Want my job? with Toby Leary, freelance director of photography

"Not one day is the same. I get to work with fantastic, hard working people, people who really have you back through the thick and thin. It’s such a special moment when everything comes together and you’re looking at the monitor like ‘Wow…we did this?!"

Want my job? with Toby Leary, freelance director of photography

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

Hi, I’m Toby Leary. A freelance Director Of Photography (or Cinematographer) originally from East Sussex but now based in London. At the moment I mainly shoot short-form content such as music videos, commercials, documentaries & short films. 

What does your job involve? Give us the typical outline of a day?

The role of a DOP (Director Of Photography) in my eyes is to aid the director in creating the look of a film. We are also in charge of executing that vision too. It’s a nice balance of creativity & technicality. You have to understand what is doable and what is not (mainly due to budgetary reasons!) and how best to achieve what you set out to do.

On the day of the shoot I’d say the DOP’s role is the most important, as they are in charge of the actual filming process. You could argue that the director’s role is, but really most of them wouldn’t know what to do or how to command a team to get the best results, they just deal with the wider set.

A typical day on set would be arriving at the location, making sure all of the kit and crew have arrived. I usually then go for a walk through with the Director, 1st AD, Art Director, Gaffer & Focus puller showing them where we are shooting and what shots I’d like to achieve. This is where we iron out any concerns we have and start to build an idea of what our day is going to be like. (In preparation this would’ve already been done but sometimes things crop up on the day, e.g. the artist arriving late. So we would have to make a new plan very quickly of how we want to approach the new day.)

It’s always good to have clear communication so your crew is on the same page, this saves time and gets everyone working towards the same goal.1fbf531f22b8af5e5d2df97b68b766252d6aedfc.jpg

We then start setting lights and camera and begin filming! The whole process is very quick as there is usually a lot to film within 1 day. There is always a big monitor on set and a couple of handheld ones for the director & client. Feedback is given in-between takes by myself, the director and client and then we continue shooting! If all goes to plan we whizz through it and it’s the end of the day. Although it’s sometimes not that easy…

What’s great about your job?

I really enjoy my job because not one day is the same. I also get to work with fantastic, hard working people, people who really have you back through the thick and thin – mostly thick to be honest! It’s such a special moment when everything comes together and you’re looking at the monitor like ‘Wow…we did this?!’ 

What are the bits you don’t like or find challenging?

You will be faced with so many challenges when shooting a film, and it’s up to you to solve them well and quickly. I enjoy challenges but sometimes it can get too much when you have five people shouting your name at once and it’s easy to get stressed. 

Another thing that I still find difficult to this day is managing your headspace when you’re not shooting. Because of the nature of freelancing you won't be working all of the time, and this is good and bad. Good because you can have time off, rest up and live your life! But bad because (if like me you can’t sit still) all you want to be doing is to be creating on set. And it gets tough if you haven’t had much work come in and see others around you getting job after job. You start to think ‘oh am I not good enough’ and think of yourself and your skills in a negative way. But that’s not the case. Freelance work is not as simple as ‘Hire Me’, there is way more to it than that. And if someone hasn’t picked you for a job it’s not personal, it’s because there are a multitude of reasons going on and to be honest they are probably just as stressed that they couldn't get you on the job as well. It’s just a part of the industry.

For me I try to fill my time with positive things and activities. Like finding inspiration in art galleries, reaching out to new contacts and meeting them for a coffee, creating art, taking photos, basically putting myself in a great position for when I do get a job come through I am fully prepared and can offer my findings. Remember, luck is made through preparation and opportunity. 

What are the highlights of your career to date?

A recent big highlight of mine was shooting a music video with Stormzy. He’s a super nice guy!

What was your career path into this job? Have you also worked outside the arts?

I have worked outside of the arts, as a cashier at a supermarket. It made me realise that I don’t want to do anything like that again, or work in retail with bosses telling you what to do. If you have no clue what to do, reverse the question ‘What is it that I don’t want to be doing’ and take it from there. 

My career path thus far has been a fairly simple one. I’m lucky enough to have found the passion for filmmaking at a young age (mainly through watching epic films like Star Wars!). That gave me the sights to study it and potentially have it as a career. I studied Media at GCSE, and then went onto a BTEC Media Production course for Sixth Form/College. Through learning more about it I felt inspired and that I wanted this as a career. 

My next move was university. I remember visiting about four places all around the country, but the main thing I really picked up on was that the industry was in London. I was always a hands-on, practical learner and so I knew I had to find a course that allowed that. Ravensbourne seemed to be the most practical and they had good ties with the industry, and so that was that, Ravensbourne it was. If, like me, you were interested in film but had no contacts, such as family or friends in the industry, it can seem really daunting at first. University really helped me break that barrier down. It put me with a lot of like-minded people, who I still work with today! But it also provided a safety net for a couple of years so I could find my feet. Ravensbourne gave you a lot of free time to go and make what you wanted, to go and try... and fail, and this is the most important thing when it comes to learning. If you are serious about this, use your time wisely! Although it took me until midway through the second year to do that. 

You run a channel called The Trenches, which details a behind the scenes look at the creative process of videos. What first inspired you to create the channel?

It was a few things that inspired me to create the channel.

I was inspired by what I was watching online, creators like Casey Neistat really pioneered a new format of telling stories online. I found him and his channel hugely inspiring, so much so, that I wanted in with my own! I wanted to be able to tell cool stories and hopefully inspire another generation, whilst providing knowledge and entertainment. 68058906eebfe01ce3e27f98a2d76a1bb07f4414.jpg

I was also getting to a point in my career where I felt I had made a mark, I had a solid network of people around me who I could approach with this idea of starting a channel, and for them to let me film the behind the scenes on their sets. It was all about timing.

It was also a mixture of being inspired by what my team and I were achieving on set, and also the fact we were shooting with big artists. I remember looking around on a set one day thinking “Why isn’t anyone filming this?!”

How has the reception to the channel been? Have you changed how you approach the content over time?

The reception has been really great so far! A lot of people are talking about it in the industry which is great. And people have been coming up to me and say “Oh yeah I’ve watched it” and “Keep going with it”, so really good feedback amongst the viewers and the workers within the industry.

I’ve run into a few problems along the way, all to do with the music labels and artist management. Even though I’m trying to make a light-hearted educational video, the labels view it in a very different way. The music industry is desperate to make money and see their artists succeed, and so if they aren’t making money off of something they simply won't approve it or get involved. And this is the issue I have been running into because I can’t (officially) release a video without the artist's permission, even if the artist themselves were totally ok with it on the day – it’s the labels making the decisions for them. 

I also feel that the big labels want to keep things behind closed doors, to not reveal these sorts of things which, in my eyes, is not the way the industry is moving. We are now at a place where everything is online and to hold information back for yourselves shows the age of these companies, when really they can also be benefiting from it too!

It’s annoying as it slows the whole process down and sometimes they outright say no, even if it’s already been discussed that it was ok to shoot behind the scenes on the day. And so I have to be a bit smarter with what productions to do it on, and to get written permission beforehand. 

For me I just want to keep releasing content, and because of these issues with releasing videos, I have come up with some other ideas for series I can run alongside the current Behind The Scenes videos. They won't stop me!

What would you like to see come out of your work on the channel?

I would like to see multiple series being released from the channel in the short term. Longer term moving into other creative industries, such as fashion and music. And ofcourse growth! But I feel that will follow on as a product of good, consistent work. 

I want anyone to feel that they could have an episode on The Trenches, to make a community of hard workers and to showcase the people behind the ideas.

How has your background, upbringing and education had an impact on your artistic career? 

I consider myself very lucky to have been given a lot of freedom when growing up, the freedom to try things and for my parents not to push me into a career I didn’t want. No one was creative in my family apart from my Grandma, Valerie Riley. She worked with textiles and so she would show me how to sew from a young age. I never really got on with sewing but I think it was the creative aspect of it that set off that spark inside me.

I never really considered myself as an artist but I guess I am in a way, I just like making stuff to be honest. I think the hours of watching TV and films really developed my tastes as I figured out what I liked and what I did not. I did not like Hollyoaks, but I did like Wes Anderson’s films, and so you develop an eye for things like that overtime. 1996c72821bc1eaf1fd72e096748aa43b5a98acf.jpgDid you have any role models or inspirations growing up?

My parents & Grandparents, Casey Neistat, Wes Anderson, Kanye West, Jean Michel Basquiat, Banksy, Obiwan-Kenobi 

Have you had a mentor anytime during your career, and if so, how has having one made a difference?

I’ve had no full time mentor, that is someone who you go back and forth with over the space of a career. But I have had the pleasure of working with like-minded people, people who also do film but also people who are in other industries, creative or not, and it’s their mindset that really inspires me to be the best I can. I think that is a REALLY big take away point, to find, connect and spend time with like minded people - especially if they are in the industry you want to get into. 

For me it was going to University, it put me with a lot of similar people in a similar position, and it’s those guys who will bring you up with them. If someone levels up eventually you will too, you just have to stay in touch, be oh and be a nice person!

If university isn’t an option, join some communities online, send people messages asking to assist on their shoots, go to classes or clubs…there will be people out there you just have to find them!

Are there any online support spaces you’re a part of, and if so, how have they helped you?

Mandy.com is a good resource for jobs if you don’t know where to get them from. They are not the best jobs, but it’s experience which is the main thing. 

I find Instagram to be a very useful tool in connecting with other people but also showcasing your work. It also allows you to hit up senior Directors & DOP’s for work experience or a chance to shadow them on set, which I would recommend doing! It’s great to see how a proper set is run and to get a chance to ask questions, just remember to not get in the way too much and keep offering out tea and coffee – you’ll soon become a favourite. 

0259bb32ceca6e047f49df0f508a6ee9e1647b79.jpgHave you noticed any changes in the industry? If so, what?

It was the way the industry and internet were changing, it seemed a lot of creators were growing huge audiences and making content directly for that reason. This cuts out the middleman in terms of funding a video – if you grow your audience you can get Ad revenue and brand deals to fund your next one. 

You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?

Don’t care what anyone thinks, do it anyway. People will laugh at you on the way up but will want to be your best friend at the top. Oh and just do it already…

Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?

If you are a creative problem solver then film is for you! Filmmaking is one big problem and it’s up to you how to solve it. 

And go and follow The Trenches! 


Instagram @tobyleary @the_trenches___


Some links to recent work

Header Image Credit: All images provided by Toby Leary


Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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