Learn Cinematography: How I Went From Zero to DP of an Emmy-Nominated Show

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Tl;dr - Find out how I used online filmmaking courses to learn cinematography before becoming the DP of multiple Emmy-nominated shows.
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Table of Contents

Learn Cinematography: How I Went From Zero to DP of an Emmy-Nominated Show

When I was first diving into the camera and lighting departments after having spent several years behind a desk at several distribution companies, I knew I needed to actually learn cinematography and get a handle of some real techniques, fast.

I started out as a camera operator on Larry King Now and Politicking with Larry King and quickly I became the backup Director of Photography when the main DP was unavailable.

At first, it was no big deal. I just mimicked the main DP’s settings on the studio lighting board and dialed it in as best I could while using a small 5” Marshall monitor with false colors.

Eventually, I became the main Director of Photography of the show and it all fell on my shoulders.

In the past, I had been able to utilize a lot of natural light in order to make my projects look decent on a DSLR, but now I was being thrown into situations with unfamiliar cameras, lighting A-list celebrities, working in a studio, or oftentimes very controlled environment without any natural light.

Case in point, this episode of Larry King Now.

Larry King interviewing Bill Maher on an episode where I was DP.

In this episode, we went to Bill’s house and shot the episode in his theater room which had 1 door and no windows.

On the show, we rarely had the opportunity to do location scouts, so we would come in having only seen a few pictures taken by an assistant.

And this was the norm. If I was going to continue down this path, I knew I couldn’t fake it. I had to start learning practical cinematography techniques, basically from zero.

Why I Chose MZed to Learn Cinematography

The MZed Homepage

I honestly can’t remember how I stumbled upon MZed. It’s possible I saw an ad or simply googled “Learn Cinematography”. Either way, once I saw the type of online training that they put out, I knew it was the way to go.

I’ve always been a very visual learner, but I also know that I learn best when what’s being taught is very practical and straight to the point.

So many courses out there are essentially lectures – talking heads going over still images of shots that they’ve done in the past with diagrams and drawings.

That can be great too, don’t get me wrong. But if I wanted to learn the real nitty-gritty details, I knew I needed to WATCH someone actually doing it and SEE the results of what they are doing.

Makes sense.

The Cinematography Courses

The Illumination Experience Masterclass & Workshop

The first course to catch my eye was The Illumination Experience Masterclass and The Illumination Workshop by Shane Hurlbut, ASC.

The Illumination Workshop (source: MZed)

This is EXACTLY what I needed to learn cinematography the way I knew would be best for me…

There are real cameras, with actors standing in on sets, and real film lights being used to recreate shots that Shane did on past movies (that I’ve actually seen, so even better!).

The entirety of the Masterclass and Workshop combo is a little over 12-hours. The classes are broken up into a lecture-type format where concepts are introduced and discussed, and then a hands-on format where concepts are demonstrated.

The footage is from a live in-person workshop that toured around the US, so there are real students there, asking questions, and helping to create the shots.

These two courses alone were amazing in terms of teaching me basic-advanced cinematography techniques that I ended up putting into practice.

But, that’s not all that MZed had to offer on the subject!

The Art of Visual Storytelling 1 & 2

Alex Buono is the Cinematographer behind those amazing digital shorts that SNL puts out every week.

The Art of Visual Storytelling 2 Trailer (source: MZed)

He’s tasked with emulating looks from famous movies, TV shows, and commercials and creating high-quality shorts in the super-tight deadline of a weekly live TV show.

In The Art of Visual Storytelling and the sequel project, The Art of Visual Storytelling 2, Alex uncovers many of the tactics and techniques that he used to create these big-budget looks with a small budget, small crew, and little time.

I used these courses to learn cinematography techniques that I utilized on projects with big YouTubers like The Rock and RCLBeauty101, where I had one day or one evening to complete 27 setups with basically no crew and a limited amount of equipment and resources.

Fantasy-style shoot for The Rock

I was able to learn cinematography tricks that, quite literally, got me through these shoots and gave me the confidence to show up in the first place (when I knew there were way more experienced people out there to get the job done than I was).

Round 2: More Courses to Learn Cinematography!

MZed has since put out even more courses related to cinematography, including some from Arri Academy and more from Shane Hurlbut.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, I’ve started diving back into the offerings that MZed has and am tackling these new courses.

I was able to get a certification from Arri in their Certified Online Training for Camera Systems course, as well as their Certified Online Training for Large-Format Camera Systems course.

There’s so much more than just cinematography courses. You can see their current catalog by heading over to the MZed website.

Tell Us Your Suggestions

I’ve mentioned before, on the podcast and on the blog, that I’m obsessed with learning new things. I love courses and workshops on filmmaking. Any aspect of filmmaking!

Do you agree with me about these cinematography courses listed above? Have you taken courses from MZed?

Are there other places that have cinematography courses that you’ve loved?

Tell us in the comments!

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