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How DPs Make the Shift from Commercials to Features and Back Again

Can you develop skills shooting commercial work that’ll serve you well on feature films, or do you have to start from scratch?

Feature films and network TV commercials are two of the highest-paying and most prestigious jobs a cinematographer can get. Many top DPs go from one kind of project to another, filling the downtime between long-form films with several smaller, one-day commercial shoots. Other DPs specialize in one medium or the other and become sought-after for those kinds of projects.

I set out to explore how the two are different from one another — and which skills are transferable between commercial work and feature films, and which are not. 

Features vs. Commercials

On the face of it, they are very different projects. A typical indie feature shoots for ten to twenty-eight days and has a budget of $50k to $1m. A network TV commercial has a similar budget range, but most shoot over a single day. Commercials can pull off complex shots that are out of reach of all but the biggest-budget features and TV shows.

The DP of a TV commercial usually has a larger crew and more equipment at their disposal, even if the prep time and shoot time is less.

How DPs Make the Shift from Commercials to Features and Back Again - Oren Soffer

Oren Soffer (via IMDb).

I reached out to Oren Soffer, a commercial and feature DP based in LA, and asked him about his experience:

Many young DPs rush to shoot their first feature, but don’t realize if the acting, the locations, and the script are all sub-par, it’s all but impossible to reach your creative potential and shoot something you’re proud of. Great cinematography can’t happen in a vacuum . . . Working in commercials can allow you to earn a living as a DP, which, in turn, means you only have to take on the feature films that appeal to you, and are a good fit for the stories you want to be a part of. Even if they don’t put money in, the DP is always a investor on low-budget feature films, because of how much they bring to the table.

How DPs Make the Shift from Commercials to Features and Back Again - Noah Rosenthal

Noah M. Rosenthal (via IMDb).

I also spoke to Noah M. Rosenthal, DP of the Bryan Cranston thriller Cold Comes the Night and the indie hit Band of Robbers:

You can’t buy your way out of problems on a feature film in the same way you can on a commercial, because you don’t have the budget. You have to out-create your obstacles. Through communication with the director and producer, you can explain why something is going to be an issue and change the script (or your approach) to get the most out of the resources you have.

Because of the many layers of approval that a commercial goes through, it’s hard (if not impossible) to make changes on set. These adaptations to the reality on shoot day hold some of the greatest creative potential. Rosenthal continues:

You need to plan the work and work that plan, but also have the ability to call an audible — to change things up at the last minute to fit the situation as you find it. Understanding what the director is going for and offering a solution to achieve within our means is a big advantage of feature film work, even if you don’t have all the toys.

Both commercials and feature films offer challenges to improve your cinematography and advance your career, but DPs should be aware that the ability to excel in one field won’t always translate into the other. The cinematographers I spoke to all advised asking as many questions as possible and establishing open communication with your collaborators before signing on to a new project.

Cover image via Her (Annapurna Pictures).

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