The Ugly Life of a Cinematographer
Ive been so busy here in Iran currently filming "Layers of Lies" that I haven't had a chance for a day off to take a look around as to whats been going on in my personal life. So many people inbox me on social media mentioning how much they would love to be in my position or joining me on set and doing what i am doing. I admit I absolutely love what I do and have been very fortunate to have had some amazing projects come my way. With all those people on the outside seeing my career as an opportunity for adventure, art and travelling around the world, they don't really see what the bigger part of this career choice has to hold.
I love what I do and you couldn't bribe me to change my field of work, this is what I live for. In saying that though there are some hidden truths behind the curtain of what really lies behind the life of a DOP or pretty much most people working in the film industry. What I am about to write below is based on my own personal experiences. But through my eyes and ears on my travels around film sets around the world, I think 90% of film buffs can relate to what is below.
So for those who have always wanted to work in film or just want to take some insight into the life of doing film, here are some ugly truths about my profession.
9-5 DOES NOT EXIST
There is no such thing as a normal 40 hour week in this field. I don't recall the last time i had a 10 or 20 minute break every 3-4 hours. Its always been go go go. If regular hours or a routine is very important to you, than I would suggest you to move onto another career because it will simply NEVER happen in the film industry.
I think 95% of the time doing my job and making sure its done right means I need to put in extra hours, effort and energy to get the best quality results. Its always showing up early and leaving late. Even when I get home or to my accomodation when working away, im always having to do more research, pre-plan, run over pre-vis again and again and always checking out what the latest trends in the industry are just to ensure things are set straight and in order. Especially on lengthy projects like feature films I have to spend extra time in pre production with location scouting, prepping, pre-vis or ensuring the edit or color grade goes correctly for the story. Most of the time you do these extra chores with little or no extra pay and always during your own free time without any thank you's or recognition. This is where you just suck it up and push on through, as a true professional should.
The film industry is not a place where you can just sit and have things handed to you. If you are not willing to make sacrifices of your own time and you own schedules to further your career or skills, then honestly move on.
NO REGULAR SALARY
I think this stretches across to other freelancers aswell. This is the roller coaster ride of this career choice which can be emotional. When it rains sometimes it pours, and sometimes it just spits a few drops from the sky. When work is coming in be grateful and stay busy as hell because you never know when the drought is coming or when the big project you have had lined up gets delayed and you've had to cancel all other jobs for its original scheduling. There have been months where 12,000€ comes in and then some months were 120€ is your best. There are some months where im working 7 days and some months where you are just baffled trying to pitch and score the next gig. Staying active is your only combat to this ride, and it can be emotional and nerve racking, maybe even give you a few grey hairs.
Consistency and stability does not exist in this career, so if you want it, im sorry you are in the wrong profession. There have been days where the money has just piled in like a flood and then some days where you are looking for the money under the refrigerator and questioning yourself, your life direction and you will be screaming with self doubt.
The thing that keeps me pushing through the tough times is staying active, and always trying to invest that time not just chasing the next job but investing the time into my own skills and development as a DP. Hard times pass, but as I said before don't expect that shit to be handed to you on a plate, you need to work your ass off to pull yourself out. If you give up easily, cant handle stress or take disappointments to heart, then keep on walking cause this job is full of disappointments.
This is the most common ugly perk I have seen spread across the film industry. When you work 9-5 or just in the typical corporate world, people's stable lives create more predictability. In film this is not the case, well at least it hasn't been in my experience or from many others I have worked with from different cultures and countries.
Choosing this freelance career means that when the work comes, you have to take it. There are times when you can say no to a job, especially the smaller productions, but when you are doing bigger lengthy projects that have amazing door-opening potentials and/or pay then you have to grab those opportunities.
What does this mean? Having to cancel on family, loved-ones and friends, and if you are lucky, maybe you can re-schedule. Its always easy to re-arrange smaller engagements like dinner, drinks or going out for coffee, but for things like birthdays and vacations its much tougher. Especially for myself as I live in Finland and my family is back in Australia.
Since most of you reading are either the only one in your family/friends circle in the film industry or not even in the industry itself, then these outsiders have only experienced the normal everyday life of 9-5 or having the day for duties and nights for sleep. These people will find it extremely difficult to understand why you can never settle on set dates or have to always reschedule or cancel. Ive never been married, but have seen many divorces happen during lengthy projects, so if you intend to engage in marriage - from the advice others I have worked with around the world have told me you really need to find a spouse who is understanding and supportive with the amount of cancelations and rescheduling of family events, or even those times when you need to take that quick side job to get 3000€ because the past month has been dead quiet when it comes to incoming work. Most people just don't get it, they will always say "I don't care we made plans" or "cant you just move the day".
But wait it gets better! When you work on a feature film or some higher end productions. Sometimes phones are not allowed or you could be in remote locations with no access to communication for days on end. Feature films are intensive with 5-7 days a week work, which always span 12+ hours a day and for a month or more. Its rare you get a day off, and when you do you still need to do some work to plan for the next shooting day or go over some plans with other production staff, and most of these tasks just have to be done. Even if you do find some hours to have a real day off, you'll have minimal energy and none of that energy to share with others. Every lengthy production I have been on I have seen divorces and breakups happen. Your outside relationships with spouses, family or friends are put aside. I believe this is another reason why I think alcoholism, drug abuse, infidelity and divorce are common in the film industry, iv'e seen it happen to actors, producers even art department staff.
We do not live the traditional normal lives majority do, and this will affect those that are close to us. Remember those disappointments I talked about earlier, ask yourself this - are you morally ok that you are going to put those close to you into disappointment not just once but time and time again? If you are OK with that, then climb aboard the film industry train.
IS IT REALLY WORTH IT?
So after reading all this you are probably asking to me "is it worth it?". Being that this is my passion and the love of coming together with a group of unknown people from around the world to create something visually amazing is one hell of an awesome kick for me. But hey this is me! life is about choices and this is the choice I made, and I am satisfied.
Its all in the eye of the beholder and if you are ready to sacrifice your relationships, money stability and comfort of routine then it might be just possible this is for you. Of course there are some ways you can manage and minimise some of these negative perks to working in the industry, but once again its all about choices and how far you want to push yourself. I know some DP's who are quite comfortable shooting smaller productions in their own town.
Any film buffs out there that would love to share their stories id be happy for a chat! I hope this opened your eyes to what really lies in my profession, its not just all cool camera gadgets and the glorious behind the scenes videos and photos.