I recently wrapped my third feature as a director of photography, and let me tell you – it was tough. Most of the challenge didn’t come from our lighting and camera setups, though – it came from staying motivated through all the shit that has to be dealt with on a daily basis in the low-budget world. As someone who’s used to the world of commercials, stepping back into the feature world can be pretty stressful. Here are a few thoughts on it.

Some things you can’t control.

I’m a control freak, and want to have my hands in everything. This can be a problem when working in the low-budget space, where many problems can be traced to a lack of time and/or money. Sometimes we’d show up to a location and they wouldn’t have the power distro we needed (and we didn’t bring any with us). Sometimes the shots we put together in pre-production wouldn’t work in the space. Sometimes we had to change spaces last minute due to forces not under our control, and had to make up new blocking, camera movement, and lighting on the spot!

First thoughts can often turn to chewing out production in these scenarios for not having their shit together. While this is certainly a valid gripe, it doesn’t help you move through and complete the day. State your gripe if you must, but then plow through and work with your team to make it happen. My gaffer and I would bitch to each other, but we were always able to push through and find a creative solution to make it look great.

Treat every frame like it’s going in your reel.

When disheartened, it can be easy to say “fuck it” and phone in your lighting and camera movement. You just want to get it over with: wash the scene with light, shoot coverage, go home. This feature had a lot of overnights, so my team and I were often grumpy from lack of sleep and this could have definitely been something we did. Why didn’t we? Even if we were pissed off with what’s going on around us, I find it important to lead my team to keep their head in the scene. The scene is what’s important, and looking at the production monitor and seeing a beautiful frame can make it all worth it for a second.

Show off the fruits of your labor to build morale.

Every day I would bring home cards from production to do a quick grade and bring stills to set the next day to show my team what we did the previous shoot day. We didn’t have a DIT on set, so during shooting they didn’t always see the payoff that they were all working for. This helped build morale with my crew so that they saw what we were all achieving, that we were making something that looked awesome. And in the end, isn’t that what we’re all working towards?

Do you have any other tips to stay motivated through a tough job? Feel free to leave them in the comments below!

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