How To Become a Cinematographer with Todd Dos Reis, ASC
There are countless ways to enter the industry and pursue a job as a cinematographer. Typically, you work your way up the ladder from a production assistant or in the camera department and must take chances to prove your mastery. Todd Dos Reis, ASC joins Shane Hurlbut, ASC on this episode of the Inner Circle Podcast to talk about his career trajectory.
Keep reading to discover how Todd started as a PA working on Russell Carpenter projects before moving sideways, backward, and up to become the seasoned ASC cinematographer he is today.
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- Cinematography Mentorship with Shane Hurlbut, ASC
- Finding the Frame: Alice Brooks, ASC
TODD DOS REIS, ASC: PATH OF A FILMMAKER
Originally from New Bedford south of Boston (you may recognize as the setting of Moby Dick), Todd Dos Reis, ASC frequented local movie theaters in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There he was drawn to Blaxploitation and Bruce Lee films, among other iconic films. This served as a bridge that led to an interest in photography and inspired him to work at his high school TV studio.
His teacher encouraged him to study film production in college, providing him with a list of the top film schools in the country. From there, Reis was drawn to The University of Southern California.
Todd got his start working for Sho Films first as an intern and then as a production assistant when they began production on Critters 2: The Main Course. Fortunately for Reis, he was given some range to choose where he wanted to work on set. Reis was naturally drawn to the camera and grip departments.
Carpenter’s team needed a loader and eventually offered him the job. On the weekends, he took home BL magazines and ARRI 3 magazines to practice loading.
Reis didn’t stop there. While on set, he paid close attention to the lighting and even drew lighting diagrams.
“I would just sit on [Carpenter’s] set and watch how he lit. And that’s how I think I learned lighting. It was fantastic!” —Todd Dos Reis, ASC
Those who grow their careers in the film industry do so with the help of veterans who act as mentors to the younger generation. Carpenter supported Reis’ career, moving from a loader to a 2nd AC, 1st AC, and camera operator. In fact, Carpenter was the first DP to tell Reis that he was ready for the ASC and offered to write him a letter.
MOVING UP FROM CAMERA OPERATOR TO DP ON HBO’S ENTOURAGE
Ever since film school, Reis knew he wanted to be a DP, and thanks to his internship, he understood his route was to begin as a camera assistant. While working as a camera assistant, Reis simultaneously shot music videos to get experience. That means while he pursued his union hours as a loader or on the second unit, he was constantly getting his reps shooting.
One of the transitionary points in Todd Dos Reis’ career was when he moved up from a B-cam operator to a director of photography on the show Entourage. He started as a camera operator on the pilot episode.
When Entourage came to series, there was a transfer of leadership and they initially wanted a Steadicam on the B-cam. This meant Reis was out — or so he thought. Fortunately for Reis, however, he had a history with Steve Fierberg so he was promised a position whenever they needed a third camera or a second unit. So, that was Reis’ involvement for the first season. In the show’s second season, they decided against a Steadicam altogether, realizing 35mm handheld suited them better.
For Entourage, the A-cam is primarily used for telling the story whereas the B-cam was for coverage, inserts, and cutaways that might need even be used for the episode but at another point in the series. So, in a sense, he was DPing as a B-cam operator.
“I still think the B-camera operator position is like one of the best jobs on the set,” says Reis. “Because sometimes you’re not working, but you can find stuff to do. And it’s fantastic, especially if you want to DP. So for all the filmmakers out there, take that one.”
An effective B-cam operator is curious and proactive. You never go and sit on the truck and wait. Rather, you should always be searching for that shot, whether it’s filming birds and wildlife or something unique that catches your attention.
Making the Transition…
In season three, Dave Perkal moved up to DP the show, and Reiss moved up to A-camera. From there, Reis served as the A-Cam operator until season six. Reis was persistent and begged Doug Ellin for a chance to shoot an episode himself and was finally given the opportunity in season five.
When season six came around, he had DP’d two episodes of the hit show and gave them an ultimatum. Either they allow him to DP or he must move on. So, they moved Reis up to full-time alternating DP on season seven. Then, he finished the last two seasons as a DP and even shot the series finale!
THE LEAP FROM CAMERA OPERATOR TO CINEMATOGRAPHER
There was a big jump from camera operator to director of photography where you must collaborate with the showrunner and director. It’s one thing shooting music videos where you as a DP oftentimes fly by the seat of your pants. You might be lucky to get a day or two of tech and location scouts. However, on a show, you have more time and need to know how to enter meetings and tech scouts with a director and understand the etiquette.
It was eye-opening for Reis because he wasn’t used to so much time in pre-production. In film school, they teach auteur theory where there’s one voice for the entire project, but television doesn’t work that way. In television, you have a showrunner and a director who comes in for the week. Then, there’s another director that comes in the next week. So, you must learn how to listen to the showrunner while also working closely with each director. Over the course of Entourage’s eight seasons, Reis truly grew his understanding of the industry
The leap from camera operator to director of photography takes time, so invest your time on set making friends, and leaving a positive impression. Reis met Jimmy Muro, who he claims is the best Steadicam operator ever, on the set of Titanic. At the time, Muro was the A-camera operator and Reis was a camera assistant for Russ Carpenter.
“Even though I was a day player, [Muro] remembered me. And when he started doing Southland he wanted to bring me on as an operator. And then he let me get an episode of Southland. So that led me to SEAL Team.”
Typically Muro begins a show as the cinematographer and then he will also get episodes to direct. So, Reis came on as the DP of SEAL Team when Muro was the director.
Get the experience and make mistakes…
Now, this is a far trajectory from where Reis began his career. And as mentioned earlier, he cut his teeth shooting videos from the 1980s to 2000. During that time, Reis was known as the king of the $80,000 music video.
“It was like one or two days max of a music video that we did,” recalls Reis. “And we made the most of it. But it was great. It was a great learning field. You know, you got to do all the tricks, try things and fail and get up and try it again and do something different.”
Working on music videos is a great realm to grow your skills and empowers you even if you fail. Shane even remembers the time when he used 80 ASA magnetic film stock that was 10 times the silver and delivered extraordinary black-and-white footage.
So, while filming exteriors, they used a red filter to bring out the sky. Yet, the safe light on the film was red. After shooting the entire music video, Shane was excited to see the results. When he called Fotokem and asked about the footage, they told him they received 20,000 feet of black because of the red filter. These are the kinds of mistakes that you can make on music videos, so by the time you’re shooting TV and features, you will have the experience to avoid such mistakes.
“We brought her back and we did it all over again,” laughs Shane. “I really loved that time period of experimenting, not worrying about failing. And then sometimes what you thought was a complete failure was absolute genius. And then you take it with you for the rest of your career.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
While there’s no one way to move up in the film industry, your growth depends on your passion to learn, your experience, and networking with the filmmakers in the department you hope to grow in.
Reis knew he wanted to be a cinematographer and was drawn to the camera department on set. Then, from learning how to load a camera to working as a camera assistant while shooting music videos, he immersed himself in the world of cinematography. This prepared Reis for when he started shooting TV shows and allowed him the confidence to ask for a chance to DP episodes himself.
Of course, Reis was also guided by key mentors who helped him blaze a path in the film industry and eventually become an ASC cinematographer. From Critters 2 to Entourage and now the feature film, The Blackening, Reis expertly transitioned in his cinematography career.
TUNE INTO PREMIUM FILMMAKERS ACADEMY PODCASTS
Shane Hurlbut, ASC is not only a director of photography, he’s an innovator who trailblazes new technology and finds creative ways to systematize it into the filmmaking process.
Hurlbut is one of the forefathers of the digital revolution and the first to turn affordable cameras into movie-making powerhouses! More recently, he reimagined pre-production with the Insta360 camera during the tech and location scout. Not only was it an essential tool during the pandemic, but it streamlines collaboration and saves the production money. This is an absolute MUST for directors of photography.