Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What's Expected of a Student Director of Photography

Continuing our "What's Expected" series, it's now time to take a look at what makes for a successful student director of photography, or DP.

1. Develop a Visual Vocabulary for the Film. As the Director of Photography, your primary responsibility is to assist the Director in interpreting his or her vision of the story on the page into compelling images on the screen. That means thoroughly reading the script and spending time with the Director discussing non-visual things like theme, character arcs, mood, and emotional beats, as well as visual elements like camera movement, color, light, and shadow. Firm understanding of those non-visual elements buried inside the text will enable you to effectively communicate those deeper elements to the audience through your lighting, lens choices, camera moves, and overall visual style. And that understanding will also enable you to quickly improvise, make changes to your plan, or simplify your methodology on set without compromising the artistic integrity of the film.

2. Lead by Example. You're the "Captain of the Crew" in that the Camera, Grip, and Electrical Departments all report directly to you. They will look to you for direction and approval for everything they do on set. But more importantly, your behavior shapes theirs. A DP who is chronically late to set will train their crew to not have any urgency to get going in the morning. A DP who leaves set while the rest of the crew is cleaning and packing gear will show the crew that their work isn't respected. And a DP who publicly battles with the Director or even goes so far as to direct actors diminishes the Director in the eyes of the crew.

3. Manage Your Equipment. As far as camera, grip, and electric equipment goes, it's your responsibility to reserve it as soon as a shoot is scheduled, check it out of the Library the night before the shoot, inspect it thoroughly, charge all batteries, clean all lenses, confirm that bulbs light up, make sure monitors have all their cables, etc. While your crew will be responsible for much of this on set, you do yourself and your team no favors if you haven't inspected everything beforehand. What's more, you don't know who might have checked out your gear before you or how they may have left it. Don't assume that a camera is set to the right ISO, white balance, or frame rate. Be sure. Check it. Dial in your settings the night before so your AC can literally set up the camera without you in the morning while you go over the day's shot list with the Director.

4. Brush up on Your Fundamentals. In the heat of production, you're going to be expected to execute the plan and solve any problems that come up, quickly and efficiently. To do that you need a strong grasp of all the fundamentals of cameras, lenses, depth of field, lighting, and grip equipment. Review terminology, techniques, and important steps from classes like DVA241 and Cinematography. Knowing the difference between "move the lamp left" and "pan the lamp left," remembering the names of the three positions of an apple box, and grasping the key visual differences of all the lenses in your kit will make you a more effective and more efficient DP.

5. Delegate. It's very tempting to just try to do everything yourself, especially on the first day with a new crew. But resist the urge to change your own lenses, move your own lights, or even pull your own focus. Your crew is there to make your job easier, not stand around and watch you do theirs. Trust them and empower them to do their best work in support of your vision of the film. Your AC is there to manage your camera rig, change your lenses and batteries and memory cards, put down marks for the actors, take focus measurements, pull focus for you, and keep the camera log. Your Key Grip is there to manage your grip equipment and your grip crew. Likewise your Gaffer is there to manage the lights and the electrical crew. Delegate jobs to the right person and let them do their thing, but be ready to give guidance and approval as soon as they are needed.

6. Nail Your Focus. It may be your AC's job to pull focus, but it's your responsibility to make sure it's right. Our newer, large-sensor cameras give us beautifully shallow depth of field but also make nailing critical focus more difficult than ever. Work with your AC to set marks, take measurements, and use all our monitoring tools to check focus again and again to be sure it's sharp. Consider the aperture of your lens. Do you need to shoot so wide open that your depth of field is so shallow that if an actor breathes, he's out of focus? Probably not. Should you be shooting so closed-down that almost everything in your shot is in focus? Again, probably not. Check those settings, make your marks, and make sure it's sharp before you roll camera.

7. Shoot with VFX in Mind. Visual Effects are part and parcel of what we do here at UAT. You're going to need to light greenscreens, pay attention to tracking markers, and add interactive lighting for effects that should be emitting light into the scene. You may have to compose shots for elements that aren't there and won't exist for months. You may have to shoot actors separately with the intent of having them composited together by the VFX team. All of this requires you to have at least a basic handle on visual effects work and the ability to previsualize the final outcome of a shot so you can provide the VFX team with the raw materials they need to make it happen.

8. Watch Dailies. Watch your footage while the film is still in production. Don't wait til the end. You should be watching footage every day, hence the name "dailies." That means you're probably staying later than the rest of the crew, or you're taking footage home with you, or you're arriving an hour before everyone else in the morning. Whatever you have to do, do it. Because you can't improve upon yesterday's performance unless you see the footage with your own eyes and assess what you could have done better.

9. Manage Color. Shoot with the flattest dynamic range possible. Adjust the picture settings on your camera to give you the most information in the highlights and the shadows so you can dial in your final look in post. Then make sure you manage the color grading process or even better still, grade the film yourself. The color grade can dramatically change the look of a film, just make sure you aren't handing the responsibility for that off to someone else. Ultimately the image still belongs to you as DP, and you need to be satisfied with the final product.

10. Develop Your Own Style. Finally, start to develop your own signature. You can always tell a Gordon Willis film from a Wally Pfister film from a Roger Deakins film. Figure out what makes a film uniquely yours, the type of shots you want to be known for, or the type of lighting that feels like your signature. Put some of yourself as an artist into everything you shoot, no matter who is directing, no matter what the genre. But make sure it serves the story and isn't just "cool for cool's sake." A bad DP lets his or her personal style overwhelm the substance of a film. A good DP serves the story first and foremost. But the great DPs know how to serve a story while also expressing their personal style in harmony with the rest of the film.

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