Director
THE DIRECTOR/DP RELATIONSHIP

Q&A PRE-2004 UNTIL LISTED

After having watched Project Greenlight I came away with the impression that the DP had more influence on the look of a shot than the director. When you are out on location, who determines when the light is right etc. Also, does the cinematographer's opinion ever outweigh that of the director's? Do you have any examples of when that has happened? David Anderson


It's almost impossible to tell from looking at a film who did what. If the film is directed by an "auteur" then you can reckon that person had a hand in the setting of the camera, and possibly, but not necessarily, the lighting. The main thing about your second question is that it is not of any interest: the working relationship between a DP and Director is unique to that relationship so generalising about it does not have any value. If you are out there point scoring then you are not collaborating. In answer to the first question, generally the DP determines when the light is right: but with reference to the above, a DP might work very differently with one Director than another, depending on whether the particular Director has any interest in Lighting. (Also see below!)


Do you find it easier to work with technically minded directors or directors that focus more on performance? * --Joseph

Probably the latter as I seem to wind up with "performance' type directors. I think I find technically minded Directors rather boring to work with as I'm not sure what my job is, and I start worrying about who is doing their job ie the script, the actors etc. I'm not very good at being 'told' what to do, so if a Director was to start telling me where to put a light, I would introduce him the gaffer and suggest that they work together. But if a Director wants to discuss the mood of a scene with reference to the lighting that's fine. There are plenty of famous Directors who work with fine cameramen and tell them what to do: It's a personality thing I guess. Kubrick used a different cameraman on every film, except for Alcott doing two. Kubrick told eveyone how to do their job and made some of the worlds finest movies, but I never would have worked for him even had he asked! It takes 3-6 months to shoot a movie and 1 to 2 hours to watch it. Which is the more important experience?


Hi I just started my career as cameraman and I had some work as DP, but I am having some troubles finding jobs because here producers prefer technicians with strong personality and technical knowledge but almost no artistic [knowledge]. I have both technical and artistic knowledge, but I haven't (and I don't want to pretend) an overwhelming personality. What are the ideal characteristics for a DP and/or cameraman?

Cristian Orellana Santiago, Chile


Yikes, this is turning into one of those "Dear Cathy" columns! Actually this is rather a good question as there are many brilliant DP's with the kind of shy and retiring nature you speak of, and some of them are not being given the jobs they deserve because of this. The "ideal" personality for a DP is the one that gets on with the Director (not necessarily the Producer!). Directors differ enormously in what they are looking for in a DP and a loud, aggressive "love me, love my gear" type macho-man does not always win the day. If you are doing good work, you'll be noticed and people will employ you - don't worry about your personality as that is for others to decide. Overwhelming personalities are best left to Actors...


Who chooses the particular equipment you use on a shoot? Obviously the bigger choices (DV vs. film, etc.) are made at the production design level, but do personal/brand preferences factor in at all? --Brandyn


Actually the "bigger" choices are made by the cinematographer in conjunction with the director, and sometimes the producer. The specifics of cameras, lenses, film stocks, lights etc are usually in the hands of the cinematographer but some directors are more obsessed than they should be with "gear". A highly camera-orientated director (like Ridley Scott) will choose a cinematographer who is not going to spend all day arguing about lenses and equipment.. Another director (like Lasse Hallstrom) might ask half-way through the shoot: "What kind of camera are we using?". There are Panavision nuts, Arri nuts amd Moviecam nuts - that about covers it.


I will be directing a 30min short that I wrote in the upcoming months. I'm very meticulous with what I want and how it is framed, I've even storyboarded it myself (yes I can draw). Will my DP want to kill me?

Thank You


Probably, but I haven't heard of Director/DP homicide case so you may be OK. Whilst storyboards are a very useful tool for Directors, they can also be very destructive because they 'blind' the film makers to the choices that are apparent when you rehearse a scene with real live actors in a real live place.
1. With storyboards you manipulate the actors into the frames that are pre-visualised: you get the shot, but what is the cost in terms of performance and 'stimulation/motivation' of not just the actors, but also the DP. (Ask any actor whose been in a George Lucas film). What is drawn is never photographically exact, so can be misleading.
2. Without storyboards you risk loosing track of the montage, but gain the intensity and buzz of having to sort it out in the moment. This is more challenging, but also more thrilling. Like playing jazz, instead of reading the notes from the music.
3. If a Director is wedded to storyboards, It's can be from insecurity and a fear that their 'vision' will be lost in the maelstrom of shooting. Once you have a good relationship with a DP, you might find your need for storyboards diminishes. It always strikes me as strange to be standing in some extraordinary spot on the planet, where hundreds of people have laboured long and hard to put you, and then to be gazing at a two dimensional pencil drawing on a piece of paper, probably made at 2am in some apartment in Manhatten. To me, each scene/rehearsal is a unique and momentary event and how it is shot should come out of that moment, in the real place and real time of shooting.
4. Stunts, underwater, crane shots etc fall into another category and story boards are useful/essential if large groups of people are involved in the planning of a shot or sequence.
5. Like all things, there are no hard and fast rules about story boards. Spielberg uses them and he's not a bad film-maker!


What's the best way to position yourself to work with a specific director? If you don't have any personal lines to that director, would you send his (or her) agent a letter of interest? Or do you just have to hope that they'll eventually notice your work and come to you? Have you ever done anything daring to get a particular project? I guess I'm wondering how much overall self-promotion a cinematographer has to do.

Thanks alot, Cam


Well I have to say I've been lucky and every since being at film school with a number of directors that took me onwards and upwards (sometimes!), I've not had to 'trawl' for work. When I was in my twenties I was a stills photographer (in Cape Town) and had no work. I decided to make a fancy portfolio that I thought would entice people to employ me. I took it around and mostly didn't make it past the secretaries. I gave up and went to the beach. I met a fella there who gave me a job. What this means is, I don't understand why some very talented people aren't working, some mediocre talents are working and nothing is predictable. Except that if you have intention, determination and aim, all things are possible. Agents can help to get that first contact - they can't get the job for you, if the Director isn't interested. I've lost at least one job through too many people recommending me to a Director - they are usually willfull by definition, so there's a fine balance of how to get your name in front of a Director. When Gregor Jordan (a second feature 30-something director) was looking for a DP for Buffalo Soldiers , I asked him in the interview: Who else are you considering (for DP)? He said: No-one. I liked that because it showed he is decisive and determined, so I knew I'd get on well with him when we were shooting. Another director I met on the same day had seen dozens of DP's already and saw quite a few after me. I didn't think I'd work so well with him! I don't think I've done anything daring to get a job, like hang upside down outside a directors window, but who knows.. it could work. Self-promotion seems more like something that actors have to do: mercifully I haven't.


Has a director ever asked you to do something that just goes against your idea of what good cinematography is? What do you do in a situation like that? V.A.

Yes is the answer! There's three courses of action: 1. Do what he or she wants. 2. Argue your case. 3. Resign.

Of these three, I mostly go with No 2. However, I walked off a Rock Video in 1982 in the middle of night and drove home because the director insisted on directing the lighting in a manner that I thought innapropriate. So I introduced him to the gaffer and suggested they work together! As far as I'm concerned, directors are there to direct the actors, not the lighting. Just as I might make a discreet suggestion to the director about the acting or the story, so he or she might do the same about the lighting: but discussing something is one thing, controlling it is another.

On average, once every five years or so, I wind up on the wrong film with the wrong director. Usually I realise the situation is a disaster the first week of shooting, but see it through to the end. It's like the army: if you've signed the contract you have to make the best of the situation. On one occasion I was fired after 7 weeks of trying to make the best of it: and replaced by another cameraman that I discovered had been hired during pre-production! You won't find that movie on my list of credits!

Fortunately, most of the time I work with directors where we share common ground. I try to work with directors whose primary focus is the script and the actors: this gives me a job to do. If the director is obsessed with the camera, you either become an assistant or have to start dealing with the actors!

There's nothing worse on a film set than a director and cinematographer arguing constantly. It can be creative, but more often than not It's just a pain. If the 'look' of the movie has been thought out in pre-production, there's no need for voices to be raised. I've just finished Buffalo Soldiers in Germany: Gregor Jordan (a 32 yr old Aussie director) and I got through the entire movie without yelling at each other once, despite the fact we had never worked together before. In the first two weeks, we had to find common ground, as his idea of framing and mine proved to be a little different. However, with some give and take on both sides, we settled into a very good rhythm.

Good Cinematography is what is most appropriate for the script: if a director tries to direct your work in a manner that you consider inapropriate and harmful to both the script and your own work, and continues to do so despite your protest, it may be time to leave! Remember the title: Director of Photography.


How much say does the cinematographer have in the lighting that's used during a shoot? The most important job that a Cinematographer has is the lighting, and It's completely his or her decision. If a Director doesn't like the lighting, they hired the wrong person. If a Director wants to do the lighting, suggest he or she uses the gaffer directly, so that you can go home.



Director Terrance Malick (The New World, The Thin Red Line) shoots his movies in "natural light" only, apparently using no artificial lighting of any kind. (A lot of bounce boards I'm guessing?) Why does he do that? His films look so gorgeous. Is natural-light cinematography a real option for directors who can't afford to spend half a year shooting only at magic hour like Malick does? What are the techniques used? Is natural-light a philosophical thing, or an image thing?

'Why does he do that? His films look so gorgeous.'

I think you answered your own question! As Sven Nykvist has just died (Sep 06), it might be a good moment to reflect on 'natural light' photography which is a principle dear to the hearts of many Cinematographers including me. John Alcott was mentioned recently, and I would add Nestor Almendros to the list. A New York Gaffer once told me the story of when he had a pre-light crew spend a couple of days lighting Central Park for a night shoot: Nestor arrived on the night to shoot and looked around and said: 'It looks great just as it is: let's shoot!' He told me the story to illustrate that Nestor was always shooting in 'natural' light and had not realized about the extensive pre-light.. however, my thinking was that Nestor was saying this to illustrate a point, probably being only too aware of the work involved.

Is natural-light a philosophical thing, or an image thing? Well the one leads to the other.. it definitely is a guiding principle for me. I will always consider what would a set look like if it was situated in the real world instead of in the studio. All good Day Interior lighting has to be based on what would happen to that window if the room were in a real place.. AND what kind of place is that ' Northern Hemisphere, The Tropics etc will always affect the way the light comes in the window.

Malick is willing to take the time to shoot at the right time and schedule accordingly. There's not a lot of Directors out there who have the patience or the power over the studio to do that: the Cinematographer does not have the authority to 'insist' on waiting for hours and hours unless he or she is backed up by the Director. Once a scene is shot there is no going back so the moral is to not shoot it if it isn't right!

Lighting is based on Sunlight and as such there is nothing deeper, older or more profound than Sunlight. Without it there is no world, no life, so you'd better get a grip on what it is, and what it does, if you are going to be a Cinematographer. We (mankind) invented Electricity, which has given a whole new level of lighting to study: Electric Light which has quite different principles to Sunlight, but could be considered 'natural' to the modern world - or at least to the world that has electricity. The 'technique used' is simply to Look. Look at Daylight, Look at Candle light, Look at Electric light: it takes a while, but all you have to do is re-create what is there for all to see.

For really important scenes, are you involved with editing to make sure the filming work done is put together properly, since the two are separate production departments? ??--Tommie

Generally speaking, DP's are not involved with editing for a number of reasons. We might be shooting another film. We might be on holiday. I used to turn up more often than I do now, when film was edited 'manually' on Movieolas and Steinbecks. This kind of editing was slower and more considered, as making changes was more laborious and could not be 'undone' so easily. This meant that there was only one 'version' of the movie available at any one time: as opposed to the dozens that now reside in every edit machine. Directors and editors had more space to listen to the opinions of others: now everyone has an opinion, and probably their own version somewhere buried in the hard drive. Now I find that I only occasionally comment to the editor, as they always have had to listen to 2000 opinions before mine, so I feel sorry for them!

Assuming a fairly well-planned indie shoot on 35mm with an experienced crew (of say 3 and 3 plus a swing) what do you think is an achievable number of set-ups to plan for? I realize that using daylight vs. exteriors at night affects what we are talking about in terms of time for lighting so let's also assume that there is a fair amount of lighting. What would be a reasonable number of set-up's? I think I heard the UPM on one of the episodes of "Project Greenlight" say that Thomas Ackerman was shooting 30 set-ups a day which seems amazing. Also, do you think it makes sense to try and shoot two cameras in an effort to boost the amount of coverage you are shooting or does it lead to too many compromises in the lighting? Lastly, is it reasonable for a director to expect that a set is lit in such a way that most of the tighter shots (other than the reverse) can be shot with minimal tweaks to the lighting on the master? I feel like I would rather spend some extra time on lighting the master if it means we can rock and roll once the actors are on set and ready to start shooting. Thanks for the advice. ??--Henry

"I shoot 40 setups a day" is not a measure of quality nor an achievement in itself, TV shoots average between 15 and 30 setups a day (I think). Movies are usually under 20, and some are under 10. I think screentime is a more interesting measure, as it takes into account how much of the movie you have shot, rather than how many shots. I guess The Shining wouldn?t have rated very high on the daily set-up scale?. Two cameras can be useful in some situations, but when every set-up is 2 or 3 cameras, it can compromise the lighting (and the sound), and actually takes longer when you are in a confined space tripping all over each other. Occasional second camera is a good way to shoot I think, but then I mostly shoot straight drama and not action. I like precision and controlled framing, so multiple cameras CAN (but not always) lead to "found" framing. This can be a style in itself (like the dynamics of a Tony Scott film), so there is no real answer to this question, without reference to the intended shooting style of the picture. I would say that most close-ups in the same lighting direction should not take longer than 10 to 15 minutes to "tweak". Some you can shoot straight away. Some will take longer. Altman likes to just zoom in from the master position and "just shoot it!". That's what makes the acting in his films "fizz", whilst the framing is loose and "human". So you adapt to the circumstance.

What is the relationship of the cinematographer with the director? Does the director give you a basic idea of what he or she wants and lets you make the decisions or are they much more specific in what shots they want? Also, what is the relationship between the cinematographer and the film editor? Do you shoot with a editor's style in mind? ??--William

The director/DP topic has been explored a number of times on this site. The relationship is unique to each director/DP "combo". Some films are storyboarded by the director, with or without the DP. Recently I storyboarded some of scenes with Bart the Bear in the upcoming Lasse Hallstrom film An Unfinished Life. I then showed them to Lasse, he made some changes and then we shot the combined result. This happens because it was the third film we have made together, so some confidence grows up between us. Who decides the shot is a matter of no importance when you watch a film, so as far as I am concerned the same applies when we shoot a movie. I'm not sure an Editor has a "style", but perhaps they do. I certainly give no thought to the personality or "style" of the editor when I am shooting. I am hoping to give him or her material that will cut together well, as well as choices that will enable the film to be cut in ways that I might not have foreseen. The editor's world is prescribed by the images that we supply: if we didn't shoot it, he can't use it. If you think of the shooting as making the cloth, the editor turns it into a garment. We have a concept via the script of the nature of the garment, but the editor may or may not make a better movie from the materials we supply. Some of the films I have shot I thought were improved in the editing, and some were spoiled. That's just the way it is.

2005

I'm an American writer turned director (SAG Experimental 35mm) getting a shot at my first feature, a low budget character driven action piece. I've spent several years carefully developing a relationship with a DP who's work I love and whom I trust personally. Now for economic reasons, Vancouver may be the location. Since I'm not established and on the low end of the spectrum I have little chance of bringing an American DP. Assuming I get past having someone imposed upon me I'll be under the gun to find a new collaborator. I suppose I'll just have to trust my eye and my gut, but any suggestions would be a blessing.??--Pat

I'd need a lot more information to make suggestions about a particular DP. It's worse than trying to run a dating agency! The director/DP relationship is such a distant/intimate thing, that there is no way anyone can choose that person for you. I always think of my "interviews" with directors as "Meetings" since both of you have to decide if it going to work. The good news is that Vancouver is a major film making centre and also a nice place to live, so there are good people there. I don't think you will have much trouble finding your DP: just make sure you choose who you want and not who someone else wants. I've lost a few jobs through being "over-recommended" by a keen producer, only to find the director wants to make up his own mind. I respect that and think that the DP works for the director and only the producer after that.

How should a director communicate to cinematographer? What I mean is, how do you as a cinematographer want the director to communicate to you what he wants, assuming he/she doesn't know that much about cinematography. ??--Aditya

A lot of new directors worry needlessly about communicating "technically" with the cinematographer. There is absolutely no reason why a director needs to know anything about cinematography, especially at the beginning of their career. Some directors some from a "graphic" background but some come from a literary or theatrical background. What a cinematographer is looking for in a director is direction (der..). If the director knows nothing about cinematography nor about directing then we have a problem. Usually what happens is the cinematographer winds up shooting the film and directing it from the backseat and no-one is happy. There is not an answer to "how" to communicate with a cinematographer: just discuss what you want, not necessarily in specific terms, and then listen to suggestions that the cinematographer might make. This will start a dialogue which hopefully will generate good results.

In American History X, who decided to use B/W stock for the past scenes and color for the present scenes? Is something like that scripted? Does the DP decide or is it the director's decision? ?-Matthew

Oddly enough I am just starting to shoot The Hoax with Lasse Hallstrom directing and we have decided to do the flashbacks in b/w. In this particular case I came up with the idea, but like everything else in film, you never know who comes up with which idea. Generally scripts don't give direction about his kind of thing.. like saying:

"John came into the room, backlit by a 2K with a half CTO".

Since American History X was shot and directed by Tony Kaye then I would imagine he made the decision - he's a very strong individual who makes a lot of commercials, and so would be very grounded in images. If I happened to know that the tea lady made that decision, would that make any difference to how you view the film?

2006

It must be extremely challenging for a cinematographer to effectively interpret what it is that the director is attempting to portray on film. In your experience, how do you overcome this, do you have a lot of input into the look and feel that is trying to be achieved in a shot???-Alexandra

You have unknowingly defined the role of the cinematographer. The collaboration is not something to "overcome", but rather a meeting of minds. The cinematographer is both a creator and a translator. One day you feel as if you are no more than an assistant and on another you might as well be the director. On a good day I don't mind which role I am playing as my aim is to achieve a state of mind where the particular shot is created without thought of whose idea it was. I take pleasure from a good idea whether it is mine or someone else's: one thing is for sure, all shots are credited to the director so you'd better get used to that or become a director!

The most frustrating situation is when a cinematographer works with a director with whom he or she is in conflict. This may not necessarily be a bad thing for the movie: I know of at least one director who seeks out conflict with the DP to keep him awake!

DP's vary enormously in their interest and ability when it comes to setting up shots. Some brilliant DP's (mostly from the UK) are completely uninterested in the montage and concentrate on the lighting, letting the operator work with director on the shots. Others (like myself) find the montage very interesting and I like working with Lasse Hallstom for that reason: we collaborate entirely on the way anything is shot. I did a lot of the storyboards for Casanova and then he would change what he didn't like. Then he would do some and I would comment on things I didn't like. I do 8 weeks of prep as he is usually busy with his last film so I "stand in" for him until he turns up. This can be a bit strange, but when I consider how you can be treated by directors, it is a pleasure to have such input into the films. The shots in a particular sequence just "fit" when things are going well - like making miter joints in carpentry and then finding they just slot together. A good film is the result of many things: the cinematographer's contribution may not be realized by the public but then, at least we have a private life!

In a recent column you stated that there are very few cinematographers who leave an indelible mark on the medium. You mentioned Vittorio Storaro, Gordon Willis and Robert Richardson. The first two have worked on several films with Francis Ford Coppola, while Richardson has worked extensively with Oliver Stone and has made three films with Martin Scorsese.
Thomas

I believe that great films are made by great teams, with a great team Leader. One of the talents of a great director is the ability to assemble a team of brilliant people to work with them: they will attract the kinds of talent that would not be content to go off and work on something mediocre. If Scorsese asked me to shoot a film I would be unlikely to say no, although he has a reputation of being difficult to work with. In my essay at Cineman.co.uk, I call these people Brilliant Ones and believe that the rest of us should value and put up with the foibles of some of these people simply because genius comes with a price tag: usually in the form of some form of anti-social behavior. Being "nice" is not a pre-requisite for being an Artist. I thought that the combination of Rodrigo Prieto and Oliver Stone in Alexander did not work: it seemed that both their styles got compromised by working with each other. Rodrigo went on to work with Ang Lee on Brokeback Mountain and immediately his work shone again as it had in previous films like Frida.

A good piece of cinematography can't turn a bad film into a good film, but it can wreck a good film with the wrong "look". A great film is where all the elements work together: and that's a lot of people. There's a kind of mystery here...so really there's no answer to your question.

How was it working for Dave Mamet? How is he as a director in relation to other directors you've worked with?
M.D.

I wonder if Dave sent me this question... mm... what should I say. As a potential future employer it would be a mistake to say anything bad about him, but luckily I don't have to as he and I got on really well. I always like Directors who have real skill with words and actors as I can get on with my job of photographing the film. I tend to only work with directors whose focus of attention is the script and the actors. Dave as a Writer/Director is clearly different to work with than say Stephen Frears, who doesn't write his movies. I don't really want to discuss how he compares with other directors: he's uniquely himself as is every other director I've worked with.

What do you do when you have a conflict in terms of the over-all quality of the film with a Director?

I am not sure what you mean by this.. I assume you mean a situation where the Director is saying "Just Shoot it!" before you have finished the lighting (for instance). A "quality conflict" is more likely to occur with a Producer who wants to save money than a Director...

Let's assume you meant the "look" of a film which is more likely to be a potential source of conflict. At the meeting stage, it is customary to find out if you are on the same wavelength as the Director, and this should include a skirmish into talking about ideas that he or she has about the movie. If these ideas, as presented to you, do not seem to match up with your own then you would be better off walking away and seeking employment elsewhere. If conflict occurs once you have started shooting then it gets a bit more tricky. Charm will usually work a lot better than confrontation: in 27 years of shooting I have only had to walk away once (on a Rock Video) and have only been "fired" once - on a feature. Most disagreements can be resolved with hopefully a more creative solution than either the Director or the Cinematographer would have reached on their own.

What are some of the most basic and biggest mistakes you see inexperienced cinematographers make?

Actually I don't see them make them as I am not there! But I can guess..

The first mistake is allowing Producers and sometimes Directors to demand things that they don't know much about. In the Film/Digital debate, it is very important that young Cinematographers have the facts at their fingertips so that they can influence the choice of equipment and "workflow". Increasingly Editors, VFX Supervisors and all kinds of people seem to think they know the best way to shoot the film. So having a clear idea of how you think a film should be shot from Format, "Medium" and Workflow to viewing Dailies etc is very important. And these questions will occur on DAY 1 of prep, or even on the phone prior to that, so get your thoughts in order before the grilling begins.

Producers will want to sit-in on your meetings with he Director - it is MUCH BETTER to meet privately with the Director for at least two days before anyone from Production gets answers to any questions. This way you and the Director will have a solid and agreed plan which is more likely to win the day if it comes to a difference of opinion.

The Cinematographer has a huge influence over many of the working practices in film: it is his or her responsibility to continue to serve both Production and the Director in the best possible way - and that way is to produce pictures that enhance and describe the story with such brilliance that the audience feels inspired and illuminated!

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