As a solo artist, what happens when you land a gig with a budget for crew? Your most important relationship will be with your Director of Photography.
Most film historians consider Citizen Kane the best film of all time. Why? The incredible relationship between filmmaker Orson Wells and his cinematographer Greg Toland. Wells and Toland worked hand in hand to create a cinematic masterpiece. This is the ultimate example of how a good relationship with your cinematographer, otherwise known as a Director of Photography (DP), can benefit your project.
The Director of Photography is responsible for the look of the video, deciding the choice of camera, lens and lighting equipment and hiring the camera and lighting crews. The DP designs the lighting of each shot and instructs and supervises the crew as to where to place the lights and camera equipment. The DP determines the proper exposure to each scene, as well as the camera movements and how to achieve these movements. Throughout the process, the DP and director work to create a predetermined look or style for the video. It is a key job of the DP to collaborate with the director to create camera movements and lighting schemes that help tell the story. Creating a good video production is more than just recording a scene, and a good DP will take your production far beyond the basic production.
Hiring the DP
What makes an excellent DP? Before hiring your cinematographer, take a look at his or her sample reel. Does it show a variety of styles? Variety indicates a well-rounded technical and aesthetic background, as well as the ability to work with various directors and produce the type of product they hope to create. If for example, the reel shows only the ability to produce film noir-type lighting schemes, you may want to move on, unless you are producing a film noir-type piece and are looking for someone who specializes.
You should also look closely at shot choice, camera movement and composition. While the director has some influence here, the DP is ultimately in charge of the look of the piece. If your candidate has included poorly-shot footage with bad composition, you should definitely move on to the next.
Finally, talk to directors and crews that have worked with the DP. You need someone who can talk the technical language to their camera and lighting crews and who has a real aesthetic feel for what is in front of the lens. Your DP must also be able to work with you as the director and feel comfortable creating the image you want to present. As in any creative field, ego is prevalent amongst artists. This is fine, as long as the DP uses ego to create the best piece possible and doesn’t let it get in the way when working with you, the director. You want someone who takes pride in the work and who gets an ego boost from creating a technically- and aesthetically-pleasing video, not from wielding power over the crew in the process of creating the piece.
Preparing for the DP
Long before you bring the DP on board, you need to determine the look or style of your piece. You need to be able to tell the DP the feel you wish to achieve and the style you are trying to create. Have some examples ready, such as films you have seen that have the look you want to create or photographs that show the lighting style you want.
You also have to think technically. The DP may want to know the depth of field you wish, in order to determine both the exposure and lens focal distance. When Wells shot Citizen Kane, he insisted that Toland create extremely deep depth-of-field shots with great depth cues, to give the feeling of opulence and incredibly large spaces. Toland knew he had to use incredibly fast lenses with high f-stops to achieve the look and experimented with intense light and shadow to achieve the look Wells required.
Do you want a soft or hard lighting look? Are you looking for realistic, glamorous, mysterious or fantasy lighting? Do you plan to shoot lots of coverage, or must the DP get everything in the shot at one time? Do you want smooth camera movement, no movement at all or a handheld look? These are all questions you have to ask yourself before you meet with your DP the first time.
Once you have determined the look and style you hope to achieve, you are ready to sit down with the DP and begin the preproduction process. Preproduction, you say? Can’t we just go and shoot? Hardly. A good director and DP never walk onto a set without first determining everything in advance, down to the type of tripod needed and the number of grips they will use that day. It is essential to the director/DP relationship that they walk onto the set as a team, with the same goals in mind and the combined determination to achieve a solid and aesthetically-pleasing production. Without preparation, this will never happen.
On the Set
When on the set, the director and DP work as a team, each taking on specific responsibilities. The quickest way to sour the atmosphere on the set is to undermine the work and decisions being made by your DP. If you have planned well, there should be no surprises. Make sure the DP and the crew always know which scenes are being shot that day and what will be needed. Knowing you have a good DP gives you the luxury of working with your actors and the rest of the crew and makes for a very efficient set.
During the setup for each shot, look through the viewfinder and discuss any changes you wish to make. A good DP knows that things change on the set, and, if you and the DP are willing to work together and make changes that you both agree on, you will find the production will be incredibly rewarding.
Be very specific in describing the changes needed. Don’t be scattered. Carefully look through the viewfinder and determine if the lighting, camera movement and setting all meet your requirements. If not, make specific changes and work together to achieve those changes. Ask your DP for input into the various setups you are preparing. Listen to the DP’s wise council and make sure you communicate how much you value the DP’s work in the production process. Keep a clear eye on the look and feel of the entire production, and, if it seems as if your DP is venturing away from the goal, gently but firmly reel the DP in and explain the changes you need to make to get back on track.
As the shoot progresses, make sure you are comfortable with the decisions your DP is making. It is not wise to constantly second-guess the DP’s decisions; he or she will probably rebel and start packing. You hired the DP to do a job, so make sure you work hard in maintaining a professional atmosphere for both the DP and the crew. Some directors find it very hard to let go of the reins and let others do their jobs. It is essential that you, as the director, are careful you don’t hover and try to second-guess everything the DP is doing. Quality control is one thing; redoing the job or tweaking every little shot and light is something entirely different. If you want to maintain a good relationship, you will need to trust the DP’s judgment and give the respect and responsibility that comes with the position.
When wrapping for the day, make sure the DP and crew are very aware of the requirements for the next day’s shoot. Walk through the various setups you will be using, and be prepared to answer any questions they may have about camera movement, lighting requirements or any special technical requirements. By giving the DP the heads-up on the next day’s work, you are providing an opportunity for tweaking or changing the equipment or crew requirements for the next day, as well as for working out any possible lighting and camera movement problems.
Video and film production is a collaborative process. One of the most essential positions on the team is the Director of Photography. Do your homework, learn the language of lenses, lighting and cameras and hire the best DP possible.
The DP can add tremendous value to the set by giving you another set of eyes to see what you’re creating. Good communication is extremely important in this relationship. Once established, it will lead to a tremendously successful production.
Contributing editor Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D., is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches video production courses at the college level.