To be a cinematographer, one must balance technical knowledge of cameras, lenses, and lights with the instinctual lilt of storytelling. There are only a few programs in the country dedicated specifically to cinematography, and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) is one of the most affordable—and prestigious.
Program chair Tom Ackerman is an industry veteran, having shot iconic films such as “Beetlejuice,” “Jumanji,” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” as DP. Yet despite his Hollywood stature, he holds his midwestern roots close to heart.
“When I was a kid growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, nobody rained on my parade—not one single person,” Ackerman told Backstage about his dream of show biz. However, Ackerman doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the movie-maker life. In fact, he sees it as a responsibility to avoid sugar-coating at all costs: “I refuse to paint a glorious, golden picture of the future because it isn’t necessary.... If they love what they’re doing, and if they’re good at it, they’ll keep doing it no matter what.”
A hard-nosed, hard-work approach is a defining feature of the cinematography program art UNCSA—one that celebrates the romance of storytelling and emphasizes the hard work of craft. “[Students] hear a very conservative view of what their life and work will be like—and this just isn’t the vocational side, it’s also the human side.” A career in cinematography isn’t a participation badge—it must be earned.
UNCSA, an arts conservatory for students in high school through graduate school, thrives on an industry-standard, unapologetic, apprenticeship approach to training. To elaborate, Ackerman and faculty member Scott Ressler (“Twin Peaks,” “Dexter,” “Jurassic Park III”) spoke with Backstage about the field of cinematography and the school.
What is your definition of a cinematographer?
Thomas Ackerman: A cinematographer is two things: an illustrator and a dramatist. They use images to help tell stories. To do this, they must be in full command of their craft.
Scott Ressler: A visual storyteller and interpreter of moving imagery.
What is the largest misconception about the cinematography profession?
Ackerman: Cinematography is primarily a technical process. While cinematographers do have a big portfolio, one with a huge leadership component, those responsibilities can never be allowed to overshadow the mission. Put great images on the screen. And that, in turn, means you should be open to an occasional surprise. Art is not formulaic.
Ressler: There are so many! The ability to predict how film footage will turn out is only one small demand of the position. There is also the running of the crew; the understanding of how every visual element—composition, lighting, color, blocking, the telling of the story with an appropriate mood and feel, the interaction with the director and other keys, and so much more.
What are the signs that someone should look for to know that getting an education in cinematography is right for them?
Ackerman: The best indicator is when a person starts to realize the symbiotic relationship between theater and photography—their ability to convey human emotion. Maybe it’s shooting publicity stills for the high school drama department or casting student actors in a weekend movie. There’s got to be an “aha” moment when you start connecting the dots. It could be a shot that looks surprisingly wonderful and you start to realize why. Then, you find a way to do it again.
Ressler: For me, the epiphany was finding out that I could influence the emotions of an audience with visuals. I already had a love for art, architecture, design, graphics, and photography. Upon understanding that, so much of the storytelling process is in how one leads the viewer down the rabbit hole. I feel that the best way of seeking an education is through an immersive university program, where one will receive personal training from experienced professionals.
What makes training at UNCSA unique?
Ackerman: It’s a conservatory where arriving students are immersed from day one. You make films in the first year and never stop until graduation. Starting in the third-year program, those who have committed to cinematography will each have a mentor guiding their progress. It’s a creative partnership based on hard work and truth-telling. Students are held to a high standard.
Ressler: When not shooting a film, one can—and must—fulfill various crew positions on the films being shot by others. It’s a full-time program, both challenging and immensely fulfilling.
What questions should applicants ask when considering if a program is the right fit?
Ackerman: “Am I ready for a rigorous program?” This is not a school for dilettantes.
Ressler: “Is the program more about the aesthetics, the story, or the technology? What is the philosophy of this program?” UNCSA [is] an incredibly creative environment with minimal distractions. Students are held to a high standard.
What's the most exciting thing to see in an application or portfolio of a potential student?
Ackerman: Curiosity. Evidence of talent. Not being intimidated by how much needs to be learned, and eagerness to start.
Ressler: Eagerness, passion, and the willingness to start their education on their own, previous to college. It’s difficult to recommend a student who knows little of film history, art, photography, and literature. As for the portfolio, either a sign of an original aesthetic or evidence of having studied the visual arts.
What was the most important lesson you learned about cinematography in your own training?
Ackerman: Never make assumptions. Work hard. And be sure to let the crew know they are not only appreciated but integral to the process.
Ressler: Perfect should never be the goal. What makes almost anything more fascinating is the imperfections, the mistakes that you’re willing to embrace. It’s also important to not always obsess on technology. People have shot beautiful films with smartphones and hideous ones with the best gear known to man.
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!