Creative Collaborators: The Director and Cinematographer: What a Director Should Know About Cinematography and Selecting a DP by Jacqueline B. Frost

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, May 2007. Creative Collaborators: The Director and Cinematographer: What a Director Should Know About Cinematography and Selecting a DP by Jacqueline B. Frost. Pages 12, 14 – 16.

What makes a creative collaboration? It is the coming together of creative entities into one strong unit. Working on a film set, professionals have their own specific roles to attend to, and there is a hierarchy that must be followed if all is to run smoothly. The director is in charge of the set and ultimately maintains the pace of the day, with the help of the first assistant director. Directors should come to the set prepared, with shot lists, storyboards and a clear idea of how they want to cover the scenes to be shot for editing. They are the captains of the ship, taking everyone along on their creative journey. The director’s closest collaborator, his/her “first mate,” is the cinematographer, also known as the director of photography, or DP.

The cinematographer translates the director’s vision into an image with a specific mood, angle, focal length and light. The cinematographer interprets the script in a visual language that speaks to the audience, and if done well, underscores the essence of the scene. The director works with the talent on the core of the scene, eliciting performances from the actors. While the director is rehearsing the blocking of the scene with the talent, the cinematographer is watching for shadows and following the movement of the scene with the camera. Since it is ultimately the director’s vision being transformed to an image on screen, s/he may have requested a specific focal length for the shot, which the cinematographer provides. Both are headed for the same completed image, with the director focused on the performance and the cinematographer focused on the image.

The cinematographer is responsible for the visual interpretation of the film; s/he is the “author” of the images, where the director is the “author” of the performances. The collaboration between the director and cinematographer begins in pre-production and continues into color timing and completion. It is a close bond, so the proper selection of a cinematographer is essential.

Selecting a Cinematographer

How does one select a cinematographer? Many directors choose a cinematographer in the same way they would cast an actor. Directors will often screen several films shot by a prospective cinematographer to see if the visual style meshes with their personal vision. In terms of working with new or up-and-coming cinematographers, directors and producers will screen their reels looking for a visual style or unity in the work, as well as camera movement and composition. A face-to-face meeting to talk about the script, and to see if both director and cinematographer are in agreement about the visual look of the film, is also important. Ultimately, it is the intuitive factors that will come into play when you consider selecting a cinematographer. Keep in mind, on a feature film you will be working with this person for the next three months, six days a week, and twelve to fifteen hours a day. Make sure your personality connects with the cinematographer’s.

The cinematographer will generally listen to what the director is looking for before starting to comment on the script. If they really want the job, they will be careful not to say anything the director could find offensive. As a director selecting a cinematographer, talk to them about what you want and what you envision. Then ask questions, such as how your visuals can be accomplished cinematographically. If the cinematographers understand and like the script, they will have ideas on how they can enhance the script visually.

Everyone who gets a copy of the script looks for specific things. Actors mark a script for performance and how much dialogue they have. Directors mark the script for shots and blocking. Cinematographers will be looking for how many night shots there are, how much movement is in the film, whether it is a location or studio shoot, how many special effects are needed, as well as how they emotionally respond to the material. They will have visual ideas regarding composition as well, but understand that the director may already have storyboarded the entire film with different compositional ideas.

“The director is the most important collaborator for a DP. He or she, along with the script, should be our primary source of inspiration.” (Wally Pfister, ASC)

There are some directors who know more about cinematography than others. The few directors who also choose to shoot their own films are working with a very strong gaffer and crew. A director cannot take the time to do all of the lighting and work with the actors. These two tasks are usually happening at the same time. A director should be focused on his/her job: directing. Even experienced cinematographers who cross over into directing will hand the job of cinematography to someone else.

“Cinematographers should possess three major qualities: they should be artists, they should be craftspeople and they should be generals, because when it is time to roll the cameras, it is their responsibility, working with the director, to oversee and coordinate a virtual army of artists, craftspeople and technicians and effectively command the technical side of photographing a motion picture.” (The Director of Photography: Definitions, Duties and Divisions of Work as stated in the Hollywood Basic Agreement, I.A.T.S.E.)

Checklist for selecting a cinematographer:

1. Screen past work, either full-length films that may be similar to what you are planning, or screen their reels.

2. Send the prospective cinematographer the script.

3. Have a face-to-face meeting to discuss the script, and see if you share the same vision for the film. Also take note on how personalities connect.

4. Talk to a director who has worked with the cinematographer before, to see how fast they work.

5. Discuss with the cinematographers whether or not they like to operate their own cameras and if they have a crew they usually work with – in terms of a gaffer and assistant camera.

6. Talk about visual references that are similar to your project. If you have visual references that are from another film or series of films, screen the films together and talk about them. Visit museums together if paintings are a potential visual reference. Look at period photographs or postcards if it is a period piece and you are thinking of a visual look that resembles the look you want for your film.

7. Show the cinematographer your storyboards and anything visual you have in mind (still photographs, video clips, etc.).

8. If there is a great deal of production design for the project, have the cinematographer meet with the production designer to discuss sets and the colors involved.

9. Once you hire the cinematographer, shoot tests prior to the start of production to make sure you are getting the visual look you desire. It is also a test to see how well you work together before going into production. This is also very important if you are planning to do a post-production process such as a bleach bypass to de-saturate the colors.

10. Visit locations together. The cinematographer will need to consider power sources and what type of lights will best suit the situation.

11. It is key that you, as the director, know what you are looking for. If you are open to suggestions, you can make that clear to the cinematographer, who can make visual suggestions.

12. Also keep in mind the cinematographer will also be assessing you, the director, and making a decision as to whether or not s/he wants to work with you!

13. Follow your intuition regarding personality issues. If you have any inkling that you may not connect with this person during stress, find someone else.

What should a director know about cinematography?

There are many directors working today who have limited technical experience in film, such as directors who come from a theatrical background, or writers who have been given the opportunity to take on the directing reigns. Less technically inclined directors will need to learn the basic tools of cinematography to effectively communicate with their cinematographer. The first thing is to consider the blocking and composition of the frame, and that directly correlates to understanding the difference between lenses, such as primes versus zooms, focal length and the attributes of depth of field, and how that corresponds to the image on the screen. A director also has to know whether the image is moving or static, and what is being said on a visceral level to the audience with that movement or lack of movement. Understanding the types of moves and the equipment to accomplish those moves is also quite important. The difference between the movement of a steadicam and the movement of a handheld camera or dolly conveys very different visual information.

A director also needs to consider what the visual palette of the film is, what colors s/he wants to use, and what s/he is saying to the audience about the characters and their environments. It is also helpful to understand the basic look of the light, whether you prefer a soft quality of a light, a harsh light, a bright soft image, or a shadow filled, one filled with grain, and how these visuals underscore the theme of your story. Some lighting will already be determined by the genre of the film, such as high key lit comedies.

Basic things a director should know:

1. Focal length and lenses. Know the difference between wide angle and telephoto (short lens vs. long lens), and how that affects depth of field (what is in focus in the background). Without knowing specifics, you might tell your DP you want to see everything in the room in focus, which will translate to a wider-angle lens. If you only want to see the character and everything else out of focus, a longer lens would be called for. A director’s viewfinder could help you communicate focal length.

2. How to block shots and the equipment necessary to move the camera. Is it a dolly move, a steadicam move, a handheld move, a crane move, a tracking move, and why?

3. What visual palette is wanted? What color or colors do you see your film? Is it a warm or cool amber or blue? Understand why you are selecting a specific visual palette. This could be communicated through past films, paintings, photographs or any other visual reference.

4. The basics of lighting (high or low key lighting) and whether you want soft or hard lighting. Is the film dark and moody or bright and cheerful?

Knowing these basic techniques will make communication more effective with the cinematographer and will also help a cinematographer do his or her job better. If they know what you, the director, want they can make suggestions based on their technical knowledge and experience. At the same time, the cinematographer needs to know the basics of directing, such as where to put the camera and what you, the director, are trying to say with a particular shot.
Trust your cinematographer!

“The DP (cinematographer) is about composition, light and movement, and collaborates with the director to capture the mood and put it on screen.” (Owen Roizman, ASC)

The cinematographer is the one individual on set who can make the idea in the director’s mind come to life. Suggestions from the cinematographer should be welcomed and considered. At times they may be suggesting something that the director may not have storyboarded or planned, and while shooting, the cinematographer may see additional angles or shots that would really enhance the scene that are not scheduled. It is always best to have a plan as to where you, the director, are headed shot by shot, but it is also good to be open to something not necessarily planned while the creative juices are flowing.

When operating the camera, a cinematographer often becomes connected to the talent through the lens and can begin to anticipate their movements in a scene and be able to keep the camera loose enough to follow them if necessary. It is important for the cinematographer to be in tune with the actor’s performance without letting equipment or technology get in the way. When watching the scene, the director is looking for what they want from an actor, generally the emotional beats and the blocking. The cinematographer is seeing what the actor is giving the director through the lens and can be very helpful in making the final decision as to whether or not they “got it.” Most cinematographers will agree that they see their role as ‘the gatekeeper of the image.’

What a Director Can Do to Prepare

Here are some suggestions for new directors to prepare themselves to be a creative collaborator with the cinematographer.

1. Go to equipment shows such as NAB, DV Expo, and Cine Gear. You will have the opportunity to see new technology available and understand what camera formats are new to the market. Know what there is to work with.

2. Learn the basic tools of cinematography: types of lenses, understand focal length, how to utilize depth of field, understand basic lighting styles and qualities of light (hard light, soft light, the color of light). Have an idea of what you want and be open to suggestions.

3. Use visual references from paintings of the masters, period photographs and other films. Spend time with your cinematographer discussing the look and style of your film.

4. Make your cinematographer your partner in crime. It is important that they feel they are collaborating with the director and that they are respected.

5. Build the relationship (like a marriage). Learn to take suggestions or reject them with tact and respect. Communication is important.

6. Be prepared: directors need to know what the film looks like completed in their minds. Storyboards are very helpful for the cinematographer. Remember the cinematographer is the writer in a visual language, less exposition and more mood.

7. Talk to the cinematographer about what is really needed in the script. The cinematographer ‘thinks visually’ and may have suggestions as to how to enhance your story cinematically.

8. Visit locations together with the production designer. Discuss the color and visual design of the locations and sets.

9. Be clear on the importance of certain shots. Don’t waste time torturing the DP on a shot that isn’t important to the story and will probably be cut out anyway. Know the limits of what can and should be done.

10. Make sure you have done your homework and prep in blocking. A good cinematographer will have prepped.

11. Visit the lab together to screen tests you may be considering for post-production, such as bleach bypass or de-saturation of the image. Understand how this process will affect your audience on a visceral level.

12. Keep egos in check. Directors should do their job, and cinematographers will do theirs; crossing the line causes problems. The DP is not there to take over the film but to facilitate the director’s creative vision.

“The Cinematographer is responsible for everything that goes through the lens from production through post production. If the Director is looking for confirmation on a shot, approval of an image, lock eyes before shooting.” (Laszlo Kovacs, ASC)

Ingmar Bergman wrote, “I do mourn the fact that I no longer make films…most of all I miss working with Sven Nykvist, perhaps because we are both utterly captivated by the problems of light…” The collaboration between Bergman and Nykvist began with Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) and spanned three decades producing 22 films, ending with Fanny and Alexander (1983).

The relationship between the director and cinematographer is one of the most important, delicate and loving relationships in cinema. The successful collaboration between a director and cinematographer has produced some of the most historic, amazing and memorable films in the history of motion pictures. Finding this balance will put you alongside Spielberg and Kaminski, Scorsese and Ballhaus, Hitchcock and Burke, Kuras and Miller, and the list goes on and on.

Jacqueline B. Frost is a Los Angeles-based cinematographer and author. She teaches cinematography and advanced film production at California State University, Fullerton, as well as a course through the UCLA Extension entitled, “Cinematography for Directors.” Jacqueline has shot numerous short films, independent feature films and documentaries that have screened in film festivals around the world. She has also taken on the role of producer, director, and editor on many projects.