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  • Writer's pictureCraig Van Horne

Filmmaker, Director of Photography….. what’s really in a title?

Just because someone gives themselves a title doesn’t mean they are one or are even deserving of the title. And that is the purpose of this post but I’ll get to that shortly.

As per my usual modus operanti, I am reading more than one book at a time. Generally I have at least one fictional novel going, two or more industry (video production, post production etc.) related and several non-fiction works all being read simultaneously. Is it efficient? Probably not. But I’m one of those odd people who are both creative and a rather propeller hat type technologists in the video production and post production worlds. It’s a rather odd dichotomy in the sense that I thrive on order and structure but I also revel in abstract projects and thought experiments.

A couple of days ago, one of my colleagues commented on the structure of the problem solving process I was using while working on a systems related issue, and was somewhat amazed that I could focus and be so process driven in my methods. But for me the balance between technical knowledge and understanding and the creative side of producing a video project is really important. It allows me to immediately know whether something is possible with the tools, time and budget we have; and that allows me to focus more on the creative without worrying that we won’t be able to deliver at the end to our client. End of tangent…..

So I just started into, what I’m hoping will be a great book with loads of insight from another person in the business of creating moving pictures. The book is called Shooting Movies, Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot — Becoming a Cinematographer by Jack Anderson. Who is Jack Anderson you may ask? I asked the same question, and to be honest… after looking him up through Google and on I can only say, I’m not sure… to the best of my Google searching abilities I found that he might be the Jack Anderson whose resume includes camerawork on features like Hook and Pretty Woman and TV series such as Mad About You and Third Rock From the Sun……

Now with that out of the way, the author’s very first paragraph posited the question, what is a Director of Photography? and had me at, “It’s not something you can just decide to call yourself — at least not if you want it to have any meaning”… brilliant! And in my esteemed opinion very true. Mr. Anderson draws a line between what a Cinematographer does and what a Director of Photography does, and he has a fairly valid point. He asserts that a cinematographer is a title that really just describes what work is done by the photographer of a movie, so really a camera operator and I would agree with that statement.

A Director of Photography (DOP) on the other hand is something entirely different and as Mr. Anderson proclaims it isn’t a title that can be bestowed on oneself simply because they like the idea of being a DOP. To be a DOP means to be hired specifically for that position and to be paid (at least something) for that work, and you get credited as a, Director of Photography. And to be honest I also prescribe a great many other attributes and skills to someone who is a DOP than some who is a camera operator. The DOP is usually tasked with making the Directors visions a reality on camera and that includes having a really in depth understanding of light and the crafting of light to realize the Directors vision. It also means that a DOP also knows how to flip a scene and ensure the lighting matches, that cheating shots can be achieved without being noticeable to the viewer and on and on.

There are loads of people out there calling themselves a DOP but can’t light a scene of any kind to save their lives, similar to how some refer to themselves as Filmmakers. Well if you aren’t shooting on actual celluloid film then you are not a filmmaker. And if you shoot digitally and finish digitally then you aren’t doing a DI (Digital Intermediate) because there is no intermediate when there is no film. Even if the output is film there is still no intermediate when shooting digital and posting digital. Now, I sometimes harp on about things like this that some might think are petty or simply a matter of semantics; but I think it’s important to be precise in the words we use and the titles we assign or prescribe ourselves, or which we are given. Someone can’t go around saying they are an attorney or a doctor without the appropriate accreditation, but anyone can be a Filmmaker.

I believe that people earn the titles they have and shouldn’t just take the title they want. Everyone starts somewhere, and in a business like video production going to “Film School” is becoming less and less important to become a success or to develop a career. What does make a career, and lead to success is being smart, being willing to work hard and make mistakes and then take ownership of those mistakes and to be curious as hell to learn all aspects of video production. Every great company and every company with a great work environment is one that supports, nurtures and encourages those who bring the best perquisite skills to the table, the basic skills and curiosity that makes great people great, at so many jobs that are not in video production are the same attributes that make someone a success in this business.

I call myself a PrEditor (Producer/Editor), because I edit most of my projects and I produce them, and the fact is I really do the work… and get paid for it… and have been for almost thirteen years. And when it comes to the next guy I’ll always have time for the next generation or the next person who really wants to learn and grow in this business, I’ll mentor them and I’ll help in any way I can so they can earn the title(s) they get. I place more value on the work we do in the business of video production, whether doing corporate communications, larger budget commercials or multi-million dollar feature films than to be okay with the readiness to take credit where no credit is due. Honesty, Integrity and Transparency are as critical to the integrity of the video production business as they are in any other professional field. And video production is a professional field and we should all strive to earn the titles we claim so that they actually mean something. And in that, those who hire the services of a Director of Photography or a Producer or Editor or Writer will get the expertise and value they deserve.

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