Don't Miss Your Shot
How making friends with trash cans and other objects can improve your career. In a conversation with highly respected cinematographer Todd McMullen (Casino, The Green Mile), he talks about how to break into Hollywood, and what it takes to be successful once you get there.
You can say a lot of things about the difference between shooting film and video, but for me, it comes down to fundamentals. Video tends to get technical - how many chips, how big they are, formats and frame rates, menu settings.
Those aren't questions in film, which in many ways, is technically simpler. So in film the first questions are artistic - things like how do you set the scene, how do you light.
WHY I BECAME A CINEMATOGRAPHER
After college, I had a drive to get into narrative filmmaking. I could have started by doing my own thing, but I wanted to be part of something magical. That meant I had to go to Hollywood, get into the studio system, and work my way up.
It was always my idea that this was the best way to go: learn from great cinematographers, and build my foundation. When I got to where I wanted to be, I wanted to know I had the technical knowledge, but also know how to deal with a crew, actors and directors.
There's no way to do that except on a set. It applies equally to commercials TV and film. The goal is, when you have a lot of groups coming in with a bunch of ideas, making it so that everybody feels they have a say, and making something cohesive out of it.
I learned from my own mistakes but I certainly learned a lot from other people's mistakes too.
HOW TO GET INTO THE BUSINESS
I feel bad for people who want to do it today. It's hard to break in. People trying to get in, male or female, have to get into the local camera guild, and they have to make the rounds once or twice a week to get to know people.
You have to get to know the gear of course, but also learn how things work: how crews work, how they store the gear, all of it. But joining the guild is the first step.
So I put my days in and made sure I was qualified, and then made sure people knew who I was. I visited all the rental houses at least once a week, hung out at Panavision. Things like that.
The key is to make yourself available. Maybe I was last on anyone's list, but everybody before me wasn't available, so I got the call.
Instead of calling directors of photography directly, or producers, actors, directors, I found that camera operators were the ones doing the hiring, and they were annoyed if you come in another way.
So I started getting to know camera assistants. When jobs opened up, DPs asked assistants for advice, and the assistant would say, let's ask Todd.
One day I got a call from a friend, Paul Plannette, who was working on Martin Scorcese's Casino. They decided they wanted a second camera to shoot some scenes.
Paul told me, "I don't know if it's going to be 1 or 2 days, or a hundred." I figured if I did a good job, showed a good attitude and the 2 camera arrangement showed it would work, this might turn into something.
It wound up being 110 or 112 days, for the whole show. After something like that, you can add it to your credits, and take the next step.
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
There's no set formula for what a Director of Photography does. It really changes on every production.
Normally the director comes on the set, blocks the scene, and walks away. Thirty minutes later, you better be ready.
But I know a director - a really nice guy and a great director - who came to the States from Europe, where they often rely heavily on the DP. The American DP wasn't used to the director asking what would be a good idea for every shot. He was set back because he thought it was the director's job to tell him. As his assistant, it was hard for me to help out, but that's what you have to deal with sometimes.
I've also been on sets with first-time directors. If it's a friend of a friend of a producer, I might only be a babysitter. But maybe they wrote a great script and this is their big break. They don't necessarily know about coverage, set-ups, etc. That's where a strong DP comes in - keeping in touch with everyone as things change, driving and keeping the schedule.
A lot of times that overlaps with what the Assistant Director does. If the AD and DP become very close, you can be become great allies. Helping each other without trying to do the other person's job can make sets a great place to work.
I think the number one role of the DP is to interpret and communicate the style and look the director looks for a particular scene, maybe the whole movie.
The DP works with director to understand look, themes, mood and styles of everything visual. Once you do that, you set up the shots and blocking the director is looking for, including things like telling the focus-puller where to focus and where to rack.
The job is called Director of Photography, but I'm not too wild about the word "director' in that context. I prefer "facilitator."
If I may throw in the word "humble," that's a good one too.
That's how I came up through the ranks with DPs like Lloyd Ahern. He would gather everybody around to hear directly from the director about a big scene, a big move, a crane shot. He wanted to make sure that everyone felt involved. It's the best way to make sure that everyone's doing their job.
That's why when I hear the word "auteur" - the idea of only one person being responsible for a film's vision - I don't think it means much in the real world. My training might be a lot different than other people's, but I like including a lot of people. I just like the collaborative process.
Of course, I've been on jobs where there wasn't much communication, and when there was, it was negative. Sometimes it can be a reflection of nervousness, or because someone has been told that their job is to get on the set and fire somebody to establish authority. It can be hard to deal with that.
THE IMPORTANCE OF RELATIONSHIPS
There's still a hierarchy, a process in the studio system. That's why I think it's worth doing at least a little bit of study on other jobs around the set and the studio and know how they're important, how they fit into that kind of structure.
Not that everything is structured. I mentioned that sometimes "a friend of a friend" of someone powerful is in charge of the set. Well, sometimes that person is in charge of you. You have to roll with it.
That's why a good attitude is so important. After a while you can become known for that, and that's when you can start networking.
After Casino, I was associated with big pictures, being able to stay with them, do my job and have a great attitude.
Once I got the next job, I made a point of hiring the people who hired me. Last time, they had a job and you didn't. This time they don't have a job, but you do. So you bring them along in the same way they brought you.
VIDEO & FILM
When I didn't have a film job, I spent time staying on top of video, starting with a couple of documentaries on BetaSP. People found I could shoot video as well as film, and if they wanted to incorporate video into their films, they called me.
The next film I got was Wild Bill . The director was Walter Hill, and Lloyd was the DP.
Lloyd came up to us as a camera group and said Walter wants to shoot some S-VHS does anybody know about it? (This was 1995.)
They were mostly asking about the buttons. There were a million of them and nobody was sure what they all did. So they gave us a couple of cameras, and sent us out to shoot a bunch of footage that would be added to the film as super grainy-looking black and white.
The toughest thing was how to actually get this Super VHS footage onto film. There were discussions with studio, directors, even craft services, looking for ideas.
The decision was to get a good TV, set it on the back of a truck and aim a film camera at it. Bad idea. Using a truck to shoot something on the truck was impossible. This lasted an hour.
We decided to try again after wrap. Then the producer asked why his crew is staying 5 hours after wrap. I don't even know what they did with the footage in the end, but it sure looked good.
Sometimes you also have to forget everything you've learned. But you have to have learned something in the first place, from both successes and failures. My experiences havehelped me be flexible enough to look at things in a new way when the time comes.
Those times come a lot on Friday Night Lights in particular. We knew that this TV series wasn't going to have marks, we wouldn't do any rehearsals, and we'd shoot every scene with 3 hand-held Arri 16s. That means 3 ops, 3 assistants, a boom guy and whatever actors there were, all in one place - with no marks and no rehearsals.
As a cinematographer on a show like that, it's extremely challenging. You know they're going to shoot a scene in a particular area, and you can only zone light. And not every camera will have a good angle.
Sometimes for take 2, I have to hold a light by hand, or bounce it. But it's still difficult because maybe one of the cameras is still in a wide shot and you have to do some twisting to make sure you stay out of the frame.
But sometimes shots that you're sure will NEVER work, actually do.
We were in a very small location once - a 10x10 room. Somebody asked, how is this going to work? We all said, I don't know. Right about then, the actors walk in, see 3 ops, 3 assistants and a boom. They stopped, stared and then everybody started laughing.
That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. You have to forget everything you've ever done before, have a good attitude, and start by asking, how am I going to do this? When you figure it out, the magic is unforgettable.
By the way, flexibility isn't just for behind the camera. There was a dumpster scene in American Wedding , one of those things where I made a suggestion, then ended wondering if it was a good idea. suggest then end up wondering if it was a good Idea.
We were going to cover that scene from the outside of the dumpster and I said it would be a great shot from the inside. So, they said go ahead and I ended up having a 50 or 60 pound wedding cake thrown onto me and the camera.
The first time hurt my eye as it was to the eyepiece. but the second time I was prepared and it was no problem. The shot made the movie. Moral of story, be careful what you suggest.
More recently, we started shooting the new season of Friday Night Lights on July 19. As is sometimes the nature of this business, I started the very first scene of the new episode as an actor. Yes, that's right.
Apparently the actor who'd been cast had some problems. I fit the description and they threw me into a page and a half scene, speaking part and all. It's a funny business.
Friday Night Lights has been great, so a really bad show will probably be next. By "bad," I mean working in the desert or working on an island. Or because I've been working handheld with so much flexibility, I'll probably wind up on a stage with a dolly or something boring after this, but every kind of show has its place.
What we do isn't without frustration, but you have to be able to laugh. Facing challenges and meeting them is what keeps you coming back. It's what makes you want to go to work every day.
TODD'S THOUGHTS ON CINEMATIC STYLE
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