Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

The Dysfunctional Life Of A Cinematographer


I've often said to friends of mine who are not in the film industry that being a cinematographer is one of the most glamorous blue collar jobs out there. And while those looking from the outside in may see my career path as full of adventure and the opportunity to work with interesting people all over the world, that is only a small percentage of what this career path holds.

While I absolutely love what I do, and you couldn't pay me to switch fields...admittedly there is a lot of dysfunction, and many sacrifices have to be made in the life of a cinematographer. So, if you are considering this career path, or if you are just interested in peaking behind the curtain, here is the less glamorous and sometimes dysfunctional side of my profession.


Sacrificing A Regular Paycheck
Ah, the joys of working freelance! If you are considering entering this line of work, get ready to ride the roller coaster of emotions. Be grateful when work is steady and keeping you busy, but get prepared for when it dries up. There have been months where I have made $15,000, and there have been months where I have made $150. There have been months where I am working every day, and months where I have not had one day of work.

If you are looking for stability and consistency, then you are in the wrong profession. There have been times where I felt on top of the world as the money and work poured in. There have also been times when work was sparse and I questioned myself & the direction I'm headed in, and felt full of doubt.

The one thing that has helped me to deal with this wide range of emotions and income is to keep in mind "This Too Will Pass." The tough times are not permanent, so do not give up- push through them. The good times are coming. The good times are not permanent, so enjoy them while you have them, but prepare for the tough times. The tough times are just around the corner.


Sacrificing A Regular Schedule
There is no such thing as a 9-5, 40 hour work week in this line of work. You don't get 15 minute breaks every couple of hours. If having that type of schedule is important to you, find another career, because you are dreaming- it will never happen.

Often times, doing my job and doing it well means putting in extra time, energy, and effort to deliver quality results. I show up early and leave late. I am constantly doing research, testing, and experimenting in order to keep up on the latest developments in the industry. When I'm on a project, I may have to spend extra time location scouting, planning, prepping, or helping out with post production. I may have to do this with little or no pay during my own "free time" and without recognition or even a thank you. But that is what it means to be a professional.

If you are looking for things to be handed to you and you are not willing to sacrifice your time and your schedule to further your career or skills, then get out now. In my own experience, I have found that there are very few times where I am "off the clock." Even when I'm out to dinner with my wife and friends, I find myself observing the interplay of light & shadow and how that affects the mood of the location or how people look (I know- I probably have a problem!).


Sacrificing Normal Relationships
People who work in the traditional corporate setting have much more stable lives, and are able to live more predictably. This is not the case for the cinematographer. Or at least it hasn't been in my experience.

Working freelance means that when the work comes you have to take it- especially when work is slow. Practically speaking, what that translates into is canceling on friends and family, or having to reschedule. While I have found that easier to do with lunch and dinner dates, it's tougher to do for bigger events like birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, or vacations.

Your friends & family who have only experienced the regularity of corporate life will have a hard time understanding why you have to cancel on them. If you are considering getting married, you'll need to find a spouse who will be supportive & understanding with rescheduling an anniversary, vacation, or other event so that you can take that $2,000 job that came up last minute after a month of no work. Most people don't get it, and just think "we already had plans, can't you just work another day?"

These problems are only exacerbated when working on a feature film. You'll be working 5-6 days a week, often times 12+ hours a day, for at least a month straight- most times longer. Your one day "off" will be filled with small tasks and chores that need to be done. And even if it is a real day off, you'll find yourself without a ton of energy to devote to others. During that time, the relationships with your friends and family end up taking a back seat. Your focus will rightfully be on the job at hand. It will not be easy for you, your significant other, or your friends as you'll be absent from the relationship for the duration of that project.

There is a reason why alcoholism, drug use, infidelity, and divorce are rampant in the film industry. We do not live "normal" or "traditional" lives and this impacts the lives of those we are close to just as much as it does us.


Is It Worth It?
Before pursuing the life of a cinematographer, I think it is prudent to consider what you will be giving up. If normalcy and the traditional 9-5 schedule are important to you, then this definitely is not the career path for you. However, if you are okay with living an untraditional life, and you are willing to sacrifice a stable paycheck, a regular schedule, and are willing to accept the toll it will take on your relationships, then this path could be a good fit.

Personally, as this is my passion, I wholeheartedly believe that it is worth it. It hasn't been easy, and it hasn't always been enjoyable. But, in the end, it has been satisfying and fulfilling. And if you build in some safeguards into your life, you can minimize (not remove) some of the negative impacts that this lifestyle can have on you and your loved ones. But I'll save that for another post...

What has your experience been like? Can you relate to any of these sacrifices? Are there any that I have forgotten?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!

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