Of all the arts, film is easily the most collaborative. Sometimes, of course, we may see directors who have mastered more than one of the jobs in a film such as writing the screenplay, as Quentin Tarrentino always does. Some also star in movies they direct, like Woody Allen, Jodie Foster, and Spike Lee. In rarer cases, an auteur might even edit the film, which is what Louis CK does with his show. And it’s low-budget legend that Robert Rodriguez wrote, directed, edited, and shot his first feature, El Mariachi. But far more often than not, film is not about one artist, but a whole company of artists coming together, each an expert in their field. Productions can have dozens or hundreds of people working on it. But only one of them is ultimately responsible for what the film will LOOK like: the cinematographer.
A cinematographer is like a professional photographer on steroids. Not only does the frame, lighting, and focus need to be professionally set, the camera has to ensure consistency and transitions happen without a hitch. Also known as Director of Photography (or “DP” for short), it’s a highly technical position, requiring a good amount of science. When they also have talent in design and visual expression, a sort of alchemy happens: an image pleasing to the eye made under laboratory-level control. The best DPs are not only professional technicians; they augment the visual language of the film. It’s not just “the look” of the movie, but the storytelling, the communication of vital information, and even the emotions transmitted.
To be a truly smart director, understanding what the DP does and how to properly communicate with them is key. After all, it’s YOUR vision that is going to be worked on. If you want it to look right, you best be sure you’re talking the same language with your cinematographer. Ideally this relationship begins in preproduction, invariably carries on through all work on set, and often continues into post-production. Below is a breakdown of what to do and what to expect in your production when working with your DP. Consider it a checklist for what you need to discuss and require as a director shaping your visual language.
*NOTE! Two things you should have ready before you get started: your screenplay and your storyboard. Those the director should know forwards and backwards and have them always at hand. Missing those vital tools will make working with your cinematographer much more difficult and the project can suffer as a result.
Setting up a successful collaboration with a cinematographer means getting started early. This key position should be working with the director as soon as the script is ready and the storyboards are complete. Getting on the same page before a frame is shot will ensure preparedness and allow the overall vision to slow-cook rather than be rushed. Here’s what the discussions at this stage should be about:
The filmmaker is a person who sees a vision for weeks, months, and years before cameras even roll. Inside the brain is an idea gone visual. And while you may not be able to imagine every single shot, you can “feel” the whole thing from beginning to end. Often times, those feelings come straight from the genre. Horror films will be bleak in tone. Comedies may be more playful with a circus-like atmosphere. A romance could feature a lot of sun and rain to express the ups and downs of a relationship. So what is the mood of your film? It becomes a question to ponder overall, but also when considering particular scenes. Does low lighting and smoky scenarios make your mystery tale grittier as the suspense builds? Perhaps a bright white room with a celestial scene helps sell your commercial? Discuss this with your cinematographer. Bring your ideas and give DPs the room to offer and develop their own. Smart directors listen to department heads’ ideas and make informed decisions accordingly. Share your storyboard to transmit your framing and editing schemes (you can read how to do storyboards here). Once you are both on the same page, the DP can start thinking about what he will need to accomplish the task at hand.
Film was originally recorded on film stock; a strip of cells with chemical emulsions which reacted to light. Different chemical combinations produced different types of stock which varied in color balance, graininess, contrast, resolution, film size, and frame dimensions. Obviously, digital photography doesn’t use that process. But the visual question remains the same: what is this film going to look like? Digital makes the same choices with electronic manipulation of captured image data. In either case, a singular “stock” is almost always used throughout the film to maintain visual consistency throughout the piece. So choosing just what that stock will be is a crucially important decision. Do you need to go widescreen? Should grain and scratches be used to emulate an old film? Should the yellows come out strong to augment the desert setting? You really need to make these sorts of decisions before you get to set. Settling on the film’s overall feel will help flesh out visual themes and direct the tone from the get-go.
A crucial part of the pre-production process is the script breakdown. This is where you and your production team go over the project with a fine tooth comb and document every single physical, temporal, and human resource the film will require to get made. At this juncture, you really need your cinematographer on hand. Studying script requirements and storyboard layouts, a smart DP will be able to assess what the camera crew will need on set. Besides making the big decisions – like what type of lenses and lighting will be needed for each shot – loads of micro-managed decisions have to be made. Will there be any tracking shots? If you’re doing shots from a moving car, special mounts may be needed for the camera. And then there the ever-more popular drone shots. This isn’t just a filmmaking equipment issue, it becomes a regulatory matter as drones are increasingly controlled by national and regional statutes. Somebody in production is going to have to get on getting those permissions ASAP! Having all these issues addressed, catalogued, and fulfilled will be key to having a production go off smoothly. Nobody wants to have to send PAs to an equipment house in the middle of shooting!
On a more creative note, directors often want to consider how visual themes evolve over the course of a story. For example, in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie Vertigo, camera angles, montage, and camera tricks are used over and over to convey the main character’s sense of dizziness and disorientation. This isn’t a repeated image, but rather a series of techniques meant to give the audience visual cues to the protagonist’s journey. One scene uses a POV shot looking down a flight of stairs, another a spinning spiral, and so forth. A lot of these tools don’t become apparent in the screenplay. Often they are fleshed out in storyboards, and get revised further in collaboration with the cinematographer. An attentive DP can really augment the imagery punch of a project. Be sure to have ideas ready and to ask your camera head to bring some of their own to the table.
When the time comes to schedule a production, what happens on set will be the most time-sensitive problems which will need solving. And it all has to begin with the needs of what will be seen. A director needs to consult with a cinematographer about what shots need to be done during the day and which are better filmed at night. Decisions about when location shoots can work vs. when sets need to be built are crucial. This is especially true when working with interiors, where location shooting can greatly limit camera and light settings. On a larger scale, stacking production by location or scheduling considerations need to be balanced against the camera department’s needs. More difficult shots are often left for later in the production, when the company is working with greater experience. Every department adds requirements in scheduling, but most of those needs have to be cleared with your cinematographer first. If you can’t get a DP into the early scheduling meetings, be sure to at least have them review it before committing to a final calendar.
Now you’re finally filming the project. All the prep is in place and the production is in full swing. As a director, you’ll be answering questions and making decisions all day long. And every single one of those decisions will rest on what you and your cinematographer have agreed upon, scene by scene, shot by shot. Preparing for those discussions is critical as time will ALWAYS be working against you. Here’s a few things you can be sure you’ll need to know how to do during the filming schedule and beyond:
Before anything else happens on set, all relevant department heads get together to discuss what shot will be set up next. You can be sure two people along with the director will always be a part of those discussions: the assistant director and the cinematographer. First and foremost is understanding what the shot will look like. Will it be still or will the camera be panning? Will focus change? How about lighting requirements? Even basic framing has to be ready. Consulting your shot list, the script, and storyboards, your DP should be able to understand the needed shot in short order and get to the business of setting it up. Once you’re sure the DP has got it down, you can use the setup time to rehearse actors, address other department heads, or maybe even visit craft services!
A well-prepared production will be efficient enough that some gaps of time will open themselves up in between scenes. And you’ll need them as things often do “go wrong” one way or another on set. Actors show up late, weather changes, sets fall apart. These sorts of things can drive a director crazy. But a smart DP can help the director find new things to see. A tight collaboration between filmmaker and cinematographer can help both keep a keen eye out for something that just really fits into the overall story. It can be simple things like a bird landing on a car or maybe a cloud formation that looks like an item a character just talked about. If your DP understands what you’re looking for, these things will catch their eye. They’ll give you the suggestion and find a way to turn the shot around quickly, offering an element you’ve never envisioned. Keep those thematic conversations happening, and you’ll find all kinds of extras will be picked up in the lens.
But then, there are times when things just fail big time. Equipment breaks. Schedules are confused. Location owners suddenly deny the production access. The headaches which may arise are innumerable. So what can a smart director do when what was needed can’t happen? Look for something else. And have that DPs eye ready and working for you. They can help suggest set redresses, shots against negative backgrounds, cheating frames, or even a set of useful closeups to give you options in the editing room. Be ready to express what feelings need to be seen on screen. A good DP will have a huge bag of tricks ready to turn your necessity into visual invention and with a little luck, help deliver a vision even better than you had planned.
As technology has become easier and cheaper to use for special effects, more people are playing around with green screens, digital enhancements and other tools which are to not to be found on set. Obviously, the Jurassic Park dinosaurs, for example, aren’t real, but CGI. The screaming victims, however, are real actors. And on a set, they will be screaming, well, at nothing! So a DP really, really needs to know how to visualize what will be filled in during the post-production process. Directors will have to rely on them to frame the camera correctly against a negative background, make sure actors’ eye lines match to the action not yet filmed and that proper proportionality is achieved (i.e., a 7th grader should not be as tall as a T-rex!). Make sure you know what you want the final vision to look like, that the DP understands this, and that the DP will best ensure that the missing pieces of the film will not be invaded by what you shoot on set.
When you finally get around to post-production, having a cinematographer continue working with you is the best of all worlds. While you shouldn’t expect them to be there the whole time, there are certain processes which a professional will want to be a part of. Color timing is a crucial function in post-production. You want to be sure that the overall palate of tones and hues are balanced and consistent throughout the film. Having your DP direct that in the lab is a boon in any successful collaboration. It’s good for the aforementioned special effects to receive some supervision from the DP as well, even when a separate FX supervisor may run that part of the show. Sharing working cuts in the editing room with your cinematographer may help them make suggestions of alternate takes, b-roll, and more elements you may have forgotten or used elsewhere. If your relationship with the cinematographer is strong, there is no reason they can’t be a part of the work well past the final martini shot.
There’s a lot more to working with DPs and quite frankly, some directors won’t take the collaboration this far. Many times, they are treated as just another employee. I think this is a mistake. Film is a visual medium first. And the expert charged with getting every visual element recorded correctly should be held in very high esteem. The more the director works with the DP, the better chance the director will get what she wants out of them. This list here is just a beginning. Be sure to add more of your own tricks when working with your own cinematographer.
Argentinean-born New Yorker Miguel Cima is a veteran of the film, television, and music industries. An accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comic book creator, Miguel's movie, Dig Comics, won Best Documentary at the San Diego Comic Con and was selected for Cannes. He has worked for Warner Bros. Records, Dreamworks, MTV, and more. Currently, Miguel creates content for multiple platforms and media. His formal education came from New York University, where he earned a BFA in film. World traveler, culture junkie and major foodie, he is happily unmarried to the same gal since the mid 2000s, devoted to his family & friends, and slavishly serves his true masters - two dogs and a cat.