The Ladder: Hollywood’s Chain of Command

Chris Collins / Get Lit / Production

By: Chris Collins

I came to Los Angeles with dreams of filming big names like Johnny Depp and Hugh Hefner. I wanted to see my cinematographer heroes like Roger Deakins and Chivo Lubeski. I was gonna make it! I’d get an internship in a camera rental house and learn everything about every camera. I’d get a job as an AC, and I’d be able to fix anything that went wrong. If the camera went down when we were shooting Mickey Rourke I’d be a hero. Then I’d work my way up to being a DP. It was a perfect plan. But it didn’t take long before the supersaturated image of Hollywood’s glitz and glamor faded to black and white. A whopping two years later it’s dirty, smudged, and scratched.

I’ve sat on Hugh Hefner’s sofa and peed in Johnny Depp’s bathroom. I’ve shot commercials that have aired on CNN and BET. I can pay most of my monthly bills with four days of work, and Phillip Bloom is following me on twitter. Life couldn’t be any better! Why am I feeling so unfulfilled? Perhaps the first part of my plan came too easy.

Most of the money I earn is as a camera assistant. I may be able to call my mom and tell her that I shot Johnny Depp and Hugh Hefner and Mickey Rourke, but my IMDB credit will read “camera operator” and not “director of photography.” Granted, operating on jobs with A-listers is pretty badass especially at age 24. But that DP credit is everything! (WOC knows all about how sacred credit is… just look at how Timescapes got Skid’s panties in a twist.) I’ve met some camera assistants who can pull focus with their eyes closed from the camera truck. They can also lens a camera and light a scene better than their DP. Herein lies the problem.

As an aspiring cinematographer, how damaging is it to market yourself as an AC? I don’t want to join the ranks as an AC and then tell people I’m a DP (make sure your business cards only have one title on them). On the flip side, I’m not making enough money from from my DP gigs to turn down AC gigs. After a few brief months stuck in bitter AC Land I’ve taken a new philosophy… be patient, but be hungry. Assist with a smile, but shoot every opportunity you get, and create your own opportunities. Do whatever it takes!

When the glitz and glamor of the big city wear off, it’s the BMW and the Rolex that we lust after. Want to be a DP? Not today, but here’s a check that puts you one step closer to that M5. Just make sure the footage is sharp and keep your opinions to yourself. It’s the aspiring DP’s consolation prize. But now, thankfully, we have DSLRs and Vimeo and Twitter and a whole community to exchange ideas with. I become more and more grateful for this opportunity each and every day because I realize how hard it used to be. The playing field sure as hell ain’t level, but it’s closer than it ever was. So find a camera, get shooting, and let talent (and drive) prevail!

Chris Collins
Chris Collins is a cinematographer living in Los Angeles who focuses mainly on documentaries and commercials.
  • http://twitter.com/tysonbanks Tyson Banks

    Great read, Chris!
    I’m a DP as well (That is I want to be!) and I’ve often wondered about the ladder. I know there are career operators and ACs who do amazing work, but I wonder if I would be satisfied, just doing that. I like the idea of being super specialized and amazing at what I do, but I don’t know how I feel about stoping half way up the ladder. 
    Good luck on your climb, and if you ever need an AC while you DP, let me know! ;)

  • http://twitter.com/JDog23 Jordan

    Dig it, Chris … you have a great perspective & healthy attitude. Keep hustlin’ bro’!

    ‘J-dog

    p.s. How was Depp’s bathroom? j/k ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/c2camera Chris Collins

    Always hustlin J! Depp’s bathroom had no garbage can for paper towels. Damn shame!

    Glad you appreciate it Tyson.  It’d be a long commute to work for an AC gig with me! haha

  • Jennifer

    So the Pingry tuition paid off afterall! Nicely written young man. You make me proud. 

  • http://twitter.com/lrsafari scott miller

    Outstanding advice and something I will reference for myself and refer to others!

  • http://twitter.com/c2camera Chris Collins

    glad you find it useful scott.  get shooting!

  • Derek T.

    Great stuff Chris! very inspiring!

  • Anonymous

    Good stuff Chris. Keep it at it. It will come!

  • http://www.currie.tv VictorCurrie

    Good advice and a solid way of looking at the business Chris.  One piece of advice I was given when I was young was to look for opportunities to work with people who you know are better than you.  Assisting someone great gives you the opportunity to get into their creative thought process, and soon you become the one for whom people want to assist.

  • teru

    Great advice!  Thanks for sharing~!  Let’s keep it going.

  • noahsargent

    With an attitude like that, I’d AC for you any day chris! Your articles are great.

    Noahsargent@me.com