I was recently invited to conduct an “AMA” (ask me anything) on Reddit, in /r/filmmakers. Some of my answers were pretty good, so I’m reposting them here with updates and tweaks.
I’m not including all my answers here so if you want to see the whole thing go here. Otherwise, my next few articles will be a “Best of” compilation.
The first question was my favorite: What do you want directors to know about working with cinematographers?
We love this question! The most important thing to remember is that your DP’s job is to make your dream reality, so make that dream as real to them as possible. The more information you can give them as to exactly what you want the more likely they’ll be able to make it happen.
We never have enough time or money to do what needs to be done, no matter the size of the project (it’s curious how this happens at every level! I know a guy who shot a Bond film who says he still didn’t have enough time or money to do what needed to be done), so precision on your part means that we know exactly what we need to do and can focus just on that.
For example, if you can tell your DP what you want exactly, and he/she figures out that means they only have to execute one big lighting setup and two smaller tweaks within a room, that makes them a lot faster. If you talk very generally then they may just decide they have to light the entire room for every possible angle, which often isn’t possible to do well or quickly. They’ll compromise to get what you want, but it may not be as good as it could be.
I work a lot with directors who don’t understand the nuances of how their ideas translate into the real world. Often something will change in their head and they think it’s a minor tweak so they don’t mention it, but to me it’s a major tweak for reasons they may not understand.
A good DP is always on your side and always wants to do right by you, but it’s really important to know that we can get frustrated if you don’t tell us enough. You can never give us too much information.
I love storyboards. I know they aren’t always possible so shot lists work well too. I need a good idea of what we’re going to do so I can figure out where to concentrate my resources. We don’t have to stick to them perfectly but at least I can figure out the broad strokes quickly. Wide shots are the hardest to light because they take the most time and effort, so the more you can tell me about your wide shots the better.
I bring a still camera on scouts and shoot stills to show directors: “Is this what you’re thinking? Do you like that or this?” Sometimes a director will bring a video camera so we can look at the same frames at the same time. I like it when directors show me images that they like and that they want to emulate, although I also need to know exactly how close they want me to come to that look as it’s not always possible to do the same thing on location. (A lot of stills are heavily manipulated in ways you can’t do quickly on set.)
DPs are very visual, so start there. Anything that gets you looking at the same thing in the same way will help.
Also, make us part of the process. Tell us what you want but not how to do it. We all get into this business to be creative, so let them be creative–but at the same time steer us the right way. Give us parameters and then let us have freedom within those parameters. We’ll be your new best friend.
One reader asked me about my favorite DIY lighting tricks:
Oooo. Hmmm. I’m a fan of tungsten lights and bounce cards or fabric. I do a lot of soft contrasty lighting with soft sources and negative fill. Not sure how to do that cheaply although china balls are a good option, even if they are a bit fragile.
I don’t use a lot of DIY stuff at the moment. Might be worth a look through a hardware store. Sometimes the tungsten work lights for construction do a good job and you can leave them in the shot if they’re right for the look. There’s also rope lights–the non-LED ones, as LED lights at that price point will be odd colors. Either the rope with the tiny bulbs built in or the string lights that take household bulbs. Be prepared for them to be a little warm, which–if you aren’t careful–can look a little green on certain cameras.
If you want real reflective “punch” look at a water heater insulation called Reflectix, available at most hardware stores by the foot. Soft and punchy as all hell.
On directors changing their minds, or appearing to:
What I find happens most often is that directors get so involved in their thought process that they don’t realize that they haven’t communicated it, especially if they start out with a great idea, communicate it, and then build on it, and then forget to tell everyone what the new details are. We show up on set, the director tells us what he/she wants, and we all say, “Oh, that’s new…”
Not that’s a bad thing–well, it is, but not intentionally bad–but it helps to be aware of that and try to compensate for it.
I’d add to this that it’s the director’s job to live in a right-brain world, and we have to translate that into left-brain reality. It’s important to remember that and adjust to it, but at the same time filmmaking costs money and the director does have to pay attention to how doable things are in the real world, and what effects their changes will have on set, in order to be responsible to whoever is financing the project and deliver the best results.
Upon being asked what the best resource is for learning how to light:
The best way to learn lighting is to get on sets and see how other people do it. The best vantage point on the set used to be next to the camera, as a camera assistant, but DIT is also a good spot as you can see the image live. Still, there’s nothing like being next to the camera and getting a feel for where it is in relation to the lighting.
Second best is to experiment yourself and shoot lots and lots of pictures. Shoot natural light, learn what looks good, and then start learning how to fake that natural light. A lot of amazing DPs have gotten their start by shooting docs and doing exactly that. (Roger Deakins comes to mind.)
Books are of limited use. What I’ve discovered is that most DPs who light well can’t really explain how they do it. Roger Deakins’ forums are a great resource but they illustrate this all too well: he can go into some detail about why he does what he does, but ultimately it boils down to “I thought it looked right.” Christopher Doyle and Vittorio Storaro do amazing work but they can’t explain why; they can only explain the philosophy behind what they did. American Cinematographer shows lighting diagrams on occasion, which is great, but they don’t go through and tell you why that’s a 6K spacelight in the corner instead of a 2K, or why that row of Kinos is on that wall but not on the opposite wall.
Really, getting on sets is the best way.
I’ll add that you can’t go wrong buying a book by Blain Brown. I’ve helped him out with some interviews for his next book so I’m a little bit biased but they really go into a tremendous amount of depth. Plus, he’s not only a talented educator but a retired DP with some hefty credits.
Someone had to ask what my most challenging project was:
Oh god. That’s a tough one. Projects are challenging for so many different reasons. Some are technically challenging. Some are politically challenging. Some are monetarily challenging.
Sometimes projects are so tough that I’ll spend days thinking and rethinking how to do lighting setups, or I’ll spend hours drawing up diagrams that describe how complex visual effects shots can be done. I’ve often been accused of “overthinking” stuff like this but that’s typically by directors and producers who, for some strange reason, don’t like the fact that a cinematographer obsesses over how to make their projects great. This doesn’t happen much anymore now that I’m doing much higher end work but in my earlier days I used to get that a lot. “You’re really overthinking this! We don’t expect it to be that polished!” Yeah, but -I- do! :)
The good news is that it’s really hard to scare me anymore. I never walk onto a set and say, “I have no idea how I’m going to do this.” I’ve learned that even if I don’t know the answer immediately I can figure it out pretty quickly. That kind of confidence is what makes it fun to go to work every day. It doesn’t come easily, and it takes time, but when you get it it’s very liberating.
There are three things I’ve found that help when confronted with challenging situations:
(1) Know what can be done with the tools at hand. Don’t go too crazy if you only have one or two lights and no time. Choose shots that look awesome within your limitations. There’s always something you can do that’s cool, it just may not be the 360 dolly move that the director wants. The trick is making the director happy in spite of the fact that you don’t have what you need to do what they really want. (Directors are creatives: they see the dream. We have to make the dream happen. The problem is that dreams and reality don’t always translate perfectly, and that translation is limited by time and money.)
(2) Explore alternatives with the director. Try to find out what they are really trying to say and find another way to say it. I use a lot of emotive language here as creatives really tune into that. Some get the technical side, but a lot don’t so it’s my job to try to translate what they’re saying into technical terms, or try to describe what I’m thinking in emotive terms.
(3) Get the crew involved. If I can’t figure something out, I turn to my crew for help. I try to work with people who know how to do their jobs better than I know how to do their jobs. For example, if I have to tell my gaffer exactly what light to use where and how to power it then I’m effectively gaffing. I’d rather say, “I want this much light here through this kind of diffusion, and I think this is the best way to do it… but how can you make it better?” Often they’ll say, “I’d use this light instead and it’ll give you the same effect with less power and I can rig it in half the time.” And then I say, “DO IT!”
Gaffers, key grips and camera assistants work with a lot of different people and see a lot of different tricks on a regular basis. If I can’t figure out how to do something I’ll turn to them and say, “I need to do this. Have you seen anyone else pull this off? Any thoughts?” Often they’ll have a solution I haven’t seen before.
Most of all, though, I’m a big believer in homework. I think about projects a lot in advance. I’ve gotten very good at previsualizing the problems I’m going to run into and trying to figure out ways around them. There’s always something that pops up that you didn’t expect but if you have the other stuff handled already it’s simple to solve a few new problems than a lot of old and new problems together.
Yesterday I shot a small corporate piece for a bread-and-butter client that I “slum” for on occasion (their word, not mine, but you get the idea). They’re very nice people but they have limited resources, and I work with a really nice director on these projects so they turn out to be fun. We had to shoot a room with four people in it with three cameras rolling simultaneously but I had no real lighting/grip crew or equipment and no way to hang lights out of the shot.
The solution was to shoot one side of the room first and put the two principals on one side of the table so we got the performances first. Then we flipped everything to the other side of the room and got reactions. I had two Kino Flos and one LED light and those were just enough to do what was needed as long as we didn’t see the entire room at once… which was originally what the director wanted, but I showed him what I could do if he compromised on that point and he liked it.
I did manage to give him his big wide shot for the entrances and exits to the room, where we pulled all the cameras back and just opened the stops on the lenses wide open and let the people be silhouetted against the windows. The lighting changed between the wide shot and the closeups but the change in the angles was so dramatic no one will ever notice.
There’s almost always a way. It’s not always the way you planned, but sometimes it’s better.
On the subject of how to keep one’s head up when times are tough:
Squirrel away money. One of my mentors said always have six months of income in the bank. I normally have 3-6 at any given time. Less than three and I get nervous.
When I can I go out and shoot spec stuff to build up my reel. I also try to network, which I hate doing but I’m getting better at it. The more noise you make the more you work. It’s tough because there’s a lot of rejection out there, but when something catches it feels really good.
I had a dry spell recently and now I’m slammed, so I barely remember how miserable I felt only a few weeks ago. Last week and this week my phone is ringing off the hook.
My blogs keep me busy too, although I thought they would get me more work than they do. Still, writing about new stuff keeps me current and I do make some money off them so that keeps me excited as well.
Sometimes I really get depressed, though. I’ve had a run of really great clients who don’t know where the industry is headed decide to get out, which leaves me looking for new really great clients. It’s tough to convince people to hire you when they haven’t worked with you before and they already work with other people, but if you keep banging on doors someone will open one eventually. (Nothing lasts forever, so even though it’s easy to relax and be lazy when you have a lot of regular clients it’s really best to keep looking.)
I’ve been freelancing for 26 years and I’m still here, so… it’s definitely possible. :) It sure beats working in an office.
More in part 2. Stay tuned!
Art Adams, Director of Photography