Is cinematography a dying craft? No, not yet. However, I am greatly concerned by certain trends that seem to be taking place in the current market and, no, I don’t think it is solely due to the evolution of digital cinematography (though this plays a hand). It is no new development that making motion pictures is a business and, like all businesses, to be successful one must make a profit. In days past, a production generally had one of two options in regards to the camera department: a 35mm motion picture film camera or a 16mm motion picture film camera. Yes, there are lots of shapes and sizes from a fully outfitted Panavision Platinum all the way down to a modded Bolex H-16; the quality, however, between one 35mm to another and one 16mm to another with proper lenses is not drastic. It was almost always generally assumed that the camera itself, whatever the make and model, would be rented as most Directors of Photography didn’t own a package and the Director of Photography himself would be chosen because of his technical and creative ability in forming an image, not in what gear he could bring to the production to help lower rental costs.
Today’s market, with the prominence of digital cameras in the production of motion pictures, makes things decidedly different. Hi-Definition and Digital Cinema cameras come in an array of shapes and sizes as well, but also a plethora of sensor sizes, recording codecs and image capturing capabilities. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s always nice to have many options available for all sizes of budgets. However, the problem arises in the fact that producers don’t really know that much about cameras. Their main concern is the bottom line in the budget and to them, “We’ll shoot digital” means that any of the above cameras are fine, right? Canon 7d is just as good as the ARRI Alexa, isn’t it? I mean the one is just a little more flashy, but the image quality can’t make a $1,000 a day difference, can it? Well, yeah it can. Furthermore, there seems to be a growing trend that producers don’t want to actually rent a camera package anymore; they want a DP with a package (and lots of times one with lights and grip equipment as well).
So, what does this mean for cinematographers? Well, it means that the best person is no longer getting picked for jobs. The Director of Photography who is hired is the one who has the nicest camera package and the cheapest day rate. This leads to many subpar cameramen being the busiest and making the best livings, while excellent DPs are struggling to keep food on the table. Of course, not everyone who owns a package is not “the best” person for the job; many people with great packages are excellent. The decision of who shall or shall not shoot the film, however, should not be dictated by package. Believe me, in the end, your film will have a much better chance at being profitable by hiring a proficient DP and supplying said DP with the equipment needed to capture the essence of the story visually. In short, quality into a production usually means quality out of a production.
I’m not sure how prominent this phenomenon is on larger productions, but I have a feeling many cinematographers on lower budget productions will agree that this is a common occurrence and, obviously, not everyone has $40,000-70,000 to invest in camera and lighting gear. Even if they do, most lower budget productions aren’t union and the day rate is not enough to keep up the package, insurance and provide for yourself or a family.
Where do most of the DPs on larger budget productions come? They come from these lower budget productions that do well at festivals. Sure, if some of these DPs who own great packages aren’t great to begin with, they may evolve just from constant practice and opportunity to work. Yet, what becomes of the guys who don’t own large packages who have great eyes and can make beautiful, fitting images? It’s no longer a common (or necessarily viable) alternative to start as a 2nd AC and work your way up to being a Director of Photography, at least if you would like to be shooting or operating films before you are 40. Most of these cinematographers either end up working on below par projects just to make a living, leaving the field entirely for something more profitable or struggling from job to job trying to get the productions they can on their merit alone.
I think it’s a terrible trend in the industry and producers need to realize that the camera/lighting department is not the best department to try to save money on. This is the department that produces your image on screen and what’s the first thing that everyone will comment on after seeing a film? Whether it looked good or not.