Welcome back. Here’s part 2 in my continuing series of articles that archive my responses to a recent Reddit AMA–with a few tweaks and additions here and there. Enjoy!
One reader asked: (1) What makes a good director? (2) How can a director make my life easier? (3) In my role as motion picture industry product consultant, what products have I consulted on? (4) How does someone end up consulting?
(1) A good director is someone who can communicate well. Also someone who isn’t afraid to collaborate and realizes that the sum is greater than the parts. Insecure people are the ones who yell and scream, and often get sucky results. Confident people are open to suggestions and are more gate keepers than anything else: rather than being the sole visionary they are able to listen to the ideas of others and decide which ideas work and which don’t.
Given that they have an array of experts working for them, all of whom know more about their area of expertise than the director does, a good director gives them guidance and direction and then lets those people bring their A-games to the project, even if what they bring isn’t exactly what the director expected. It’s up to the director to decide whether what they bring is right or not, and if it’s not right the director must steer them until they do bring the right things.
(2) I’ve had some very frustrating experiences with directors. Not recently, but sure–I’ve worked with some very insecure people who don’t know what they want and like to blame others when they don’t get good results, or they don’t trust anyone so they run roughshod over you and second guess everything you do. That’s frustrating as it’s impossible to do good work for them, but that’s what we’re hired to do.
The one thing I run into most is communication issues. Directors deal with intangibles, and we are the intangible-to-reality interface. We must figure out what they want, but they also have to tell us what they want. It’s tough getting two minds perfectly in sync, and part of a DP’s job is to learn tricks to pull concrete parameters out of a director’s head so we can make their visions reality.
(3 & 4) I started out working on the Kelvin Tile, the first broad spectrum variable color LED light ever, because the marketing director was a former executive producer at a production company that I worked for a lot. He brought me in to consult on marketing to the industry and I ended up doing a lot more, including figuring out how to dial in the color precisely.
I wrote a lot of articles on my blog about what I learned from the process and suddenly people think I know a lot about LED lights. And now I do. :)
When the RED ONE came out I spent a lot of time using test charts figuring out how to make that work. That resulted in me learning a lot about cameras in general and getting the attention of the company that made the test charts, as I kept writing articles on my blog about how to use their charts to figure out what a camera was really doing.
When I learned about IR contamination I started writing up filter tests on my blog, so I became an IR filter expert.
The short answer seems to be, write a blog and be really, really curious. I’m one of the lucky few that can make money writing for the Internet and I basically do it by finding things that I want to learn about it, use the blog as an excuse to interview people and educate myself, and then pass that info on to others. The more I write and help people, the more of an “expert” I become, and the more people want to talk to me.
Right now I’m working with Sony on beta testing their new firmware for the F5 and F55. I’m not making any money but I get to play with an F55 and a set of primes for a couple of weeks, and I’ll write an article or two about it and try to get a spec piece for my reel out of it. I did a paid gig recently where my friend and colleague Adam Wilt and I shot 4K with an FS700 for Sony and did a presentation about it at CineGear. I did something similar for Canon at NAB this year, and I’ve had talks with Sony, Arri and Canon about things like color and log formats and what I’d like to see in future cameras.
I guess I’ve become kind of an educator who can teach people about new products while also telling manufacturers what we in the industry really want and need. That’s gotten me some consulting work. Some is paid, some is not, but it’s really cool learning all that I do.
One person asked, “How can I be you?”
Oh, you don’t want to be me. Be you. It’s much more interesting. :) Plus it’s unique, which is a nice touch.
Edit: I actually mean this. We make our living based on what we can do and our unique way of doing things. It’s important to be you, or whoever you turn out to be as you progress in your career, because that’s what people will pay for.
There’s an old joke that says there are four stages to a DP’s career:
(1) Who’s (name)? (2) Get me (name)! (3) Get me someone like (name)! (4) Who’s (name)?
If you play well with others, learn quickly and have passion for what you do, you’ll most likely succeed in the film business.
On being asked for my top three tips about being a DP:
You are there for the director. At the same time, you are there as yourself. You need to make them happy, but at the same time you’re there because of your unique vision. You need to be true to them and yourself.
You’re hired to deliver a product, so do everything you can to deliver consistently. Your job is to keep your employers employed, and hopefully they will return the favor.
I once saw a gaffer melt down on set due to frustration at how he was being asked to light a scene, and the DP told him, “Don’t do that. You only make yourself look bad.” A good DP is always calm, cool and collected and never shows frustration. Some people do this naturally; others have to work at it. I’ve always had to work at it, but I’ve gotten very good at it so I know it can be learned.
That same DP once told me, “Never tell them no. Talk them out of the impossible, but never say no.” I’m about 50/50 on that one.
A DP’s job is 20% technical, 10% artistic and 70% political. You can learn any of those things. Figure out what your weak area is and work on it.
One addition to this is what a very famous ASC member once told me about how to get a director to do what’s possible instead of being forced into doing the impossible: “I tell them I’m going to ’embellish’ upon their idea, and then I do what I know can be done, rather than what they want and that I can’t possibly do in the time and budget alloted, and make it look the best I can. They always love it.”
On being asked how I liked working as a camera assistant early on in my career:
Mostly I liked it. I had to give it up as I developed back problems very early on: I was very skinny, about 125 lbs., and throwing a Panaflex with a 10-1 zoom, a 1000′ mag and a Panahead over my shoulder and marching around a set created a lot of issues. Also it’s just brutally hard work on occasion and I was never much of an athlete. I like to work from the neck up.
I recently got roped into helping out a local silent film museum in the production of a modern day silent film. They already had a DP on board by the time I learned about the project so I volunteered as the assistant, even though I hadn’t assisted in 20 years. It all came back to me as if I’d been doing it yesterday, and in a way it was a lot of fun: being a camera assistant taught me the value of zen on a movie set in that it’s the one place where there’s so much going on I can always “be here now.” There are 28 different things that have to be done to get a hand-cranked camera with a parallax finder ready for each take and after a while I’d get into a rhythm of doing all those things very quickly. It was fun! I’m not going back into assisting any time soon but for that project it was fun to go back and just make sure the machinery was running rather than worrying about making pretty pictures.
The lessons I learned in assisting, primarily learning how to focus on the present and constantly scanning the camera and the set for problems, still help me today. I often pick up on things before my assistants do, which is interesting! I had a shoot recently where one of our Epics had a bad cable between the camera and the touch screen LCD that caused certain settings, like the shutter speed and ISO, to change randomly. I often caught those before anyone else did.
I work on jobs where I have an assistant and where I don’t, and that kind of awareness training really helps in both scenarios.
The best part about assisting earlier in my career is that I was always by the camera seeing what the DP was doing. When they’d meter something I’d look at the exposure on the side of the meter, note what stop they had me put on the lens, and then ask what they were metering. As I got to know them better I’d learn whether I could ask them about their lighting styles. I learned to edit by seeing what angles they were getting on the set and seeing how the final shots cut together. Assisting is a great way to learn from good DPs who are willing to share their knowledge.
On higher frame rates for 4K cinematography, and gimmicks in cinematography in general:
Yeah, it’s probably a good idea. I’m normally a fan of the high speed “video” look but it worked okay in The Hobbit so I’m not averse to it. My friend Adam Wilt, with whom I do a lot of camera testing, has shown me that 4K loses a ton of resolution just by panning quickly, and that shows me that maybe this high frame rate is a good idea for 4K.
What I think is a better idea for 4K is to “think epic”: frame wide shots and let them play. You can create compositions that look like paintings and frame wider than normal to let the audience enjoy looking around the frame at all the cool things in it. You have to give them a path for looking around the frame otherwise you run the risk of frustrating them because they won’t be able to see everything, but a good painting book can help you with that. (I recommend “The Simple Secret to Better Painting.”)
There are a lot of faux artists around who get hooked on a gimmick and think that makes for good filmmaking. What separates the children from the adults is recognizing that such things are storytelling devices that need to suit the story. Waving the camera around a lot more doesn’t make the story any more interesting. Some of the greatest stories ever told have almost completely static camera angles. Do what’s appropriate for the story.
That’s all for now. More in part 3!
Art Adams, Director of Photography