The independent filmmaker must learn to wear many hats, from casting to editing. But as you advance to bigger productions, one of the most important skills to learn is the art of delegation. With experience, you’ll establish a crew that you’ll want to work with again and again.
A critical member of that crew is your cinematographer, also called the Director of Photography or DP. The DP’s primary purpose is to ensure that your vision as the Director is captured by the camera. The DP works closely with you on lighting, framing, and camera movements to help tell your story.
Why You Need a DP
Many Directors are quite comfortable running a camera, especially those who start off in the run-and-gun world of guerrilla filmmaking. But as you start working with larger crews, an experienced DP is essential. You can’t do it all yourself, so it makes sense to have a dedicated crew member to oversee the camera team.
You can’t do it all yourself, so it makes sense to have a dedicated crew member to oversee the camera team.
On low-budget student films, the DP may just be the camera operator with the most experience or whoever owns the best camera. But on professional productions, the DP will be the crew member with the most knowledge, skills, and practice behind the camera. Ideally, your DP should know more about cameras, lenses and lighting than even you, the Director.
Choosing a DP
A good Director and DP must work closely together on set, so it’s best to be compatible in both personality and visual style. Spend time getting to know each other before you work together.
What are your favorite films? Directors? How do you deal with stress? You don’t have to be best buddies or agree on everything, but you must work with your DP for long hours, often in difficult conditions. Why do that with someone you can’t stand?
You should also share a visual style. Do you have a preference for natural lighting? A fondness for certain color tones? Find a DP whose styles match yours. Forcing your DP to go against their natural style to fit yours will only lead to conflicts and an inconsistent look.
A Shared Vision
Your DP should have strong opinions about setting up shots, but be flexible enough to adapt their ideas to fit your overall vision. Be sure that both of you understand the other’s needs and can communicate effectively with each other and your crew.
Don’t wait to hire a DP until just before production. They should be involved in creative decisions as soon as possible. In the early stages of pre-production, you and your DP should meet with the Production Designer and other key members of the crew to discuss the overall look and feel of the film. These discussions will help get everyone on the same page and minimize second-guessing later.
Try to visit all the production locations with your DP, script in hand. Together, you can block and frame scenes while taking reference photos. You can continue this collaboration into the next stage of pre-production: storyboards and shot lists. Your DP should have tons of ideas for lighting and shooting each scene.
Now is the time for the two of you to discuss your ideas and work out any disagreements. If you are lucky enough to have tech rehearsals, that is another ideal time to finalize the look and staging of each scene.
Directing is a series of decisions. The more decisions you can work out prior to filming, the smoother your production will go. This is especially true for the camera and lighting team, who require more time to adjust to last-minute changes. Few things frustrate a crew more than an unprepared or indecisive Director.
Working Together On-set
A good Director and DP should go into each day of production with a clear plan, yet be flexible enough to adjust that plan when obstacles are thrown in your path. Be prepared for changes in weather, malfunctioning gear and other production emergencies that may pop up. The cast and crew look to you for leadership in dealing with any crisis that arises.
The camera crew gets direction from the DP, who should delegate tasks without needing your constant input. This frees you to direct the actors while the lights and cameras are set up. A DP also works closely with the Assistant Director and Script Supervisor to know which shots are scheduled for each set-up.
Occasionally, conflicts will arise. You may find yourself caught between a DP who wants to wait for perfect lighting conditions and a Producer who sees every minute as dollar signs. You’ll have to find the balance between the two, always keeping in mind your desired final result.
Collaborating with a talented DP improves the look of your film and eases your work as Director. And with luck, you’ll develop a friendship that carries over from film to film.
Joshua Siegel is a Filmmaker, Educator, and Digital Media Producer.