I’ve been teaching Cinematography at Florida State University for five semesters and I might make big changes to my curriculum and weekly lesson plans.
Unlike most positions on a film crew, successful Cinematographers must be proficient in all aspects of commercial film production. To be responsible for the “picture” in a motion picture means that you must thoroughly understand the constraints of budget, schedule, location, personnel and unfortunately – the politics of the studio and above the liners. More importantly, Cinematographers must interpret and then assimilate the directors vision into their own.
In the end, it is the directors movie not yours. You got hired because the director judged your skill set and creative past as the best fit for the movie. In other words, the director likes your vision and personality – congratulations!
Notice that the words: camera, lights, lenses, exposure, filters, composition or anything else having to do with photography have not been mentioned thus far?
How can I teach all of this? Answer: It’s not possible. Possible solution: teach the class what they really want and need to learn first while sprinkling in other key aspects of the job along the way.
There’s more and herein lies my academic dilemma. Since May of 2018, I’ve seen at least 100 of the latest student films here at FSU. Some very good, some not so good. What they all have in common though, is mediocre shot design, poor camera operating and sketchy focus pulling. These three functions fall squarely under the category of Cinematography and must be addressed.
Should I scrap fundamental knowledge of interpreting a script, production design, the visible spectrum, basic physics, set lighting, critical exposure, wave forms, histograms and the zone system to make room for intensive operating and focus pulling drills?
Is this a University or a Trade School?
I’m tinkering with this and right now I’m doing more drills because they do need to build confidence in a hands on, stress free environment. I’ll set up a tough shot and they’ll each rotate in as focus pullers and camera operators and don’t move on until they master the shot. The students love this and their sense of satisfaction is palpable.
Ultimately my goal is to find a beneficial balance between the academic and practical aspects of Cinematography that befits a University program rather than that of a trade school.
I think that the students want that as well.
(photo by author: Jazleana Jones behind the camera. Jaz is a student of mine and recent winner of the ASC's "Heritage Award" : Best Cinematography for a Student Documentary)