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Professional profile: Cinematographer / Director of Photography (DoP)

Visual film design as a creative profession

1. Preface

This professional profile was developed in times where audiovisual media expand worldwide and all those involved attempt to gain a greater stake in the increasing use of their creations. It testifies in particular to the part played by cinematographers / DoPs in filmmaking. It describes specifically those duties and creative elements that in the context of the shared design of a cinematographic work by a creative team regularly and mostly lie within the cinematographer's area of responsibility and thus can be regarded as typical of the profession. These duties have changed considerably during the history of film and have also been influenced by regional differences. Here, the current situation in Germany serves as the point of reference, but some international variations are noted as well. For simplicity, the male terms used in this section can be understood to refer to women as well.

2. Definition

Until now, the very general term "cameraman" has been commonly used in the German language, and this encompasses a range of activities that can be distinguished as follows:
a) Recording of moving images as in sports and live events, shows, news and current-affairs reporting, and similar formats (analogous to a photojournalist)
b) Cinematography as artistic image design in the field of film creations such as staged, mostly fictitious film, TV and video productions, especially for feature films, television plays and series, as well as advertising, but also artistically designed documentary and industrial films (analogous to a photographic artist).
The activities outlined here relate only to the latter category.

However, even within that category, the term "cameraman" still covers widely divergent activities and areas of responsibility:
Is a "cameraman" any man (or woman) behind a camera? Is he behind one of the many cameras in an action shot or television recording? Is he only the operator who moves a camera on command, or is he the director of photography, who is solely responsible for creating a films images, is named in the credits accordingly, and has other camerapeople and -teams working under his supervision? Unfortunately, the commonly used German job title offers no clarification. Internationally, however, this responsibility is clarified by using other terms.
The "cameraman" responsible for creating a films images is known as cinematographer (e.g. American Society of Cinematographers ASC), corresponding to "Kinematograf" in German.
For large productions, often using several camera teams, his overarching role is also clarified by using the following terms:
  • Director of Photography (DoP in England, DP in America),
  • Directeur de la Photographie (France),
  • Direttore della Fotografia or Autore della Fotografia (Italy and equivalent in Spain)
These can be roughly translated into German as "Bildregisseur" (image- or visual director), "Bildautor" author of images), or "Bildgestalter" (image- or visual designer). Thus, the worlds most important film nations have terms for the "cameraman" that are nearer to his actual importance, and recognise him as a co-director.
A distinction is drawn here between the DoP and the other camerapeople and members of camera crews, who work subject to directives under his leadership, and whose main area of activities is in the secondary technical/manual sphere. They may be called "cameraman", "operating cameraman", "operateur", "cadreur", "operatore" or "assistant cameraman". In German, these titles correspond to "Assistant", "Schwenker" or "Operator", although the latter is often also ambiguously referred to as "Kameramann". Because of this confusion, it is typical that "Kamerafhrung" ("camera operation") is often praised in reviews or awards, even though the authors are really referring to lighting and visual design and not to manual camera operation. Thus, the German language used to make no linguistic distinction between the leading -"cameraman" and the "cameraman" of an occasional additional team. Unfortunately the German language is struggling with this profession.
By focussing on the term "Kinematograf" ("cinematographer") as a job title and by renaming the professional association BVK ("Berufsverband Kinematografie" = "Professional Association of Cinematographers") we now intend to achieve a linguistic distinction.

3. Outlines of duties - the basics

3.1. Area of responsibility
It is the cinematographers task to take responsibility for the creative visual design of a film in collaboration with the director and possibly the set designer. This encompasses both artistic and technical collaboration during film production (no matter whether these "films" are on film stock, magnetic tape, hard disc, memory chips or other storage media; in the following, we are therefore referring to "film" as a general term.)
Within the context of a camera team, the cinematographer has the function of leading cameraperson and supervises the technical and creative visual parameters of the film, specifically lighting, image composition and camera movement. (The latter is mostly carried out by himself, but often it is taken over by one or more camera operators or additional teams.)
3.2. Creativity versus technology
Film design is a distinctive result of the creative imagination. The cinematographer exercises a decisive and formative creative influence during this process. Nevertheless, the profession is often, and mistakenly, regarded as primarily technical because handling complex equipment appears to be its primary characteristic. However, the technology is operated by specially qualified staff, while the cinematographer in his role as image designer is only concerned with such matters to a limited extent.
Even though in the early days of cinema the "man with the camera" was often the constructor of his own equipment, his main role was that of the actual filmmaker, and he was therefore "cameraman" and director in one person. It was only later that an additional "director" came to his relief and for staging the increasing number of actors.
The technical foundations of cinematography are certainly more extensive than those for direction, but at the same time the ever increasing growth in digital technologies allows the cinematographer a wealth of forms of artistic expression that in the old days he could only dream of.
3.3. The DoP on the creative team
Generalisations about the artistic involvement of cinematographers in the creative team (screenplay, direction, cinematography, set and costume design, editing) have to be based on the specific characteristics of each position.
There are certain essential areas where the cinematographers influence, responsibility, and authority, as a rule, are given. But since the areas of influence in artistic teamwork can never be delineated exactly, overlap in peripheral areas is also the rule. In the case of cinematography this overlap can arise in the areas of production design, but especially with directing:
The fundamental responsibility of the director is the scenic design of a film, while that of the cinematographer is its visual design. The transition is fluid: sometimes the cinematographer influences the films mise-en-scene as much as the director does its visualisation. The degree of this mutual influence depends on the personalities concerned, and is determined by experience, trust, working methods, and the partners egos. Yet neither is free in his work, since both are subject to a main directive: their responsibility to the subject matter and/or the screenplay. Of course this requires a consistent interpretation by everyone, especially by the director. This should then be binding for the rest of the creative staff, so that all concerned have a unified approach. Within this framework, the cinematographer can then act autonomously.
3.4. Expert authority and competence
The visual design of the film is based on the creative and technical expertise of the cinematographer. His decisions, based until then on visual intuition and conceptual preparation, really take shape only after shooting starts. But at the same time he is responsible already during shooting for the first critical checks of the finished product, where the creative and technical efforts of the whole crew of often more than a 100 people come together under his responsibility, as though passing through the eye of a needle. Therefore he is also responsible for the audiences emotions: their focus of attention, who they identify with, their joy, their sadness or their fear. The success or failure of a film can thus be influenced significantly by the cinematographers decisions.
3.5. Authorship
The responsibility of the cinematographer for the visual design giving distinction to the film as a complete work of art through "personal intellectual creation" (according to copyright law) first leads to his authorship with respect to overall visual design. However, through its defining quality this also leads to joint authorship of the film as a whole, usually together with the director.
Yet because of economic interests of the production industry this authorship was often contested in the past and the "cameraman" was often just assigned to the technical domain.
The recognition of authorship of the cinematographer was therefore one of the tasks and prominent goals of the BVK during the past 30 years. This recognition could since not only be enforced for the whole sector, but has also been confirmed by the legislative authority and the courts. First achievements have already been made with respect to a profit share for cinematographers.
Here, Germany and the BVK are taking the lead, in many other countries an actual recognition has not been achieved yet. In the USA and in Commonwealth countries, the copyright lies with the producers according to local copyright law ("work made for hire").
3.6 Credits
In accordance with his importance, the cinematographer is also regularly named in the opening or closing credits. His name will usually appear in the "creative block" (direction, cinematography, screenplay, editing, production design, music, etc.), usually just before or after that of the director. In Germany, alongside the ambiguous term "Kamera" ("camera") which unfortunately tends to be the default, the term "visual design" ("Bildgestaltung") is already used quite frequently, the term "cinematography" ("Kinematografie") will be used more commonly in future. In Anglo-Saxon countries the term "Director of Photography" is usually used here.

4.Primary duties and responsibilities

The cinematographers sphere encompasses all stages of film production, from preproduction through principal photography to post-production. The cinematographer is one of the crew members involved in the production process the longest from initial discussions through to the approval of final prints or digital copies.
4.1. Preparation
This phase usually begins several weeks or even months before shooting. Here the basic artistic principles for the films structure are worked out, and decisions are made with respect to finances, technical equipment, and personnel.
4.1.1 Studying the screenplay
This step includes getting acquainted with the subject matter, reading any background literature or the original novel, developing a visual structure, thinking about film formats (e.g. CinemaScope), breaking down the script, and considering particular problems and special techniques for solving them.
4.1.2 Preliminary discussions with the director
about the screenplay and possible alterations to it, the dramatic and stylistic concept, narrative structure and special design elements, but also about recording techniques, time schedule, budget, casting, etc.
4.1.3 Preliminary discussions with the producer
about the budget, shooting schedule, recording techniques, work flow, equipment, and personnel.
4.1.4 Preliminary discussions with the production designer
about locations, original sets and constructions as well as their artistic and technical realisation, and about quality and arrangement of natural and artificial light sources as well as the general colour design.
4.1.5 Preliminary discussions with costume- and make-up artists
for fine-tuning fabrics and colours of costumes as well as make-up techniques.
4.1.6 Scouting and choosing locations
The director, cinematographer, production designer, and producer narrow down the choices and make the final selection of locations. At each location, the first practical discussions take place about the breakdown of scenes, preferred perspectives, individual shots, and possible modifications of the location. The cinematographer starts working on a lighting concept and sets the time of day for shooting individual scenes based on the suns position.
4.1.7 Determining the recording format, work flow and technical equipment
Here the decisions are made on recording format, cameras, lenses, recording and storage material, grip, lighting, as well as laboratory and post-production.
4.1.8 Appointment of the technical staff
Camera crew, additional units, key grip, gaffer and electricians, DIT (digital imaging technician), and agreement on their respective responsibilities.
4.1.9 Shooting tests
of members of the cast, costumes, make-up techniques, sets, constructions and locations.
4.1.10 Technical tests
to test cameras, lenses, recording materials, the laboratory and the digital production and post-production work flow.
4.2 Filming / principal photography
During this phase, which may vary considerably in length depending on the type of production, the film is shot, scene by scene, take by take, usually in non-chronological order:
4.2.1. Breakdown of scenes
This is one of the most important phases in film production:
individual scenes are broken down into a sequence of different camera set-ups and movements to determine the dramatic and visual elements of the action.
The director and the cinematographer begin working together on the structure of the scenes at this point. From which perspective should the audience experience this scene: from the point of view of the person committing the crime, for example, or from that of the victim? Should it be a hectic succession of many rapid shots or a slow, gliding movement through the sets? Should it be told in close-ups or long shots? Should shock cuts be used, or should special effects be achieved by using camera movements? Many essential elements of progression, timing, rhythm, and pace of the scenes and sequences are thus predetermined at this stage and as a consequence some elements of the later edit are fixed already.
4.2.2 Determining the individual shots
In consultation with the director, the cinematographer determines the individual shots with respect to the following parameters:
  • camera angle and height (low-angle versus high-angle shots, large or small, imposing or vulnerable),
  • framing and image composition,
  • camera movement (dolly, crane, Steadicam, hand-held, etc.),
  • choice of lens (telephoto or wide-angle to unite or dissociate certain elements, zoom),
  • in focus versus out of focus, depth of field (to extend or narrow down, to emphasise, to bring out details).
Using these optical parameters not only fulfils a narrative function but also influences the audiences visual and emotional response. This happens in particular with respect to:
  • dramatic and emotional atmosphere, timing or suspense,
  • dramatic enhancement of the cast, age adjustment, appearance and impact of the "stars",
  • spatial, dramatic and psychological relationships between the characters,
  • ambiance and visual characterisation of the sets and locations,
  • perspectives and spatial impact,
  • illusion of the (missing) third dimension on screen.
To achieve these effects, the set must often be adapted to the photographic requirements. Such changes can include anything from rearrangement of the props and lighting fixtures to the removal or alterations of walls.
4.2.3. Lighting:
Light is one of the most important creative tools of photography. Diverse creative possibilities are provided through the creative deployment of light and shadow; front, side and back light; point source lighting or diffused illumination; hard or soft light; contrast and brightness distribution (e.g. high-key, low-key lighting); as well as colour and movement of light. These define specifically:
  • the dramatic, emotional, and aesthetic atmosphere required by the scene,
  • the dramatic enhancement of the cast, as well as the appearance and impact of the "stars",
  • the visual design of locations and sets creating overall atmosphere and effects of space and depth,
  • concentration on the action, emphasis on or suppression of certain scenic elements,
  • evocation of seasons and times of day and for describing locations (water and light reflexes)
  • the simulation of e.g. driving movements (moving light) or certain weather phenomena (e.g. lightning),
  • special lighting effects that can go beyond the technical standards of colour or exposure.
The lighting design is the sole responsibility of the cinematographer to the extent that it is often considered his most important duty, as for example in the UK, where the cinematographer is also called the "lighting cameraman".
Even though in German the gaffer / chief lighting electrician is called "Oberbeleuchter", he is no independent lighting designer but simply organises and supervises the lighting set-ups as specified by the cinematographer. However, he is often an important partner for the latter for discussing artistic issues as well.
4.2.4 Colour design and filtering
Colour effects serve to enhance the dramatic and emotional impact. These effects can be achieved by using coloured light, whole or partial filters on the camera, or during digital post-production.
4.2.5 Photographic special effects
In the past, special effects work and visual tricks were often done directly in the camera, but later also through visual post-production in the animation studio or laboratory. Nowadays there are almost infinite possibilities of creative image processing during digital post-production. Countless science fiction and fantasy films bear witness of this development; however, this always has to take place in collaboration with the cinematographer.
4.2.6 Evaluation and selection of the filmed material (dailies or rushes)
The director, cinematographer and editor work together on pre-selecting the filmed material (the analogue or digital rushes), usually on a daily basis. Sometimes certain takes are already selected for inclusion in the final film, sometimes only certain preferences are given and the editor is left with the final decision. Especially in TV productions, viewing rushes exclusively on DVD or online has become standard practice, which makes quality control difficult.
4.2.7 Supervision of the equipment and work flow
The continuous supervision the of the technical equipment, including shooting tests, is usually carried out by the first camera assistant, the supervision of the production and post-production work flow is carried out by the cinematographer and/or his DIT.
4.2.8 Supervision and training of the camera crew
As the members of the camera crew are at a stage of their training that enables them to carry out their current position in the team, the cinematographer also has the function of a teacher. It should be his goal to qualify them during their work so that they may continue to advance in their chosen profession.
4.2.9 Budget monitoring
During a production, the cinematographer also carries part of the responsibility for observing that the costs in his area do not unexpectedly exceed the budget.
4.3 Post-production
After shooting is complete, this is the last phase of production for completing the editing, special effects, as well as analogue and digital image processing. Until approval of the final print, the DCP (cinema) or the final digital master for TV, DVD or Blu-ray, the cinematographers duties include:
4.3.1 Special images or effects
Supervision of any additional supplementary or model photography, computer generated images or special effects. These are often carried out by a separate team or by computer specialists. Nonetheless the cinematographer with his overall responsibility for the film's visual design has to play an important role in these processes.
4.3.2 Digital finishing processes / post-production
New creative possibilities arise through the increasing use of digital image processing, both for digital productions and for those using film. In case of the latter, the original negative is scanned, processed as a digital intermediate (DI) and, where required, transferred back onto one or more quasi "original" negatives. This means that the former quality degrading process of duplication is void, and film copies are regaining the undiminished quality of the first generation. For digital cinema projection, the digitally processed DI is then transferred directly to a DCP.
This panoply of new creative means of expression through digitalisation allows the cinematographer to introduce additional creative decisions and corrections beyond the former limitation by photo-chemistry.
4.3.3 Colour timing (or colour grading)
Before release prints or the digital master are produced, final adjustments of brightness, contrast and colour of the individual scenes are carried out in the order of the edit, with digital techniques more and more replacing the former analogue ones. This is the conclusion of the creative photographic production process. It is therefore of paramount importance that the cinematographer who is responsible for the overall visual design maintains the ultimate control also during these final stages.
4.3.4 Print approval
The cinematographer checks and approves the film prints, the DCP, or the masters for TV, video or DVD/Blu-ray.

5. Training

In Germany, "cameraman" or "cinematographer" is not officially recognised as a profession for which vocational training is offered. On-the-job training used to be recommended for someone wishing to become a cinematographer, and the following stages have proven useful:
  • apprenticeship as a photographer (useful as a preliminary step),
  • apprenticeship or practical placement in a film laboratory or post-production company in order to gain comprehensive knowledge of all relevant processes
  • ,
  • practical placement in an equipment rental service in order to gain knowledge of all camera systems (film, video, HD, digital cinema, etc.), as well as
  • "several years" experience on various camera crews in advancing positions.
Throughout Europe, there are increasingly successful training centres and film schools offering the courses camera, visual design or cinematography; in Germany these now exist in almost every federal state.
The majority of these aim to offer comprehensive training, while others are just designed to train people in the areas of news and current-affairs reporting for the TV networks. Therefore it is advisable to find out all relevant information about the different training options before starting a course. In general it is however vital that these studies are accompanied and supplemented by practical training and experience in the everyday commercial production process.
General prerequisites include good eyesight, the ability to take physical and psychological stress, flexibility, a good general education, technical aptitude, a pronounced sense of style, the ability to assert oneself, an organisational talent, and leadership qualities. Finally, knowledge of history of art, theatre studies, and experience in other artistic areas can also be helpful.
The long training, the great uncertainties of working self-employed in the media sector and the high degree of responsibility for the artistic and commercial success of a film production require above-average personal commitment. To be successful, an absolute desire for this profession is therefore indispensable, together with being prepared to make concessions with respect to social security, regular working times or a normal social life.

6. Employment

6.1 Freelance
This includes varied short-term employment on independent film, television and video productions at home and abroad.
In Germany this partially works through time-limited project-based contracts as an employee with payments of taxes and social security, where strictly speaking only compensation of the activity or work input itself is due.
In contrast to that it is also possible to work based on service contracts, where no social security is paid and at the same time the liability risk is increased considerably, e.g. with respect to colleagues, equipment or even the quality of the work. Therefore great care is required when drafting these contracts.
Prospects for promotion are unlimited, top positions can be reached on the open market. The economic risk is great and employment is determined by supply and demand, but often also by an early decline due to age. In practice, agreements on working conditions as determined by law or labour contract are often not observed and extremely long working days are the rule. The German Association of Cinematographers BVK is however advocating strongly for an improvement of these working conditions.
6.2 Permanent employment
with television stations or private production companies.
The economic risk and the prospects for promotion are limited; TV usually offers good social security. The working conditions are largely regulated by labour agreements.

7. Conclusion

As is true for almost all artistic professions, there has been no official outline of the duties and responsibilities for the cinematographer. As early as 1983, the BVK (Berufsverband Kinematographie / German Association of Cinematographers), thus decided to draw up such an outline on the basis of current production practices and has updated this regularly. The Bundesverband der Film- und Fernsehregisseure e.V. (the German Directors Guild) was consulted before publication so as to avoid objections from directors based on differing interpretations of those overlapping areas that affect both fields.
Therefore this professional profile is not the product of wishful thinking by a professional group. It is a documentation of widely recognised areas of activity and influence of the cinematographer in film, television or video production.
Jost Vacano ASC/BVK
1983, updated 1992, 1995, 2006, 2007 and 2013
Definition and preface: Executive Board of the BVK 2013
Translation: Dr Christine Clar