cease to be employed if their Attitude is a continuous barrage of whinging and complaint.

I had a 5 minute conversation with Cesar Charlone at a cocktail party at Cameraimage a while ago. He is a great Optimist and said that a few years ago he got rid of all his friends who whinged and complained every time he saw them.. I have asked my family to just say "Cesar" whenever I fall into a gloom!

If you have something to say about family life and working in the movie business, you could enter it here..

Family Life: COMMENTS


Animation Techniques
Bleach By-Pass
Blue Screen/Back Projection
Books to Read
Budget Considerations
Car Photography
Cider House Rules
Clubs etc
Digital - Scanning
Director/DP Relationship
Dp's - where to get them
Exposure Techniques
Exterior Shooting
Film versus Digi
Filming Monitors
Frame Rates and Digi
Framing Techniques

Future Outlook
Jobs in the Industry
Learning Film Technique
Lighting Issues
Multiple Cameras
Panic Room
Picture Quality
Pre-Production Testing
Production Designers
Slow Motion
Special Shot Techniques
Student / Career
Super 35 versus Anamorphic
The "Look"
Timing/Grading Issues
Women's Issues