Having the RIGHT Cinematographer

If you’re a filmmaker at almost any level, you’ve figured out that the process depends on collaboration. Unless it’s just you making a documentary (and even then, you’ll need the participation of your subjects), film making requires that you have a dependable crew and people that share your vision and will work hard to make that happen.

This is most true of the cinematographer or (DP, Director of Photography), often one of the first crew members hired. Having a good director of photography (DOP) is essential to making a quality film. After all, they are responsible for the photographic portion of the movie—the composition and yes the lighting. And oftentimes, outside of film making circles, the DP is the most misunderstood of the major crew positions.

“Nowadays, when I explain what I do, most people don’t understand, not even my Mother. Everybody thinks the director does everything,”

The DP is more than just somebody you know from film school who has their own camera, although sometimes that’s a good start. And if you only have one camera on the entire shoot (unless you are fortunate enough to be able to afford a second unit), then you’ll want somebody you can trust to capture your vision.

If you choose to shoot your movie yourself, just remember that’s a challenging road to go down. It’s good as a director to have the knowledge of a DP, but you’ll already be stretching yourself thin as it is. If you have the budget, and the connections, having a DP that knows the ins and outs of film making will make things go much more smoothly for you.

In an indie setting, the DP might be the only member of the crew who gets paid. Finding volunteers who will work for nothing but the love of film making is great, but remember that making sure your film looks as good as it possibly can, not to mention having proper lighting and proper framing can mean the difference between getting a nod from a festival programmer or ending up with a nicely written form rejection letter.

With a small to moderate budget, the director wears many hats. They have most likely written the film, serve as one of the producers (if not the only producer), and are involved quite closely with the casting. So, you’re already starting out with a tremendous amount of stress, and if a few things go wrong, you’re looking at a great script that never comes out of your desk drawer. You need a pro that you can rely on, and somebody that you will work well with. You will be spending an inordinate amount of time with your crew, and especially the DP. It often comes down to more than just the DP’s resume.

Jo Willems first became known as a DP working on the indie thriller “Hard Candy,” directed by David Slade and starring Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson. He’s gone onto serve as cinematographer on “30 Days of Night” and the recently released “Limitless.”

People will never hire you just because of your work – they want to hear from someone what you are like.

In your mind, as a writer, director, or both, you should have a good idea of how you want your film to look. In pre-production, this is the time to sit down with your DP and figure out how to achieve this, or get as close as possible. With emerging digital technology, and new cameras being unveiled all the time (think of how the RED camera is sweeping through film making right now), the possibilities for indie film making are changing all the time as well.

This is also the time to go over the locations with your DP, and what the two of you can expect and what results you can try to get. Most likely you will have a tight shooting schedule (as well as limited time with your actors) and need to get the most out of every day.

Achieving the look of your film, especially in the indie world, is as much dictated by lighting as anything else. Natural vs. artificial? What time of day are you going to shoot for certain scenes? Capturing the right light is so essential for not only the mood of a particular scene, but also for continuity.

You can’t have a night scene, and then when you cut between your actors, see daylight.

Bayne shot her first film, “Argo,” with natural light, but used lighting for “The Sea.” Much of it comes down to budget, of course, but you have to decide what works for the particular project you’re working on.

Ultimately, your film will be served well by having a professional and passionate DP, somebody who believes not in just how the finished movie will look, but how it will resonate with fans as a whole.

In closing I guess it’s safe to say that I don’t do a film because of its visual potential. I do a film because it has potential as a whole. Doesn’t matter if I have to light it with a flashlight or with ten trucks full of gear, both can be equally rewarding.”


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