or, What I’ve Learned from Working on Micro-Budget Genre Films

I’m pretty much taking the same career path many of my heroes did, and have started out with low-budget independent genre movies.  Unlike some of my heroes’ movies, instead of getting limited regional theatrical releases, these are going direct to DVD (which is the new low-budget release mechanism, which will soon be supplanted by digital streaming, I’m sure).  As Shelly Johnson, ASC, told me, “There are at least ten roads to becoming a Director of Photography, and you should take them all,” and being cinematographer on low/ultra-low budget genre movies is just one of the roads I’m pursuing.  One of the great things about this route is, you get a lot of footage to use in your reel, which directors and producers can then also see in context in the finished film when it’s released, and it helps you build up a verifiably legitimate resume, which you can’t do if your only work is from film school projects.  Oh, you can use the footage in your reel, for sure, but you can’t put those film school projects on your résumé unless they’re getting a huge amount of attention at festivals (and even then, it’s sort of iffy).  Because Hollywood doesn’t like taking risks (there’s too much money at stake), it’s basically impossible to get hired as Director of Photography on medium-to-big budget movies with “names’ attached until you have a few movies under your belt to show that you are capable of doing the work, and that you do a good job despite lack of funds and/or equipment and you’ve built a good reputation.  So you start out in some other way, whether it’s working as a loader or 2nd Assistant for a few years and working your way up the ladder, or getting someone in low-budget genre pictures to give you a chance and let you shoot some movies for him/her, or getting into the grip or electric departments on movies or television series and working your way up, or some combination of those (the way most of us go).  There’s no shame or stigma in this; everyone has to pay their dues, and you learn a heck of a lot while you’re at it.  Wally Pfister, ASC, started in erotica.  Dean Cundey, ASC, started with low-budget horror and sci-fi movies.  Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, started in low-budget B genre pictures.  The list of A-list cinematographers who started in grindhouse-style genre (or at least very low-budget) pictures encompasses almost everyone at the top today.

Why working on ultra-low budget genre films is awesome: you learn one hell of a lot about your craft and who you are as an artist.  And they’re fun to work on, besides.

You also learn:

  1. How to solve problems on-set quickly and creatively.  On big-budget movies, the director brings the cinematographer on early in pre-production and you go on location scouts together, you have lots of meetings with the production designer, you participate in the storyboarding, and plan things out very carefully.  When things go wrong on set, you take time to figure out how to get the equipment fixed or you pull a wall out (when you’re on a set the production built) to make room for the camera so you can get the angle you want, or you call Panavision and have them send a technician to your location to fix a camera problem.  When you basically don’t have any money to spend, you can’t do these things: you’re probably using equipment you own or that you borrowed from someone you know, you’re probably shooting in practical locations where you can’t pull a wall out or punch holes in the ceiling, or otherwise make any alterations, and you can’t take a couple of hours figuring out how to make it work.  You just have to work with what you’ve got, and quickly.  There is no well to go back to for more money, so you can’t dump the day because of an equipment malfunction or other hiccup in your plan.  You also can’t spend hours lighting the scene; you have to light so well that you can do it in a few minutes and still have it look good (which might mean a lot of shaping available light).  Which leads me to…
  2. How to light quickly and economically, and how to use available light to your advantage.  If you’re shooting in a really bright house with a lot of sunlight throughout the day (like we did on Creep Creepersin’s Dracula), and you don’t have the ability to black out all the windows (we didn’t), you have to use that light to your advantage.  Look for areas in the rooms you’re using where you can get great light that enhances the mood of the scene.  Use lots of white cards and other reflectors to direct sunlight where you want it.  Use negative fill to shape the light on the actors’ faces to make it less flat.  Find ways to block the scenes so that the actors are backlit as much as possible to help separate them from the background.  Use the practicals at the location (we did Gritty with only the practicals in the rooms).  Augment available light with your own lights instead of trying to overpower the available light (that’s a losing battle).  Use features of the location to help you hide light stands and reflectors.
  3. To trust your instincts.  If you see a lot of movies, you already know what visually interesting movies look like.  You already know what professional cinematography looks like.  You know what looks good, and what doesn’t.  Your instinct is probably right.
  4. To always make choices based on what’s best for the storytelling, instead of what strokes your artistic ego. You will almost certainly not be able to come back for reshoots, so if that unusual lighting or composition you insisted on spending hours perfecting doesn’t work in context, you will only have made yourself look bad, and hurt your chances at getting hired by that director in the future… and you don’t know who that director knows who you just lost your chance with as well.  Word travels fast in this business, both good and bad, and in Los Angeles especially, it literally is six degrees of separation.
  5. To be graceful under pressure.  Ultra-low budget genre pictures move faster than series television.  That’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of possibility of things going wrong.  There is no room for prima donnas in the fast-paced world of grindhouse movies.  When stuff goes wrong (which happens on every set), you just have to deal with it and make the best of it.  You can’t be constantly blowing your stack.  Set whatever ground rules you need to set with whatever crew you have up front, and make sure your rules are reasonable.  My one basic rule I set with my crews on these shows is: if we have to move any of the camera and lighting equipment from the staging area, I need to know where that equipment moved to so I can find it when I need it.  We just don’t have time for me to spend an hour hunting for a light or a lens or a stinger.  (And yes, I have had to work with a crew member once who would randomly move equipment for no reason without telling anyone where he moved it to, then deny any knowledge of where it was.  He was not asked back.  I’ve also worked with very inexperienced crew members who were an absolute joy to work with because they listened carefully, absorbed everything they were taught and did a great job.)
  6. To not allow money or equipment to limit your creativity.  This should go without saying, really.  I’ve never believed that my creativity is limited by what equipment I have or how much money is available to the production.  Don’t have money to rent a crane?  Find some other way that doesn’t compromise safety to get the camera up high.  Can’t afford a Steadicam?  Find a way to simulate the look. It won’t be as good as the real thing, but there are ways to get pretty close with practice for short-duration shots. If you can’t afford all the toys, it forces you to think outside the box and come up with alternative ways of achieving the shots you want to get… and that’s a really good thing.  I talk with a lot of people, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Well, I’m not happy with my work right now, but that’s just because I don’t have [insert name of expensive piece of equipment here].  If I had that, I’d be awesome,” or “if I had a million dollars, my work would be great.”  Statements like these just aren’t true.  If you’re really good, you can do great work with just about any equipment, on any budget, because it’s not the equipment that’s making the creative decisions, after all.
  7. To own and take immediate responsibility for your mistakes.  This is another one that should go without saying, but an awful lot of people seem not to understand this: when you make a mistake, as you inevitably will at some point, own up to it immediately.  No one respects finger-pointing and deflection; everyone respects stepping up and taking responsibility for yourself.  Whatever it is, if it’s your mistake, own it and take responsibility for it right away, while it can be fixed or another take can be done.  Don’t be “that guy” who blames everything on everyone else (it’s no one’s fault but yours) or never says anything in hopes that no one will notice your mistake (they will).