Making it in the Entertainment Business: Cinematographer

Leigh Lisbão Underwood is an award-winning director of photography on feature films, documentaries and commercials. His work has been shown at the Cannes, Tribeca and Palm Springs film festivals; his credits include the Lifetime TV movies “1915” and “Death Clique.”

A graduate of the UCLA master’s program in cinematography, Underwood has studied under renowned cinematographers including John Bailey and Vilmos Zsigmond. He’s also an instructor at UCLA Extension.

Underwood recently fielded some questions about succeeding as a cinematographer.

What are your most important tips about breaking into this very competitive industry? 

The best advice I could possibly give is to stay determined, have a good attitude, and say yes to everything (at least at first). 

What's an example of when that last tip worked for you?

I remember a certain job that led to a breakthrough in my career that I came very close to saying no to: an unpaid grip position on a student film. I remember thinking that it would be a waste of my time. But I said yes and worked hard on the set, even though I wasn’t thrilled to be there. The gaffer, who worked professionally, took notice and connected me with a feature production company, which eventually led to several projects as a cinematographer.

How important is collaboration in this industry?

I caution my students to stay sensitive to their classmates and collaborators, and value collaboration with each other over retaining control. Imposing artistic control can come from an innocent place of excitement for your craft, but it both closes you off to unexpected magic that comes from collaboration and alienates you from everyone around you. In filmmaking, we all need each other desperately to succeed.

How important is raw talent vs. technical expertise in cinematography?

Both raw talent and technical expertise are important, and everyone needs some of each. With technical expertise but no talent — or perhaps a better way to say it is “artistic voice” — a film can be mechanically great but lack any soul and fail to reach an audience. With no expertise and all raw artistic voice, it’s also difficult to reach an audience, because audiences need a certain amount of consistency to relate to what they’re seeing.

What are the different areas of cinematography that people can strive toward as a career path?

There are many niche areas of cinematography that most people would never think about. It’s important to stay open to those. One might take you by surprise as being a huge passion. You might never be on a path towards nature photography, but one day filming wild animals in the Serengeti might wake you up to your life’s work. Or you could discover that another seemingly unrelated passion of yours, like skydiving, can combine with your love of cinematography and you could become the one and only skydiving cinematographer.

How do you stay relevant in an industry that's always looking for the next big sensation?

Sensations in the film and television industry come and go — 3-D for example — but what will always remain the same is that good stories are the key to good movies. The only way to stay relevant is to choose good stories and tell them well, whether it's through cinematography or any other part of filmmaking. 

Even on a project that has less depth — say, a genre film you’ve said yes to because you’re keeping busy saying yes to everything — you have to find something in the story that you can personally connect with and bring to life through your medium. Otherwise, no one will stay interested for long.

Is it difficult to keep up with the changing technology?

It seems that on every shoot I have to learn the equipment over again because something is different or updated. Every digital cinema camera works differently and you have to put a lot of time and energy into understanding how it works to be able to do your job well.

Luckily, though, there is a basis to cinematography that doesn’t change with the technology: how to expose an image, how to light a scene, how to interpret a story through visuals. Learning cinematography by shooting celluloid film helped ingrain the first two in me, because the technology is simple and unforgiving.

–Julia Clerk for UCLA Extension

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