THE BIG QUESTION
HOW DO I BECOME A CAMERAMAN ?
© 1996 Chuck Barbee
For people with successful careers in this business, the question most ofter heard is the one that asks how you got where you are. Sure enough, as soon as I began to set up this Web Site and state my willingness to share information and answer questions about production I began to get inquiries regarding what I call "The Big Question".
So I've written this generic answer. I hope it is useful to anyone contemplating a career behind or in front of cameras.
If you ask 10 or 100 different people how they got into this business you'll get as many different answers. As for me, I've had a natural, lifelong interest in photography, partly due to my father, whose hobby was black and white still photography, developing and printing. He also shot 16mm home movies starting in the early 1940's (about the time I was born), and that gave me lots of exposure to that type of photography. While I liked photography and enjoyed it myself as a hobby, I really wanted to be an Architect. So that's what I began studying in college while earning money drawing plans for small homes and also working as a carpenter on residential construction. It all tied together so nicely.
Then I got married and needed to work full time, shifting my education to part time. The college placement service helped me find a job as a prop man in a tv station, partly due - I'm sure - to my carpentry experience. This was a very small, non-union operation in a small town in California in the early '60's. But my experience there opened my eyes to the possibilities of a career as a cameraman or director in television or film. After a couple of years I was able to go back to college full time, this time majoring in film and television production. For me it was the best thing I could have done. In addition to a thorough education in many different phases of the business, it allowed me to focus and hone my natural abilities (which are strongly visual) to the point that I knew I wanted to be a cinematographer.
In a way, because of my prior experience of working in a television station where I was allowed to do lighting, run cameras, build sets, etc., I was already way ahead of many of my peers when I started film school. Even so, I continued to hunt for part time work, projects, whatever would allow me to work with cameras, lights, editing, etc. A couple of summers before graduating I worked as a film editor in a tv station and right after graduation I was offered a full time editor's position at the same place. While doing that job I continued to make little films on the side, by volunteering to shoot, direct and edit anything for anybody as long as they would pay for equipment, film, etc. Soon, through constant lobbying and showing my work, I was offered a cameraman's position at the tv station where I worked.
From there, after a couple of years of effort and with several long-form tv documentaries under my belt, my work was noticed by a very successful independent producer of network television specials. He made me an offer I couldn't refuse; to spend 10 years shooting, directing and editing many of the shows he produced for the networks. That bit of luck put me on the map as a filmmaker and my career has gone well ever since.
Becoming a Cameraman is a lot like saying you want to become a movie star. There are no set routes to such goals. Many try and few succeed. But the fundamentals of the craft can be learned and learned well in film school. So, absent any special advantages (like being born of a great cameraman, director or studio executive), film school is probably the best place to start. It will also expose you to a lot of information about many other aspects of the business.
There are obvious things one should study to become a Cameraman, i.e., photography, including composition, lighting, movement, and fine arts in general, including music, painting, even sculpture. It also helps if a Cameraman has good eye-hand coordination and is good with his or her hands, with tools. After all, a camera is just a big, complicated, delicate tool, with lots of interrelated parts which must be mastered by the Cameraman. It's also highly important for a Cameraman to be a good leader, a good communicator and have good people skills. But one of the most important things a Cameraman should know well is often overlooked. It is the study of the theory of "montage" or editing. Montage theory is at the heart of what makes "movies" work, whether for television or the big screen. It also encompasses and necessitates the study and understanding of the psychology of human perception - the things that go on between "seeing" and subjectively "perceiving".
Some of the most important dynamics of the moving images that we see on television or in a theater are the dynamics of "cutting" one scene, or shot or frame against another, then another, then another, etc. This dialectic process, this joining of two things to create a third, then joining that with yet another and so on, endlessly; this is the basic grammar of film as we know it and it works at many levels. It works in the juxtaposition of scenes, of shots within a scene and of the elements of sound and picture and movement. In what direction are the composition, lighting and physical movement leading the viewer's eye and what effects are the juxtapositions of these elements having on the viewers emotions and perceptions? Wide shot, medium shot, close-up, screen direction; these progressions are as basic to the language of film as subject and verb are to the spoken language. These concepts and more are fundamentals of the visual language of the moving image and should be well understood by anyone wanting to be a Cameraman.
Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian filmmaker (director, theoretician, screenwriter, editor), literally wrote the book on the theory of "montage". Actually it was two books, "The Film Form" and "The Film Sense", but they were later published together in one work, "The Film Form and The Film Sense". It is a formidable work but one I recommend for anyone who wants to be a Cameraman, Director or Editor. The edition I have was published by Meridian Books, The Word Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1964.
Final tip: If you really want to be successful as a Cameraman (or anything else in life) - be tenacious! Never give up! But be ready to spend many long, even frustrating years finding the road and climbing the ladder. Since there is no set route to becoming a Cameraman or Director or Actor the way is often unclear and that can be very frustrating. But if you look at the careers of those who have become successful in this business you will see three things they all have in common: Tenacity, Tenacity, Tenacity! Of course, talent is important, but more than that it’s just lots of hard work and desire and sticking to it. Becoming a Doctor, Lawyer or Engineer is easy by comparison because the road is quite clear. If you just do the work, you get the title. It's very cut and dried. Making your own way in this business is far more challenging and that's really what separates the wheat from the chaff.
And don't forget luck. You'll need lots of that. Not the kind you need when you're rolling the dice, but the kind that exists "where opportunity and preparation meet"! That kind of luck you can make for yourself. By becoming prepared, you are fully ready to seize the opportunity when it arises. And by diligent preparation you will also be exposing yourself to many opportunities as well as seeing ways to create your own.
Here's wishing you good "luck.