Written by Tony Westman csc, dga, dgc
The director turned to me after blocking with actors and stunt performers and said he wanted the scene to have a brooding and threatening feeling at which point he left the set to have a coffee.
There I stood along with my operator, 1st AC, key grip, gaffer, stunt coordinator and visual effects crew now looking at me for inspiration and instruction as to what needed to be done. Just then the first AD stepped up and asked how long until we would be ready to shoot. Welcome to my world.
Working as a Director of Photography can be a challenging endeavor as you are at the mercy of all the creative forces that conspire to create a finished motion picture. In as much as it is a process of applying technical solutions to animate the dramatic aspects of story, character, location, sets, effects, stunts, etc., there is no simple tool that can define and realize a ‘feeling’, which is a rather subjective, intangible, and often elusive phenomenon.
My solution is what I call the ’emotional lens’, a tool not made by Zeiss nor Canon but one forged by years of responding visually to experiences of life, art, memory, joy, and tragedy. The countless hours spent watching TV, theater or films at the local cinema are certainly a part of one’s reference points to whatever is the state of the art, award-winning production, but these are other peoples’ visions and are really just building blocks to your own unique, synthesized visual language that must be filtered and formalized by you so to provide the confidence and capacity to create something unique and compelling on the big (or small) screen. Filmmaking is a team effort, so you are not alone in this creative adventure, but the ability to lead your crew through a labyrinth of possibilities that must follow the slender thread of directorial vision is your unique hero’s journey.
Enjoy the ride.
Challenge #1: In an episode of the Paramount series, “The 4400”, the script called for a dream sequence where the hero meets his muse in a kind of ‘star chamber’ set where he was to experience some kind of spiritual enlightenment. The location was a kind of theater space that was just a big black box to play out a scene that might be real or simply a dream state. Image 1 (pictured above) was done with only a 12 K outside the doorway. Image 2 (pictured below) was more complicated, as the scene needed coverage that implied the dream state. The ghost image of the two characters was achieved with a TV monitor with the happy faces of our two characters reflected off a piece of glass in front of the camera while shooting the full figures around the table.
Challenge #2: Budget is always an issue, either there is no money to help you make cinema magic, or there is a big budget, and your career is on the line for not making the best picture ever made. Here is a no budget example: This was a dramatic scene in a documentary called “Air India 182”, where a plane was blown up by terrorists and our scene was to illustrate the painful process of families identifying the dead from photos taken of the victims. The location was a hospital, we had only a few hours to film the scene and the director had asked for the scene to have an unpleasant, edgy look to underscore the painful emotional content of the scene. The solution was to wrap the existing fluorescent lighting with green gel and preserving the silhouette effect on the actors by flagging off any fill light creating a very unnatural hospital environment.
Tony Westman has been making films for over fifty years both as Director and Director of Photography and past president of IATSE 669. His film projects include drama, documentaries, television, features, and corporate productions. His roster of clients includes Castle Rock, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS, CBC, National Film Board of Canada. His film awards include Canadian Society of Cinematographers, Yorkton Film Festival, Leo Awards. He has taught film production at Simon Fraser University, Emily Carr University and Art Institute of Vancouver and Capilano University.