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S&A 2013 Highlights: 5 Things Cinematographers Look For In A Director & Project Before Taking A Job

Features
by Cybel Martin
January 8, 2014 3:49 PM
29 Comments
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Editor's note: As 2014 begins, I'll be reposting some of our highlights published during the last year+, as the site has grown. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts, they will probably be new items. Here's the 18th of many to come. Happy New Year to you all! 

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 Bookby 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.

See my work and past articles at CybelDP.com and chat film with me at @cybeldp

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29 Comments

  • Claudia Stone | June 15, 2012 12:24 PMReply

    Learned a lot. Keep it coming.

  • Tracee Loran | June 13, 2012 12:59 PMReply

    Very nice, Cybel! You writing has officially expanded beyond 140 characters. :-)

  • Joe Doughrity | June 13, 2012 1:17 AMReply

    An amazing article on the collaborative process. Bravo!

  • Hisani DuBose | June 12, 2012 4:24 PMReply

    Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing. Now I'm going to look for your work because I'm betting its very engaging.

  • Dankwa Brooks | June 11, 2012 2:51 PMReply

    As someone who follows Cybel on Twitter I can definitely say she is a keen observer of the techniques of film. I was also one of the people who tried to gang up on her to write a blog about her film experiences to which she politely declined. I'm glad S&A convinced her of a happy medium. :)

  • jenny lansing | June 11, 2012 2:12 PMReply

    Ms. Martin, thanks for the insights. And you needn't have worried. Your writing, while still clear and concise, is light-years beyond mere Tweet-worthiness.

  • Fritz | June 11, 2012 11:53 AMReply

    Great advice and perspective!

  • veronica | June 11, 2012 10:53 AMReply

    Thanks Cybel

    I enjoyed your insights and look forward to your next column. Very inspiring!
    Veronica

  • Ben Rider | June 11, 2012 7:36 AMReply

    Couldn't agree more.
    Especially when DP and directors don't communicate that well and have completely different goals, things always go astray. Like they did for me (http://shootingpeople.org/watch/105774/once-married).
    But a really great article, thank you & more please! :)

  • drt | June 11, 2012 3:04 AMReply

    This article is refreshing confirmation for me, since I will be Directing a full feature soon. - Thank you.

  • LegenDeri | June 10, 2012 4:15 AMReply

    Extremely Helpful.. Thank You.

  • Felecia Hatcher Brown | June 9, 2012 10:29 PMReply

    DP-Cybel....great article. I work in the business as a script continuity supervisor and it was very helpful to learn the DP-Director creative process...Look forward to your next article.

  • Laura | June 9, 2012 10:49 AMReply

    You recommended Ian Jeffrey's "The Photography Book". Is there any other book you would recommend for a director's reference library.

  • Taatu | June 9, 2012 9:40 AMReply

    Liked the approach you make. I am a script writer..Mumbai(India) based and wanted to learn more how the two..the Director and Cinemetographer (DP) align themselves to reach to the vision of the Director...I believe Director is the main person to translate the vision of the scriptwriter on to the screen and must cordinate intelligently with others in the creative team and production team but was not really sure who decides the final say. I was listening to the Orson Wells when he was talking about lights and camera angles etc that is basically Director must decide to capture the mood that will gel well with vision of the final product he desire to attain in the film. I like the way you go about it , interacting and asking scores of questions so you understand your responsibility in the whole creative game that is film making.

  • Laura | June 8, 2012 9:01 PMReply

    This is good reading. Learned alot. I will definitely will take all those things in account when looking for a dp.

  • Roberta Munroe | June 8, 2012 8:03 PMReply

    One word. Genius.
    Two words. Thank you.

  • Solaam | June 8, 2012 7:47 PMReply

    Tremendous article and advice. Love these articles from the professionals. Cybel, why did you choose the Alexa over the RED? Was it more of the sure-fire technical reliance of the Alexa or its easier transition to post (time constraints)?

  • Stagolee | June 8, 2012 6:25 PMReply

    I'll be contacting you soon.

  • JMac | June 8, 2012 6:08 PMReply

    Yeah. Nice to hear about people in the industry other than the usual suspects (i.e. actor, director, producer). Looking forward to the series.

  • Booker T. Mattison | June 8, 2012 5:19 PMReply

    Cybel and I go all the way back to film school. A film she shot for me back in 1998 called "The Gilded Six Bits" still screens around the country all these years later. Her work definitely stands the tests of time. (And she's not lying about the incessant questioning!) LOL!

  • Jeni | June 8, 2012 4:25 PMReply

    Quite useful. Enjoyed this post.

  • Pete Chatmon | June 8, 2012 4:08 PMReply

    Cybel is a great cinematographer to work with and this is a great article. If you want to be a great director, you need to supply your collaborators with information an references too. The burden should not be solely on them. Making choices is your job, and then sit back and enjoy the way other artists can enhance your vision. Dope article.

  • Deana | June 8, 2012 2:36 PMReply

    Great article! I'm a DP student and would like to get a DSLR to shoot shorts. What are your top 3 under $5K?

  • Terry Thomas / DP / Atlanta | February 7, 2013 11:04 AM

    Deana,

    Ask yourself, "why a DSLR?" They really are still cameras that oh, by the way, can shoot video. They have inadquate microphone inputs, no timecode, etc. For your $5K budget you can buy a HD camera that from day one was DESIGNED to shoot video - they have XLR inputs, timecode, etc. Look at $5K gear from Panasonic, Sony, etc.

    Investigate your choice, it is going to be a long marriage.

    Terry Thomas
    DP
    Atlanta, Georgia USA

  • Cybel | June 9, 2012 12:22 PM

    Ive only worked with the 5D & 7D and have been happy with the results. My friend Cinque Northern has been shooting with the T3i for his MuseBK.com & the images look great. If you haven't already visit cnet.com that give excellent reviews and comparisons of different cameras. The cheapest place to purchase, that I know of, is B&H.

  • Praheme | June 8, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    Great post, thanks for sharing. Its always interesting to view the other side of the process.

  • Jug | June 8, 2012 1:56 PMReply

    I LOVE this. All Artists need to know & respect the other Artists work (cuz we make each other look guuud). Thanks for posting!

  • Jasmine | June 8, 2012 1:41 PMReply

    Thank you for this! Another indie director that will be following your posts!

  • ben je | June 8, 2012 1:28 PMReply

    nice article..a lot of insight for upcoming directors like me...

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