Jim Cullen joined a large pool of camera operators at the BBC in 2000; he estimates it was the biggest in the country, numbering about 40 on staff contracts. Nine years later, he and most of his colleagues lost their jobs in a restructuring and he went freelance.
One of his jobs as a freelancer was to work with BBC Sport on the World Cup coverage in 2010, which, he tells Ariel, ‘wasn’t bad at all’. He also continues to work regularly on EastEnders and has the flexibility to take jobs with shows such as Coronation Street as well.
But one of the biggest downsides of being freelance, adds Cullen, is its unpredictability. ‘You have a month when maybe you earn extremely well, better than you could have hoped in three months of working at the BBC, but then there might be a month when you only pick up a day or two. That can be quite stressful.’
Like other people who have been made redundant, he believes losing his full-time staff job ‘closed some doors but opened others’.
The latest door to open is the chance to work on a feature film as a director of photography. It’s not the kind of opportunity he would have been able to balance with a demanding 40-hour-a-week job. Coincidentally, the film is being made with one of Cullen’s old BBC contacts, former Egghead CJ de Mooi, who has a starring role.
Whatever God Sends:
The Renata Road is a psychological thriller which raised about £10,000 from a kickstarter campaign and had very little additional budget. Cullen volunteered all his time to get the film shot in three weeks; there’s also an additional week’s work in April.
‘The producer told me what the hours were likely to be and I kind of thought, I will be working every hour that god sends.’ Which is precisely what happened.
There was even an overnighter that overlapped with the DoP’s birthday in February. But if Cullen had to suffer for his art, the cameraman believes it was worth it for the invaluable experience.
‘It was thoroughly satisfying,’ he judges. ‘I’ve developed a kind of love for drama camera work through EastEnders and the people I met there.
‘This was my chance to light the scenes as well. I love it – it was really rewarding and creative. It takes that ability to be creative further than anything I have worked on before.’
Cullen admits he’s lost money on the film – shot in St Annes, Lancashire – and not just because he gave up his time, which he estimates would have cost about £10,000 on his freelance rate.
The ex-BBC camera operator also bought a cinema camera, accessories and a £3000 Mac computer to process the images, a total of about £10,000 all in. He reckons this makes him one of the largest funders of the film.
‘The amount I gave to the film was massive, but it’s an investment,’ says the 37-year-old, who will get a credit on the film as a cinematographer.
He would do it all again and hopes he will. It wouldn’t hurt, of course, if he got paid next time.
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