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Choosing Your Cinematographer

Choosing Your Cinematographer

Cinematography

I’ve been making films of one kind or another since 1965.

Until 1984, I both directed and photographed all of them. Then, during a difficult interview I was conducting for a documentary, I had to stop operating the camera and put my full attention on soothing the nearly hysterical cor­porate executive who was paying me to make him look and sound great. I was terrified about turning over the DP reins to someone else, but I had to do it to salvage the day’s work.

Fortunately, my sound man at the time was a longtime colleague who knew how I liked to compose and light my issues/35/images. When he saw the trouble I was having, he assured me he could handle the shooting. Because of our rapport, and because we’d watched endless films together through the years, we had a common language when we described moving visual imagery. We made it work, and the interview succeeded. In fact, when I saw the footage from that day, it was “exactly as I would have shot it!”

Later, I realized that if it weren’t for the long track record with my friend, I would have been at a loss as to how to communicate as effectively with another DP I became very curious about the unique relationship between the director and cinematographer and began my attempts to codify the most effective language for these two positions.

The director-cinematographer connec­tion is nearly sacred within the film industry. Other than actors, the DP is the person whom the director communicates and consults with most during the making of a movie. To demonstrate the esteem in which most directors hold their DPs, the “director of photography” is the only job title in the business where someone other than the film’s overall “director” is allowed to be called a “director of” something. (For example, we have an “art director,” but he’s not called “the director of art.”) Also, the DP is essentially the crew boss. He often selects or at least recommends the camera crew, usual­ly consisting of an operator, a focus-puller, a zoomer, a loader, a slate operator, etc. The DP often helps pick the grip crew (key grip, dolly grip, crane grip, other company grips, etc.), and the lighting crew (consisting of a gaffer, best boy, electricians, generator oper­ators, etc). He also usually chooses the cam­era and lighting package and often makes the lab deals. In the case of a mutiny, it is most likely the DP who will patch things up, or support the rebellion. Thus, there are few individuals, if any, who are in a better position to influence the smooth artistic and administrative operation of your project.

Though my work as a DP was usually for my own films, I did have the unique oppor­tunity to shoot for a few other directors, including short stints for Orson Welles, John Ford, Sam Fuller and Peter Bogdanovich. The communication style of these artists ranged from total and complete control (Welles), to an occasional glance and lift of an eyebrow (Ford). When I began working on features as a director and/or consultant, I observed and talked with numerous other DPs. And as an instructor at several colleges, I had a hand in training hundreds more. During that time, I’ve built a list of tips and guidelines I’d recommend to any moviemaker preparing to select and work with the person who will be his primary partner during the production of a movie.

 

1. “Casting” the DP.

Apply the same degree of instinct and intelligence in selecting your DP as you do in selecting your actors. I’ve never worked with an incompe­tent DP but I’ve worked with several whose verbal and personal style is at odds with the flavor of the movie. This adds a stress to your daily work which is unnecessary and extremely distracting.

2. Evaluating the reel.

Seeing a DP’s reel is like taking someone’s business card. It’s an expected part of the game, but possibly without any real value. I’ve seen thousands of reels, and they all look great! Would you send out a reel if it didn’t? The problem is, without talking to people involved in those particular shoots, you don’t know what the DP’s function actually was. You don’t even know whether or not he was shooting under protest. Furthermore, any professional DP should be able to achieve any style you describe. Therefore, to reject a DP sim­ply because his reel doesn’t show exactly what you’re looking for is potentially to miss a tremendous chance to find a new creative soulmate.

3. Checking references.

I always call a person’s references. The information you get can be revelatory. A great reel might have been constructed with a lot of blood on the tracks. (Be on particular lookout for alcoholics and substance abusers. They might be artists with a “great eye,” but they can be dangerous and costly to your production.)

4. Value-added elements.

If you select this DP, can he bring other crew, equipment deals, lab deals? Are these deals better than you or your production manager can achieve on your own? If a potential DP cannot bring you these elements, why can’t he? Is it because he hasn’t worked in your city much? Or is it because people don’t like working with him?

5. Frustrated director quotient.

Many DPs are satisfied craftspeople and artists who relish their work. Some, however, are frustrat­ed directors who tend to take out their anxiety on first-time filmmakers. In your DP, interviewing process, determine if the candidates are satisfied with their jobs, or are they going to use you and your project to assert themselves? A corollary to this is (especially if they are working at a low rate): are they seeing your picture as an opportunity to enhance their own reel? While there is nothing wrong with this (and, in fact, it can be an incentive for them to do a good job for you), you do not want to deal with unnecessary shots or stylistic flourishes which would mainly be a reel-builder for the DP rather than an artistic complement to your production.

6. Communication style.

Especially if you are technically untrained, you will need to develop verbal modes of communicating with your DP. Effective methods include: watching movies with your DP and describ­ing what you both see; watching selected scenes on video from movies whose style you’re interested in emulating; preparing “clip art” notebooks with photographs and/or paintings that demonstrate your visual tastes (and having the DP candidate prepare his own). Finally, you must determine in advance how collaborative you want to be with your DP. Do you mainly want him to execute your described vision, or do you want suggestions from him? Discuss it in advance of hiring, and be sure to both be agreement. I’ve seen grown men and women debating the validity of certain shots and wasting hours of very expensive time, considering a cast and crew is usually waiting for the resolution.

7. Technical expertise.

There is probably nothing you can do to prepare for your movie that is more important than gaining a basic technical understanding of the DP’s tools for your personal expression. Key concepts to be familiar with are: focal length, f-stop and depth-of-field. While you may be daunted at first by the “science” of these terms if you’re a first-time director, they can easily be understood. For simple definitions and practical examples of their application, see my book Frame by Frame- A Handbook for Creative Filmmaking, or the excellent Cinematography by Kris Malkiewicz.
Remember, the DP’s job is to deliver excellent and cost­effective shots. It’s the director’s job to consider these shots as part of a whole. Only the director is in a position to evaluate whether a given shot, no matter how beautiful or stunning, will fit into the overall vision. So choose your DP wisely. If you do, you could achieve a creative partnership that approaches the level of intimacy and shared vision of a fine marriage. MM

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