Below are some thoughts that I put together for a friend who is advising some young people on whether they should go into cinematography and whether they need a degree to do it.
A portfolio always trumps a degree
If you want to go into media production, your portfolio of completed projects is ten times more important than your degree. A degree in cinematography or film studies gives a false sense of preparation, like somehow you will be prepared when you get your degree to get a job in the field. What’s frustrating is you must find a way to get experience without having experience. If you can pull this off, you might have what it takes to be in film production. Oh, and a portfolio doesn’t count if it’s not visible online.
Be humble but not obsequious
The way to get into film production is not to call yourself a Writer/Director/Actor/Producer. That string of titles can be claimed by Sylvester Stallone or Mel Gibson but they don’t need to impress anyone else. If you do not have experience, don’t claim you do. There are no police on LinkedIn, but the professionals will instantly dismiss you as a narcissistic Millennial drunken with self-amazement.
Don’t start with that gorgeous camera
Knowing how to use the equipment is more important than having the equipment. Many young people make the mistake of thinking a top-of-the-line camera is essential to becoming a legitimate cinematographer. After a cool profile picture to impress their friends it really doesn’t matter. In reality, having mediocre equipment that you actually use and use to the full indicates real skill. Find a way to learn on the equipment you have access to and do something with it. Most of the successful video professionals I’ve known spent a lot of time making cheesy movies as kids. When your project merits the expensive gear, rent it first and avoid buyer’s remorse for something as vain as bragging rights to your media friends.
Learn computer technology
Video production has become half information technology. Hard drives, graphics cards, Internet bandwidth, and algorithmic polygons have taken over. If you cannot learn software on your own, you must change your behavior or you are not cut out for video.
Find mentors in the field
Find mentors and a network. Even if the people aren’t the best in the industry, surrounding yourself with like-minded people provides inspiration and creative feedback, and fellow risk-takers.
Learn the key software
If you want to be in video production or cinematography, you should know at least Premiere Pro (video editing), Illustrator (illustration), Photoshop (image editing), and AfterEffects (motion graphics creation). A plus would be a color grading software, an audio editor, or a 3D animation software like Maya, Cinema 4D, or Lightwave. If you are a college student enrolled with a school, be sure to get academic discounts on this software that would otherwise cost much more. Sites like JourneyEd.com or AcademicSuperstore.com are places to look for academic licenses of software. Adobe has free 30 day trials that should be enough to learn software, especially using sites like Lynda.com
Lynda.com is a game-changing, online training library. They are deeply connected with the L.A. media professionals and have curated high quality training content from these top media trainers. Their training video library subscription for $25/month is the closest you will get to being mentored in technical skills by these people in the top of their fields. You must find a way to afford this and carve out time to watch. What you will learn in these classes are far more useful than most college classes in film.
Develop parallel skills
You are wise to have a closely related skill that carries over into cinematography that is likely to pay well. Examples are:
- Proficiency with CSS 3 /HTML 5 with an emphasis in mobile and responsive design (Codecademy to learn for free)
- SEO writing (with SEOMoz being the leader of the legitimate SEO community)
- Copywriting for promotion (with CopyHacker and CopyBlogger leading this community of Inbound Marketers)
- Knowing everything there is to know about video compression, audio engineering, or lighting.
Repeat: You (really really) need a portfolio!
Job opportunities almost always come from someone who has seen your previous work. A crazy music video or fight scene and light saber effect doesn’t count. Nor does having a dramatic reveal of your name. You are a nobody until you have 3-5 projects to show to someone and then your reputation is only as good as your work.
With some basic skills learned on Lynda and with playing around with the software, you can earn some money doing freelance jobs on Elance or ODesk. You set your own rate and can build up some satisfied customers. Or doing a volunteer project where you set up your own studio and take free pictures of people. The word from things like that will get around.
The vast majority of people who think they want to be a producer or cinematographer make it halfway, and ended up working in another field because they couldn’t make it pay. By being super creative and doing some first projects for free or very low pay and learning some of the basic tools, your portfolio of skills will continue to grow.
I also have friends who started in video 10-15 years ago and are now senior producers for established companies. What was different about them was they had initiative to learn equipment and to actually go out and shoot projects when other people were goofing off. They were editing on a Saturday morning when their peers were sleeping in from a late night at the movies.
It all comes down eventually to motives and purpose. When these are aligned, you will be more likely to know whether media production and cinematography is for you.