Motion pictures, from quick clips for mobile devices to full-length productions, have never been more ubiquitous or accessible. What does it all mean for people getting into the field today? Owen Donovan, an independent cinematographer whose work ranges from commercial shorts and music videos to narrative features, talked to us about what it takes to succeed in today’s motion industry, the pleasures and demands of the job, and the role a director of photography plays.Film still courtesy of Owen Donovan.
Aimee Baldridge: How did you get started in cinematography?
Owen Donovan: When I was young I'd watch tons of movies, but I never saw myself making films. I wanted to write. I played baseball in college, and I was thinking of going to the University of Iowa for writing. Some professors were pushing me to go there, and some people were pushing me to play baseball. I thought long and hard and said, “Maybe I'll try film.” So I went to the community college near my home, in Dutchess County, and I took a communications class. They gave us a camera, and I loved it. I went through that program and went to Brooklyn College and took film production there for two years. Then I was just out the door in the wide world, trying to be a DP.
When I first came out of school, I didn't say no to anything. I would crew, I would AC, I would grip. I would also shoot anything that people wanted me to shoot. I had the advantage of being able to shoot tons of projects in school, and I had a reel when I left. I just never told anybody that they were student films, and they didn't assume they were, so they started hiring me.
I was shooting lots of great stuff, but then the financial markets collapsed and there was nothing—everyone was knocked down a peg or two. Things have picked up again, but I think that for anyone coming out now it's going to be a long road. Don't expect the moon right away. You've got to prove it every time.
AB: How did you get your reel out to people?
In the beginning I was hitting Craigslist really hard. I would also go to Cinematography.com’s message boards and post my reel. By and large, that was useless. There's such a huge volume of people looking for work that way that, if you don't get an answer within five minutes, you're beneath an army of new posts.
The Internet, besides linking people to my website, hasn't been a great agent for me to get work. Everything has been word of mouth—it's surprisingly old school for an age when you can make beautiful imagery with a $3,000 camera. And getting out there and creating content even if nobody's knocking down your door is, I think, the best way to get ahead.
"The Pains of Being Pure at Heart," directed by Allie Avital Tsypin, cinematography by Owen Donovan.
AB: Do you mean it’s important to do personal projects?
Owen Donovan: Yeah. I worked very closely over the last year with a director and production designer, and we just started our own little music video company. We started with nothing—soliciting bands and promising everything on a shoestring—and now we have labels contacting us for treatments to do music videos. All of that was out of doing projects in our free time.
When you freelance, it's feast or famine: you're working eighteen hours a day sometimes, or twelve hours a day for two weeks, and then for a week or two there's just nothing, crickets. In those downtimes, keeping yourself productive is important.
AB: Tell me about the physical aspects of the DP’s job.
Owen Donovan: There are tons. For starters, you're squeezing into weird positions with a camera when you're going handheld. You're supporting weight and trying to keep things framed and focused. You're lifting heavy equipment for hours, especially if you're not working on a big set. Good camera operators are often athletic people. Your relationship with the subject you're filming is also a really interesting one in terms of how you move with them. That's a rewarding aspect of the job in and of itself—just the dance you do with the actor, actress, or talent. And you have to have the endurance to be able to work for twelve or more hours with hardly a break, and then get up the next day and do it again.
AB: Are there things you learned as an athlete that contribute to your approach?
Owen Donovan: I think the hand-eye coordination benefited me big time. It really comes in handy when you're operating a camera—the ability to react quickly to the movement of an actor, or to anticipate it so that the move is fluid.
Playing on a team for years really prepared me to be on a film set. To know what role you play on set and not to overreach, but at the same time shoulder the responsibility that's yours, is something really valuable that I took away from sports.
And I think that competitive spirit is necessary when you're a freelancer. You're competing against a whole slew of people out there who want to do the same thing. It's not a "I'm going to step on their necks!" competitiveness; it's more of a competitiveness with yourself, to constantly improve, to not become too stressed or shrink in front of challenges, but instead to find a way to win, get what you need and get the right shot.
There's a tendency among DPs to want to get a spectacular shot that's in their mind. Sometimes their whole reason for shooting a film is to get that one shot in their reel. When people start thinking that way, they're forgetting that you're only getting a shot to tell a story, which is the most important thing. It's more about getting the right shot than getting your shot.
Oftentimes the things that resonate with people are simple and easily relatable. They're not convoluted with too much technology or motion, or too much of anything. Because that's what elegant things are—they're nothing more than what's essential. I think that's a good philosophy to take into your work. Set boundaries on yourself as to what the subtext of the story is and work backward from there. Rather than saying, "I'm going to put this on the story," say, "This exists, and I want to draw it out." Because if it's good material, that's all it needs.
"It's Showtime," directed by Crystal Moselle, cinematography by Owen Donovan.
AB: Do you think that sometimes people who are starting out project too much of their own vision onto the work?
Owen Donovan: You shouldn’t worry about your own vision, because that's inseparable from yourself. It's better to try to melt all of that away into the story. It's still you doing it. It's still your vision and how you see it, but it's more faithful to the material. If you work from the outside, you're going to run into not only creative problems but also technical problems—you've built yourself a castle but run out of wood for the moat. Just let the material and your intuition guide you.
Nothing is ever about what's on the surface—ever—it's all about what's underneath. Your job as a cinematographer is to connect with the audience's subconscious through lighting, movement, and framing, and to work that out with the director to have it speak on a level other than the dialogue and plot. I think that's why people outside the industry think movies are pretty easy to make. They look easy and natural, and oftentimes speak to you on a level that's below the surface. You just think, “God, that's beautiful.” But there are different kinds of beauty, and the best ones take you somewhere and tell you a story.
In our Breaking In series, we ask successful young professionals in photo- and video-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.
This article first appeared in Resource Magazine, a quarterly photo and video publication for forward-thinking image makers worldwide. Dedicated to working and aspiring industry professionals, it is a comprehensive photo, video, and lifestyle platform offering readers the latest insight on photography skills, tech news, gear, and marketing techniques, all brought together with awe-inspiring images. Resource offers a unique, fresh perspective on the innovative, quickly evolving photographic world, emphasizing the work, art, and power of imagery. Resource Magazine is sold at newsstands across the U.S. and Canada, and is available for free in all major photo studios, labs, and equipment rental houses in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Chicago.