“What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?”
That’s a question famously asked in American Cinematographer magazine’s ASC Close-Up – a series of brief interviews with various ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) members.
It’s also an extremely telling question as it demands ASC members dig for the one piece of advice most important and most effective for them. The question doesn’t just ask for general guidelines or good advice, but the best advice.
At the suggestion of reader Martin Warrilow, I went through AC magazine’s online archives and pulled the answers to this question from 88 different cinematographers. Some are well-known while others are still under the radar. Yet all have crucial insight, wisdom, and knowledge to share that could help you in your filmmaking career.
So get ready as these 88 ASC cameramen and camerawomen drop some serious knowledge…
“What’s the Best Professional Advice You’ve Ever Received?”
When I was an AC, a gaffer told me, ‘Don’t run on a set,’ because you show everyone that you probably forgot something. I still don’t run on set, and I try not to forget too many things.
‘Keep it simple.’ It’s always exciting to try a new piece of gear, but sometimes two grips pulling a camera on a blanket is still the best solution.
Glen MacPherson, ASC
‘Never pass up the opportunity to keep your mouth shut!’ What they don’t tell you in cinematography training is that your job is 50 percent cinematography and 50 percent diplomacy. I’ve learned the hard way that when things go south, as they sometimes do, it’s best to pause and reflect on what’s happening and why before opening your mouth and blurting out what first comes to mind. No one remembers what you didn’t say, but they will certainly remember something you said in haste.
Bill Bennett, ASC
When I was in college, Nick Ray came to show his films, and I spent the whole night talking to him in the lobby rather than watching the films. As he left, he said, ‘Remember, it’s a way of life.’
Steven Fierberg, ASC
I’ve learned so much from reading American Cinematographer, and the best professional advice I ever received was from an interview with Gordon Willis. In it, he stressed the importance of always having a point of view when approaching a scene. It’s the first question I ask myself when I’m designing my coverage: what is the point of view, or whose? Once I’ve answered this question, everything falls into place with much more ease.
Ernest Dickerson, ASC
From editor Irving Lerner: ‘Cut out all the comin’s and goin’s.’
Jack Couffer, ASC
‘There’s only one way to shoot this thing: two ways.’
Barry Markowitz, ASC
From Owen Roizman: ‘There’s no need to have an ego as a man. Let your work on that screen be your ego.’
Crescenzo Notarile, ASC
Jim Danforth taught me the value of critical thinking, especially about your own work, and how to see your work as the audience will see it. And during The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas showed me a helicopter shot and asked if I could add a creature running on the ground, which at the time seemed impossible because of the six-axis camera motion. He said, ‘Give it some thought,’ and within 15 minutes I had a solution. That taught me that a right answer might be one thought away.
Don’t shoot your demo reel. Be true to the story.
From George Miller: ‘Just be bold, Dino! Be as bold as you want!’
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS
I received early encouragement from Woody Omens, ASC; and Walter Lassally, BSC taught me many crucial concepts over the course of several projects. I also appreciated the opportunity to be on the set of Fat City, where Conrad Hall was executing innovative ideas like using 8K (4x2K) umbrella lights for the fight scenes. In dailies, John Huston would just put his head down and listen, trusting Conrad to deliver their visual plan.
Tom Houghton, ASC
It was actually given to my son when he was getting ready to direct his thesis film at the American Film Institute. Jay Fortune, a New York gaffer I’d just completed a film with, suggested to him, ‘Don’t lose your sense of humor, even when everything seems to be going in the opposite direction.’
Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC
Life is like an airplane: you either get onboard, or you don’t. It’s up to you.
Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC
When I was a focus puller on a movie with Adrian Biddle, BSC, I told him I did not have focus marks, and he said, ‘Feel the Force.’ I use that advice all the time.
‘The edges of the frame are often more interesting than the center.’
Luciano Tovoli, ASC, AIC
On my first day on my first job as a PA, the production manager was late, and a grip said, ‘It is disrespectful to be late on a shoot day.’ That made a big impression on me.
Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC
Listen to your gut instinct and believe in it. And remember that the craft-service person on this job might be the producer on the next.
Roberto Schaefer, ASC, AIC
Stay calm, listen, observe and lead by example.
Jonathan Taylor, ASC
Don’t try to be someone you are not.
Alar Kivilo, AS, CSC
1) Learn how to listen; 2) Choose one strong idea per film; and 3) Really understand your motivations, why you do something and not something else, and the direction you take in your work.
Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC
The film business is like a prizefight: It’s not how many times you get knocked down that counts, it’s how many times you get up and go again.
Michael Chapman told me that if I didn’t want to shoot a project, I should just double my rate — that way I could be happy doing it. I’ve never tried it, but he made me laugh.
David Boyd, ASC
Know what you want to see in the shot before you plan logistics.
John Newby, ASC
After hearing complaints from an actor that I was putting too much light in his eyes, an executive producer called me into his office to remind me that I could be fired and he could be fired, but the actor could not be fired. It was a great lesson in political reality.
Robert Primes, ASC
From George Folsey Sr.: ‘Whenever you go into production, eat a good breakfast and sit down whenever you can.’ Good advice.
Peter Deming, ASC
Cinematography is 10 percent cinematography and 90 percent bladder control.
Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC
Don’t let yourself become too obsessed with technology. Find a balance with your creativity.
Jerzy Zielinski, ASC, PSC
Find a way to keep shooting, no matter what. That is how I have learned and how I have grown.
Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC
My gaffer in England, Martin Evans, advised me to say nothing during the first three weeks of production, to just watch and listen. I wish I had followed his advice more closely.
Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC
‘Every producer, every lab, every equipment house and every crewmember (from director to caterer) is your family.’
Russell Carpenter, ASC
From my agent: ‘Be the happiest guy on set.’ He was right.
Frank B. Byers
From Tim Beiber: ‘Show up early, don’t sit down, and act like you give a shit.’ It’s easy to remember and has far-reaching implications.
Jim Denault, ASC
Lee Rothberg’s mantra: ‘Keep calm, cool and collected at all times.’
Dejan Georgevich, ASC
I’m not sure it’s the best advice, but when I first began working as a camera assistant, Joe Ruttenberg, ASC lived next door. He took me into his house one day and showed me his two Academy Awards and told me to become an editor, because they had more control of his art than he did. It didn’t deter me, but it made me aware that I wasn’t in complete control of the finished product. It’s a lesson I’m still learning.
Charles Minsky, ASC
From Jordan Cronenweth: ‘Minimize compromise, be prepared for rejection, and save your money
Thomas A. Del Ruth
From my grandfather, Carmine Coppola: What you do with your non-working time is more important than what you do with your working time.
It’s the director’s movie. The director is always right.
Have a clear vision, design and objective for every scene. Then, by lighting with your instincts along with your intention and setting your own level of excellence, you will find satisfaction.
Rene Ohashi, ASC, CSC
The advice I got the first day I worked in the film business: Always be five minutes early to work, never five minutes late. But more importantly, live on the edge when it comes to your photography — take risks. Put your ideas on film and fall down a few times; it will make you a great filmmaker.
Invest in yourself, and if you’re not willing to risk everything, then don’t bother doing anything.
Stay true to yourself. When everything is crazy around you and you feel like you’re being forced into making all the compromises, do what is right for you and make the compromises you can live with. In the end, what people see on the screen is what they remember you by.
Michael Chapman, ASC said, ‘You have to give the impression you know what you’re doing even when you’re totally confused.’
I was working with Don McAlpine, ASC, ACS, and getting impatient watching the director, producer and assistant director endlessly discuss the next setup. Don turned to me and said in his inimitable Aussie drawl, ‘Relax. Sooner or later they’ll have to come over to talk to us.’
I was honored to have John Alton, ASC visit my set when I first became a cinematographer. He told me to light the people, not the sets.
I think it was Sven Nykvist, ASC who once said, ‘Take chances, but when you do, lower the ASA setting on your light meter.’ To this day, no matter how great the latitude of the film stock is, I always calibrate my meter to a lower setting than what the manufacturer recommends.
When I was starting out, a veteran first assistant told me the 2-Make Rule, ‘Make your leading ladies look beautiful and make your day.’
Aaron Schneider, ASC
When director Gil Cates chose me to shoot a love story starring Bea Arthur and Richard Kiley, he said he liked what I’d done on The Fly. I reminded him that Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were in a horror film, not a love story. He said, ‘No, they were in love, and that’s what the audience saw. Sometimes you have to ignore the words and let the pictures tell the story.’
Mark Irwin, ASC, CSC
From John Frankenheimer: ‘Alan, whatever you do in this business, don’t ever let them push you into shooting something you know is just bad, something you’ll end up regretting or hating. Simple rule of thumb: don’t shoot s**t!’
When I wanted to quit a miserable show, the director, Virgil Vogel, said, ‘Kid, never quit. If you have to leave, get fired. If you quit, it will always reflect on you.’
John Lindley, ASC
Legendary gaffer George ‘Popeye’ Dahlquist used to tell his lamp operators, ‘Boys, if you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re 10 minutes late.’ Readiness is a big part of what we do.
‘Be yourself.’ I was about to interview for the aforementioned pilot, and I was nervous. My good friend Dominique Fortin said, ‘Just be yourself; they will like you.’ I didn’t try to fake it. I thought it went badly, but in prep, the producer told me, ‘You came in and only spoke about the work, and that’s all Chris Carter cared about.’
Peter Wunstorf, ASC
I was once invited to a dinner where Billy Wilder was one of the guests. He asked me what I was doing, to which I replied, ‘Oh, a small movie.’ He said, ‘There’s no such thing, just good ones and bad ones.’ For the rest, I listened to an inner voice that said, ‘Develop as many interests as you can, as you will need them to fill the long gaps between movies and enrich life in general.’
Peter Suschitzky, ASC
Kate Nelligan, a superb actor, once told me that if I could light women beautifully, I would not only help many careers, but I would also definitely help mine.
Gabriel Beristain, ASC
Spend less than you make.
Don Burgess, ASC
From Harry Stradling Sr.: ‘Never be afraid to take a chance. It may be the best thing you ever did.’
Sol Negrin, ASC
The late and wonderful Phil Gersh, my agent for many years, listed the directors one should avoid working with. I’m not going to publish that list. Reports and anecdotes over the years have been an indication of grief avoided.
Donald McAlpine, ASC
‘Be nice to people on your way up because you never know who you’re going to meet on the way down.’
Ross Berryman, ASC, ACS
At ILM, Dennis Muren, ASC had a simple, powerful phrase: ‘One shot, one thought.’ When we lapse into gilding the lily on a setup, that quote provides a reality check.
Pete Kozachik, ASC
‘Light the set, then turn off half the lights and shoot.’
John S. Bartley, ASC, CSC
When I asked Freddie Francis for his secret to glamour lighting, he said, ‘Put a great big light right over the lens. And get Brooke Shields if you can.’
Bill Taylor, ASC
Using the Pentax spot meter, John Toon taught me the relationship between incident and spot readings. I have used this method of exposure calculation ever since.
Stuart Dryburgh, ASC, NZCS
My dad told me it didn’t matter what I did for a living as long as I loved it. Also, much later, Richard Leiterman caught up with me at the CSC Awards, where I’d just gotten my fourth consecutive award for a TV series and was on a bit of a roll. He told me not to ‘get too damn comfortable’ and to ‘get the hell back to the USA while ya can!’ A year later, I was divorced, living in my native California, doing my most satisfying work ever, and shooting a big studio feature. My career and life have only gotten better since then.
Rob McLachlan, ASC, CSC
This is directly related to my memorable blunder. When Conrad Hall, ASC gave a lecture at AFI, he was asked what single piece of advice he’d give to aspiring cinematographers. His answer: ‘Get enough sleep.’
Antonio Calvache, ASC, AEC
When Levie asked me to work with him at Corman’s, the pay was $50 a day. Levie said, ‘They’re not paying for experience. Take the job and you’ll meet people.’
Rodney Taylor, ASC
Right after I was accepted into the union as an operator, I was offered a job at Warners as an assistant. I needed a letter from a producer to re-rate me. The producer told me I’d be an idiot not to pursue operating because it might take me 10 or more years to get there again. He was right; it was a struggle. But I established myself as an operator and was working steadily within a year.
I once worked with Irving Penn, who told me a simple rule: less is often better. He used a single soft light for most of his shots. We shot a number of Pepsi commercials that way, and those spots won several Clios.
Torben Johnke, ASC
My dad told me: ‘Always be prepared, do your homework.’ I can only do my best if I know what a scene is about, what the purpose of every shot is, how it needs to advance the story and how it fits into the overall editing puzzle.
Christian Sebaldt, ASC
‘Lead through respect, not intimidation.’ Words of wisdom from Dad.
Christopher Baffa, ASC
Always let the people you’re working with know if you are unsure about something. It’s much better than explaining why a mistake was made.
Steve Gainer, ASC
Learn from your mistakes, not your successes.
Shelly Johnson, ASC
We’re all replaceable.
Ron Fortunato, ASC
‘It’s only a film,’ which, coupled with ‘This too will pass,’ pretty much takes care of it.
John Hora, ASC
Early in my career, as an assistant doing commercials, I found myself sitting at the top of a Titan crane next to the great Phil Lathrop, ASC, waiting for the sun to set for a wide beauty shot of cars. He sat there patiently behind the lens. I leaned toward him and said, ‘I’m just starting in the business and hope someday to be a cinematographer. What advice could you give me?’ He looked at me so hard I felt like bailing off the crane. ‘Only one thing, kid,’ he said. ‘Sit down whenever you can.’
John Bailey, ASC
Do not be afraid to push yourself and trust yourself.
Bill Roe, ASC
The thing that makes you a filmmaker is the act of making a film.
David Stump, ASC
Never give up. Always keep a positive attitude. Attention to detail.
Richard Crudo, ASC
Never take rejection personally if you don’t get a job. There are so many cinematographers vying for so few jobs, and there are many forces at work that have nothing to do with one’s talent.
Nancy Schreiber, ASC
‘There are never any problems, only solutions.’
Vincent Cox, ASC
I was invited to join the cinematographers shooting The Last Waltz, for which director Martin Scorsese prepared an elaborate shooting script for each camera position and every performer. David Myers, an accomplished and wise cameraman of much greater experience than I at the time, took me aside and whispered, ‘Go with your instincts.’ His advice stays with me even today.
Hiro Narita, ASC
While I worked in construction with my dad, he told me that if I gave customers more than they bargained for, they would return and never question the bill. I worked with some of the same commercial-agency clients for 30 years.
Ron Dexter, ASC
Early in my career, an old veteran told me, ‘The industry is a lot of fun, but never forget it’s a business with a lot of money being spent every second. Don’t laugh your way out of your job, and if you stretch your arms out and you can’t touch the camera, then you’re probably in the wrong place.’ Good words to remember.
Craig DiBona, ASC
All one really has in this business is one’s reputation as someone who can be trusted.
Paul Maibaum, ASC
Make friends early so you have allies in this business. They are the ones who call you first.
Karl Walter Lindenlaub, ASC
Always view your dailies. This may sound silly, but a lot of times, especially today, you never get the chance to see how a shot will look up on the big screen.
David B. Nowell, ASC
‘The only reason to be late for a call is being dead.’ This was drilled into me by Mel London or Freddie Young, BSC.
Jon Fauer, ASC
Always strive for perfection in every image you create, not so much technically but in terms of feeling that you have completely understood what you are trying to convey.
Kees Van Oostrum, ASC
One piece of advice I gave myself was not to follow any rules. Another, from Jean-Jacques Annaud, is, ‘Always wear the appropriate shoes on set.’
Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC
Now It’s Your Turn to Answer
Although some of these cinematographers may not have the name recognition or legendary status as a Roger Deakins, it takes incredible dedication and many years of experience to be granted an ASC membership. So, they’ve paid their dues. And if you asked them this same question at the beginning of their career, the answers would likely be different – but none would be wrong.
At various parts of our careers, different advice serves us better. It’s experience and hindsight that lends clarity to what is the “best” advice – what has leant you the most throughout the years?
The answers above cover a wide range of topics – from networking to setiquette to life lessons – and yet all of them are intensely important to our jobs in the film industry.
And so I want to ask you, no matter your level of experience, what’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received? Or alternatively, which is the best advice listed here?