Articles in "Expanded Cinematography":


"What's it Going to Be?"

The Cinematographer's Guide to Mastery
by Cinematographer Agent, GCI Instructor Steven Jacobs
(Clients include: Oscar Winners Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, ASC, AMC and Russell Carpenter, ASC)


Legend has it that the great Bluesman Robert Johnson made a deal with the Devil at The Crossroads. Up to that point, Johnson had been a musician of average skills, making his living going from Juke Joint to Juke Joint in the deep south.


The story is that Johnson met the Devil in the guise of a large black man at "The Crossroads." The man took Johnson’s guitar, tuned it, played a song and handed it back in return for the promise of Johnson’s soul. From that time on, Johnson had total mastery of the instrument and the blues.


Oh, wouldn’t that be nice? Not the selling your soul part, but instant mastery or one project that permanently changes your career for the better. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work like that. I have had many clients who believe that winning an award, getting into a prestigious industry organization or having a film that does well will change everything and it will all become easy from here on out. And they’re right, it does change everything and everything does become easy!! For a few weeks or months. Once the hype begins to die down, the big machine of Hollywood starts to ask its tiring and inevitable question again: what else have you got? If there is any one reason that Hollywood has a cynical reputation this is it.


It’s a treadmill, there’s just no denying it. You put it all out there, your talent, your sweat, your heart and soul, yet achievement can feel fleeting. That’s the problem, achievement IS fleeting. However, mastery is another story altogether.


Mastery is excellence for the sake of excellence. It has nothing to do with achievement or money. It has to be about craft and passion. There is a great idiom in motivational thought: money never leads, it follows. Yes, I know your question is “yeah, and what am I supposed to do until the money follows? There are bills to pay!”


No easy answers for this one. If you don’t love your craft with all your soul, it’s time to buy a sausage and peppers cart and start working Griffith Park. If you’ve determined that the life of an Cinematographer is worth the pain, struggle and periods of suffering, then get as immersed in craft as you can. Really, it’s the only way. Especially if paying work is alluding you right now. Trust in the fact that if you keep honing, studying and practicing your craft, it will eventually pay off in ways that can be quantified as achievement.


Or, of course you can always sell your soul to the Devil. Being the helpful person I am, Here’s my four point plan for doing so.


1. Find an intersection where two streets cross. Easy, they are everywhere. In rural areas foot traffic may not be constant so bring a lawn chair.


2. Wait until a large black man comes along. Doesn’t have to be black man, could be white, could be a woman, but very large, I mean large, like 6’4″, 320 pounds large, don’t skimp here, size is important.


3. Hand him (or her) an Alexa, Red, Panavision 535, whatever you prefer, and politely ask: “are you the Devil?”


4. As you recover in intensive care from the beating you received with whatever it was you handed him (or her), contemplate how less painful it would have been to just commit yourself to craft.


There are no shortcuts. At times there are larger steps and bigger leaps your career will take. There will be good luck and bad luck and a lot of gray area when you wonder if you’re really getting anywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you are just starting out or have a few gold statues on the shelf. It’s all based on hard work and mastery.


Your agent can’t do it for you. Your agent can leverage the product you deliver into relationships and revenue. What your agent can’t do is magically improve the product and the craftsmanship. That work is on the artist to do day in and day out. If your agent just isn’t doing anything, fire him. But, if things aren’t happening, you also have to ask yourself: is there room for improvement in the product?


Even on the days when you’re not shooting you must continue the hard work of experimentation, practice and the constant evolution of your craft to get there.


Be curious, have personal projects, find mentors and pick their brains on how you can improve. Science says it takes 10,000 hours to reach mastery. You have to chip away at it every day.


What's it going to be? Hard work or the fantasy of an easy way to mastery? You can go with the fantasy, sell your soul for instant, spontaneous and unfathomable talent. But, I assure you, the this route will all be in your mind. Or, you can do like every great Cinematographer in the history of filmmaking has done.


Play the long game of mere mortals and do the constant, grueling work of mastery. In any case and I’m pretty sure about this: the work will be a lot more fun than an eternity of fire and brimstone.