If you caught on to the reference I made with the title of this Frame of Mind article then you have most certainly earned yourself a place within my top eight MySpace friends. If you not only got that reference but also my “picture it” reference in my last article about the origins of the vurbmoto Instagram captions, then you are now in my top three MySpace friends. If you have no idea what I am talking about, that is also okay. I will just have to wait to accept your friend request until you’ve been educated on these “golden” references. That’s right! I am officially two for two in referencing my favorite sitcom, The Golden Girls, in my last two articles. I would also like to accept a massive round of applause for making vurbmoto the ONLY dirtbike website to reference The Golden Girls… Ever. So, you are welcome. As I recently explained in our vurbmoto social group text: I am much more then some witty caption writer and dirtbike filmmaker. I am also a passionate fan of great comedic humor such as The Golden Girls.
Now that I’ve wasted a few minutes of your time talking about four hilarious senior citizens that just want to get their freak on, I thought I would spend some time discussing the financial side of filmmaking within our sport. It’s a question individuals like Wes Williams and I are often asked: how do you go about coming up with your day rates? What’s a fair rate for somebody like myself/what is my value? Do you include post-production as part of your shoot day rate? Do you bill for expenses? If so, how do you do that? Did you work for free and, if so, for long? And, a lot more. This is a rather extensive topic with a lot of things we can dissect. However, I want to start with one of the aforementioned questions that is fresh in my head and that is the following: What’s a fair rate for somebody like myself/what is my value? I want to start here because it’s a topic Wes and I were discussing last week. And, the answer to that question? It’s complicated. Let’s examine why…
There is that age old adage that time is money. And, yes, that is accurate. And, while nobody wants to work for free, sometimes within our world, you have to work for free. Hell, even I still work for free at times. It’s an unfortunate reality that can be a bummer. I spent quite some time coming up through the ranks, working for free. I travelled to races with money out of my own pocket from my 9-5 jobs, I would volunteer at any chance I could get to go shoot a race purely because I both wanted and needed the experience. Also, back then, we didn’t have access to public Supercross tracks, so the only chance you ever got of seeing these guys was at a Supercross race or an outdoor motocross race. I spent a long time shooting from the fences because I was not able to get credentials and thought, “If I can impress the people that I want to work for with rad images from behind the fence, then they can’t ignore my abilities.” The reality is, I genuinely love being behind my camera. I love creating an image. So, I was never worried about the all mighty dollar. In time, it would come, but that was not my motivation behind my desires to be behind the lens. First and foremost, you have got to love what you do. You have got to realize you will have bad days and days of severe burnout. But, when those days pass, no matter the dollar signs, you’ll know you love it because you want to get back out there and shoot. My biggest piece of advice to many is the following: it’s a slow grind. Painful at times. You will not get paid and, if you do, it will be very little. But, in order to get to the levels you hope to achieve, you need to get experience. Ask if you can shadow the individuals you respect the most and shadow them for as long as you’re able to. Watch, listen, learn, and absorb. Take all of that and apply it to your methodology and over time, it will (theoretically) pan out. It’s not a sprint, it’s the world’s slowest and, at times, stupidest marathon.
However, I believe things have gone slightly awry from my time coming up. Through the rising and setting of the sun, I have noticed there is a strong sense of entitlement among some that point cameras in our little bubble. They want big rates despite the lack of experience and/or knowledge. Just because you went out and financed a RED Digital Cinema camera does not make you a professional cinematographer, and it does not mean that you can instantly start charging a client a big rate because, “Oh, yeah, I own a RED.” That is not how this works. However, I am aware of some that do think that is the case. First and foremost, there are only a few clients within our niche world that pay proper rates. And, the few that I know which do pay proper rates hire those that have not only the tools and skills, but also the technical knowledge and professionalism on set to get the job done. There are people I am aware of that have RED packages, but that does not mean they will be somebody I hire. I look at the total package of the human. Honestly, I could give a shit if you own a RED. What I look at is personality and overall professionalism. You can tell a lot via looking at one’s social media pages. I know of talented people, but because of how they conduct themselves on social media or, hell, even on set, that will tell me everything I need to know about that person. When your vibe is more so geared about the money and being “seen” with some athlete above all else, my interest plummets faster than my current Credit Karma Savings rate.
I’ve had individuals with RED packages tell me their rates and I’ve about fallen over. Why? Because, at the end of the day, they lack not only the creative ability, but also the technical knowledge needed to justify that rate. Again, just because you indulged in a $30k setup does not mean you are worth the rate you quoted me. Let me explain it like this: if you put me on Ken Roczen’s Factory Honda CRF 450R race bike, I am going to be just as slow on his fully tricked out factory race bike as I would be on my own personal motorcycle. Why? Because I do not posses the prowess to ride the factory motorcycle to the best of its abilities. It does not make me any faster. It does not magically make me a better rider. So, take that theory and apply it to cinematography. Just because my neighbor went out and bought a RED doesn’t mean they are all of a sudden going to start composing and creating beautiful images. Like I would lack the skills and knowledge to ride Kenny’s race bike to the level that it should be ridden, my neighbor also lacks the ability to harness the REDs powers to its fullest. Thus, the conclusion? My neighbor is just as good on the RED as they were on their previous, far less expensive camera. It’s blind progress.
2022 marks my 14th year working full time in this industry. As I’ve said countless times prior, but after spending 2003 to 2007 cutting my teeth, I got my break thanks to Donn “Swap” Maeda at TransWorld Motocross Magazine in January of 2008. However, a year later, I left to pursue filmmaking. I had literally started my career all over again. This meant working for free and trying to get my work on any website possible in hopes that it would turn into something. My first paid client gig came thanks to the fellas at Novik Gloves. They wanted to do a project with Tyler Bowers and they wanted me to shoot it. I remember being at dinner with some friends when I got the call. I was wildly confused as to why anybody would want to pay me money to shoot a video for them. In the end, I told them $250 all in to shoot and edit and no need to pay expenses. Honestly, while I laugh at what a horrendous rate that was, I also had no damn experience doing paid video shoots. I felt bad even giving them a number because I believed my skills were terrible. My thought process? “I should be paying you for allowing me this opportunity.” Obviously, over time, my skill set progressed and I SLOWLY increased my rates, and I got a better understanding for making sure a client covers all expenses, etc. But, for better or worse, I had situational awareness. I knew I sucked. I knew my skills were limited. And, I knew I just needed to get my hands on anything so that I could grow. The caveat to that is when clients then expect that same type of rate from everybody. It causes problems.
I’ve often thought we should have some sort of minimum standard rate across the board so nobody is undercutting anybody (similar to the MLB minimum salary). However, that goes against everything I just explained in knowing your worth. Now, the guys at Novik were always so kind and easy to work with. So, please note that this is not directed at them AT ALL. However, smaller companies only have or are only willing to spend so much. I have been questioned multiple times with the following: “Why would I pay your exorbitant rate when I can just hire this person for a much, much cheaper rate?” At the end of the day, it comes down to the type of product you want, along with the overall experience you receive. When coming to somebody like myself and/or WashedUpWes you get quite a bit. Obviously, (depending on your needs for the job) you’re getting a RED package, you’re getting a complete kit of cine lenses, you’re getting a full kit of Tentacle Sync audio mics and timecode devices, you’re getting top tier lens filtration, you’re getting a complete G&E package with lights. On top of that, you’re getting 14-years of experience, you’re getting our ability to properly expose, compose, and focus a flattering image, you’re getting our ability to understand lighting and ratios of light and how to design and build lighting for a specific scene and/or interview, you get our ability to be a director, producer (I am not good at that), an editor, a colorist, and more at a very, very high level. I could add onto this list for ages, but you get the gist of it. An example of this would be somebody I was around on set that explained to me their day rates, which were apparently near what Wes & I charge. This individual then went onto explain how they have no idea how to setup and compose interviews and has no idea how to light interviews. Oh, and terrible with audio. Soooooooooooo. This individual has an expensive camera, is charging (allegedly) top tier day rates, but lacks quite a bit of knowledge and abilities? This is totally fine. I don’t give a shit. We all learn at different paces, but know your worth and what you provide. Not just what camera package you provide. Again, think of you on Kenny’s factory race bike.
Over the last few years, I have been doing what I can to get into the scripted narrative world of cinematography. I want to DP movies. That is my end goal. In going down this path, I have absolutely no experience on narrative sets. While I have well over a decade behind the camera, that decade has been shooting action sports. So, the reality is, when I am working in the narrative space, my knowledge and abilities are not what they are when it comes to action sports. Thus, I am working at a VERY reduced rate. How much, you ask? I’ll tell you flat out. In 2018, I DP’d my first feature length narrative film. It was a 100 page script that we shot in 16-days. It was a micro-budget and I had absolutely no narrative experience. Remember what I said earlier about needing and wanting to gain experience? This was exactly that scenario. I worked 16 days DP’ing a feature for exactly no dollars. That’s right, I DP’d it for free. 16 days. F.R.E.E. Why? I am so passionate about that genre of work. I want and need the experience on proper sets so much that I have no room to bargain. At least, in my opinion, I have no room to do so. I provided my own gear and time to DP a feature for free. Was it worth it? A Trey Canard 200%, YES! The wealth of knowledge I gained in 16 days was more then I had ever learned in the 10+ years of shooting moto. From understanding my 180 line (not talking about shutter angle), to lighting and working with a gaffer, to understating the role of a director, producer, and working with a proper sound mixer and actors; it was truly a humbling and eye-opening experience. I realized how little I knew and how much I gained in only 16 days.
On year later, in 2019, I landed my second narrative gig. A dramatic short film. I was hired as DP for the three day shoot. This time it was paid (progress). However, again, I am working at a wildly discounted rate. The perks? I had a much bigger crew: I had a full camera department, G&E, gaffer, 1st ADs, production designer, H&MU, PAs, and more. My rate? $250 per day, plus expenses, and a small rental budget for additional gear (I think my rental budget was $1,000 all in). Again, providing my full RED camera package at this rate. Now, come 2020, I land yet another narrative gig. This time a dramatic sci-fi film. A 20 page script to shoot in five days. My crew was even bigger this time and my rental budget sitting around $3,000 for camera department. My rate? Again, heavily discounted because I have limited experience and need to get as much time on real sets as possible. $550 per day, plus expenses. Obviously, you see an upward trend here. Though my rates are deeply discounted, forward progress is happening and my knowledge and understanding of my role as a DP, working with directors, leading a full crew, and more is only growing and improving. Then, I do No Runners as a passion project with just myself, Brandon Carter, and Stu Alfano. The rate? FREE. I paid for everything out of pocket and made exactly no money. Actually, I lost money.
My point to all of this? Know your worth. Granted, there is a fine line, because you do not want to go around undercutting anyone because that is just as bad. Understand that you don’t just charge big rates because of the camera package you have. There is much more that goes into all of this. The rates will come in time, but self-awareness is a key part of that. If you’re unsure of what you believe your value is, ask us. I do my best to get back to anybody that reaches out to me via Instagram or e-mail. Sometimes I am slow, but I will get back to you. And, most importantly, be kind. Be respectful. Never have an ego. We are not that fucking cool. There are thousands better than you and thousands better than me. Be hungry to improve and open to learning and hearing input from others. That’s the shit people like myself and Wes truly notice. But, seriously, don’t have an ego. And, say thank you. Always. Please? Thank you.