This week’s Questions with a Pro features Doug Gritzmacher.
Doug is a Denver, Colorado-based photographer, cinematographer, and video producer who manages to maintain three successful businesses simultaneously. He has these three business to ensure that his various skills and creativity can come through in his work. Here, Doug details the mindset he has while shooting, the advantages and disadvantages of business diversity, and the differences between his still photography and video work.
We asked: In what ways do you shoot from the mindset of an editor? How does this help your work in the long run?
Doug said: One of my first jobs in the video production industry was working in the production equipment room at the headquarters of National Geographic Television & Film in Washington, DC. It was a great place to be as a person just starting out because a lot of random opportunities would come from various producers and editors in the building.
One day, a producer approached me about going out as a cinematographer on a new reality-type show that was set on a ship at sea. After I said I was interested (duh), the first question he asked me was, “Do you know how to shoot cut-aways?”
This being National Geographic, I had expected a little different concern, more along the lines about how stellar and beautiful my work must be to qualify. But no, he wanted to know about cut-aways.
Having now spent many years editing, I know exactly why cut-aways were the producer’s top concern. You can have a show without beautiful, Emmy Award-winning images (although I do now have one of those statues, thankyouverymuch), but you can’t have a show without cut-aways.
Cut-aways, such as close-ups of hands, faces, or objects, allow an editor to condense time or to get in or out of a scene.
So when I say I shoot with the mindset of an editor, I mean shooting in a way that gives the editor the most flexibility possible for structuring the story.
But really, that’s the most basic level of the editor’s mindset I have while shooting. I find you need to think like an editor and a writer. What is the overall arc of the story? What is the purpose of this scene? What is the most important thing happening? How does this action affect the story or character? I use these answers to inform my choices as a cinematographer. Without them, I would only be shooting random images that would likely only serve to frustrate an editor.
We asked: How did you start your career in cinematography? Please give us some insight into your educational background and a few key steps in your career development.
Doug said: Well, it got off to an inauspicious start. I was limited to in-state colleges for cost reasons. So I just chose the largest one in the state—UW in Seattle—assuming they’d offer pretty much everything, including film production. Nope. Their film program had been cut five years earlier. It was too late to choose another school, so I gravitated toward the student newspaper as a creative outlet where I could study film at least as a critic. I later went on to become a columnist, illustrator, and editor. I ended my college journalism career as a photographer. It paid the best.
It wasn’t until I moved to Washington, DC, after graduating that I finally got my first experience in filmmaking. That came via an internship at a foreign policy think tank that produced a weekly 30-minute PBS show about national security and foreign policy issues. The other intern and I lobbied hard for the chance to produce our own episode, which was eventually granted, albeit with a topic none of the other producers were interested in (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty anyone?). That was just fine with us because it gave us a chance to produce, direct, shoot, write, and edit a professional TV program.
Following that, I had an itch to scratch as a page designer and copy editor for a daily newspaper. I eventually found my way into a graduate program in film at American University in Washington, DC. I went in thinking I wanted to be an editor, but I got a lot of compliments on my cinematography for my student films. I didn’t feel like it was putting a lot of hard-thinking into my shots so that took me by surprise. It made me think maybe I had a knack for shooting and so I redirected my focus more on the camera-side of the craft.
With that in mind, I found employment at two different film and video rental shops – one located inside National Geographic and another serving the larger DC production community. Working at rental shops is a tried and true method for breaking into professional cinematography. You get to know the gear inside and out and you meet existing professionals when they come by to pick up gear for their shoots. These pros will often tap gear shop assistants to work as camera assistants on their shoots. If you do it well, your name gets passed around and that’s what happened with me.
But my biggest break came one day when a professional cinematographer my age arrived to pick up some rental camera gear. He was the director of photography on a reality show produced in the area. They were in need of another cinematographer for the upcoming season. Was I interested?
That opportunity allowed me to get time humping a professional video camera every day for seven months, which was invaluable. Being a reality show, everything was shot documentary style from the shoulder. It takes time to learn how to get steady shots with a professional shoulder-mount camera as well as how to follow and anticipate action. After seven months of practice, I felt confident in my documentary shooting skills.
That gig also helped me to build up my portfolio. On my days off, I worked on building a cinematography website to advertise my work. That started to get some hits and after a while it was my second best source of leads after word-of-mouth.
I’ve been freelancing as a cinematographer since. In 2013 I started my own video production company in Denver where I also get to produce, direct, and edit.
We asked: How have you successfully diversified your business to offer such a wide variety of services?
Doug said: Offering numerous services is the only way I know how to do it.
In college, I discovered an unadvertised program that let students design their own major. It was a godsend for me or I’d still be there as a 20th-year undergrad trying to figure out which major to settle on. Freed to follow my fancy, I took a lot of higher level courses in various disciplines, everything from foreign policy to graphic design (all of which have since come in handy). During my exit interview with my college advisors I expressed my concern for being able to find a job. They laughed and told me, Doug, you have a lot of skills and we have no doubt you’ll find work.
But I don’t think they really understood. I wanted a job where I could express all of those skills, not just one. Twenty years later, I have yet to find anyone offering that job. Instead, as I did with my college major, I’ve made up my own.
Whether it’s photography or video production, I take interest in all aspects of the profession, including the business side where I do my own graphic design (including this poster for one of my films), web design, and copy writing. I like variety and being able to edit one day, shoot portraits the next, and direct a commercial the day after that is exciting. It is also helpful for staying in business. I’ve got revenue coming in from many different streams. So I’m not reliant on one or two big clients in one area where my business would be in jeopardy if one of those streams were to run dry.
Those are the advantages. The biggest disadvantage is that we live in a specialized world. Starting in college, we are trained to focus on one area and become experts in it. And customers, including me, prefer to hire specialists for whatever their needs are. So my still portrait photography may be just as good, if not better, than someone who only shoots portraits, but I won’t be seen as a specialist since I offer many other services.
Because of this, I am very careful about how I advertise myself. I have separate companies and websites for video production, cinematography, and photography services. And I go by a slightly different name for my photography business than I do for my video production business (Douglas Gritz and Doug Gritzmacher, respectively). This was both to have a catchier name for my photo business, which are usually named after the photographer, and to distinguish myself differently between the two. This is all to present myself as a specialist to potential clients in each of those areas.
Is it challenging managing three businesses? Immensely. But having a diversified set of skills is something that I need to be able to express to feel fulfilled by my career.
We asked: What are the main similarities and differences between your still photography and video productions?
Doug said: When DSLRs first came out with video technology in 2008 in the form of Canon’s 5DMII, there was a lot of hubbub about photographers needing to learn how to shoot video. In fact, Canon designed the 5DMII just for that reason—a news wire service had tasked Canon to create a DSLR that could do both so their photographers in the field could capture video along with photographs.
In fact, a cinematography friend of mine wrote a how-to book geared specifically toward photographers. I don’t know of a book written for him—that is, teaching cinematographers how to be photographers. I think part of that pressure put on photographers had to do with the gear. Photographers were already working with DSLRs; cinematographers were working with pro cinema video cameras, which are much more expensive and don’t have still photo capture technology. So I think the attitude at that time, mostly from clients (which had commissioned the technology in the first place) was hey, you’ve got the camera in your hands, why not shoot a little video for us, too?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For one, video requires sound. DSLRs have poor sound features. External recorders are available, but now you’ve got a whole other system to manage, splitting the focus of the photographer, which means something is going to suffer (because of this and other reasons, I avoid using DSLRs for video as much as possible and instead continue to use professional cinema cameras).
Additionally, shooting for stills and shooting for motion requires different ways of thinking. Both are tools for controlling time, but they do so in different ways.
As humans, we were trapped in the flow of time. A photograph is a moment plucked from that flow. A film is a re-creation of that flow. A photograph needs to hold the attention of a viewer with a single image. A film has to hold a viewer’s attention over a period of time. So the thinking that goes into accomplishing those separate goals is completely different.
It’s been 10 years now since the 5DMII came out. As far as photographers or cinematographers trying to do both in one gig, I think the results are in—it’s usually not going to be pretty. I think clients have picked up on that, too, and so I get very few requests from clients requesting both. For those that do, I try to at the very least schedule video and photo for different days. I did just that for a recent assignment shooting women processing shea butter in Ghana and I’m much happier with the results than I would be had I tried to bounce between the two on the same day.
Otherwise, the biggest difference I appreciate between the two is the wear and tear on my body. With video production, you have to be rolling constantly. With a still camera you can hunt and peck and put the camera down regularly. Still cameras are also far lighter than professional video cameras. So not a still photo job goes by for me where I don’t appreciate how much easier the physical workload is. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I have made a greater effort to build my photography business as I have gotten older.
We asked: What do you work to accomplish through your documentary films? How do you choose the subject matter for these films?
Doug said: One day in grad school a professor showed us a clip from “Jazz Dance,” a 20-minute documentary made in 1954. It showed a handheld-style camera in the middle of a dance floor at a jazz club. The director of photography for that film was Richard Leacock, a pioneer of documentary cinematography and perhaps the first to ditch the tripod. The effect was footage that was raw, kinetic, and made me feel like I was right there dancing with them (It helps that I happen to also love big band-era jazz). When I saw that, I thought, that’s what I want to do.
So with my films I aim to immerse the viewer into the middle of the action, to make them feel like they are there, like my camera is just the viewpoint of another person in the scene. That includes everything from something as exciting as putting the viewer in the middle of a 4,000 person paintball war spread out over 800 acres (“Soldiers of Paint”) to something as—seemingly—mundane as a bus ride through Los Angeles with a main character (“G.I. Jobs”). It just gets me giddy. And then, if it is a film I am producing, I get giddy all over again when I get to edit that footage later.
So if I have made the viewer feel like a part of the world I am filming, I’ve accomplished my main goal.
How do I choose my subject matter? For my own films, I look for subjects that have potential for natural humor, stories that can be told through people rather than through talking heads, and opportunities to do something I’ve never seen before in documentary film. With “Soldiers of Paint,” we covered a live paintball war and edited it to feel like a dramatic film, which I’m not sure I’ve seen done elsewhere.
My most recent two films were done on commission for clients (“G.I. Jobs” and “The Care They’ve Earned”) so while we were still able to use an immersive style to tell stories told through real people, the topics were chosen by our clients.
Find more of Doug’s work on his websites: