It’s wonderful that Shadow and Act asked me to write a monthly column about my experiences as a Cinematographer.
For those who don’t know me, I primarily shoot features, commercials and documentaries. Beyond loving every second of being a DP, I also teach occasionally, paint, travel whenever possible, and analyze and devour films like they were my last meal.
Although my strength as a writer may not extend beyond my deep and profound 140 character tweets, I will do my best to share some DP knowledge and perspective.
As summer approaches, film production in New York is (thankfully) very active. I have had my share of inquiries of availability and requests for my reel. I noticed there are certain aspects that I need to have in place before fully committing and becoming excited about a project. I have had the joy of going through 4 agents and am presently without one. That means it’s even more important that I have predetermined criteria (in other words: a means to sift through the BS) before agreeing to a project.
Here are five aspects I look for in a director and a project before agreeing to the job. I’ve peppered this article with personal examples to help explain each point and to highlight some of the amazing people I collaborate with.
1. Respect & Compatibility - All artists (and I say this lovingly) are neurotic. From my first meeting with a potential director, I can tell if we can thrive off and enjoy each other’s compulsions. During pre-production and production, I spend an insane amount of time with my director. We travel together, eat together, chat on the phone, watch films, text each other like school girls. About two years ago, I was the DP on a film and became friends with the 1st AD, Marc Parees. Since that job, I had seen his work as a Director, appreciated his aesthetic and work ethic and hung out socially. When he asked me to be his DP for a job, I said “yes” immediately. It was only after saying yes that I learned it was shooting commercials for NYU Stern School of Business.
What does this mean from a director’s perspective? I’d suggest that you not be swayed exclusively by a DP’s equipment package or reel. Find a DP who you can still laugh with on the 18th hour of shooting, in the 6th week of production, stranded in a cherry picker in the middle of the desert.
2. Visual references - My director must have a clear idea of how the film should feel and look. It need not be finalized but they should have some tangible means of explaining their vision. If the script calls for “creepy”, the director might envision “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” while I think “Rosemary’s Baby”. Almost nothing excites me more than to be inundated with photographs, film clips, paintings that resemble the mood I am to capture. They help me get inside the director’s head. There’s one film on my reel that generates more work than any other. Many years ago, I shot the film, “Sonny’s Blues”, for director Greg Williams. At our first meeting, Greg handed me several tear sheets from a current Prada ad campaign photographed by Glen Luchford. He showed me precisely which colors he wanted, the quality of the shadows, the ideal Depth of Field and explained why that was needed for this narrative. Those photographs were very helpful in designing my film stock tests, choosing lights and lenses. A director’s clarity creates a space where I can soar and know that I am doing my job. It also facilitates communication with my crew and other department heads. When there is a lack of clarity, I notice I will fill it in with what other films have done in the same genre, what my personal aesthetic is or what is simplest.
Sometimes, I bring a copy of “The Photography Book” by Ian Jeffrey to my first meeting with a director. It’s a collection of 500 photos by 500 different photographers. It’s an easy way to begin a dialogue with a director who may not be fluent in visual arts
3. Producer attached - As much as I cherish the Director / DP relation, I believe the one between the Producer and Director is paramount. Not only do they believe in the director and their vision, they will do whatever in their power to make sure that vision is manifested. They are the family member who says, “don’t worry, I got a guy”.
A DPs work is straddled between two worlds. There is the one of fantasy; of daffodils, ponies and helicopter shots. This is the world I share with the director. The other one is of numbers, rates, compromises and deal memos. This is the world I share with my producer. I am equally comfortable in both. However, I, the DP, should never have to drag my director out of their vision and into the world of “shoulds, won’ts and meal penalties”. That dynamic exists until there is a producer attached and can erode a great Director / DP collaboration. Producers won’t take it personally if I discuss my rate or my crew needs. A director can. And if that director is a friend, they may not be much longer.
4. Why tell this story? - I can’t speak for other DPs but I need a reason beyond “it would be cool”. In some circles, I have been given the nickname “The Cerebral DP”. I ask a ton of questions during my initial meetings with a director. I want to know their philosophy on the subject. Is there a historical component? Does it reflect on modern times? Honestly, not every director is enamored with my never ending inquiry. Some directors want a DP who will do as asked and keep it moving. This is what I mean by compatibility and neurosis (see #1 above).
Perhaps this is why I love working on documentaries. Ask a documentary filmmaker “why” and it will be hard to silence them. I’m attracted to that passion on a subject. I am also very attracted to jobs whose “why” matches my personal interests. One of my greatest preoccupations is childhood behaviour development within urban areas. So, of course, I was very excited to work on Raquel Cepeda’s documentary “Deconstructing Latina”. The portions, that I have shot, focus on issues of race and identity for a group of New York City teens.
This inquiry into “why” influences what equipment I chose, my lighting plan and camera operating (especially with handheld). It’s also very beneficial for troubleshooting. If we lose a location or a lense, for example, I can offer suggestions that dovetail with the original “why”.
The same goes for advertising. I love shooting commercials because my client “geeks out” about the why. Not only are we to sell product, but it could be to rebrand the product, differentiate from competitors, entice more female or male consumers, educate the public about their community outreach, etc. That list goes on.
I once interviewed for a dramatic feature with a first time director. When I asked him “why this story” his response was that audiences might enjoy it. Hopefully yes, but that purpose is not enough to drive a film to completion.
A “trick” I stole from one of my favorite photography teachers at NYU was to ask “if you were to boil this entire story down to one word, what would it be?”. This past May, I was in Tanzania and Ethiopia on an incredible shoot for Coffee Talk Magazine. I was filming coffee farmers and the word, given to me, was “majestic”. I made sure to capture lots of low angles of Ethiopian farmers in charge of their crops, the energy of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange and manicured farms of Tanzania.
5. Technical Flexibility - It’s enjoyable when a Director approaches with the project’s desired mood and trusts me to get us there technically. My directors don’t need to know anything technical, however most are familiar with the hottest cameras. DPs have a blast at events like NAB in Las Vegas and Cinegear in Los Angeles. We read trade magazines, forums and chat with friends in related fields for tips on equipment. My enthusiasm wanes if I am told which camera, grippage, lens package I have to use. It’s thrilling to figure it out and stay within budget. I make an exception for when the production already owns the camera or the client has specific requirements for work flow and distribution (for example: my producer on the Nat Geo shoot required an HD tape based camera).
So far, 2012 has been a really fulfilling year as a DP. In March, I shot a film “No Vagrancy” for Ernest Boyd. The Red camera was mentioned during our first phone call. After reviewing Ernest’s reference material and our time constraints, I suggested the Alexa as the best camera for this film. We continued to pour over photographs and watch a lot of films. After those discussions, I changed my mind from Cooke S2 lenses to Super Baltars. Our producer extraordinaire, John Reefer, arranged so I could do a full camera and light test. Their flexibility and trust gave me the opportunity to really nail the look.
These are my main five. I am sure more will come to mind and will share those at a later date. I strongly encourage other DPs to add their own requirements in the comment section.