A famous DP once told me, “Never say no.” I suspect this is the best possible way to have a glorious career, but I don’t think it’s always appropriate. Here’s what I do…
Directors are applied psychologists. They have to communicate a vision to a wide assortment of diverse craftspeople and get actors to perform in just the right way at just the right time, all the while keeping investors off their backs. DPs are a combination of artist and craftsperson, but the most successful are also master politicians. They are the ones who can realize a director’s vision while also steering them clear of icebergs and other obstacles. Directors want what they want, and it’s often hard to show them that they don’t have the budget or time to capture their vision. All they want to hear is that you’re on top of things and that their vision will soon be in the can.
The role of the cinematographer has been degraded over the last decade or more, to the point where a lot of people who should know better think that it’s the gear that matters more than the person using it. A veteran visual effects cinematographer once told me, “Cinematography didn’t used to be rocket science. Now… it’s definitely rocket science.” The problem is that most directors and producers don’t get that: they think that because they can see a picture on a monitor they know everything there is to know about the image. They don’t understand codecs, or color grading, or resolution, or Bayer patterns, or log curves, or the difference between log and raw, or that ambient light affects our perception of the image we see on a monitor, or that our eyes will change over the course of the day to the point where we will see things very differently at the end of the day than at the beginning. They don’t get that stuff and they don’t want to.
In the film days this wasn’t a problem. If a DP did good work it showed up on the screen the next day, and the director gave their comments and then everyone went back to work. Now decisions are made based solely on what is on the monitor right now, or what camera package did the job successfully last time. Directors should be able to appreciate intangibles more than they do as that’s their business, but not all do. Producers hate intangibles: if there was a magic formula that they could repeat for every shoot and make them all successful then they would use it, every time. I see more and more emphasis on directors and producers selecting equipment before I’m even hired. Sometimes they’ve chosen well and sometimes they’ve chosen poorly: the odds are about even. When they’ve chosen poorly, it’s up to me to either swap out the gear for something that will work, or–if the powers that be are unwilling to do this–I make sure they understand the risks they are taking.
I’ve learned that being labeled “negative” is one of the worst things that can happen in this business. Producers and directors like to work with upbeat, agreeable people, and I get that: sets are stressful, and we don’t need excessive negativity and doubt in a work environment whose stability is at best tenuous. It’s a miracle most films get made at all, let alone get made well! At the same time, if someone else has made a decision about cinematography that will cost too much money, time, or compromise the goal of the project, then I feel compelled to say something.
And I do. Exactly once.
I don’t say “no” because it’s not my place to say that unless lives are in danger. What I do say is, “Here’s what happens if you continue down this road… and here’s how we can make sure that never happens.” I spell it all out and make my case, making sure to present an alternate plan. If they choose to continue along the same path… well, I continue with them, and if things fall apart then I do my best to prevent utter disaster.
What I don’t do is take any blame whatsoever. I don’t say “I told you so!” but I do document that I tried to talk them out of a bad decision, often by sending them an email. “I think you’ll have problems in post if we do this, but I’m happy to proceed as this is the way you’d like to go.”
Not all situations are so dire. I did a series of green screen jobs years ago where the producer rented a RED Epic before she hired me, as she’d had a successful shoot on an Epic and simply repeated that camera package on every subsequent job. At some point I realized that the rough dailies grade that the DIT and I gave the footage during transcoding to ProRes was what was actually going on the air–post was never going back and doing anything with the raw files!–and for future jobs I managed to talk the production manager into backing out of the producer’s pre-selected camera package and into something more suitable. Eventually I got them to rent an Arri Alexa, which I shot in Rec 709 WYSIWYG mode to ProRes, and they got better results for less money as they didn’t have to grade anything or waste time on transcodes. The production company wasn’t going to lose their shirts for not doing it my way, but by talking to me about options before their shoots they’d have saved money on better quality footage a lot earlier than they did.
I’ve spent a lot of time on phones trying to talk producers out of shooting green screen with Canon C300 cameras. These HD cameras with 4K sensors use a process called “binning,” where every four photosites (two greens, a red and a blue) are averaged into a single pixel, and while this is a very clever and efficient way to demosaic a sensor it causes problems with contrasty edges–and green screen is nothing but contrasty edges.
Often requests revolve around new and hip devices like Movis. While these do solve problems for a number of projects where the budget won’t support a dolly or Steadicam, there are other times where using them gratuitously just slows everything down and results in inferior footage. Good cinematographers know when to employ the right tool for the right job, or they figure it out once they learn what the goals of the shoot are, but some directors are designing shoots around gear rather than the other way around. The perception is that quality will increase by adding this new tool to their arsenal of tricks, but the reality is that tools are just a means to capturing a vision–not for defining the vision in the first place.
Ultimately, though, I’m responsible for capturing that vision, no matter how it comes about. I just wish that more people would trust me–the expert–to figure out how to capture that vision, rather than trying to do it themselves because they feel they are up-to-date on the latest toys. The reality is they are only up-to-date on the latest marketing, because they don’t know to dig beneath the sales pitch to find out what the device will really do. They also can’t compete with the eye and brain of something who thinks of nothing but cinematography for years, or decades, at a time.
Feature films, spots, and indeed just about all forms of production, are sold on a promise: give us money and we’ll deliver a quality product. Unfortunately, gear is now being rented on a similar premise, and the gear isn’t the entity that is ultimately responsible for delivering a quality product: the person using it is.