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Introducing New S&A Series 'Frame By Frame' - with Cinematographer Daniel Patterson

Photo of Jai Tiggett By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act May 29, 2014 at 6:35PM

Currently on location in Brazil for a new project with Spike Lee, Daniel made time to catch up with Shadow And Act via email about his career and the craft of cinematography.
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From the set of 'Newlyweeds'
From the set of 'Newlyweeds'


Shaka King has spoken about spending months working with Daniel to design the shots for Newlyweeds. On working with Shaka, and the process of preparing for a film:

Shaka King inspires me.

You gotta have a plan before you shoot a movie. Everyone makes films differently. I like to shot list with directors. I also have shot many documentaries, so I can be improvisational on the fly.

Filmmaking is like cooking - the right ingredients, at the right temperature, for the right amount of time. Everyone has different tastes. You gotta be flexible. Shot listing, storyboarding, improvising, I like it all. I pride myself on being flexible.

On Evolution of a Criminal, Out in the Night, and the needs and challenges of documentaries:

Those docs prepared me for narrative films, how to light and frame quickly. How to operate a camera well with limited takes. Both docs required dedication, persistence and patience. Sometimes the people in the documentary don't feel like being followed with a camera, and sometimes people get killed right after you've filmed them. Documentaries take an emotional toll on you, on me. They are also rewarding. I love that I shot those documentaries because I am part of the culture being explored. 

On tips and techniques for shooting in challenging situations:

Cinematography is about your taste. You have to like what you are shooting. If something feels distractingly bright, try to flag it, or change your exposure. Know the limitations and strengths of your camera. Scout, scout, scout and then scout again. Know what is possible in post.

I learn every day about the lies these camera companies say to sell their products. My biggest tip is to do you and work on an image until you are happy, or until the director says, "Let's shoot." At the end of the day, you're working for her or him, or them.

I love available light because of my documentary background. If you learn how to shape natural available light, budgets don't matter as much. It is all about scheduling and having a great AD like Mike Ellis, best in the business. Working in confined spaces, Geoffrey Erb (RIP) taught me to use the corners. Work with all skin tones how you like - black, brown, pale, whatever... there is no right answer, and in my work I think that is evident. I try and change it up, keep it fresh. Remember your negative fill, for black bodies.

Daniel says he has no preferred camera, but points out lenses and memory as being invaluable on set:

Our best tool is our memory.

But in terms of equipment, I'd say lenses are essential for DPs. Learn different ones, use different ones... educate your tastes.

In addition to his work as a DP, Daniel has also directed an award-winning short with Justin Staley called Stag And Doe, and plans to continue directing:

Stag and Doe won ABFF a few years back. That is the only short I ever sent out anywhere, regarding festivals. I am very critical of my work. I will direct again. DPing has influenced my directing by me stealing tricks from the various directors that I've worked with.

On the shot he's proudest of capturing:

There’s a shot in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a low angle close up on our lead, Stephen Tyrone Williams. He has on a light blue/grey suit, the sky is bright behind him, and he is dark-skinned like me. I'm proud that we only used b-board to light him. I'm proud of the simplistic lighting that me and my longtime gaffer Justyn Davis came up with for this film. He trusts me. I trust him. When there is trust amongst collaborators, the final product has a great chance at being correctly communicated.

I especially love that Justyn and I are independent, and along with [production designer] Kay Lee, we were able to shoot the feature in 16 days, a day faster than our original plan of 17 days. The entire crew made that possible.

On the benefits of cinematography:

I love what I do because I am an independent contractor. I can work anywhere and some of the stuff that I have shot, I still do not believe, and you wouldn't either. It has taken me many places over the globe and given me room to grow. These experiences have helped shaped who I am and I love what I do. The stuff that I've learned, the people I've met in basically all industries... priceless.

On what's next:

Nikyatu Jusu has an amazing feature film coming up called Free The Town that I will shoot in Sierra Leone. I also shot African Booty Scratcher and Say Grace Before Drowning with her, which both premiered at ABFF.

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Many thanks to Daniel Patterson for his thoughts.

For more on Daniel Patterson’s work, visit danielpattersondp.com and prepschoolboys.com.

This article is related to: Interview, Darius Clark Monroe, Spike Lee, Shaka King, Nikyatu Jusu, Tahir Jetter, Daniel Patterson, Frame By Frame


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