Interview with a Cinematographer

in Artistic Jobs, Entertainment, Self Employed

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Seth Iliff gets JobShadowed about his career as a filmaker and cinematographer.  You can find him at www.sethiliff.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?

Filmmaker and cinematographer

How would you describe what you do?

Lighting and camera work for several different things: feature film, short film, commercial, documentary and corporate.

What does your work entail?

If I’m alone like on the documentary or corporate work that I’ve done then I do everything from setting lights to camera work to recording usable sound.  If I have a crew like on the feature, short or commercial then I control the image quality by directing the electric dept. on how to light, direct the grip dept. on how to rig lights, dolly track and other things, and finally, direct the camera dept. on how the camera should move and what framing should be.

What’s a typical work week like?

The weekend is often taken up by commercial work because it’s easier to move around and have free scheduling opportunities so my ‘weekends’ usually fall on days in the middle of the normal work week.  It’s important to take vacations in this line of work because of the intensity of the work can burn you out.

How did you get started?

Film school, but this is a hotly debated topic as to whether or not film school is necessary.  My answer: do what makes you most comfortable.  Film school will likely put you in debt, but you’ll make valuable connections to people who might make it big and drag you along with them.  That can also happen in the real world as well, but committing to paying off student loans says something about your drive to making a solid career for yourself: it’s an investment.

Bottom line: once you figure out what field in filmmaking you want to be in (many figure this out in film school) then focus solely on getting jobs in that field because experience is king.

What do you like about what you do?

Just about everything aside from the editing.  I’m still having to do it to maximize my profit on smaller jobs.

I love working with friends and professionals that are friendly and highly-skilled.  I love working with attractive actresses 🙂

What do you dislike?

Inflexable, uncommunicative and unfriendly people.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

The corporate work provides me with a W-2, but much of the time it’s 1099 work.  IMPORTANT: set aside 25% of your pay for taxes and WRITE OFF EVERYTHING that seems justified and you’ll likely be happy when you file your taxes.  Also I’m a HUGE believer in Mint.com, a free service that organizes all your finances in one place with a great app for your phone.  Check it out.

How much money do Cinematographers make? 

When most of your work is cinematography:

1-3 years in the field / $20k-$40k

3-8 years / $40k-$70k

8 years up / $70k and up

This is a rough guideline, but reasonable if you are talented, can manage a crew, work well with a director, and LIVE IN the right area

How much money did/do you make starting out?

Very little, but just enough to survive as a single person living a frugal lifestyle.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

Already addressed, but figuring out the specific area i.e. editing, production design, cinematography, etc. and getting experience in that field.

What is most challenging about what you do?

The strange hours and a schedule that has NO routine.

It’s important to have some kind of routine in your life.  For me it’s exercise, specifically CrossFit.  I manage to work out in the mornings 5 days a week.  It gets me up, moving and motivated.

What is most rewarding?

A product that I’ve helped to create that impresses just about anyone, and can be compared to the highest quality of filmmaking.  It happens occasionally now, but the goal is for it to happen more and more.  The budget is what holds me back much of the time at this point in my career, but many times great images come from scenarios with no budget whatsoever.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Know that you have talent before you put all your eggs in one basket and buy a RED or Alexa.

How much time off do you get/take?

As much as I want.  More during off-peak months, usually the winter.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

That it’s easy and can be done with just a little bit of knowledge.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

Shooting a 5 million dollar feature film or joining the ASC, American Society of Cinematographers.  Or both.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

You get into this field because it’s fun and enjoyable to do.  Once it stops becoming that… do something else.  You’ll only drag down those around you who are trying to make it by being negative.


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