Directors of Photography: What Do You Do Again?


(Bri Castellini) #1

“What Do You Do Again?” is Stareable’s new weekly column profiling the different film production roles. Did you know that gardening and adventuring aren’t usually in a gaffer’s contract? I sure didn’t! What roles should we profile next? Let me know in the comments!

Why do you need two directors? You don’t, but I can see why you’re confused. This week, we’re talking about Directors of Photography, or DPs!

What does a director of photography do? Lightning round:

  1. Is ultimately in charge of the look of the film
  2. Influences and takes charge of decisions regarding camera and lighting equipment purchasing and renting

Misconceptions

Directors and directors of photography are interchangeable. While both roles have “director” in their title, DPs and directors have very different skill sets and purviews. DPs, for instance, rarely need to interact with actors. Brandon Smalls, DP for Brains season 2, explains that while the director focuses on the individual scene, the DP is making sure it’s visually consistent with all the other scenes, elaborating by saying “[DPs] make sure the images make sense in sequence whereas the director is typically more concerned with how great the images look on their own.”

The best sets have a strong director AND DP, working in tandem to create the best film possible.

DPs are only in charge of the camera department. The camera and camera department are definitely a large part of a DP’s daily tasks, but everything from lighting to production design to actor movements can fall under their job description.

Dane Benko, DP for the web series Stray, explains that while it’s true that “the DP is the ‘key’ of the camera department, she also has to work with the director through blocking out a scene, the G&E (Grip and Electric) department to light the scene toward a particular look, and sometimes even has to communicate with production design and costuming / etc. to guide the colors and placement of visual items in the frame for better images and composition.”

Common mistakes:

Getting bogged down by tech specs. As we’ve mentioned, there’s so much more to a DP’s job than purchasing camera equipment and knowing what the latest tech trends are, but often new DPs come down with a bad case of what Dane describes as “acquisition syndrome.” That is, focusing on “camera specs and tech review rather than developing a variety of skills to work as a director of photography.”

Thinking the unusual choice is the correct one. Many famous DPs made their names by utilizing unusual camera choices, like “dutch angles,” or a deliberate tilting of the camera to one side.

Example of a dutch angle from Brains

However, that doesn’t mean that an unusual shot is right for your project, nor does it mean that you are an inherently more talented DP than one who films a basic scene of dialog with more basic shots.

Brandon calls this kind of thinking “very film school,” because it’s for the sake of learning/experimenting, not for the sake of the project. If you use a dutch angle for no reason, with no character, scene, or tone consideration, it won’t be groundbreaking or brave- it’ll be distracting. It’s all about being clear about your vision and being able to justify every angle and look to the story, not to your reel.

Not making enough unusual choices. That said, Brandon concedes that another mistake could be unwilling to take any risks. Keeping it simple is good, but being fearful of more complicated shots because they seem too difficult or ambitious isn’t useful either. If it’s the right choice for the tone, the characters, or the project, then go for it. Just don’t feel like you have to, for the sake of doing it.

Getting too much coverage. Coverage refers to the amount of footage shot and all the different camera angles used to capture a scene, and a common mistake of new filmmakers is to capture more than needed. It’s tempting and feels logical- better to have too much than too little, right? However, extraneous coverage will slow down your shoot days exponentially, and the rest of the cast and crew will get understandably antsy having to do the same scene over and over again for seemingly no good reason. Work with your director and AD and possibly your editor to decide what shots you’ll actually use, and what shots you actually need to complete the project. Do you really need that crane shot, or the close up on every prop on a table? Probably not.

Not having a shot list. Basically, not being prepared. For an actor, being unprepared is not learning your lines. For a DP, it’s not making a shot list beforehand and keeping it with you throughout the day.

Bonus tip: You can also use your shot list to test out those more experimental shots we talked about earlier within the schedule of your shoot. When Brandon was the DP on my short film, after we wrote out our shot list for the day, we also added “stretch goals.” Essentially, once we captured the necessary angles and had time left over, we could try something more ambitious or experimental. Sometimes they worked, and sometimes they didn’t, but because we’d already captured what was required to finish the project, no one felt any pressure or frustration. We just focused on collaboration.

How can I learn to be a director of photography?

As with many other filmmaking disciplines, there are a lot of ways to learn how to be a DP. Dane Benko suggests three main tracks. “Education (film school / apprenticeship programs / production courses), autodidactism (tutorials / books and online blogs / going out and figuring it out as you do it), and experience (getting on a set and learning from others / working your way up / producing your own work). Usually some balance of the three is best: education will teach you how to learn and think more holistically about what you’re learning but won’t get you jobs or key experience, autodidactism will help you learn on your own initiative based on your specific interests but is full of noise and misinformation, and working your way up the chain can take a long time and is hierarchical.”

Final Thoughts

The director of photography is a vital part of every film set, and this article just scratches the surface of everything they contribute. Bottom line: a good DP will take a scene from serviceable to award-worthy, and they shouldn’t be overlooked.


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