When folks who do not work in film ask me what I do, it can be difficult to adequately explain. On a recent job, I came away with a nice illustration of what a cinematographer does.
At the top is a storyboard for a promo trailer I shot for a fashion magazine earlier this month. It's often my job to basically create a given image in camera. A storyboard artist can draw anything. The director's vision can be anything. In such cases, the practical side of my job is to use my camera and my lights to put that image on screen.
Next is a matte painting, a portion of which will serve as the background for the shot once the CGI artists work their magic.
Third is what's called a chrome ball - It shows what the light should like be in order to match the background.
The bottom photo has the set on the left and an image from playback on the right. On some practical level, my work is the difference between the two. When I do this well, it feels like music and I call it making the magic.
There is a human aspect and a emotional aspect to my job as well. These would take a lot of words to inadequately describe. I'll try.
In this case I had maybe 16 people working for me directly. 12-18 hours a day. They bust their butts for me and it's my responsibility to protect and care for them. The only glamour in the film industry is on screen. It's is typically a hot, noisy, dirty job with long hours under extreme pressure.
Meanwhile, our actress is in very cold water very really hot lights. I have to take care of her and make her as comfortable as possible in these very difficult conditions so that she can do her job.
My director knows what he wants to see in his monitor and I have to give that to him. My producer needs that to happen on-time and on-budget. Our clients are on set. They are paying the bill. I need to make them happy with what they see.
The emotional aspect, well that's the real treat. That's the why. It is my hope that when people watch the finished piece, that they feel something; that it moves them.
If you do work in film, here's why you should hire me ;) I was supposed to have a large print-out of a section from the matte painting for the reflection in the water. That didn't make it to set. I came up with a solution using stuff I did have on set.
A piece of beadboard, some golden amber gel, and a few Dedolights - that put a reasonable approximation of a cloudy orange sky on the water with deep blue in the ripples from the chroma blue in the background. At 300fps. As my mentor Chris Chomyn says, there are no problems, only challenges. I like challenges.