Interview with an Independent Video Director/Cinematographer

in Entertainment, Jobs that are fee for service, Jobs with a flexible work schedule

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Kellen Dengler gets JobShadowed about his career in the film business.  You can find Kellen on his website at www.kellendengler.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?

I currently work as an independent video Director, Cinematographer and Editor on a freelance basis.

How would you describe what you do?

I tell stories, from behind a camera, and through creative story telling via digital media. My main focus is documentary style film making. I really enjoy telling people’s stories and getting insight to their lives and not just telling their story, but showing it. As an independent film maker I’ve focused my efforts on doing this to the best of my abilities.

What does your work entail?

My work entails a solid mix of creative conceptualizing, directing, cinematography, some producing, and editing. As an independent film maker you tend to sort of shape shift into different positions regularly depending on the job and the budget. Some jobs might have you doing 10 different things that might normally require 10 different people. Other times, you may just be focused on one particular aspect of the production. A strong point that I feel I have for myself is knowing how to do all of these things independently and bringing all of those talents together to get the job done when needed.

What’s a typical work week like?

Every week is totally different for me. Because I work with several different clients on many different projects I tend to be all over the place. Depending on what deadlines I may have that week, I could spend the whole week filming, I could spend the whole week editing, I could be directing, or I could be writing and conceptualizing to prepare for upcoming projects. Typically it’s a pretty good mix of all of these things. I have found recently that when I’m not shooting during the day, I tend to get bogged down with meetings, phone calls, and emails. I seem to get most of my editing, and some of my best editing done during the evenings. Every day is totally different though, so there is no set formula or agenda.

How did you get started?

I attended Arizona State University originally with a path to study architecture. I decided that wasn’t a fit for me after my freshman year and ultimately found video production and took that route. One great thing about my university learning experience was their internship program. They were very dedicated to getting the students set up with internships that suited their paths of study. I really took full advantage of those opportunities and held down several internships while in school. Sometimes I had more than one internship per semester. I found that I tended to learn a lot more working hands on in the field, VS out of the book in the classroom. During my last semester of college I took on an internship with MTV in NYC. I had been doing several other internships while in school, but it was this particular internship that sold me on doing video production, and ultimately moving to NYC to pursue it. Post college I moved to NYC to continue with MTV and the rest is history.

What do you like about what you do?

I consider myself a pretty creative and artistic person. I love being able to utilize my creativity within my work and tell people’s stories. Whether it is a documentary film, a music video, or a commercial, there is a story to be told, and a creative angle in which to tell it. As the saying goes, if you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.

What do you dislike?

I think the market has become very over-saturated in today’s digital age. There’s an influx of people buying cameras and self titling themselves as directors, editors, and photographers, but in reality they are just a person who spent a lot of money on a nice camera and don’t know how to use it, but just front. However, with this influx of people joining this industry it’s very easy to weed out the untalented from the talented. It always shows in your final product. You can tell who was properly trained or took the time to learn, VS the ones who just bought gear to try it out.

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

Since I work freelance I hold a variety of clients and typically have a few projects all happening at once. I’m paid per project, by the client, on the set terms. It’s always different depending on the client or the project and what is ultimately needed in the end. Typically in the world of freelance 30 days net pay is standard. Some clients will pay you quicker than that, but most will pay around that 30 day mark. Some projects have budget available up front to get production going, while others do not. It’s always different.

How much money do Cinematographers make? 

This is probably one of the most commonly asked questions I get. Or, “how much do you charge to make a video?” The short answer is: it depends. Every project is different, and every project has a different set of circumstances. A 3 minute video could take 3 minutes to shoot, or it could take 3 years. It could take 3 days to edit, or it could take 3 months. It depends on what it is, what is needed to make it, and what is needed to finish it in post. No two projects are ever alike.

Typically, I get that information from the client up front, sort of the who, what, where, when and why? From there I can sort of gauge how many days of production will go into this project, how much gear is going to need to be used, how much staff will I need to hire on, and how many days of post production will be required to finish the project. I have a couple of producers that I work with pretty closely who handle the budget split for projects. Once we have that essential information from the client, we can build out the budget and staff accordingly. Each position sort of has its own general day rate, and you can sort of plan out the budget based on that.

The range of pay for a cinematographer sort of varies. Usually, the client or agency involved will sort of dictate how much is available based on the job. Key factors include – how many days, travel, inclusion of gear vs gear rental etc. Lower end freelance jobs might only pay a few hundred dollars a day to shoot, while higher end jobs for bigger clients and projects could earn around $2,000 – $2,500 a day. This is all relevant to the project at hand and will fluctuate job to job.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

When I initially got into the video world I was working as an unpaid intern. In fact, I held a few different internships with different TV stations and media outlets to sort of absorb as much as possible. At the time I was living off of student loans so I made it by, but post college it was time to start making a little money. My first transition into the post-college professional world was working as a Production Assistant on various projects. These are typically pretty low paying jobs $100-$150 a day, but the experience I would gain from these was priceless, especially once I began working on bigger and bigger sets and meeting more seasoned veterans in the video world. As a PA you get to be in the mix of everything and help out with everything on set, so if you are there to learn and get experience, you will. I feel like this is the first sort of entry level position that most film makers tend to start out as to gain experience.

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

I went to college and ended up with a degree in multi-media production with a focus on documentary film making. I don’t feel like that is necessarily mandatory in today’s age. Many people in today’s age are learning themselves. Technology has become more and more affordable, and the resources you can find online can help guide you with self practice and dedication. Self practice and dedication are the key. The more you practice, the more you create, the more you try, the better you will become. In terms of video production there isn’t really one “correct” way of doing things, it’s more a matter of finding out what works for you and sticking to it to develop your own personal style.

What is most challenging about what you do?

I think the most challenging thing in today’s video world is maintaining a creative edge. So many people have begun creating video that the market has become over-saturated a bit. It’s important to stay fresh and creative, but most importantly to find your own personal style that works for you. This will help define you as an artist and bring character to your work.

What is most rewarding?

I love telling stories and doing so through my original art work. When you put all of your creative efforts and energy into a project and it fully tells a story in the most unique way possible – you can’t beat that feeling.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

For up and comers interested in the world of video I would recommend that they learn to do as much as possible with the resources they have and not be so concerned if they have the right gear, or the right software. You can learn just about anything today via the internet and with enough self dedication and practice to your craft you can master your abilities and execute great imagery. I feel like the younger generation is so worried about what camera they have to buy, or what lens they need, or what software they have to have when they should just be out shooting more, and practicing. Practice, practice, practice.

How much time off do you get/take?

I’m self employed so I set my own schedule. I love what I do, so I tend to stay busy and work a lot, but I can also afford myself to take time off here and there as needed without having to ask anyone for permission. That feels good.

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

I don’t think people realize how many different hats I tend to wear on a daily basis in terms of video production. There are some days where I will do everything from PA, grip, produce, direct, shoot and edit all by myself because that’s what the project calls for. Other times I might have a full dedicated crew to split the work. It always changes, but I feel like people think I just show up onto sets and shoot things that become magic without realizing what really goes into it.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

A personal goal I’ve been holding for myself is to direct a feature length documentary before I turn 30. Documentary projects of that nature typically consume a ton of time and effort and generally yield very little pay so they truly must be a passion project. I’m working on finding that perfect subject and going for it.

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

I feel like there are many rewarding opportunities in the world of video production if you want them bad enough. Wanting it bad enough is the key. I feel like a lot of people in today’s age only half way want it and don’t want to commit to learning their craft and executing it.

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